Indie J-Pop? Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus?

Almost a decade ago, I spent a year living in Osaka, Japan, teaching English to students from 4 to 84. While the experience was ultimately amazing and eye-opening (in that I discovered as much about my own cultural blinders as appreciating a new cultural perspective), the initial weeks were rather challenging and rough, especially given a difficult family situation back home. This wasn’t helped by the pervasive soundtrack of J-Pop that was blasted through nearly every stall, shop, and street that lined my daily commute, compounded by the cartoonish arcade sounds of Pachinko. Without sounding totally insensitive, I found myself feeling like Pinocchio at the carnival, overwhelmed by sounds and sensations unfamiliar. As I started to adjust to my surroundings and my personal life became more routine and commonplace,  I broke through my cultural intransigencies. I found myself readily appreciating my new environs, except for J-Pop (and Pachinko). For the life of me, I never could embrace this brand of music. I invested in a good set of headphones to help reduce my stress level and found the less cluttered alleys and thoroughfares with more traditional Japanese musical forms filled the air. And, I started my search for the alternative music scene in Japan. With my limited grasp of Nihongo and my short-ish stay, I never quite found the rumored Japanese underground, but I did discover a couple of quirky bands.

Shugo_Tokumaru-In-Focus-ArtFlash forward a decade and countless life transitions later and I am having a bit of stroll down memory lane with Shugo Tokumaru‘s newest release on Polyvinyl records In Focus? Unfortunately I never encountered Shugo’s music when I was residing in Japan, which is unfortunate because it could have provided a much needed aural palliative to the soundtrack I encountered. Nonetheless, there are elements drawn from the diverse and pleasant collection of sounds that were part of my introduction to contemporary Japanese culture that pervade throughout the record, the most recognizable being both the language and vocal style used by Shugo.  After a decade of distance and lack of practice, my familiarity and limited understanding of Japanese has almost faded entirely. In fact I was perusing my journal from the time and found it nearly indecipherable given my propensity to incorporate Japanese phrases that now are meaningless to me (note: when writing in other language make sure to translate for future self in the event of forgetfulness).

For other listeners without any connection to Japan, the language, or the musical tradition of the Land of the Rising Sun, what will likely strike a chord is the surface similarity to the work of Kishi Bashi and his phenomenal 151a record from the year past which I am eager to see in persona this Thursday! Both artists share an affinity for Baroque Indie Pop characterized by a playful, lush, circus-like series of quirky musical tangents, varied instrumentation, and the pop enthusiasts fascination with epiphanies and pitch perfect choral harmonies. At times, it will feel like you are listening to a variation on Passion Pit’s electro-dance indie rock, the Sea and Cake‘s early jazz influenced Indie-Pop, or a Muppets/Fraggle Rock inspired playlist. (In other words, for those with young children, this would be a really great series of upbeat tunes for frolic and frivolity). But, throughout the album, Shugo finds a way to always make the odd and experimental nature of his pop palette amazingly pleasing even with the language barrier. Even when he slows things down on tracks like “Tightrope” and “Shirase”, the sound is familiar and comforting like a warm blanket on those cold (or blizzard-like) winter nights.

Do you need more convincing?

Listen to Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus? and don’t blame me if you find yourself secretly smiling with childish glee.

Records referenced:

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