Massively influenced by American R&B, Do You Like Japan? holds that rare thing for us as listeners: it’s a question posed in the title. Was ex-Plastics frontman Toshio Nakanishi asking us if we liked Japan or was he asking himself that same question? The answer would be hard to tell after you listen to the album. Created after his breakup with the Plastics and while living in NYC, Melon’s Do You Like Japan? was his first attempt to mix Japanese techno-pop with harder-nosed American funk, disco, and R&B. We already know what another ex-Plastic, Masahide Sakuma, did after its demise. In his own way, Toshio was following a similar path, trying to create his own blend of future-thinking Japanese music. Before he became this massive force as a pioneer of Japanese hip-hop, Toshio had to discover this other rung of American music that would send him there. Once he heard “Planet Rock” on the radio Toshio discovered that this cut-up style could help him achieve a “certain funk-ness” he was after.
The debut release from Melon was the rare (for its time) polyglot group of Japanese and American musicians digging for both answers to the Do You Like Japan? question. Joined by members from the Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Bernie Worrell (on keys), Bruce Brody from the Patti Smith Group (on piano), and Percy Jones from Brand X (on bass) , all of them would form the American side of the Melon equation. From Japan, Toshio was joined by the likes of Haruomi Hosono (on bass), Chica Sato (another ex-Plastic on background vocals), Yukihiro Takahashi (on drums), and Masami Tsuchiya from Ippu-Do (on guitar). Trading on both sides’ strengths, Toshio made them go for a third form of music that was equally indebted to the new, urban sound of underground America and a fascinating, distinctly modern, Japanese electro sound.
“Do You Like Japan?” the opener, kicks off with that unique mix they were going for. Led by a twisted groove laid down by Yukihiro and Percy Jones, Toshio intones the feeling of displacement he feels while trying to live/make it in America. Do people like him just because of his exoticism? Does he feel truly welcome here? Thsoe are the dark themes underlied by Percy’s rubbery bass lines. A quicksilver song, it changes moods with Japanese-style piano melodies and percussion that work in tandem with this mutant funk propelling the song forward. Six minutes long, its exploratory funk is far removed from the B-52-pastiche of The Plastics. Some of you may even hear shades of Caetano Veloso’s “You Don’t Know Me” in it, if you pay attention.
The first side of this album rolls on with similar dark, muscular R&B. “OD (Optimistic Depression)” distills the Factory Records sound (early A Certain Ratio and OMD specifically) through a brilliant technicolor sheen performed on the guitar of Masami Tsuchiya, that the rest of the crew use to once again lay into a very echo-laced, dubby groove with perfect abandon. “Honey Dew” more overtly skates on the side of Japan, with a beautiful ballad that reminds me of those big hearted, ambient ballads Brian Eno would sneak into his early solo records. The first half then draws to a close with a moonlit torch song called “Song of Apollo” that Tom Verlaine surely would have killed to write for Television.
When you flip to the other side, “I Will Call You” gives you a glimpse of the even funkier, more hip-hop indebted sound that would spark Melon’s sophomore release. Here we get a match made in funk heaven with Bernie Worrell and Percy Jones taking percolating go-go grooves to another level. Panned to your left Bernie’s there (but not quite there) synth squeals meet Percy’s jelly roll-like bass plucks, while Toshio, Masami, and Yukihiro create something akin to the GAP band meeting Kid Creole in Osaka. Do You Like Japan?‘s first light-hearted track also presents a brilliant change of pace to lift the album further. When the album threatens to fall off its course with the slight “Million Years Picnic”, “Don’t Worry About After Death” picks up the pace again, with another fantastic angular bit of Japanese funk – definitely stick around for buildup after the bridge.
Competing for my place of favorite songs from the album are the two final songs. “Neutron Nevada Never Say Die” treats American music like David Byrne treated African music in Fear of Music, both as source of inspiration and source to pull you into a hypnagogic state. Kicking off with what sounds like television samples, seagull recordings, and a spiraling bass groove, the song goes into a rarefied sonic stratosphere when Toshio twitches his vocals through a snake charmer-like guitar section played by Masami. “Final News” ends the album with what sounds a like disco song pulling itself into disintegration. Opulent disco strings and pianos, transform to denser things when those drum and bass groove aim for the breakbeat rhythms of hip-hop, Toshio can only contort his vocals to fit into the much more weightier emotions being performed here. Ghostly Japanese recordings then form as a bridge to an even more dubby, darker section where Toshio raps his way to an ending. Those rapped lines: “You got to use what you want/to get what you want” are seriously quite a way to end to Toshio’s transformational album. He’d go harder next, but here was a good start to that sound.