Who’s Who In Japan: Tatsuro Yamashita

Today’s ‘Who’s Who In Japan’ was also a guest post over at Sounds of the Rising Sun. Please support them over at their official blog here.

The Man, The Legend

Tatsuro Yamashita (達郎 山下) was all the rage in Japan during the 1970s and 1980s. In the same way Michael Jackson was known as the “King of Pop,” Tatsuro Yamashita was known as the “King of City Pop”, a genre he helped pioneer.

Originally part of the band Sugar Babe with Kunio Muramatsu and Taeko Ohnuki in 1973, the group would soon disband in 1976. The transition into a solo career happened around the same time when Yamashita released his first album, Circus Town.

He’s since become one of Japan’s most successful solo artists, with 40 singles, 17 studio albums, and over 9 million album sales. Some of his more famous albums include Spacy (1977)Moonglow (1979)Ride on Time (1980), and Melodies (1983).

Not only is the man is a talented vocalist, his skill with various instruments could make him a one-man band. He does percussion (drums, timpani, glockenspiel), string instruments (guitar, electric sitar), and piano pieces.

He’s currently married to fellow city pop musician Mariya Takeuchi, and the pair occasionally collaborate with each other. (She’s also incredibly gifted and worth a listen.)

The Newlyweds

But What Is City Pop?

To gain a better understanding of the genre, it’s best to picture the events leading to its creation. Japan had gained newfound prosperity after the end of WWII, reaching a fever pitch during the economic boom of the 80s. The far-reaching modernization and westernization introduced new musical elements like funk, boogie, disco, R&B, synth, soft rock and technopop. Artists like Anri, Junko Ohashi, Yasuhiro Abe, and Taeko Ohnuki took kindly to these sounds and incorporated them in new, unforeseen ways. The resulting music would be deemed ‘urban’ in sound and associated with the modern city lifestyle. Hence, ‘city pop.’

While the genre’s popularity peaked at the end of the 80s, there’s a strong possibility you’ve heard a few city pop songs before! It has enjoyed a resurgence online, due in part to compatibility with modern music like vaporwave and future funk. Just as disco never dies, perhaps city pop, too, will stick faithfully by us as the years pass.

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Who’s Who In Japan: Utada Hikaru

Today’s ‘Who’s Who In Japan’ was also a guest post over at Sounds of the Rising Sun. Please support them over at their official blog here.

Utada Hikaru (宇多田 ヒカル ) is an incredibly successful Japanese-American singer and songwriter, garnering acclaim not only in Japan but internationally. If you happen to play video games, you might recognize her for her theme song contributions to the Kingdom Hearts series.

She is fluent in English as a result of being born and raised in Manhattan, New York. Her classmates had trouble pronouncing her name (“He-kah-rew”) and instead opted for the nickname ‘Hikki’. For a while she would release albums in the West solely under the name ‘Utada’ to prevent any more mishaps.

For Utada, music ran in the family. She’s the daughter of famous Enka singer Fuji Keiko, and her father Utada Teruzane is a record producer. The three formed a musical act called U3 (Utada 3) where Hikaru would sing and develop some of her musical style, inspired by her upbringing in the States. In fact, she was one of the first to bring R&B to Japan.

Utada’s parents back in the day.

Utada is also a rarity in the fact that she writes and produces almost all of her music. At the time, top idol singers and pop stars held little creative freedom over their work. They were produced and managed to maintain an ideal image. Not wanting to be stifled or overtly managed, she chose instead to differentiate herself and take charge, even going as far as to refuse talent agencies from contacting her.

Her breakout album, First Love (1999), topped the Oricon Albums Chart by selling 2 million units within the first week. It has since gone on to sell over 11 million units globally and is the current best selling album in Japan’s history to date. To top it off, Utada did it when she was only 15.

She would continue to find success with her albums Distance (2001), Deep River (2002), Ultra Blue (2006), and Heart Station (2008). Remarkably, each of them are chart toppers in their own right.

Reading clockwise: Distance, Deep River, Heart Station, Ultra Blue

In 2011 she held some ‘good-bye concerts’ before going on hiatus to focus on developing herself and fostering relationships. She went through some turbulent times in those years. Her mother committed suicide in 2013, she got married in 2014 to a bartender from Italy, and the two had a son in 2015.

She emerged back onto the music scene in 2016 with her ninth album Fantôme, which was dedicated to her mother and influenced by all the happenings that occurred during her hiatus.

She recently released two new singles and an album titled Hatsukoi (2018). For the Japanese savvy, the title means ‘First Love’, undoubtedly a statement on how far she’s come in her musical career since her debut. The album also topped the Oricon Weekly Digital Albums Chart with 38,185 downloads, making it the highest first-week download record in the chart’s history so far.

Time will tell if her musical hot streak continues, so be sure to check her out sometime!

Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel (Game Review)

  • Genre: 2D Fighter
  • Release Date: 10/30/2015 (JP arcades), 2/2/2016 (US consoles)
  • Available Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC
  • Played On: PS4

Wow! What a mouthful of a title, right? What kind of game is this? Well, this here’s a sequel to Nitro+ Royale Heroines Duel, a doujin fighting game from 2009 starring female characters from various Nitro+ titles. (If you’re unfamiliar with Nitro+, they are a Japanese company specializing in dark, twisted visual novels/eroge. Take precautions if you plan on researching the source material.)

As a long-term fan of the company’s works, I was excited by the prospect of seeing familiar faces interact and duke it out. But, how does the game hold up?

It’s a serviceable fighting game than even newcomers can pick up and play, with easy-to-execute combos and system mechanics. The game touts 14 fighters, 20 assist characters, and has standard game modes like Story, Versus, Score Attack, Network, and Training.

While it functions well enough as a fighting game, this isn’t a title I would recommend. The mechanics are so barebones that it borders on oversimplified. Characters have anemic movesets, lowering the options for defensive or offensive strategies like cross-ups, mix-ups, OTGs, etc. The stories are nonsensical excuse plots to justify its crossover. Stages lack a sense of activity that other modern fighting games have, even in comparison to its prequel.

Unless you’re a super diehard fan of Nitro+ and their works, you’re probably better off skipping this while you’re browsing the game shelves. If you’re interested in fighting games, there’s always Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Injustice, Smash Bros., and Street Fighter. If you prefer 2D anime-style fighters, try out Melty Blood, BlazBlue, Guilty Gear, Skullgirls, King of Fighters, or Persona 4 Arena instead.

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma (Game Review)

  • Genre: Puzzle
  • Platform Played On: PlayStation Vita
  • Release Date: June 28th, 2016
  • Total Playtime: 21+ Hours

Today we’ll be looking at the much anticipated sequel to 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Originally put on hiatus in 2012 due to the commercial failure of the Zero Escape series in Japan, development resumed due to high fan demand overseas.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, I would suggest starting from 999 or Virtue’s Last Reward as this title discusses and utilizes heavy spoilers as regular plot points.

The story begins as nine people, divided into three groups, are trapped against their will by a mysterious figure in a plague doctor mask known as Zero. He promises their release only if they are able to gather six passwords to unlock the sole escape door in the facility. The catch? Each password can only be obtained if one of the nine dies. Thus begins a test of wits, wills, and morals for their survival.

From here on, the player is able to take control of any one of three designated leaders for each group. Afterward, the game is divided into two main sections. Narrative sections and puzzle room sections.

Narrative sections are little fragmentary cutscenes to progress the plot. Unlike past titles, Zero Time Dilemma abandons the traditional visual novel style of story telling for a more 3D cinematographic presentation. The transition wasn’t the smoothest one, however. Character models experience frequent clipping, awkward lip-syncing, recycled expressions and stiff animations, and so forth.

As for the puzzle room sections, the main bulk of the series, they serve as a good break from the constant exposition and have great character interaction. Using point-and-click style searching, the player will gather items and clues to solve the various riddles and conundrums in order to move on to another area. None of the puzzle rooms go beyond mild brainteaser in terms of difficulty, but it can be useful to have a notepad handy.

During either of these sections players might be presented with moral dilemmas as it were. Your choices have consequences, not just for your current team but for the rest of the survivors in other wards. Will you choose to kill them in order to be free? Or will you choose to be at their mercy in order to spare their lives? Questions like these occur frequently and keep you biting your nails at you wonder what the outcome could be.

[Closing Thoughts]

Zero Time Dilemma was one of my most awaited titles ever since I finished VLR. But, it might be possible that waiting for almost four years inflated my expectations for ZTD. While a decent title in its own right, several plot threads are left hanging and some new ones are added in the mix, puzzle rooms don’t stretch the mind as hard as they could have, and a noticeable number of tracks are reused or remixed versions of songs from the previous two games. (The soundtrack is enjoyable, but I had high hopes for a more original score.)

However, I am thankful for the opportunity to have played it at all. Without fan petitions and support such as Project Bluebird, the game might have never seen the light of day. So, to all the veterans and newcomers to the series, thank you, and I hope we get to see more games of this nature in the future.

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JP’s Visual Novel Recommendations

For those not in the know, visual novels are like a cross between anime, choose-your-own adventure novels, dating sims, and computer games. They range in type and genre like nakige (VNs made to make you cry), chuunige (VNs with supernatural battles), eroge (VNs you shouldn’t play around family) and so on. In other words there’s something for everybody!

With that out of the way, give these VNs a try someday. And if there’s a VN you really like that’s not on here, let us know. We’ll update the list every now and again.

  • Chaos;Head
  • Chrono Clock
  • Clannad
  • Dies Irae ~Amantes Amentes~
  • Ever 17: The Out of Infinity
  • Fate/Hollow Ataraxia
  • Fate/Stay Night
  • Grisaia no Kajitsu (The Fruit of Grisaia)
  • G-Senjou no Maou (Devil on a G-String)
  • Hatsukoi 1/1
  • Hoshi Ori Yume Mirai
  • Katawa Shoujo
  • Kikokugai -The Cyber Slayer-
  • Koisuru Natsu no Last Resort
  • Maji de Watashi ni Koishinasai!
  • Maji de Watashi ni Koishinasai! S
  • Muv-Luv + Muv-Luv Alternative
  • Nanairo Reincarnation
  • Noble ☆ Works
  • Sanoba Witch! (Sabbat of the Witch)
  • Saya no Uta (Song of Saya)
  • Steins;Gate
  • The House in Fata Morgana
  • Watashi ga Suki nara “Suki” tte Itte! (If You Love Me, Then Say So!)
  • Yume Miru Kusuri (A Drug That Makes You Dream)
  • Zero Escape Vol. 1: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
  • Zero Escape Vol. 2: Virtue’s Last Reward

Who’s Who In Japan: Haruki Murakami

Welcome to ‘Who’s Who In Japan’, a series of posts introducing some prominent figures in Japanese history, art, science, sports, music, cooking, you name it.

Our first V.I.P is none other than famous author Haruki Murakami.

The Author

If you happen to be an avid reader, chances are that you might be acquainted with the gentleman. While he’s primarily a Japanese writer, he’s known internationally as well, with his books being translated in over 60 languages. Some of his more famous works include:

  • Norwegian Wood (1987)
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995)
  • Kafka on the Shore (2002)
  • 1Q84 (2009-2010)
Just a few of his works.

If I had to describe his works, I’d say they often have notes of surrealism, where fish fall from the sky, two moons hang in the sky, men can talk to cats, and the KFC colonel is a real, supporting character. His works are hard to categorize in that regard. But to gain a better understanding of his material, I think it’s best to learn more about the man himself.

Mr. Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan on 1949. He is known for having a fondness for cats, classical and jazz music, and running. These interests of his led to him opening up his own jazz bar named “Peter Cat”, as well as write a memoir detailing his long-distance running exploits in marathons.

The first time he wrote a novel was when he was 29. He often recounts his story as follows…

The year was 1978. Murakami was watching a baseball game at the Jingu Stadium. An American came up to bat and hit a double. As the ball sailed across the sky, a thought occurred to him, plain as day. “I could write a novel.” Afterward, he went out and bought a typewriter and worked at his manuscript for ten months, opting to work at nights after his shift at the jazz bar was over.

His first work, “Hear the Wind Sing,” won first prize in the literary contest he entered. This early success encouraged him to continue his literary pursuits. A good thing too! If it hadn’t, he might have walked a different path. And the world would be worse off for it.

As far as literary roots go, both of his parents taught Japanese literature. In addition, he grew up reading American and European works, from Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, to Franz Kafka. These Western influences would come to affect his writing style, distinguishing him from other Japanese writers. There are some in Japan who have criticized his writings for being too ‘un-Japanese’ as a result, but Mr. Murakami has won just about every writing accolade and award barring the Noble Prize in Literature in spite of their nay-saying.

I’d also say it’s rather unfair to dismiss his works as not being nationalistic enough, when his later works are greatly influenced by events unfolding close to home, such as the 1995 sarin gas attack and the Great Kobe earthquake.

He’s one of my main inspirations as a writer, and I hope more people get to enjoy his literature as a result of this post. And if you’re interested in a more in-depth literary analysis of his work, try reading “The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami” by Matthew Carl Stretcher.

That’s all for now, and I’ll see you again in future posts!

JP’s Book Recommendations

Fiction Recommendations (Novels)

  • “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas
  • “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden
  • “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami
  • “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami
  • “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley

Fiction Recommendations (Plays)

  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare
  • “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare
  • “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare
  • “Romeo & Juliet” by William Shakespeare

Non-Fiction Recommendations

  • “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
  • “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg
  • “Decisive” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
  • “Switch” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
  • “You Are Now Less Dumb” by David McRaney
  • “Mastery” by George Leonard
  • “Rejection Proof” by Jia Jiang
  • “Living the 80/20 Way” by Richard Koch
  • “Mastery” by Robert Greene
  • “Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday
  • “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday
  • “Smartcuts” by Shane Snow
  • “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield
  • “Turning Pro” by Steven Pressfield