Sound Decision
On Dreams

by Jonathan Mays, Apr 26th 2004
Wait! Have you read part one of my Chihiro Onitsuka review?

The idea of a "religious experience" is overused in today's vocabulary, but I think the concept still has some value. I'd never truly understood it until last night, when I had a very intense dream. My mind wandered into areas I don't frequent, as if I were watching a vivid horror film in which I was the victim. I felt as if I could not control the direction my dream was taking, but in a way, it was exhilarating, as it took me places I would never have imagined on my own.

I think this is how Chihiro Onitsuka feels when she writes her music. In interviews, she speaks of being possessed by a higher power, inspired to write her beautifully cryptic lyrics as a series of striking images rather than a coherent thread to follow. She also mentions how in her music she is open without really being open, which I think relates to her inspiration. Perhaps, instead of describing her own personal feelings as she would in a normal midday conversation, she is recording in vivid detail her wandering through a dream state. (Note also that she sleeps during the day and composes at night.) I've always wondered how someone so young could sing so convincingly about experiences I know she's too young to have felt first-hand. Maybe this is how—by dreaming.

With this mystery satisfied (in my mind, anyways), it's a lot easier to understand how Oni finds the strength to sing like she does in the second half of the Budokan concert. I don't believe she was in the right mindset in the opening act. But now that she's settled in comfortably with her audience, she finally throws open a door or two to her soul, leading the concert to the elite plane I'd expected from the start.

A short piano interlude fades into the introduction to Tiger in My Love, and Onitsuka walks back onstage. This time there's a bass and drums along with the two pianos, lending a rock feel to the piece. As the most energetic of Onitsuka's pieces, Tiger in My Love is made for toe-taping dances, far from her usual meditative sound. Everyone on stage is loose and clearly having a great time; for the first time all night, Onitsuka even smiles while she's singing.

Their newfound confidence makes for better music, too. Onitsuka hits every note with ease, breathing at all the right times and moving more freely on stage. Doing what they can to steal a bit of spotlight, the pianists make an extra effort to show off, throwing their hands in the air at the end of a phrase and improvising passages at every opportunity. Of course, they have no chance of topping Onitsuka after she holds a loud "LOOOOOOAAAAAHHVE" for eight seconds!

Next up is Innocence, which keeps the rock attitude but brings us closer to typical Oni melancholy. A calm piano verse with desperate lyrics explodes into an insistent chorus: "If you haven't got enough, say so...If you haven't got enough, ask me." The bass beat is catchy, and altogether it's a conflicted but brilliantly executed piece, a cornerstone of 2002's Rock Album of the Year in Japan. It even hit the US a couple of years ago—in a 60-second commercial for Applied Materials.

Maybe she just needed a few more people on stage. Whatever the reason, it's hard to believe this is the same person who strained to open phrases and keep the right pitch earlier. By the time "edge" rolls around, Onitsuka's hit her stride for good. Her warm, breathy voice resonates effortlessly. The song itself invites sympathy, as she calmly confesses, "Without you, I'd rather end it all."

In Shine, Onitsuka shows her fearlessness. By singing about a painful, abusive relationship, she dives into a darkness most Japanese songwriters would never dare to consider. The song, her debut single, fully captures Oni's raw emotional drive. She sings in images and fragments instead of full thoughts. Her desperation builds as she yells, "I wished for the day, the day, the day, the day," at the end of the chorus. As the song progresses, she abandons the wish and simply begs, "The day, the day, the day, the day..." She knows her wish is hopeless, but she wishes it nonetheless. What an intense message to pour into a simple tune.

Most of the time, Oni challenges her audience with her lyrics. Borderline, appropriately named, extends this challenge to her songwriting. "Maniac but mainstream," as she describes it, the song builds intensity as it gradually adds strings to the piano line. Her voice is more nasal and acidic than usual, with a great deal of air carrying through the notes. By the time the strings have entered fully, they're locked in a vicious counterpoint, slowly pulling the song apart before a piano crash that leaves Onitsuka on her knees. Too dramatic, perhaps, but it's an enjoyable change of pace.

The following piece is a special treat. Oni sings Yumi Matsutouya's 1981 hit, Mamotte Agetai, a soft ballad with cello and piano accompaniment. It has a simple theme that feels reminiscent of childhood. The chorus is partly in English: "So you don't have to worry...'Cause I Love You." This song is very comforting, especially with such a beautiful cello part.

Next, Onitsuka takes a seat on a tall chair and offers a tender love theme, Koe. "I can cross this bridge, but I wonder why I hesitate," she sings. The mellow string passages add warmth to the soft song. Toward the end, the melody becomes more urgent: "These feelings that stand still without fading, they throw the picture into disorder...." But then, it settles again. It's a warmly rendered song of reassurance.

Three love songs in a row? Yes, but this next one, King of Solitude, is filled with loneliness. Oni's not one to protest or lament, so it's no surprise that she embraces, even treasures such a feeling. Again, she tries to comfort, singing, "I'll change even the cold nights into miracles..." She'll be her lover's strength. A lone piano line opens the song, and after the strings pass through, the piano closes with the same solo notes, leaving me with a sense of serenity.

After a short break, the night winds down with two encores. Oni returns, the stage lights fade, and she performs a full verse and chorus a cappella. This rendition of Gekkou, a classic Onitsuka piece, is my favorite of the three I've heard. The drums might be overkill, but the two pianos are a perfect balance for the muted strings and Oni's voice. She sings about breaking up with someone whom she still loves, and her feelings are scattered, much like she sings in Infection. But there's no regret or fear, just confusion. With song titles like "Spiral" and "Dizziness," it seems confusion is where Oni tends to reside.

The final song, Castle • imitation, is one of Oni's favorites. It's a perfect conclusion, reminding us of her philosophy: "Open the sea, so we can't look back ever again... even though the path continues into darkness..." You may have heard it on Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, a role-playing game for Playstation 2. It's by far the brightest of her songs, with a march-like drumbeat and a passionate mantra:

"Live, live, live, live, live, live"

Onitsuka wrote her first songs at the age of ten. Her friends and teachers called them "earnest efforts." (Translation: "At least you tried.") Fourteen years and over a hundred compositions later, she's among JPop's best, and you can still describe her music the same way. She's a good storyteller, skilled enough at creating an aura of honesty that her average looks and awkward dancing and inconsistent tone simply don't matter. What will she reveal about herself—or her dreams—next? Millions are waiting to know. Count me in those millions.

Looking to get your hands on some Oni music? CDJapan has a full selection, while YesAsia offers free US shipping for orders of $40 or more. If you just want to read more, my friend Folia has a fantastic Oni site, Frozen Call.

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