Issue #45: Dark Rituals and Other Activities
First issue of 2022 explores the new Shapeshifter album, the best single by the Queen of Winter Songs and the anime The Heike Story
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The opening reel to The Heike Story looks innocent during the anime’s early stages. Various members of the Taira clan, the family of nobles central to the anime, appear to the tune of Hitsujibungaku’s triumphant title track “Hikaru Toki” with everyone wearing a smile. But as the show leads more into the clan’s fall from military power and ultimately the end of their line, the intro sequence turns increasingly poignant as the final days of its characters nears closer and closer.
Perhaps not to the scale of military coups, but Hitsujibungaku knows well about heading towards what seems like a dead end. The indie-rock trio’s debut album, 2018’s Dear Youths, found them disillusioned by false promises going into young adulthood, surrendering to a state of hopelessness about the future. The band has grown significantly wiser since, and frontwoman Moeka Shiotsuka displays her matured life perspective in the show’s theme song, “Hikaru Toki”: “I get lost, but life / calling calling is calling me / then let’s live it to the fullest,” she sings. And her choice to ultimately embrace life despite the odds placed against her is one of the many powerful messages of “Hikaru Toki” reflected from The Heike Story.
What would become of the Taira is already revealed in the first few episodes by Biwa, the main character whose presence allows the viewers access to the lives of the clan and the political drama surrounding them. The little girl gets adopted by Taira No Shigemori, the leader of the Taira, into his family after the death of her father. What intrigues Shigemori about Biwa is her ability to foresee the future through her supernatural eye, and she warns him about the fall of his clan soon upon the two meeting. The Taira clan is sealed in its fate despite Shigemori’s best efforts to alter course, and all that the adopted Biwa can ultimately do is witness the collapse from the sidelines.
Biwa’s position as an outsider to the Taira clan sometimes sounds reflected in “Hikaru Toki” with Shiotsuka singing in the second person. “Your footprints keep changing as you go / But you’re so caught up by what always lies ahead,” Shiotsuka reminds another about their sure-made progress that they can’t see themselves. The doomed point of view alluded throughout the song does not entirely belong to her, and her distance from it makes her a fitting person to comfort and give advice: “I’ll say it over and over, the world is beautiful / because you won’t give it up,” she cheers on as the one outside looking in.
The Taira keeps a distance from Biwa until the end of The Heike Story despite their deep connections made with her, but it is for the sake of Biwa, the clan and the very survival of the Heike story. The last surviving members of the Taira forces Biwa to leave their residence as war rages on and her proximity to the clan endangers her own safety, but she eventually finds her way back to see the end of the clan’s journey. During the final episodes, you hear Biwa repeatedly insisting to stay by the clan’s side to witness everything that happens during their last days. She ultimately fulfills her role as the biwa hoshi, laying the clan’s history in the form of song in case no one else will.
“The [original] Heike Story is made and told by the biwa hoshi, and I thought how it keeps getting re-written from storyteller to storyteller was really interesting,” the anime’s director Naoko Yamada said on Asmik Ace last December. “They read the room and change the story, making it into something more exciting, and that role of the biwa hoshi seemed so fascinating. So for The Heike Story as a series, I thought the main character had to be the biwa hoshi.”
The Heike Story works in this part of Biwa as the show’s assigned biwa hoshi and its main storyteller in a number of ways. For one, while it elaborates upon the imminent start of a battle, the anime withholds much of the depiction of actual act of war. A good portion is left to the viewer’s imagination with the bloodshed instead narrated through song lyrics, sung by a biwa player who resembles Biwa. The role of the lyrics in the story-telling reminds how some folk songs originally came about: as a product of documentation but also myth-making rooted in real historic events, its details changing constantly as it gets re-told.
Like the narration of war, its transpiring violence and attached political drama, each deaths of the key members of the Taira family also gets shared in the form of song lyrics. The song doubles as an obituary with Biwa memorializing the family’s life and their personal darkness via music. “Even at the end of the final episode / someone will share the memory they made with you,” Shiotsuka sings in the bridge of “Hikaru Toki.” Not much since the era of the Taira seems to have changed about the power of lyrics and music.
Happy New Years, and welcome back to This Side of Japan! And hello to any new readers since the newsletter’s Best of 2021 issues! This is the first regular issue of 2022, and I already have some exciting new music to share. I got some metal and hardcore recommendations for anyone interested in heavy music. If that’s not your thing, don’t fret: there’s more pop and dance music down the line as well.
Hope you also enjoyed Tetsuya Komuro Week, a series of essays on the influential J-pop producer and his five essential hits. For what it’s worth, it’s a project I’ve been working off and on for years so I am very happy those drafts are finally out in the world. You can get started on that here, if you missed it.
This is a bit back, and perhaps not timely, but I was invited once again to guest on the Arama! Japan podcast for their Best of 2021 episode! You can listen to that here.
I’ll get you going on this issue now. Happy listening!
Album of the Week
Dark Ritual by Shapeshifter [ungulates]
“Double the length” for Shapeshifter amounts to an additional 9 minutes in Dark Ritual, the follow-up to their 8-minute debut record, The Darkest Night. But the hardcore band gesture towards an abundance of room in their latest album as they capitalize on the extended running time to showcase stylistic expansion. They freely sidestep into other pockets of interest in between the brutal metal assault familiar from The Darkest Night without a loss of edge or momentum, and the economic ways in which they cover so much ground do right by their very name.
From the thick feedback rumbling in the intro, Shapeshifter summon up the thrash-metal storm “Black Liquid” to kick the album open. The song doesn’t introduce the level of speed and power inside Dark Ritual as much as it throws you straight into its throes. While the few stylistic detours and interludes offer a respite, the band is quick to return to the scheduled violence. In the case of “Rust,” the solemn post-hardcore riff that calmed the rage eventually becomes the motif behind the next set of turbulent waves. What seemed like a cue to a period of rest locks in as the backbone for the second round of fury.
Brief as they are, these detours carve out the dips and valleys that pace out the album’s ensuing chaos. Sometimes the combination results in added impact: the bursting drum fills of “Hereditary” give an even more intense whiplash when it emerges from the screeching feedback of “Mind Twist.” And the band’s ear for pacing culminates in “Abortive Flower” with the song’s sludgy half-step knocking two birds with one stone: playing with the album’s sense of time while presenting their signature heaviness in a new angle. A change in speed doesn’t weaken Shapeshifter’s music in the slightest, the inflated heft elevating the band into a towering figure.
The glimpses into other terrain like “Rust” or “Abortive Flower” also point to potential areas for Shapeshifter to further explore. Those moments hit too potent to be a flash in the pan, though there’s also only so much room to flesh them out into entities of their own. The best read is that those peaks tease of more violence to come, and Dark Ritual marks only the beginning of a still-new act.
Perhaps the members of Shapeshifter save these adjacent ideas more for their other projects. Each musician in the four-piece claims membership to at least two other bands, and each of their respective groups are worth checking out as well if you’re interested in heavy music such as punk or metal. Here are a few to get you started if you so wish to hear more:
The Origin of Hyper Doom by abiuro [Captured]
The sludginess of “Abortive Flower” in Dark Ritual can be traced to abiuro, which lists Shapeshifter’s Masaki Ikuta as its guitarist and vocalist. Last year’s mini album, The Origin of Hyper Doom, collects sluggish metal of the sludge and doom variety, with Ikuta humming guttural growls in tune to the slab of caked riffs. Out of this batch, it’s the most distant from Shapeshifter with it devoid of much punk and thrash.
Big Drip EP by HETH [self-released]
If abiuro stands the farthest as a thread of Shapeshifter, then HETH lies the closest in proximity. Their brand of metal-infused hardcore is heavy as it is agile in Big Drip, indulging in sludgy, militant guitar chugs one second, and bashing with clatters of drums the next. “Adabana” best showcases the grasp of their craft as they kill it with speed but also settle into the smoothest groove.
I by ONLY THE LAST SONG [Toy Gun]
Guitarist Ryohei Kajino mans vocal duties for this hardcore act, sticking to a voice suiting more for punk compared to the high hisses of Shapeshifter. A hunger for speed remains in ONLY THE LAST SONG’s debut record, I, as with Dark Ritual, and opening track “Melt” makes that clear from the get go. That said, they show dexterity as much as agility, winding down on the latter half of “Match Up” to recharge for more.
Different Senses by KLONNS / SOILED HATE [Discipline]
While the same person in HETH is part of SOILED HATE, their portion for this split with hardcore act KLONNS sound a lot more sour in perspective with the music more desperate to break out of its chains. They employ snippets of dialogue about heading towards the future only to respond back with biting hardcore as though the band sneer at the prospect of some bright time ahead. SOILED HATE stands ready to call out bullshit, stamping Different Senses as my favorite from this batch.
“Tinkerbell” by BUDDHAHOUSE ft. ItoShin [Fruit Parlor]
Fruit Parlor kept quiet throughout all of 2021, up until the last week of the year with a drop from label head BUDDHAHOUSE. While you can expect humorous antics from the producer—like the robo-electro chant of a hook in his techno banger “Teledance” from 2019—he aims pretty straightforward in the laid-back groove of “Tinkerbell.” The chillness is maybe a product of a mind meld with featured guest and label mate ItoShin, whose disco spirit found in an album like Baby also glows in the track’s lush loop. Whatever the case, the house-music warmth of “Tinkerbell” is a welcome delight as winter continues in this part of the world.
“IN THIS WORLD” by MONDO GROSSO ft. Ryuichi Sakamoto [Avex Trax]
Shown from experience, Shinichi Ozawa knows how to best utilize the ethereal voice of Hikari Mitsushima despite the actress leaving behind very few song contributions for anyone to use as reference. Mitsushima in this new MONDO GROSSO track calls to mind the late-night, out-of-body yearning of “Labyrinth” for certain. Her part also reminds me of her ghostly presence in the recent collaboration with Kaz of idol group INTERSECTION as “IN THIS WORLD” transports matters to somewhere beyond the corporeal.
The grumbling bass line and the steady drums establish some semblance of a horizon line, but most of the song seems to exist in vacuum in which Mitsushima freely indulges in her desires. The surrealism of the lyrics—“so let’s become love / and embrace this dried-up world,” the guest actress opens the song—reads as a product of the song’s seductive dreaminess. That said, lyrics feel more like a vehicle to the main hypnotic melody established by the stern piano, performed by none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto; words start to all melt into sound the moment Mitsushima sings. The beat switch towards the end of the track snaps you awake from its trance. The actress reads the lyric straight from the page, but her words are hardly recognizable as the same ones she’s been singing during all this time.
BIG WORLD is out February 9. Listen to the song on Spotify.
“Scarlet” by Takafumi Matsubara ft. Jon Chang [Gurkha Commando Blast Team]
Takafumi Matsubara originally had written the songs on Mortalized (Poison EP) for his former band Mortalized, but “Scarlet” also recalls the guitarist’s other old group Gridlink. Perhaps the connection is inevitable with him recruiting Jon Chang for vocals, and the piercing rasp of his guest and former band mate certainly cuts through Matsubara’s pummeling music as it once did with the now-gone grindcore act. The rest of the EP swirls with speed and heaviness that equals “Scarlet,” in support by other vocalists once involved with Mortalized, but that voice bursts out from the pack like no other.
This Week in 1996…
This section is usually dedicated to the Oricon number ones throughout the chart’s history, but for this issue, I’ll write about a hit that did not make it at the very top.
“Galaende Ga Tokeruhodo Koishitai” by Kohmi Hirose [Victor, 1995]
The old meme goes that it’s officially winter when it’s time to put on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on the regular rotation1. But for me, the arrival of winter is signaled by the music of Kohmi Hirose. The people of Japan recognize the singer as the Queen of Winter Songs, a title partly engineered by her label as well as the sports goods company Alpen: her singles have graced more than a dozen of the latter company’s ski wear ads throughout the ‘90s. Out of all of her wintertime anthems, I’d argue her 1995 single “Galaende Ga Tokeruhodo Koi wo Shitai” ranks as her best.
But to talk about Hirose, we must first discuss the song that earned her the Winter Songs crown. Her most successful single and only number one, 1993’s “Romance No Kamisama” remains the blueprint for Hirose’s tie-up songs for Alpen. “Boy meets girl / the moments I’m in love / I think I’m feeling you,” she sings in her signature high notes. Alpen fittingly syncs the song to a meet-cute scene of a young man and woman while out shopping for ski gear: winter vacation is time for love, the ad seems to tease, so why not take our gear with you for your special moment? And Hirose’s ecstatic passion she pours into the song elevates a simple pitch into a promise of a lifetime. That heart-fluttering feeling of possibility establishes an everlasting quality to the song as well as a reference of the general feeling that her subsequent contributions for Alpen aspires to capture.
Alpen seemed confident to double down on the name recognition won through Hirose by their third collaboration in 1995. Not only did the company again tap the singer for the song, “Galaende Ga Tokeruhodo Koishitai,” they also produced an entire film of the same name for the year’s commercial campaign. While the movie didn’t leave much of an impression2—“I thought I was watching a really long Alpen commercial,” wrote one viewer in 1999—Hirose took the tie-up as an opportunity to tweak her winning formula.
Matching the for-the-movies scale, Hirose cues in a blindingly bright orchestral intro before heading into the lush, jazzy funk beat. The main arrangement gleams with so much light that it allows no room for even a slight amount of glumness. The vibrancy follows the tradition of a series of songs dedicated to a spark igniting a once-in-a-lifetime romance. But Hirose also plays a lot with humor this time around: “You go ahead and hold me close over my coat / but don’t ask me, ‘did you gain some weight?’ / I think you should change that part about you,” she snaps in irritation from his teasing, adding a cheesy rom-com twist into what could’ve been another straight-up love story.
The song saves the real spectacle for the chorus. Like in her preceding Alpen singles, it’s where Hirose gets to really swing her voice around, and the lyrics seems chosen precisely to maximize the impact of her superhuman voice. Zekkocho (on a roll), kyujosho (soaring high), saikocho (in full swing), kyusekkin (suddenly approaching): hyperbolic phrases punctuate the start of each stanza like a moment to brace before the big ascension, and Hirose draws out the extremity of each word like she’s bolding it and underlining it twice. She’s high on cloud nine until the very end, feeling her head-over-heels self: “my future belongs only to you,” she calls out, and her energy pops her out of the track as if she’s pointing to you, the listener.
Perhaps a product from it being the third installment of a recurring series, “Galaende” exudes a sense of self-awareness from Hirose. She knows what’s expected from her now: she keeps the bridge brief to quickly get back to the chorus but not before showing off her high notes. The self-assured demeanor bring about not a feeling of routine from her but a sure-shot confidence, further emphasized in the playfulness of her verses: she’s so immersed in her own story and the deliver of it, she almost forgets she’s supposed to be singing a song. Hirose didn’t just fully render the feeling that she first sketched in “Romance No Kamisama.” She defined the very character behind the successful series of winter love songs.
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"All I Want for Christmas Is You” peaked at number two on the Oricon, right behind Mr. Children’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It remains her best-selling and one of her most remembered singles in Japan, so I’m sure people in Japan, too, put that song on to properly welcome winter.
Galaende Ga Tokeruhodo Koishitai, the film, doesn’t seem to have left much of a cultural footprint with much of its existence known because of Hirose’s single. It does not have a Letterboxd entry at the time of this writing, though it somehow has an iMDB page, albeit with very, very scant information, rated an average of 4.3 stars out of 10.
The film seems to be more of a desperate cash grab from Alpen in retrospect. It looks to piggyback off of the public memory of Watashi Wo Ski Ni Tsuretette, a movie responsible for the last gasp of a potential ski boom in Japan, from 8 years prior in 1987 when Japan was enjoying the Bubble-era thrills and excess. Outdoors blog Greenstyle attached a graph showing profits of the ski/snowboarding industry in their ski boom article, and you can see the decline happening, unsurprisingly, from 1991—when the economic bubble burst. The untimeliness of Alpen’s place in the business selling winter escape makes the whole deal rather tragic in retrospect, but it’s also proof of how much power Hirose had revitalizing that corner of business through her songs, at least enough to make her contributions a cultural staple.