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Kei Ogura has still got a lot to celebrate

by Steve McClure

Once known as the “singing bank manager,” these days Kei Ogura could be called the “singing recovering cancer patient.”

Best known for his 1975 hit single “Shikuramen No Kaori (Scent Of Cyclamen),” singer/songwriter Ogura spent 26 years working for Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank before he decided to devote himself full-time to his musical activities in 1993.

“I write 50 to 100 songs a year — that’s my pace,” says Ogura, whose rather sentimental brand of kayokyoku (traditional Japanese pop) has proven consistently popular over the years.

Ogura recently held a press conference to publicize his latest project, a musical titled “Bunza,” about the Edo Period merchant and folk hero Bunzaemon Kinokuniya, which he describes as a hybrid between traditional Japanese music styles and Western music.

Ogura is also working on a new album of songs, which he says is his “30-something-th” album — he’s lost count of how many he’s released over the years — and is planning a series of 70-odd concerts around the country next year to mark his 60th birthday.

“In our Oriental zodiac, 60 marks the completion of the cycle of the zodiac,” notes Ogura, a star in his own right.

This flurry of activity is impressive to say the least, given that Ogura is battling cancer, treatment for which has already required the removal of three-fourths of his stomach, his adrenal gland and gall bladder.

Oddly enough, it was through a musical connection that Ogura discovered he had cancer. Last May, a well-known national university asked him to compose a new college anthem, and the person who conveyed the request was a doctor on the staff of the university’s hospital.

“He advised me to go for a check-up, and they found that I had cancer, which led to immediate hospitalization and an operation,” Ogura recalls.

When people from the media ask him if having cancer has changed his life or his music, his reply is in the negative.

“To have cancer is not a very fortunate event in your life,” states Ogura calmly, “but what you have to do is accept everything positively.

“Many years ago, I decided that my [philosophy] would be to continue living, facing my eventual death. So cancer doesn’t frighten me.”

The words of a true Stoic, indeed. Ogura is definitely a guy with guts, his recent surgery notwithstanding.

“Bunza” runs till May 20 at the Art Sphere theater in Tennozu Isle. For more information, call (03) 3379-3522 or visit Ogura’s Web site, www.gfe.co.jp/ogla/index.html

Following Okinawa’s emergence as one of Japan’s musical hot spots — with indie bands such as Mongol 800, and most recently HY, scoring high in the charts — attention is now shifting to Hokkaido as the music scene to watch.

Hokkaido-based bands such as Bazra, Inazumi Sentai and The Jerry have injected a much-needed dose of energy into the J-pop world with music that’s full of passion and power — maybe that’s how they keep warm during those long, cold northern winters.

Bounce Records, Tower Records Japan’s in-house label, last month released a great compilation album called “Firestarter — Hokkaido,” featuring 15 tracks by some of the hottest bands that have recently emerged from the vibrant music scene on Japan’s northernmost island.

Despite the fairly eclectic mix of various musical styles — hardcore punk, power-pop, ska core and good-old atonal screeching madness (viz., Takeshi Doll’s fabulous, paint-peeling “Renchi no Uta [Song of the Lotus Pond]“) — represented on the album, they all have a manic energy that expresses itself in pulsating bass lines and urgent, sometimes frenzied, vocals.

The man responsible for putting the album together is Naoki Yamada, manager of one of Tower’s two Sapporo stores. Over the past year he’s helped organize a series of concerts in Sapporo under the “Firestarter” banner, mainly featuring Hokkaido bands.

Yamada also played a key role in Mongol 800′s recent breakthrough, giving the band lots of promotional support when he was manager of Tower’s Naha, Okinawa, store.

“Now he’s looking for the next Mongol 800,” enthuses Bounce Records chief Masayuki Ogahara. “Firestarter — Hokkaido” is Bounce’s first regional compilation, and Ogahara says more are being planned.

I wonder whose turn it will be after Hokkaido? How about the sound of angry young Saitama?