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Guardian Song of the Week: Ringo Sheena, “Netsuai Hakkaku-chu”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a welcome reminder of an enduring talent and a fuck-you to the media’s puritanical side.

Netsuai Hakkaku-chu

Ringo Sheena is one of the most important Japanese music artists of the past fifteen years or so, so any new material of hers is worth paying attention to. From her early years as a teenage punk in Fukuoka hanging out at gigs by local alternative and avant-garde legends like Number Girl, Panicsmile and Mo’some Tonebender, through her precocious early songwriting career, creating songs for singers like Ryoko Hirosue (at that time, prior to her successful acting career, still more or less an idol singer), her early 2000s position as a generation-defining role model to thousands of wannabe rockstar schoolgirls, and her well-regarded career with the band Tokyo Jihen, she has been an ever-present figure helping to define the musical landscape of post-millennial Japan.

While Ringo Sheena’s best work, the album Kalk, Semen, Kuri no Hana, was a rich, multilayered, cinematic exploration of prewar decadence and Sgt. Pepper-esque psychedelic pop studio gymnastics and very much a work confident in its distinctive character, Netsuai Hakkaku-chu is a work much more in touch with the Japanese music world both of today and of Sheena’s formative years.

The melody recalls the Shibuya-kei style popularised by artists like Pizzicato Five and Karie Kahimi in the 1990s with its sweetly rendered vocals and restrained, sophisticated pop hooks that hark back to 1960s French pop, but the production, courtesy of omnipresent contemporary überproducer Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) gives the song a harder electro edge.

The combination isn’t so unusual, given Nakata’s own origins at the tail end of Shibuya-kei and his own career can itself be seen as charting the evolution of the style from its indiepop record-collector music nerd origins into the modern electro-dance age, but he is nevertheless sensitive to the original song, allowing the electro and pop elements to play off each other without one ever taking full precedence.

Also, no discussion of this track would be complete without a mention of the video. Pop artists making videos complaining about the press are always a little obnoxious, but in Ringo Sheena’s case, it’s revealing of something a bit wider. The video depicting the singer beating seven shades of crap out of a kung-fu army of paparazzi comes in the context of some particularly unpleasant press intrusion into her life after she refused to identify the father of her second child. The imagery depicting her dead body in glitter-encrusted retro-60s garb while a sexy black leather version of her takes revenge also reflects the contrast between the sweet, 60s pop-influenced Shibuya-kei aspect of the song and its darker electro edge.

While Netsuai Hakkaku-chu isn’t Sheena scaling the dizzying creative heights that her best work has revealed her as capable of, it’s a welcome reminder of an unflagging talent and lays down a confident, self-assured marker of an independent-minded star  with no time for the puritans and moral guardians who increasingly seek to define the role of women in Japanese media and pop culture.

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