A Look at Fantôme and Utada Hikaru’s Musical Evolution

Utada Hikaru is probably best known among English-speaking fans for singing the iconic Simple and Clean theme from the Kingdom Hearts games, with her end theme song Beautiful World for the Evangelion Rebuild movies coming as a close second in terms of notoriety among nerds. And while she never truly reached mainstream media fame in the states, she’s made quite the reputation for herself in her native Japan, having started her musical career back in 1996, and her popularity only steadily increasing from there.

Now a full 20 years after her debut, Utada Hikaru’s Fantôme is the first album she released after her musical hiatus from 2011-2016. Of note, however, isn’t the quality of the tracks themselves, but where they stand when looking at Utada’s career as a whole.

Too often do musicians end up falling in a rut, creating music that ends up being derivative of their older work (or as I like to call it, the Avril Lavigne effect). And while this may not necessarily hurt their core fanbase who is eager to take on more of the same, it does take a clear hit to their notoriety in a “radio playing” sense. Why listen to a new thing when an old thing holds up just as well and sounds pretty much the same? Also taking into account music’s ever-changing landscape and how it evolves over time, it just feels less awkward to listen to a time-capsule sort of piece from ages past rather than a recent piece that insists on shoehorning a long-ended aesthetic into its style. Sure there are some exceptions, but more often than not, it’s less a case of the mainstream being unaccepting to an older “style” than it is the musician themselves being unwilling to adapt and evolve past their comfort zone. And you can’t exactly blame the musicians that insist on towing the line, since experimentation leads to so many more pitfalls.

In the case with Fantôme, though, the album as a whole just… is. There’s nothing too toe-tapping or ear-wormy in any of the tracks, but listening to it while keeping in mind Utada’s history does make for a more pleasant listen. Literally having gone through all her major hits from 1998’s Automatic and moving onwards from there, you can witness Utada’s musical growth and maturation, as she transitions from radio pop, to ballads. And it’s in witnessing this range and progress that I found true enjoyment from what should otherwise be a middleground album.

[Utada Hikaru’s Fantôme can be purchased on the US amazon site]

A good chunk of the ReLIFE EDs have been covered by Goose House

relife / goose house
is a fascinating series for a number of reasons. For the uninitiated, it started off as a webcomic by author Yayoiso telling the story of an unemployed 27-year-old given a second chance at a more fulfilling life by entering the ReLIFE program where he’s turned back into a teen to re-live his final year at high school. And if that wasn’t enough of a pull for you, crunchyroll has mirrored its Japanese streaming counterparts and has released the entirety of the anime adaptation Netflix-style for any and all people prone to binge-watching over weekly-viewing.

I’m a bit behind on the anime version myself, but I did notice that episode 2’s Ending Theme had been previously covered by Japanese group Goose House, known for the second Ending Theme in the Silver Spoon anime, and the first Opening Theme in the Your Lie in April anime. Curious, I figured I’d check ReLIFE‘s full list of endings and found that 1) holycrap, there’s a different ED for all 13 episodes, and 2) a whopping 8 of those 13 songs have been covered by Goose House at one point or another, some of which date from back when the group went by “playyouhouse.”

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Tiffany’s “I Just Wanna Dance” Mini Album Review

You know when you check out an artist’s album because their single was good, only to realize the rest of the album sounds nothing like the single? That’s what Tiffany’s debut album I Just Wanna Dance is, except in this case the bulk of the songs are far better than the titular song.

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Live Action BECK: Crazy Awesome, but not without its Faults

Beck was one of the first non-shonen anime I got into that showed me that Japanese animation could do more than mystical manly fisticuffs. Its characters were ordinary people trying to deal with their faults and talents, making the characters that much more relatable. When you’re first introduced to high schooler Koyuki, you feel for him as he goes through the motions of his everyday life, consisting of lecture after lecture interrupted only by the occasional bullying by the upperclassmen. As such, you as the observer is glad to see him take a few steps out of his rut when he takes a stand against some tourists torturing a dog named Beck. And while his stand doesn’t come off as the most heroic of things, it does ultimately introduce him to the world of music, as he finds the dog’s owner is a rocker by the name of Ryusuke.

While the manga in its entirety hasn’t been released in the states, the 26-episode anime has been out and praised by many. And thankfully, I can say that the same praise is deserved by its movie adaptation as well—proof that story is just as important as who’s behind the director’s chair (in this case, Yukuhiko Tsutsumi of the 20th Century Boys very “meh” movie adaptations).

… that’s not to say that it’s entirely free of things to nitpick about, though. While I understand that things like mob mentality are so commonplace especially in high school, I found it hard to believe that a whole gang’s got it in for Koyuki who’s just too normal of a guy to really defend himself against such a horde. Still, the impossible odds he’s up against and general douchiness of those against the protagonists always makes the eventual payoff that much sweeter.

A similar payoff can be said about the hipster douche that takes every opportunity to c0ckblock Koyuki from Ryusuke’s conveniently same-age sister, Maho. While I don’t remember his character design from the anime, I will say that having the guy don that obnoxious scarf in practically every scene he was in made me hate him that much more. The bucket hat’s a nice touch, too.

As for Maho, and in general all the female characters in the movie, they never come off as the super kawaii female support that most Japanese works cast them off as; rather, they are each given a more active role in the plot, pushing it forward in their own gender-neutral manner. And while I had some mixed feelings about her wanting to pursue a future in filming for the movie (pretty sure the anime was something along the lines of a model alongside pretty-boy hipster scarf/bucket hat guy), such feelings were washed away, since it made for the transition into Ryusuke’s story line a lot easier. Thankfully, modern-day rewrites for things like YouTube and mp3s play in favor for the movie.

… but what really shines for this movie is its sense of camaraderie among the band. Named after Ryusuke’s dog, Beck is quite the awe-inspiring band, with Koyuki, Ryusuke and even vocalist Chiba (who, honestly, steals every scene he’s in) all having their own separate yet intertwining stories, all of which get tied in a simple yet efficient way. As for bassist Taira and drummer Saku… well, they do what bassists and drummers do best and worked for good backup whenever tensions were a bit too high—the Donatellos of their Ninja Turtles crew, minus the undertones of doing machines.

Another pleasant surprise was the occasional use of English sprinkled throughout the movie. Trying to make it in the music industry, it makes sense that Beck will end up crossing paths with some English speakers. And while most English in Japanese movies comes up short to say the least (see the opening scene of Evangelion 2.0) it was actually pulled off rather well this time around. Sure, there were some awkward bits where a contraction could have been preferred, but that’s more of general prose flow than anything else. Also, major props to the actors for Ryusuke and Maho for pulling off playing a bilingual character, too. Though having said that, I will nitpick at Ryusuke’s lisp, which I didn’t notice until he spoke in English and was forever noticeable from that point onwards. But such a nitpick is nothing compared to the most major minor gripe I had with this movie.

So apparently Koyuki possesses the voice of God because whenever he starts to sing, the audio fades out while the guitars in the background take over. I wouldn’t call it a major problem if it weren’t for the fact that the movie did this on more than one occasion. Maybe they couldn’t find a convincing enough actor to pull off the English lines (I guess the cap’s at two bilingual actors per movie) but it just came off as distracting… maybe not as distracting as listening through the Engrish vocals delivered throughout the anime, but still pretty distracting.

Regardless, what I’m doing is nitpicking and only comes natural especially when the movie as a whole is so good that nitpicking is the only real thing I can do besides f@ngasming over every scene. Seriously, check this movie out. My one regret is that the chances of getting a US release with the audio completely intact are slim considering they used songs from The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis, which worked perfectly as opposed to the other times American music is randomly used in movies (read: Death Note). Oh, how I yearn for the days when the exchange rate wasn’t as ridiculous.

“I’m Harry Frikkin’ Potter!” A Very Potter Sequel Review

Don’t quote me when I say that any guy that admits to liking musicals is also more than likely the first person you’d ask if your outfit “works” or not; I just feel like in general, most musicals out there are aimed at one of three people: 1) old ladies that enjoy spending summer afternoons reading some Shakespeare and thoroughly enjoying their retirement, 2) teenage girls that don’t really fit in anywhere else and use it as an escape, 3) tween girls that don’t know that they’re watching Disney at one of its lowest points in its life—all of whom fall underneath the umbrella of having two X-chromosomes.

So explain to me why while watching A Very Potter Sequel, I didn’t feel any bit of my masculinity being drained like I did when my family dragged me to watch Cats oh so long ago.

When I was first introduced to A Very Potter Musical, the subject of today’s blog’s predecessor, I was intrigued that someone would go as far as to put on an entire musical to the seven book Harry Potter series, yet was turned off at the same time, knowing that the girl introducing the series to me has also been known for playing her ukulele into the wee hours of the night, to her roomie’s displeasure and my later amusement when I hear about the gripings. Also keeping in mind that the run time for the musical was pretty much on par with that of any other standard musical and yet you have to watch it in the ten minute time-chunks that is YouTube and you’ve got something that I’d much rather read a synopsis about and maybe a clip or two at most. Long story short, though, I spent a dull Friday afternoon marathoning through the thing and thought that as a whole, it had some alright songs blended together with some alright references and parody material.

So when I heard that the musical was to have a sequel, I wasn’t exactly the most ecstatic, but was still curious as to what else could be done, considering that the first musical worked well as a stand-alone, condensing the entire Harry Potter series into a manageable afternoon watch.

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s summer and any time not working is time best spent, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed this much more than the previous work.

The musical opens where the last one left off, right after Lord Voldemort’s defeat. His followers, the Death Eaters are anxious about what the future hold for them when Lucius Malfoy tells them that the past is what they should be more concerned with. Having somehow gotten his hands on a Time-Turner, the ragtag team of Death Eaters travels not to when Harry was a baby, but to Harry’s first year at Hogwarts in order to kill him off—a minor nitpick I’m more than willing to glaze over considering how the rest of the musical plays out.

What results is basically a play parodying the third and fifth entries of the series and having them take place in the first book’s timeline, similar to what the last musical did with the second, fourth, sixth and seventh books taking place in Harry’s second year. In a nutshell, the first and third books were like the black sheep of the series—the third with its use of time-travel and the fifth with it acting as one long filler—so it makes sense for these parts of the story to be skipped in the first musical.

To my enjoyment, the cast from the previous play (minus characters that haven’t shown up yet and plus characters that do) return in all their glory. And since this is the main cast’s first year at Hogwarts, it acts as an origin story of sorts, with the play giving its own humorous take on how the main trio and the rest of the cast came to be introduced to the series. The friendship formed between Harry and Ron, as inaccurate is it is at times, rings true on a different level that all inaccuracies can be glossed over. And the fact that Hermione serves only as the two’s tag-along friend when convenient is like a pie to the face to works out there similarly build around the trio of friends going through school life. In that sense, the friendships portrayed here are more real than those shown in other works because it pokes fun at the hardships as well as achievements the trio goes through. Parodies are fun that way.

Also following the apparent positive feedback from the first musical was that of the gender-bending. When I first saw that Malfoy was played by a woman, I was more entertained than disgusted, though, especially since practically every line s/he spoke was downright hilarious. The same holds here, as the spoiled female Draco is back with an even bigger role than I could have expected. Not only is the actress easy on the eyes (admittedly the one reason why I didn’t mind all the Draco/Hermione shipping moments) but the way she portrays Draco as a sort of to-be man-child, with her constant gripes about toilet training and insecurities with his father work completely for the character.

But when I first saw that book five’s baddie, Dolores Umbridge was portrayed by a man, I had some mixed feelings. In general, I can’t say I like the Order of the Phoenix in either book or movie form since it shoves Voldemort over to the backseat to the mini-boss that is Umbridge. And while she’s built up as a horrible person, that’s not the same as saying that she’s a force to be reckoned with, especially when we already know that the series’ main antagonist has already been resurrected and is making plans for evil whatevers in the future.

Thankfully, the liberties taken with her character, as well as shifting her in the timeline to before Voldemort’s resurrection boost up her evil-ness significantly. As for the gender-bending, Umbridge bears a striking backstory to Heavyweights Uncle Tony (as played by Ben Stiller) in that she directs all her anger on the students because she sees the failure that was her former self in every one of them, the insecure Hermione especially. And seriously, when you take a page from Heavyweights, that’s like an automatic grade-booster in my book.

Characters Lupin and Sirius also add to the mix, adding yet another bromance to deal with alongside Harry and Ron’s. Other character, however, Rita Skeeter’s especially just seem to be there, adding little to nothing to the table. Her old-time reporter shtick was entertaining for a full two seconds before I started to multi-task during her appearances.

The rest of the musical plays out swimmingly, with minor gripes I had with the first one taken care of and polished to perfection. The first time around, I’m sure having the musical put onto YouTube was a sort of post-production afterthought, since a majority of lines and the like were garbled out by music. This time, not only is the audio much clearer, but things like sound effects and varied camera angles are also used—minor things that you kinda miss when they’re taken away. The qualities of the songs themselves also seem to have been boosted up significantly. Perhaps it was the fact that I was watching the first musical during the school year, but half of the time whenever a character broke out into song, I found myself getting bored before the song was even finished. The sequel antes up (yeah, can you tell I’m running out of trite phrases?) making not only quality songs that fit each character perfectly, but also some alright choreography to accompany them—also a welcome addition to the only handful of dances in the first musical.

My only minor gripe with A Very Potter Sequel is its portrayal of (le gasp!) minorities. Yaxley and Dean Thomas, admittedly probably more than half of the black cast in the actual series, came off like how you’d expect any black person in a nineties sitcom—there to hive high fives, snide remarks, and swagger. Considering how they mocked series author J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Cho Chang (honestly, was that the best Asian name she could think up?) you’d think they’d come up with a similarly clever way to deal with Yaxley and Dean’s character. Second up are the homosexuals in the form of Dumbledore and quasi sidekick the Scarf of Sexual Preference. Coming from an all-boys’ high school, the casual use of sexuality jokes is nothing foreign to me, but it seemed like a good number of the time, the live audience watching during the musical’s filming just didn’t seem to get it. Diff’rent strokes all around, I guess.

As a whole, A Very Potter Sequel was something unexpectedly entertaining that definitely came during a time when abridged parodies, or at least good ones, were in dire need. The fact that everything was put to some jolly snarky music only made things that much better.

External Reference:
– StarKidPotter’s YouTube Channel (youtube.com)
– Very Potter Sequel Music List on StarKidPotter’s Live Journal (community.livejournal.com)

“Let’s Enjoy!” Delicious Bump Show ’10

… because I guess even someone like me’s allowed to do (somewhat) college-student-like things every now and then.

For the uninitiated, the Delicious Bump Show is an American concert featuring solely Japanese artists under the Delicious Label. Being a somewhat newb to the realm of listening to Japanese music outside of anime opening and endings, I was somewhat skeptical about attending, but considering that J-Alt band extraordinaire the pillows were the main act, I couldn’t help but pre-order some tickets and drag a buddy o’ mine for the ride.

Taking place in Slim’s, a small-time club about an hour or so from campus, it was obvious that the Delicious Label wasn’t expecting too large of an American fanbase. Still, the outcome was larger than expected, with the crowd probably numbering out to around 50 or so people. The demographic was also an interesting find, with one kid and one old guy amongst a crowd averaging out in age to somewhere probably along their late 20’s to early 30’s. Taking in mind that the pillows are best known for having their music featured in the 2000 Gainax anime series FLCL (raking in a mainly high-schooler fanbase), this makes total sense… though didn’t exactly help my youngling case much.

As expected, the acts were in order of increasing popularity. The first band that played, Pop Chocolat, were performing for the first time in America. And considering that they were an all female band that had to play their J-Pop songs in front of a crowd of American otaku, they did an alright enough job. Second up was monokuro, which very much accented the “rock” in “J-Rock.” Doing some background-checking in the months preceding the show, I couldn’t find anything on Pop Chocolat, and the only songs I could find from monokuro were “meh” at the best. Thankfully, Pop Chocolate was alright enough and monokuro’s general “out-there-edness” and crazy stage presence combined with bits of Engrish to start off each song (“Let’s Go!” “Let’s Enjoy!”)  really made up for my ignorance of both these opening bands. It sure helped that the two of them had the better band shirts available, too.

Third up was noodles, another all female band, albeit somewhat better known. Listening through their songs beforehand, they very much gave off a Sheryl Crow/Liz Phair kind of tone to my pleasure. One of their better known (and requested) songs was “Love My Life,” which was used in a live-action manga adaptation under the same name.

Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for had arrived: the pillows. From out of nowhere, it seemed like more floor space was made as the crowd started to gang up closer to the stage. Everyone started to whip out their cameras and phones, making a point of saving all their memory for this band alone. Considering I’m talking music here, there really isn’t much I can say until I can get my videos from the show uploaded, but just believe me when I say: pure awesomeness. Knowing fully well that they’re known best for FLCL, the band took no time in getting to their better known songs from the late ‘90s. Though, I honestly would have been fine with music from any of their tracks—yes, I think they’re that good.

To think that a band 20 years in the making is still taking the time to play in such a small venue in the states just blows my mind. Seeing frontman Sawao Yamanako interact with the audience (quite the interesting time seeing some people all the way from New York throwing out a shirt with a song request on it to him) and talk about not caring about age as long as they keep putting out excellent music was something truly inspirational, to be trite.

External References:
– Delicious Bump photos (all mine at the moment ‘cuz I’m that awesome) (facebook)
– Delicious Bump: pillows footage (coming soon once I find out what’s up with my videos not uploading)

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