2009 | Big Beat Records
If you want to reenact the dance contest scene from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Nippon Girls: Japanese Pop, Beat & Bossa Nova 1966-70 is the ideal soundtrack. Or perhaps it’s the swinging, strobe-lit nightclub from your favorite Pinky Violence film you want to recreate—you know, the type where Miki Sugimoto or Reiko Oshida might go to settle scores with a sleazy Yakuza boss who’s crossed them? In that case, this swinging compilation from the UK’s ever-reliable Big Beat label has got you covered as well, as it includes among its many delights pysch funk tracks marked by stabbing brass and crisp, wakka-wakka guitars. All the better for going about your dirty work while a crowd of blissed-out hipsters dances obliviously beneath the swirling lights.
Now, I don’t mean by the above to suggest that Nippon Girls is a film-related collection in any express sense. It’s just that, for many of us, film was the only entre we might have had into the world it represents. Japanese movies of the era painted a tantalizing portrait of the country’s urban nightlife during the 60s and 70s, giving the impression that, if you were ringing in the wee hours in a crowded Tokyo nightclub circa 1966-70, there was absolutely no cooler place on earth that you could have been. Nippon Girls at once adds weight to that impression while fleshing out the picture, providing an appropriately party-starting overview of the very sounds that set the habitués of those nightspots to shaking their well-coiffed tail feathers.
Focusing on the furiously contemporary, female-driven pop sounds that emerged alongside the Western-influenced “Group Sound” boom of the era, Nippon Girls is refreshingly free of Enka‘s sentimental balladry, as well as the kitschy cover versions of English language hits that accounted for so much of Japanese rock n’ roll during the early part of the 60s — the only exception to the last being Nana Kinomi & Leo Beats’ “Suki Sa Suki Sa Suki Sa”, a cover of The Zombies’ “I Love You” that takes so many liberties with its source material that it’s almost not a cover at all. (And, of course, if it’s charmingly fractured English you’re looking for, there is that to be found, too, in particular in Keiko Mari’s “Tsukikage No Rendezvous”, which includes such giddy exclamations as “Now I don’t know too!”)
The collection also manages to encompass an impressively wide array of sounds, giving us an assortment of singers whose vocal stylings inhabit territories well outside those of the twee-voiced nymphets whom I think many people associate exclusively with the idea of Japanese girl pop. Of course, those “idol” types are represented as well, and memorably so; Miki Obata’s winningly goofy “Hatsu Koi No Letter”, in particular, stands out in this area, evidencing a sound and style that could easily have qualified her as Japan’s answer to France Gall. But alongside these more lightweight tracks there are also Jun Mayuzumi’s full-throated soul belter “Black Room”, fuzz psych numbers like Mie Nakao’s “Sharock No. 1”, the sophisticated Bossa Nova sounds of Ryoko Moriyama’s “Ame Agari No Samba”, and even outright trash rock in the form of the Margaret With Bunnys rave-up “Aeba Suki Suki”. What is perhaps most impressive is how the set manages to touch upon all of this stylistic diversity without once compromising its overall upbeat, club-friendly vibe, giving it a surprising consistency from start to finish.
Being somewhat obsessed with the Brill Building-informed idea of the professional pop songwriter, I found Nippon Girls especially interesting for how, in its focus on original material, it puts a spotlight on the era’s top Japanese songsmiths. These were essentially the country’s Bacharachs, Webbs and Greenwhiches of the day, working both in similar styles and in response to an equally pressing and ever-evolving demand. They include figures such as Kyohei Tsutsumi, who worked as part of a team with lyricist Jun Hashimoto, and who, according to the liner notes by Cha Cha Charming magazine’s Sheila Burgel, is considered by many to be “Japan’s greatest pop writer and producer of all time”.
As a person with fairly limited previous exposure to 1960s Japanese pop, I can say with confidence that Nippon Girls offers a great introduction, though what interest it might hold for aficionados is harder to say. I was familiar with a few of its tracks due to them having previously appeared on the 2000 Goodnight Tokyo compilation (assembled by Pizzicato Five’s Yasuharu Konishi), though it would take a person with a more extensive collection than mine to determine how many others have appeared elsewhere. Whatever the case, I feel that such academic considerations are overridden by the fact that NIppon Girls is simply a great party album. As such, it is the ideal accompaniment, not only to whatever your Japanese movie-fueled fantasies of what Showa era Tokyo nightlife might have been like, but also any number of real-world social gatherings. In fact, it might be just the thing to have playing in the background should you and a few adventurous friends ever decide to sample any of those Japanese whiskeys you’ve been reading about.