Haruomi Hosono, The Tale of Genji (1985)
Arrestingly exotic, hypnotic to the extreme, subtly erotic, and hauntingly sensual – this beguiling album from the godfather of Japanese Electronica lingers like an ancient spirit come to call. Its music seeps from the speakers with a will of its own, hovering and roiling in the air like incense smoke; play it at just the right volume and you can feel it drift across the surface of your skin. How does an album so seamlessly fuse traditional and modern sensibilities into a cohesive whole that belongs to half a dozen genres while simultaneously transcending them all?
The answer is embodied by the album’s creator: Haruomi Hosono, Japan’s musical jack of all trades whose indelible handprint extends to a near hundred albums as composer, performer, or producer. His only possible equivalent in the West is Brian Eno, and even then the comparison barely scratches the illustrious surface of Hosono-san’s career.
After cutting his teeth in the seminal 70s Psych bands Apryl Fool and Happy End, Hosono carved a niche for himself in the middle of that decade as the purveyor provocateur of a Tropical Lounge revival, so deadpan tongue-in-cheek that it fills a gap in the genre that not even some of its pioneers could tackle.
After riding this wave for a few years, Hosono ditched the Hawaiian shirts and stuffed parrot on his shoulder and embraced the synthesizer like a lost child. Together with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yujihiro Takahashi, Yellow Magic Orchestra was born. The Techno-Pop sound ushered in by YMO in the late 70s hit Japan like a literal tsunami, possessed with a bouncy lightness that their transglobal soul brothers Kraftwerk could never quite manage. YMO were the first Japanese band to hit the big time outside of their native country, a feat only ever matched by Pizzicato Five. Benchmarks of their success (they performed on Soul Train, probably the only Japanese band to do so) and influence (J-Lo sampled their monster 1978 hit “Firecracker” on her “I’m Real” single) remain impressive. Though originally intended by Hosono to be a one-off side project, YMO’s popularity swept the island nation akin to Beatlemania. They were only technically together for six years, but their presence in Japan continues to this day (the three have performed and recorded since 2007 as Human Audio Sponge/HASYMO).
By 1987, Hosono’s post-YMO albums were never the same. Progressively shaping instrumental J-Pop into Electronica, Hosono soon became in demand as producer and arranger for scores of artists in the mid-to-late 80s (he in fact helped birth the earliest incarnation of Pizzicato Five on their 1984 debut). Pop, Electronica, Jazz, Funk, Lounge, video game music, film, TV commercials – you name it, Hosono was there.
Shikibu Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji is Japan’s Don Quixote: a classic work that’s ingrained into the national heritage. Believed to have been written in the early 11th century, it’s also considered by many scholars as the first modern novel in recorded history. A handful of major films had taken a crack at adapting it to the screen, but Sugii Gisaburō’s 1987 feature was the first animated version, albeit of only a fraction of the epic’s storyline (the hardcore anime enthusiasts will recognize Gisaburō’s name from the original Astro Boy series). Hosono rose to the challenge with a score as richly textured and ripe with allusion as the story itself. Even for someone whose career is defined by concocting unusual hybrids, Genji’s soundtrack stands far apart from his other albums, not so much sprung from some secretly squirreled recess of his imagination as sparked from some dormant force subconsciously savored for the right planets to align.
Opening with the delicate plucks and scrapes of a koto against a moody carpet of ambience, the tone is instantly set for an atmospheric storm somehow brewed with tranquility:
Play: 月読 (Tsukiyomi)
The power this album has is almost indescribable. It’s so much more atmospheric than your average soundtrack, offering pure moods instead of typical movie-music melodies. And it doesn’t feel overly electronic — the synths are in service of the traditional elements. It’s a tea ceremony of an album; a ritualized elongation of formal elements that envelope you with the ambience of time itself. It’s almost as if Hosono uses specific aspects of traditional Japanese music as compositional elements of their own, layering one upon the other into dense and clouds that breathe and even swoon before you.
Play: 若紫 (Wakamurasaki)
But its elegant beauty comes with a price: a pervasive sense of mystery and even menace is never far from the surface. Percussive chattering and frighteningly sustained flutings permeate the extended resonances and deeply echoed reverberations. There are moments here that play like the backdrop to a fever dream, but never unbearably. The power of this record lies in its ability to enchant and seduce with what it implies as much as with what it delivers.
Play: 羅城門 (Rajyoumon)
Play: 御息所 (Miyasundokoro)
This album put the hook in me from the first minute I heard it. I was working in a record store and stumbled across a stray copy upstairs in the stock area, mixed in among a long-forgotten pile destined for return to distributors (a fervent source for some of the best musical discoveries I ever made). I picked it up almost more because of its gorgeous artwork, having only heard a couple of Hosono’s other albums at that point. It cemented my relationship with the man from then on.
The artwork that originally caught my eye had some handsome additions in the booklet accompanying the original vinyl edition:
Maddeningly out of print for almost 20 years, this masterpiece finally became available again earlier this year, though still in Japan only – indefinitely rewarding for whatever price you pay. Though elements would turn up in some of Hosono’s later works, nothing again would ever come close to the depths reached by Genji’s 48 minutes.