Artist Spotlight: Shiina Ringo and Tokyo Jihen

It is said that young Shiina Yumiko’s cheeks would turn red as apples whenever she blushed. Thus, she got the nickname Ringo, or Apple. So when the singer, song writer, pianist, guitarist, and producer burst on the scene in 1998, she was known as Shiina Ringo.

Shiina Ringo, or Ringo Sheena, likes to tinker around with genres and bend them to her will. Her template appears to be rock, but she goes into funk rock, jazzy R&B, big band swing, showtunes, bossa nova, electronic music, and classical. And she often re-records songs or plays them live in different styles depending on what kind of band is providing accompaniment. Her voice sounds like if Britney Spears and Lisa Simpson got in a shouting match. Her lyrics are in archaic Japanese that often read like pretentious poetry when awkwardly translated into English. She does weird things with symmetrical track lengths and song titles that I will not even try to explain. And, somehow, she was quite popular for a while. In the seventeen years that she has been a in the public eye, she has collaborated with many people and composed songs for various projects while rarely compromising on her sound or style.

It was a little difficult for me to describe her artistic trajectory, and you may notice that me description of albums and songs get a little less…descriptive later on. This is because, in my opinion, she pretty much stated what she was about in her first two albums and has been circling those themes ever since, expanding and contracting as she sees fit. Now, that is not entirely true, but I feel that it is mostly true. Those albums had already branched out so much that she did not really need do much else but go further in various directions. The differences in albums were more a manner of focus and degree than any sort of stylistic evolution. Maybe there was a shift in songwriting, but I am not really one to get into that stuff.

Note: Japanese music labels seem to have an odd relationship with Youtube, so a lot of the songs that I tried to find on Youtube were either not there, not available in the United States, or hidden under odd titles. As a result, almost all of the videos are on non-Youtube sites uncertain levels of legitimacy and reliability. I have provided two links for some of the videos in case one of them does not work for you for whatever reason. So far, they have caused no noticeable problems to my computer, but you have been warned.

Muzai Moratorium
 (Not Guilty Moratorium): February 24, 1999

Shiina Ringo was a quarter past twenty-years-old when this album was released. It shows a youthful brashness and willingness to do whatever. In terms of composition and songwriting, it is quite good, though she would get a little more sophisticated and polished later on. That said, most of the elements of her future work were present here, primarily rock and jazz with electronic elements. There are also a few chipper poppy rock songs on here, which she would gradually abandon later on. This may have been a point of contention between her and her record label regarding the first single. Shiina wanted the jazz-rocky Suberidai, but the label wanted the peppy rock of Kōfukuron. The label won out, but it turned out that neither ended up on the album at all, as the version of Kōfukuron on the album was an obnoxious punk song, which becomes faster and rowdier when played live.

Okay, nevermind all of that drama, as I am going to talk about another song completely. Tsumiki Asobi, or Playing with Blocks, is an interesting rock song. I have listened to it numerous times and I have no idea how the first twelve seconds work; it seems like the downbeat is pretty much the second note of the bassline, but it sounds like it is going to be somewhere else until the bass, guitar, and drums line up. There is also some interesting instrumentation. Aside from the plinky piano, there is a farty horn sound, electronic percussion, and a (fake?) Japanese koto that Shiina apparently played herself. It may be a little awkward in terms of composition, but it is tons of fun. Also, I kind of like that the solo is just this obnoxious whistle of distortion.

Sample lyric: I don’t care how much abuse I take, so come here and hold me.

Tsumiki Asobi – 3:25

Shōso Strip
 (Lawsuit Winning Strip): March 31, 2000

The next album came just over a year later and the theme here seemed to be more and more and more. There is more strings, more hard rock and a bit of funk. The chipper pop rock songs were replaced with noisy and bombastic rock ballads. There was more ambition in terms of composition and arrangement and almost everything was blown to epic proportions. This is apparent from the first track…which I am not featuring. Instead, I am featuring one of the more…erm…stripped down and dirty hard rock songs, Aidentitī, or Identity. Aside from some background voices, this is rather straightforward and straight ahead.

Sample lyric: When this many eyes scatter, looking for something, everyone does it differently.

Identity – 3:09

A few months after this Shiina went on maternity leave. She would release an album of cover songs in May of 2002. It is fine, but I will skip that and move on to her actual third album.

Karuki Samen Kuri no Hana
 (Kalk, Semen, Chestnut Flower): February 23, 2003

Yep, she put the word “semen” in the album title. Perhaps unnerved by the spotlight and wanting to spend some time with her son, Shiina decided that this would be her last solo album. As such, though, she wanted as much control over the process as allowed. On top of writing and composition, Shiina also played a major role in producing, recording, and arranging the songs. And, again, she was able to craft the album to her wishes. Just as the songs on previous album were fudged at points to make the album exactly 55 minutes and 55 seconds long, this one was made to be exactly 44:44. And since 4 is traditionally the number of death and misfortune in Japan, this is like death death times. But instead of rocking out, Shiina decided to go a little more introspective, softer, and playful. With the exception of maybe the first and last song, there is little real rock here, and even those two songs have classical Western instruments, traditional Eastern instruments, and electronic elements throughout. Shiina leaned more towards Japanese-style jazz and classical here, with as much electronic elements as rock elements.

Dopperugengā or Doppelganger, is a pretty good example of the more electric and classical style. With the help of some samples from previous songs, this is kind of a song with another song inside it. The beginning and end is pretty much just an organ and bell playing ¾ time, but the middle section is a driving 4/4 dance number with a bass guitar and…uh…woodwinds.

Sample lyric: I’ve seen it, love and hatred filled with a sense of beauty.

Doppelganger – 3:51

 (Education): November 25, 2004

Obviously, Shiina Ringo’s retirement as a solo artist did not mean that she stopped releasing music. Instead, she took the backing band for her last tour and formed Tokyo Jihen, or Tokyo Incidents. As signaled by her having her mole by her nose removed and placed by her chin (go back to the first two videos and check where it was), this new version of Shiina Ringo as frontwoman was meant to be a break from the past…or something like that I am not sure that I hear it; at most I hear a reorientation back to rock music. In fact the first two songs on this album seem to be pretty much just rock songs. The jazz asserts itself pretty quickly, though, as do the electronic and classical elements. I guess that, as a band member, she became more willing to share the burdens of songwriting and final say with others.

One of my favorite songs on the album…was available for me to play on Youtube years ago, but not anymore…so I am stuck with this website with over a minute of ads that I don’t know how to mute. Okay, the song is called Sābisu, or Service…and I think that the lyrics are about internet porn, though I am not certain. Of the twelve tracks on the album, this is one that was actually composed by pianist H Zetto M, though the lyrics are all Shiina. Anyways, the melodies would sort of be Latin-flavored swing jazz had the piano been accompanied by a different band. Instead it is a rowdy and obnoxious rock song and I love every cacophonic second of it. This live version is fairly similar to the album version, though I think that it is a different performer at the piano, so the piano playing is slightly different. I prefer the album style, but this is still pretty good.

Sample lyric: You come this far, then come to your senses and droop.

Service – 4:14… (this one has ads that I do not know how to skip or mute)

There was a bit of a shakeup in July of 2005, when the keyboardist and guitarist left before their first tour in September. After the band found replacements, there was talk of changing the band name, but it was just called Phase 2 of Tokyo Jihen. It was probably around this point that Tokyo Jihen and Shiina Ringo started to phase out the more abrasive elements of their sound. Not that that is a bad thing, but the gradual disappearance would get more noticeable as time went on.

(Adult): January 25, 2006

So…this is the album from Tokyo Jihen Phase 2…and it is almost all variations on the jazz-rock theme…sometimes dipping into funk rock, sometimes into bossa nova…sometimes just rock. And then there is Yukiguni, or Snow Country. Also called Niigata for some reason, Yukiguni starts out with a dreamy pseudo-classical piano melody before transitioning into some sleazy blues rock, then suddenly changing time signature to turn into a kind of electronic rock song. This live version alters the ending a bit, as the album version ends a bit awkwardly without the transition into the next song, but the rest of the song is pretty much intact.

Sample lyric: You don’t remember, do you? That promise which bloomed in our clasped hands that day.

Yukiguni – 4:25…

Heisei Fūzoku
 (Japanese Manners): February 21, 2007

Okay, so this…technically a Shiina Ringo album…even though most of Tokyo Jihen took part (the drummer broke his leg) and was a joint project with conductor/violinist Neko Saitō. This was the soundtrack to the film Sakuran, which was released a few days later. The movie was meant to be a local rebuttal to Memoirs of a Geisha and…I thought that it was okay. I much prefer the album on its own. This was actually my first exposure to Shiina Ringo and I loved it almost immediately, though it was probably not the most appropriate introduction to her work in hindsight. Pretty much every other song on this album is an orchestral jazz reworking of a song by Shiina Ringo or Tokyo Jihen, which made for some awkward discoveries when I went back through her catalog. That said, the reworked songs work very well for the most part, as do the new songs, which sometimes dip into the electronic.

One example of the latter is Hatsukoi Shōjo, which has been translated into both First Love Singer and First Love Prostitute…sure…anyways, it is mostly a sweeping orchestral number, but grounded in electronic percussion, bleeps, and heavily processed vocals that Shiina apparently programmed herself. It gives the busy orchestral part a more dreamlike quality. The whole thing is very pretty.

Sample lyric: Now I’ll turn the joy of finding what I was looking for into a song.

Hatsukoi Shōjo – 4:02…

 (Variety): September 26, 2007

Mere months after Heisei Fūzoku came a new album by Tokyo Jihen. This time, while Shiina Ringo wrote most of the lyrics, the other band members were in charge of composing the music. And…I am going to be honest, I didn’t care much for this one even before learning about who composed what. The songs are…fine? It mostly adds up to some half-hearted funk rock songs, pop rock, and a handful of whatevers that may have been better suited spread out on previous and subsequent albums instead of bunched together. Despite being called Variety, it kind of all just bleeds together for me. I guess that that is not exactly fair to a few of the songs that do not fit that description and it is not as if other albums in her discography are free of clunkers, but I am just not feeling the spark here. There were no highs or lows…just a midrange plateau with no heft. Most of the songs are individually not so bad, though. Keyboardist Ichiyō Izawa’s Kingyo no Hako, or Box of Goldfish, is perfectly fine.

Sample lyric: I adapt to this world – I don’t need water – where to live if it’s up to me?

Kingyo no Hako – 3:29

Sanmon Gossip
 (Superficial Gossip or Threepenny Gossip): June 24, 2009

So, I guess that Shiina Ringo’s tenuous “retirement” as a solo artist officially ended. And it seems as if her solo artist self decided to focus on jazz-pop and showtunes. There is some rock in there and a bit of electronic stuff, but heavily diluted or de-emphasized. I think that the thirteenth song of fourteen is the only one that really sounds like a proper rock song. While it took me a little bit to get used to her directing her creative energies to this specific part of her stylistic wheelhouse, I quickly learned to enjoy it quite a bit. Instead of sounding like she was spinning her wheels or running out of ideas, I felt a clear sense of focus and vision. Really, the only song that I dislike is the cutesy electronic pop song early in the album that kind of sticks out badly.

Anyways, one of my favorite songs on the album is Shun, or Season. It is a pretty straightforward jazz-pop ballad with sweeping strings and an extended piano solo at the end. It is very pretty while being slightly bouncy. Also, it almost never fails to make me grin when the music just stops for a split second without any warning or apparent reason.

Sample lyric: Even if someone fossilizes me, I want to have you bring me to life.

Shun – 4:59

 (Sports): February 24, 2010

Well, Shiina Ringo was not quite done with Tokyo Jihen. She returned to composing music for the band, though not as much as before Variety. In any case, this was a return to form after the band’s previous attempt. The style was the same funk rock as before, but there was more bite, drive, energy, engagement, and grandeur. Even the cornball pop-rock songs are better. Tokyo Jihen is back.

So, here is Kachi Ikusa, or Win Every Fight. It is a bright, poppy, confident, lightly-bluesy rock number. This is fun walking music, and I kind of like the piano just casually chugging along in the background during the chorus.

Sample lyric: I want the shock to see how much you kill my mind.

Kachi Ikusa – 3:40

Dai Hakken
 (Great Discovery): June 29, 2011

So…there is not much to say about this album. It is really good, but pretty much similar to the other Tokyo Jihen albums. And then there is On’nanoko wa dare demo, or Fly Me to Heaven. This one stands out for being the most Shiina Ringoiest of the Tokyo Jihen songs, simply because it is a big band jazzy showtunes number…with absolutely no trace of rock or funk or anything involving the rest of the rock band. I love this song, but I would not be surprised if this was a symptom of the beginning of the end for Tokyo Jihen. I mean, just look at the video. There is Shiina being all gloriously fabulous and the guys look like they are having absolutely none of it. Or maybe they actually were having fun and my theory is all nonsense…in any case, Tokyo Jihen would release an EP in January of the following year and then break up.

Sample lyrics: Any girl is cut out to be a witch.

On’nanoko wa dare demo – 4:00

Giving birth to a girl in 2013 apparently did not prevent Shiina Ringo from staying busy, for she was gearing up to release two albums…of sorts.

Gyakuyunyū: Kōwankyoku
 (Reimport: Ports and Harbours Bureau): May 27, 2014

Since pretty much the beginning of her career, Shiina Ringo has been writing songs for others. Sometime in, I guess 2010 or 2011, she decided to record some of these songs herself. So, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of her first single, she released what is basically a cover album of her own material. Some of it sent out as early as 1998 and some as recent as 2013. I have not listened to all of the originals to compare how these are different, but as an album, it is quite varied, while being right in her wheelhouse. It is quite fun, if not really thematically coherent.

In 2011, Shiina Ringo wrote four songs for Chiaki Kuriyama of Battle Royale and Kill Bill fame. Two of the songs ended up on this cover album and one of them is Seishun no Matataki, or The Flicker of Youth. It is a poppy little ballad, which I gather that Chiaki was not quite comfortable with. In covering it, Shiina Ringo took out the robot vocals and added other electronic elements to keep the song from sounding too much like Shun. The version on the album has 45 seconds or so of an electronic coda, which I guess would not have worked well for the music video. Both versions are good in any case.

Sample lyric: If we lean on each other like children, forgetting our exhaustion, we’ll become as we are, more than being all alone.

Seishun no Matataki – 4:32…

Hi Izuru Tokoro
 (Sunny) November 5: 2014

In addition to writing songs for other performers, Shiina Ringo has also been commissioned to record songs for various projects. It was decided that she would compile a handful of them to make an album of singles along with a few original tracks. The earliest was from 2009 while the latest was released just a couple weeks prior to the release of the album. As such, it is about as thematically lacking as the “cover” album. I am not too fond of the Rising Sun Flag imagery that is all over the album’s artwork…and I will just say that “Sunny” is not the actual album title…but the songs are really enjoyable.

Jiyū e Michizure, or Collateral Damage, was written for the 2012 television drama Ataru, which was about…I have no idea. All I know is that this song is some rocking fun.

Sample lyric:…uh…I have no clue…exexalien? Maybe you could help me out here.

Jiyū e Michizure – 3:34…