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Gaikoku e Kaeru Uta
Tsukiko Amano: Sharon Stones
"Bring anything in English you think I should hear", my sister told me as I was picking out music for our last road trip to visit my parents. Apparently my Japanese fascination has officially begun to annoy at least one person. I remember vividly, twenty years after the fact, those painful months during which George Gimarc's temporary cowpunk fetish screwed with my two-hour-a-week exposure to non-FM-album-rock music, so even if this column doesn't constitute a critical component of anybody's exposure to anything, I don't intend for it to become monothematic. But I believe I am now well past the limits of novelty interest in Japanese. I just finished my third eight-week language course, which supposedly means I've had the equivalent of a semester and a half on a collegiate scale. By no stretch of the imagination could my current level of knowledge be termed functional. I can carry on extremely simple conversations about wanting to eat sushi using polite verb forms, and I know enough grammar to be able to puzzle out some written material with extensive dictionary assistance. When listening to Japanese movie dialog while reading English subtitles, I can match parts of the spoken and written lines about one time in six, and very occasionally whole short sentences. Casual conversation I can barely follow at all, and unaided reading is a long, long way away still. They say you need to know about two thousand different kanji pictograms in order to read a Japanese newspaper. So far I know about a hundred. I'm not sure whether the ones I learn from pop songs and anime count towards my two-thousand requirement, but if "pinky promise" doesn't come up much in news reporting, neither are the symbols for governmental agency and highway maintenance likely to factor heavily into love songs, so I am attempting to make progress on both fronts and meet somewhere in the middle. It's likely that I will never reach anything resembling real fluency, but there should be room in every life for at least two languages, and this is going to be my second. If it takes years, so be it. My Japanese is already better than my French, German, Spanish or Swedish, so there's no time to be saved by switching back.
Plus, in only a few months of exploration, operating under severe language- and character-set handicaps, I've already found an order of magnitude more Japanese-language music I like than I ever found in any other non-English language. And although there are Japanese stylistic elements in some of it, for the most part the things I'm discovering participate in the same global pop-music dialog as anything made in the US or the UK. Japan has half as many people as the US and twice as many as the UK, after all, and all the same gadgets because that's where we get the gadgets, so it should come as no surprise that a) they know what's going on in the rest of the world, and b) they have a whole pop culture of their own, too. And if they can take our pop, then, well, Amazon Japan now has an English mode for the ordering screens, so we have no excuse for not returning the favor.
Actually, that's glib. Figuring out which box to type your zip code into is one thing, but knowing what to order is another, and figuring out how to type it into a search field is another again. There are enough Japanese bands with English names to get you started (Puffy, Garnet Crow, Every Little Thing, Do As Infinity, BUMP OF CHICKEN and globe; there, now you're started), but you will eventually hit something where you have to do some translation in order to even know what you're looking at. The CD I'm holding right now, for example, has a picture of a woman on the cover, and says "Sharon Stones" in Roman characters. I happen to know, however, that that's the title. The artist's name, on the spine, is written only in kanji. It consists of four characters, and translating them each individually is now easy enough for me, where by "easy enough" I mean that I can do it using nothing but my four Japanese/English dictionaries of varying sorts, as long as you don't rush me. The one that looks like a collision of Ts (天, U5929) means "heaven"; the one that looks like a one-legged man holding a small scale model of a sail-powered aircraft carrier (野, U91CE) means "field"; the little track hurdle (月, U6708) means either "moon" or "month"; and the one that looks like the guy from "field" without his boat (子, U5B50) is "child", except when it's an untranslatable noun suffix whose purpose I do not quite understand. So: Heaven-Field Moon-Child. Unless Ms. Heaven-Field belongs to a stray Japanese branch of the Zappa family, however, we are basically nowhere. This name has a pronunciation, and a corresponding Roman-character rendition, and there is no way to deduce either of these from the kanji symbols alone. I don't mean that I don't know how, I mean that it cannot be done programmatically. There are several available readings of each character, and groups of characters sometimes form combined spoken words that don't follow straightforwardly from the individual readings anyway. The "Heaven" symbol can be spoken as "ten", "ame", "ama" or "takashi", with "ama" appearing only in compounds and "takashi" only (but not exclusively) in names. "Field" can be "ya", "no" or "nu"; "Moon" can be "getsu", "gatsu" or "tsuki"; "Child" can be "shi", "su", "ko", "kko" (don't ask) or "tane". In the dictionary the "primary" readings of these four characters (the first ones in each case) heavily predominate in compounds, so the most obvious guess is that the name is read "ten ya getsu shi". There's no punctuation or spacing to help you decide where the family name ends and the individual's name begins (if indeed the woman pictured on the cover is trading as a solo artist), but "Tenya Getsushi" has a somewhat more name-like ring than the other options.
Look up "Tenya Getsushi" on the web, though, and you can practically hear the collective mass of Japanese web servers cackling hysterically at you, while the American ones frown perplexedly and try to think of a joke about a notorious figure skater being sent out for California rolls. Working through all the possible permutations will eventually yield the correct answer, but in this case we may take a shortcut by noticing that the songwriting credits, in the booklet, are in Roman characters, and include a reference to "Tsukiko Amano", which, assuming that the kanji and Roman version have the name-order inverted, fits our pattern perfectly. "Tenya Getsushi", "Amano Tsukiko": I think you'll agree that I was very, very close.
Four of the songs have English titles, four of them have kanji titles. The other three are titled in katakana, the phonetic alphabet for foreign (usually English) words. Katakana is trivial, and equipped with an easily found mapping table and one helpful note about the function of em-dashes, you too could convert the five characters in the title of track five to "su na i pa", which is pronounced like "soo nah ee pahhh". Back out the Japanese accent and their stubborn insistence that every little sound get a syllable to itself, and you may arrive at "Sniper".
Ideally, I would be able to translate the lyrics of this song, as well, just from hearing it. Neither you nor I have enough time for me to stumble through the whole thing that way, but I will at least make a token attempt to parse the opening couplet. My rough phonetic transcription: "Anata no ni aoi o no watashi no do chigau; kui awasetsu rui rossai i kushirai." Hmm. I can tell enough by looking to know that the second phrase is total gibberish as transcribed, but the first one might be close to something: "anata" is "you", "no" is an article that usually translates as "of" or a possessive, "ni" is another article that sort of means "at", "aoi" is "blue", "o" is the marker for a direct object, "watashi" is "me", "do" is "how" and "chigau" is the verb for being wrong or different. I'm pretty sure this isn't how they're supposed to combine, though. "Your blueness is how I erred"? It is within the realm of possibility, I suppose, that this is an idiom that means "(I regret that) I have caused your sadness", or thereabouts. But since my transcription of the clarifying second clause contains no actual words, we must resort to the written lyrics. And since the written lyrics use kanji for all important sentence elements, and do not appear to pertain exclusively to pinky promises, governmental agencies or sushi consumption, it's back to the pile of dictionaries.
Even looking up kanji, however, is hard. Kanji characters are formed from two hundred and fourteen different distinct elements (called "radicals"), used as many as four at a time in graphically complicated combinations. Each radical involves one to fourteen brush/pen strokes, some of which have fairly intricate articulation, so it is not at all unusual for a common kanji pictogram to contain what you and I would think of as fifteen or twenty individual lines, where the most complex Roman characters, "M" and "W", require only four. In this particular booklet, the largest printed characters are one and half millimeters tall. At that size, discerning the difference between fifteen lines and twenty may be beyond your eyesight, and since stroke-count is how you look kanji up (there's no such thing as alphabetical order for two (or in the case of my largest dictionary, seven) thousand distinct pictograms), if you can't count the lines, you're in big trouble.
But I am very stubborn, and very patient, and my eyesight is pretty good. My transcript of the first phrase turns out to be far less wrong than it could have been. Factoring out some syllables that are repeated for singing's sake, the text is actually "anata no niau iro wa watashi no to chigau". "Niau", a new word for me, turns out to be the verb for "becoming" or "suiting". "Iro" is "color", "wa" is the subject marker, and "to" functions as "from" when used with "chigau". Translated without attempting to Anglicize the structure, this comes to something like "Speaking of the color that suits you, it is different from mine". Fair enough, we seem to be in for a relationship lament of some sort.
My transcription of the second phrase is just as bungled as I feared. It is only after about half an hour puzzling over one particularly troubling bit of kanji that I can report it accurately as "kumi awase teru iro sae Link shinai", with "Link" in English. Here we start getting out of my depth in what I assume is informal-mode grammar, but "kumi awase" is "combination", "teru" is the verb for "shining", "iro" is "color" again, "sae" is sort of "even" and "shinai" is the negative form (never mind how) of the verb "suru", which is an all-purpose tool in Japanese on the order of English's "do"/"make". So I think this phrase means something like "Even the color combination that shines doesn't make a link (between us)", and while I may well be missing an idiom, this makes sense with the first sentence, and invokes an intriguingly different sort of relationship between natural phenomena and human volition than would probably ever feature in an American love song.
The second couplet that completes the first verse, unfortunately, takes me nearly an hour, including lengthy stops on two different kanji that I almost become convinced none of my dictionaries contain. "Anata no ooki na kaban no naka mi mo, hitori de sugosu heya no mitakotoga nai" I render as "Inside your large suitcase, I can't see room for one person's body to get by". I'll assume that there's some Japanese precedent for using "suitcase" as a metonym for "life".
Translating the whole song, at this rate, would require me switching this column to a monthly schedule, so for now I will settle for one verse and one chorus. After another elapsed hour, I can tell you that the chorus goes like this in Romanized Japanese:
moshi anata ga watashi o nerai, kuroi ju o kamaete iru nara
hazusanaide ne, ichigeki de koko o itomeru
kemuri no naka anata o sagashi, mayowazu hiki kane o hiku kara
kanawanu omoi, shinobi yoru futoumei na wana
My best attempt at a translation comes to:
if you aim at me, if you're preparing black guns
don't run away, with a first strike conquer this place
looking for you inside smoke, take money from confusion
the opaque trap of disagreeable beliefs approaches
I trust that you no longer suspect me of affecting any false modesty about my skills. By that last line and a half I have skidded completely out of control. There's a final chorus with different lyrics that I suspect elucidates the subject further, but I've reached the end of my tolerance for methodical decryption. Something about two people's shelter and the marks of two wounds. Do they overcome these hurdles and get together in the end? I've earmarked my Saturday afternoon for finding out, but for now, I'm sorry, I just don't know.
By the end of the year I'll have had four more months of practice, and another term of classes. Either I will learn enough to translate the rest of "Sniper" and the rest of Sharon Stones, or I will have to answer this interesting question: can I really put an album on my top ten list if I can't understand its lyrics? I don't start writing down list drafts until December, in fact, but if the year suddenly ended today (before Tori Amos or Low could put out their albums, for example), Sharon Stones would be my vote for the year's best album, and Tsukiko Amano my vote for the best new artist. I've had the record in rotation, for weeks, with three English-language albums that strike me as virtual perfections of their particular forms (Stretch Princess's summer pop from last week, Nightwish's operatic metal from the week before, and an album I haven't written about yet from what I now think is the best rock band working), and I still think this one is even more exciting. The Japanese pop landscape has a huge, sucking quicksand mire in the middle where pretty, submissive teenage girls sing unconvincingly over the most generic accompaniments imaginable (kind of a karaoke pornography of cute), and by mail-ordering things totally at random I've blundered into it more than once, but this no more circumscribes the possibilities than Britney precludes Neko Case. If Ayumi Hamasaki, Nanase Aikawa and Hitomi Yaida represent quantum steps away from anonymous Idol pop, Tsukiko is the next one, on the way to YUKI and Shiina Ringo.
Of course, for all I know Tsukiko Amano has a day job reading out lottery numbers in damp evening gowns, but she wrote all these songs, and she plays guitar with alluring abandon in her videos, and she sings like she doesn't care who she alarms. Her vocal style juxtaposes passages of smooth pop clarity with interludes of bracingly dramatic wailing, like the dynamic ranges of Emm Gryner and Alanis Morissette grafted together, and in the English-speaking pop world at the moment this is a divide rarely bridged, most mainstream pop singers unwilling to risk this much aggression, and most non-mainstream vocalists unwilling to stoop to pop ambition. "Bodaiju" ("Linden Tree") lashes together sawing strings, grinding guitars, a pounding rhythm section and a writhing melody, like Alanis in her darker moods. "Treasure"'s verses are more measured (complete with some English bits that suggest Tsukiko's English may not be much better than my Japanese), but the choruses launch into purring post-metal guitar hooks, shimmering synthesizer stabs and swooping chorus vocals. "B.G." (and the noises Tsukiko extracts from the chorus line "black guitar plus berry garden" are a wonder all by themselves) gallops calmly, like the Go-Go's and the Goo Goo Dolls getting together to lure Debora Iyall out of retirement. "HONEY?" verges on power-ballad, the electric guitars sporadically dropping out in favor of pensive acoustics, crazed string-runs joining in by the end. "Sniper" itself is heroically confused pop on the order of Ben Folds sitting in with Veruca Salt. Popping bass and clattering drums goad the lurching "Aomurasaki" (or it might be "Seishi", but either way it's "Blueish Purple"), a trebly, rain-like piano echoing the rain in the lyrics. "Irezumi ("tattooing"; or it could be "Shisei", so maybe the previous one was "Seishi") is slower and more theatrical, and I can pretty much deduce the "I got a tattoo for you and now you're gone" storyline without translating it. "Butter Fingers" (whose only English phrase is, oddly, "External data can not be blindly believed", which is repeated four times but I defy you to say where) has the manic energy of JUDY AND MARY, by which I mean something like She's So Unusual-era Cyndi Lauper fronting a rockabilly punk band. "Rob-In" sounds a Red Hot Chili Peppers song performed by Zappa alumni. "Hako Niwa" ("Miniature Garden") demonstrates one of the coolest free effects of Japanese lyrics, rapid-fire consonant syllables skittering across a slower accompaniment. "Camellia", the final listed track, tries to sees the album out in unselfconsciously grand fashion, the orchestra trilling wildly while Tsukiko promises "My vultures never stop anytime" (the printed lyrics claim it's supposed to be "watches"), but the unlisted twelfth track might be the album's most cheerful, chirpy keyboards and a peppy drum-machine groove burbling under an unusually restrained delivery from Tsukiko that makes me wonder if it's actually a cover.
So yes, I don't quite understand this album, and although my spot-checks suggest it's filled with love songs of varying poetry and silliness, the parts I didn't look up might be deeply offensive. In telling you it's great, I am effectively signing something I haven't read, which is hardly advisable. But to me, this record is easily worth that chance. This is the album of lithe pop interlaced with blasting rock that Liz Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg and Patty Griffin's Flaming Red were inching towards from opposite directions, the reconciliation of Alanis Morissette's best serenity and old Missing Persons brashness, the channeling of Björk's energy into something both more accessible and more propulsive, Nina Gordon's cartoonish seductiveness and Polly Harvey's grim reticence humanizing each other. I have stranger Japanese records, more-Japanese Japanese records, records with shinier pop or louder rock. I have Japanese albums that are probably more instructive, or more illustrative of our cultural differences, or more evocative of the cultures' synergies. So far, though, this one is my favorite, and perhaps the one that most compactly explains, in my internal dialogue, my sudden decision to take on a daunting multi-year project to learn a radically different language. I play this album, you see, and I hear in it my music, the music that plays inside my head, just as surely as I hear it in Roxette or Runrig or Tori Amos or Low. Halfway around the globe, these people I could barely apologize to somehow understand things I couldn't explain to them in either of our languages. I signed up for a beginners' course in order to learn how to mail-order Puffy spin-offs, and instead I find myself feeling like there are ways, however obscure and elusive, in which I am native to a place I've never been. I don't know who will be more disturbed by this idea, my Sicilian and Scotch-Irish ancestors or my Japanese non-ancestors. Someday, they will meet. I will try to be ready.
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