Third Quarter Report: J-Pop

By Ryo Miyauchi

Rino Sashihara of HKT48 posted an Instagram story at Tokyo Idol Festival about how this year is the last time she will see many idol groups and individual idols take the stage. PASSPO, Beboga, and Vanilla Bean—just to name a few—experienced their last performances this past quarter while Morning Musume '18, Dempagumi.inc, and NMB48 lost some big names from their respective lineups. Namie Amuro signaled the end of J-pop in the Heisei age with her retirement this summer, and the idol scene seems to be going through a big shift heading into the new era as well.

 

Philosophy No Dance - It's My Turn

 
 

The arcade games-inspired music video may shoot you back for a nostalgia trip to the late '90s, but the retro funk of Philosophy No Dance's single sounds sourced from pop music made at least a decade before the Playstation era. The smooth '80s groove should please enthusiasts of Japan's throwback boogie and city pop, though the group's warm sincerity brushes off any high-art intentions in favor of just getting down to the beat.

 

Rock A Japonica - Sai the Kou

 
 

Many idols source hip-hop and R&B as an inspiration, sometimes as full concepts, but a genre dive into New Jack Swing like Rock A Japonica's latest is an example that’s not often heard, at least from this year. (The only other instance from 2018 may be w-inds' “Dirty Talk.”) While the Stardust idols approach the subgenre rather conservatively, it actually turns out to be the better decision. The biggest gamble is that rap section, but it's more charming than passé.

 

Sakura Ebi's - Shakunetsu To Ice Cream

 
 

In a season full of novelty releases, Sakura Ebi's delivered back-to-back summer singles made to last far beyond the calendar change. A comedown from its equally-great synth-pop party “Lindberg,” the sparkling pop-rock of "Shakunetsu To Ice Cream" taps into the creeping anxiety derived from the possibility of another summer gone unfulfilled. The members scramble to organize a chance to speak to their crushes, and the namesake desert becomes more like an hourglass as it melts in their hands.

 

Qumalidepart - Are? Romantic

 
 

Kenta Sakurai speeds up his usual kitchen-sink pop sound to fit the frenzy of summer romance in his group's latest single. It matches the stress level of Qumalidepart, who obsess over the perfect outfit and the right timing to respond to texts. In the end, they all agree that romancing is just plain exhausting. Even if you can't understand the lyrics, the EDM breakdown should drive that point home.

 

Up Up Girls (2) - Angel Enjite 20-Nen

 
 

While Tsunku actually contributed to the group’s A-side "Zenbu Seishun" for Up Up Girls (2) this quarter, its companion track proves to be the superior showcase, one that traces a lot of its roots back to the producer. The meta-pop song's self-deprecation is as humorous as it is cruel, with the girls' desperate attempts for attention appearing darker through its self-awareness of the idol mentality.

 

Tsubaki Factory - Date No Hi Wa Nido Kurai Shower Shite Dekaketai

 
 

The long-winded title roughly translates to "Before a date, I want to shower twice before I go out," and the single follows a girl's stressed-out internal dialogue, one that’s full of overwrought musings on her appearance that she just can't get right. Their over-the-top obsession feels a touch ridiculous, if not for the lyrics themselves then through its dramatic, Morning Musume-channeling EDM beat. But it nevertheless hits upon some truths about what goes down in situations like this.

 

Keyakizaka46 - Ambivalent

 
 

No mainstream idol group nails messy internal dialogue better than Keyakizaka46. High-school politics once again drive its single, and their hallmark angst and stylistic adventurousness recalls a more inspired "Eccentric." Like that earlier song, the verses unpack a thrilling experiment with cadence, unraveling from an overwhelming chattiness to a graceful pivot to the big chorus. Never mind that this song sings about wanting to stay put: "Ambivalent" advances with the most exhilarating sense of momentum.

 

Gang Parade - Can't Stop

 
 

Compared to their previous series of dramatic, statement-heavy singles, Gang Parade delivers a slightly more wistful mood to accompany their own pop self-introspection in "Can't Stop." The downcast guitar riff and mellow synth beat make the single into a rather modest follow-up, but it's a welcome change of pace with the group looking more at the big picture.

 

EMPiRE - S.O.S

 
 

BiSH continues to be the model for EMPiRE as the juniors take on the senior group’s compressed punk for "S.O.S" The difference here is that EMPiRE not only refines the formula, but also improves upon what BiSH couldn't quite nail with the same materials. "S.O.S" in particular charms as much as it sulks, providing just enough light amidst the self-loathing signature to the WACK agency.

 

Monogatari - Mou Ikkai Kimi Ni Suki To Ienai

 
 

WACK producer Junnosuke Watanabe and his creative partner Kenta Matsukuma also had a hand in producing a record for a group outside of its main agency this past quarter. Their new single for Monogatari sounds fairly similar—just more indebted to rock—to the dramatic pop sound of the group's debut single “Re:born” from earlier this year. Yet, it's affected by an agony that often haunts WACK releases: the song inflates unrequited love into a more devastating feeling of ineptitude.

 

Hamidasystem - Invisible Movie

 
 

Earlier this year, Hamidasystem launched the ambitious Monogatari project that integrated short stories, music, and live performance for a singular interactive experience. The tracks born out of the effort, all compiled in the Yuganda Enpitsu Wa Dareka Ni Orarenaitameni EP, have been an impressive series of dream pop songs. Out of the six, "Invisible Movie" sounds the most immediate with that tidal shoegaze riff crashing against the rest of the music.

 

tipToe. - Blue Moon

 
 

tipToe. lived up to their tagline of "life-sized sentimental idol group" earlier this year with the charmingly bashful album Magic Hour. "Blue Moon" dips deeper into the group's melancholy by painting the busy city into an impressionistic dreamworld. The singers whisper a romantic lyric like "the city at night is like a blue water tank" over piano pop that's best paired with the contemporary dancing in the single's music video.

 

Dots Tokyo - Sign

 
 

This quarter's highlight from the shoegaze idols actually saw the group explore outside the fuzzy subgenre. "Sign" is a slowly peaking big-beat track that derives its dreaminess from glazed electronica. The members also tap into the new digital frontier in the lyrics, and the single delights just as much as their guitar-led songs.

 

Koutei Camera Girl Drei - Harbor

 
 

After the original Koutei Camera Girl called it quits few years ago, the KouteCa group splintered into multiple units with each taking the EDM-rap aesthetic into different avenues. From the sound of "Harbor," a highlight off of the New Ways of Lovin' EP, the Drei faction tackles a blend of electro, pop, and rap with a more serious mood than Actress or Gyaru. The high-speed raps and the steady tech-house beat of the song crest into one euphoric trance-pop peak.

 

Neo Japonism - Carry On

 
 

While their full-length summer release Neo Glamorous brought a series of songs built to rile up a crowd in a live setting, Neo Japonism sharpened its electro-punk hybrid sound for a more defined package on "Carry On." The group smooths out the rough mix of styles by shifting its core sound more towards punk than synth-pop. It consequently sheds any hint of novelty present in their previous releases without losing any rambunctious energy.

 

Yukueshirezu Tsure Zure - Phantom Kiss (feat. Fronz from Attila)

 
 

The metalcore idol group could've saved a number of ideas tried out on “Phantom Kiss”—the lead single from the group’s latest full-length ExFallen—and spread them out as hooks for several new songs. The second verse packs in the most: vocals warping into filth, a glitching clock-tick drum beat, an almost spoken-word delivery. All the stylistic exercises lead to one gripping chorus, a staple for any great Yukueshirezu Tsure Zure song.