The Star of Cinderella Girls

I wrote about the original iDOLM@STER anime back when it first aired, but never came back to it when it finished. For the record, I thought it was all good–good enough to convince me to partake of other parts of the franchise, like the current TV adaptation of THE iDOLM@STER CINDERELLA GIRLS.

The first one is better, no question. The cast is more interesting, and their circumstances are closer to the ground. While the original focuses around a bunch of girls struggling to get their careers underway at a small-time agency, this one is the opposite–a bunch of no-names start from scratch at a big, established company. I’m sure both situations exist in reality, but the setup this time around is taken too over-the-top. This goes for the characters as well–compared to the original lineup, the Cinderella Girls have more extreme cartoon personalities, and the weird romanticized agency they work for is a touch too fantastic. All in all, it seems the moe and fantasy knobs were turned a few notches higher in this one. I don’t hate it, but I prefer the original down-to-earth cast in their old, dingy office.

However, with the steady hand of A-1 Pictures to guide the series, each weekly installment guarantees a watchable and entertaining 25 minutes. The core of the series–the trio of Uzuki, Rin and Mio–are the best of the Cinderella Girls, probably because they’re the most realistic and relatable.  The manner in which they come to know each other at first and their regular interaction is organic and genuine. While some of the other girls’ antics can test my patience to a certain degree, the above-average scripting that underlies the main three also helps to portray the rest of the cast decently. Presentation-wise, A-1’s direction and animation are rich with character, and keep these eyeballs stuck to the screen.

But enough about all that. Mr. Producer is the real star.

The Producer left an immediate impression when he first popped up with his imposing stare and monotone voice. The thing about Mr. Producer is that his manner of speech and approach to human interaction make for the perfect picture of a salaryman who’s really bad at his job. When confronted with questions like “When’s our debut?” from the girls still unsure of their professional future, he responds with a business-like “It’s currently in planning.” His Japanese is very polite and vague–the exact manner of speech that is pivotal to the typical escape tactics salarymen must rely on daily when confronted by the work place’s constant and harsh inquisitions.

Producer’s clinical business-talk brings things to a head in episode 6, injuring Mio’s ego after the turnout at the unit’s first concert betrays her overblown expectations, with his words going on to turn away Rin as well. As he realizes his mistakes, he learns that speaking is human interaction, and not just a tool required to move on to the next task. Once back with the whole gang, the girls request that he refrains from using teineigo when talking to them to build a more friendly rapport.

It goes without saying that the default way to go in Japanese is to speak politely–especially in the work environment–but many Japanese office workers use teineigo’d apologies and excuses as a shield to excuse themselves for their mistakes or poor work ethic. So long as one can apologize nicely or have a polite excuse prepared for when a co-workers throw a fast ball, the salaryman can continue maintaining the middling status quo. This is Producer-san, along with legions of other real-life salarymen at their 9-to-11s.

Between weird developments like idol boycotts or tours about the label’s palatial offices, what Mr. Producer represents, and how he develops, stands out. Will his scary eyes become softer? Will he be able to speak in tameguchi to girls who are younger than him? Neither has really happened yet, but at the very least he seems to be getting an idea of where his girls are coming from, which is a promising start.

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Only Love Hurts – Greatest Hits!! ~updated Omokage Lucky Hole~

Only Love Hurts’ first studio album is a collection of brand-spanking-new recordings of Omokage Lucky Hole’s “greatest hits,” appropriately titled Greatest Hits!! ~updated Omokage Lucky Hole~. Basically a self-cover album, O.L.H. endeavored to create the definitive versions of their classic (?) tunes (likely to sell to people who attended Iyaounashi Ni). Being stuff fans have heard before, it’s not particularly full of surprises, but it is pretty good.

A bulk of the album’s 54 minutes are taken from the band’s pro debut album, Dairihaha, followed by selected tracks from other albums, arranged in chronological order. The songs are all very cleanly mixed, with all the instruments coming in with crisp clarity. The disc bursts into the earlobes immediately with Ore no Sei de Koushien ni Ikenakatta’s bombastic opening horns. The new recording cuts out a lot of the campy synth of the older one, opting to let the pure sounds of traditional instruments take center stage. Something one notices immediately is that the guitar is mixed to come in loud, almost stealing the show with a wild, unrestrained energy. The record’s guitarist is none other than Nishimura Tetsuya, who was with the band for Whydunit?, Typical Affair, and On the Border. He has apparently moved to Kyoto and can’t do shows often, so the band likely wanted to give him free reign to do what he wanted, and make sure everyone could hear it. It sounds good, and gives the song an edge that it lacked before. On the whole the instrumentals are more loose and funky, with aCky being very fun and creative on the vocals, resulting in a cut of music that offers up something different than the original. I won’t necessarily say better, but it sounds really good. Konya, Sugamo De is similar. Cleaner mix, bolder guitar, and a few surprises. However, between hearing this song nearly a zillion times live, along with possessing about five recordings of it (including this one), I have to say there are others I like better.

Track three sees the album begin to mix things up with a new version of Anna ni Hantai Shiteta Otousan ni Beer wo Tsugarete, which got the music video treatment late last year. This song is one of O.L.H.’s older hip-hop tracks that is driven by heavy electronic backing in its initial studio cut. For live shows, these tracks are rearranged in order to be performed by a full band, and it would seem that with this track and others, one aim of Greatest Hits!! is to get clean studio versions of these arrangements that fans could previously only hear at the group’s shows. That said, this cover of Beer strikes a nice balance between the original studio version and its live arrangement. Opening with a funky electronic beat, the track comes in with heavily guitar-driven instrumentals, climaxing with horns, then cuts back to the original beat, giving the song an extra level of variety and color over both its studio recording and live versions. Suki na Otoko no Namae Ude ni Compass no Hari de Kaita already has two studio versions, and this one just feels like another take with the band’s current lineup–which is what all of these songs are, but this one doesn’t offer up much new. It’s a nice cut, but hardly any surprises.

The album’s crowning achievement is undoubtedly the sexiest studio version of Pillow Talk, Tagalog-go the band has ever recorded. The version on their pro debut is rich with deep and sexy R&B synth and bass, while the original version on their indie debut is more akin to a ’70s love ballad. However, neither version is as drawn out as the song’s live arrangement, which is extended, and allows one’s ears to drown in its longing and sorrow. This recording is The Ultimate, delivering all the emotion of the live experience, and then some. With perfect atmospheric effecting on the backing percussion and flute, along with a luscious keyboard, the song drowns you in its deep jazzy sound, putting you right in the middle of its tragic and sordid story. The song employs inventive use of an electronic sitar, putting a twist on its traditional jazz backing. Tet-chan cuts in with a dreary and minimal guitar solo in the middle, and Kaori follows up by accentuating the song’s melancholy with a lush and longing saxophone solo. Much like Tet-chan who came from far away to play on the album, Kaori comes in just for Tagalog-go with her sax and flute. The rest of the tracks are handled by the new saxophonist, Okamura Tomoko.

Following is Kanarazu Onaji Tokoro De. While originally a hard hip-hop track (that opens with a brutal exchange between an abusive husband and his wife–a precursor to the events the song depicts), funky guitar and punchy horns are the order of the day on the Greatest Hits!! version. The song switches gears mid-way for an interlude by the chorus (“You, like a child, sleep in my embrace. You, like a child, in my embrace.”) backed by Tet-chan’s yearning guitar backing, followed by an explosive trombone solo from Sasuke. This is probably my favorite studio recording of the song.

The album then surprises with a retake of Kyuuryoubi-san, the sole track from Ongaku Girai on the record. The original cut is heavily disco, with robust and deep synth instrumentals, delivering all the sounds one wants in a disco track. This new recording drops a lot of the synth, but retains a funky rhythm track headed up by an equally funky guitar, with the breakdown making highly effective use of a sample from Santa Esmeralda’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. The track on the whole has a harder edge than the original with its bold guitar and bass, giving new life to one of the band’s older and somewhat minor songs.

The three tracks that follow are the most boring, failing to offer up much over their originals. After Kyuuryoubi-san comes Pachinko Yatteru Aida ni Umarete Mamonai Musume wo Kuruma no Naka de Shinaseta… Natsu. It’s a nice retake, and samples in police sirens for a thick lacquer of added sorrow and harsh reality, but it’s more or less the Same Song. Following is Atashi Dake ni Kakete, which is at a determent lacking the original’s female backing on the pivotal “kake kake kake kaketeeee“s. Ai no Blackhole is just a studio version of Ai no Xanadu with the original “blackhole” (read: vagina) lyric in place of the more family friendly lyric, “Xanadu.” Originally a theme song for a movie, the band was asked to change the “blackhole” lyric due its vulgarity.

The final track is an unreleased recording of Dairi Haha’s Chiisana Mama Ni (as opposed to re-recorded; I assume it’s an alternate cut they had lying around.) While the original recording is carried by wistful guitars, this recording comes in strong with a hard funk guitar and commanding organ backing, bestowing the song a far more bitter and dramatic tone to its profound woe. It’s a really cool take on the song, and features a red-hot R&B guitar solo in the middle. The horns come in louder, elevating the drama at just the right moments.

The album comes with extra discs (CD-Rs, the type which one buys at the local electronics store) featuring special recordings of different songs depending on which store one purchases the CD at. As such, I bought a copy of the album at all the participating shops to get the bonuses. Was it worth it? Probably not, but I’m a completest, and I can sell my extra copies back to BookOff. The Tower Records bonus was an alternate mix of Ore no Sei de, which offers up nothing new, and is somewhat disappointing. However, it also came with a ticket to a signing in March that is to be preceded by an in-store acoustic show. The rest are live recordings–Disc Union gets you Gomumari, HMV gets you Onna no Michishirube, and Amazon gets you Kanarazu Onaji Tokoro De. If you’ve been to O.L.H.’s shows before you know what to expect, and the recordings are taken at a low volume, making them difficult to listen to if you don’t edit the files yourself. As a stupid fan, I am happy having them, though. Apparently they were taken at some “SECRET LIVE” in Yokohama in 2013, giving the tracks a bit of an air of mystery, being performed at a show normal people presumably did not know about. The recording of Kanarazu Onaji Tokoro De is notable because it features a hilarious interlude by aCky in Kansai-ben playing on this old song.

Greatest Hits!! ~updated Omokage Lucky Hole~ is a good album to get new people into the band. All of their trademarks are right there, and they’re all re-recorded and expertly mixed for a rich and clean experience. For existing fans, it’s nice hearing old favorites again, but I’m keeping my ears open for new songs.

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Musical Funk Comedy: Iyaounashi Ni

On March 17th, 2014, it was announced on Only Love Hurt’s (née Omokage Lucky Hole) official website that their body of work would be utilized in an upcoming musical. I honestly had no idea how to feel at the time, but since it was something involving my favorite Japanese X-Rated-funk-R&B-Showa-ballad-Noir band, I thought I had to take a look. However, with tickets priced at 90 bucks, and me being unstable employment-wise at the time, I didn’t count on seeing it. On the initial flyer, it paraded names like Koizumi Kyouko, Furuta Arata, and Taguchi Tomorowo (who I incidentally caught sight of in my neighborhood once), giving the production a certain pedigree that made it worth seeing. Flash forward to months later: Tickets are on sale, I’m employed, have a big bonus coming up, and purchased a ticket for a balcony seat at a Yokohama showing. By the time I attempted to get my hands on a ticket, all the Tokyo (and Saitama, for some reason) showings were sold out, and all that remained were so-so seats in Yokohama. Jump forward a bit more: It’s January 10th of 2015, and I’m making my way to Yokohama to see the 6pm showing of Iyaounashi Ni.

Welcome to the blue-collar town of Ebina, Kanagawa. Furuta Arata and Koizumi Kyouko are a couple who just opened a shop specializing in stewed guts rice bowls. Their first customers: a bunch of hoodlums who enter with the intention of fucking the two up from day one. Leading the pack is Furuta’s captain from his high school baseball club–Taguchi Tomorowo. Back in high school Furuta made a scene, beating up a bunch of yankii after they raped his girlfriend (Koizumi). As a result, him and his team were unable to go to Koushien, and his captain has resented him ever since. Elsewhere, Furuta and Koizumi’s daughter, Takahata Mitsuki, (the youngest in the family–the older brother has gone missing) is manager of her high school baseball team who also, incidentally, have their sights set on Koushien. Takahata also happens to be a slut, and doesn’t think twice about accepting the many sexual advances she receives from club members. Meanwhile, the baseball club’s adviser, Yamanaka Takashi, isn’t happy when he hears his kids talking grown-up stuff. He gets in a fit over it, but only because he has a thing for his student Takahata himself. Back at the store, one of the part-timers, Takada Shouko, is involved in an abusive relationship with Miyake Hiroki–a former boxer; current bum. The production focuses around these three couples, the fucked up interpretations of love they possess, and how it leads to tragedy.

The show employs O.L.H.’s songs to very good effect. Act 1 front-loads Ore no Sei De Koushien ni Ikenakatta, Suki na Otoko no Namae Ude ni Compass no Hari de Kaita, and Annani Hantai Shiteta Otousan ni Beer wo Tsugarete to explain the initial plot, and the tragic events that haunt the main couple to this day. The opening number sets the Koushien story going, while the following emphasizes the raped Koizumi’s profound love for Furuta (his name is written on her arm with a compass needle, after all), with song three explaining how Koizumi’s parents objected to Furuta knocking her up, and their eventual acceptance that results in Koizumi’s dad pouring Furuta a glass of beer. While the songs all contain disparate stories, they are woven into the main narrative seamlessly, resulting in a deranged cast of characters who all have the pleasure of shouldering pasts portrayed by O.L.H.’s heavy lyrics. Lyrics are modified to service the story, but for the most part, O.L.H.’s music is used to staggeringly potent effect to propel the show. Iyaounashi Ni also features an original song–titled after the show–sung in the grand finale, and in stark contrast to the show’s funk/R&B/hip-hop motif, sounds like a typical number from a musical.

I had never seen modern Japanese theater before, so I had no idea what to expect. Some of the language was quite difficult, but I could more or less get a hang of the story. While it’s a darkly comedic and foul affair from start to finish, it was hard to know where to laugh at times because I was unable to comprehend the punchline at several points. Outside of the language, the show relies on a lot of slapstick. People (mostly Furuta) punch each other a lot, and there is a slew physical toilet and sex jokes. This was my first time really seeing somewhat mainstream Japanese media do these sorts of things straightforwardly, so while I was misunderstanding lines, I was also in awe at people dry-humping on stage, and fake-pissing their pants. Whether or not a lot of that stuff made me laugh is another story, but I did get some nice chuckles–I just think they laid it on too strong. I could complain about the show failing to be clever, but since I missed a good portion of the spoken lines, it may well have been more clever than I thought.

One hilarious scene involves Furuta, coaxed on by Taguchi, to rob from the register at his own store, the two of them sporting hilarious masks and soundboards on their phones so they can speak while concealing their voices. However, the soundboards malfunction, resulting in guffaw-worthy absurdity. Other humorous bits involve Koizumi’s sexual fantasies that get aroused every now and again, represented by cheesy mood lighting and a group of men wearing hilariously suggestive outfits who chant “oku-san.” One good line that my Japanese capacity could handle involved Yamanaka mentioning that teachers never enter society–they go to school just go back to school. This hit home, being a former-teacher in this country.

Back to the main couples: Furuta and Kyouko, Takahata and Yamanaka, Takada and Miyake all more or less meet some unfortunate end or circumstance as the story reaches a sordid conclusion. The show approaches love from its most twisted and fucked up angle–the same way most O.L.H. songs approach it, incidentally–and takes that concept to its logical conclusion, utilizing the three main couples.

Takahata and Yamanaka end up shacking up after Yamanaka seduces Takahata away from the horny baseball club she serves pussy to every day. However, their forbidden love is found out when the baseball club tail Yamanaka back to his place, which results in Yamanaka escaping on a bicycle in his undies with Takahata riding on the back. They proceed to get hit by a car, killing Yamanaka, and putting Takahata in the hospital. Meanwhile, Koizumi ends up with Furuta’s baseball captain, Taguchi, in a love hotel. She finds out he’s gay when he can’t get it up, and he attempts to kill her in order to get revenge on Furuta for ruining his chances at making it to Koushien. She hits him with an ashtray, subsequently murdering him in the process. While she ends up at the police station for questioning, Furuta sneaks in as an officer, and the two run away from town, their hearts at ease knowing that their slut daughter is alive in some form at the local hospital. Takada and Miyake have the weirdest conclusion, where Takada decides to put up with her husband’s absuse  (because she thinks she deserves it?) leaving Miyake confused and unhappy, the two facing an eternity of anguish and emptiness. Meanwhile, halfway through the production, Koizumi and Furuta’s son shows up as a transvestite working at the local Philippine pub. With Taguchi harboring the bizarre desires to plastic-surgery himself into a 17-year-old to enter Koushiken as well as assassinate Furuta for ruining his dreams, Furuta’s son offers the man tips on how to surgically change his face, as well as on assassination.

On a technical level, the show employs a two-level set, with the bottom level a turntable that allows for a smooth transition between scenes. All of the sets–from the store the main couple owns, the Philippine pub, Sugamo, to love hotels–looked lovingly detailed from my far-away seat, and did a good job of establishing the seedy atmosphere the material demanded. The top part of the set was mostly used for musical numbers that required the whole stage, with an LCD monitor under it that would display the lyrics of the songs with corny graphics, in case the whole affair wasn’t lowbrow enough. Icing on the cake were the curtains, which featured giant legs in high-heels and stockings, that hilariously spread out when the curtain opened.

While a lot was lost on me, and there was perhaps too much slapstick, it was an eye-opening experience to see Japanese theater for the first time, as well as see O.L.H.’s songs used in front of a full house of regular theater-goers. With a huge line of people at the merch table that was carrying the band’s best of album, I hope O.L.H. is starting to get the attention they deserve.

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