Writing about Shugo Tokumaru is difficult because the sheer breadth of his musical influences, the denseness of his his arrangements, and the dizzying array of instruments he incorporates make it difficult to put it in any kind of easy context, single out any particular moments of brilliance from music so richly laden with hundreds of them, or indeed pick out any defining characteristics from music that defies characterisation. In Focus? is folk, psychedelic pop, on Poker it’s post-Shibuya-kei bossa nova pop, on Pah-Paka it’s Plus-tech Squeeze Box-style effects mashup, on Katachi, there are echoes of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs in the musical saw that runs through it, and on Tightrope it’s just the most affecting and beautiful song of the year.
One theme running through the album, and indeed most of Tokumaru’s work is a classic Japanese pop melodic sensibility that puts him quite clearly in a songwriting lineage that includes such luminaries as Happy End and particularly songwriter, producer (and fellow Beach Boys fan) Eiichi Ohtaki. Tokumaru’s range is broader than any of his musical ancestors though, and from one moment to the next, he gently bombards the listener with more ideas than can be processed on only one listen. He introduces glorious melodic phrases and then abandons them a moment later, only to introduce something even more beautiful seconds later. He can deliver more classic tunes in three minutes than many J-Pop songwriters manage in their entire careers.
Shugo Tokumaru is the only indie or pop musician in Japan that I wouldn’t feel it was an overstatement to call a genius, and in any sane list of Japan’s best releases of 2012, In Focus? would be number one by default. That I rate three albums above it this year probably says more about the peculiarities of my tastes, biases and caprices than it does about what if it wasn’t quite my favourite album of the year, was certainly the most essential.