J Pop's Golden Apple: Shiina Ringo in translation

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, November 22, 2008 01:31pm | Post a Comment
Shiina Ringo Jpop singer songwriter
I'm currently hooked on 椎名林檎 (Shiina Ringo), aah-gain. This recurring addiction happens from time to time and, for me, always with the same kind of artist: preternaturally gifted, flawed but beautiful ladies with an unconventional way of expressing themselves though the kind of music that appeals to ears hungry for one-of-a-kind singer/song writers-- you know, the Tori/P.J./Bjork/types (I suppose you can replace Tori for Kate if you must). Shiina Ringo is the J pop equivalent to these select "raisin girls" of too-bold-for-Lilith Fair powerhouses of 90's female alt-rock superstardom. Not only has she been compared to each of the above ladies in one respect or another, she has also aroused Courtney Love's attention because of her song "Gips" ("Plaster Cast") in which she sings, "You always want to shrink away/and that makes me happy/because it's like Kurt/and that would make me Courtney;" she's a huge fan of Janis Ian, and many folks mention Shiina Ringo and Alanis Morrisette in the same breath, claiming that her voice sounds Alanis-ish. Though it's obvious that Ms. Shiina embraces all kinds of music -- her tunes vary wildly from the ornately orchestrated classical to slinky jazz to electro-dance to mainstream rock to grungey punk -- it's her vocal eccentricities (she's famous for rolling her "r"s gangsta style) and her thought-provoking, complex lyrics (which often feature sprinShhina Ringo plays accordion wearing tulle and gartersklings of archaic language and use of uncommon words/kanji characters) that have made her singularly famous. On top of all that, she's got wicked style, a style so influential that recent J pop starlets have fledged new careers by modeling themselves after Shiina Ringo. Vivienne Westwood has the trendsetting Ms. Shiina to thank for making her wares so sought after in Japan and Japanese culture mavins world wide have Shiina-san's recurring, totally "和" ("old Japan") fashion sensibilities to admire as she so frequently weaves the antiquated with the contemporary when it comes to her visual appearance whether it be in photos, music videos or live stage performances. There has even been a popular manga and film created with an admittedly Ringo-esque main character. Despite all this, my first impression of Shiina Ringo was a somewhat convoluted one given my inability to really "get" everything she was spitting, but --holy moly-- was the music fantastic! And that's all that really mattered at first. Since then I've grown into a comfort pocket with her music that, like so many other of my favorite artists, demands rummaging through on a regular basis. This time I decided to find out more about her; here are some basic facts and interesting nuggets of knowledge about Shiina Ringo -- J pop songstress extraordinaire:

Born in 1978, Yumiko Shiina grew up in a household filled with music thanks to her father's interest in jazz and classical and her mother's love of dance, especially ballet. Ms. Shiina studied ballet from a very early age, but duShiina Ringo in Koufukuron wearing wingse to complications resulting from several surgeries necessitated by her having been born with esophageal atresia, her body began to grow less symmetrical as she aged and she eventually had to leave ballet behind. The scars on her shoulders leftover from those operations are said to resemble the removal of angel's wings [echoed in the design of her costume worn in the video for first single "Koufukuron" ("Happiness Theory") pictured left]. Her interest in music increased and by the time she was in high school she was involved in about ten different bands which honed her skills as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. Her parents aided her in her musical quest, making connections and pushing her to audition for musical competitions, some of which she won. It was around this time that she changed her name to Ringo, the JapShiina Ringo's Duesenberg Starplayer II guitar in surf greenanese word for "apple" and possibly the name of her favorite Beatle (somebody's gotta love Ringo). Eventually, she signed with Toshiba EMI despite their harsh criticism of her lyrics which lead her to temporarily flee to the U.K. (Toriphiles, can you dig it?).

From 1999 to 2003 Shiina Ringo released three albums of original solo works: Muzai Moratorium (Innocence Moratorium), Shōso Strip (Lawsuit Winning Strip), Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana (Chlorinated Lime, Semen, Chestnut Flower) -- all three of these are fabulous exhibitions of Shiina Ringo's international appeal regardless of her mother tongue. Music lovers worldwide who have no knowledge of Japanese have fallen hard for her star whether it was in her initial phase as an awkwardly pretty, ex-pizzaria worker/subway station busker turned self-made icon with a surf green Duesenberg Starplayer II guitar (Deusenberg enjoyed a sharp spike in sales in Japan thanks to her despite the fact that she bought her first one by installments) or in her current, post-mole collaborative phase. [Ms. Shiina had her trademark mole removed towards the end of her first solo career before forming the band Tokyo Jihen (Tokyo Incidents) and commemorated it in the succinct video for her final solo single "Ringo no Uta" ("The Apple's Song") in which her entire solo career is summed up by her donning a parade of costumes from her previous music videos until she's shown unclothed, sans mole, at videos end.] For anyone looking to dip their toes into Ms. Shiina's collected works I suggest starting with her third solo album, Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana [which is also a perfect example of Ms. Shiina's word play as it seems another way to interpret the title would be "Semen Smell, Semen (Feminine), Semen Smell" -- intelligent and euphemistic sexual undertones permeate many of Shiina Ringo's lyrical sojourns] and working backwards from there before moving on to Tokyo Jihen or her recent solo explorations. That record is a non-stop tour de force void of track markers and jelly jams -- it's so good all I can think of to say is "baNAnas!" Shiina Ringo's Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana
Shiina Ringo's Muzai Maratorium ("innocence Moratorium")Shiina Ringo's "Shosou Strip"
Before I go nuts choosing which video gems to insert into the Shiina-rific mix here I'd like to do a top ten list just for fun. Here are my top ten Shiina Ringo songs from her first three solo albums:

10. "Koko de kisu shite" ("Kiss me right here") -- Maybe I am wrong, but I think this was Ms. Shiina's first hit. It is in my opinion anyway; in this song a teenage girl sings about catching her boyfriend checking out other girls while they're together in public and then telling him to kiss her right then and right there, adding, "I'm directly in front of you/I'm not going to weep silently am I?/Actually it's all so that I match your ideals of anarchy/I'm the only one who can put a modern day Sid Vicious in handcuffs." The music may be nothing to go on about, but it's got all the right Top 40, stuck-in-your-head-all-day moves.
Shiina Ringo Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana flying V guitar
9. "Tokikoshi-gurou" ("Over anxiety") -- It begins with a bit of beat box and a simple vocal approach but then slams in and out of bombastic rock arrangements and lightly skipping melodies. Maybe the switch-back song structure is due to the subject at hand: a woman, seduced by a man with a line she can;t believe she fell for, casts away her shame because, "I don't care/there's no man as good as you... this isn't getting me anywhere." Think Carrie Bradshaw and Big.

8. "Yami ni Furu Ame" ("Rain falling from darkness") -- Sounding a bit like a Bjork song from Homogenic, the string arrangements here really create a melodramatic curtain for the story of this song about putting yourself in someone else's hands (or perhaps putting a damaged part of your past self into the hands of your current self): "We're getting drenched in the lukewarm rain that you hate/The things that pour down upon you -- maybe rain/maybe fate."

7. "Marunouchi Sadistic" -- An upbeat, sing-a-long song about Ringo's struggling days as a street musician and pizza parlor girl in Tokyo that makes many stops along the famous Tokyo subway Marunouchi loop line mentioned in the song's title as she calls out particular stations as punctuation to some of the stanzas, some saying, "I love Tokyo but there's nothing there" and stating that, "it's so tough I get off on the smell of the Marshall (amp)." One of her best double entendre lyrics is in here too, but it's a little too sexy to explain it here without mucking up the meaning. Oh well.

6. "Shuukyou" ("Religion") -- The dynamite first track that kicks off Karuki Zaman Kuri no Hana. I'll never forget the first time I put this record on -- it totally blew me away. It's the kind of feeling you get when you know you've found something you'll never tire of listening to; the first track to a phenomenal, solid record is the stuff that people like Axel Rose wish they could poop out everyday, but in reality it just doesn't happen very often. The fact that Shiina Ringo has one of these (a completely rock hard, every-song-essential/every-song-a-hit album with a bomb intro like "Shuukyou") speaks volumes.

5. "Kabuki-cho no Joou" (Queen of Kabuki-cho") -- Kabuki-cho is an infamous red-light district/pleasure quarters in Tokyo and this poppy yet bad-ass narrative rock song is sung in the voice of a girl who was born to the Queen of said place. The girl's mother abandons her at the age of fifteen to, the girl assumes, go off and live "with the guy who came every Friday." As she becomes a woman the girl sells herself into the business and lives to become Queen in her own right knowing that "I will lose everything when I want for sympathy." It totally rocks.

4. "Meisai" ("Camoflage") -- What starts with a low and lazy tug on an upright bass explodes into a frenzy of jazzed up poppin' rock 'n' roll with a few odd elements like the use of wood block a la kabuki theater. All in all a solid, flirty song that calls to mind a glamorous lady getting into trouble becaShiina Ringo in her video for Honnou from the album Shosou Stripuse of her smokin' hot dress which isn't so far from the song's subject matter of getting away from reality only to realize, maybe too late, what it is to be "real." 

3. "Honnou" ("Instinct") -- The video for this single is as sexy and brazenly extreme as the content of the song itself. Ms. Shiina, outfitted in a very fashion forward nurse uniform sings, "I don't need promises/I hate things like that, which won't end/I want to be linked always/longing for a window upon which morning never comes" into the radio piece of a megaphone cradled beneath her arm as she kicks down glass walls with her stiletto heels and, later, smashes more and more glass walls by punching them with her bare, albeit tastefully accessorized, clenched fist. The theme of the song deals with urging one's self to embrace one's mistakes and regrets and live life to the fullest knowing that we all face loneliness. That and sex: basic, animal sex. 

2. "Okonomi de" ("As you like it") -- A catchy song with a meandering, piano-driven lounge/rock melody that deals with the kind of relationship that makes for good nighttime TV. I love that the girl's point of view of the dysfunctional yet masochistic and addictive relationship she has with her boyfriend is all somehow related to and reflected by the color of her nail polish: "I hate words having to do with love/How dare you say that as I coolly dart you a exclusive amorous glance/suiting the sharpness of these unyielding deep red nails/And the blood of those burning cheeks will be the same color/A sunny plan ripening in the shame of your garden/as if I've poured my best liquor into it."

1."Tsumi to Batsu" ("Crime and punishment") -- This song haunts me. The blues she sings of sting like wind so cold on your cheek that it burns; pain so unnatural and acute that it's likened to a smoldering icicle. Perhaps the greatest thing about this song is that the heavy musical arrangement is so perfect for the heartbreak of the lyrical content that the overall impression of the piece is devastating. Seeing her wail this song through tears during the opening number of her "Electric Mole 2003" tour DVD just kills me. I love it.

On to the videos: Here is a spattering of TV commercial promos for the album Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana featuring a Shiina Ringo puppet played Bunraku, Japanese traditional puppet theater, style:

and here is the video for the aforementioned "Ringo no Uta" ("The Apple's Song") summarizing Ms. Shiina's first solo career and the much talked about removal of her famed beauty mark:

Here is a clip from my favorite tour performance video, 2003's Electric Mole tour which featured the band that would eventually become Tokyo Jihen. The song is "Poltergeist" from the album Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana:

And to top it all off here is a trailer for the film Sakuran starring newly emerged J Pop/rock idol Anna Tsuchiya (a Ringo wannabe, I feel) and featuring music by Shiina Ringo (with Neko Saito), which is very fitting in my opinion, as it would seem that the movie is a mirror of some of the themes and subject matter of Ms. Shiina's songs and interests concerning her fascination with the red light districts of old Japan and the Oiran, or high ranking courtesans, who made those rich places worth a visit:

In closing, when it comes to J pop I like mine sassy and classy and so I propose a toast to none other than Shiina Ringo. Keep an eye out for the new Shiina Ringo album box set to be released on November 25th which will include all five of her albums (including the three I mentioned here -- her later stuff is delicious too!) in a box that plays Shiina when you open it and will also have a 100 page booklet, stickers, postcards, and a poster (what more do they want???). Also, for the record, my favorite Tokyo Jihen album is Adult; how fabulous is a CD of sensual and intense jazz inspired rock that actually comes with its own divinely scented perfume? -- AMAZING! Anyhoo, to semi-quote a recently dismissed contestant from the latest cycle of America's Next Top Model, who just happens have the name Sheena, you just got Shiinafyed!

Relevant Tags

Bunraku (1), Courtney Love (13), Bjork (24), Tokyo Incidents (1), Shiina Ringo (3), Anna Tsuchiya (2)