Saturday, March 7, 2009

Yoshitoshi's Art in Kagrra,'s PV, "Kotodama"

I'd like to take a moment to write about the most cultural thing I can think of:


Well, sort of.

I guess it's no secret that Kagrra, is my favourite band.  (Their new album, Shu, comes out April 1!  =D)  But it is often a very hard decision for me to select just what must be my favourite band and my favourite song and my favourite PV.  I see/listen/watch the music I like during most of my day, and new artists and singles and things are being added to the mix by the second.  So for me, it is a difficult decision, which I base on the culmination of absolutely everything I am exposed to within the band and their work.  I'm rambling... what I mean to say is that, with the style of music, clothing, the message, the imagery, and the dedication of the band, Kagrra, is the band I would have to choose for pretty much every "What is your favourite" question. 

You should know that I enjoy learning and studying all types of cultural things from all over the world, running the gamut from history, religion, customs, culture, people, tribes, art, etc.  It goes on and on.  Naturally, a lot of my interest comes from what I myself have been exposed to by way of my own childhood, education, and thoughts impressed upon me by my mother.  I like to research, write, and share with anyone who will listen my thoughts and views and (limited) knowledge on the things around me and the things I am interested in.  But if we're being honest here, yeah, I guess a lot of it comes from video games.  If you asked me to explain as much as I could about the Three Kingdoms Era of China, about 99.9% of it would be from Dynasty Warriors, probably including quotes from the characters and my own halting descriptions of the awesome awesome (inaccurate) costumes that they wear.

So, when she requested that I make a review of some Kagrra, videos and the subtle cultural and at times religious imagery that they use, I guess I jumped at the chance.  Reading back on this post so far, I guess I jumped and fell pretty hard, but the sentiment remains the same that I am now going to start a series (spread out over the course of when I feel like it, so as not to become monotonous and boring, or at least to give me an extra entry when my brain stops working and I go months without updating) of reviewing various aspects of Kagrra, and some information that the casual fan (or even someone who is not yet a fan) may not know.  Or at least, to be interesting and expand my repertoire of rock music reviews beyond "xxx can't sing, and the songs are overused pieces of shit, so why is this band so popular?",  "xxx sucks now that Bou is gone", or "xxx is wearing a big ugly hat".

So, now that I've been given my mission, obviously I set out right away to procrastinate and not do it. 

I decided to start my series of reiews with the ultimate Kagrra, song:  Kotodama.  Not only was it essentially Kagrra,'s very first song, but it was also the very first PV of theirs I ever saw.  It made me a fan, which I will get into later, but first and foremost, it is, to me, the epitome of what Kagrra, represents, and remnants of the message the song gives can be found in every subsequent song or PV if you think about it.  So I began to watch it with hopes of reviewing it, and realised that I had my work cut out for me:  so much was happening in the PV, so many subtleties and interesting little tidbits I wanted to mention, so many things going on at once, it was as if the very story of the kagura itself was being relayed, and then the arc of Yamato crashed down upon its head, and the whole thing wrought forth some kind of impromptu festival.  I'm not kidding, if you try to watch it with a mind to take notes and absorb the happenings, the whole thing becomes a blurred mess of tradition and horror.

Which I guess is a good way to describe Kagrra,, huh?

So anyway, please stay tuned to the next post, in which I will explain the history of Kagrra,/kagura and the meaning of the song/PV, as well as interesting facts about rock music, Shinto, and Japanese folktales/horror, for in this post, we need to get all of our peripherals clear so that we may view the PV with a focused eye.

So now, I shall relay the tale of how I was first exposed to Kagrra,, the intricacies of art, and just why Kagrra, is allowed to have their very own genre of music.

When first you watch the Kotodama PV, you will immediately recognise it as one of those painfully 90's (despite being made in 2002) blurry-cam low-budget cheap-effect gems from the actual 90's into the, well, present day, to be honest.  The main thing is that this PV was directed by one Kondo Hiroyuki with VISUAL TRAP, which may not mean a lot to you, but basically is responsible for every PV I have ever enjoyed.  Take a look.

So, obviously, there's going to be a lot of artistic little things going on.  At first watch of Kotodama, you may be slapped in the face with them, with all of the cuts and blood spatter effects and pans that make you feel like you're tripping through a forest in the middle of the night, on your way to some awful place in the scariest survivor horror game ever.  Maybe that's just me.  Anyway, so, there's Isshi, and there's a waterfall, and there's a lantern, and some blood spatter, and what is that?, and more blood spatter and a bound inverted naked pregnant lady and...

Wait, what?

Every two seconds flashing in between Isshi's demon music and the random blood spatter effect is a weird looking print by none other than our very own Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  So, to ease everyone gently into the world of Kagrra,, I will take a look at the images used in the PV and tell you about manga.  Yes, manga.  From the Meiji period!  Hopefully, after I finish this, we will all have a slightly better idea of what Kagrra,/VISUAL TRAP is trying to tell us in this PV and I will be able to press onward in my review of it to more Kagrra,-centric things.  It's not my fault half the video is the ukiyo-e on my mom's wall.

So anyway, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月 岡 芳年), he of the awesome name, was an ukiyo-e artist.  Ukiyo-e itself is a type of art, woodblock prints or paintings that depict images of "floating world", or just traditional things, really, including kabuki, history, countryside, or lovely-looking things.  In my opinion, Yoshitoshi is the best, and most eclectic of all artists, painting lovely-looking things with such a passion and fervor that Hokusai's boring old landscapes are trampled underfoot in my mind.
Yoshitoshi would create exactly what the public wanted to see:  scenes of famous generals, naked ladies, legendary figures and stories, and horrible depictions of bloodshed and terror that all true-crime lovers would flock to and stare at in disgusted pleasure. 

(These two are Ekin, not Yoshitoshi, but I like them and it gives you an idea of what's to come and what the popular theme was back then.)

It's nice to know that, no matter what is happening in your life, you will never have such a bad day as that.

So anyway, let's take a look at the cheap scare imagery Kagrra, has so thoughtfully stuck into the subliminal Kotodama, and just what it all might mean.

Let's start out with the most obvious one, the pregnant lady up there.

It is part of the story of a man-eating hag that is (surprise!) now a kabuki.  It is about the old woman who is found in her home constantly spinning, waiting for someone.  Some priests come to her isolated home and ask for a place to stay for the night, and she tells them of how her father was banished to the home, and she and her fiance came with him, but her fiance abandoned her there and it made her very, very angry.  She then says she will go get firewood for everyone and tells them not to look in her room no matter the circumstances.  Naturally, they do.  Inside is a collection of bones and arms and legs and half-eaten flesh.  They then decide that she is the demon said to feast on lost travellers, and run away.  As the demon returns from helpfully collecting firewood, she is happy that the priests have decided to stay and give her advice and hope of repentance, but she unfortunately comes across them and sees that they have found her out.  She is angry that her trust in humans, even priests, was again misplaced, and becomes violent.  In the end, she is weakened by the priests' faith, and it is one of the few kabuki that depict a demon with human emotions in want of repentance.

In the version of the story that Yoshitoshi has depicted, the demon has come to kill a travelling hostage she has taken, only to find that her own daughter has fallen in love with him and taken his place.  In the photo Kagrra, has used, however, she has taken hostage a pregnant woman, who obviously represents the demon's want for love and happiness, youth and beauty.  She devours the woman to remain passable in the human world.  Many of Kagrra,'s songs visit the constant struggle between religion, good, evil, demons and redemption.  Many also simply present stories of supernatural creatures in the way a kabuki would, put to rock music.

Next up we have this lovely image:

This one appears often in the PV, shown the most times. 

The poor woman being killed here is Umegae, and she is from (surprise!) a kabuki.  Kabuki is very important in understanding Kagrra, and Visual Kei in general.  I will go into more detail in the next entry.  Umegae's tale is very popular for its extremely romanticised love scenes.  Umegae falls in love with a poor man who is in fact, a famous samurai in disguise!  So she marries him, and her evil stepmother becomes insanely jealous and does all that she can to make them fall out of grace and into humiliation.  Umegae's husband, being a famous samurai, easily defeats her efforts by being culturally aware, and is revealed to be, in fact, the famous samurai that he is.  The evil stepmother, who also happens to be having an affair with a priest, convinces him to murder her stepdaughter Umegae.  So, in this print, we see the lovely Umegae meeting her downfall by the crooked priest, who pauses in the deed to view a passing cuckoo bird and ponder the irony and fleetingness of life.  Once more, we have a popular story (much like a Western fairy tale), focusing on the idea that not all priests are completely good, and not all poor people are completely bad. 

The next photos were obviously put in to be pretty and go with the feel of the PV.

Yoshitoshi did a series called "100 Aspects of the Moon", so I am pretty sure it's taken from this one:

This is the bosatsu (bodhisattva) Kannon meditating on an island.  Kannon is the goddess of mercy in Buddhism.  Kagrra,, draws heavily on Buddhist imagery and mythology.  While most/many Japanese practice Buddhism, the band itself focuses more on Shinto tradition and imagery (which itself has come to heavily adopt aspects of Buddhism), since many songs and images of the band are taken from the view of a person who has a great passion for the ideals and look of Buddhism, but does not strictly worship it.  While the choosing of the image of the moon could have been completely random, the full image including Kannon once again stresses the ongoing theme of religion and redemption.

This image depicts the greengrocer's daughter, Oshichi.  She is often depicted in (guess what?!) kabuki.  Her story is very sad, in a very hilariously sad way.  There was a fire in a temple, in which Oshichi met a page there, and fell in love with him.  Naturally, wanting to meet him again and pursue a relationship, Oshichi decided to set fire to it again.  She commits arson and climbs up the fire tower to bang the drum and alert the firemen (who can be seen at the bottom).  She looks out over her handiwork, hoping her beloved page will come to see her.  The way her kimono is displayed (kimono culture of the band to be examined and explained in the next entry) positively identifies her as Oshichi, and places her age at sixteen, a young woman to feel sorry for, but just old enough to be eligible for the death penalty, for which her crimes are tried and she is put to death by being burned at the stake, in a twist of ironic fate.

The magistrate in charge of her trial in fact tries to pass her off as fifteen, but Oshichi chooses to give her real age by the basis that, in her youth, she had dedicated a plaque to the temple with the words "sho-chiku-bai" (three plants associated with happiness), which are written at the top, also using the characters from the kabuki she takes part in, which makes its way into the PV.  Youth and beauty are once more used, as well as honour, love, religion and the ever-popular redemption theme that is a staple of famous ukiyo-e in general.

The next images included are of the PV itself, which, while not being directly influenced by the art of Yoshitoshi, and carrying other connotations, still hearken back to the imagery and stories like the ones we've seen so far.  They are interspersed between scenes of the band echoing the imagery as well.

These photos bring thoughts of death and the next world.  The last photo in particular is taken from Yoshitoshi's series of ghost images.  It depicts a young nurse praying in meditation for her charge, a young boy who is in captivity.  She then sacrifices herself for him, and he escapes and grows up to avenge his father's death and become a famous samurai, with the help of (who else?) Kannon.  But it also could be a repetition of another image:

This also is taken from a story that later became (guess what!) well, OK, one of my favourite movies, Jigokumon, which you really should see if you can.  It is one of Japan's wins for "Best Foreign Film" at the Oscars.  And just so you don't think that this is something that we do every day, he is standing under a waterfall to seek guidance and atonement, and eventually becomes a monk.

The next photos, in lightning-fast succession, happened so quickly and so seizure-inducingly, that I had to go at the PV frame by frame in order to capture them.

Quite obviously, these photos were cut in to add extra blood and gore.  Kagrra, obviously saw it as a way to be very traditional, and also edgy in order to get noticed.  So this was a concentrated effort to lay it on the line to gather attention by sheer horror or fascination, by cheaply employing images of death and blood and suicide and murder.

Luckily, that was the idea behind Yoshitoshi's depictions of them, also!

This is the man who gave us "Famous Murders with Stories" and "Famous Warriors" and "Famous Suicides".  The public is, has, and always will be drawn in by tales of scary things and bloody things and mysterious things and a combination of the three complete with missing children and frightening people to look out for.  Yoshitoshi drew what they wanted to see, what was popular.  Kagrra, has also employed this tactic to draw attention to their video and music, catching attention, and then going on about it in a less upfront way once you've been drawn in.  I guess it would be a lot different if the PV was filled with pictures like this:

I'm fully aware that this post is very long and confusing, and please keep in mind that these are my opinions and impressions of what I am seeing, and perhaps in fact Kagrra, really did want you to think about that precious little cat print or something, but there you have it. 

Please look forward to the next Kagrra, post.  Also, if you have any questions about Kagrra,, or a request for a specific PV/live/photo/outfit/song/whatever for me to review or explain after or in between different examinations of Kotodama, please feel free to request it, and I will be happy to go into it in a later entry, or answer any questions to the very best of my (limited) knowledge.

Thank you for reading, I hope it was enjoyable, or at least educational and interesting, or probably just educational and an organization exercise for me.  Until next time!

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