By Matthew Fullerton.
Charming in that it strikes a fine balance of chronology and intimate, and often amusing, interludes of today’s seventy-something Hosono.”
Japan’s Brian Eno, Neil Young, and Mark Mothersbaugh are just a few of the allusions bandied about by diehard fans of musician, singer-songwriter, composer, producer, and all-round jack-of-all-musical-trades Haruomi Hosono when they are asked to describe him to laypeople. To music-loving Gen Xers, he is probably best known as a founding member of the pioneering electronic trio Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). To cinephiles, Hosono might be recognized as the composer of soundtracks, like his YMO bandmate Ryuichi Sakamoto, including the Cannes-winning Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda). His gift for experimentation in the studio, as well as his sense of creative freedom and whimsy, might also draw comparisons to Brian Wilson or Van Dyke Parks. All of this praise, combined with a fifty-plus year career in music marked by a plethora of styles, projects, and collaborations, makes it difficult not engaging in dialectical tricks to challenge notions, like describing Brian Eno, Neil Young, Brian Wilson et al. as the Hosonos of their respective countries.
Regardless of how one chooses to label him, such accolades and comparisons, dialectical, and otherwise, should convince any stranger to Hosono of his genius and prolificity, his internationalism so-to-speak, and to wonder why it is only now that a major Japanese film studio – Nikkatsu – has made a feature-length documentary on him and his five decades in music. In the enlightening No Smoking: A Hosono Haruomi Documentary Movie (2019), director Taketoshi Sado does a fine job of making Hosono’s highly creative and eclectic career accessible to a broad audience. The film is charming in that it strikes a fine balance of chronology and intimate, and often amusing, interludes of today’s seventy-something Hosono. It is also appealing for what it does not display: sensationalism through over-reliance on interviews with, and testimonies from, those who know the subject well, for which many music documentaries are guilty. Instead, the film captures the entertaining, hard-working, warm, and amiable Hosono in authentic situations: at work, at play, and, of course, smoking.
Though No Smoking isn’t structured into actual physical chapters, it is a film with distinguishable parts. The first, which covers Hosono’s postwar childhood and early forays into music, begins in the immediate aftermath of World War II with the famous black-and-white news footage of General Douglas MacArthur, a massive pipe in his mouth, stepping out of a plane and onto Japanese soil to take up duties as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Quite an appropriate opening seeing how Hosono was born just two years after the end of the war, when Tokyo, as he puts it, “[still] smelled of the war”. Regardless of being born on the heels of a national tragedy and humiliation, Hosono, reflecting on his early years, expresses gratitude for being born “in a time of peace”. From there, the film delves into Hosono’s almost mythical beginnings, which comprise a seemingly perfect elixir: a paternal grandfather who was the lone Japanese passenger on the Titanic; a piano-tuning maternal grandfather; an aunt who brought back to her young nephew records from her work at the Tokyo offices of Paramount; a mother who adored music; and a father who had quietly dreamed of becoming a dancer like Fred Astaire. No Smoking’s earliest memories are tastefully sprinkled with slapstick film-like segments of seventy-something Hosono in his day-to-day, acting funny, and recreating the American-style comedy schticks he had learned from his father, or contemporary footage of him leading his younger bandmates in amusing antics before recent gigs. The records that Hosono had listened to as a kid continue to have an impact on him today, which is tangible in his 2019 world-tour stops in Taipei, London, New York City, and Los Angeles. Footage from these shows thread throughout the film and demonstrate Hosono and his band exploring the old-time Americana music of his childhood and putting Americana spins on his own songs. The Hosono early years segment of the film closes with his college days, where he made connections with important people, including those who would comprise his first band, the psych-rock outfit Apryl Fool, which released only one self-titled album in 1969.
Following the disbandment of Apryl Fool, Hosono would go on to form Happy End, which is the basis of No Smoking’s second part. A band whose sound resulted from a combination of “Japanese words and West Coast sounds”, immense talent in addition to Hosono’s (Takashi Matsumoto, Eiichi Ohtaki, and Shigeru Suzuki) and a common desire to “experiment based on just wanting to create”, Happy End really only gained recognition outside of Japan over thirty years after the fact, when its folk-rock song Kaze wo Atsumete featured in the soundtrack to Lost in Translation (2003 dir. Sofia Coppola). In more recent years, the band is seeing a lot of well-deserved love outside of Japan through Light in the Attic’s reissues of its three studio albums. A tender and amusing scene from the Happy End segment of the film is very recent footage of Hosono revisiting Hollywood’s legendary Sunset studios, where the band had recorded their third and final album in 1972, and reconnecting with the ever-flamboyant Van Dyke Parks, who had co-produced the album. Hosono’s off-camera recollection of his first time meeting the eccentric American producer, both a cringeworthy and funny affair, is made all-the-more humorous by Hosono’s matter-of-fact but polite way of explaining how it all went down.
After Happy End, Hosono embarked on a solo career, whose mid-to-late seventies period is the subject of No Smoking’s ‘third chapter’. Following his first solo album, the mellow folk-rock-and-pop-infused Hosono House (1973), Hosono delved increasingly deeper into what he calls “tropicalism”, his distinct interpretation of “world-building” through music, whose origins can be traced to his idea that “strange things grow” in places where different cultures converge and to him listening to what he calls “quirky music”. It is also during this period that he began demonstrating a Brian Wilson-esque knack for experimentation and quirkiness. The culmination of this period is the highly experimental Cochin Moon (1978), an album that resulted from a trip to India, and a collaboration, with Tadanori Yooko, graphic designer, illustrator, printmaker, painter, and occasional actor (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters 1985 dir. Paul Schrader). Yooko sharing some of his recollections of the journey to India is wonderfully free of contrivances, as Hosono, though off-camera, sits nearby partaking in the reminiscing with his artistic collaborator. The two talking about an infamous “cleansing” case of diarrhea suffered by Hosono, is a tender, fascinating, and amusing moment. The sounds captured in India by Hosono would become the basis of Cochin Moon, and though it is not the most accessible of his five solo albums from the seventies, its significance cannot be over-stated: it is Hosono’s first completely electronic album, and, as such, it provides an important sonic bridge, a precursor so to speak, to his YMO “project” (it is also an album that should appeal to fans of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream). That No Smoking limits the discussion of this important album to one or two stories of Indian misadventures that preceded its production is one of just a couple of issues Hosono-philes might take with the film (for anyone hoping to learn more about the concept of Cochin Moon, including a detailed account of Hosono and Yooko’s time in India, I would suggest seeing Light in the Attic’s wonderful reissue).
Thus, the jump from Cochin Moon to the YMO phase, perhaps Hosono’s most successful musical venture, is done rather abruptly. A Hosono-inspired musical project, YMO began as a manual for “music that didn’t exist before”, in which Hosono, as revealed in No Smoking, meticulously justified the band’s concept and what it was aiming for, going so far as to include plans for singles in the US market. The project, however, soon “became play” as Hosono acknowledges, and this was amplified by what became known as the Rydeen phenomenon, a turning point for YMO, when their sophomore album, Solid State Survivor (1979), produced significant tracks – among them Rydeen – that would bring the band to the forefront of the burgeoning global electropop movement. A nice moment captured by filmmaker Sado is a random – “mysterious” and “improvised in a real sense”, as Hosono puts it afterward – one-song reunion of YMO in England during his most recent world-tour and roughly a decade since the band had last gotten together. The backstage interaction between Hosono, Sakamoto, and Yukihiro Takahashi before the encore is short, but the reverence that each member holds for one another is palpable.
Although No Smoking is principally a perspective on, and celebration of, Hosono’s fifty years in music, one cannot ignore the contributions of the other YMO members, including its “fourth member” Hideki Matsutake. That the music and computer programmer gets little to no mention in the film – his contributions to the aforementioned Solid State Survivor, in particular – could be considered a lapse to YMO connoisseurs (as a bit of minutiae for film buffs, Matsutake played a major technical role on Rydeen, including incorporating the sound of running horses from Seven Samurai (1954 dir. Akira Kurosawa)). On a related note, Hosono’s highly productive second career as a writer of hit pop songs for other artists, which started to take off during the YMO project’s first phase, gets too cursory a glance in No Smoking. Similarly, Hosono’s extensive soundtrack album work gets only brief mention, and his mid-to-late eighties musical output, which is defined by a variety of collaborations and genres, including, but not limited to, ambient, world and electronic, merited more attention. That the late eighties was significant and is deserving of more in-depth coverage is solidified by Hosono’s own words in the film when he praises his music from this period as “interesting to listen to today […] fresh.”
Hosono at his deepest, most earnest and perhaps, most emotional, in No Smoking happens when he is assessing the state and evolution of music appreciation around the world over the past decade.”
At this point, No Smoking, breaks from the chronological structure to explore Hosono’s views on smoking, how his music is being appreciated around the world and the future of his music. That cigarettes are a necessity for Hosono is made obvious early in No Smoking with footage of him smoking outside (and inside, on at least one occasion) venues on his 2019 tour. When he addresses his habit directly, he describes cigarette smoke as “very musical” and how when he smokes, it’s like “creating a puff of music.” At the time of reviewing No Smoking, I was in the process of reading the 1949 Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky, and Hosono’s comments immediately reminded me of the scene in which listening to local music in North Africa is compared to “watching the smoke of a cigarette curl and fold in troubled air.” (122) Coincidentally, Hosono’s YMO bandmate Sakamoto did the soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 adaptation of The Sheltering Sky and at roughly the same time, Hosono released Omni Sight Seeing (1989), an album imbued with world music; North African, in particular. Ultimately, Hosono feels that he approaches the act of smoking like his western musical heroes, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards primarily, as if it’s fuel for music and creativity. His views on cigarettes also bring to mind a 2007 Joni Mitchell interview in which she declared that tobacco was her “grounding herb” (Gill). Hosono’s rather unconventional views on cigarettes according to 2019 mores, highlighted by the film’s funny interludes of him smoking while walking, talking, dancing, and acting the jester on the streets of Tokyo and other cities on his most recent world tour, make him appear like an impish maverick, made all the more vivid by the fact that his musical genre of choice these days is Americana and troubadour.
Hosono at his deepest, most earnest and perhaps, most emotional, in No Smoking happens when he is assessing the state and evolution of music appreciation around the world over the past decade. No matter where they are in the world, music-lovers, according to Hosono, are listening to “good music in the same way.” Thus, he appears both thankful and hopeful for the fact that music from the past and present, including his own, can be heard “side-by-side” and, consequently, he feels that he will be “fine as long as there are music-lovers.” Likewise, Hosono appreciates up-and-coming and seasoned artists, both non-Japanese (Mac DeMarco and Jim O’Rourke, primarily) and Japanese (Gen Hoshino, in particular), for liking his music in a “universal way” – in essence how he has appreciated music for most of his life – and for “really listening” to his songs. This discussion is preceded by Hosono meeting with Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco, who is currently enlightening twenty-and-thirty something indie music fans in North America on Hosono with his own Hosono-inspired music.
But perhaps the sweetest encounter in the film is between Hosono and Taiwanese artist Gao Yan in a Taipei bookstore. Yan’s comic, Midori’s Song, is about a young woman in Taiwan who is moved by Hosono’s music. The filmmakers capture a natural interaction between the two artists, and Yan, obviously a big Hosono fan, does not face the camera to talk about her hero and how he inspired her. Instead, Hosono is shown praising her book, which is likely a conscious attempt by the filmmakers to display their subject’s graciousness and humbleness. His praise, however, is rendered all the more sincere when we learn that he at one time delved into comic art. An example of his work is then demonstrated as a Hosono-narrated interlude that sounds like Kafka, or a Natsume Sōseki dream short story,
Likewise, DeMarco is not interviewed in No Smoking, though he and Hosono are featured performing a song together at an LA show. Frequent collaborator, the quirky and brilliant musician and singer Akiko Yano, is also featured in a short, but delightful, clip in which she accompanies Hosono and his band on vocals and piano during their last show at New York’s Gramercy Theatre. Such authentic snapshots of Hosono totally trumping formal interviews with him and his collaborators and admirers might aggravate Hosono-philes looking to discover as many facts as they can about their hero in an hour-and-a-half sitting. But, how well would we have actually gotten to know the always creative, interesting and “world-building” Hosono had No Smoking simply given us a knock-off brand of cigarette in the end?
Bowles, Paul. The Sheltering Sky. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 2005.
Gill, Alexandra. “Joni Mitchell”. The Globe and Mail. February 7, 2007.
Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Atlantic Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Japan and Tunisia, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.