Tong Poo Refreshed

Following the special edition of the Yellow Magic Orchestra track for Junya Watanabe’s recent show, Ryuichi Sakamoto will release it later this month as a limited-issue vinyl

A single track from the B side of a 43-year-old record has just been re-released. Tong Poo by the seminal Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) is now a two-track vinyl that features the acoustic version of the original, played and rearranged by band member Ryuichi Sakamoto, who wrote the song. This new version debuted last month at the spring/summer 2022 show of Junya Watanabe. According to reports, Mr Watanabe had reached out to Mr Sakamoto for the latter to re-imagine the song in order for it to be used as soundtrack to his fashion show. It was a song that apparently impressed the designer in his younger days. The musician agreed, and Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe was born, a version quite unlike what was first released.

Tong Poo (東風) or east wind in Japanese was the first composition written by Mr Sakamoto that was used in the eponymous YMO album and the only track of his recorded by the band for their debut. At the time, YMO’s electronic sounds, coming in the wake of the likes of Kraftwerk, married arcade game e-blips with melodies that could be considered Oriental kitsch. Tong Poo was, according to Mr Sakamoto, inspired by Chinese classical music and the cultural revolution in China. He told the media around that time that when he wrote it (concurrently with songs for his own debut One Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto), he was imagining the Beijing Symphony Orchestra playing it! In Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe, the BSO might actually be tempted to do so.

In the original version on vinyl, it appears as the first track of the B side, an almost lyric-free song, except for the short sing/speak of singer-songwriter Minako Yoshida that appeared in the US release of the album. Rather unusual for the time, Tong Poo seems to prelude the song that followed, the joyful La Femme Chinois, as the former flows rather seamlessly to the latter. Tong Poo was very much a part of the YMO setlist during their live shows. Similarly, it was a staple for Mr Sakamoto’s own live performances. Among the YMO inner circle, Akiko Yano, wife of Mr Sakamoto (and part of YMO’s live shows), recorded Tong Poo with Japanese lyrics for her 1980 solo album Gohan ga Dekitayo (ごはんができたよ). Her version, with her distinctive high-pitch vocals, sounded more Japanese than Chinese. Interestingly, an SOTD reader told us that he once heard a bootleg version as soundtrack to a porn film!

Although, Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe is arranged for a fashion show, it bears little semblance to what is often played at such staging: it’s not beaty. While not sounding quite like Mr Sakamoto’s film score, it does have a cinematic quality about it, although there would be those who thinks it is more akin to the music he created for Yohji Yamamoto’s shows. Listening to this largely piano interpretation with some synthesizers, we miss the input of band mates Yukihiro Takahashi on drums, percussion, and vocal, and Haroumi Hosono on bass. Alternating between the latest version and that from the original album, as it was for the Junya Watanabe show, seems rather cool to us. Past and present in a happy mix.

Unfortunately, Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe is only available in Japan. Photo: Ryuichi Sakamoto

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