Momoe Yamaguchi Part 1

(This is a translation of a Japanese blog article “山口百恵 Momoe Yamaguchi (part 1)” by killer_b, translated from Japanese by Ben Bullock and posted here with killer_b’s permission. The article originally appeared on the “Stronger than Paradise” blog on 17 January 2009.)

On 16 January 1959, the day that Sade Adu was born in Ibadan in Nigeria, on the other side of the world, in Tokyo, another extraordinary female singer was born.

Momoe Yamaguchi (born 17 January 1959).

We don’t know the times that they were both born, but since Japan is eight hours ahead of Nigeria, perhaps they came into this world at the same time. At the time of writing, 17 January 2009, somewhere in Japan, twenty-nine years after her retirement in October 1980, the woman once known as Momoe Yamaguchi is quietly having her fiftieth birthday.

Momoe Yamaguchi. At the age of thirteen, on 15 October 1972, she appeared in the preliminary rounds of Nippon Television’s audition program “Star Tanjo!” (“A Star is Born!”). At the finals in December of that year, she came second, and was signed up by Hori Productions. In May of next year, at the age of fourteen (her third year at middle school) she made her debut as a singer. She and two other young stars, Masako Mori and Junko Sakurada, who had also appeared in the same television programme, became popular as the “Hana no Chusan Trio” (the flowers of the third year of middle school trio). She worked as a singer, actress, and celebrity in media including records, television, films, drama, radio, and the stage. Momoe, along with Kenji Sawada and Pink Lady, was a core part of the golden age of Japanese pop music of the late seventies, and a hugely popular celebrity. On 7 March 1980 she announced her engagement to actor Tomokazu Miura and her plan to retire completely from show business. On 15 October of that year, at the age of 21, she retired (a ceremony was held on 19 November).

She worked for seven and a half years (it was exactly eight years from her initial audition to her retirement). She released thirty-two singles and twenty-two albums during her working life, excluding live albums and compilations.

Even now, Momoe Yamaguchi still boasts a high degree of recognition as a legendary singer across all generations. Her eldest son, Yutaro Miura, was in the news recently when he made his debut as the lead singer of the rock band Peaky SALT in November 2008.

But Momoe Yamaguchi’s core fan base, the reason she is still popular, in their teens and twenties at the time she was active, and now in their forties and fifties, are the “analogue generation”. The record companies’ marketing is aimed squarely at this group. If asked whether the younger generation of music fans still listens enthusiastically to her songs, unfortunately the answer is no. Even though they may have heard her best known songs, like “Ii hi tabidachi” or “Playback Part 2”, if they think about her at all, the young generation probably thinks of Momoe Yamaguchi as “the legendary idol” who retired completely while at her peak, and has never appeared in the media since.

I can only just remember from my early childhood some of her appearances on television when she was still working. I had long thought of her as someone I vaguely liked. I quite liked her songs, and I was always drawn to her voice, her appearance and her general aura when a clip of her appeared on nostalgia programmes. But although I’m a music lover, I hadn’t seriously tried to listen to her music for a long time, because of a silly prejudice against her genre of “popular songs” and my embarrassment at listening to songs by an “idol”. For me they were things which I happened to hear by chance rather than things I listened to. But now I realize that was foolish. These days I’m a true fan of Momoe.

Momoe Yamaguchi was described as everything from “the whore of a hundred million” to “a Bodhisattva”. Her best works still sound exceptional. The reason she became such a legendary singer is not because of her dramatic retirement, it is simply in her music. Don’t make light of her for singing pop songs and being an idol. Whether you like soul music or rock music, whether you are a man or a woman, if you like music, listen to Momoe Yamaguchi.

Most of her deeper expressions are not in her singles, but in her albums; but the albums also contain a mixture of quite a few average songs, and even duds. She started as a teen idol, and via television, radio and film she produced a huge output, learning as she went, and so this was unavoidable. But considering her thirty-two singles and twenty-two albums over a seven-and-a-half-year career, I want to emphasize that her lifetime batting average is extraordinary. If you like music, digging up one of her albums won’t disappoint (the sound production is also very high quality).

For the younger music listener (twenties to thirties) who is already thinking “What? I have to listen to thirty-two albums and twenty-two singles?”, here I would like to introduce two CDs’ worth of the very best work of Momoe Yamaguchi. I’m not a member of the “analogue generation”, and not a long-term Momoe fan, just one music fan who would like to show you the shortest route to “The best of Momoe Yamaguchi”.

Momoe Yamaguchi + Yoko Aki + Ryudo Uzaki

Most of Momoe Yamaguchi’s best works were created by the song writing team of Yoko Aki and Ryudo Uzaki. Their collaboration with Momoe Yamaguchi was also a huge opportunity for them, and it is difficult to know where one ends and the other one begins.

Ryudo Uzaki (born on 23 February 1946), the lead singer of the “Down Town Boogie Woogie Band”, is a rocker famous for hit songs including the well-known “Minato no Yoko, Yokohama, Yokosuka” (1975). He recently had a hit with Jero’s “Umiyuki” (2008).

Yoko Aki (born on 1 May 1945) met Uzaki at a music club when she was studying at Meiji University, and her talent as a songwriter blossomed through his requesting her to write lyrics. Starting with “Minato no Yoko...”, she has written a string of hits including Judy Ongg’s “Miserarete” (1979) and Akina Nakamori’s “Desire” (1986), as well as working as an author and actress.

Uzaki and Aki are partners in life as well as work, and are famous for their long happy marriage; in this, and the high quality of their work, they are comparable to Ashford and Simpson (they even look like them in some ways; in particular Uzaki without his quiff is in some danger of actually being mistaken for Nickolas Ashford).

Young idol

Until she met Aki and Uzaki, most of Momoe’s songs were written by the team of lyricist Kazuya Senke, who also worked with Megumi Asaoka, and composer Shunichi Tokura, who also worked with Linda Yamamoto and Pink Lady. Despite her wholesome appearance, these songs were thinly-veiled descriptions of sexual awakenings and longings, and she owed her initial popularity to the blend of this and her adultness and unique darkness. Her hits of that era might be described as themed around “underage sex”, like “Aoi Kajitsu” (Green Fruit), “If you want, you can do anything you like with me”, “Kinjirareta Asobi” (Forbidden Play), “I won’t regret it, if you want me to I’ll throw anything away”, ひと夏の経験 (An experience one summer), “I’ll give you a girl’s most important thing”, and so on and so on.

All of these were middle-aged men’s takes on “young idol” songs, half-hearted versions of France Gall’s “Les Sucettes” (1966), a lewd song by Serge Gainsbourg which hid double entendres about fellatio in a song about lollipops. In every era, sex sells. Gall sang her songs without understanding their hidden meaning, but Momoe knew what “A girl’s most important thing” was (but when asked in interviews what a girl’s most important thing was, she insisted that it was “her devotion”). Exposed to the curious eyes of gawkers, made to sing suggestive songs whose meaning was obvious to all, she might have seemed pitiful, but her singing and her eyes had a mysterious frankness which did not invite pity.

`If you want, you can do anything you like with me’

This was the first line in “Aoi Kajitsu”. When I was fourteen, just before the summer I was handed a piece of white paper and told “This is your next song”. I read the lines with mixed emotions, including hope and uncertainty. I became more and more horrified.


“Do I have to sing this?”

I don’t remember if I actually said that, but even if I didn’t, I was completely against it.

I didn’t want to be seen as different from everyone else. My childish fears and my instinct for self-protection made me hesitate. But my hesitation meant nothing whatsoever in that business system. I was led to the studio, and shut off into my own world. The music for the song played through my headphones. I started singing reluctantly – or so I thought, but then I caught the melody and started singing to it, and all my hesitation vanished. From feeling depressed about it, it was only a few hours before I started to really like that song.

(From Momoe Yamaguchi’s autobiography “Aoi Toki”, 1980)

Whatever the song, she found something in common with it, and threw herself into it; this is her quality as a singer, and it remained consistent from her time as a young idol. In her mid-teens, she seems to already have that unrelenting quality, the feeling that she has made up her mind, which we can understand a little if we look at the way she grew up.

From birth to death as a singer

Momoe Yamaguchi was born an illegitimate child, and grew up in a poor household with a single mother and a sister five years younger than her. Her father occasionally visited Momoe’s home, but he already had a wife and children elsewhere. He reluctantly acknowledged Momoe and her sister, and he is legally their father, but he neglected almost all parental responsibilities. Momoe’s mother brought up two small children alone while working from home.

When his daughter entered the entertainment business, her father, to get money, did an about-face and started asserting his status as her father, sometimes doing publicity stunts, turning up uninvited nearby wherever Momoe was. In the end he even took her mother to court to get parental authority over Momoe. His presence became a nightmare to Momoe. She finally managed to get rid of him by paying him off.

In her autobiography, published just before her retirement in September 1980, Momoe talks about her father in no uncertain terms.

I have no father. Even if that person is walking around somewhere in the world, I refuse to acknowledge his existence.

It is easy to tell the moving story of how Momoe became a singer (or the reason that she got her school to give permission to deliver newspapers in her summer holidays at middle school) because she wanted to help her family financially, but she denies it. What is truly moving is that, although she lived in poverty with a single mother, she was neither ashamed, nor did she turn bad, and her mother’s hard work and love brought her up as a straightforward, normal girl; at least part of the origin of Momoe’s psychological strength, her depth of thought, her sharpness of insight, her adultness, and her special darkness must lie in what cannot be said to have been a happy upbringing. That is also reflected in her singing power and the profundity of her world of songs.

When people talk about why Momoe Yamaguchi became a singer, most people suggest that it was a way to escape our financial situation.

I think I first thought it would be great to be a singer in my last years at elementary school. When I say I thought it would be great, it wasn’t about the money, it was a little girl’s dream, like being a fairy tale princess.

I liked songs, and when a few people told me “You’re good at singing”, I decided I’d become a singer, it was as simple as that. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me when I was at elementary school that I could help out financially.

Aoi Toki

The start of Momoe Yamaguchi the singer was “a little girl’s dream, like being a fairy tale princess”. To emphasize that the reason for wanting to be a singer was not financial, she says “it was just the usual kind of dream that little girls have” but she must have wanted to be a fairy tale princess much more than anyone else around her. And the unusual strength of her desire opened her path to being a singer.

Being “a fairy-tale princess” did not necessarily mean being a singer; she just wanted to be happy. But she was better than most at singing, and she was fortunate enough to realize that at the right time. Also, although it is ridiculous to even say so, this is the very first condition of becoming a great singer: she liked songs. That is how the “fairy-tale princess” inside her came to take shape. The story of Momoe Yamaguchi the singer may have begun as a journey to fill feelings of loss, failure, or hunger. And the story ended when she met her prince (or got proof of her own existence as “Mrs Miura”).

Not every girl who has an upbringing like Momoe becomes an outstanding singer. Momoe Yamaguchi the singer can only be explained by her natural gifts, but even so, not every naturally gifted singer becomes outstanding. What is vital is the motivation which impelled her to express herself as a person, as a woman.

And Momoe Yamaguchi was the type of singer who could only sing a song she really felt. She did not perform the songs, she lived them. That was only possible because a part of her was empty (or she was obsessed with trying to be someone).

The reason she stopped being a singer is very clear. It’s not because she could not work and have a family at the same time, as she claimed. If she had wanted to keep on singing she could have kept on singing, and her husband would surely have cooperated. If she had not had the option of retiring, there is no doubt someone with her status and vocal technique could have carried on working as a professional singer after marriage, but there was no way for her songs to reach their previous height. She sensed the death of herself as a singer.

These days, Momoe does not sing. It is not that she could not sing even if she wanted to, but she does not sing. She knows her highest point as a singer. Her pride as a singer (which I’m sure is carefully stored away at the back of some closet in her house) won’t permit her to sing half-baked songs. The very fact that she does not sing demonstrates that she is still a top class singer.

Yokosuka Story

It was Momoe herself who initiated the fateful meeting with Aki and Uzaki. Momoe liked the Down Town Boogie Woogie Band. She especially loved listening to the song “Namida no Secret Love” (Secret Love of Tears); she even sang this song on television, and when Uzaki performed as a guest on her radio programme, hearing him improvise a song spurred her desire to sing his songs.

He was carrying a guitar, and he sang me a song which he’d improvised.

It was quite a short song.

It was a quiet song which asked a young girl about to become an adult, if she fell in love, although I can’t do anything, would she tell me about it? It seemed like a heart-warming thing.

“I want to sing Uzaki’s songs...”

It was the first time I’d ever wanted to sing anybody’s songs, and it was also the first time I went and told my manager and director about my wishes.

(Momoe Miura, as recorded by Yoko Aki in “Playback Part III” / 1985).

At the time, Ryudo Uzaki was a sunglass-wearing “juvenile delinquent” rock and roller with a quiff. Momoe was an innocent-looking high school girl idol. The image and style of the two didn’t match, and Momoe’s production staff disapproved of her wishes.

The world of popular music is based around singles sales, and albums don’t need to sell as well, so they are a chance to shine a spotlight on other aspects of their artists’ talents, and they are a laboratory for testing innovations. Momoe’s production team eventually caved in to her wishes, and experimentally ordered songs from Ryudo Uzaki for an album. One of the several tunes was the fateful song “Yokosuka Story”.

Yokosuka was where Momoe grew up. Although she was born in Tokyo, she lived in Yokosuka for six years, from her second year of elementary school to the end of her second year of middle school (when she entered show business). That was Momoe’s home town, “My origin”, as she describes it in her autobiography “Aoi toki”.

Yokosuka Story (“Korekkiri, korekkiri, mo korekkiri desu ka?”) was a song set in the town of Yokosuka, about a girl becoming a woman, experiencing her first love. Drawn from the same adolescent viewpoint as herself, accompanied with a pulsing rock beat, the vigorous, powerful world of this song clearly demarcated itself from the songs Momoe had been singing. She found in it a new vision of herself, one she had left behind in her home town when she entered show business, and naturally entered the world of the song.

Yokosuka Story turned out so well that in June 1976 it was chosen as the A side for a single, which became a big hit. Momoe, who was seventeen years old (in the third year of high school), broke out of her “girl idol” image, and, via Aki and Uzaki’s songs, matured with an amazing amount of power as a singer as well as a woman.

The Yokosuka Family

At first, Momoe was just a fan of Uzaki, and she wasn’t even aware of Aki.

At this time I didn’t know of Yoko Aki.

Of course, the pages of lyrics for Yokosuka Story were signed with the name “Yoko Aki”, so I knew the name, but I think it was only after that I found out Aki was Uzaki’s wife.

When I found out they were married, I thought it was really lovely.

From “Playback Part III”

Yoko Aki was brought up in Tsurumi, part of Yokohama, but her parents later moved to Yokosuka, so she knew the town well. Asked to write a song for Momoe, she chose Yokosuka, the only thing she had in common with the young idol, who was a generation younger than herself.

Ryudo Uzaki, who composed the music, also had a deep connection with Yokosuka through his song “Minato no Yoko Yokohama Yokosuka” (lyrics by Aki). He comes from Kyoto, but loved the special character of the Yokosuka area, where the American navy has a base. There is a foreign atmosphere, with many shops with foreign-looking names and American servicemen coming and going. Uzaki’s style, baptised in American music, while also respecting Japanese meanings and rhythms, often took a similar direction. The cultural tension of his “Enka Rock” otherwise known as “katakana Enka”, like a chance meeting between Japanese Enka and the “black ships” (American warships which forced Japan to open its ports in the 1850s), that bluesy perception, was just like Yokosuka itself. Perhaps he is more Yokosuka-like than a real Yokosukan.

Momoe Yamaguchi, Yoko Aki, and Ryudo Uzaki. This was the makeup of the “Yokosuka Family”

These three people’s pseudo-family, their gang-like combination, is to me an absurdly beautiful thing.

As they bridged the gap between rock and pop, the thirteen-year age difference between Momoe and Aki and Uzaki is exquisite. Too far apart to be friends or brothers and sisters, but not far enough apart to be parents and child. Both parties had their own form of relationship, and there was no bond between them, a strange sense of distance.

For Momoe, the other two might have seemed an ideal couple, perhaps a model of the parents in the happy family that she had never had. On the other hand, Momoe and Uzaki could well have fallen in love, and then Aki and Momoe would have been love rivals. Also, as an artist, a co-conspirator, Momoe spectacularly cleared every hurdle set up for her by the writing team of Aki and Uzaki, her singing regularly exceeding expectations, but other kinds of sparks were flying; the happy marrieds, Aki and Uzaki, are said to only ever have fought over their songs for Momoe.

In reality, Momoe, Aki and Uzaki only met at work, and they did not have that much to do with each other outside work, but these three people, through their songs, were bonded in a higher relationship, creating great tension.

Usually you’d think because I wrote the songs, we might at least go out for a cup of tea. But I’ve never been anywhere with her. Not even once. .... There is some kind of feeling of distance. I have this feeling “bugger it”. The next song, bugger it. She (Momoe) probably is thinking “bugger it” too.

Interview with Ryudo Uzaki, Masaoki Hiraoka “Yamaguchi Momoe Wa Bosatsu De Aru” (Momoe Yamaguchi is a Bodhisattva)

Five years after we had first encountered due to “Yokosuka Story”, I think I knew absolutely nothing of Aki-san outside the workplace.

You might think that it would be easier for us, as two women, to get closer, but Aki-san and I encountered each other only in the domain of lyrics.

Playback Part III

For me, the most thrilling relationship in this triangle, with no room for anyone else to join, is the one between the two women, Aki and Momoe.

Aki sometimes reduces the level of the songs to that of a girl of Momoe’s age, sometimes makes Momoe sing with the heart of a woman three or four years older than her, and sometimes even as a woman of over thirty (Aki’s age at the time), throwing calmly at her all the complex psychology of a woman. Momoe took all the patterns of womanhood of Aki’s lyrics and assimilated them, as she grew as a woman at an astounding rate. It is like a mother and daughter, or a teacher and student at a tutorial of a harsh school of womanhood. On the one hand Aki was glad to see Momoe growing, and on the other hand she must have felt threatened; wouldn’t the young Momoe, the woman who grew up so incredibly fast, taking on anything which was handed to her, eventually take Uzaki from her? Wasn’t that dilemma and hatred the thing which brought Momoe’s works to such an extraordinary level of tension? The critical moment, I think, was about five months before Momoe announced she was dating Tomokazu Miura, in June 1979, at the time the single “Ai no Arashi” went on sale. From after “Ai no Arashi” to the time she announced her retirement, the tension in the works of Aki and Uzaki for Momoe clearly reduced.

While Momoe grew feeding on Aki’s words, wasn’t she also tormented by the illusion that she was gradually turning into Yoko Aki, did she not feel hurried and irritated? Aki’s garden was a comfortable place to be, but she could not stay there forever. Momoe needed her own words. She began writing under the name “Kei Yokosuka”, but retired before she was ever even near to competing with Aki’s lyrics.

Compared to these two women, Uzaki was fairly laid back. Even if he had to put up with his wife’s irritation, he was in demand from two attractive women, so as a man he was surely happier than most.

The songs which this scary level of tension gave birth to, the “Yokosuka Family” works, are from the golden era of Japanese pop music of the late seventies, and they were the one notable contrast to famous lyricist Yu Aku’s Kenji Sawada and Pink Lady creations. In the “Empire of Yu Aku” of late seventies Japanese pop music, the only outstanding singer Yu Aku did not influence was Momoe Yamaguchi.

After Yokosuka Story, her core songwriting was provided by Aki and Uzaki, but Momoe’s songwriters included Masashi Sada (“Cosmos”), Shinji Tanimura (“Ii Hi Tabidachi”), and Takao Horiuchi (“Aisen Bashi”). These songwriters used the appeal of Momoe Yamaguchi the singer to make themselves known, but they were not her main speciality, and she did not have the close relationship with them that she had with Aki and Uzaki. For Momoe, they may have been something like taking a breather. The driving force behind the phenomenon known as “Momoe Yamaguchi” was the fateful combination of three people: Momoe, Aki, and Uzaki.

Momoe Yamaguchi ran past like a whirlwind for eight years and then disappeared from our view.

The songs she shed blood to create with Aki and Uzaki are an incredibly vital record of the beautiful development of one young woman, which remain to this day not even slightly dated.

I always thought that Aki’s lyrics suited Uzaki-san’s melodies the best whenever I sang their songs.

It was only when I sang Aki-san’s lyrics to Uzaki-san’s melodies that I was really sincere.

November 1985 Momoe Miura, quoted in Yoko Aki’s “Playback Part III”

The Incomparable Momoe Yamaguchi: “The Woman from Yokosuka” and “Vita Sexualis”

Well, the above introduction has gone on far too long.

Since you’ve read this far, you must have a fair amount of free time. So please permit me to introduce you to my very own two CDs’ worth compilation (twenty-nine songs), the shortest possible path to “The very best of Momoe Yamaguchi”.

This isn’t a collection of singles, and it isn’t what is usually considered a “best of” compilation. It isn’t an anthology-like retrospective, and it isn’t some DJ’s arbitrary re-evaluation. From the thirty-two singles and twenty-two albums of her complete works, these are quite simply the absolute best ones, and this really is just “The very best of Momoe Yamaguchi”.

“The incomparable Momoe Yamaguchi” is basically the works of Aki and Uzaki, and most of the space on the two CDs is taken up with the works of this team. (All the song’s lyrics are by Yoko Aki, and just a few of the songs are composed by someone other than Uzaki.)

I’ve named the CDs “The Girl from Yokosuka” and “Vita Sexualis”, and they are arranged under clear concepts. The former is themed “youth” and the latter is themed “spiritual”. If you want to find out about the tough Momoe Yamaguchi, I recommend the former, and if you want the sensual Momoe Yamaguchi, the latter, but together they make up the “Incomparable Momoe Yamaguchi”, so you ought to listen to both of them. (Another trend in Momoe’s work is also the “Sentimental”, but that one is not really important.)

Of course, dividing these up by types is just a convenience, and her work does not really fall into clearly defined categories, but thinking of ubiquity and lastingness, when choosing Momoe songs which every true music fan should listen to, they naturally tend to fall into the above two categories. The picture of Momoe Yamaguchi which emerges is powerful and unique. I think Momoe Yamaguchi is the toughest of all pop singers, as well as being sensual at the same time, a really incomparable and wonderful woman.

If you listen to these and still don’t like them, you will never like Momoe Yamaguchi’s songs. These two recordings are that definitive that I have no doubt of it. How do you like them?

References/Further reading

(This section added by Ben Bullock)

蒼い時 (Aoi Toki) / Momoe Yamaguchi / ISBN 978-4-08-751056-0

プレイバックPART III (Playback Part III) / Aki Yoko / ISBN 978-4101394022

“Yamaguchi Momoe Wa Bosatsu De Aru” (Momoe Yamaguchi is a Bodhisattva) / Masaoki Hiraoka / ISBN 978-4061830561

Parts two and three of this article (in Japanese only) can be found at the original blog. These contain links to for each of the songs.

Part 2: The Girl from Yokosuka

Part 3: Vita Sexualis

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