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Friday, Aug. 21, 2009

Refashioning the J-pop scene

Producer Yasutaka Nakata pulls the strings and pens the tunes that give singers their fame

Special to The Japan Times

Yasutaka Nakata is bouncing around like some kind of postmodern electro Tigger in front of a sea of adoring fans, almost uniformly young, beautiful and well-dressed. His DJ set taken in large part from his group capsule's own music, with the odd track thrown in by electro-tinged idol pop phenomenon Perfume (written and produced by Nakata), and earlier there has been a live performance by J-Pop singer MEG, performing a set of songs also written and produced by Nakata. Freeze frame the moment and take a good look: This is Japan's most important producer at the peak of his powers.

News photo
Club lord: Yasutaka Nakata is the genius behind many an artist.

Rewind a week and Nakata is sitting in a cafe in Daikanyama talking about the origins of capsule (it's always written with a small "c") and the group's forthcoming "best of" album "Flash Best."

Initially hailing from Kanazawa before moving to Tokyo, Nakata started making music when he was a high school student. He worked his way through a series of guest vocalists before settling on Toshiko Koshijima, whose easygoing attitude appealed to Nakata.

"She wasn't really interested in making music herself," he explains. "She loves singing and she wanted someone to make the music for her. And then I, myself, don't want to be a singer-songwriter, so I can concentrate on making music."

Koshijima's willingness to adapt has also stood capsule in good stead through their evolution from pop to electro.

"She's very flexible," he continues, "so whatever I want to do at a particular moment, she'll say, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "

When capsule first appeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s, their music was frequently compared to the mid-90s Shibuya-kei movement, particularly bands like Pizzicato Five, whose style-conscious, sweet-voiced pop has some superficial similarities with capsule's work in their formative years. Still, there are key generational differences between the positions occupied by groups such as capsule and their 1990s predecessor — music geeks who spent hours in record shops searching through racks of obscure European vinyl from the 1960s and reassembling the sounds through their own musical prism. By the time groups like capsule arrived, the landscape had changed. Partly as a result of the success of the Shibuya-kei generation, Tokyo had become an internationally recognized center of hipster cool, and where Pizzicato Five idolized '60s Paris and London, suddenly Tokyo in the here and now was the place everyone wanted to be.

News photo
Club lord: Yasutaka Nakata is the genius behind many an artist.

Nakata downplays the influence of the 1990s generation on his own musical background, but obliquely acknowledges the legacy of their dedicated musical archaeology. "I wasn't listening to groups like Pizzicato Five back in the 1990s," he states. "I started listening to them about 2000 because of the 'cafe music' music boom. There were all these compilation albums that came out round then, for example of music from the '60s, and then I went backwards."

Far from having a wide-eyed, retro-tinged obsession with European style and music though, Nakata's energy is fixed more firmly on the present. "I'm making this electro-style music because that's what feels appropriate for the current Tokyo," he says. "I've never wanted to live overseas. I like living in Tokyo and I want to recreate the atmosphere of current Tokyo."

For Nakata, this is indelibly tied up with Tokyo's sense of style, perhaps the clearest illustration being the trio of animated music videos, produced by Studio Ghibli subsidiary Studio Kajino, that are bundled with "Flash Best." "Portable Kuko," "Space Station No. 9" and "Soratobu Toshikeikaku" create a kind of audio-visual manifesto combining elements of music, design and fashion.

"You might think those three things are different categories, but actually they're not," he explains, citing Harajuku as an example. "It's a place that had a really rapid growth about fashion, and all these people who hang out there create a kind of base for lots of different things to grow from."

For Nakata, fashion is a key aspect in establishing the identity of his scene, and also in differentiating them from the older generation's musical elite. "Especially in Tokyo," he points out, "someone who knows a lot about music, they play something and people think, 'OK, this must be popular now.' But when I started making electro music, there was no established genre for it in Japan yet. People went to a club and heard that kind of music, and, 'Oh! There's no lyrics!' because it was still quite rare."

Music journalists also are on the receiving end of Nakata's barbs. "The power of music critics is less in Japan now," he notes. "And partly this is because they'll talk about music saying that 'this' or 'that' is really fashionable, but the themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, 'What? Why should we listen to this guy?' While I was DJing recently, I was looking at the audience and they looked really cool, so I want to make music that matches them."

As a result, Nakata has become the go-to guy for J-pop artists looking to revamp their image, which has led to a situation in which he is writing and producing records for many artists while still managing to release as many as three capsule albums a year. "People often ask me about how I deal with the pressure," he says, "but it's not that hard."

His success as a producer is also one of the key reasons behind the decision to release a "best of" at this time.

Coming just over a month after Perfume's chart-topping album "Triangle," "Flash Best" is conceived as an introduction to capsule for people who've heard of them only through Nakata's other work. "For older fans, there might not be anything new here," he admits, candidly, "And perhaps if I was picking out the songs that I like best, the choice might have been different. But what I wanted to do is give people something they can use as a springboard."

For the man who's been behind some of the biggest hits of the last few years, including two at No. 1 in the Oricon charts, there might also be a hint of frustration that his efforts behind the scenes aren't appreciated as much as they could be. "In Japan," he states, "if something sells really well, the singers will be all over the TV and everywhere, but no one cares who made it. But overseas, when they hear the song, they think, 'Who made it?' not 'Who's singing it?' Not just songwriters, but also the arrangers, the sound engineers — they respect all the people who are involved in making the music."

Flash forward again to the club and, in another rush of Tiggerish enthusiasm, Nakata has leaped onto the table to urge the crowd on. They dutifully go nuts as the superstar DJ basks in the moment, and for the moment, at least, he's the one everyone's there to see.

"Flash Best" will be released Aug. 26 on Yamaha Music Communications.

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