It would be a mistake to call Shugo Tokumaru’s music naïve, although it would be incredibly easy to do so. The giddy rush of toy instruments, effervescent melodies, and his innocent, understated voice seem painfully out-of-step with the world outside, where revolution and turmoil seethe and we are seemingly always just one cataclysmic misstep away from going beyond the precipice. His latest, Port Entropy, is a child-like symphony of tiny pleasures, a delicate flower in bloom, always likely to be crushed under stampeding jackboots. But insinuating naïvety on the part of Tokumaru is to not take into account the sheer power of denial. It’s not so much that he is ignorant of the harsher realities out there, but that he willfully chooses to ignore them in favor of creating his own cozy womb of sugar-rush melodies and sonic wonderment.
Tokumaru always, as a rule, creates his albums completely on his own. In the sense that he can perform, record, and produce his own work, he has to be considered a virtuoso. This is no small feat considering the amount of instruments used and compositional complexities of his music. His prodigious talent, self-reliance, and the childlike nature of his output thus far make him a sort of functional hikikomori. However, instead of retreating into his adolescent bedroom in total abhorrence of the world never to be seen again, Tokumaru somehow manages to exist in this stasis between acknowledgement of the world around him and the will to create untainted, experientially pure pop songs. In fact, his closest artistic relative may be Michel Gondry, whose wild creativity often takes on a whimsical air, although often tempered by undeniable emotion heft. To be sure, Tokumaru’s music has quite a lot in common with the struggle of Gael Garcia Bernal’s character in The Science of Sleep, who is pulled in two directions at once, between his innocent dreams and the altogether harsher reality he reluctantly inhabits.
Not being able to understand Tokumaru’s lyrics, it’s useful to note that many of his songs are inspired by the dream diary that he keeps. Using context clues provided by album art and videos also helps, as the art for Port Entropy has a definite hint of Henry Darger, and the videos for this record have a kind of endearing cuteness coupled with slight melancholy. The video for “Lahaha,” with its cat and dog friends taking a trip to the moon, is perfectly visualized to suit the xylophone and recorder harmonies of the song. “Rum Hee,” the album’s first single, is twinkling and delicate, the kind of song that, paired with a specifically great mood, can lift you off your feet. Not all over-the-top smiles, the album’s quieter moments shine in their own way. “Linne” features lithe, timeless piano melodies and a singing saw to create a mellow gold autumnal feel.
Despite how lovable some of these songs are, others feel a bit like having to endure too much children’s television. “River Low” is goofy to the point of being cloying. “Drive-Thru” comes off like watching a particularly bad Steve Martin family film; it’s just too wholesome to be sustainable. The same goes for the overly-breezy “Straw”; there are just too many peaks and valleys in two and a half minutes. These three songs occur together about two-thirds of the way through the album and, despite the more positive aspects of Tokumaru’s supercharged song structures here, represent the main fault of this approach in relation to his more endearing qualities: sometimes all this giddiness can just be too much for an uninterrupted listen.
Port Entropy is Tokumaru’s fourth widely-available full-length and sees him taking his songs to greater aspirational heights than much of his previous work, which has been characterized more by restraint than indulgence. While maintaining many stylistic consistencies with his widely-accepted debut, 2004’s Night Piece, here he takes those bare-bones structures and beefs them up with multi-tracked vocals, sweeping hooks, and toy orchestra swells. The polish and refinement of his usual approach (which was never lacking in Beatles-esque pop sensibilities) resulted in this album cracking the Japanese Top 40 albums chart upon its initial domestic release in early 2010. It’s only just now finding its proper release in the States, and will find success with longtime fans and new listeners alike — basically anyone looking for a tender-hearted moment or two in their daily listening.