I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ringo Shiina & Neko Saito -- Heisei Fuuzoku (平成風俗)

Back in February 2007, there was a film adaptation of a manga titled "Sakuran" (さくらん)which detailed the rise of a little girl in the red-light Yoshiwara district of Tokyo to become one of the most beautiful and spikiest courtesans in the area. Starring the suffer-no-fools-period Anna Tsuchiya, the gaudy cinematography and tough talk in the movie made me wonder if this could have been a Quentin Tarantino project.

Aside from her epic debut album, "Muzai Moratorium"無罪モラトリアム), I hadn't bought any other Ringo Shiina(椎名林檎)albums but just stuck with the singles or maxi-singles. But one day, I went over to one of the major CD shops in Tokyo and found her new album, "Heisei Fuuzoku", on the shelves and gave it a shot at one of the listening posts. I was pretty impressed by the songs so I quickly plunked down my yen, not knowing that it was meant to be the soundtrack to "Sakuran". I only saw bits and pieces of the movie so my comments here will just be based on my own impressions of the tracks instead of their connection to "Sakuran" itself.

The official English title for "Heisei Fuuzoku" is "Japanese Manners" although it can also be translated either as "Customs of the Heisei Era" (the era of the current reigning Emperor Akihito) or as "Sex Industry of the Heisei Era". As much as it is a Ringo Shiina album, "Heisei Fuuzoku" is also the album of Neko Saito(斉藤ネコ), a violinist/composer/arranger who was collaborating with the singer since her very first album, "Muzai Moratorium" back at the turn of the century.

Right from the first track, it's apparent that Shiina and Saito went for a very lush sound. "Gamble" (ギャンブル)blasts off with Saito's orchestra and Shiina's rock, and the song sounds like a theme for one of the Roger Moore-as-007 movies (I'm thinking of "Live And Let Die"). Since I didn't know of the album's links with "Sakuran", I could only imagine the usual opening credits of James Bond, naked girls with guns, and colourful special effects with this track. I simply thought, "Man, what if the producers for the spy franchise could get Shiina to do the theme for the next movie?" It definitely made an impact, especially when she literally croaked some of the ends of her lines.

The 2nd track, "Kuki"(茎...Stem), actually had come out all the way back in January 2003 as Shiina's 8th single and was her first single in a couple of years since the Latin jazz of "Mayonaka no Junketsu"(真夜中の純潔). I didn't get the original single version but saw the ads for it on television frequently...and now I wish I did get it. The orchestral arrangement had me wondering if the singer had been channeling a ballad from the earlier decades of the 20th century or a torch song from the 50s or 60s. "Kuki" hit the top spot on Oricon and became the 45th-ranked entry for the year.

The "Heisei Fuuzoku" (English) version of "Kuki", though, was most definitely in torch song territory. Her voice certainly plumbs the depths of a jazz balladeer. According to the video above, Shiina was performing this on TV Asahi's "News Station", but considering the whiskey-and-midnight arrangement, I think having her sing this on top of a grand piano in a little black dress would've set the scene perfectly.

"Sakuran"(錯乱...Confusion) is another track that Shiina did totally in English and has that flavour of French swing jazz. Although the lyrics sound like quotes from a Harlequin romance novel, the title track is fun to listen to, and I think at the right place and right time, people would be too busy cutting up the rug on the dance floor to pay too much attention to the words.

My image of the late great Rosemary Clooney will always be as the love interest of Bing Crosby on "White Christmas". However, she obviously performed a whole lot more on stage, movie and TV, and one of her recordings was "Mangos" from 1956. The song was written by Sid Wayne and composed by Dee Libbey.

(excerpts only)

"Mangos" gets its encore here via Shiina in French and English. Her version is titled "Papaya Mango"(パパヤマンゴ), and the arrangement would probably have Ms. Clooney grinning in some appreciation, although I read that some of Shiina's French fans were cringing a bit at the pronunciation (confirmation or denial of this from French viewers would be appreciated).

Ringo Shiina x Neko Saito -- Heisei Fuzoku

My listening habit when I was living back in Ichikawa was whenever I got a new pack of CDs, I would listen to them at night in bed since that was really the only time I could hear them due to work obligations. It was not the most ideal environment since lying on the futon in a darkened room would usually have me heading off to La-La Land midway through the new disc. Now, the reason I'm talking about this I will make clear soon enough, but first let me introduce my last song for the article, "Yokushitsu"(浴室...Bathroom).

Originally a track from Shiina's 2nd album from 2000, "Shouso Strip"(勝訴ストリップ...Winning Strip), according to J-Wiki, this was her favourite song from the album. Until I'd written these words today, I actually hadn't heard this first version, and on listening to it now, it has that techno rock/quirky pop sound that I'd heard from "Muzai Moratorium" along with the familiar Shiina grrrrowl.

Then, there was an airier orchestral version which was released as the coupling song to her 9th single from November 2003, "Ringo no Uta"(りんごのうた...Ringo's Song). Along with the change in arrangement, "Yokushitsu" was re-titled "La Salle de Bain" and Shiina sang it in English. The bombast got rather epic here. I thought it was John Williams on crack, frankly.

Finally, came the "Heisei Fuuzoku" version under the two previous titles. It was a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup mash-up of the two versions with the techno and the Saito orchestral thrown together with both English and Japanese lyrics. I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier I usually snoozed off before I got to finish my new CD. Well, this hybridized "Yokushitsu/La Salle de Bain" was Track 7. The techno beat at the start hooked me and then the hurricane-like orchestral onrush landed me like an albacore tuna...dead on arrival. It was like listening to a space opera in 4 minutes flat so I was most definitely and atypically awake, and that song alone was able to keep me so for the rest of the album. Not surprisingly, it's MY favourite song on this album.

As for the lyrics, according to the J-Wiki article for "Shouso Strip", Shiina wanted to get the message across of  "suggestions and appetite for realizing a unity which transcended matters such as life & death". I think for something that lofty, the "Heisei Fuuzoku" version of this song would be ideal, although going into the Japanese words, I wondered if they were describing a scene from some sort of psychological horror by Takashi Miike.

To sum up, "Heisei Fuuzoku" is a far cry from "Muzai Moratorium". The debut album by Shiina struck me as being very much a product of street-level and streetwise Tokyo. "Heisei Fuuzoku" may be the eclectic soundtrack to "Sakuran" (I kinda relate the relationship between album and movie to a similar one for Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge"), but just on its own, the album is Shiina and Saito going onto flights of fancy into jazz and classical (her father's contribution to her musical knowledge) while still keeping that anchor of Shiina rock for the most part.

I'd read somewhere that "Heisei Fuuzoku" was somewhat less favourably received than with her other previous albums. It did hit the top spot on Oricon and it finished 2007 as the 74th-ranked album with 174,000 copies sold. Perhaps Shiina's leaning a bit more heavily into her father's genres had some of her fans holding back, but for me, it stands up just fine since I'm also a jazz (and to a lesser extent, a classical) fan, and I always appreciate any singer who's willing to go whole hog into other areas of music.

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