Shiina Studies 101 – Third Lecture

Kasho Abe (b. 1958) is a Japanese professor and critic, specializing in Japanese pop culture and subculture.  He has published books on subjects such as Ringo Shiina, comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto (from Downtown), Takeshi Kitano, Japanese cinema and even the AV industry.  His fansite has tons of information and analysis, mostly stemming from students of his at Rikkyo University.  The site hasn’t been updated in a while, so I don’t really know what Mr. Abe is up to these days.

Be that as it may, one of the articles on the site is by a Literary Criticism student of his called Shunichi Asai.  The article is titled On Tadashii Machi, and you can find it in the original Japanese [here].

Asai’s analysis goes deep.  Abe has a little preface commenting that his own thoughts on the song are much more mundane than his student’s!  Clearly, the professor disagrees with some of Asai’s ideas, but he admires the close reading, especially the way in which Asai focuses on the elements of Shiina’s singing that go beyond the actual written lyrics.  As with every post in this series, I will run through the main points of the article with my own comments in brackets [ ].

Perhaps we can see the influence of Belgian painter James Ensor’s compositions (with their crowds and masks) on the photograph for the Muzai Moratorium album cover.  All of the reporters are so many masks.  Ringo, practically the only female in the picture, is looking straight at the album’s listeners and engaging with us personally.   Ensor and Ringo have equivalent positions as artists surrounded by masks.

Left: Ensor's "Self-Portrait with Masks" / Right: Muzai Moratorium album cover

The setting of the album cover photo is the aftermath of a court trial.  Now, Ensor himself made fun of judges, criticizing their power over people’s lives.  In the case of Ringo’s cover, psychologist Erik Erikson’s concept of the Moratorium is on trial.  By moratorium is meant that adolescents, in a period where their identities have yet to be fully determined, are granted by society a breathing space to choose their own roles.  Here the breathing space has been put in question, but the court ultimately rules that Moratorium is innocent (=muzai). [the banner the man carries reads Muzai Moratorium]

Ensor's "Good Judges"

Ringo Shiina is a master of paradoxes and here’s one: if the judges (authority figures) rule that the Moratorium is innocent, then that means that they themselves must be put under a Moratorium.  The decision annuls their own authority [I take this to mean: judges are adults with power, if adults with power allow teens to explore their own identities freely, then the adults are undermining their own power…put another way: if there are only two people in the universe, an adult and a teenager, then the adult is delaying the creation of his own successor in the teen by allowing for a Moratorium…put a third way: if there is only one person in the universe, and she judges that the Moratorium is innocent, then she herself will lose her adulthood and revert to a freer state of identity experimentation]

As can be seen in the CD booklet, the flow of the songs in the album is patterned after Ringo’s own “quest”, from Kyushu to Tokyo, and then slowly from Tokyo Station to what will become her favored district, Shinjuku.  Tadashii Machi very clearly places itself in Fukuoka City, Kyushu.

(1) Ano hi tobidashita kono machi to kimi ga tadashikatta no ni ne.

(1) I flew away on that day even though the town and you were right.

The town is Fukuoka.  Ringo says the town and the man were right (kono machi to kimi ga tadashikatta no ni) but she immediately adds a very contorted “neee” at the end, that offsets the sentence and disturbs it.  This “ne” [roughly meaning “right?” as in “You’re hungry, right?”] has the function of denying or at least expressing scepticism as to the truth of the sentence.  Ringo is now a Tokyo person, and in this “ne” we can see her looking down on Fukuoka.  [Basically, it’s like saying: “You were right all along, huh” and then rolling your eyes, throwing the statement in doubt]  She subverts her own words.

The song stresses the distance/gap between the man and the city and province he represents (the Provinces) versus the singer’s new residence in the big city (the Center).  The conflict between the Center and the Provinces is also a conflict between the Majority and the Minority, and the Majority looks down on the Minority.  However, the song also makes clear that underneath there is a feeling of affection and homesickness in the singer.  There is a split here in the singer’s feelings.  [Here maybe the concept of Moratorium comes in again: Ringo is expressing the identity crisis that an adolescent under the moratorium must go through]

The axis of opposition is as follows.  On one side we have:

fuyukai (unpleasant)/ nagai (long) / taido (behavior) = I / Tokyo / Center   

Ranged against this is:

tsumetai (cold) / hitai (forehead) / kitai (expectation)* = You = Fukuoka = the suburbs = the Provinces

Two big points to note: (a) the first complex of words is associated with negative attitudes; (b) the rhyme of AI is everywhere here, possibly standing for “Love”, Sorrow and/or “Meeting” [this was mentioned by Ishikawa in her own article, cf. the Second Lecture]

(2) I showed an unpleasant smile and then after a long silence
my behavior grew worse.

The “long silence” probably refers to the one year that the woman and the man were away.  The distance was not only physical (Tokyo vs. Kyushu) but apparently also literal (lack of communication).  On meeting again, the sadness felt by woman at this huge chasm is so large that she can only deal with it by covering it up with a bad attitude (my behavior grew worse).

(3) you rubbed your forehead against the cold asphalt
and attacked me, who had disappointed you.

The “cold asphalt” stands in for the big city (Tokyo).  At the same time, it can represent the ferocious expansion of urbanity into the Provinces [Fukuoka itself is a large, modern city after all!]  There is another possibility.  Love between the pair was probably first expressed by rubbing foreheads [as a metaphor for kissing and embracing].  When the man rubs his head against the cold asphalt, the cold asphalt might be the woman’s face itself.  This city girl who is desperately trying to remain aloof and suppress her emotions might have a cold asphalt face.

[* – I translated kitai-hazure as “disappointed”.  Literally “kitai = expectation” and “hazure = to miss, to fall short of”.]


This is the first half of Asai’s analysis.  Since the post is already quite long, I think it’s best if we continue it in the next lecture.

I think the discussion of the album cover and the meaning of the album title (plus their interrelationship) is absolutely brilliant.  I also think that the image of a country boy meeting his girlfriend again after she’s been in the big city for a year, only to find that her face feels like cold asphalt is FANTASTIC.

~ by Haloed Bane on May 29, 2011.

6 Responses to “Shiina Studies 101 – Third Lecture”

  1. Yay! Another studies post! With all that studying, someone should write a dissertation on her work 🙂

    I love the fencer photo! 🙂

    I somewhat disagree with the concept of moratorium as a “breathing space” that you can or can not have, as decided by society or whomever. At the center of the stage is the identity crisis, happening regardless of the role one takes. You may take a particular role in a society sooner or later, but still be unclear about your identity. Thus, the title does not make sense.

    • I’ve read about dissertations on her, but I’ve never actually seen one.

      I see what you’re saying on the moratorium. Asai is definitely looking at it from the point of view of society allowing something to happen, like this:

      “Erikson believes that, in our culture, adolescence affords a “psychosocial moratorium,” particularly for middle – and upper-class American children. They do not yet have to “play for keeps,” but can experiment, trying various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most suitable for them.”

      It’s interesting that poor kids seem not to have this luxury.. But yeah, the identity crisis happens nonetheless. Except for me. I was flawless and unconfused from the day I was born 😀

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