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Issue #40: Annihilation
Exploring the new AAAMYYY album, AKB48's "Koisuru Fortune Cookie," and Hikaru Utada's songs for the Evangelion films
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Like its associated film, “One Last Kiss” starts with a recap to explain all that had transpired in the life of Hikaru Utada. “There was no such thing / as my first Louvre / I already met / my first Mona Lisa,” the awe-struck singer begins in the theme song for Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time. “The wheels started to turn / the day I first saw you / A premonition for loss that I couldn’t stop.” While her reminiscences provide a beautiful distraction, she ultimately can’t escape her fate where she must inevitably face the end.
The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the Rebuild movies looked more extravagant than its TV counterpart, revealing far grimmer scenarios over the course of four films made in the span of 14 years. But all of the new developments in the story couldn’t distract the series from leading to the same conclusion as the original—the end—and we, the audience, have to come to terms that it is now complete. “Shinji Ikari is a truly hopeless protagonist who seems to be cursed to play out his own undoing for all eternity in different realities from now until the end of time,” Willow Catelyn Maclay wrote on Mubi in 2019 about the three Rebuild movies. “It is Shinji Ikari’s fate to bear witness to the end of everything, and it is Hideaki Anno’s to tell this story again and again.”
Appropriate, then, for Utada to also be in the mood to look back for the final song in the Rebuild series. After a clean break, the singer reflects what she once had using her head as she does her heart—a privilege only earned when the experience sits at a far enough distance in hindsight. The production glows more muted and subdued perhaps than what one would imagine from a song in collaboration with A.G. Cook, but the idyllic prettiness befits the sober head space of Utada. She now resides at a place on the other side of the aftermath where she can confidently sing “I love you more than you’ll ever know” as an easy-to-hum refrain but also as an obvious truth.
Utada’s songs for the four Rebuild films now also stand as a complete series of sorts with the last film finally out, telling their own story of loss sometimes parallel to their attached films. The songs, too, are in conversation with one another, making sense of familiar catastrophes while haunted by the same ghosts. While the unwavering perspective of “One Last Kiss” is admirable on its own, it resonates more powerfully after witnessing Utada’s decade-long journey to settle on such steady ground.
Utada’s sense of peace and emotional clarity in “One Last Kiss” is already well-earned following a starker, more obvious process of grief. “Sakura Nagashi” from Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo finds the singer during the immediate stage of loss. And while the song also relies on reminiscences to bandage the pain like “One Last Kiss,” here the barren present is too imposing for memories to offer a sweet distraction. “I can’t believe it that I can’t see you ever again,” she cries out during the song’s guitar-squealing peak. “I haven’t told you anything yet.” So much is left unfinished while the world moves along without a care.
Needless to say, since the last issue, I spent four nights watching the four Evangelion movies in order. On top of enjoying the movies, it made me appreciate Utada Hikaru’s songs for the series in a whole new way. (People who follow me on Twitter probably saw me spill my feelings on “Beautiful World” several times.) Do I recommend watching all four movies in such a short span of time? I can’t say for sure, but it was certainly quite a ride.
This issue’s Album of the Week is another work that stares deep into loss only to come out with pop music that sounds anything but pained and haunted at least upon first impression. There’s also several hundred words on an AKB48 single that I wanted to write about for a while. And of course, we highlight three singles worth your time.
Album of the Week
Annihilation by AAAMYYY [Warner Music Japan]
Honami Furuhara constantly confronts an ambiguous “you” throughout her latest full-length, Annihilation, under her solo guise AAAMYYY. “I have to be strong in front of you,” she sighs in “PARADOX” not before admitting, “I won’t say in front of you, but I’m a coward and all messed up.” Her biggest foe in the album turns out to be the singer-songwriter herself: “Of course, I think every listener will hear a different ‘you,’ but for me, it was a self-cleansing thing,” Furuhara explained to FNMNL. As self-critical as Annihilation gets, however, shadowboxing helps the musician make better sense of failure, loss and other daunting issues with no convenient solutions.
As Furuhara turns more inward in Annihilation, the resulting songs often take a point view as if you’re caught in the middle of a heated argument. They decry regretfully made decisions or try their best to shake off the nerves from said critique. While her airy vocals soften the lyrical punches, the ease in which she sings some of these remarks in the former type lets her words cut even sharper. “How many times were you reborn,” she nonchalantly quips in “TAKES TIME” after an extensive spiritual meditation. “How many times do you have to be reborn to be satisfied?” If her verses began to meander, she ensures she signs off her musing about determinism and resurrection with a clear, blunt point.
While Annihilation deals with mental warfare, the production keeps the songs from closing itself off from the outside world. The upbeat rhythm sections driving the stoic hip-hop of “Tengu” or off-the-cuff psych-rock of “Fushigi” play as an extroverted, reliable foil to Furuhara’s navel-gazing verses. The dance-friendly ends yield the most impressive results with thorny discussions adapted into approachable tracks. The skittering hip-hop backbone of “Elsewhere” prevents the written-out frustrations from bumming out the bounce; the slinky R&B of “PARADOX” hits deceptively funky alongside the singer-songwriter’s fight against her own stubbornness. The pop elements eases the tension, but they also liven Annihilation without brushing off the seriousness at hand.
Furuhara streamlines disparate influences such as synth-funk, R&B and psych-rock that previously laid scattershot in her last album, Body, into a cohesive, shimmering sound. The openness to diversity in style felt in the music of Annihilation is partly an actual result of outside support helping her see a new way forward. “‘TAKES TIME,’ for example, I originally made it with no beat,” Furuhara shared to FNMNL. “But after I gave it to Shin [Sakiura], he gave me back three different versions, and I chose it from there, thinking, ‘it’s got to be the trap beat for this one.’” The genre-blending in the production provides a friendly push and pull for Furuhara not to get too self-indulgent in her own thoughts.
As Annihilation settles into something more singular, the cohesion lends the singer-songwriter to a refreshed sense of self-confidence as her musical identity gains a newfound clarity. Her self-pointed lines can sometimes read like salt to a wound, but the self-assured pop production suggests she’ll be quick to stop obsessing over the bad and ultimately take it in stride. “It’s exhausting but pain helps us grow stronger,” she sings in “FICTION.” “Let’s be happy to the point we can cry with joy.” Annihilation may be a deeply self-critical look in the mirror, but it’s all done with the hope it wil lead to a worthwhile breakthrough.
“LATE NIGHT” by EDWARD(我) [Ourlanguage]
Seeing the recent surge of pop going punk and hip-hop beats looping alt-rock riffs, now is a great time for EDWARD(我) to indulge more in the emo-rap side previously explored in last year’s 202020 album. While grunge guitars before served as bedrock for a snapping trap track, the new song “LATE NIGHT” envisions the rapper in solitude writing a full-on rock song with a guitar hooked to an amp. The delivery remains hip-hop-influenced with ad libs sometimes filling for rhymes to keep the smooth, mellow flow. But she cries out about self-loathing and regretful memories in the chorus as one would in an emo song, the monstrous, blown-out guitar riff giving her that needed push to say what she’d been holding in all this time.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Jibunkatte Dazzling” by Suisei Hoshimachi [Cover Corp]
I don’t follow her activities too closely, though I’ve constantly returned to virtual idol Suisei Hoshimachi this year as she keeps up an impressive streak of music releases. While she already cemented a spot in my personal list of the year’s best, with both solo and as featured guest, she continues to turn in great work in “Jibunkatte Dazzling.” A contribution to Sega rhythm game Chunithm, the single places the idol atop lush, shifty electro-pop courtesy of veteran IDOLM@STER contributor Takuya Sakai. “I want to seem more of an adult / and excite you more than usual,” Hoshimachi sings in the chorus, setting herself with an alluring mystique. That said, “Jibunkatte Dazzling” shines when she lets a tender moment slip— “between the stars connecting the skies / there’s me who only you know,” she sighs—despite her best efforts to keep cool.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Ede” by Yukichikasaku/men [TOY’S FACTORY]
Yukichikasaku/men tweaks none of her surreal, broken jazz pop for her contribution, “Ede,” for an episode of the anime Artiswitch. Letting the singer-songwriter get loose with her crooked piano-playing turns out for the better as the psychedelic feel suits the dream-like sequence of the episode that explores a character’s inner psyche. Yukichi’s lyrics, too, fleshes out deep, subliminal desire while her words tumble out in an idiosyncratic rhythm—a signature quirk to her music. You never know if she is certain about her feelings with lines constantly held in suspense, lingering mid-thought with a chance they might betray expectations. When she’s absolutely sure, it hits with impact: “what I want / is only you,” she eventually sings after beating around the bush. It’s the most straightforward she gets, and there, she sounds the most free.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 2013…
“Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” by AKB48 [You, Be Cool!/King, 2013]
No. 1 during the week of Sept. 2, 2013 | Listen to it on Spotify/YouTube
AKB48 make it very damn hard to remember a time before “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie.” Filmed a few months ahead of the single’s release in August 2013, the music video imagines a world in which the record is already a massive hit. “What’s up, Japan!?” an American radio DJ shouts to hype up the wonderful music he’s about to bless us with. The low, muffled fidelity of the DJ’s voice—never mind that he is present in person during this video-exclusive part—further gives the illusion of the song’s modest funk groove emerging from a ‘70s R&B radio station. From its framing to pastiche of sound, “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” establishes an aura for itself as if it’s a long lost classic.
The music video continues to document the song’s ubiquity yet to be actually realized during the time of release. The Japanese public of all ages and backgrounds not only loves the song but already knows the now-iconic dance too. The “onigiri” move, like you’re packing a rice ball with your hands, is treated as a viral sensation in the world of the video. You can see glimpses of AKB members teaching the choreography, though it appears less like a proper tutorial than the idols catching up people who happened to miss the wave. If you happened to miss out, too, here’s a chance for you to join. And don’t worry, it’s very easy to learn!
All this push to will its success into existence, and in this nation-conquering scale, becomes comical once you learn that Rino Sashihara, the center member of the single, thought the song was horrible upon first receiving the demo. “When we only had the music video, all of the members didn’t think highly of it at all,” Sashihara shared on music program 1Ban Song Show in 2014, according to MyNavi News. “Sorry to Akimoto, but we thought it would never sell.” The persistence to emphasize the record’s imagined popularity can seem a bit overcompensating for everyone’s lack of confidence in regards to the single, especially as you read about AKB’s chief producer Yasushi Akimoto having to reassure Sashihara that the song and dance will catch on.
I can’t blame Sashihara for being skeptical. A fortune cookie? It’s a thought I return to, and it’s exactly the confusion also expressed in the documentary BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry by one of the members in the titular group about her first impression upon hearing the song, which the group covered in Thai as their second single. Though, as much as it seems like a random, silly reach of a phrase, Akimoto implements it into the song nowhere as absurd or cloying as one would imagine. It appears rather conservative as the mid-tempo funk with the titular chorus shouted modestly, especially considering how much it wants to be an anthem for the world to sing along to.
The uniting factor of “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” lies more in the song’s disco backing. Following the tradition of the borrowed dance genre, AKB ironically gathers people together by centering on the individual as the star of the show while the music is on: “The cute girl always / gets voted number one / please, please, please, oh baby / look at me too,” the idols sing one of many lines for others to claim as another hopeful girl yearning for her crush to look her way. But unlike disco’s desperation to cling on to the possibility of today, AKB break the fourth wall here and there to remind this competition is not all that serious. The song raises then deflates the stakes, maintaining a sense of peace both musically and lyrically as to leave many people content as possible.
The attempts for mass appeal also lets AKB’s own meta-narrative retreat more into the background. Those already familiar with the basics of the group’s culture may catch the loosely self-referential lines, though they come off more as subtle winks even to those in the know. On paper, the aforementioned lyric about the prettiest girls being “voted number one” seems on the nose coming from an idol group so focused on fan-led elections to choose their center girl, but it reads less self-aware on record after the group establishes the setting of a cafeteria: like many of their songs, they share about yet another everyday episode at a high school campus. But while other AKB singles allowed leg room for its school-based narratives to potentially stand in for grander metaphors, “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” plays it too straight to suggest anything deeper upon first glance. The music at least doesn’t care much to bring attention to these references, more occupied on making people dance.
And did the people dance: “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” became the second best-selling Oricon single of 2013, surpassed only by AKB’s own “Sayonara Crawl.” There are a number of articles and columns by critics trying to figure out just why the song caught on, breaking it down from a songwriting standpoint. But rather than quoting any analysis on style or structure, it’s perhaps much simpler to understand by looking at another chart: karaoke company Joysound reported in June 2014 that “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” was number one on their karaoke-request chart for 35 weeks in a row since release, making it also number one for the first half of 2014. There was truth in advertsing with “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” being as accessible and appealing for everyone to engage with. And after watching the video, AKB make it foolish not to join in on the fun with millions of others already on the wave—even before the song came out.
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