Sound Decision
A Japanese Jewel

by Jonathan Mays,

In America, Japanese artists are known for one of two reasons: A) their music was used in a popular anime series, or B) they're ridiculously good-looking, and the fanboys and fangirls just can't get enough. Chihiro Onitsuka fits neither of these categories, so you probably won't see any of her CDs released here anytime soon. And it's a shame, because we're missing out on one of JPop's most important current artists. We may turn to Nami Tamaki and T.M.Revolution for a party or a magazine pull-out, but for raw, honest, soul-searching music, it's hard to beat Oni.

If you like Jewel or Alanis Morisette—two of her inspirations—you're sure to appreciate the depth of character that Chihiro Onitsuka brings to Japanese pop music. She doesn't have the look or the sound of a pop star, but she compensates by putting her all into every song she sings. What would seem fake or melodramatic if tried by most artists is genuinely convincing when it comes from Onitsuka. Combine her heart with superior songwriting skills, and you have the formula for Oni's chart-topping success.

A couple of weeks ago I purchased Onitsuka's "Ultimate Crash '02" concert DVD. I loved the concert, so I'd like to share a few of my thoughts on first part of the performance. Even if you've never imported anything before, I hope you'll consider giving this fantastic DVD a try.

The concert took place on November 5, 2002 at Nippon Budokan Hall in central Tokyo. A packed house welcomed the two pianists, Takefumi Haketa and Hal-Oh Togashi, and the duo opened the concert with the first movement of Beethoven's famous Moonlight Sonata, a slow, haunting piece that left the audience in silent anticipation. After a muted applause, the pianists continued with "Not Your God," and Onitsuka hurried on stage for her first song of the night. It was a short one, only about 45 seconds, and it left me hoping the rest of the concert would be much better. Written in her high school years, "Not Your God" is immature by Oni standards. Beginning with an English song when you don't speak English is difficult in itself, but she also sounds tired and a little nervous. A few notes are off, a problem intensified by her weak stage presence. She just isn't at her best for the first number.

Fortunately, the next piece, "Cage," marks an improvement, as well as giving some early insight into one of the artist's most valuable traits. When Oni sings, she's not at all self-conscious; it takes a lot of courage to flail your arms and bounce around the stage when you don't really know how to dance. Confidence and energy carry her second song, though she still struggles to hit the highest notes.

"Infection," one of Oni's most popular pieces (and the only one that draws applause at the start) returns the concert to a somber mood. You may have laughed at her awkward dancing in the last piece, but this time she stands still, telling her story of unrequited love. Arguably Onitsuka's most powerful song, this one had the potential to be the highlight of the entire concert. By beginning softly and building tension throughout, the piece give Oni a chance to showcase her vocal range and emotional drive. Alas, it falls short. Her entries are weak, and at times her voice is so shrill that it's unpleasant. Add to this a questionable piano arrangement, and you're left with a performance that doesn't come close to the album version.

Despite its faults, "Infection" is the major turning point in the concert. About twenty seconds from the end, everything suddenly snaps into place. Oni finds a comfortable place in her voice, giving us a first glimpse of the rich, passionate performances that will follow.

Onitsuka smiles, thanks the audience for attending, and introduces the two pianists. Then, they perform "Drifting Feather." From here the concert is remarkably better. Onitsuka's entrances are more confident, the pianos provide their first 'wow' moment with a poignant bridge part (you'll want surround sound), and even the lighting, a soft striped pattern, complements Oni's outfit and the mood of the piece. Onitsuka drifts across the stage, her voice resonating in perfect balance and tone.

Hal-Oh Togashi steps off stage for the next piece, "Memai," leaving Onitsuka with solo piano. It's the most straightforward song so far, a simple and elegant love poem. She's not pushed as much as the previous two songs demanded, but it's better this way. She's in total control, bringing the audience full-circle and setting us softly into the interlude. No wonder this song was used in a commercial for a beauty salon.

Listen to the first six songs, and you'll have a decent idea of Chihiro Onitsuka's typical style range. Piano ballads are her usual form of choice—in fact, they've been the only instruments in the concert so far. She's dramatic but genuine, wistful but certainly not pessimistic.

To solve the Oni paradox, it helps to take a look at her lyrics. Dark, heavy imagery abounds, but as the soft beauty of her music conveys, she's not a bottle of self-hatred waiting to explode in the faces of her audience. On the contrary, Oni's music is comforting and life-affirming. She sings about suicide and lost love, but she doesn't dwell on these things. For as much as somebody who claims to write "possessed" from high above can be, Onitsuka is firmly grounded in reality, acknowledging the demons that haunt us all, but insisting that we continue to live on despite life's struggles. This is the theme of Oni's music.

A little unimpressed so far? With her glacial release schedule, every Oni fan has to be patient, so it's fitting that you'll have to wait a bit longer to hear about the really good stuff. Rest assured some of the best performances in all of Jpop are around the corner.

Next week we're back to the usual CD reviews. The following week, I'll take a look at the other rest of the DVD, summarize my thoughts, and talk about the role of religion in Onitsuka's music. See ya then!

4/27/04 - Read part two here!

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