With Love from the 21st Century
A reflection on current events with Tempalay’s 2019 album, “With Love From the 21st Century.”
Picture this: You are seventeen years old in the bustling city of Tokyo, Japan. There’s one more year until you have to sit the most challenging exam of your life, the Center Entry Examinations for university. Amidst endless cram school sessions and wavering pressure from your parents to attend one of the “National Seven” universities, you find yourself too consumed with planning the next karaoke session with your friends. Emperor Akihito abdicated the throne for the first time in Japanese history, passing the crown to his eldest son, Naruhito. The end of the Heisei era and the start of Reiwa was announced on national television. The characters that represent the new era—which, for the first time, was taken from a Japanese poetry book instead of the usual Chinese archives—were ‘order’ and ‘harmony,’ a divergence from the motto of "peace everywhere" coined in 1989. Symbolically, when looking back at the events that transpired not just in Japan but on a global scale, this departure to peace was palpable. ‘Order’ was seen through strict pandemic lockdowns, but ‘harmony’ has pretty much been devoid of existence since. Deepened by prolonged economic stagnation and the extension of a “Lost Decade,” perhaps one of the most shocking assassinations that happened in Japan’s recent history, and growing social unrest with a widening poverty gap, there has never been a time where the name of an era was ironic to the present reality.
Tempalay’s With Love from the 21st Century was, in essence, a farewell to the Heisei era that members Ayato Ohara, AAAMYYY, and Natsuki Fujimoto grew up in. This is evident in from JAPAN and from JAPAN 2, which celebrated the past and put listeners on a psychedelic, rose-colored journey of a blossoming time of economic boom and an easy-going life. While this had been Tempalay’s musical brand since from JAPAN debuted in 2016, the band took a different approach when Reiwa began. Rather than simply creating an album that kept their signature “acid trip elevator music,” the band gravitates towards a forward-looking perspective—one marred with uncertainty, anxiety, and dread wrapped around endless layers of Ohara’s unnaturally high-pitched, joyous voice. The loose thematic significance of With Love From the 21st Century being a record about the future is also apparent in AAAMYYY’s fusion of traditional Japanese music refurbished through heavy synths and Ohara emulating vocals similar to the Enka style. Japan has always been on the global playing field since the post-war period, but the fusion of tradition and modernity has never been more prominent and vital in the growing culture war of keeping “Japan for Japan” and opening their markets even further.
Despite the somewhat anxiety-inducing sound in With Love From the 21st Century, the album was created with a romanticist approach. In an interview for the Rolling Stones, Ohara states explicitly that his intention with the album was to leave a record of the 21st century on Earth the same way NASA’s Voyager Golden Record was launched to show potential extraterrestrial life of what Earth’s diverse culture looked like up until 1977. With this mission in mind, Tempalay marvels at the task, with tracks such as the lead single “Be Absorbed, and Shake.” The track was recorded in the secluded mountains of AAAMYYY’s hometown in Nagano, and she envisioned artist Taro Okamoto’s “beautiful anger” when she was coming up with the soundscapes that paint a hellish, dystopian reality embellished with stylistic yet disjointed mixtures of jumpy synth bites and Fujimoto’s mastery of creating worlds with hi-hats. Personally, I think the band did an excellent job at depicting how to be angry beautifully. I was dancing to this song while powering through a 14-hour time difference between Toronto and Tokyo, locked inside my room in the dead of night after saying “good morning” in response to my grandmother’s “good night, I’m going to bed now.”
“Sonatine” is another song that deviates from Okamoto’s “beautiful anger” and perfectly captures the real struggles of Japanese creatives in the 21st century. The music video, which has created some controversies across the Japanese public, is set in a mountainous summer, led by a 4th grader who invents guns as a part of his independent research—an aspect of Japanese school life that negates the whole point of a vacation. While there are too many details to pick apart from the music video alone, “Sonatine” is a beautiful statement on the loss of vitality and the troubles that come with filial piety and an aging society. The low birth rates coupled with an inverted population pyramid, added with harrowing comments of Japan’s population decrease of over 80% by 2050, Ohara laments at the exhausting tension of creating and innovating with surmounting pushbacks that come with an aging population problem. Many East Asian countries are highly Confucian, and a part of the dogma is unyielding respect and servitude towards your elders. Though it is honorable to a certain extent, work-related hazing rituals of turning young, new hires into alcoholics have become commonplace in the Japanese work ethic. Disrespecting your elders and your work veterans is seen as a crime, and the lasting effects of this cultural attitude in all industries are communicated effectively in “Sonatine,” where Ohara, despite opening the song by complimenting the colors of the world and wanting to see a raw, naked depiction of authenticity, suddenly breaks down in the second verse with a note to god:
Dear God, please hear me / I am tired beyond belief / let’s just say goodbye
“Artificial Green Beans,” as absurd as the title sounds, is the type of song you would hear as a villain’s main theme. Spurred with sparse, demonic laughter that echoes from the left ear to the right and perhaps one of Fujimoto’s best drumming works to date, “Artificial Green Beans” is a conversation between “Hanson,” an inventor, and “Sophia,” who seems to be a robot, about the dangerous evolution of artificial intelligence:
Hanson:「Do you want to destroy humans？」/ Sophia:「Okay. I will destroy humans.」
In the song, Hanson is overtly optimistic about unlocking the full potential of AI, celebrating a return to an easygoing life in the future where humans are not needed anymore. As Creatives, Tempalay is best adept at understanding AI's implications in the arts, but Ohara lyrically prods the problem past their industry. In hindsight, Tempalay recognizes that the fruits of AI will be behind a paywall, the same way ChatGPT 4.0 is under a subscription system. Soon enough, there will be a barrier between those who can afford AI and those who can’t, alongside a growing reliance on the technology in various white and blue-collar work.
Safe and secure at an affordable price / But if you retaliate, I will retaliate back
With Love From the 21st Century is also not shy of songs that just… don’t make any sense. “Strip Mahjong” is, at first glance, littered with metaphors that lead to nowhere, vague lyrics, and intense, atmospheric worldbuilding with Ohara’s dissonant guitars, booming bass and drums from both AAAMYYY and Fujimoto, and hypnotically alluring string ensembles that perfectly blends into an open, ascending chorus that sounds just like ethereal carnage. Sans poetic embellishment, the song is, quite literally, just about engaging in strip mahjong in the backdrop of drugs and lust. “Queen” is just about the Mario Bros saving Princess Peach, embroiled in a low-tempo, relaxing BPM and mellow guitar riffs. “A Close Encounter of the Third Kind” promises a short instrumental that plunges you into the empty, deep space abyss. Kudos to Tempalay for not backing down from tomfoolery and fun; every era needs its fair share of positive moments.
Tempalay’s world has always been a unique one, and their farewell to the Heisei era sonically cements this exit with “Otsukare, Heisei.” Starting off with an introduction to a raucous marching band and a cacophony of brass, Ohara strips off the mystery in his lyrical prose and has an honest, one-to-one conversation with the era itself, making hard passes on the poor handling of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. There is an eerie, foreboding omen embroiled in the warlike, marching band instrumentals of “Otsukare, Heisei,” as if Ohara is aware that the next era will end a long period of peace and prosperity. In today’s context, a lot of the talking points raised in “Otsukare, Heisei,” are still relevant and fast-moving. The political arena can’t seem to let go of the Democratic Party fumbling the search and rescue process following the March 11 earthquake and succeeding tsunami, and talks of remilitarization have swarmed the news since tensions between China, Russia, and the US exploded. Thematically, saying an official “goodbye” to Heisei has been bidding a final adieu to a journey that started with an easy life and ended with the throes of working a salary that can’t even sustain basic living costs in an expensive city like Tokyo. It’s been about thirty years since the asset price bubble burst in 1989, and as Ohara has repeated, everything’s getting a tad bit too tiring. Escapism was not as affordable as it used to be, and now, despite the irony of your country having one of the worst criteria for immigration, you want to move out into a different world. “Gambatte” was once a word that sparked inspiration and a will to live despite tough times; the phrase is rendered meaningless at the end of an era.
As you can see, I’m still doing my best / I’m just trying my best to live / The ground shakes as if it's growling / In the same way a tsunami undulates
Now, picture this: It’s 2024. You are in your senior year of university and are set to graduate in April. You have an entry-level job lined up for you at a large, yet dying company. You don’t have time to scroll through Twitter or TikTok anymore since the pandemic's official, yet abrupt end because your life has just started, now in the backdrop of several warzones across the globe and a potential threat of joining the military if ever China invades Taiwan. After all, the current Kishida administration has luckily postponed tax hikes to sustain a growing military-industrial complex. You never focused on your English classes; it’s the first thing your employer asks of you in your job interview. The Reiwa emperor and his family are on the front screen of a television you haven’t turned on since graduating high school, wishing 2024 to be a year of bright hopes. The prior program was about a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hitting West Japan. Power’s been cut off, and a high school friend whom you haven’t talked to in a while messages you about the damage sustained in her family home. Then, the program switches to the regular catalog—a group of comedians making outdated jokes that still make the entire population laugh.
Taking the remote, you turn the television off, heaving a sigh. What’s there to look forward to in 2024? Amidst increasing stabbing incidents in a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world, a rescue plane colliding with a commercial aircraft in Haneda airport, and a tsunami warning, there’s not a lot to be optimistic about when you’re living such a life in Japan. But was it any different than the Heisei period? Sure, growing up at the height of Japan’s title as Asia’s economic bastion might have sounded like a dream. Many stories from your parents were told about the charismatic “Ashie-kuns” who drove fast cars in the middle of empty highways, bringing girls with them to the nearby shores of Atami. That might’ve been fun, yes, but the bubble economy was not the only thing that cemented the Heisei era’s identity. “Peace everywhere” is a misnomer for the catastrophic March 11 earthquake, the eruption of the Fukushima Daiichi Powerplant, the onset of a “Lost Decade,” subsequent youth unemployment, and the flourishing of the “shut-in” lifestyle caused by massive layoffs. Heisei wasn’t just a jubilant era of sunshine and rainbows, but so were other periods throughout Japan and the world as we know it. The reality of being human is delving through the complex simplicity of tragedy, malaise, and happiness—that’s just how it is, and how it will be in the coming years.
Perhaps this was a prophecy to what they believed was a bleak future, or perhaps it was just luck that the Reiwa they painted in With Love From the 21st Century matched the reality they witnessed. Regardless, Tempalay provides a timeless record that NASA should also consider launching into space, alongside the outdated Voyager Golden Record. We don’t know if aliens exist or not, but the hellishly beautiful trip-inducing soundscapes that Tempalay paints in With Love From the 21st Century might be a great addition to an artistic outlook on the lived realities of a lonely archipelago in the Pacific.
POST MORTEM: Many of the links throughout this article are in Japanese. Feel free to use any translating tool to access the interviews from Tempalay and significant historical tidbits in With Love from the 21st Century convey.