Information in English regarding Chiemi Manabe’s career and the circumstances surrounding Fushigi Shoujo parallel the album itself: both require digging and unfortunately, both are destined to obscurity. There were many fantastic albums released in Japan in the early 80s’s, and those who know them covet them. Just check how high this LP goes on Discogs.
It’s fitting that Manabe’s only album title translates to “Mysterious Girl.”
Prior to making Fushigi Shoujo, Manabe was on the path to become a J-pop idol. In late 1981, she joined the idol group Pansy and starred in the 1982 film Natsu no Himitsu. However, Pansy didn’t release any official recordings and Manabe never appeared in another film. 1982’s Fushigi Shoujo didn’t chart and Manabe left the industry to become a magazine model.
It wouldn’t be strange if an idol did not make it in the early 1980’s; very few rose to stardom. What is unusual is the amount of talent behind Fushigi Shoujo, with writing credits from cutting-edge Japanese new wave artists Epo, Akiko Yano, Kazuhiko Kato and most notably, electronic pioneer and Yellow Magic Orchestra member Haruomi Hosono, who wrote the music for five tracks.
The only information in English connecting Hosono with Manabe is the existence of this album.
From the bizarre cover art depicting Manabe looking disinterested while spotting a UFO in a Peter Pan leaf suit, to the music’s crisp production, Manabe’s sole album is an eclectic treat.
Fushigi Shoujo excels because it is both grand and unassuming. For a record with so many synth layers and clashing sounds, remarkably, it never sounds overdone. I can’t count how many different synth melodies exist in the first track alone, but each one is unique and contributes to the greater whole of that single four minute song. A similar patterns exists for each track on the album.
Fushigi Shoujo is a spacey pop album that is neither too space nor too poppy. The paring of a failed j-pop idol and a team led by a techno wizard should not work and could very easily fall apart. It should fall apart. For example, “Let’s Go Romantic” is a poppy samba number layered with synthesizers fitting for an 80’s horror movie score. When that odd combination somehow begins to sound natural, an isolated, early-arcade sounding tune chimes in, counteracting the previous minute and a half of noise with total minimalism. This only lasts five seconds and briefly returns at the end of the track, but the jarring impact cannot be ignored. In the hands of a less experienced production and writing team, this would sound completely out of place and come across as poor craftsmanship. Here, it works, thanks to Hosono and company’s prior years of mastering the bizarre.
Hosono’s techno and electronic prowess at this point was nearing its peak, to the point in which his output seemed effortless. 1982 also saw the release of his acclaimed and highly influential album, Philharmony.
Listen how lush the production becomes during the chorus of “Targeted Girl.” Here, the synth line rises and falls, creating a gradually repeated riff very reminiscent of the pre-chorus to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” (starting around the 49 second point) released in 1986. Good synth pop tracks have texture, but great ones present this texture at unexpected times and ways, challenging its listener to pick apart its various mechanisms without having the song stray from it’s melodic structure.
Solid production can lead to an excellent presentation, but that’s not always a certainty. But on Fushigi Shoujo it is clear that Manabe, Hosono and company were not satisfied with anything below exceptional.
This perfectionist attitude is evident on the first track, “Mysterious Girl,” which is grand in an unassuming way. It’s silky and confident without being bombastic in a way very few musicians have mastered. The entire track is a slow build surrounded by numerous synth channels, including a ringing noise in the background leading to the hook, which adds to the texture without feeling suffocating. After such a build up, a grand chorus might be expected, but instead, Manabe brings a subdued, calming melody filtered as an echo accompanied by a peaceful orchestral swell. It’s almost as if amidst all the chaos, a comforting voice is needed to counteract the relentless tinkering.
This spaciness of Fushigi Shoujo borders on unsettling at times, but Manabe never descends into an entirely melancholy sound. Her mid-range voice and clear delivery are essential to the album’s production and ethereal quality. They never sound panicked, strained, too high or too low pitched. Even without the eclectic production, the vocal melodies and rhythms are far from those of an ordinary pop album. During every strange twist, Manabe is confident. The ballad “Romantist” especially highlights her abilities. It begins with a harrowing minor key piano riff (think of the first notes of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”: “I may not always love you…”), followed by Manabe’s soothing and hopeful vocals. This pleasant progression continues until the chorus, where she effortlessly switches to a different key (again, halting everything in place).
The only song that doesn’t excel is “Good, by-Good,” simply because it sounds like it could be from any j-pop album from that era. It’s by no means a bad song, it just lacks the innovative and exciting production that distinguishes the rest of the album.
And then Manabe disappeared from the music scene. Her magazine gig likely offered a more stable income than working in experimental synth pop, so her career switch is understandable. The fact that Fushigi Shoujo exists is a miracle. And undeniably, its murky aura adds to its mysterious nature.
What is not a mystery is the quality of this album. Simultaneously unsettling and calming, lush and minimalist, peppy and subdued, Fushigi Shoujo makes me wish that more musicians took risks with unknown talents as Haruomi Hosono did here. It’s a shame this was the team’s only collaboration, but what emerged from this short-lived partnership is irreplaceable in the cannon of synth pop greatness.
For a moment, the view from their telescope was clear.