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Goin' to a Wonderful Go Go: Miho Moribayashi's latest record brims with whirling melodies and weirdly wonderful sound effects.

Futuristic Femininity

Hi-Posi '4n5' is a deliciously bizarre trip through Japanese girl pop

By Michelle Goldberg

THE NOTION of girl power was developed by the riot grrls in the U.S. and popularized by the Spice Girls in Britain, but Japan is where the movement reached its apotheosis. Ultracute sci-fi girliness has permeated Japanese pop culture since well before Scary, Sporty and rest emerged from obscurity.

The Japanese comics known as Manga are populated by a panoply of sloe-eyed, wasp-waisted heroines, while Tokyo teenagers don tottering superhero platforms, tarty, tiny fashions and brightly colored contact lenses and wigs.

Nowhere, though, is Japan's version of exaggerated futuristic femininity more intense than in its pop music. Famous musicians like Pizzicato Five, Kahimi Karie and Buffalo Daughter, as well as lesser-known ones like Color Filter, 800 Cherries, Honey Skoolmates and Corniche Camomile, all combine dulcet helium-high vocals with soundscapes that use elements of synth pop, indie rock, lounge, disco, hip-hop and whatever else falls into the mix, creating a sound that's both intensely modern and infused with innocence.

Each of these bands is distinct. Pizzicato Five projects jet-setting Bond Girl glam, Buffalo Daughter favors funky thrift-shop eclecticism and Kahimi Karie delivers angelic whispers so delicate they make the Cocteau Twins sound like Patti Smith. But all share a stylized guilelessness coupled with a delirious collage aesthetic. Somehow, they make improbable hybrids sound utterly natural, filtering the barrage of Western mass culture through a Japanese prism.

That's part of the reason they're an addiction for so many American pop fans: their music is both exotic and familiar, a little warped but still glossy and super accessible. It's a sugar rush, but with a foreign twist that makes it far tastier than anything pumped out by our hordes of domestic nymphets.

At the start of 4n5 (Toykopop Music), the new record from Hi-Posi, there's a frenzied, almost dementedly energetic beat, the soundtrack to a speed-freaked cartoon rabbit on an electric pogo stick.

Hi-Posi is a solo project by Miho Moribayashi, the latest Japanese pop starlet to surface in America. Like much of her music, the album's opening track, "The Wonderful Go Go," is deliciously bizarre, but there's something recognizable about the sound. It takes a while to place, but the rhythm zigzagging sharply beneath Moribayashi's tiny but emphatic voice is a ska beat. The careening tune is punctuated by surf guitars, '80s video-game sounds and deep male "Hey, heys," and the whole crazy thing sparkles.

Throughout 4n5, Hi-Posi returns to the candy-colored acid-trip territory staked out by early Pizzicato Five on songs like "Twiggy Twiggy," before that band embraced more mainstream club music and became overly polished. The record brims with whirling melodies, weirdly wonderful sound effects and counterintuitive genre combinations, all topped off by Moribayashi's hummingbird-light voice.

The loony ska of "The Wonderful Go Go" continues on "The Computer No. 3," which has a retro sci-fi feel that recalls the Dr. Who theme song and endless '50s alien flicks. After that, though, the record goes in many different directions, the whole thing held together by Moribayashi's infectious, manic enthusiasm.

"I'll Never Whistle" is a superb slice of triumphantly catchy power pop. Moribayashi sings in Japanese, but you can follow along with an included English translation, and the frustration in her words gives the music's liveliness a sinister cast. "I woke up to the barking dog that lives inside a TV tube," the song begins. "The cream puff I left on a shoe cabinet's gone bad by now/The floor that I polish everyday like I'm crazy, and the dirty towel that's been left for three years."

Given the music, these are far from the sunshiny sentiments one might expect, but the flustered fatalism makes 4n5 even more endearing. Moribayashi may seem otherworldly, but here she's speaking for every rushed city girl whose life is forever falling apart beneath her soignée surface.

FROM THERE, Hi-Posi launches into indie rock with the exuberant "Experimental Girl." Though it begins with pretty electronic pulses, the chorus bursts with big, bright guitar chords.

After that, Moribayashi does a cut-up lounge track, "Only 'I Love You,'" produced by Towa Tei, an electronic artist who used to be in the revered dance band Deee-Lite. Tei is one of the more overrated artists in the transnational hipster pantheon--he's largely capitalized on Deee-Lite's reputation to peddle a blend of hollow kitsch and derivative beats.

So it's not a surprise that "Only 'I Love You,' " which sounds a lot like a Pizzicato Five knockoff, is the disc's weakest spot. The song's not terrible--indeed, its hard to imagine anything with Moribayashi's singing on it being terrible--but it's the one place on 4n5 when Hi-Posi's whimsy grows cloying.

"Only 'I Love You'" is both the record's low point and its turning point. For the rest of the album, Moribayashi's previous hyperactivity is replaced by a dreamy, mellow lushness. "The Fragile Glass" and "To the Direction of Wind" are both incandescent ballads built on swirling layers of synths and chiming guitars.

Things get subtle with "I Never Came 1ºCNCE," which combines cosmic sound effects with soft breakbeats and spoken word delivery. It all finishes with the gorgeous Latin-tinged "The result: Everlasting." Upbeat but relaxed, this is the most unabashedly romantic song on the album, ending, according to the translation, with the lines, "I DON'T NEED TO TAKE AN OATH/LET'S TAKE OFF TOGETHER, FOREVER!!"

It doesn't matter that the words are in Japanese--most of Hi-Posi's listeners will agree that you don't have to share a language to fall in love.

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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