Johnny’s, KinKi Kids, and a Macro Snapshot of J-pop History

KinKi Kids

As one of the most prolific and popular talent agencies in Japan, Johnny’s Jimusho is a household name in the country, boasting a lineup of trainees, juniors, actors, singers, dancers, and even gymnasts. It takes a lot of time and development before an individual is finally chosen to debut, but that’s exactly what Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto of KinKi Kids finally did in July 1997, the first group to premiere under the new Johnny’s Entertainment, Inc. record label (before then, music was released under various second-party labels like Pony Canyon). Needless to say, the sheer market saturation and beloved reputation of a Johnny’s group was enough to propel the duo into overnight success.

Despite music being only a piece of the wider component of a Johnny’s group, it wouldn’t have helped if it was terrible, so it was to the company’s benefit to pay attention to singles by employing skilled writers and producers. As a testament to that commitment, the group teamed up with some of the most iconic, legendary songwriters and producers in Japanese pop history. It was a big, bold statement by the company, and a rare show of power that committed to the group’s, and thus the label’s, importance, boasting of their buying power and influence by uniting the twin conceits of business and art in an astronomical show of money and talent. Three prominent examples of this can be found in the group’s early singles, which were composed by city-pop pioneer Tatsuro Yamashita, gentle disciple and disruptor Koji Makaino, and prolific composer and hit-record holder Kyohei Tsutsumi. By marketing the group with music created by an ascending ladder of Japanese pop royalty already nationally recognized, Johnny’s Jimusho intentionally took its seat at the head of the table, coupling Japanese music history with its future in their own company.

Tatsuro YamashitaGlass no Shounen

The group’s debut single “Glass no Shounen” was written and arranged by none other than recent city-pop celeb/godfather, Tatsuro Yamashita. Now recognized around the world for his hits from as far back as the 70s, he, along with artists like Eiichi Ohtaki, are credited for helping to create, and embodying the quintessential sound of, city-pop, the hybrid of pop, jazz, and soft rock that gained prominence in the “economic miracle” of Japan’s comeback success in the 1980s. It reached #1 on the charts, and is the group’s best-selling single to date with over 1.7 million units sold, though the song itself gives no indication as to why, with its bitter, milquetoast admonishments to a woman who sold out her future for a new love and a shiny ring. Yamashita cropped up again on singles like the Sandals-esque jingles “JETCOASTER ROMANCE” and “Happy Happy Greeting.” This was not a high point for him, though I wonder how much of his work for KinKi Kids was heavily edited under strict boy-band company policy (it’s also worth noting he recorded his own version of the latter that ended up on the Rarities album, and it doesn’t sound much improved). Maybe it’s giving too much credit to the overlords at Johnny’s, but suffice to say, after the resurgence and worldwide respect given to city-pop in the last decade, Yamashita was given a redemption arc to exercise his unique and distinctive sound palette for the label much later, on one of the greatest pop songs in recent memory, Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE.”

Aisareru Yori AishitaiKoji Makaino

Their sophomore single, “Aisareru Yori Aishitai” was written by a personal favorite, Koji Makaino, also a seasoned veteran who began his career in the 70s penning album cuts on the less-popular releases for idols like Megumi Asaoka (“Sayonara no Kawari ni,” “Yuuwaku no Toshigoro“), and who peaked in the Golden Age of the 1980s writing incredible songs for Yu Hayami (“HONEY na Hirusagari“) and magical girl anime like Mahou no Tenshi CREAMY MAMI (all of them, actually, but the ones everyone remembers and loves best, too). Makaino was versatile: despite often being connected with idols and idol culture, he was born into a musical family and also composed countless scores for TV, film, and anime like The Rose of Versailles and Bubblegum Crisis, the latter franchise of whose music comprises what are some of the most definitive 80s-sounding tracks of all time (I imagine the recently remastered box set is a real treat for fans who can afford it!). His contribution here illustrates his adaptability, with a pop song steeped in modern techno, as intricate and robust as its accompanying choreography. It’s a sonically delightful romp for someone as clearly dedicated to craft as he is the modern-day currency of popular sound among teens – the hit might now be as dated as any of the others on the first KinKi Single Selection, but twenty-five years ago it was a boy-band banger to rival the likes of the Euro-influenced Backstreet Boys.

Yamenaide, PUREKyohei Tsutsumi

Finally, we have Kyohei Tsutsumi on “Yamenaide, PURE.” Tsutsumi, an absolute song-writing monster, started his career in the 1960s, scoring #1 hits for dozens of artists like Ayumi Ishida (“BLUE LIGHT Yokohama“) and teen idols Hiromi Go and Iyo Matsumoto, up through the 2010s. His catalog runs so deep, that hours-long YouTube videos have been sliced over multiple segments to cover the sheer depth of his songbook (though he did have a noticeable habit of launching artists, sticking around for their peak years, and peace-ing out just before the public lost interest in them). You could spend hours swimming in that sea, so let’s keep it brief: part of what made Tsutsumi so successful is that there is no signature Tsutsumi sound, save one as vague as the definition of pop music itself. If anything, his style, like those already mentioned, was nurtured in an environment that valued colorful melody rather than a good beat, giving him the ability to mold  kaleidoscopic notes to technical developments in modern sound, which has cemented his reputation as an evergreen composer who was still writing hits for kids while in his 60s. At what point this went from genuinely great music, to a silent, assistant-heavy boost by younger arrangers, to respectfully, but maybe sheepishly, kissing the ring, is anyone’s hot take, but needless to say, here at 59, his name is behind the most hip-hop-leaning of the trio thus far, bringing a somewhat old-fashioned melodic approach to an unfortunate JNCO-inspired wardrobe choice.

And so on

Rounding things out, there was Takuro Yoshida (“Zenbu Dakishimete“), who helped an idol group like CANDIES grow up, newly-minted producer HΛL (“FLOWER“), who would go on to establish himself at a little indie label called Avex Trax with rising star Ayumi Hamasaki, and lesser-known names, including member Koichi himself (“Suki ni Natteku Aishiteki“). With a roster like that, it’s easy to see how ambitious and eager the team behind KinKi Kids was, ironically bowing to history and tradition with their forward-looking, modern J-pop duo. It’s no wonder that their first single collection sold so well and remains one of the group’s hallmarks — you are guaranteed to find at least fifteen copies in the KinKi Kids section of any used record store today. Nothing would imitate this run of composers in the group’s career ever again, though they continue to enjoy recognition to this day, regularly releasing singles and albums since, and dutifully make the rounds to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut this summer.

The only downside is that despite the names involved, all of these great songwriters were either already considered beyond their best days, or hampered by what I imagine was a strict adherence to the Johnny’s sound. One case in point is that so many of these songs carry the same style and feel to them, like being run under day-one Instagram filters, rather than bearing the distinctive thumbprints of their creators — one imagines Johnny himself popping in at the end of each recording session to remind everyone who was signing the checks. Tsutsumi and Makaino might have always been more flexible in their sound, adapting to the trends and technical capabilities of their current era, but a Tatsuro Yamashita song almost always sounds like a Tatsuro Yamashita song. Or rather, it does now that this is exactly what people want and expect from him.

But from 1997-1999, a more bland and consistent sound with the edges smoothed out was the order of the day, with most of the songs typical of what Make Believe Melodies dubbed the “Johnny’s house style”: upbeat, fluffy pop with heavy influences from disco, Latin styles like samba, and, at least in the last three years of the century, Euro-pop, with its safe major keys and hints of synth cheese. KinKi Kids illustrate that well enough on these slightly blurry debut singles underlining their epic mission by a series of absolute legends, hired to do what they now could do in their sleep, for an agency with more power and pull than most people wanted to believe, for that evergreen institution known as a boy band, at a time when that institution was enjoying the last of the kind of success it would ever see again until the explosion of K-pop.

Notes
[ The banner is an edit of a personal scan from the album KinKi Single Selection. The single covers are from here, here, and here. ]