At the tender age of twenty-five, while he was working part-time at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo’s Kamata district, Kazuki Tomokawa released his debut record, fittingly titled Finally, His First Album. While he had already penned hundreds of songs, including his first single “Try Saying You’re Alive!,” written on a long train ride past fields and rice paddies, it was this recording that introduced Japan to one of its most unique musicians of the postwar era. Each track, as record label exec Kiichi Takahara writes in the LP’s liner notes (here translated for the first time), is not a song but a “flesh-and-blood human being,” birthed by the singer-songwriter and the raw, guttural cries that would become a hallmark of his incomparable sound.
1970s Japan was a time and place marked by a profound desire for authenticity amidst the onset of television and media saturation. Tomokawa arrived on the scene as a musician with“the personality of a hydrogen bomb,” to borrow a phrase from his frequent collaborator Toshi Ishizuka. In an unwieldy interview included here, members of the notorious leftist band Zun? Keisatsu (Brain Police) put it bluntly: here was a man surrounded by the “disingenuous,” the “wishy-washy,” and the “superficial,” who was delivering “real life, unvarnished.” These songs are lullabies for the lost, staring not into the void but—as the fourth track declares—from inside it.
Finally, His First Album is the first of three Tomokawa records to be reissued by Blank Forms Editions in conjunction with the US release of Tomokawa’s memoir, Try Saying You’re Alive!, the first-ever English translation of his writing. This debut captures the self-assured trademarks that Tomokawa would hone over the course of decades. Multiple tracks are performed in his native Akita dialect, a distinct and highly regional vernacular of northern Japan seldom heard outside the prefecture—and even more rarely heard in music. Tomokawa’s lyrics locate profound interiority in the rituals of everyday life, and are sung against sparse folk arrangements of tender, lilting chords—a prelude to the rock and electronic stylings to come in later years. A self-proclaimed “living corpse,” Tomokawa wallows, whispers, shouts, and cries, yet still, through his existential doubt, asks to be heard.
Kazuki Tomokawa (b. 1950) is a prolific singer-songwriter from Hachiryu Village (now the town of Mitane) in the Akita Prefecture area of northern Japan. Since his first release in 1975, he has recorded more than thirty albums. The 2010 documentary about his life, La Faute des Fleurs, won the Sound & Vision award at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, and that same year saw the Japanese release of the book Dreams Die Vigorously Day by Day, a collection of his lyrics spanning forty years. His most recent albums are Vengeance Bourbon (2014) and Gleaming Crayon (2016), both on the Modest Launch label.