Shiina Studies 101 – Fifth Lecture

Earlier I talked about Kasho Abe and his focus on Ringo.  We have already looked at one of his student’s analysis of Tadashii Machi.  In this post we’ll look at his own, appearing on his book Ringo Shiina vs. J-Pop [here].

Abe writes in relatively simple sentences, keeping a relaxed, informal tone, but he tends to use obscure kanji characters to express very precise nuances.  In presenting his views, I’ve tried to keep as faithful to these words and meanings as possible.  As always, my own comments will be in brackets [ ].


Ringo Shiina has a protean voice [ever changing, like clouds, kaleidoscopic, hard to seize].  The sense one gets on listening to her songs is as if a group of singers with similar voices were taking turns singing different parts.  The subject of each song doesn’t really change, however.  The subject is always the “woman in love”.  And the topic is always the self-consciousness of the woman in love, and the fact that this self-consciousness is a falling into Hell [more precisely, Abe speaks of Avici Hell, which is the worst of the Buddhist hells, which not even regular murderers populate, but only those who murder their parents, or the Buddha, etc.]

Her lyrics are very expressive, and even though they are sung with a lot of distortion they remain very literary as well.  There is a destructiveness here that banishes any thoughts of girlishness.  The music and the lyrics become alienated from one another, and it seems as if the singer has an ill will [or malice] toward the content of what she is singing.  In other words, even though the song itself is alluring and attractive, the singer is at the same time telling us “Don’t believe a word of this!”

Ringo Shiina’s music might remind us of the following singers:

Jun Togawa during the period of her Tokyo Barbarian album.

Nina Hagen during the period of her Unbehagen album.

Danielle Dax during the period of her Up Amongst the Golden Spires album.

[I have embedded representative songs/videos from each of the three albums below.  The Jun Togawa video is particularly interesting because of the glaring similarity to Ringo’s Honno.  The uploader doesn’t allow embedding so you’ll have to click on the link and watch it on YouTube.  As a bonus, I added a second song of Togawa’s from another album, just because I couldn’t resist the link to Leiji Matsumoto’s Sexaroid.  Also, note that the Dax album that Abe refers to is a compilation album only released in Japan.]

Jun Togawa: Sayonara o oshiete

Jun Togawa and the Yapoos: Barbara Sexaroid

Nina Hagen: Fall in love mit mir

Danielle Dax: Tower of Lies


The song opens with a lot of punk noise and Hendrix-like guitars only to settle into a very New Music-style melodic pattern [New Music: 1970s and 80s Japanese style of music, one of whose main stars was Yumi Matsutoya]  The first 30 seconds are almost like a song in itself, with a beginning, middle and climactic end.

Yumi Matsutoya: Henji wa Iranai [one of New Music’s foundational songs]

The lyrics are full of ambiguity.  There is a repeated -AI rhyme  that is hard to catch if you just focus on the words on paper.  [the kanji characters conceal it]  It’s possible that to listeners unacquainted with modern poetry this kind of song might be handled like Buddhist sutra that people chant without understanding, where the sound element has come to replace any meaning the religious text might actually possess.  And just as it happened with the prelude, the song shifts gears toward the end from New Music back to a harder rock sound at the finish.

Just listening to the lyrics over and over will not make the haze disappear.  One also has to sit down and read the lyrics painstakingly until the “meaning” is produced [Kasho’s phrasing here is deliberately ambiguous, he seems to be implying that even when the meaning becomes clear, we won’t be able to tell how much of it is originally Shiina’s and how much ours]

This is the key phrase:

(4) You lost your surroundings
and I ignored that.

The meaning of the phrase probably goes something like this: the man in the song is extremely possessive.  He has attached himself to the woman’s body to the point that he’s neglected his own work and lost all of his friends.  To all of this the woman reacts with a very cold attitude.

Then there’s this line:

(13) The winter doesn’t smell right in the big city.
There’s no Momochihama, no you and no Muromigawa.

From which we can take that the couple come from the same district.  So the situation is likely as follows: the couple for some reason or other decided to live together in the big city.  The man is obsessed with the woman’s body and has messed up his job.  He doesn’t have any ambitions for the future.  Then they split up.  A year they meet again and kiss.  Still, the woman cannot feel the love she felt before.  The next day she will get on a plane and go abroad to study.  When all is said and done, this meeting after one year will probably become a sad memory of failure as she sits inside the airplane.

For Tadashii Machi Ringo has portrayed a woman with strong intentions to be self-reliant, but who’s at the same time totally incapable of introspection.  I imagine women singing this song at the karaoke box must feel embarrassed at playing this unlikable character in the song.

So what is the real target this song is attacking?  It’s not life in the big city, it’s not the dull boyfriend.  The target can be no other than the woman who is the subject of the song, the key point being the “study abroad” element.  A typical way for female characters in TV dramas to end relationships with men is to go study abroad.  This is far from being proof of a will to reform themselves.  Instead, it means these women are trying to prolong the final day of reckoning as much as possible by simply running away from their troubles.  Ringo is probably criticizing this TV drama plot device, and using the song as a dagger to point at herself in the case that she falls into the trap of following this solution.  Ultimately, Tadashii Machi might be for Ringo an exercise in masochism.


Kasho seems to be convinced that Ringo’s decision to leave for England had to do with an (ex)boyfriend back home, and this colors his analysis from beginning to end.  If Ringo Shiina were Christ, her songs his parables, and these critics and scholars the evangelists, then Kasho Abe would have to be St. John.  His interpretation is very different from the others.  In a way, we expect him to be “different”, since he seems to be by far the most visible and commercially successful of the critics here examined.

There’s only one post left in this series, coming up soon 🙂

~ by Haloed Bane on June 14, 2011.

15 Responses to “Shiina Studies 101 – Fifth Lecture”

  1. 無間地獄 Is that how they referred to this type of hell?

    Sayonara o oshiete seems suspiciously familiar…

    Of the songs embedded, I like Henji wa Iranai the most 🙂

    • Yes, Muken-jigoku, the idea behind the characters 無間 being that there is “no time interval” between suffering, no break, you suffer continuously and that makes it the lowest level of Hell.

      I agree with your preference for Henji wa Iranai.

  2. I certainly started listening to Ringo Shiina because of something somewhere that said “if you like Jun Togawa, then…” and I wasn’t disappointed.

    Togawa herself is often relegated to “the Japanese Nina Hagen and/or Kate Bush” but I find her to be something really great and uniquely Japanese. She could only have existed in the country that gave us idols (and the word “yandere”). “Suki Suki Daisuke” will always be a classic.

    • (or, you know, the non-butchered romanization of that )

    • It’s great to hear your testimony. Musical ignoramus that I am, I’d never heard of Togawa, Hagen or anyone else on that list until I read this article. And I’m guessing Kate Bush isn’t Jenna’s sister, huh… 😀

  3. You seem like an intellectual dude very much like myself. I totally analyzed this song with help from Japanese people so that I could produce the best translation ever. It can be seen on my Youtube channel.

    • That’s a great translation, and I love your confidence (best translation in existence) 😀

      On “Daydreaming with Sid”, the standard interpretation seems to be that she is referring to Sid Vicious.

  4. You know it baby! I looked at various translations online and saw how they were badly worded and/or misinterpreted, so I started doing research on the song and talking to Japanese people about everything I didn’t understand (there was a lot) to make sure I got it right for all history.

    With regards to Sid Vicious, I don’t see what kind of connection Shiina could have to him.

    • I don’t know if she’s a fan of his or just thinks it’s cool to reference him. She mentions Sid Vicious in “Koko de Kiss Shite” as well.

      • You’re right, I checked the original Japanese translation and it includes his last name. This makes me wonder where the Visual Kei band SID got their name. Do you know this band?

        I’ll have to update my page with some other information then. The latest rumor I heard about Shiina is that her mother is Japanese. If she is a Japanese-Chinese hybrid it wouldn’t surprise me. It would explain some things about her.

        • No, I don’t know SID. I was into visual kei back in the 90s, so i only know stuff like Buck-Tick, Penicillin, Luna Sea, L’Arc en Ciel.

          About Shiina, did you mean to say that her mother was Chinese?? You wrote her mother was Japanese, which wouldn’t make her half-Chinese of course.

          • SID is unbelievable awesome. They’ve surpassed Shiina already. They’re at the top of the indie scene in Japan and their tickets have sold out in only 2 minutes.

            The only band I recognize is L’Arc en Ciel. How old are you?

            Yes, I meant to say that the rumor is that her mother is Chinese. This explains things like why her skin stays lighter than the normal Japanese.

            • I’ll be 35 later this month.

              Well, I don’t know if she’s half-Chinese, but I’ve always thought she totally had a Chinese look to her. Then again, some Japanese could easily pass for Chinese, while others would not pass for Chinese in a million years. It’s interesting how this stuff works 🙂

              • I don’t know what the difference is in physical features between Japanese and Chinese, but apparently northern Chinese don’t tan as easily as Japanese. There is a lot of physical diversity in Japanese. They try to hang onto a myth of racial homogeneity, but I guess you already know this. Ken Hirai is supposed to be full Japanese but he doesn’t look it. Maybe Shiina really is half Chinese, and having that rebellious edge to her, she wants to come out and tell people about it, which is why she showed an old picture of her mom wearing Chinese clothes at a recent concert.

                • Ken Hirai looks extremely foreign, yeah. I can tell you I’ve seen Thai men that look like him too. You could swear they had Italian or Egyptian blood or something but no, they don’t. Mysteries of genetics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: