During the summer of 2013, when millions of viewers tuned in every morning to catch the latest installment of NHK’s “Amachan,” the show’s sprightly 19-year-old star, Rena Nonen, seemed destined for big things. But her breakout role quickly became a cautionary tale about the perils of the entertainment industry.
While some of the show’s support cast (notably Mayu Matsuoka and Kasumi Arimura) graduated to major screen roles, Nonen got tangled in a dispute with her talent agency, which had reportedly been paying her a monthly stipend of just ¥50,000 while she was making “Amachan.” Even after her contract expired in 2016, the agency insisted that she couldn’t work under her own name, so she chose a new one: Non. (Presumably no French speakers were present at the time.)
Since performing a hard reset on her career, the artist formerly known as Rena Nonen has been inching her way back toward the mainstream while cultivating a more offbeat image. Sure, she’s popped up in a few ad campaigns, but she’s also voiced the heroine in Sunao Katabuchi’s crowd-funded anime, “In This Corner of the World,” as well as branching out into visual art, and appearing on the cover of Eiga Hiho magazine dressed as Wonder Woman.
Her website now describes her as an actress and “creative artist,” and lists her interests as “guitars, drawing pictures and making clothes.” Kyary Pamyu Pamyu had better watch out.
Compared to masquerading as Gal Gadot, Non’s latest guise is a little easier to swallow. On “Super Heroes,” she follows in the time-honored tradition of young stars collaborating with a bunch of grizzled studio musicians to make a pop record. The end results jibe perfectly with the bubbly, clean-cut image she cultivated during “Amachan”; it’s almost like her screen character, Aki, traded in her idol-pop outfit for a Fender Telecaster.
Though “Super Heroes” is released on Non’s own label, Kaiwa(Re)cord, it only takes a quick glance at the credits to realize that this isn’t your average DIY indie effort. In addition to five self-penned tracks, “Super Heroes” features an impressive cast of songwriters, including Akiko Yano, YMO’s Yukihiro Takahashi, punk veteran Masatoshi Mashima and Yoshihide Otomo, who composed the soundtrack for “Amachan.”
Musically, it looks back fondly on the power-pop and pop-punk that flourished in Japan from the mid-1970s onward, all captured with an unfussy production style that’s almost demo-dry in places. Mashima’s old group, The Blue Hearts, are an obvious reference point, while “Straight Gaido” (“Straight Highway”) could pass for the Sadistic Mika Band. The spirit of RC Succession also looms over the proceedings, coming to the fore during the Yano-penned “Watashi wa Baby” (“I Am Baby”), which samples the voice of the late Kiyoshiro Imawano — a slightly creepy bit of hero worship.
When Non needs to switch into ballad mode, she enlists the help of seasoned singer-songwriter Amii Ozaki, whose contribution, “Sketchbook,” sounds like it’s been preserved in amber since the 1980s Bubble era. But perhaps the biggest surprise is “RUN!!!” — not so much for the song itself as for its composer. Who knew that Sachiko M, an austere improv musician who usually performs using nothing but sine waves, could come up with such a fizzy, karaoke-ready pop anthem?
Non’s own songwriting contributions can’t compete with the calibre of her collaborators. While they have a certain charm, they might have been better served by a band of musicians as enthusiastic and unpolished as she is, rather than the veteran players featured here. Though its creator is still only 24 years old, “Super Heroes” ends up sounding a bit middle-aged.
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