Age and youth were important factors in the music of Yutaka Ozaki. He captivated the hearts of an entire generation of Japanese teenagers, but his obsession with teen years hid a great personal insecurity. Ozaki sung of the empty victory of graduation, but never finished school himself; he wrote of adults waiting to seize children’s minds, but also took kids’ money as part of the adult music machine. Ozaki was that saddest of popular heroes, a teen idol who preached nonconformity, who could only watch in terror as he slowly outgrew his audience.
The teen Ozaki was the only Ozaki that he, or anyone else was interested in, and the release of this CD collection reflects that. The Teenbeat Box isn’t a Greatest Hits, it’s a collection of the recordings that Ozaki made while still a teenager, and it places great weight on these early years, even to the extent of listing the live performances he gave before he hit twenty. Many pop stars find themselves in difficulty when their original audience becomes too sophisticated for them, and Ozaki became a Peter Pan figure, perpetually railing against authority. He could never have returned to do a concert in his forties; his successful portrayal of youthful rebellion was also his undoing, in that as his youth left him, so did the validity of his lyrics.
His career began in 1983 when he dropped out of high school to release his first single. Ozaki had taught himself to play the guitar while holed up at home, supposedly hiding from the school bullies, and he became a model of polite rebellion for many Japanese youths.
His idea of rebellion was nothing unique in itself. On Seventeen’s Map, “The Night” talks of his desire to ride a ‘stolen motorbike, uncaring into the darkness’. More famously, he suggested eloping, with one of his most popular songs, “I Love You”. Depicting a couple who have sacrificed everything so that they can be together in a seedy apartment, it is a moving example of Ozaki’s songwriting ability; unfortunately it’s not such a good example of his singing. The uncredited session musician who sings “I Love You” on Kodansha’s singalong Sing Japanese album is actually a better singer than Ozaki ever was, but Ozaki’s raw quality was part of his appeal. “I Love You” is a beautifully tragic song, and Ozaki’s constantly-cracking voice is supposed to be evocative both of his youth, and of the tearful words of the song.
A more interesting factor in Ozaki’s songwriting, throughout his career, was the way he ran lyrics together. Lines in Ozaki songs tend to be longer and harder to enunciate than usual. It requires a very particular control of one’s breathing to make sure there’s enough oxygen in the lungs to manage some of the longer stanzas, which involve two or three lines intoned without pause for breath. It’s a peculiar style, but nonetheless one that served Ozaki well.
Other songs on Seventeen’s Map include ballads like “My Little Girl”, rock songs like “Scenes of Town”, and even a rock-reggae fusion in High School Rock and Roll. The follow-up album, Tropic of Graduation, contains my favourite Ozaki song, the bittersweet “Graduation”. It begins as a valedictory song, the sort of self-congratulatory, well we’ve made it through school, looking forward to getting a job, let’s still be friends, number that would be on the karaoke machine at the any bar near any school until the end of time. ‘At last we’re free.. from fighting the adults in disbelief, we have the freedom we so desperately wanted’. But “Graduation” turns nasty very fast, as the happy, proud student suddenly starts asking difficult questions: ‘What happened to our dreams? Where do we put our anger now?’ The threshold of adulthood is not regarded with hope or eagerness, but with a bitter elegy for, literally, the best years of the singer’s life. This is particularly relevant, both to the early 80s when Japanese youth started to question the measure of success in getting a steady career, and in Ozaki’s own life, because his pop stardom meant that he never finished school himself.
There’s more of the same in “Bow!”, in which he compares the rebels-without-a-cause around him with ‘Don Quixotes drunk with youth… talking too much of their dreams till dawn arrives.’ Dawn is adulthood, and Ozaki’s children have wasted the long night with empty activities. Ozaki may be a Japanese youth icon, but his words are often identical to those of the Japanese adults. On one level, Ozaki’s songs are an exercise in rebellion, but since he never makes an adverse comment about adult life, merely ironic comments on the emptiness of youthful dreams, you could argue that he was really on the side of his grown-up producers and management.
I would argue that Ozaki’s lyrics have a lot more in common with Bruce Springsteen’s ironies in “Glory Days” and “Born in the USA”. He bids farewell to youth, then stops and wonders why he should bother; and if it isn’t worth saying goodbye to one’s teens, is it really worth saying hello to one’s twenties? This inversion of traditional ideas also comes across in some of his compositions. “Dance Hall” describes a scene of wild and crazy teens, dancing their hearts out at a rock club, drinking, smoking, and blowing their meagre cash on juvenile entertainments. But it’s not a fast rock number, it’s a ballad, as if Ozaki, in slow motion, were watching the frenetic kids in realtime, wanting to be dancing in their midst, but too melancholy to do anything except stand apart.
As Ozaki’s teens drew to a close, he released Through the Broken Door, which had no perceptible change in attitude. He was doing well enough, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thus the album begins with “Rules on the Street”, in which our now-familiar rebel asks ‘where now?’ Familiar in many ways, because by this time Ozaki’s rebellion seems rather bland. The anger that informed “Graduation” is nowhere to be seen; he still sings of teenage angst, but in a half-hearted way that shows by this stage he was on autopilot. But such an autopilot brings some moving, if manufactured, ballads with it. Forget-me-not has the same chordic arrangements and elegiac quality of the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady”, although while the Commodores sung of a couple looking back upon an entire lifetime together, Ozaki’s singer only looks back on his teen years.
By the time he came to record Through the Broken Door, Ozaki had a proper backing group, the 50s rock-and-roll-influenced Heart of Klaxon. This introduced a greater degree of professionalism into his songs, but only insofar as they began to take on the appearance of bland MOR tunes to match the bland lyrics. So why is it that I like Through the Broken Door most of all? Maybe I’m getting old myself, who knows? “Grief”, or to translate the title literally, “Him”, is a paean to a dead friend and a lost time, someone who ‘embraced the asphalt’ in an unspecified, drug-related accident, all the more effective in its pathos by depriving the listener of the gory details. It is a serious “Leader of the Pack”, without the campy chorus.
“Doughnut Shop” is a facile hymn to love at first sight, in a location that removes much of the romantic ambience, but there’s something about the final track, “Someone’s Klaxon”, which transcends the material on the rest of the album. Tellingly, it’s no longer Ozaki’s lyrics, which lost their edge a year before, but his musical maturation. Someone’s Klaxon uses minor keys to great effect, and has all the feel of a warm, melancholy yet satisfying tune. You could almost say that the singer had finally found peace, and was ready to face the rest of his life without another scowling backward glance. It was a fitting ballad with which to end Ozaki’s teens, and the best track on Through the Broken Door.
As a grown-up, Ozaki painted himself into a corner with his angst-ridden wish to never grow old. True to form, his life was over when he could no longer hold back the tide of adulthood. He died of a drug overdose in 1992. He was twenty-seven.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This review-article was written in 1996 for Anime FX, although the magazine was shut down before it could appear. It is published here for the first time.