March 26th, 2008


Concerning the brilliance of Togawa Jun

This is an extension to Sunday's entry about Hosono-tinged 80s Japanese pop; in a late comment, Mario Campos said I should have included Jun Togawa, the extraordinary, zany 80s diva who's like Catherine Ringer from Les Rita Mitsouko, Cindy Lauper, Nina Hagen, Hanayo and Bjork all rolled into one.

Mario's right, but it's best to give Togawa an entry all to herself. She's covered so many styles, and worked with so many different collaborators, and touched sublime peaks in each genre. Her voice can range from little-girlish to operatic in a single phrase.

Nicholas D. Kent's annotated discography gives you an idea of the full, dizzying variety of Togawa's work.

Born in 1961, she became an actress and singer in 1979, guesting with a band called Halmens. In 1989 she celebrated her first decade in showbiz with this track, Virgin Blues, an odd tribute to the Showa Era (which ended that year with the death of Hirohito) and to lost virgin innocence:

Togawa's collaborator here was Susumu Hirasawa, who made "a traditional kind of heroic folk music played on electronics", according to Kent. By the way, don't believe the Wikipedia entry which says that this single was her first and came out in the early 80s. It's not true. In the early 80s Togawa was in two different bands, the avant retro-styled Guernica (with Koji Ueno making the music and Keiichi Ohta the words) and Yapoos. Here are Yapoos in their earlier post-punk incarnation:

That's pretty good, but more exciting for me is the debut Guernica album, produced by Haruomi Hosono in 1982. Have a listen to Dawn, the last track on the album (the "video" is blank):

Isn't that just the most ambitiously, crazily great song ever?

Here's another Guernica track in a similar vein:

Their next two albums had, unfortunately, more of an "authentic" retro sound. Hosono's electronics (actually, they were Koji Ueno's) were replaced by orchestral backing, and Togawa channelled Misora Hibari or went operatic, kissing skulls. Rewriting History is a DVD of Guernica's live performances between 1982 and 1989.

Togawa's greatest straight pop song, for me, is 1985's Suki Suki Daisuki, arranged by Yoichiro Yoshikawa:

Just the best pop song ever, really! And yet Togawa never really was massive commercially -- she's better known in Japan for her Washlet Toto toilet commercials and her suicide attempts than her songs. Interviewed at the time of the whacky Washlet commercial, Togawa explained that her strict father hadn't approved of her going into showbiz after university, and demanded that, at the very least, she become famous. Advertising toilets was, she thought, the best way to do that! (Her dad's resistance to showbiz seems to have crumbled; he later ran a cabaret.)

As the 80s turned into the 90s, Yapoos lost focus somewhat. There were shrill James Bond tributes, weird reworkings of Pachelbel's canon in which Togawa transformed into an insect woman, touching tributes to Jean Seberg's Breathless haircut (in Japan it's called a "Cecil Cut"), Gainsbourg covers and faithful reworkings of Brigitte Fontaine. There were albums with songs about sex robots entitled things like "Charlotte Sexaroid's Blues" and "Go! Go! Lolita in Imminent Danger".

These days, Jun Togawa is to be found working with the likes of Jim O'Rourke and Otomo Yoshihide. You're as likely to find her on Zorn's Tzadik as pop labels and chat shows. So far, fortunately, her suicide bids have been unsuccessful (they've left some nasty scars on her neck) -- but her sister Kyoko, also an actress, did manage to kill herself. Which is awful: the world could do with more Togawas.