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Anime Expo 2007
Chiaki Ishikawa Concert

by Jonathan Mays,
July 1, 4:20 p.m.

Yuki Kajiura brought half of See-Saw to Anime Expo in 2003. Now, Chiaki Ishikawa is here to finish the job.

Lights out at 4:32. Except on the podium. “Thank you, everybody, for coming to Anime Expo and to the live of Ms. Chiaki Ishikawa. We will start now.” Ha, how quaint.

The concert opens with…a cello/viola duet? Violins join, then a clarinet: it's an arrangement of “Annani Issho Dattanoni.” I only wish it were live! White spotlights weave through the crowd of at least 1,500. The two-minute orchestral overture wraps, and the crowd cheers politely.

Ishikawa walks on from stage right, wearing a dull cerulean shirt, pants, and knee socks. The Gundam theme swells over the speakers. “Hi,” she squeezes in just before the chorus begins. Her voice is smooth and serene. Until she punctuates the line: “Yeah!” The floor crowd is psyched.

Ishikawa's challenge tonight is to work with the prerecorded instruments so this doesn't sound like karaoke. So far, so good: she holds the end of the chorus straight into the next verse. The balance is fine, but it is hard not to wish Kajiura were here, too.

With no pressure from Ishikawa, the crowd chants “Hey” on opposite beats through the second half of the bridge. Their initiative should compensate for Ishikawa's tame step-clap routine. She's a bit sharp on the sixth note after the bridge, an unlucky slip where there is no backbeat to cover her. The rest of the time, Ishikawa is pitch perfect.

The microphone loses her for a moment near the end. She makes up for it by holding the Last Note for a full five seconds. The last segment is instrumental, which is awkward when everything is prerecorded but less so when the crowd chants to the end. Ishikawa bows.

“Thank you! I'm Chiaki Ishikawa.” Translated on stage: “Is everyone enjoying Anime Expo? I'm still in shock right now, to be honest with you. I was very surprised to find out that so many people actually know about me and See-Saw. A few years ago, my partner, Yuki Kajiura, also attended Anime Expo. She had a very wonderful time, too. To be honest with you, I don't really go out on ‘lives’ in Japan.” A collective “aww.”

“I'm very excited to do a ‘live’ here in America.” Cheers interrupt her. “—Thank you! For this 'live' today, I've collected songs that you all may know, so please enjoy. Does everybody know Dot Hack? The next song is 'Kimi ga Ita Monogatari.' Please listen.”

More step-clapping. The audience picks it up, or at last the clapping. Piped in electric guitar—ick. Ishikawa makes the most of it with her pristine voice. At least the vocals, in classic three-phrase Kajiura form, are cool. For a moment I think the bass is too loud, but maybe it's just a weird sensation with the extreme pitches: so high and so low with nothing in between. I'd like to hear a studio version. As a live song, it's not really working.

Ishikawa grabs a sheet of paper and puts it on a music stand to her right, which I hadn't noticed in the dark. Some folks in the front row start leaping hilariously. They look like fools, but I guess you can't knock enthusiasm. Ten seconds of white strobe lights mark the end of the song. She grabs a drink of water.

“Thank you very much. Is everybody in the front all right? You're jumping around a lot.” Ha!

“The one thing I'm so surprised about here at Anime Expo is how everybody is dressed in cosplay. The first time I came to the hotel, the elevator opened, and a cosplayer came out with a shovel. That surprised me very much. There was also a person with a shower cap on. Now please tell me, what kind of character is that? Coming here, to this 'live,' I saw somebody pretty much naked. Once cosplay reaches its prime point, I guess that's how it becomes. Today I'm wearing a costume as well. I feel like I lost. I guess it's okay. It's myself.”

Dot Hack's “Yasashii Yoake” is next, she says. The stage goes purple as synthesized strings and piano give way to a bass, flute, and drums. Once again the arena sound system is unkind to the low bass and high vocal registers. But I think the problem is deeper: it's just a muddy song. Fittingly, the fog machine obscures much of the stage. Ishikawa's vocal line descends after a couple of minutes. That's better. She wraps it up with a lyricless take on the melody.

“I love the songs from See-Saw. As, See-Saw both of us create songs together. Sometimes it's hard to create a song since we're both very stubborn about how we make our songs. But we've been together for about ten years, so it's pretty much like we're married. I feel like I am where I am now because I was able to work with her. I hope she feels the same way. Right now she's collaborating with a lot of other artists, but I want to be the one who sings her songs the best.

“Last year I started my solo debut. When I work by myself I do feel a little of sad. Sometimes I have to scream out, too. Everyone around me seems very nice. I feel very relieved that I have great fans, and I feel like I've become nice, too. Right now there's an anime called Bokurano that's airing. I believe this work is very charismatic. When I heard about this story last year, I was very excited. This was a story about children dying one by one. The story isn't about just how sad the story is, with the death of the children. I believe it has something that happens even now, to this day. Children crave to live. And I believe craving to live is what makes them who they are now. So please listen to my next song, 'Uninstall.'”

The lights are synched with the song's eight beats per second. Ishikawa shows off a few moves, relatively speaking. Her voice harmonizes with itself in multiple recorded layers. Some of the crowd claps along to the chorus, which doesn't feel appropriate with the grave lyrics and Ishikawa's pensive mood. The song is little more than acoustic guitar and stepwise vocals: so beautifully simple. Hearing this for the first time, I feel a pang of nostalgia. This is not the kind of show I was expecting.

Ishikawa takes a long bow.

“In Japan, ‘anime song’ is wordplayed into ani-son. So I'm an ani-son singer. To the people in Japan, the word ‘Uninstall’ sounds like 'ani-son.' It's talked about a lot on the Internet.” She sings: “Ani-son, ani-son…

“That's all I'm going to sing for now. Don't tell anybody in Japan. They'll ask me to sing it. But it's just for you guys. I feel like it's great that rather than being ignored, rather than a flat reaction, to have a great reaction from you. I feel like if I am perfect, if I am doing a great job, it shows out nicely, as well. Every day I want to be at my best, and I want to create the best things for you. Is it okay if we go on to the next song?

“Last year there was an anime called Simoun. The cast, the voice actors, the characters, everybody was female. One producer was the only male there. It did become a DVD, so it should arrive in America soon. Please take a look at it. ‘Utsukushi Kereba Sore de Ii’ is next.”

Another cello/violin opening. For a new anime theme, the song sounds…dated. Then again, this entire concert is sort of an anachronism. At least the melody has a strong pitch center, which is almost enough to make up for the kitschy electric guitar. Ishikawa nails the long high notes. Gosh, her solo is nice. How about we just ditch the backing track for a while?

Polite applause. Ishikawa, under her breath: “Ah, time flies.”

“Thank you very much, everybody. Was there anything fun at Anime Expo this year? For me, being here on every single day, I am super busy. I was able to take a look at Santa Monica, but I actually wasn't able to get out of the car. We just grove around.” Another collective “aww…”

“I was really worried. I was thinking to myself, 'Will anybody even listen to my songs?' Uh, how to react to that one? A few seconds, then applause. “Thank you very much.” She cracks up after some individual encouragement from deep in the crowd.

“The reason I started singing anime songs was thanks to Gundam Seed. I have to thank my producer for that. He's the one who listened to the demo tapes from See-Saw. Before that, I was in an endless cave, hoping that Yuki Kajiura and I could produce something. Every day I made demo tapes. And one day, Gundam Seed's story came up. I was very surprised, happy, and overwhelmed.

“Does everybody like Gundam Seed? I used to watch the First Gundam series when I was little. I swear I never thought I'd be singing the ending theme of it, though. I'm really happy to know Gundam Seed Destiny's ‘Annani Issho Dattanoni’ was such a hit. The hurdle was much higher when the Destiny promotion came up. The two of us were very nervous. This is 'Kimi wa Boku ni Niteiru.”

Galloping acoustic guitar and swelling strings—Yuki Kajiura fans know the style. A brief key change between the chorus and verses gives the song a nifty extra gear. The crowd cheers through the orchestral bridge, earning a quick wave and “Thanks” from Ishikawa. Her vocals are spotless, but her stage presence could use some work. She has not stepped more than three feet in any direction since the concert started.

“Thank you!” Ishikawa shouts before the recording has even finished. She hurries off stage to extended applause. Chants of “En-co-re”—in three syllables, no less—consume the crowd.

"Let's all thank Ms. Ishikawa-san since that was her last song,” the translator teases. Silence. “Does anybody want to hear an encore?” Take a wild guess. “Great! Louder would be great, too, actually.” Uh…

“I'd like to announce to you guys that tomorrow she will also be doing an open autograph session from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., so if you guys can joinx that, it will be great.” The translator starts to say something else, but a screaming audience mercifully interrupts her.

Ishikawa hurries on stage. “Hi! Thank you, guys! Last song: 'Obsession!'” Finally she leaves her box, jogging right, then left, with a hop or two in between. It's a challenging song for an encore, with a chorus that relies on Ishikawa weaving between her recorded voices. The song ends too soon, but at least it's on a vocal note and not the feeble backing track. To thunderous applause: “Thank you! I'm off!”

Her translator sticks around. “Thank you all for coming down to Anime Expo. Unfortunately, tomorrow will be the last day, so I hope you guys have fun. Did you guys enjoy the show?” Why is she still talking? “One more time, let's give a round of applause for Ms. Chiaki Ishikawa.

“And again, please join us tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. for an open autograph session. Thank you very much.”

Five concerts down, one to go. Even with its goofy quirks, tonight's show has been a pleasure to attend. Chiaki Ishikawa is a superior vocalist and a veteran counterbalance to this morning's manic high school ska band. How about a See-Saw reunion in Los Angeles?

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