Acoustic Sounds

Tamao Koike

TAMAO - Complete Yen Years



Tamao Koike - Complete Yen Years

Label: Aldelight / Sony Japan

Produced By: Tetsushi Hiruma (executive reissue producer)

Mastered By: Yuji Chinone

By: Malachi Lui

March 1st, 2024



The Techno-kayō Gems of Tamao Koike

Worthwhile obscurities finally compiled in one place

While I think I know a lot about Yellow Magic Orchestra, at least once a year I find something previously unfamiliar and somehow dive even further into the rabbit hole that truly never ends. This is especially true for the band’s early ‘80s period; in addition to their work as a band, their label Alfa launched Yen Records, a production playground for bassist Haruomi Hosono and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi. During Yen’s short run from 1982 to 1985, Takahashi and especially Hosono released and often produced fascinating off-kilter synthpop and electronic music by emerging talents. One could argue that the label’s catalog of endless gems perfectly encapsulated bubble-era Japan’s opportunities for artistic experiments at a more mainstream-adjacent level.

One Yen Records artist who unfortunately never took off was Tamao Koike, a model whose new CD TAMAO - Complete Yen Years documents the entirety of her short-lived attempt at techno-kayō (late Shōwa era Japanese synthpop) stardom. Though only available in Japan on the frustrating Blu-spec CD2 format (it’s not even available for streaming or download), it's full of melodic catchiness and complex production that deserves to be more widely heard. The "complete" aspect shouldn't be intimidating; it compiles every last version of every song Koike recorded for Yen, at the intensive length of 53 minutes.

According to the liner notes (translated with Google), Tamao Koike became a model at age 15, with a heavily stylized appearance, assuming that the CD booklet’s slightly later photos are anything to go by. She befriended the new wave band Plastics, and also appeared in the music videos for Yukihiro Takahashi’s 1981 solo LP Neuromantic. Presumably, she signed to Yen Records shortly after its launch. Like a lot of models who try to become singers, Koike didn’t write her own material, but collaborated with Guernica’s Koji Ueno, Plastics’ Toshio Nakanishi, and all of YMO. Of course, there was almost no room for musical failure there.

In 1983, Tamao Koike debuted with the YMO-composed and backed “October In The Mirror” 7”. It would be her only contemporary release, and both sides feature the same song—a Japanese version with a full band arrangement on side A, backed with an ambient French version on the B-side (the latter with the less specific translation “Automne Dans Un Miroir”). The Japanese version bears massive drums, layers of pulsating synth chords, and maximalist layering of minimal parts characteristic of YMO’s other 1983 output. Yet the French version’s sparse production is much more effective, teeming with incredibly subtle but infinitely detailed synths that actually sound like an autumn night long ago. Koike delicately sings about nostalgia for a past affair, her almost whispery vocals pushing towards the top of her range. The French version’s lack of drums better highlights the melodic changes in the bridge, further affirming “Automne Dans Un Miroir” as an absolutely indelible ambient-leaning techno-kayō song.

Koike recorded other material, though none of it got contemporarily released under her own name. She sings on Hosono’s 1982 “Sangokuchi Love Theme,” a single recorded for an NHK TV show. At merely two minutes, it features another wonderful melody, a quickly ascending and descending line that Koike sings with ease and gusto. The additionally included “original karaoke version” replaces her voice with a further synth line; it’s equally great and wouldn’t sound out of place on YMO’s similarly melancholic-yet-joyful Naughty Boys Instrumental. Koike also sings backing vocals on Hosono’s “Yume-Miru Yaku-Soku,” a non-album cut adjacent to the latter’s Philharmony and its childlike playfulness.

Koike recorded with Plastics’ Toshio Nakanishi, but was too much of a perfectionist to release any of it. “Sexanova,” the sole available track from the Nakanishi sessions, is breezy city pop with an angular new wave edge, though it doesn’t compete with Hosono's expertly sculpted productions. Thankfully, there are a few more of those: an electronically ornate albeit faithfully arranged cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Runnin’ Away” (Hosono must love There’s A Riot Goin’ On), the lilting “Kanariya” (the only song where Koike wrote the lyrics), and “Tamago,” a song she recorded with YMO for a TV commercial. That one is overly redundant, but enjoyable for the absurdity of Koike’s sampled vocals flying across the soundstage as Hosono plays one of his funkiest bass lines. There’s also an annoyingly stuffy remix of “October In The Mirror” (made for a 1985 Yen Records compilation), as well as more instrumental and TV versions.

By far the most unconventional material are the three songs credited as “Keiichi Ohta featuring Tamao Koike,” with a production credit for Koji Ueno. Ueno was the musical force behind Guernica, an operatic synth cabaret project with lyricist Ohta and singer Jun Togawa. Thus, these three songs taken from Ohta’s 1983 Yen LP Jingai Daimakyo (inspired by Mushitarō Oguri’s novel Jingai Makyo) are essentially Guernica with Koike replacing Togawa, and the results are interesting but somewhat awkward. Koike’s singing was more mannered than Togawa’s strident eccentricity, though she wasn’t made for these frankly bizarre oddities like “Deep Sea S.O.S.,” which sounds like a malfunctioning circus.

None of TAMAO - Complete Yen Years is new, but this is the first time that any reasonable amount of Tamao Koike is in one place; previously, these songs were scattered across prohibitively expensive CD box sets and other non-album obscurities. Thus, it’s a welcome rediscovery, even if there’s too much “October In The Mirror" (though you can't argue against the completism).

Why release this now? That’s unclear, as “Automne Dans Un Miroir” isn’t exactly a YouTube algorithm megahit, though Koike’s dedication in the booklet reads “for Y.T. and R.S.”—YMO’s recently departed Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Perhaps Koike wants to secure her small musical legacy while she still can, or maybe she simply felt a wave of nostalgia. Whatever the case, it’s wonderful to legally hear these songs without breaking the bank. As a nice bonus, TAMAO - Complete Yen Yearsends with YMO’s instrumental demo of “October In The Mirror.” This simple rendition demonstrates the core trio’s dexterity and precision as session musicians, and is one of their only officially released work-in-progress bits.

It might seem that Tamao Koike fell off the face of the earth once her perfectionism halted her attempts at idol stardom. That’s not entirely true. She married photographer Kaoru Ijima and hence changed her surname. From what little information I can find, it seems that she modeled for at least a few more years after her marriage. As Tamao Ijima, she released 1992’s Dusk ’Til Dawn, an English-language EP produced by Plastics’ Nakanishi. Unfortunately, it’s a rather boring project of moody downtempo electronics, coming uncomfortably close to adult contemporary schlock.

While I still detest the Blu-spec CD2 format, TAMAO - Complete Yen Years sounds pretty decent. Some of these songs were digitally recorded and/or mixed to begin with, though tonality is fine even if slightly too squeaky-clean. The new remasters employ some limiting, though the dynamics aren’t at all crushed. It’s not quite a sonic spectacular, but with no comparison point, there’s hardly anything to complain about. I'm probably one of the few people in America who so far owns this CD, but I hope more Japanese synth-pop lovers (for which there is clearly a growing audience) check out this compilation. Available at CDJapan and HMV.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: MHCL 30848

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: CD


  • 2024-03-02 10:43:50 AM

    Michael Fremer wrote:

    This is a surprisingly sophisticated, varied and intriguing album!