Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Catchy songs by offbeat Japanese girl groups

Ever hear a song that you find so damn irritating, but the more you listen to it, the more it worms its way into your brain? Pretty soon, you catch yourself humming along to the song and wonder what has happened to you.

Well, Chatmonchy's "Shangri-la" (Shan-gu-ri-ra) is one of those songs. I first heard it after renting Countdown TV (a weekly TV show that counts down the top 50 hits in Japan) from the local Japanese video store. Anyway, Chatmonchy (チャットモンチー)is a all-girl trio from Tokushima prefecture Japan, on the island of Shikoku. Their members are Kumiko on the drums, Eriko on the guitar and vocals, and Akiko on their bass. The first time I heard them do a live performance song on Countdown TV, I thought the Eriko's voice sounded like a poor imitation of the quirky Japanese singer YUKI. And we've already seen this genre of off-beat quasi-amateurish girl trios, like the group Shonen Knife. I grumbled, "Oh no, not ANOTHER one of THOSE Japanese girl groups," and I fast forwarded the DVD to skip their performance (click here or the clip above to see their video posted by Tofumon).

And then it happened. I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen and caught myself humming the chorus: "Shan-gu-ri-ra shiawase datte..." I was doing medicine ball push-ups in the gym and found the beat in my head "Shan-gu-ri-ra..." Then I was trying to write a lecture for a class and heard the walls sing to me: "Shan-gu-ri-ra. "The song would not go away, so I popped in the DVD and listened to their live performance again. "Shan-gu-ri-ra..."

Halcali's Strawberry Chips - a surprisingly catchy song!

So I admit defeat. Chatmonchy has gotten into my head and now I await their American debut. Now they've joined other irritatingly catchy tunes by quasi-amateurish girl groups that have wormed their way into my head such as Halcali's Strawberry Chips (subtitled and posted by Novaforever) or Kigurumi's Tarako Tarako Tarako (posted by Prekorata).

Kigurumi (dressed as Tarakos) singing Tarako, Tarako, Tarako

NOTE: Tarako Tarako Tarako is from a commercial for Kewpie brand tarako (salted Alaska Pollock roe) spaghetti sauce. This must one of the oddest commercials I have seen, even by Japanees standards (click here to see a commercial posted by ebisen). Yes, the Japanese like to mix cream and tarako to make pasta topping- believe it or not, it's quite delicious!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The transformations of Mazinger Z (マジンガーZ)

Mazinger Z, influential Japanese anime

Did you know that 60% of the world's animated series were produced in Japan in 2004? (Source: Time Asia). Indeed, people around the world have probably grown up watching the same made-in-Japan animated shows. Even last year, I remember watching a Chinese dub of Inuyasha in my hotel room in Xian. Now many animation studios are being outsourced to South Korea, where labor is cheaper (did you know that the Simpsons are drawn in a Korean studio?) but still there is no denying the power of Japanese animation.

Let's look at how Mazinger Z (pronounced with the British "zed" not the American "zee") a classic Japanese anime underwent global transformations. This anime, which ran from 1972-4, was the first of its kind: a giant robot piloted by a human. Kabuto Koji would jump into a hovercraft and dock into Mazinger Z's head (click here to see a poorly translated video of the first episode). BTW, his robot comrade is Aphrodite A, who would eventually be modified to shoot missiles out of her breasts. I remember as a kid, watching dubbed versions of Mazinger Z in a movie theater in Hawaii. Frankly, the only scene I remember is when Mazinger fell into the water and Kabuto could not see out the glass since there were no windshield wipers. Click here or on the Mazinger pic above to see the opening song for Mazinger Z. It's a cool sounding song that just sticks in your head.

Look at the size of the Mazinger statue in Spain!

Mazinger Z also became very popular outside of Japan:
  • Check out the Italian version known as "Mazinga Z"- the singer is so much more emotional, it's almost a different song.
  • As for the French version, well, it sounds like 1980s Eurodisco music, with the singer going "Mazinger! Mazinger!" But hey, haven't the French have been keeping disco alive long after it died out in America?
  • Also, look the Arabic version, known as مازنجر (Majinger) which starts out sounding like any average cover of the song, and then midway through, changes course and just rocks (video is from Dr. WaSaBe, who also did the translation). I love the ways the singer sounds when he cries, "The time has arrived! Morning has started! GET READY TO START SHOOTING!"
  • Unfortunately, the U.S. version, released in the 1980s as Tranzor Z, got rid of any semblance of an opening song. Talk about the American characteristic of making cuts in quality to cut down on costs. Makes sense, as this series was heavily edited in order to make it suitable for children? Think of all the 1970s and 1980s cartoons in America - any of them had a catchy theme song like Mazinger Z? Sigh, what we were deprived of during childhood...
  • And Mazinger was extremely popular in South Korea, where it was known as 마징가 제트 and led to the creation of a Korean anime, but that is the subject of another post...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Super Girl - China's version of American Idol

Zhang Liang Ying, contestant on Super Girl

Sorry for the long delay in posting. So much work to do, and I have stumbled across so many interesting Asian pop videos. So where do I start?

When I was in China in the summer of 2006, I learned about a show called "Super Girl," (超级女声) officially known as Mengniu Yogurt Super Girl Contest (Megniu is the dairy company that sponsors it). It's the Chinese version of American Idol, which, as I have previously pointed out, is a copy (or franchise) of the British Pop Idol. Anyway, Super Girl caused a sensation because viewers get to vote, via text message, for the winner. Imagine, voting in China! Trust the masses to choose for themselves!

This show was watched by the largest audience in Chinese TV history, by millions (or should I say hundreds of millions?) of viewers. In fact, 400 million watched the finals in 2005, a number, as the Seattle Times (which I read via the China Daily) put it, was more than the combined populations of the United States and Britain!

When I was in Xian last summer, I searched for a pub that broadcast this show, so I could sip beer while watching it. I didn't find any, although I did bump into some cool Chinese college students (one spoke with a PERFECT American accent and knew all the New York punk bands even though he had never left China). In the end, I ended up channel surfing in my hotel room and came across clips of Super Girl on late night TV. I remember, in my drunken haze, a woman doing an horrible rendition of "I believe I can fly" and I was hooked, especially since some of the contestants were quite good-looking.

Hu Ling, 5th place finisher in the Changsha district

So I did some internet research, using wikipedia and youtube when I arrived back in the USA. Now the contestants range from comical (hey, they have their version of William Hung), to the sexy (Hu Ling in another outfit), to the simply amazing. You've got to check out Zhang Liang Ying , 3rd place contestant in 2005. Click on the picture at the top of this webpage or here for a clip of her singing a Chinese folk song...

Ok, so it wasn't a Chinese folk song. But wasn't it amazing how her voice sounded exactly like Mariah Carey's? It's as if all she did was listen to Mariah Carey albums at home. I think she's got the pipes, looks, and charisma to make it in the U.S. (at least among Chinese Americans like me) if given the proper material. Also makes you realize that people around the world often listen to the same songs.

But as in real life, the best do not necessarily win. Just listen to the Super Girl winners. In 2005, Li Yuchun took the top prize. Click here or the picture below for a youtube clip of her singing a stirring rendition of a "Chinese folk song."

Li Yuchun, 2005 winner

In 2006, Shao Wenjie 尚雯婕 took first place. Hmmm...note the resemblance? (Actually, she seems to sing quite well.)

Shao Wenjie, 2006 winner

In case you haven't noticed, both winners look like young boys. Kind of the androgynous look of how Japanese boy singers look like young girls. Click here to see a commercial featuring Japan's hottest boy band, KAT-TUN. (For all you KAT-TUN fans out there, please do not flame me. I'm going be scolded by my wife for mocking them. That should be sufficient punishment). What's with the fascination with androgyny in East Asia?

To me (and the 100+ international students, including Chinese, that I informally surveyed), Zhang (the Mariah soundalike) should have won hands down (sorry if I offended Li fans). Seems like voters don't necessarily look for talent. In fact, Super Girl makes you think about how we elect our politicians in America...