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 IN GENERAL
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
ABOUT TADASHII MACHI
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🙂