Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part VI : Shéna Ringö

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[Note: this entry will be vastly improved with references and actual good writing once I can get more than 90 minutes of sleep this week.]


Let's get one thing clear. There's no such thing as a bad Shéna Ringö album. In fact, there's no such thing as a Shéna Ringö album that isn't absolutely amazing. In fact, the least amazing Shéna Ringö album is still one absolutely fucking amazing album.

While it's standard to refer to one in Japan in a last-name first-name format, I'm not in Japan. I've been referring to every artist by first-name last-name. I do this for the same reason that I would not spell color "colour", center "centre", or favorite "favourite" just because I was referring to something in Canada, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand. Nor would I expect anyone in Canada, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand to American-ize their words when referring to people or objects in the U.S.

Shéna Ringö -- Yumiko Shiina in real life, Americanized full name -- is an exception. Her stage name has become something greater than her. Sometimes, people choose to spell her family name differently -- Shéna, Shiina, Sheena, Shina -- it's all good to her. Myth is something at which Ringö is a master. For sanity's sake, I'm sticking with Shéna.

The Tale of Ringö.



Yumiko Shiina was cursed upon birth. She was born with hereditary esophageal blockage syndrome. Her esophagus would become smaller in width as it descended down into her stomach. Shortly after birth, Yumiko required a lot of surgery to correct this. She survived, but the results of her surgery were two permanent, large scars on her shoulder blades. Nonetheless, she was a miracle child as a result of getting through this.

One would guess that she might have been spoiled as a result of the trauma, as she had a vicious temper as a child whenever she wanted friends to play with, and there were no friends around. However, this was the only situation where she would be intolerable. She was otherwise very well behaved.

Conversely, while growing up, she reversed into becoming almost chronically shy. "Ringö", meaning "apple", was her nickname in school because she would become bright red in embarrassment whenever she was forced in a situation where she was in the spotlight.

She would reverse this shyness as her teen years arrived.

Ringö, a name Yumiko adopted for herself, never got over those shoulder blade scars. Apparently, she referred to those scars as if her angel wings had been literally ripped off her.

Ringö was born in a moderately musical family. While her parents were not musicians, they were avid music fans... Father was very much into classical and jazz. Mother was trained in dance and ballet. There was a piano and guitar in the house at all times. Her older brother, Junpei, picked up on the piano, so she followed suit.

In her mid teens, Ringö would perform in talent shows. Her first band was an all-girl band, Marvelous Marbles, with whom she sang.

[an excerpt of Marvelous Marbles doing "Just missed the train"]


Ringö would start to listen to more adventurous, raucous music. One of her favorite bands was Number Girl. This Japanese rock band, who started in 1995 and ended in 2002, were certainly a gateway for those who enjoyed Pixies, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, and other wall-of-guitar quasi-pop rock bands. Here are a couple of video links for Number Girl's videos "Toumei Syoujyo" and "DESTRUCTION BABY".


"Koufukuron" - (1998)
["Happiness Theory"]

  • Shéna Ringö - "Koufukuron" [3:42 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1998

  • Shéna Ringö's first single was a respectable pop take on her love of alterna-rock. One would certainly have no clue where Ringö would head just months later. However, there are already hints of Ringö's interest in iconography -- in particular, her Surf Green Duesenberg Starplayer II guitar and the angel wings she's sought.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Koufukuron" video, with Spanish subtitles]

    This is only the beginning. Shéna Ringö never double-tracks her voice, by the way, outside harmonies.


Muzai Moratoriumu - (1999)
[Innocence Moratorium]

Where's Ringö?

Two asides before continuing on:
  • Ringö has been in constant company with some of the most amazing musicians in Japan -- perhaps the planet. There are far too many to name. Thanks to the numerous worldwide fan sites, one could find out every player on every song via these sites. I'm going to leave most of them out for the sake of brevity and less clutter.

  • Except for the odd single, just assume that the songs culled for this entry from any Shéna Ringö album are just a random handful of songs. I was not kidding when I initially stated that every Shéna Ringö album is amazing. Furthermore, there are rarely dips in quality throughout a given album. Also, there is rarely one flavor that permeates a given album. This means for every group of tracks linked here, there are more on the album not linked here that are just as good if not better. I'm writing about Shéna Ringö so that perhaps at least one person who reads this will run out and buy all her material, then go tell it on the streets, triggering a chain reaction. It's a childish dream, but it can't hurt.

  • Shéna Ringö - "Tadashii Machi (Right Town)" [3:52 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Shéna Ringö - "Koufukuron (Etsuraku hen)" [2:59 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Shéna Ringö - "Tsumiki Asobi" [3:23 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Shéna Ringö - "Onaji Yoru (The Same Night)" [3:38 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 1999

  • Muzai Moratoriumu is a powerful debut album. It's certainly Ringö's most "standard" rock oriented album in the technical sense. While the tracks vary, you can often bet there will be lots of loud distorted guitars, no doubt homage to her favorite bands as an earlier teen. Her Surf Green Starplayer II guitar is the centerpiece of the booklet artwork, giving even most of the color of the booklet that same aqua green color. And that back cover with Ringö in the crowd is far cooler when you're holding the actual item.

    This is a spurious comparison, but the raw guitar sounds on Muzai Moriatoriumu aren't too different than that of recent Placebo material. But whereas Placebo have a very deliberate sense of restraint, Shéna Ringö has a very deliberate sense of lack of restraint, if that makes sense. There are often moments when you're wondering how in hell a guitar can sound so fucked up and sick sounding, all the while careening over amazing hooks and, if you're lucky, Ringö shrieking through a megaphone.

    The album version of "Koufukuron" couldn't be more different than the single version above. It's almost twice as fast and tens times as destructive and loud. Radical revamps of previous songs are one of many things to look forward to in Ringö's future.

    "Tsumiki Asobi" is a bouncy song with an occasional electronic-sounding bridge that is foreshadowing of another such creative direction. Alternately, "Onaji Yoru (The Same Night)" is an early glimpse at an orchestral direction that Ringö will soon be taking as well.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Tsumiki Asobi" video]


[Shéna Ringö looking slightly out of it performing the song "Identity" live at an outdoor concert before its release in studio form]


Shōso Sutorippu - (2000)
[Lawsuit Winning Strip]

Starting with this album, Shéna Ringö starts showing off one of her most known abstract fetishes -- symmetry. If you look at the back of the CD case, and turn it so that the numbers are at the top of the pile of each column of kanji characters that make up the song titles, you'll notice that the left half of the tracks is a mirror image of the right half, if you look far enough back. The first and last tracks have the same length of kanji (3), the second and penultimate tracks have the same length as well (2), etc. as you approach the middle. Taking another step back, each of these lopsided tracklistings looks like its own icon in full.

Shéna Ringö's track titles and lyrics are also known to use very archaic forms of kanji such that even her most literate Japanese fans have arguments over what the lyrics mean.

This is not unlike, say, a popular female artist in the U.S. deciding to use not only Middle English as her singing language (no, Joanna Newsom and CocoRosie don't count), but also using varying forms of Middle English for her track titles such that they line up only so the letter counts match each mirroring track index.

Now for some random B-sides and an oddity.

"Gips" - (2000)
"Tsumi to Batsu" - (2000)
Ze-chyou Syuu - (2000)


Just as the growing mysteries start accelerating into a vertigo, Shéna Ringö takes the year of 2001 off for maternity leave. She comes back in 2002 with a double album of covers.

Utaite Myōri ~Sono Ichi~ - (2002)
[Singer's Luck - Part One]




Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana - (2003)
[Lime, Semen, Chestnut Blossoms]

  • Shéna Ringö - "Meisai (Camouflage)" [3:44 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Yattsuke Shigoto (A Half-Assed Job)" [5:10 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Torikoshi Kurou" [2:36 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Ishiki (Consciousness)" [2:45 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Souretsu" [5:14 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana may very well be the most accessible album ever made that, on paper, looks like the most brutal, difficult album ever planned. All respect to Brian Wilson's Smile from 2004, which I love, but the complexity of that album has nothing on KZK -- and all but shy a year, too.

    Every best element from both Shōso Sutorippu and Utaite Myōri ~Sono Ichi~ are seemlessly combined here. This is Ringö's greatest accomplishment. It's not a good album for single songs, as the entire album just blends together so well. The style changes have the lowest attention span to date, but the changes themselves never beg for attention with neon signs that say "I IS QUIRKY!" hovering above. Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana is a surreal musical. About what, I will probably never know. Even more archaic kanji is used in the lyrics. Even the track numerals are in kanji -- a practice that I think even formal documents in Japan may not use anymore. And the tracks are once again lined up in symmetry on their sides.

    Speaking of which, the "Lime" in the translation refers to a lime-chlorine compound used a cleaning agent -- so yes, the bookending of "Semen" with other similarly olfactory sensations is also symmetrical, too.

    My favorite track is "Yattsuke Shigoto." It starts off as a light 4/4 kick, and it continues to do so, but this phalanx of Esquivel wraiths begin to prance about from one side of stereo to another upholding the song's melody with sparkling orchestral confetti. It's unmatched.

    "Meisai" is another favorite, starting with a momentary Portishead nod, before the gong is hit, and it becomes this great double-bass driven anthem climaxing in a frenzy of screeching strings.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Meisai" video, with Spanish subtitles]

    [Shéna Ringö's redone, fully punked out live version of "Yattsuke Shigoto"]


Hold the thought of that live version of "Yattsuke Shigoto."

In the meantime, Shéna Ringö announces her final ever release as a solo artist.

"Ringo No Uta" - (2003)
["Apple's Song"]

It doesn't get more cathartic than this. This single track (not included here, mainly because I don't want to audio-link an entire product -- you know, for respect) released at the very end of 2003 is about Ringö's entire career. The video is a reference to her previous videos.

[Shéna Ringö's "Ringö No Uta" video]

However, the two B-sides are more directly cathartic.

  • Shéna Ringö - "La salle de bain" [4:07 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • Shéna Ringö - "Ringö Catalog ~Kuroko jidai saihensan~" [4:50 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2003

  • "La salle de bain" is the English orchestral version of "Yokishitsu" from Shōso Sutorippu (even though the "Bathroom" translation is French for the song title itself.) Given her growing up with her father being a classical music aficionado, there's a lot of looking back here. What this says about the following video, I have no clue.

    [Shéna Ringö's "La salle de bain" video]

    The final track, "Ringö Catalog ~Kuroko jidai saihensan~" is a literally intensified flashback of her musical career. The song is comprised of small bits of various songs from her backcatalog to date pieced together to form this macro-micro-montage. It's a headspinner to say the least.

    That black dot on the front of the jewel case for this CD-single? That's meant to be there. I never noticed it until I looked online, but apparently that mole on Ringö's left side of her cheek has been iconified as well. She removed the mole after ending her solo career. However, she didn't remove much else. She notably kept in touch with her touring band for the KZK album.


In 2004, Shéna Ringö announces that she'll be forming a dedicated band called Tokyo Jihen (Tokyo Incidents.) Her main reason is just that. She wants to be in a band, not be the band.

For intents and purpose, this isn't upsetting news at all to Ringö fans at the time. Ironically, she wouldn't have to play guitar, so she would have more time in the spotlight. However, she could also officially put the spotlight on her bandmates as well, since her name was not equivalent to the band anymore.

There are only two changes that occur with the formation of Tokyo Jihen that aren't prevalent in her previous solo work. First, there is more of a song-to-song consistency, given that every song features mainly the same band members on the same instruments. Second, the focus on rock music makes a stronger return.

That said, no one purposely "unlearns" anything from Ringö's recent solo past. The jazz influences among many other styles are still there. They can still exist all at the same time in the same song, even. The results may just be slightly more predictable, that's all. "Blasts of rock" are a common element in Tokyo Jihen. How long any of these band traits will last is anyone's guess.


Tokyo Jihen - Kyōiku - (2004)


Tokyo Jihen - Adaruto - (2006)


Ringö + Ichiro?


Although Tokyo Jihen are still not officially broken up, Shéna Ringö meanwhile has been working with composer Neko Saito on work for a new release. Fans wondering, they find out at the turn of 2007 that Shéna Ringö seems to have resumed doing solo work -- granted, billed as Shéna Ringö x Saito Neko. Still! A new solo album?

Heisei Fūzoku - (2007)
[Japanese Manners]

  • Shéna Ringö - "Gamble (2007)" [5:53 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Hatsukoi Shoujo" [4:02 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Yokushitsu (Bathroom) (2007)" [4:23 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Yume No Ato (2007)" [5:03 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Shéna Ringö - "Kono Yo No Kagiri (with Shiina Junpei)" [3:30 / mp3 / 192kbps] - 2007

  • Heisei Fūzoku is certainly another stop-gap album for Ringö -- but what a bombastically orchestrated one! Neka Saito certainly brings out the classical and big band ammunition.

    It's Ringö's first album since Utaite Myōri ~Sono Ichi~ that doesn't enforce symmetry on the track listing. Also, half the album is comprised of orchestral reworks of earlier material of hers, whether solo or with Tokyo Jihen. In fact, "Yokishitsu" is re-re-done, since it was once redone in English in 2003 as "La salle de bain."

    I can understand why Ringö fans would be asking "why?" However, this is currently my favorite Shéna Ringö release to date. Mind you, Karuki Zaamen Kuri-no-Hana will be the one I'd keep if I had to give them all up but was allowed to keep one! However, there's something extra-cathartic about Heisei Fūzoku that's somehow allowing Ringö to be seemingly at her happiest ever. Perhaps it's the instrumentation here that harkens back to Ringö's growing up. There's nothing abrasive about this album at all, or even "edgy." Then again, maybe that's the point?

    [Shéna Ringö's "Gamble" live in concert]

    [Shéna Ringö's "Hatsukoi Shoujo" video]

    And the single "Kono Yo No Kagiri" is incredible. There's nothing new about the song. It's a classic Broadway-style show tune. However, even with the top hat and cane, I can't help fall in love with the track. The secret is Ringö's brother, Junpei, singing along. He does great backing vocals, and the fading in of the orchestra in between the verses is the perfect glue. I'd imagine it's an odd choice for a pop hit even in Japan, so perhaps Ringö has earned her wings by being given the path to do whatever she wants in Japan's pop world. She's certainly earned it.

    [Shéna Ringö's "Kono Yo No Kagiri" live on TV]

Assume the worst case. Shéna Ringö announces her retirement from music today. Very unlikely, but think about it:

* Playing music with family
* Two rock albums
* One critically acclaimed solo album
* Two rock albums
* Playing music with family

Symmetry achieved. Must be amazing to be a mythmaker that can change the rules at any time.

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