Sometimes, for whatever reason, great art slips past audiences and remains woefully underappreciated. Which is why we’ve created an essay series called Fossil Records, devoted to helping people discover lost and obscure work that never got its due.
Sometimes you write a review of something and it reads more like a weird bedtime story than a critical assessment of a work of media. Like this one, for example: Jun Togawa is a brilliant art pop songstress, kind of like a Japanese Kate Bush if Kate Bush had no sense of restraint and cared 0% about selling records. In the ‘80s, Togawa formed a group called Guernica, which was a cabaret outfit that played classical music on cheap Casio keyboards. They came out with an album called Shinseiki e no Unga, a concept album about naval industrialization. Naturally, it is performed in the style of a Broadway musical.
As you may have guessed, how much you’ll enjoy Shinseiki is entirely dependent on your relationship to musical stimulus. This shit makes Moulin Rouge! sound like Phillip Glass. It will pinball from cabaret to Baltic folk dance to something out of a Tchaikovsky ballet faster than reason should allow for. Togawa herself bellows, whimpers and screeches like a baby rapidly growing into a cave troll before it disintegrates into a cloud of death. Her vocal range is astounding, and sometimes it feels like all the bells and whistles are there simply to provide a unique stage for convincing us of the musical theatre career she must feel fate cheated her out of.
I like to think of Shinseiki as a spiritual companion to Van Dyke Parks’ Tokyo Rose, a late career concept album that came out only one year later about America’s troubled relationship with Japan that’s also performed like a series of weird showtunes. It’s the only way I can tether this music to something that makes sense. For compositions that rely uniquely, specifically on traditional Western forms, I keep getting the sensation that Shinseiki is inherently not graspable for those who are not Japanese. I don’t understand what its goals are musically: it’s too stately to work like Disney cheer-up music, too spastic to listen to with a cup of tea in an armchair. It’s as though Guernica chose a very specific aesthetic, and then chose to incorporate all possible, impossible and alternate-universe-probable variations and themes from that aesthetic until nothing but chaos was left.
This sounds like I’m ragging on Shinseiki, and truth be told I don’t listen to it often, but I like it and find it valuable for these very reasons, that it makes me jump out of my skull in a way that few other albums are capable of doing. It replicates the exact sensation of flicking through TV channels late at night and finding something so inexplicable that you have to watch. There are probably people who understand what’s going on here, but I’m not one of them, and I’m going to cherish that ignorance for as long as I can.
Maybe it’s still not clear: Am I recommending this? Yes. It’s 33 minutes long and joyfully ridiculous, and it’ll give you something to talk about next time you want an acquaintance you don’t like much to stop speaking to you. This feels like some kind of crown jewel in Jun Togawa’s career; what kind of jewel it is, I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s bright and shiny, and somehow I can’t stop staring.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.