I was in a pretty bad place even before world news took a tragic turn, from horrifying tour bus accidents to the seemingly immeasurable toll in Japan - a crisis that is just beginning. I'd like to send good thoughts over there and anywhere in need but do these really help? Japanese culture has come through for me in the past, so maybe it does. So in this time of sadness I won't dwell on the beautifully melancholy oeuvre of Yasujiro Ozo or the epic struggles of Akira Kurosawa (though the bleak final reels of his late masterpiece Ran strike an appropriate tone about now), but on Japanese pop.
I don't remember how I learned about Pizzicato Five, but I do remember that I sent a handful of blank tapes to somebody on the jpop listserv (thank you Ben List, wherever you are) and in return got some of what would become and still is my favorite music. I must have first heard Pizzicato Five around the time my mother died in 1994, and I've always credited them with helping me get through that time. This music has always confounded some of my friends, who see in it nothing but style and pastiche. And on paper, a track that combines soul horns, Lou-Reed inspired background girl singers and direct quotes from at least two Sly and the Family Stone records sounds like an exercise in post-modern mimicry. But unlike, say, the post-modern exercises of Jean-Luc Godard (whose visual style found it's way into a number of P5 videos), producer Keigo Oyamada lovingly forged out of Western pop influences a distinct aural magic - "A Supersonic Sound Spectacular," as they like to say. Sure, you can dance to it, and you will. I probably learned the English translation of the lyrics at some point but it doesn't matter - Nomiya Maki's vocals sell it completely, not just because her pipes deliver a credible Japanese soul, but because her soul has nothing to do with trying to sound like an American soul singer. The borrowed "baby"'s and "whoah-whoah"'s seem not so much ridiculous as impossibly touching, a torch passed on from someone who has discovered their onomotapoeoic magic from afar and wants to preach the good word to a new land. Even now, almost twenty years after I first heard it, I find this song so beautiful it can move me to tears.
Addendum: um, while I love "Happy sad" too (part of its chorus gives me a chill), this is the song I was talking about above. I meant to end this post with it:
More addenda: Pizzicato Five broke up in 2001; Nomiya Maki and Yasuharu Konishi made solo records, and Konishi went on to produce other Japanese pop artists, but it was never the same. The producer of this record, Keigo Oyamada, made wonderful records of his own under the name Cornelius, in homage to Planet of the Apes. In fact, Oyamada is so dedicated to American culture that he and his wife, singer Takako Minekawa, named their son Milo, after Cornelius' son in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.