Do you know what I love about Mioko Yamaguchi? That no matter what she attempts, she finds a way to actually do it, and do it quite well. That’s why I struggled mightily to chose what is my favorite album of hers to pitch to you, dear reader. Heart of hearts, I’ve made up my mind, and 月姫 Moon-Light Princess (I think) is that perfect gateway to her far too brief but really special musical career. Covering all sorts of bases — techno-pop in the style of YMO, electro-pop in the style Hideki Matsuke’s Logic System, playful/funky breezy Japanese “mellow” City-Pop, punkish new wave, and a few more genres I’ll spare you to omit — before even getting to this album, Mioko was a wonderful cypher clueing you in on what Japanese Pop was able to go through during the early ’80s…and I’m just talking about her debut Yume Hikou. The problem with Mioko has always been her obscurity. Even in Japan, Mioko is rarely spoken of.
Hearing all sorts of musical crevices, then trying valiantly to knock them together, Mioko always had more talent, than star quality. I like to think of Mioko as the Japanese Patrice Rushen. Like Ms. Rushen, Mioko was simply too talented to do only one thing, or to much of a searcher to be pigeonholed to one style or image. And like Patrice, Mioko was simply too interested in performing the music than trying to pretend to be a pop star/diva on or off stage. A synth and keyboard playing wizard, it was in her music that you could hear the great attention she paid to production and melodies, in a way that rarely seemed contrived of anyone else’s work. Both Yume Hikou and her sophomore album Nirvana sound as current as they do for those exact reasons.
From the beginning, Mioko put herself in the position to make some really great records. Writing and composing every song, on every release, each record had a least one guiding light that allowed Mioko to focus her strengths exactly where they needed to be. Yume Hikou had Mr. Logic System himself (Hideki Matsuke) making sure her synths popped-and-locked like no one’s business, Nirvana had Japanese mellow don Akira Inoue, Tsuyoshi Kon from Aragon(!) and Tatsuo Hayashi from Hosono-san’s Tin Pan Alley, making sure her funky excursions could traffic into some truly chrome-plated jazzy floating gossamer.
月姫 Moon-Light Princess is a fitting, but unfortunately, final, perfect refinement of all that work. It’s a distillation to all points she was heading to, which left here somewhere with nowhere else to go. This time helping her flesh out Mioko’s vision was Masami Tsuchiya of the groundbreaking Ippu-Do group. It’s not hard to hear how the ideas presented in 月姫 Moon-Light Princess would further flourish in Ippu-Do’s next release Night Mirage, there’s just something about the sound here that was special. Transfiguring Masami’s avantgarde sensibilities somewhere more immediate and personal, Mioko used his arrangements to zero in on some underlying elegance in her music. That’s what’s so surprising about this release.
Spacious, quiet, and atmospheric, this barely there music actually brings Mioko to the foreground. 月姫 Moon-Light Princess works with faint echoes and doppler reverberations of sound in ways that are more powerful than such bare components can be. Drum machines that barely place two beats in a measure, piano bits that slowly, gracefully, simply, gently unfurl with full, emotional power when other spare bits (maybe some string machine or one powerful drum kick) weave themselves into the mix. It’s a tour de force of Mioko’s songwriting and composition chops, for sure. Every time you feel that she could explode into something out there, Mioko reins it in and creates something powerful, in its own hazy way. It’s not a dark album per se, but the playfulness of the past has found some thoroughly different gradients to work with, a fact that is perfectly palpable throughout the album.
After this album, and it’s disappointingly small sales (around 5000 copies ever sold!), Mioko would take her talents elsewhere, receding to the background entirely, helping other Japanese musicians as a songwriter-for-hire. A best-of compilation, Anju, later came out with some rare tracks (her wicked electro track with Joe Hisaishi “Anju” being a highlight) but afterwards back she went into some forgotten bin of Japanese musical history. An undeniable talent, lord knows why people weren’t ready for Mioko then and why she left her own solo career. However, you can’t tell me we aren’t ready for this…