La La La Love Song
Revisiting a classic pop song
In 1996, I had been living in Tokyo for four years, was working as a full-time Italian teacher, and life was great.
For Japan, however, it wasn’t such a great time. The country had entered a long period of severe recession known as Employment Ice Age that greatly affected the lives of the Japanese Gen X and impacted their financial well-being, health, outlook, and ability to start families. This so-called “lost generation” eventually became accustomed to unstable and temporary employment beginning in the 1990s, until at least 2010.
But not all was bad: music fans, in particular, fell in love with Kubota Toshinobu’s “La La La Love Song.” Kubota’s hit achieved million purchases and also became the artist's first number-one single on the Oricon singles chart. At week 6, the song achieved the number-one spot on the Oricon Weekly Singles chart and remained on the charts for ten weeks.
The song even contributed to the success of the TV drama Long Vacation, a love story but also a portrayal of a time when many young Japanese suffered profound depression from constant failure to earn a stable income. The series also portrays how relationships are made and broken, and explores how people come to depend on each other for solace.
The following text is a great piece I found in This Side of Japan, Miyauchi Ryo’s interesting newsletter about Japanese music, new and old.
But first, let’s listen to Kubota’s song.
PS I’ve posted two more versions, just in case YouTube deletes this link.
Did “La La La Love Song” ever sound new? Toshinobu Kubota’s first and only number-one hit is attached to such heavy cultural nostalgia, it feels as though the record existed as a throwback upon arrival. The public’s memory of the song in recent times seems to date the single as an even older song than it actually is. Korean singer Yerin Baek re-imagined it as a lost city-pop classic in 2018. When Shurkn Pap sampled it in 2021, the rapper overlaid the result as the backdrop of a Bubble-era image of sports car and a blazer-clad OL:
Never mind that Japan had been few years deep into its Lost Decade when Kubota’s single came out. “La La La Love Song” somehow perpetually resides in a distant, more optimistic era than the one we currently live in, if not the one home to the record itself.
I’m guilty of associating “La La La Love Song” as a document of lost nostalgia as well. I (re-?)discovered the single via a mix curated by Yeule in 2017 for FADER magazine in which the Singaporean artist traces back her memories through the selected tracks. Her father’s favorite Tomoko Aran track segues into a Yumi Matsutoya (nee Arai) song from the Ghibli film The Wind Rises, and then finally arrives Kubota’s hit to conclude the mix. “Brings me back to when I was in high school, used to watch the show after school,” Yeule wrote about the song and its associated show, the 1996 drama Long Vacation. I don’t remember exactly how I recalled the tune, but “La La La Love Song” still felt vividly familiar as a fabric of my own past. It was always going to be a throwback song for me from the start.
The single’s production is already pretty rooted in its era of pop, and that’s to say it occupies a spot in a peculiar, transitional period of R&B. The snappy drums retain the influence of New Jack Swing—a style which Kubota had more than flirted with throughout the ‘90s—yet the liquid groove eyes the neo-soul movement soon to come. The rhythm section grounds the song in the present, but the high-pitched synths signal in a sense of musical, if not personal nostalgia. Perhaps it’s those squealing notes that stick “La La La Love Song” most firmly in its time, especially as current-day pop songs insert it partly to blanket the record with a wistful, nostalgic atmosphere.
However the music may have sounded, though, “La La La Love Song” was destined to be a fixture of its era after the runaway success of its attached drama. The show carries the torch of a culture-defining hit like Tokyo Love Story which aired on the same primetime block earlier in the decade.
More than the story or atmosphere, Long Vacation remains emblematic of its time through its romantic leads played by two ‘90s powerhouses, Tomoko Yamaguchi and Takuya Kimura.
That said, “La La La Love Song” has grown too ubiquitous now for its lyrics to be bound exclusively to the lovers played by Yamaguchi and Kimura. Kubota’s devotional words like “you lifted me up / so there’s no time to be shy around you” can be sourced as a sentiment of Kimura’s Sena, an insecure pianist who finally gains confidence to pursue a fellowship after being in a relationship with Yamaguchi’s Minami. But the record lives on like it’s part of the public domain with it covered by dozens of artists from BoA, Ayaka to EXILE. Many voices have embraced the song’s opening lyrics to celebrate the connection in their own lives, enough for it to represent beyond the two fictional characters.
Long Vacation still follows the song like a shadow, but “La La La Love Song” brings attention to the show at this point, not the other way around. Which makes me wonder how familiar people like Yerin Baek or Shurkn Pap are with the drama series. Long Vacation hardly feels like something I can claim as a piece of my own history, existing more as a blurry memory in the background, and so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they don’t know about the show other than how it once featured Kubota’s song. So Kubota’s single has naturally become more and more informed by new nostalgia as it has been handed down into the lives of newer generations. “La La La Love Song” outlived its initial life, and now it persists to live anew.
How about you? How was your 1996?
Do you have any favorite Japanese artist? Any song (Japanese or otherwise) that reminds you of a particular time in your life? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading Tokyo Calling! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.