Saturday, July 12, 2008

GREAT SONGS: Chara's "Time Machine"

Will Chara ever again write a song as good as “Time Machine”?

Having casually followed her career in the years since the song came out, I have to say I'm not hopeful. But, then again, “Time Machine” is one of the best Japanese pop tunes of the late-90's, so wishing for a repeat performance may be asking too much of her.

At the start I should note that Chara is not by any stretch of the imagination an 'indie' musician, the focus of these pages: she has recorded with Sony since the start of her career, and the album containing “Time Machine”, Junior Sweet, was a million seller. But she's so influential, even among independent musicians—along with Shiina Ringo and Yuki, she must be one of the J-pop trinity of inspirational female singers—that it doesn't feel strange to write about her in an indie context.

The reason for Chara's influence is her unique, unmistakable, strange yet beautiful singing style. In “Time Machine”, we get a full serving of it. I remember when I first listened to her, I was skeptical but fascinated. Chara sounds like no other, a grown-up singing in a whispery, whining voice that resembles a young girl's, but with the maturity always apparent in the background. It seems like a highly intuitive singing style, sounding that way because she thinks it's good that way, and not because she's following any rules.

Listen to the way she starts “Time Machine”, alternating between hopeful high notes and quieter, low notes, like a sigh: to me, she seems to be painting a musical portrait in white and black. It's a broken heart song: she's talking about feeling betrayed by false promises of unchanging love, and that a time machine to return to the former good days isn't showing up. Except, it's ambiguous as to whether the lover has really disappeared from the singer's life; she sings about holding a needle and thread that could tie them back together, and ends the tune with a line that what's needed is for 'you' to feel love again.

I don't like the video of this song much, though it's good it's on YouTube so people can listen to the tune. Like most videos of songs you listened to a lot before seeing the video, the image just seems wrong. Its premise is that Chara is looking back in sadness to the happy days she spent together with actor Tadanobu Asano, her husband in real life. The problem is that the scenes showing Chara and Asano flirting around leave a much stronger impression than the scenes of her sad introspection, so the video ends up seeming to be a celebration of their relationship. And, of course, most Chara fans know she's happily married to Asano, so the sad parts aren't believable.

My image of this song is less star-studded—it's about an average girl in some random Japanese town, thinking back in her room on better days. Well, OK, that probably wouldn't provide much material for a video...but to me, that's the right image. I almost wish that a person listening to “Time Machine” for the first time on YouTube just listen to the words and not watch the images...

One last thing: the other day I was watching NHK and an old video of Chara playing “Time Machine” in an acoustic set came on. I was pleased, but the (non-Japanese) guys around me groaned, saying here's another example of terrible J-pop, etc. Which is totally erroneous, but it did remind me that Chara and others like her might be an acquired taste.


Anonymous said...

First of all, although this is five years after the fact, kudos for this write-up on Chara. Time Machine is indeed a classic, and the fact that her career is still going strong is a testament to her musical strength, especially in the Japanese music industry. I just wanted to say, I agree with your thoughts on the Time Machine video, but in retrospect (per her divorce from Asano) the music video is indeed very nostalgic and bittersweet.

Ken M - Japan Live said...

Yes, it is indeed bittersweet now...

Thanks for your comment, it's good to hear from a fellow Chara fan!