Music

Mariya Takeuchi: The pop genius behind 2018’s surprise online smash hit from Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Even if Mariya Takeuchi wasn’t directly responsible for the biggest Japanese musical breakthrough in the West in 2018, she would still struggle to describe her year as anything other than eventful.

The singer-songwriter is celebrating 40 years in the music industry, and has commemorated the occasion with a barrage of new releases and events. Highlights included her first-ever face-to-face meetings with fans in Tokyo and Osaka, the appearance of a new double-sided single, whose songs featured in the movie “Aiai Gasa” and NHK drama “Nukemairu,” and the release of “Souvenir The Movie,” a feature-length film showcasing footage from concerts throughout her career and rare behind-the-scenes moments.

Pop revival: Mariya Takeuchi poses for a portrait at Warner Music Japan
Pop revival: Mariya Takeuchi poses for a portrait at Warner Music Japan’s Tokyo offices in September. | COURTESY OF WARNER MUSIC JAPAN

“Because of all this promotion, I’ve been busy,” Takeuchi says, sitting in a spacious room decorated with vintage furnishings in Warner Music Japan’s Tokyo offices.

“It’s usually so ordinary,” she says with a laugh when asked to describe her day-to-day activities. “I go to the supermarket, I buy groceries, I cook, sometimes I clean or watch a movie. I read books, get dinner with friends. … I can’t think of anything special in my daily life.”

Takeuchi’s career has been anything but ordinary, however. Since debuting in the late ’70s, she has racked up sales of more than 16 million copies, with her best-of album, “Impressions,” accounting for around 3 million of that number alone. She has written and arranged songs for J-pop royalty — from Akina Nakamori to SMAP — and her “Sutekina Holiday” is an entrenched part of the country’s Christmas canon.

In 1982, she married fellow musician Tatsuro Yamashita, now 65, who has arranged and produced her creations from the start. The two of them are arguably the most famous couple in the domestic music industry today. Think the Beyonce and Jay-Z of J-pop.

Music journalist Toshikazu Kanazawa commends Takeuchi for striking a work-life balance. “Despite almost no live activity, she has done what many singers and songwriters haven’t been able to do and maintain her popularity,” Kanazawa says.

Takeuchi’s success, however, has long been limited to her home country (save for a few niche audiences devoted to vintage Japanese pop). That changed in 2017 when the internet discovered her 1984 track, “Plastic Love.”

The song — a galloping, funk-indebted piece of pop whose lyrics harbor a sense of melancholy — originally appeared on the album, “Variety.” In the summer of 2017, a YouTube channel called Plastic Lover shared the track — or, more accurately, a seven-minute remix of it. The post featured a photo of Takeuchi that had been taken in Hollywood in 1980, a shot used as the cover for a single titled “Sweetest Music” that was released later that year but cropped in on her smile.

Singer-songwriter Mariya Takeuchi is particularly fond of her 1984 album,
Singer-songwriter Mariya Takeuchi is particularly fond of her 1984 album, ‘Variety,’ which features the track ‘Plastic Love.’ | COURTESY OF WARNER MUSIC JAPAN

Since then, “Plastic Love” has become an online sensation. The Plastic Lover upload currently boasts more than 22 million views. Part of that success can be attributed to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which suggests videos for viewers based on what they think they might like. Many saw Takeuchi’s beaming face in the list of suggested videos on their right and clicked away. Vice Media’s Ryan Bassil wrote that it was his “favorite pop song in the world.” Fictional character Noodle of Gorillaz fame admitted to having a soft spot for the track, while The Black Madonna closed out a Resident Advisor November 2017 mix with a thumping rendition of the song. “Plastic Love” has inspired fan art, deep dive videos and theory breakdowns. Korean pop performer Yubin appeared to model a whole song after Takeuchi’s creation, only to cancel it after plagiarism accusations that were thought to be from a different artist who remixed the track.

“It never occurred to me to try to (release) work in the West,” Takeuchi says, thinking back to when “Plastic Love” was recorded. “Considering that it was mostly performed in Japanese, we figured it would be impossible to go abroad. However, looking at YouTube’s comments section for ‘Plastic Love’ now, many viewers don’t really seem to care what language it’s in.”

No song from Japan has grabbed more attention than “Plastic Love” abroad this year, despite it being released originally in the mid-’80s.

Takeuchi now finds herself juggling two musical realities. In Japan, she’s one of the most famous musicians around. Outside of the country, however, she’s the creator of an obscure J-pop song that has garnered attention thanks to computer programming and the creation of memes. That said, her story is far more interesting than just being the latest viral surprise.

Rural upbringing

In May, Takeuchi became the owner of a ryokan with the inheritance of Takenoya, a cozy Japanese-style inn in the city of Izumo, Shimane Prefecture. Shigezo Takeuchi opened it in 1877 for those visiting the nearby Izumo Grand Shrine. Takeuchi’s brother previously served as manager, but she says he’s getting older. So she’s in charge for the moment, overseeing a renovation project before handing it off to the next generation in her family.

“It’s not like if you go there, I’m going to be serving food or anything,” she says with a laugh, although numerous fans have been known to visit on the off chance of a sighting.

Born in 1955, Takeuchi grew up at the inn, the third daughter among six siblings.

“I was surrounded by the ocean,” she says of her childhood. “There were also lots of mountains in Shimane — truly just nature everywhere. Let’s just say it was a typical countryside life.”

Her family loved music, and she recalls listening to records from all over the world.

“I would listen to American pop, French songs, Italian music, tango, jazz … everything,” she says.

Singer-songwriter Mariya Takeuchi performs in 2000.
Singer-songwriter Mariya Takeuchi performs in 2000. | COURTESY OF WARNER MUSIC JAPAN

She paid homage to her early musical influences on 2003’s “Longtime Favorites,” a set of covers touching on the work of American singers such as Connie Francis and Paul Anka alongside tunes by Italy’s Mina Mazzini and France’s Marjorie Noel.

In the third grade, she was introduced to the Beatles.

“I experienced a musical shock,” Takeuchi says. “It was ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ and it was used in a TV commercial for chocolate. I just remember it coming on like … bam!”

The Fab Four introduced her to a whole new world of music that stood apart from the traditional standards she was used to. She had already learned to play the piano and guitar, but British rock inspired her to travel.

Rock Falls, a small city in Illinois, ended up being that first far-flung destination. Takeuchi spent a year of high school in the city as part of the American Field Service youth exchange program. She remembers how much more freedom teenagers in the United States had — teens wore no uniforms, boys grew their hair down to their shoulders and young people drove their cars everywhere.

“Life in that town was like being in the film ‘American Graffiti,'” Takeuchi recalls. “It was like living in a dream state.

“The biggest reason I think I ended up singing in front of large crowds was because the other students would ask me to perform Japanese entertainment for them. However, I couldn’t do any traditional dances, or play a shamisen or anything. But I could play the guitar and sing, so I would perform Japanese folk songs and Beatles’ numbers. It was almost out of necessity back then.”

She returned to Shimane and decided to study English literature at Tokyo’s Keio University. Before moving, Takeuchi says she entered and won a nationwide English recitation contest organized by The Japan Times in the spring of 1974. The grand prize? A trip to Hawaii that helped her expand her horizons even further.

Early albums

Tokyo’s music community in the 1970s was reasonably close-knit.

“When you’d hear someone doing something new, something I’d associate with what I was doing, you’d go out and gather together and play together,” singer-songwriter Taeko Onuki told the Red Bull Music Academy last year when asked to describe the decade. “Looking back at it, something must have been blooming, based on all the names that started playing.”

Takeuchi lived in this environment when she relocated to the capital. She joined a university music circle that helped her navigate the scene.

“I would meet professional musicians out and about,” Takeuchi says. “It was really fun. However, I always felt as if I’d need to have an honest occupation in order to make a living. I just wanted to do music as a hobby.”

One of her music circle mentors, Sugi Masamichi, became a major artist in his own right and Takeuchi was asked to sing on a chorus for one of his early songs. This lead to studio sessions surrounded by music industry folks, who encouraged her to make her debut.

“It was my third year of university,” she says. “At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career and so I decided to give music a go.”

Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi’s debut album, ‘Beginning’ (1978) | COURTESY OF ARIOLA JAPAN 

Her first full-length album, “Beginning” (1978), features an all-star cast in the credits. Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi of the soon-to-debut Yellow Magic Orchestra joined Onuki and Happy End’s Shigeru Suzuki, among others, to write, arrange and play on the LP. Takeuchi penned the lyrics for a couple of songs, along with the music for closer “Sutekina Hit Song,” a track that paid homage to the American pop she grew up with.

However, not everything turned out quite as she expected.

“When I got into the industry, I simply wanted to make music, as one would expect,” she says. “However, I was treated more like an entertainer or a celebrity. I wanted to make an album, I wanted to tour, I wanted to write songs. Instead, I was frequently asked to be on variety shows or host TV programs.”

Snippets of such appearances are rare — one clip on YouTube captures a few awkward shots of Takeuchi seemingly talking into a large green phone while hosting a show — but they do appear to be decade appropriate, as women in Japan were often considered to little more than attractive faces on TV at the time.

“It left me exhausted,” she says.

This isn’t to say the first part of her career lacked highlights. Takeuchi released five albums, with several of them recorded at least partially in Los Angeles with a cavalcade of players associated with the West Coast rock movement.

Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi’s 1979 album, ‘University Street’ | COURTESY OF ARIOLA JAPAN

“The rhythm section (for 1980s ‘Miss M’) is one of the best ever, featuring David Foster, Jeff Porcaro (of Toto), David Hungate (also from Toto), Steve Lukather (again, Toto) and myself,” says Jay Graydon, a prolific musician who worked with Takeuchi. “She was very easy to work with and very nice. And she was a great singer.”

The albums that were recorded during this era sound different to what would come later, leaning closer to fusion rock. While not commercial heavyweights, they did produce a handful of Takeuchi’s most memorable songs, including the loose-limbed funk pop of “September.”

A number of music writers in Japan are quick to highlight the releases that came out of this period.

“My favorite album is ‘Miss M,’” Kanazawa says. “The balance between Toto and Air Play’s contributions and the Japanese artists is great.”

Takeuchi met her future husband, Yamashita, in the mid-’70s. He was in a band called Sugar Babe, a music project celebrated today but one that wasn’t so well received back then.

She recalls first seeing him at a free gig at the Yamaha store in Shibuya as a student, but didn’t meet him properly until recording her debut album when she’d asked Sugar Babe to collaborate on a few songs.

“However, my first impression wasn’t that good,” Takeuchi recalls with a laugh. “Musically, I really liked him but his personality … how would you say it? … he wasn’t very amiable.”

The pair shared a label, RCA, and often found themselves working together. Whenever Takeuchi found herself questioning her TV responsibilities, she turned to Yamashita for advice.

“I started to rely on him and trust him more,” she says. “And our relationship got deeper and stronger.”

The pair married in 1982, and Takeuchi soon became pregnant. This, coupled with increasing requests to participate in nonmusical aspects of her career, prompted her to take a break.

Pop revival

Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi’s 1987 album, ‘Request’ | COURTESY OF WARNER MUSIC JAPAN

Earlier this decade, a genre dubbed “city pop” made a surprising comeback thanks to the internet. A style of Japanese funk and disco from the 1980s, its aesthetic was just as important as its sound — imagine the type of music you’d hear coming from a convertible driving down the Shonan Coast in the midst of the bubble era. Or, if you’re a critic, the background music in a smoke-stained Shinjuku cafe.

The city pop revival preceded a surge in nostalgia for Heisei Era pop culture, but true fans never really abandoned it and the creation of sites like YouTube provided them a place to congregate online. This ecosystem provided the evolutionary conditions that brought Takeuchi her new fan base: a microgenre called vaporwave mutated into a sound called future funk that looked to Japanese pop for sample ideas. That led to covers of her tracks “Yume no Tsuzuki” and “Plastic Love,” and she popped up in the true language of the internet: memes.

“I’m really curious about the genesis of this movement,” Takeuchi says. “How did this happen?”

The singer is genuinely interested in hearing what new fans think of her music, which resulted in a long side discussion on memes, internet nostalgia and YouTube’s algorithms.

“YouTube’s recommendation systems try to match each viewer to the videos that they are most likely to watch and enjoy, providing a real-time feedback loop that caters to each viewer’s varying interests,” says Kevin Allocca, head of YouTube’s Culture and Trends division, explaining how the algorithm works. YouTube doesn’t comment on particular videos, but Allocca doesn’t believe the recent success of “Plastic Love” has been generated by the video-sharing website’s algorithm.

“In reality, music fans who are exposed to the song listen to it and ‘like’ it, and YouTube’s recommendation systems simply incorporate such positive signals,” he says.

The eight-minute version of “Plastic Love” that has attracted all those views didn’t actually exist in the 1980s. The album version of the track lasts just under five minutes, while a 1985 “extended club mix” hiccups toward double digits without ever quite making it. The Plastic Lover upload falls in between, with certain portions of the original looped.

From here, things start to get a little muddy and the source of Plastic Lover’s version isn’t clear. It first appeared on YouTube before re-emerging in October 2017 in a slightly different form as “Playing Games” by Miki J on a compilation titled “Japanese Boogie & Disco Reworks: Volume 2” that was released by British label Midnight Riot.

Neither Plastic Lover nor Midnight Riot responded to interview requests, and so the jury’s still out on its exact origins.

While “Plastic Love” has been embraced by people seeking a little bubble-era nostalgia, Takeuchi says she herself feels distance from those days.

“I was pregnant with a child at the time, so it wasn’t like I was really able to indulge in the bubble-era excess in the same way as others could,” she says. “I was writing songs at the time because it was fun for me.

“I wanted to write a rock song, a folk song, a country song,” she says. “I also wanted to write something danceable, something with a city pop sound. I wanted to write something that had 16 beats and lyrics capturing what life in a city was like.”

Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi’s 2007 album, ‘Denim’ | COURTESY OF WARNER MUSIC JAPAN

Takeuchi typically composes the music first and subsequently adds lyrics that are appropriate to the melody.

“Plastic Love” features an opulent melody that conceals bittersweet lyrics.

“(The lyrics) tell the story of a woman who lost the man she truly loves,” Takeuchi says, “and that no matter how many other guys would pursue her, she couldn’t shake the feelings of loneliness that the loss created.”

The original recording found Takeuchi working with her band, with Onuki singing on the hook and Yamashita providing memorable guitar melodies.

“I feel the power of the arrangement (on the original) is a big part of the attention it has been getting recently,” she says.

“Plastic Love” was originally included in her 1984 comeback album, “Variety.” Whereas her previous five full-length releases found Takeuchi mostly performing songs written for her by other people, the music and lyrics on Variety were all her own. True to its name, Takeuchi covers a lot of ground, from bar-counter country on “One Night Stand” and lounge jazz on “Broken Heart” to bossa nova on “Mizu To Anata To Taiyo To” and even an ode to British pop titled “Mersey Beat De Utawasete.” The album also features some surprising guests.

“At the studio where we were recording ‘Variety,’ Ryuichi Sakamoto was working next door on Akiko Yano’s music at the time”, she says. “We asked him if he could play the synthesizer on ‘Let’s Get Married,’ which featured an organ. It was actually fairly easy to do things like this. It ultimately ended up working as an exchange, and Tatsuro (Yamashita) ended up doing the chorus for one of Akiko Yanno’s pieces.”

“Variety” was a hit, outselling her previous release and debuting at the top of the domestic charts. Her ability to pull it off confirmed her ability as a singer-songwriter.

Looking back on her career, Takeuchi says that “Variety” is still the album that means the most to her. “It was the album that made me independent in my career,” she says. “Of course, I had released five albums by that point and they were all important to me for some reason. … Without ‘Variety,’ however, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have today.”

Solid gold

Takeuchi’s career continued to grow in the decades following the release of “Variety.” Her albums and singles kept performing well, with ’90s tracks such as “Konya Wa Hearty Party” and “Camouflage” ultimately becoming cornerstones of her catalog. She wrote music for countless other acts, a process she says helped to improve her songwriting ability, as it made her consider other artists’ attributes.

In 1986, Takeuchi wrote “Eki,” a melancholic ballad about meeting an old lover, for pop singer Akina Nakamori. Takeuchi says she would never have composed a song on such a theme for herself.

That said, Takeuchi’s own version of “Eki” has since become instantly recognizable, encapsulating a more lively spirit that she credits in part to Yamashita’s “magic,” which transforms a very stoic Japanese song into pop gold.

“She had an immediately identifiable voice and was truly a super singer who did not rely on acrobatics to get her point across,” says Marty Friedman, former guitarist of Megadeth and J-pop superfan who has covered “Eki.” “Even in her earliest years, her voice had a unique maturity that was a joy to listen to. There is almost a healing quality to it.”

After 40 years of work in the music industry, Takeuchi continues to create.

“There’s more music I want to make, more recording I want to do,” she says. “I have a habit of finding an interesting word, and trying to see if I can use it in my lyrics.”

Mariya Takeuchi
Mariya Takeuchi’s latest release, ‘Trad’ (2014) | COURTESY OF WARNER MUSIC JAPAN

Her last album, “Trad,” came out in 2014, topping the Oricon album chart in its first week.

These days, releases come out every few years, primarily because it takes time for Takeuchi and Yamashita to find time in their schedules.

“It’s great because I’m not forcing myself to release something all the time,” Takeuchi says. “At the same time, (Yamashita) has his own albums to work on and his own tours to work on. Sure, it was hard to find the time to work on ‘Trad’ but, on the other hand, the fact we can work at this pace and release something every five or six years might be one of the main reasons I’m able to keep going as an artist — I don’t feel like I’m burning out. Maybe I’d have to think about it if people stopped listening to my music but, for now, people are still waiting and listening. It’s something I really appreciate.”