Amongst the bright neon lights and garish mechanized crabs of Osaka’s Dotonobori district looms Kaela Kimura. The J-Pop star leaps behind a candy shell of colors appropriate for the city’s top tourist destination, part of her black shirt digitized as if to hide something. No ad save for the famous Glico Man comes close to matching the size of Kimura’s billboard.
This towering sign might exist in the immediate to sell copies of Kimura’s new best of Five Years, but it declares something else as well. I’ve survived the J-Pop industry for five years, the pop singer would say if billboards could talk. I’m still standing.
Best-Of compilations aren’t a rare point on an established artist’s resume. Kaela Kimura’s been making music for just five years and she receives the double disk “greatest hits” treatment. What is harder to find in Japan are established artists. New musical acts pop up all the time only to find themselves just another name in a sea of white placement cards at Tower Records (which still exist in Japan!). Five years might not seem like enough time to build up a hits disk, but Kimura’s managed to thrive in a very unforgiving environment. She has earned that prominent billboard placement.
But why? The release of Five Years offers a chance to figure out why Kaela Kimura has become one of the top pop stars in Japan. My introduction to her came via “You Bet!,” the new single included on this best-of album. I know next to nothing about her or her music prior to 2010. What about her music makes it stand out from a very, very crowded J-Pop field? One week with Five Years should shed some light on this question.
(Note: I only listened to the first disk for the purposes of this article, bypassing the second “limited edition” disc. The first CD collects her biggest hits, while the other set is made up of ever-so-slightly lesser hits.)
Like many other Japanese pop starlets, Kaela Kimura’s career casts her as a jack-of-all-media-trades. Born in 1984, Kimura started her rise to the top as a model in 2002. She landed in the Japanese teen magazine Seventeen, which helped to spread her name. In 2003 she transitioned into television, becoming the co-host of the program Saku Saku. Her “new media platform a year” march continued, as she made her music debut in 2004 with her self-titled album which peaked at #8 on Japan’s all-important Oricon chart. Things grew from there, as Kimura appeared in a feature film, cameoed on J-Dramas and shilled for the likes of Vodafone and Kit Kat.
Then, as if having a revelation brought about by one too many Suntory ad campaigns, Kimura turned her attention solely to music. She stepped away from Saku Saku in 2006, and the following year her third studio album Scratch climbed up to the number one spot on the Oricon charts. It was her first album to reach the top spot and in the words of J-Pop World “firmly established Kaela as a superstar in Japan.” She’s released two albums after that (followed by Five Years) to solid sales and further popularity.
Despite shedding the exposure hopping tendencies of her early career, initial listens through Five Years reveal that same itch simply carried over into her music. It’s the first real roadblock on the path to understanding Kimura: is she an antsy artist always looking to push forward into new arenas, an opportunist bent on cashing in on the latest J-Pop trends, or simply the Japanese pop version of David Bowie? I’m inclined to go with the middle choice after doing a little research into song three here, “BANZAI.” This track finds Kimura playing with Perfume’s disco-tech style, introducing an assortment of futurey sound effects and Autotune into her act. It’s a little bit more rock oriented than any of Perfume’s music, but looking at “BANZAI’s” release date leads to raised eyebrows. Slipped into stores in May of 2009, the song came in the middle of Perfume’s high point, as Triangle’s major singles all had seen release by then.
Five Years moves backwards through Kaela Kimura’s single-ography, and as the layers of pop paint peel away over the course of this hour-plus album all sorts of musical trends get a turn in the spotlight. There’s straight-up pop-dance music (“Jasper”), tropical tinged chill out sounds (“Samantha”) and even the Glee-stomp popularized by wretched cornball Mika (“Memories”). One of Kimura’s strongest points becomes obvious a few spins through this album…she knows how to adapt to popular music trends in a non-desperate fashion that allows her to stay relevant regardless of how the mainstream musical landscape changes around her. She’s a J-Pop chameleon.
Kimura’s genre-hopping exercises seem like business savvy advice meant to sustain a career. Then what about her first forays into the music world? Her earliest singles had to stand out somehow. I decided to focus on her four earliest songs on Five Years for today.
Her 2004 debut single “Level 42” ends the best-of album with a bland wimper. It’s a very straight-forward “rock” song evoking some weird ’50s feel (check the piano) that doesn’t offer any interesting tricks. “Level 42” appears to be making a strange turn when a string section pops up right before the chorus, but these interesting paths never get examined any further. Of the four tracks closing out Five Years, this one charted the lowest at (a still very respectable) #14. Not surprising, as the other three singles she released before 2006 easily trump her entry into the J-Pop arena.
Those three songs don’t find Kimura breaking away from this J-Rock-lite style…she wouldn’t do that for a few years…but they do find her playing around with more interesting pop ideas. Her second single “happiness!!!” goes for straight prettiness, Kimura “ooh oooohing” the sunny intro before letting her voice take the reigns over some subdued guitar and drum. Whereas “Level 42” bunched all the sonic elements together to form a big ball of whatever, “happiness!!!” steps off a little bit to allow Kimura’s Summery vocals to show-off. This comes to a peak on “Rirura Riruha,” an early creative breakthrough and commercial victory (charted at #3 on Oricon). Kimura’s third single finally finds a musical backdrop capable of matching up with her cheery singing. It’s might also very well be the first instance of the pop star seeking out a style to mime – “Rirura Riruha’s” bouncy guitar lines sound very familiar to Weezer’s “Keep Fishin.” Regardless of where the inspiration come from, it still stands as one of Kimura’s best tracks and definitely the highlight of her early career. “BEAT” sags a bit compared to the last two mentioned songs, but pulls off head-forward pop-rock much better than “Level 42.”
Predictably, Kaela Kimura’s earliest singles sound like an artist trying to find their voice, each additional song finding her a bit more confident than before. She’s still a long way off from being the artist present on Music Station circa 2010, but her pre-2006 songs helped her get her footing into the world of pop.
Online retailer YesAsia lists Kaela Kimura’s “Doko” single as her “first ever ballad single.” (http://www.yesasia.com/global/doko-japan-version/1013737617-0-0-0-en/info.html). It saw release in January of 2009. Though possibly just another musical change of clothes to keep her in the J-Pop headlines…I imagine “first ballad ever!” would be front page news in a hypothetical pop tabloid…, “Doko” stands out as a rarity in her singles catalog. I’ll cop to making a bit of a generalized statement here, but it seems like a very large portion of solo female pop artists in Japan count ballad-style songs as a large chunk of their song book. Five Years includes a whole two songs the Internet (read: retail sites, fan pages) tout as being ballads.
This wouldn’t be anything more than another slick marketing move except Kaela Kimura’s limited collection of sappy love songs are among the more interesting my foreign ears have heard from the country. Not knowing much Japanese, a J-Pop ballad can’t coast on its lyrics if it hopes to win over the ears of a geeky English-speaking blogger. It should make its emotional payload clear via voice and instrument, well also not sounding like every other boring ballad clogging the TV here. This best-of compilation compiles her two accepted ballad singles, “Doko” and “Butterfly,” along with a third song I’d argue falls into the slow-saptacular category. And all three, though not close to being standouts on this record, found a way to draw me in.
“Doko” ends up easily the best of the trio of ballads on Five Years. It never lags – the tone takes on a skippy tone from the first guitar strums, picking up steam with the introduction of a minor drum beat prior to the chorus. The song shines because of its pacing, avoiding the usual dramatic build-up to the massive emotional TNT most J-Pop ballads end up taking. Instead, “Doko” sticks to the same speed for the entirety of its playtime, replacing the usual over-the-top chorus jam with some double-tracked vocals and sneaky strings. It’s a very content song, never seeking out any transformation via orchestra movement. “Doko” just skips along happily (the violins being the only element to suggest anything less than cheery) and never overdoes itself.
“Butterfly,” released later in 2009, includes a few of the aspects making “Doko” so good, specifically an ever-present beat. Yet this track stands out as being her most generic ballad, with its “look at me” chorus and Christmas cheeselog collection of bells ringing off in the background. The chorus of It’s A Small World squeaks in “Butterfly’s” final minute drive the nail into the sparkly coffin. It’s one of the weakest songs on Five Years. The song does, however, include the wonkiest musical decision possibly of Kimura’s career: “Butterfly” features harpsichord as the major instrument. It gives the ballad a weird Shakespearian feel to it (“is this J-Pop I see before me?”) and makes the whole affair memorable.
One of Kimura’s earlier singles, “You” doesn’t often get labeled a ballad. The beat factors much more prominently in this song than her other two established ballads, and the whole thing moves just a little too fast to be immediately pegged as a “ballad.” At the very least it’s “ballad-esque” and, coming off Kimura’s first four singles which were all much more uptempo, a marked departure from what she had been doing. It opens with showery guitar playing followed by Kimura’s singing, flowing along to the chorus where, following a slight pause, the guitars pick up and her voice gets a little bit louder. It’s very much “Doko” in a chrysalis, only a bit more stripped down. Definitely the most plain of the three ballad tracks on the disc, but still a relaxing listen.
Seeing as Five Years collects all of Kaela Kimura’s singles up to today (and seeing as how most people reading this don’t have access to this album/her music in general), I think it’s not to insane to highlight the best tracks of this album. Below are my personal choices for her top tracks. No videos, though, as YouTube seems to have taken all her PVs down. Google ’em folks, sorry. I’ve left “You Bet!” off for reasons that will become apparent later on.
“Rirura Riruha” (2005)
Aside from being Kaela Kimura’s first really enjoyable single, “Rirua Riruha” manages to highlight all of the miniscule talents of later day Weezer. This song alone trumps anything on the Weez’s last three albums. A low bar, but still a pretty decent accomplishment.
“TREE CLIMBERS” (2006)
For all the words here about Kimura’s frequent genre hopping, a large chunk of her songs are just pop-rock numbers. It’s the genre she’s most comfortable running in regardless of how many times she breaks out the Autotune. “TREE CLIMBERS” could safely be called her “alt. rock” moment, opening with big Foo Fighters-aping kit smashes before settling into one of the more aggressive verses found on Five Years. It gets progressively sweeter, particularly in the song’s center. It stands out for being a bit more bumpy than the other rocker numbers on this best of disk.
For about three seconds, Kaela Kimura sounds like Zazen Boys. The precise blasts of guitar that open “Yellow” (and hang around for most of the song) sound straight out of Mukai Shutoku’s bag. The rest of the song fails to sound much like Zazen Boys (Kimura sings like Kelly Clarkson here) but it does tease with math rock the whole time.
Kaela Kimura’s best ballad. It took her a long time to reach this point, but worth the wait. Never smothering.
Wherein Kaela Kimura does her best Perfume impersonation. The key to “BANZAI,” though, lies in how she knows she can’t be Perfume: yes she breaks out the dancefloor feel and Autotune, but she quickly retreats back to the rock-structure she built her career on around the first chorus. She could have tried to make a disco hit and come off as really corny, but instead she split the difference and ended up with the most dancey song in her repertoire.
Flashback to the start of the week – I’m eating dinner with a local family. A TV tucked into a corner near the table is on, turned to a cooking show one second, a quiz game the next. The three high school aged kids can’t settle on one program. A commercial for Five Years comes on the stage, the older tracks featured in the spot capturing little attention from the girls. Then “You Bet!!” popped up and suddenly the trio of teenagers bopped along to the song as it closed out the ad. They finally found something they could focus on, at least for ten seconds.
After spending a week with Kimura’s best-of album, it becomes clear her best musical moment is the one opening this CD. Not that the rest of her singles collection lacks memorable moments – it’s just hard to enjoy them without wanting to become a Wikipedia detective to figure out what artist inspired the song. You can’t trace “You Bet!!” to anyone in particular. It’s Kimura taking the rock-pop sound she primarily rode to the top and turbo-charging it, all without losing the catchiness present in her prior highs. “You Bet!!” displays what Kaela Kimura’s music sounds like, not what she’s trying to sound like.
Though Five Years offers a great look back at her career, it’s really value lies in showing how Kaela Kimura moves forward. The disc reveals she’s been improving over the years, getting a hang of being a pop idol and not getting too comfy in one particular type of sound. “You Bet!!” is the culmination of all this, as she seems to have finally carved out a musical identity for herself. If she follows down this path, she’ll probably find this won’t be the last time towering above downtown Osaka.