Where does one start with Yukako Hayase? That’s the question I asked myself when debating, for what seemed like forever, what would be the album I would recommend others to explore, to give them a better sense of why Yukako is such a deeply important artist (and one sadly lost to time). Thankfully, with time, I’ve settled on 1989’s 薔薇のしっぽ Roses’ Tails not because it has her highest highs, but because it gives you the most complete vision of what you can expect from Yukako, as you go back – which you should – to uncover the rest of her oeuvre. Stretching her roots in French ingenue pop to its limits, 薔薇のしっぽ saw her cement this transformation as a unique artist who found a way to breath new life into a certain, dead end.
It’s no news to y’all, but, for some reason, ‘80s Japan always had an interesting relationship with French culture. You name it: anything from the music of Yukihiro Takahashi, Asami Kado, or Toshifumi Hinata (one-time Yukako collaborator), etc. to the fashion of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons, Kenzō Takada and many more, had the feeling of being affected and in turn infected by the Parisian influence. With time, though, it seemed that a bit of Pari shōkōgun experience had started to creep in. All of this had to lead a stylistic dead end. The Gallic pop they were drawing from – Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg, Satie – had reached it’s own impasse, they’ve had to realize that. It all begged the question: What can these artists do to go beyond mere mimicry? To really do something that their influences couldn’t.
Admittedly, Yukako was late to the game in figuring this out. Beginning her career as a child actress, then graduating to full-fledged acting roles meant that she already had an image to uphold by the time she decided to launch her career in 1986. Working with a Warner Bros. subsidiary dubbed Sixty Records, they sought to launch her as a Japanese idol in the vein of Miharu Koshi, albeit with a bent more along the lines of lolita-esque Pop of Jane Birkin or Claudine Longet.
1986’s 躁鬱 SO-UTSU and Amino Co De Ji were dual albums released in the same year to show two distinct sides of Yukako. One, the former, was the darker, slightly experimental side which toyed with the kitten-esque aspects of her sound and image. The other, was the more grown up, sophisticated side which was more sultry, inviting, and relatable. As cool as it was to release the first visual album (躁鬱 SO-UTSU’s laserdisc featured each song released as its own separate video) Amino Co De Ji had something Yukako could really build on – her first exploits as songwriter.
Writing under the pseudonym Cecille, Yukako wrote four tracks that moved beyond mere musical affectation. Perfecting the Parisian sound with “2/3 amino co dé ji” and “シニアな記憶” only to stake her claim to being able to go far from those realms with “祭” and “大きな言語と小さな願望” displayed that underneath all the producer-led work of hers, she had her own point of view just waiting to be set free. More influenced by African and Latin music, it wouldn’t be until the following year’s Polyester that Yukako would really start to come into her own.
Once again adopting a new nome de plume, as Sengoku Hana Tenno, she’d write nearly all of the tracks found on Polyester. Working with artists like Shi-Shonen’s Seiji Toda, Makoto Yano, and Haruomi Hosono, together they finally found a way to get Yukako’s interest in world music out there. More Scritti Politti than Gainsbourg-ian, on songs like “Island” and “夕方前にはお部屋にいることに” you get the sense that Yukako was done being that label-controlled artist. That she was really in charge of her career now. That her songs were now proper songs that were truly hers.
It was those glimpses of Yukako’s more casual self that would permeate in her next two albums 1988’s 水と土 Mizu to Do and 1989’s 薔薇のしっぽ Roses’ Tails. In an act of Beyonce-like hubris, she took the reins as both producer and composer to get at exactly the sound she was after. 水と土 Mizu to Do was by far the most muscular album she’d ever make, heck it might be one of the most muscular Japanese pop albums ever made. Playing Jaco, to Yukako’s Joni, bassist Masatoshi Mizuno helped her construct a largely drum and bass driven sound that spoke of the growing roles African-Pop, boogie, reggae, and other tropical music were playing in her artistic life. It’s one of the many reasons I struggled mightily whether to recommend it as a start, no matter how much of a masterpiece I think it is. You name it, anything from “さばくのPool”, “土地、愛すべきもの -沖縄-”, to “Penifa”, sounds unlike much else done in Japan, at that time. It is also cements her change from lolita-esque upstart to grown-ass woman, force of musical nature.
All of this belabored detail, of course, brings us to my recommendation for where you should begin exploring Yukako’s world: 薔薇のしっぽ Roses’ Tails. For all intents and purpose, this is Yukako’s last album. Before she retired to familial life and nearly a decade later came back to dip her toes in the music industry with a tossed-off album, only to decide to err on the side of anonymity and call it a day, this album (one so desperately in need of a reissue) was it. So, lord knows why Yukako left us hanging.
薔薇のしっぽ Roses’ Tails finds Yukako wrapping up everything she’s ever done before, in perhaps her most mystifying way. Recorded at the same time she was traveling to Algeria to record videos for her second and final visual album “Eternal Savanna” (which drew from songs from these two albums), a certain bittersweet, sophistication had started to creep up. Far more Latin, tropical, and dance-tinged than anything in her past, on this release we hear how percussion, specifically the one played by Carlos Kanno of Japanese salsa band Orquesta De La Luz had entered her sphere of influence.
Orquesta De La Luz members, drummer Carlos Kanno and guitarist Yasuaki Maejima now fleshed out far more Latin-inspired numbers with gorgeous windswept acoustic arrangements. Part Sade, part Les Disques du Crépuscule, and part Larry Heard, all the songs on 薔薇のしっぽ Roses’ Tails had something stunning in them that came not from a particular eccentricity but from a refined delivery that was leaned on.
It all begins with the album’s peak: “永遠のサバンナ”. Sounding like Françoise Hardy transporting herself to the beaches of Majorca or Neo-Havana, it was a glorious union of Gallic whisper with sun-kissed careless whispers. Inspired reimaginings of songs by nouvelle-chanson singers like Cathy Claret (“IL(ベッドの中では)”) and Vanessa Paradis (“マリリン&ジョンの微笑”) would follow. The most memorable songs would lay in the remainder.
As hinted in the stunning videos accompanying “Eternal Savanna”, relaxed, lived-in experimentalism ruled 薔薇のしっぽ’s day. As soon as you expect songs to get into a certain flow, those same songs start to sprawl in ways that would have seen unlikely a few albums ago. Things like the gorgeous samba-funk interlude of “薔薇のしっぽ” or the very Weather Report-esque denouement to “あなたのキリンが走る” give rise to how inspired her ability to sprawl was.
By the time you get to the album’s other highlight “風とエレファント” – one only heightened by hearing it on bass subwoofers – you can recognize how important this album was to Yukako. It’s the launching point to a new decade where what she was doing could eventually catch on in flavor. In the battle for 1989’s most woke female album, I humbly suggest that Yukako Hayase’s 薔薇のしっぽ as a piece that can hold itself up to definitive releases from Janet Jackson and Madonna’s found in that same year. There in those wonderful videos, dancing in the sand, on some half-remembered desert in Algeria, with misbehavin’ hair (as some Youtube commenter put it), was Yukako achieving something unexpected — embracing herself in her realest form. It wasn’t her best self but damn what is? Our failure still remains never recognizing her achievement, in real time.