by Rhian Sasseen on February 21, 2012
Perhaps if my mother had been a better Catholic she would have kept me on track towards Confirmation, ignoring my tear-strewn face and heated opinions concerning the morality of abortion after she picked me up one day; as it were, she wasn’t and isn’t. Instead, she listened to my pleas and pulled me out of class, granting me a laptop for my thirteenth birthday that led to a very different kind of transcendence: the music of Shiina Ringo.
Shiina Ringo, born Shiina Yumiko in 1978, is a Japanese singer-songwriter who for the large part of her career has remained unconstrained by the genre’s strictures. The first three albums of her solo career – Muzai Moratorium (1999, “Innocence Moratorium”), Shouso Strip (2000, “Lawsuit Winning Strip”), and Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana (2003, “Chalk Semen Chestnut Flower”) – are exercises in genre-fusion, running the gamut of experimental pop conventions; they stutter, shake, stomp, and sing out with abandon, mixing Western and Eastern instrumentations, ideas, and languages. Her talent has proven to be a source of inspiration even for me, a white American with little knowledge of Japanese customs and culture.
I suppose I was predestined to become a fan, considering my already well-established love of Björk, the musician that desperate Western listeners, eager for a frame of reference, most often compare her to. But Shiina’s work possess a kind of forcefulness that Björk’s often lacks; frustratingly, the recent Saturday Night Live sketch starring Kirstin Wiig was more true than false in its portrayal of Björk as the kind of quirky girl-woman that has come to define alternative femininities in contemporary America. Her childishness can sometimes be refreshing – see the sense of wonder at the natural world that permeates songs such as “It’s In Our Hands” – but it’s also limiting in its vision of the female artist, creating a willful faux-innocence that belies her intelligence, verve, and sexuality.
Shiina, too, has had to deal with the limitations of idealized femininity that permeate the music industry (the cloying “cuteness” that so many mainstream Japanese pop stars embody), but she has somehow managed to create a public-image that I find to be a more three-dimensional whole. This might be due to her talent and fondness for costuming and historicism that has fueled her promotional images and videos, allowing her to move more easily between differing expectations of womanhood, voicing and yet remaining tied to none.
Take, for example, her most famous song: “Honnou” (“Instinct.”) It comes from her second album and is a good example of the early style that made her famous, jazzy rock music that incorporates a certain level of stylized experimentation while retaining a pop sensibility. (This would soon change with the release of KZK, her magnum opus.) The song itself is both catchy and boldly sexual, expressive of a type of female desire often ignored by both Western and Japanese pop musics, which tend to favor the coy over the real. In each chorus she sings, “Go in deeper now, / Make me climax,” a lyric that fan translators claim to carry much more of a double entendre in the original Japanese. (I do not speak any Japanese and am thusly at the mercy of these translations.) Whatever the nuance may be, it is a song centered not on withholding but rather acknowledging female sexual desire.
Online fan reactions to this song and video, which portrays Shiina as a confrontational version of the demure nurse archetype, have always seemed to me to miss its entire point. The song itself is easily one of her most mainstream, and the sexualized imagery of the video both plays into and subverts audience expectations of capitalist male-envisioned female sexuality, hearkening back to the mainstream pop work of the 1980s musician and performance artist Jun Togawa. Like Togawa, Shiina gives voice to an often-voiceless archetype; she also stares unabashedly at the camera throughout the video and punches and breaks glass in a display of violence not often allowed to women. The song also mimics the Anglophone tendencies of Japanese pop music with the English lyrics at its beginning and end, further subverting the pop song’s structure and safeguarding of normative cultural ideals by placing it within a context that celebrates independent forms of sexual expression.
With the release of KZK, this pop mentality would be abandoned in favor of fertile and eclectic experimentation. This is easily my favorite Shiina Ringo album, and the opener, “Shuukyou” (“Religion”), is easily my favorite Shiina Ringo song; it is in this album that her artistry comes into fruition. It can be a difficult forty-five minutes – this is where her voice is often at its most nasal, its most jarring – but it’s also the sort of album where, once the melodies have been unlocked, I find that I can’t pull away, despite how ever many hundreds of times I’ve listened to it during the last eight years.
It’s in this era that Shiina is at her most iconic: the album’s tour is called the Electric Mole tour, referencing her famous facial mole (in the same place as my own facial mole, incidentally – I always liked this), and incorporates more-fully her interest in Japanese history and culture. This fusion of old and new becomes another kind of image-play: witness the difference between the album version of “Yattsuke Shigoto” (“A Half-Assed Job”) and the video version. The first always reminds me of a Broadway version of a bored housewife’s day spent flipping through the radio; in the latter, the housewife’s tune is transformed into an ethereal grunge-meets-Land of the Rising Sun anthem. These transformations are reflective of the obsessive duality that informs the album’s structure, where songs called “Doppleganger” and “Poltergeist” appear and all of the album stems from the middle track “Kuki” or, appropriately, “Stem.”
The release of KZK would herald Shiina’s momentary abandonment of her solo career. Soon after, Shiina would have the mole removed and would release “Ringo no Uta” (“Song of the Apple,” in reference to her stage name; “ringo” apparently means “apple” in Japanese) before forming Tokyo Jihen. If I am to be honest, I have barely listened to TJ’s output; I find their music dull, directionless, and far too influenced by mediocre jazz arrangements to be interesting. Online fan communities of the solo Shiina are generally in agreement with me, and it’s become fan-lore that KZK will remain the pinnacle of her career.
I half-believe this myself. But all is not lost – Tokyo Jihen just broke up, and this announcement, paired with a video in which Shiina Ringo once again dons her mole, has given many fans a renewed hope as to the resurgence of her solo career. She’s flirted with this before – 2009’s Sanmon Gossip (“Superficial Gossip”) featured new (far too TJ-influenced) material, including a surprisingly fabulous, R&B-influenced English-language version of her origin-song “Marounichi Sadistic.” Perhaps we will see a solo Shiina Ringo once more; if so, I’ll certainly be watching, half a world away and hunched over my laptop in awe, just as I was at age thirteen.
If this post has piqued your interest and you’d like to listen to some more Shiina Ringo, I recommend listening to Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana first, and then following with Shouso Strip and Muzai Moratorium. Detours can be made to the three-LP set Zecchou Shuu, featuring Shiina at her rawest, and then her cover album Utaite Myori, which has a fantastic cover of the Beatles’ “Yer Blues.” Other favorites include “Kabuki-chou no Joou” (“Queen of Kabuki-cho”), “Sigma”, and “Tsumi to Batsu” (“Crime and Punishment”), which also has an incredible live version from Electric Mole.