It’s a bit of a recurring theme from me that mainstream pop in Japan peaked in the 1970s and never really recovered that sense of melodic depth, economy and vitality. This song, 17-sai (“Seventeen years old”) is an interesting one in that it brackets what we might call the “kayoukyoku era” with two quite distinct versions.
The first was by the Okinawan singer Saori Minami, so let’s have a listen to her version here now:
Saori Minami: 17-sai
It represents an interesting period in Japanese pop, where Japanese songwriters were beginning to mutate the influence of Western pop into something different. As Minami’s first single (released in 1971), it’s also significant as possibly the first piece of Japanese idol pop ever, and at the heart of that lies a conflict of sorts too. Minami herself never had any desire to be an idol, preferring to avoid overt cutesiness, and her songwriting team generally understood this, tailoring her songs to appeal to Minami’s own sense of what she wanted to do as best they could within the constraints of what her agency, the notorious Burning Production, would allow. In this case, songwriter Kyohei Tsutsumi wrote the song with the image of American country singer Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden in his head after Minami praised the song in their initial meeting.
The resulting song comes in at a bit under three minutes, which is how long a pop tune should be, and while it’s far from Minami’s finest work, it’s a charming little pop tune with a memorable melodic hook.
Now we’re going to jump forward to 1989, at the death of the idol era, where the song was reworked and covered by Chisato Moritaka. Let’s have a listen to her version now:
Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai
Moritaka comes across as an aggressive pastiche of an idol singer in this song with her lower half all ridiculous puffy dress and proto-K-pop legs that go on for miles, and then her top half an exaggerated parody of a late 80s power suit. The music matches this, taking Tsutsumi’s melody, working it into a New Order/Vince Clarke-influenced synthpop disco track and stretching it out to just short of five minutes.
Because the truth of the matter was that idols were dead in 1989, and Moritaka was never really meant to be an idol. She existed in a strange sort of limbo between the end of kayoukyoku in the late 80s and the birth of J-pop in the early 90s. There was a demand from audiences for something more grown-up, which the labels and talent agencies were just waking up to, but they were unsure of how to go about delivering it.
In the end, they looked abroad, primarily it seems to Europe. Moritaka’s contemporaries, the idol duo Wink, had hits covering Kylie Minogue’s Turn it into Love (as Ai ga Tomaranai) and Slovenian synthpop group Moulin Rouge’s Boys Don’t Cry (as Namida wo Misenaide), and it was the nascent Avex Trax label with its importing of Eurobeat records and the sound’s subsequent adoption by producer Tetsuya Komuro that eventually gave birth the the J-pop sound that defined the 1990s, and which groups like AKB48 have never fully forgotten.
While Wink fell by the wayside, Moritaka went on to lose the disco and make the transition into a successful mainstream pop artist throughout the 90s, but this curious hybrid of classic 70s pop and almost-modern European disco-synthpop is a curious period in the history of Japanese pop.
Now the reason this is significant, is that I think at the moment, the popularity of Korean pop in Japan at the moment represents a similar period of transition, or at least the potential for one. The fact that people are becoming enthused over something from overseas should be a warning sign to domestic producers that audiences think they’ve become stale. Arguing that this is simply a case of companies shoving K-pop down people’s throats misses the point. Japanese talent agencies tried their best to shut out Korean music, with Johnny & Associates threatening to pull their artists from any TV shows that presented Korean boy bands at one point, but people kept buying them. Korean artists were selling comparable numbers to Japanese groups on import alone, and little shops in the Korean district of Shin-Okubo were making crazy sales just as HMV were sliding into bankruptcy. Japanese talent agencies had to join up with their Korean counterparts to sell this stuff.
The problem is that since Kylie Minogue never bothered to learn Japanese or tour extensively here, Japanese versions of her songs, or at least some equivalent sound by Japanese artists, became a necessity. Korean groups are self-contained, they contain at least one or two fluent Japanese speakers among the group, and they are happy to re-record their back catalogue in Japanese. So what’s there for Japanese artists to do?
The answer has to be to recognise that K-pop offers something different and attractive to Japanese audiences, but to make something different. To synthesise that sound and mutate it, as Kyohei Tsutsumi did in 1971, and as Chisato Moritaka’s people did in reverse in 1989, to make something that can push Japanese pop forward in a new direction.