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Manga artist Momoko Sakura was also a champion of Japanese music

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Following manga artist Momoko Sakura’s death last week, fans and media personalities celebrated her work. Most highlighted the influence her series “Chibi Maruko-chan” had on the nation’s comic and animation industries. That’s a fitting tribute, as her creations not only inspired a generation of artists in print and on screen, but carried over into mainstream pop culture.

Sakura’s legacy doesn’t end there, though. She also helped influence Japan’s musical landscape since debuting “Chibi Maruko-chan” as an anime series based on the manga in the 1990s.

Music has always popped up in Sakura’s work, from mentions of YMO in early “Chibi Maruko-chan” collections and shout-outs to Shibuya-kei in the surreal world of “Coji-Coji.” But getting the actual songs out to listeners was even better, and Sakura’s TV shows drew a lot of viewers in the ’90s. She didn’t just champion underground acts — Johnny’s duo Kinki Kids landed an opening theme — but she did bring offbeat songs by Kahimi Karie and Denki Groove to a generation who may not have found them if they’d changed the channel to “Pokemon.”

She even took a more active role in putting these tunes together. Sakura provided lyrics to most of the songs associated with her cartoons, and many of these proved popular (being attached to beloved franchises helped), but none left a bigger imprint than her first.

“Odoru Pompokorin” served as the debut ending theme for “Chibi Maruko-chan” in 1990. The group B.B. Queens performed it live and lent their name to the single, but they were a trio of industry players basically brought together for this one theme. Sakura worked with producer Tetsuro Oda to create “Odoru.” The veteran arranger kept it simple, telling the Asahi Shimbun in 2017 that it only took him a minute to come up with the basic tune.

For her part, Sakura wrote in an essay that she wanted to make something like the drunkard’s delight of “Sudara Bushi,” a song that had her whole family singing together when it played on the TV.

Mission accomplished, then. “Odoru” is an uptempo, downright delirious bit of music. The basic structure may have come to Oda quickly, but it features all sorts of great sonic details. None is better than the backing vocals on the chorus, run through a vocoder and made cartoon-like in the process. It’s not the first Japanese pop song to feature the technology, but probably the one seen by the most impressionable kids (one example: producer Yasutaka Nakata, who told Sound And Recording magazine that this was his first experience hearing electronically manipulated singing, which became his trademark with electro-pop group Perfume).

“Odoru” dominated the Oricon charts and pushed well over a million copies. It was song of the year at the Japan Record Awards, and remains a pop culture staple. It was one final hurrah for silly Showa pop as polished J-pop became the new norm in the Heisei Era, and it will be just one of the many legacies Sakura leaves behind.