Akina Nakamori was thinking about The Exorcist.
The 21 year-old J-pop idol was impressed by the film’s soundtrack. Especially Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” She was intent on recreating that vibe for her ninth album, the first one she’d produce herself: 不思議, or Fushigi.
The title can be translated a few ways: Mysterious. Strange. In one English definition: “Something which has a reason that cannot be imagined or conceived of under normal circumstances.”
The album marks an exciting if temporary shift in Nakamori’s sound. Previously she had created the many forms requisite of idol pop: summery love songs, dramatic ballads, the occasional bad girl anthem like “Shojo A.” She had started 1986 strong too, with a single called “Desire” that sold half a million copies. Discussing her goals with the record’s director Katsumi Fujikura, Nakamori wanted something conceptual.
She wanted to drown out her voice. Eventually the first mix emerged. In Nakamori’s evaluation: yes, it sounds cool. But it’s not fushigi.
The group EUROX were enlisted to arrange a few of the songs and eventually became co-producers. The final results, released in August 1986, are spooky. One of few English-language resources on the album, by AV Club writer Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, compares Fushigi to the Cocteau Twins. True, but they contain different mysteries. The Twins sound beatific, while Nakamori presents something with more menace, distance and frost. Still, Fushigi is not quite sinister. It’s more like an untreated fever. The chills start to set in.
Speaking of the Cocteau Twins, Prince was a fan: “What I like is stuff that I can’t do. That I would never do. Like the Cocteau Twins, I would never do that.”
Fushigi feels like Nakamori attempting what an idol “would never do.” In this case: abstract her voice, bury it, add plenty of slush. Fushigi is dense, stuffed with reverb that suffocates its very sense of movement. Its momentum somehow survives. What provokes these songs? What sends them running into the night?
Fushigi does smack of the ‘art’ sound that was globally fumigating pop in the 1980s. It also borders on a more contemporary approach like vaporwave. Regardless of genre, the album is little known in the US. Unlike the much-loved, by algorithm and person alike, city pop genre, Fushigi is not warm and sparkly. Instead of helping us imagine a bustling summer disco, it brings to mind a confinement. Drops of water emanate from the inside of a very dark room. Is this torture?
Nakamori’s voice is like a shark’s fin peeking above water, gliding through the songs. There’s the being-encircled-by-bats feel of “New Generation,” where a mantra in the back motors through: uh uh uh uh uh uh. The pummeling elegance of “Marionette.” Or, on centerpiece “Labyrinth,” Nakamori sounds like she’s wandering endless halls, singing to no one in particular. So the backup singers respond: Do it once, baby, do it once. And then: I don’t understand.
Even from inside the labyrinth, Nakamori’s records sold well. Fushigi moved over 450,000 copies and reached #1 on the Oricon charts. But the most popular anecdote remains one of customers contacting the record label, asking: Is there something wrong with my copy?
If you had trouble hearing Nakamori in 1986, the sequel Wonder (1988) hoped to rectify that. It was the clerical sibling of Fushigi, serving up a rerecorded chunk of the album with new vocals and sharper, brighter instrumentation. If Fushigi was Cocteau Twins, then Wonder is closer to Kate Bush’s Sensual World. The melodies here are thirst-quenching, but they lack the originals’ brute triumph. The goths have all gone home.
Of course some people have good reasons to disappear. Fushigi’s vanishing act acquires another layer when we consider how much idols are subjected to public scrutiny. Japan’s tabloids were vicious in the era of the album’s release. I’ll leave it to you if you want to discover the gruesome fates of certain idol singers, but it’ll suffice to say that Nakamori herself was dragged by the press during a nasty public breakup. (Her post-trauma comeback song, “Dear Friend,” seems deeply underrated.)
So the act of concealment can be a play, a tease, or even a plot to save one’s life. For the artist, it allows returning to the integrity of a new form. For Nakamori, it took two steps to transform: Recede into the dark. Become invisible.
Not that Nakamori was invisible for long. She surfaced another album, Crimson, only four months after Fushigi. All its songs were written by women. Appropriately its final track seems to open onto a Woolfian vignette, as Nakamori sings along to a cassette of her own song, in her own room.
The skit was Nakamori’s idea. Having become a phantom, and returned, she offers tangible evidence of the day’s progress, and thus, her skill. It’s a broadcast from a labyrinth of her own.