Kuwata Keisuke is one of the few Japanese pop stars who I really follow. Both in his solo work and in the context of his erstwhile band Southern All Stars, he's probably the only certifiable pop genius I've come across in Japan. As a songwriter he's trying to combine the mainstream J-pop hitmaking lyrical sensibility of Aku Yû with the poetic inventiveness of Bob Dylan and the pornographic cleverness of Prince (sometimes Kuwata makes Prince sound like the Church Lady), set to the unassailable tunefulness of Paul McCartney; as a performer he's equal parts McCartney and Mick Jagger. In other words, he's one of the few interesting lyricists in mainstream J-pop, one of the most consistently catchy songwriters around, and an always compelling performer.
His main flaw as an artist is that he's too prolific. It's just not summer in Japan without a new Kuwata Keisuke/SAS beach song, and it's just not Christmas without a new KK/SAS romantic ballad. Most years he obliges, but there are only so many variations he can wring out of these templates, and so his songs, brilliant as as they usually are individually, often tend to blend together.
Then again, sometimes he'll come up with something astounding, something that only he could come up with.
Take, for example, his work in the last year or so. This consists of:
1) a Kuwata Keisuke solo single called "Kimi ni sayonara." Three songs.
2) a Hara Yûko solo single called "Yume o arigatô." Two new songs. Hara Yûko is Kuwata's wife, also a member of SAS, and a solo artist in her own right; often her records are written, arranged, and produced by KK himself, which is the case here.
3) another Hara song, written and produced by KK, on a Hara Yûko collection released just last week.
Altogether, that's six new songs released on CD, but since one of these is eighteen minutes long, it all equals a whole album, at least of the vinyl variety. Considering that Kuwata has done more or less this amount of work every for the last thirty, it's a pretty good output for a guy in his fifties.
What's it all add up to? The lead Hara Yûko song is expert fluff, a bouncy pop number that sounds like it's meant to play in a video arcade; her already slightly surreal voice sounds like it might be auto-tuned, which would be typical of KK. The new song on the b-side, and two of the three songs on KK's single, are kind of forgettable.
But the bonus song on her anthology, also a KK production, is brilliant. "Kyoto monogatari," it's called, "Kyoto story," and the lyrics are essentially a bunch of Kyoto place names and catch words strung together. Musically it's a pastiche of mid-20th century pop, pre-rock, with some self-orientalizing musical color: there's a koto mixed in there with the horns, the strings, and the harpsichord. The whole thing is as rich and delicate and subtle as a piece of wagashi, which is to say it's a perfect pop confection.
In a very different way, the third song on KK's single is also a masterpiece. Called "Koe ni dashite utaitai Nihon bungaku" (Japanese literature I want to sing out loud), it's a medley of passages from modern Japanese literary classics set to music. The complete list is here (in Japanese) for those who are interested. As for the song itself, here's part one and here's part two. Musically, as well as lyrically, it's quite amazing: the melodies and arrangements are catchy, and each builds interestingly on the last; they're witty, too, with Akutagawa's Buddhist parable "The Spider's Thread" being given a raga-rock setting and Soseki's "I Am A Cat" turning into a thrashy funk stomp.
This is, I think, Kuwata's answer to the second side of Abbey Road. It's plain he's been thinking about Abbey Road lately. The cover to SAS's last album (in 2005), shown above, is an homage to Abbey Road's. And last year Kuwata gave a show in which he performed Abbey Road in its entirety - as mondegreens. That is, he wrote nonsense Japanese lyrics to all the song that approximated, soundwise, the way the English lyrics sound to Japanese ears.
The Abbey Road concert and the J-lit song were both part of a half-year miniseries Kuwata did on Japanese tv last year (I'm sorry I missed it; it's out on DVD, but way too expensive for me, and it leaves out the Abbey Road show) called Music Tiger (Ongaku tora-san), a reference to the famous Tora-san movies. The import of the title seems to have been not only that putting Kuwata in your iPod is like putting a tiger in your tank, but that he's also a roving lovable musical scoundrel - appropriately, the program found him covering an incredible range of tunes both Western and Japanese, both old and new, as well as a lot of new stuff and a broad swathe of his back catalog.
In other words, it's been a busy couple of years for Mr. Kuwata. And he has a new album coming out in October...