Guernica was a result of Koji Ueno’s lucid imagination. In partnership with lyricist Keiichi Ohta and pop-chanteuse Jun Togawa, Ueno produced a series of unforgettable recordings in the early 1980s. Adopting a moniker from Picasso’s largest canvas, Ueno’s art focused on tongue-in-cheek modernist revival, the praise of machinery, speed and technological progress. However, contrary to the then reigning coryphées of industrialism, Guernica’s music is eternally optimistic, vivacious, euphoric. Jun Togawa’s über-versatile voice mauls any pretence of seriousness even for those who cannot understand Ohta’s ironic lyrics. Togawa shifts effortlessly between malice and hysteria, between operatic arias and coquettish winks.
These modernist manifestos and art-deco stylistics could have been a worn-out pander to a retro wave, but for rock avant-garde, they were a terra nova, soon abandoned like Greenland’s first settlements. No one has ventured there since. Jun Togawa pursued her career as an overly eccentric TV personality and became widely disliked by Japan’s mainstream public.
As we are nearing the end of the oil era, the outside world has yet to discover these inspired and refined statements from a quarter of a century ago.
A jolting, uptempo chamber orchestra welcomes us to the phantasmagoric world of 1920s. Conducted by Hiroshi Kumagai and programmed by Tatsuya Satoh, the aerodynamic string nonet includes six violins, two violas and a double bass, deftly propelled by Takayoshi Matsunaga’s dexterous fingers. Masao Yoshikawa bombards the combo with his tympani runs and Koji Ueno adds some surface treatment on a synthesizer. That’s all we know after the first several seconds. And then Jun Togawa’s comic operetta swoons on us with her nervous, taut, insoluble histrionics about… the astonishing forces of a magnet. The gravity of the subject is adequately underlined by the grand piano and some synthesizer color. It turns and twists, excited like electro-magnetic forces that this song is devoted to.
Shûdan nôjô no aki
A definite bow to early Soviet modernism. The 50-piece orchestra forcefully rolls out a passionate Russian dance, complete with balalaika (Yuzo Murayama). Togawa’s voice is over the top, spewing tractor and samovar stories at hyperspeed. In slower, romanticizing moments, her manner evokes Donella del Monaco. Kazuyoshi Utsunomiya on mandolin further approximates this other pole of modernism. The incredible rondo ends on a high note.
A more lyrical respite. Togawa’s strained, wistful voice is cheerless and disconsolate. The orchestral strings are clearly illustrative, retrofitted with Chinese zheng strings (Jiang Xiaoqing). A six-piece wind section of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bass trombone and tuba niftily apportions sinified pentatonic bridges that anchor our rhizomatic imagination strongly in mainland East Asia.
“200 days” opens with a classic orchestral overture. A soaring crescendo ushers in the dramatic persona of Togawa who cloaks, more than reveals, an uncertain melodic line. The piece sensitizes us to an impending drama with Hitchcockian string arrangements. Togawa returns; first marauding with her baby voice and then with jarring, unpolished complaints of a brat. The full orchestra closes with a salvo from an unusual horn section, including Michiya Koide on 19th c. octavin in addition to English horn, flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoon.
Shônen no ichiban no tomo
A short monogatari about who the best friend of a child is. It is delivered in a poignant, naïve, quasi-castrate voice. The instrumentation is less obtrusive, with additional color from Matsue Yamahata on harp and Yuji Yamada – viola. The singer finally reveals who that first friend is – a mother…
The intro serves another morsel of cinematic dramaturgy. The ever flexible Togawa is supported here by an elusive chorus. This is an inevitable grande valse, replete with fleeting Straussian quotations. Ueno’s orchestration and arrangements are over-lubricated, which puts it at some distance from other revival records at that time (e.g. Julverne’s “Emballade”).
Back to the high-graded, synthesized sound from Guernica’s first LP. The song soars with adolescent enthusiasm about inventive visual devices. An ever optimistic, rotating string section zips through it all with gusto.
In a complete change of décor, side B begins with this American vaudeville swing orchestra. Sandwiched between Glenn Miller’s radio days and Ron Pate & Debonairs’ parody days, Guernica surges through the music-hall bacchanalia. Staccato piano intrusions may slow down like a tired locomotive, but quickly cede to Tommy Dorsey-like zestful horn section. If this was not sung in Japanese, one could almost forget how satirical this song is. We learn it all about a cylinder press and how dynamically it revolves – “round and round, round and round”. The pseudo big band chops adroitly between vocal and orchestral sections, but never loses cohesion.
We are back to the formula from the first track – bewitching clash between a strained, castrate voice and ultra-speed string section. But now Togawa slides boldly into opera, thrusting with her powerful, dramatic soprano (yes, she can sing, but only sometimes she decides to bray instead). Her voice is blessed with a full tone quality, but her forays are short, though legible enough to make us chuckle at this “Praise for Transportation”.
This “Electric Power Medley” is a joyless composition in three movements for a ubiquitous horn section. “Damu no uta”, should, according to the title at least, be a song for shamisen dedicated to a hydropower station. This is a slow-moving narrative with the now familiar recipe of Togawa switching between vocal styles and registers with the ease of a 1930s cast-iron crankshaft. The second movement (“Denryoku no tsûkin”) is rich in tympani and orchestral percussion, almost lifted from the tradition of great Russian romantic composers of Moguchaya Kuchka. Finally, “Denka no kurashi” (“Electrical Life”) is a more melodic fragment with balalaikas and empathetic flute section. In the final stanzas, Togawa’s vocal style abandons the acerbic and malicious manner and turns coquettish instead. Trombones close this least aphoristic of all tracks.
Dokuro no enmaikyoku
This distinctly non-circular waltz throws in Orientalist accents painted by strings of desert-prone ‘Lawrence of Arabia’-type nostalgia. At times, the mood is almost Felliniesque and surrealist, but the reflection is actually Shakesperean; musings on a relationship with a skull.
The final track tickles our Pacific fantasy. In a dig to Martin Denny’s Exotica style, Jun Togawa appears with a velvety, hushed voice, singing about “the island at the end of the earth”. From this oceanic foam, oozes Aphroditean harp and idle maracas. Somewhere between Japan and Hawaii, waves lap against the pastel shores.
“Shinseiki e no unga” (“Canal to the New Century”) remains the masterpiece of the Ueno-Togawa-Ohta trio. Still, similar revivalist intensity was achieved on three other recordings, each of which is highly recommended.
Keiichi OHTA: “Jingaidaimaikyo” (1980)
GUERNICA: “Kaizô e no yakudô” (1979-1982)
GUERNICA: “Shinseiki e no unga“ (1983)
GUERNICA: “Denrisô kara no mezashi“ (1984)