Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part V : Noriyuki Makihara / Famicom (Nintendo)

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NOTE: This is a two-part entry. The first half discusses songwriter/performer Noriyuki Makihara. The second half discusses the music from video game manufacturer Famicom, otherwise known as Nintendo to the world outside Japan.


Noriyuki Makihara studied English literature while attending Aoyama Gakuin University in central Tokyo. Soon after in 1990, he'd start his musical career. Noriyuki has been steadily songwriting for himself and other artists ever since.

What sets him apart from artists discusses previously in this blogging series is that he's a man strictly behind the helm, and very comfortable there. Also, his style has been smooth from start to finish. There's nothing that Noriyuki would produce that one couldn't play in the presence of his or her parents, no matter the age. While he's certainly kept up with music-making technology throughout the years, the critical goal of music making has been the same... make something smooth & lush that can be sung beautifully over it. It doesn't matter if it sounds ahead or behind the times. If it's a great song at base, the goal has been met. He's a songwriter before he's a performer. Assume that famous U.S. songwriter Diane Warren were a performer as well. Here's her Japanese male parallel.

Noriyuki himself has a great voice -- somewhere between the later years of Carl Wilson (R.I.P.), of The Beach Boys fame, and Michael McDonald, of Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan fame. It's a voice that is undisputedly masculine and romantic.

His backing music is a more complex issue. While it's no surprise that much of the J-Pop domain takes a maximalist "bells, whistles, and the kitchen sink" approach to layering the instrumentation, Noriyuki has a unique approach, whether deliberate or not. He will load the music with sounds that are usually associated with cutting edge technology multiplied with varying musical styles, lower the entire mix volume, then sing over that mix. It's not unlike SMAP's music -- however, as a listener in the Western world, part of me wishes the songs were LOUDER. I know this is the wrong impulse, but the sounds Noriyuki assimilates are closely associated with those used in much louder music in Western music, be it rock and/or dance music -- hence this odd sense of frustration I have with it, as much as I end up loving his output.

Let's start with his long-spanning singles collection.


Completely Recorded - (1990-2004)

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Secret Heaven" [4:25 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • (It took me a small moment to realize he was saying "Secret" at the beginning too, instead of "Sea Crab" or "Say Crap")

    Here's a great example of the frustration I was talking about above, in regards to the multi-dimensional backing. We have a dancey synth-reggae backbone alongside strange percussive noises, record scratches, guitar, and a great jazzy piano bridge. The singing on top is great! I love this song. Still, part of me is saying "TURN. THIS. UP!" Call it the cognitive Dionysian impulse that comes with being an American.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Doushiyou mo nai Boku ni Tenshi ga Oritekita" [4:04 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1996

  • Perhaps less cutting edge, but this song is an even better example exhibiting my frustration. There's more going on in the music, now adding several bridges, and great arpeggiating/descending guitar chords one would associated with later Rush or Def Leppard. Another great vocal track is layed on top -- this time, a far more Beach Boys influenced one. Still though, grrrr, TURN IT UP! Here's the video:

    [Noriyuki Makihara's "Doushiyou mo nai Boku ni Tenshi ga Oritekita" video]

    My first thought upon hearing the song was how "80s" it sounded, despite it being a mid-to-late 90s track. After seeing several comments online about this song, I smacked my head. This is professional karaoke concentrate! Of course this song sounds 80s. Karaoke backing tracks make heavy use of MIDI, as does the dawn of professional 80s production. Noriyuki has no reason to not target the karaoke market. For one who wants to flex his singing muscles on a given karaoke night in Japan, Macky (Noriyuki Makihara's fan nickname) is the perfect subject!

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Sunao" [3:42 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1997

  • A stripped down piano-and-vocals-only sad ballad. There's plenty of this in Japanese pop music. Macky is a master at it.

    But check out the video for this song. Talk about twisted. Naturally, I love this video because of it.

    [Noriyuki Makihara's "Sunao" video]

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Ame ni mo Makezu" [5:07 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2002

  • Combine 303 acid bass synth, a dash of Black Crowes style boogie rock, add unamplified guitars, cowbell, Steely Dan vocal harmonies, and guitar solos. Add ice. Frappé in pulses. Serve chilled.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Good Morning!" [4:54 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Combine Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis worship, vocoder, 1/8 teaspoon of glitch, a tablespoon of guitar solo, and one jazz bass solo. Mix ingredients in small saucepot. Heat on medium low. Allow to simmer. Serve and let stand for five minutes.


If Macky has another passion, it's being a pop-ologist. However, instead of exploring the effects of the performing layer that most pop-ologists do, he studies pop music in a strictly tablature context. As a side effect, Noriyuki Makihara loves to do cover versions. He covers songs as veneration and nothing less. My first Macky purchase was the following cover album.

Listen To The Music 2 - (2005)

Listen To The Music 2 is a sequel to a similar concept done several years prior. It's an album of a dozen or so covers of songs that have been big influences on Noriyuki. He writes a lot about the music he's covering in the liner notes (only in Japanese, natch.) The songs range from old standards to rare American crossovers to mostly Japanese pop songs of past and present.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "traveling" [5:07 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Hikaru Utada in 2001

  • "Traveling" is a milder, more cutting-edge cover of the trailblazing 2001/2002 single by female J-Pop superstar Hikaru Utada. (This was my introduction to Noriyuki Makihara, which I previewed at a bookstore music preview station.)

    Both the original and cover version have an early 90s Madonna sound -- which is probably not a coincidence. The Macky version of the "traveling" video is a nice video graphic simulation of a train going through various other-worlds. I was searching for that video, and fell short.. however I found the original "Traveling" by Hikaru, and -- wow, what a trip. Jan Švankmajer anyone?

    [NOT NORIYUKI MAKIHARA, but here's the original "Traveling" video by Hikaru Utada]

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Smile" [2:51 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Nat King Cole in 1954

  • "Smile" is the Charlie Chaplin song originally composed for his critically acclaimed movie Modern Times from 1936. It was popularized later by the Nat King Cole recording in 1954.

    Macky's version is a modern (ugh, dare I say) "IDM-ish" pop take on the song, only later adding a full blown big band orchestra to the final verse. It's the greatest track on this release.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "TIME AFTER TIME" [4:48 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Cyndi Lauper in 1983

  • This was Cyndi Lauper's major breakthrough hit of the early 80s. Although the first image that comes to anyone's head upon hearing "Cyndi Lauper" is the goofy dance pose on her debut She's So Unusual, many overlook how great her voice is -- albeit with a unique timbre. No doubt this was the major reason for Macky's cover of her song. Cyndi Lauper also has remained very popular in Japan until today, whereas the rest of the world hasn't been as receptive. Since the 90s, many of her albums have been released in Japan first. She's covered frequently by J-Pop artists to this day.

    Noriyuki's cover is another IDM-ish take, although it's more quirky and fun.

  • Noriyuki Makihara - "Miagete goran yoru no hoshi wo (Orchestra Live Version)" [4:11 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2005 - originally by Kyu Sakamoto in 1963

  • I wanted to end the Macky tracks with his best niche - the orchestra. I've still yet to purchase his orchestral albums, and I can't wait. His voice over an orchestra, while certainly a modern simulation of a time & place in music long past, fiercely tugs at the heart, even if I can't understand the lyrics. If it weren't for the high cost, I'd wonder why Noriyuki Makihara isn't a full-time orchestral composer and writer. Granted, that's a difficult task being a pop-ologist. And he gets paid to produce and write for other pop artists to this day. Ah, work!

    Anyway, the song "Miagete goran yoru no hoshi wo" may not be well known to many Americans. However, the original performer of this song, classic Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, is well known amongst older Americans for "Ue o muite aruk┼Ź" -- otherwise known as the 1963 hit "Sukiyaki." It was the only song to top the American Billboard charts that was sung entirely in Japanese.

    Kyu Sakamoto met a tragic fate in 1985, when he was one of over 500 victims in the most deadly single-airplane accident in human history, Japan Airlines Flight 123. Until his final days, Kyu Sakamoto was a humanitarian. He'll be highly venerated in Japan's music history forever. Macky's cover is another worthy footnate of that continuing veneration.


Now, switching gears from a songwriter/performer to a group of songwriters that weren't ever connected to the music industry, however one of which produced possibly the most known song in the Western world to this day.


Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Sound Tracks - (1981-1987)

Famicom/Nintendo released a three-volume series of original songs and sounds from their classic coin-op era of video games between 1981 and 1987. I'm featuring just three songs from the first volume: Super Mario Bros., The Legend Of Zelda, and Metroid. Koji Kondo is the composer of the former two, whereas Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka is the composer of the latter. Two other composers for Famicom/Nintendo during this period were Yukio Kaneoka, writer of the music for Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros., and Akihito Nakatsuka, who wrote the music for Ice Climber and Devil World.

Seattle electronic musician and writer Matt Corwine has given a presentation on the Super Mario Bros. Overworld scene tune, known popularly as "The Super Mario Bros. theme", at EMP's Pop Music Conference 2006. He previously wrote a mix-tape article for the Seattle Weekly where he gave a synopsis of the importance and influence of the song.

  • Famicom - "Super Mario Bros. - Overworld BGM / Warning / Overworld BGM (Hurry Up!)" [5:06 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1983 - composed by Koji Kondo

  • If you've never heard this before, I have to respectfully ask how comfortable the cave you've been hiding in has been these past two to three decades.

    So, switching out of my Snarky Ninja Of The Obvious costume, why not really listen to this little anthem? What musical influences inspired this song? It's impossible to dissect accurately without asking the composer himself. I'd gather that were was some sort of Latin or Caribbean influence -- which makes sense given that this song appears in the initial part of each "world" while playing the game, which is the blue-sky-ed tropical Mario-world. But there's more to this song than its influences.

    Koji Kondo composed this song no later than at the age of 22. He was hired at Famicom as a teen to be an in-house musician, having come from a childhood of classical music training. Upon hire, he had a major technical roadblock to overcome. He was only allowed a limited amount of channels with which to produce music for Famicom/Nintendo games. The gritty quality of Nintendo music that has stood the test of time and remains "cool sounding" in cutting-edge electronic music for the past two decades is due to its limitation to, most notably, the triangle-wave bass channel and, most importantly, the sound-effects and noise channels for percussive sounds -- which has given many Nintendo themes their quirky, fun aesthetic.

    However, as Matt Corwine notes, the hard part must have been the songwriting. How would one write a song that users could stand to listen to upon hours and hours of play? One could philosophize or psychoanalyze the dilemma for hours. Either way, Koji Kondo certainly proved himself. He's still employed at Famicom/Nintendo to this day doing what he's done since he hopped on board in 1983. And people of almost any age range today know his most famous composition -- arguably the most known song in the Western world.

  • Famicom - "The Legend Of Zelda - Title" [3:00 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1986 - composed by Koji Kondo

  • The title song to The Legend Of Zelda isn't nearly as known as the Super Mario Bros. theme song. However, it's just as supremely crafted.

    It's a more sweeping, regal theme than the "Let's limbo!" vibe of the Super Mario Bros. theme. One wonders why the Zelda theme song has barely been covered, though. There's a Brian Wilson quality (an anterior quality, surely) to this theme song that's surely begging for an audience to hear a live version, no matter how good or bad.

  • Famicom - "Metroid - Title" [1:48 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1986 - composed by Hirokazu Tanaka

  • Not only swooning, but sad, this is one of the most underrated theme songs to a Famicom/Nintendo game. Having been covered semi-officially by electronic musician Alex Graham a.k.a. Lexaunculpt and perhaps by others, Hirokazu Tanaka's somber, chilling little tune still has an indescribable innocence to it -- a touch of Beatles perhaps? Well, for a small while, yes. But the song starts to cascade and snowball into a driving resonant song until it loops back to the initial somber bass notes.


Mario & Zelda Big Band Live CD - (2003)

There have been hundreds of cover versions of Super Mario Bros., but there hasn't been many officially sanctioned releases featuring these covers, much less that of the series of tunes produced by the array of The Legend Of Zelda sequels.

On September 14th, 2003, a big band live concert that commemorated the two major classic bodies of works by Koji Kondo took place at Nihon Seinenkan Hall in Tokyo. I can only guess this was planned as a 20th anniversary celebration. The performing groups alternated between The Big Band Of Rogues and Yoshihiro Arita With His Band.

Band Of Rogues may not have been the tightest big band assembled, but they certainly accomplished the goal of fleshing out the themes to something recognizeable and enjoyable. Yoshihiro Arita's more stripped down pieces are more reminiscent of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. He's a classically trained guitar and banjo player, and plays bluegrass and jazz improv these days.

Do you have two hours to spare? If so, here's the video link to the entire performance! Otherwise...

  • The Big Band Of Rogues - "Medley Of Super Mario Bros." [4:24 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • It's possible this is the closest we'll get to imagining what was brimming inside Koji Kondo's head as he was writing the themes to Super Mario Bros. Personally, I wouldn't elect to listen to most tunes with this specific arrangement. However, this is the Super Mario Bros. theme... a song that clearly overpowers its arrangements and covers through the test of composition and time.

    Later in the concert, the theme is revisited with a female vocalist(!) Aside from the words "Go" and "Mario", I have no clue what she's singing! And who the hell is that fat Italian guy causing a ruckus in the audience? Yeah, she's not a great singer at all, but it's all for fun.

    [The Big Band Of Rogues' "Go Go Mario" live footage]

  • Yoshihiro Arita with his band - "The Legend Of Zelda - Takt Of Wind theme" [7:18 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • Yoshihiro Arita with his band - "The song of EPONA" [4:06 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • "Takt Of Wind" and "The song of EPONA" are from 10th and 9th installments of The Legend Of Zelda series, respectively. I've never played this series aside from the very first one, but Yoshihiro Arita's performances are really gripping. He quietly improvises on his instrument while his band provides a gorgeous swooning, occasionally droning background. If there's any true benefit from owning this CD, it's his live work here.

    I'm guessing the singer for "the song of EPONA" is the same singer who horribly sang "Go Go Mario" in the above video clip. However, she sounds much better suited for this type of song. Also, there's incredible backing music this time around.

  • The Big Band Of Rogues - "Medley of The Legend Of Zelda" [4:32 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003 - live

  • Not unlike the Super Mario Bros. theme, The Legend Of Zelda theme songs trump any arrangements, good or bad, with its powerful compositions. The Band Of Rogues are thankfully at their best on this medley.

    [The Big Band Of Rogues' "Medley Of The Legend Of Zelda" live footage]


I can't tell you how ridiculous I feel admitting that I get really teary-eyed upon listening to these large orchestrated versions of these Nintendo songs. You have to understand my childhood.

When planning this J-Pop series, I've been reading bio after bio about how each of these artists has had an active and studious childhood. While I had a studious childhood, I threw away the "active", "adventurous" part dropping quarters every weekend at the video game arcades. This went on for years and years. If you ever were at the helm and dispensed change at Captain Video's in West Los Angeles or at Westworld in Marina Del Rey during the 80s, chances are you had to deal with me at some point because I lost a quarter in a machine and you had to come out and give me credits.

Listening to the original video game songs just brings back the direct memories of hitting buttons and wiggling joysticks on a big plastic frame.

Listening to modern orchestrations of these same songs made me realize what I had involuntarily burned into my brain upon my most formidable, growing years. I was listening to these live tracks a few days ago to prepare this entry, and I got emotionally overwhelmed on my way home while my headphones were beaming into my ears what seemed like exploded dreams detailing my musical childhood, except I couldn't just spaz out and wake up from that feeling.

While I was certainly into pop music as a kid, I had no idea what music was making the ultimate lasting impression. It's incredibly silly that I only realized this just days ago. These songs pretty much sum up the ages of 8 to 16 for me.

I'm glad that my extended stay at video game arcades was my childhood, given that it could have been a far worse existence -- don't get me wrong. However, one can never predict when he or she is going to accidentally listen to that definitive, extended self-realization soundtrack.

And it's especially emotional when that chunk of life is childhood. In many ways, we each had no control over it, really. On the other hand, so many factors could have created a vastly different fork as well. I chose a one-dimensional activity looking at two-dimensional entities. If your experience is similar, I hope you turned out O.K. I'm trying to figure out if I'm still paying for it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for these amazing write-ups on J-pop, and extra thanks for including video game music, which is only now starting to get the attention it deserves. Have you ever heard of Earthbound, aka Mother 2 in Japan? It's my favorite video game of all time, and half the reason is the soundtrack. you can listen to some tracks here:

But some of the best tracks aren't included there. Unfortunately, even if they were included, much of their power comes from the music playing while the story of the game unfolds, and it's a surprisingly affecting story too. I attribute much of the power of it to the music, and maybe you'll see why if you listen to it even without playing the game, which you should do sometime anyway, since it is the best videogame of all time.

10:52 PM  
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8:51 AM  

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