Love Dreamy Music Baby OF DEATH:
An Analytical Journey Through the Lyrics of Atsushi Sakurai
Almost since I started Blog-Tick, criticisms of Mr. Sakurai’s lyrics have been popping up in the comments section. The three main ones are: Mr. Sakurai uses the same words too often, Mr. Sakurai uses words that are “silly” and “immature,” and Mr. Sakurai spends too much time talking about the same themes. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and everyone’s got different tastes. But the more I read these comments, the more I think there’s a lot of missing the point going on, and I want to address that.
First of all, complexity doesn’t necessarily equal artistic merit—sometimes there’s a much greater power to be found in simplicity. The power of deceptive simplicity is something Buck-Tick has harnessed a lot in their work, but it’s also a strong underlying characteristic of Japanese art in general. Read some Basho haiku, look at some Hiroshige prints, watch a Yohji Yamamoto fashion show, then come back and tell me that more complicated is always better.
Second of all, using the same words doesn’t necessarily amount to saying the same thing. The fact is, there are a limited number of words in any language, particularly for big concepts. And the more you try to search for synonyms for big, huge, one-syllable words like “love” and “death” — “adoration,” “ardor,” “infatuation,” “admiration,” “demise,” “expiration,” “ending,” etc.—the further you get from the heart of the meaning, and the more you sound like rather than trying to convey something deep and serious, you’re just indulging in masturbatory meretricious sesquipedalianism.
Third of all, some themes are so fundamental, so universal, that there is really no limit to how much you can talk about them and still have something to say—love and death (Sakurai’s two favorites!) are the biggest two. Furthermore, once you start thinking seriously about things as big as love and death, everything else really starts to seem like cake sprinkles, or “the flowers of grass,” to borrow an older phrase. Songs about say, being relieved to get to school on time, or about taking as many tequila shots as possible, just can’t compete. Not to say that more lighthearted songs don’t have merit, but they’re just not in the same category.
Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but there’s a reason why, despite the large number of non-native English speakers who read Blog-Tick and NGS, I make no effort to simplify the vocabulary I use in my sentences—I want to encourage you to learn. If you don’t know the meaning of some of the words I used in one of my articles (e.g. “meretricious” or “sesquipedalian”), I want you to go look it up in the dictionary and learn what it means (whether you’re a native English speaker or not!) And now, by the same token, I want to encourage everyone to dig a little deeper into Buck-Tick’s lyrics. True, rock music is basically for fun, but good art (which I believe Buck-Tick is) deserves to be appreciated fully. Part of the pleasure of good art is the pleasure of analyzing why it’s good. Therefore, I’d like to guide you readers through a bit of lyrics analysis, in the hopes that maybe you see some things you didn’t notice before, and that maybe you appreciate the band more because of it.
Since Sakurai seems to bear the brunt of the lyrics criticisms, in this article, I’m going to focus exclusively on lyrics by Sakurai (maybe I’ll do Imai lyrics another time.) To analyze Sakurai’s word usage, and the evolution of the way he has explored the same big themes over time, I’m going to compare and contrast some of his older songs and newer songs about parallel topics. I’m going to focus in particular on songs from Yumemiru Uchuu, compared with songs from earlier albums that explore related themes. With so many songs to choose from, it’s hard to know where to even start, but since Yumemiru Uchuu is such a retro, jazzy album, and since sex and death are such big topics in Sakurai-world, let’s start with two red hot retro songs that don’t just talk about sex and death, but actually talk about sex with Death—“Motel 13” and “Yuuwaku.”
“Motel 13” has all the elements that I’ve heard fans complaining about. It contains liberal use of the words “ai,” (“love”), “yume” (“dream”), as well as the English phrases “Baby Baby” and “Dance Dance.” It even gets bonus points for the words “bishonure” (“dripping wet”) and “furueru” (“trembling”)—Sakurai uses those words an awful lot too. If we judged a song by nothing but the words it contains, we might have already thrown this one in the dustbin. But when we look at the whole picture and not just the component parts, we can see that the overall image of this song is a pretty shocking, powerful one—is he actually talking about having sex with the Angel of Death? (Angel of Death, God of Death, Goddess of Death, whichever you prefer. I translated it as “Angel” because it’s gender-neutral and relatively religion-neutral, too.) It’s oblique and ambiguous, but I believe that’s what the heart of this song is about.
What makes me say this? Well, when we look at lines like “you can’t sleep alone” and “I love you baby slippery wet” and “you’re so pretty moving your ass up and down,” it’s clear he’s talking about having sex with somebody. It’s also implied by the song title. But who is his partner? It might be anyone, the generic “you” commonly seen in love songs. But the stanza
Angel of Death dance with me
Rattle rattle laughing
Baby, Baby, It’s you.
and the similar stanza in the second verse, make me think there’s more to it than that. Does the “you” in the “Baby, baby, it’s you” line refer directly to the Angel of Death mentioned earlier in the same stanza? Grammatically, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Sakurai may, in fact, be addressing the Angel of Death as “baby.”
Then look at the line, “Love me at the end.” That could be a throwaway line, except, I don’t think Sakurai writes “throwaway lines,” ever. This song doesn’t have very many lyrics to begin with, and I don’t believe Sakurai ever uses any word unintentionally. What basis do I have for saying this? Well, there are shots of rough drafts of his lyric sheets in the footage of the recording of Kurutta Taiyou in the Sen-Sor documentary, as well as in the documentaries on the making of Ai no Wakusei and Memento Mori, and in each one, half the words are crossed out and re-written. Clearly he thinks a lot about his word choices and every word is there for a reason. So what is the “end” he’s talking about in this line? It might be the end of the sex act, or it might be the end of life itself. The French phrase “le petit mort” (“the little death”), an idiomatic expression for orgasm, is proof enough that parallels have been drawn between the end of sex and the end of life for hundreds of years. There’s a way in which the void left after sex is over feels like dying.
However, I think the heart of this song really rests on the lines,
I don’t think I know
Who are you now?
This is a simple phrase, but it has some pretty big implications. The singer is in the middle of having sex with someone, yet he doesn’t know who the person is? This is the moment where Sakurai bridges the gap between the literal imagery—having sex at night in the pouring rain in a sleazy motel where the lightbulbs are about to burn out—and the more abstract meaning of the song, which is his feeling of the nearness of death, and his desire to come to terms with it and understand it. Sex is just about the most “alive” thing people can do. But the moment you start thinking about how you feel so alive, you’re forced to consider…what is it to not be alive anymore? This is a question no one living has the answer to, and we all desperately want to know. In his moment of defying Death by experiencing the extreme ecstasy of life (that would be Sex 4 U, yo), the singer experiences a vision of Death, and wants so desperately to know Death, to be at peace with Death, to love Death, almost as if Death itself were his sexual partner.
That’s some pretty heavy shit right there. Also, when you stop to really consider it, it’s pretty creepy, too. Kind of gives me the willies. Or willy. No pun intended.
But the beauty of this song isn’t just about the heavy shit. Beyond the core themes of the song, there are a number of subtle, elegant little ways in which Sakurai ties the imagery together. The line I translated as
reads “mabataki obake denkyuu” in Japanese, but the word “obake denkyuu” actually has no analog in English. The literal translation of “obake denkyuu” is “ghost lightbulb,” meaning, a lightbulb on its last legs that flickers on and off instead of producing continuous light. But think about it. “Ghost lightbulb”—one more spooky little death image that also calls to mind the line between light (literal light, where things are visible, and metaphorical light, where things are easy to understand) and darkness (literal darkness, where you can’t see, and metaphorical darkness, of the unknown.)
Along the same lines, the repetition of the word “sleep” has long been used as a euphemism for death, and the “wet” image evoked by the line about the pouring rain in the first verse is echoed by the “slippery wet” line in the second verse, which of course is less about rain and more about sexual arousal.
So, while these lyrics may sound terse and simplistic on the surface, when you pause and look at them more carefully, they reveal themselves to be pretty damn clever and complicated.
Though the Memento Mori tour may have been the first time that Sakurai was so obvious about this whole making-love-to-Death idea (especially the part when he made out with the skull that was dressed in his jacket and hat), this is an idea he’s worked with on and off over the years, most notably in the song “Yuuwaku.”
Unlike “Motel 13,” “Yuuwaku” doesn’t contain the words “ai,” “yume,” “baby” or “dance dance.” Overall, it contains a lot more words in total, and a greater density of images, so that should automatically make it a better song than “Motel 13,” if you think more is better. Some of the imagery in “Yuuwaku” is also a little difficult to parse—what’s the significance of the line about broken glass? Why did he cut his right hand, not his left? It’s open to interpretation. But the biggest difference between “Motel 13” and “Yuuwaku” is the emotional tone. In “Motel 13,” the singer is in control of the situation, issuing commands—
Won't you love me
Love me at the end
Cause I'm begging please
It’s a little hard to get it across in the translation, but the Japanese phrase “aishite kure” means “love me,” as a command, and “onegai dakara,” which I translated as “cause I’m begging please” is also a pretty in-your-face entreaty, that, depending on the context, can also be construed as a bit rude. I don’t think Sakurai is trying to be rude or aggressive here, but he’s definitely being very determined and insistent.
However, in “Yuuwaku,” the sense of terror, despair, and abandonment are palpable in lines like
You left, and took the truth away
Tonight, where can I run to?
Ah help me escape
Ah, or I’ll disappear
Do you love me?
I could go, just like this, to an empty place
In “Yuuwaku,” we get the sense that the singer is feeling suicidal but at the same time is scared shitless of dying. The crux of the song lies in the second stanza, with the lines,
And now again tonight, she's tempting me
A lover by the name of Death
Surely she can't offer that kind of pleasure
Tangling her fingers towards the hot part of my body
I wouldn't care, if it were easy.
The word “yuuwaku” means “temptation,” generally of a sexual nature. Sakurai imagines Death as a temptress trying to seduce him, and wishes that death were actually as pleasurable as love, but speculates that it can’t be. (Actually, since Japanese isn’t big on gendered pronouns, it’s completely impossible to tell if the anthropomorphized Death he’s talking about is male or female or gender-less, I merely chose the pronoun “she” over “he” in my translation because “temptation” has traditionally been a feminine quality, and also because it ties in better with the mother imagery discussed below.)
Anyhow, this Death-as-lover thought is finally resolved in the second-to-last stanza, with the lines,
You must kill me
And bring me back to you.
It seems the singer is begging for a release, but he hasn’t got the courage to do it himself. Sakurai wrote this song soon after the death of his mother, and I believe the “you” the song is addressed to is his mother’s spirit (especially because of the line about “dead Maria” - who is Maria but Mother Mary?) So, in essence, in these two lines, I believe he’s asking his mother’s spirit to come for him and take her with him to the Underworld.
The “cold room” image used throughout this song recurs again and again in various forms throughout Sakurai’s work, notably in
“Chikashitsu no Melody” (“i'm going back to that cold basement room”),
“Sakura” (“I know no way to escape this blue room”),
“idol” (“Tied up in a white hospital room”),
“Warp Day” (“This room, the space in this sky, they're my only world”)
and most recently, in “Adult Children” (“But is this room all that there is?” and “I’m going now, leaving this room”).
It’s difficult to tell quite what the “cold room” means by looking at the lyrics to “Yuuwaku” alone, but looking at the other songs where the image appears, I get the sense that the “cold room” refers, at least in part, to the prison of consciousness—the life none of us asked for but are compelled to live anyway, unless we choose to commit suicide. Therefore, it’s my belief that when Sakurai says
I can hear your voice
Maybe I should return
To that cold room
it’s his oblique way of saying that at least for the moment, he gets the sense that it is indeed nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to take up arms against a sea of troubles. He can hear his mother’s voice from beyond the veil, and he’s decided to live, rather than die. After all, she would surely prefer that he live, right? (Btw the flowery bit was a quote from the “To be or not to be” speech in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which, if you haven’t read already, you should really read, because not only is it world famous and a fucking fantastic piece of literature, it’s also got a lot of themes in it that would most likely appeal to Buck-Tick fans and is therefore totally on my “if you like Buck-Tick you might also like” list.) Interestingly, Sakurai finally manages to escape the cold room in “Adult Children,” which is a big thing that makes Yumemiru Uchuu stand out from Buck-Tick’s previous albums, but more on that in a bit.
To sum up the comparison between “Yuuwaku” and “Motel 13,” though both songs revolve around a central image of making love to death, they come to vastly different conclusions about that theme. In “Yuuwaku,” the singer wants to run away and vanish and not have to deal with anything, summed up in the lines
And the song keeps playing
The song of death, tempting me
Tonight, where can I run to?
He hears the temptation of death, but he’s not ready to die yet, and he has no idea what to do with himself and wants to run away and escape from the torment of life as a mortal being, conscious always of his own mortality.
But in “Motel 13,” he’s up in your face, challenging Death, saying love me, fuck me. That’s a profound transformation of attitude, but it’s to be expected—“Motel 13” was released sixteen whole years after “Yuuwaku.” Sakurai has matured a lot in that time. His greater maturity is obvious not just in the way he approaches the same themes, but also in his writing style. Elegant and poetic though the wording of “Yuuwaku” may be, when you compare it to “Motel 13,” its very volubility marks it as more youthful. In “Yuuwaku,” Sakurai talks a lot, and he angsts a lot. In “Motel 13,” he may be terse but it isn’t because he’s lazy, it’s because he’s pared back the words to get right at the bones of the meaning he wants to express. Look, bones, another death metaphor! That must mean it’s time to talk about two more get-sexy-with-death songs—“Sakuran Baby,” and “Lady Skeleton.”
Some fans took issue with the lyrics of “Sakuran Baby” and “Lady Skeleton” for the same reason they took issue with “Motel 13.” Both “Sakuran Baby” and “Lady Skeleton” make liberal use of the words “ai” and “baby,” as well as English phrases, specifically “merry go round round and round” in “Sakuran Baby” and “dance dance you can dance” in “Lady Skeleton.” The fans’ specific criticism of these two songs was that the word usage was “repetitive” and “juvenile.” But is it really? Once again, let’s take a closer look.
Back in October 2010, Sakurai stated in an interview with CD Data that when he wrote “Sakuran Baby,” he was trying to write a nonsense song. If he had really been trying to write a nonsense song, the lyrics shouldn’t even matter. If it’s really nonsense, who cares what he writes?
However, it’s quite obvious that the “Sakuran Baby” lyrics are anything but nonsense. In fact, Sakurai seems to be dealing with a lot of the same themes in “Sakuran Baby” that he later crystallized in “Inter Raptor.” This is particularly obvious in lines like
And you’re turning me into a starving wild animal
I can’t take it, can’t take it, your blood so red so red I want
Drink it, drink it
Last drop, last drop, drink it down
Which call to the following lines from “Inter Raptor”
Crimson upon my lips
Drips the red red blood overflowing
By blood do I live
Drink and swallow
Sakurai even uses the word “yabai” in both songs. (“Yabai” is a very colloquial word meaning “dangerous,” “brutal,” or “out of control,” and unless I’m miss taken the only other songs in which Sakurai has ever used the word “yabai” were “Narcissus” and "Lion.")
In addition, though the word “sakuran” (“lunatic” or “deranged”) is spelled with completely different kanji from “Sakurai,” I believe the title “Sakuran Baby” is a deliberate tongue-in-cheek pun on his own name (word plays like these are a venerable tradition in Japanese poetry). And since based on what Sakurai has said in interviews, “Inter Raptor” appears to be his new personal manifesto, if “Sakuran Baby” deals with a lot of the same themes as “Inter Raptor,” it would make sense that “Sakuran Baby” is a bit of a personal manifesto, too…so the joke on “sakuran” vs. “Sakurai” would be apropos.
Anyhow, when Sakurai stated that he wrote “Sakuran Baby” as a nonsense song, I think what he really means is that it’s more like a lyrical collage. Almost like he’s chopped lots of his older lyrics up into little pieces and pasted them back together in a kind of disjointed flurry of repeated thoughts that go round and round like a merry go round, faster and faster, enough to make you go lunatic. And just as in “Motel 13,” there are a lot of little images in “Sakuran Baby” that have double meanings which serve to unify the whole song. The lines
Window reflecting the Angel of Death so beautiful…
Hey Baby, oh could you tell me who you are?
are almost certainly direct references to “Motel 13,” just as the lines
Very last jet plane
Slides in the galaxy
are almost certainly a direct reference to “Jonathan Jet-Coaster” and possibly “Galaxy” (and all in a single line!)
“Matsuge ga kurukuru” means “eyelashes in curls,” but “kurukuru” also means to turn, or spin, like a merry-go-round, and not to sound like an overly zealous critic, here, but the merry-go-round is Life, people. It’s a stock metaphor that has been used all over the place, not least of which in Joni Mitchell’s incredibly famous song “Circle Game.” The years go around and around and they pass more and more quickly. (If you don’t know this song, go listen to it, it’s part of your musical education.) Whether or not Sakurai knows the song “Circle Game” is neither here nor there. He uses the merry-go-round image in exactly the same way Mitchell uses it, and I can hardly call it juvenile, because it’s a powerful image that works. Neither can I call it repetitive. The repetition of the phrase “round and round” just serves to emphasize how fast life turns, and how it doesn’t stop turning.
At this point I also feel compelled to point out that whether by coincidence or by design, there are also a lot of parallels between “Sakuran Baby” and “Dokudanjou Beauty”—
Merry-go-round round and round
Go go beauty round round nothing’s gonna stop
Last drop drink it down
At the end, just eat it all.
Sakurai and Imai write in distinctively different styles, but their themes and even their word choices overlap surprisingly often, especially recently. Fans who have been focused on criticizing Sakurai’s word choices while praising Imai’s ought to go back and take another look. They’re a lot more similar than you think they are (just like an old married couple.)
But in my opinion, the standout line in “Sakuran Baby” comes at the end of the second verse:
Twisted in the sheets
A shower of champagne.
This image alone is completely unique to this song, and at first glance, it’s pretty confusing. Who pops champagne between the sheets? But on closer inspection, we can see how artfully Sakurai has created multiple layers of meaning here. “Between the sheets” immediately sounds sexual, and the image of a frothing, bubbling, uncorked champagne bottle is, well, pretty phallic. But “twisted in the sheets” also calls to mind someone having a nightmare, tossing and turning (like in the PV for “MAD”) and it also calls to mind a frightened child, hiding from monsters under the covers—there are echoes of this in “Thanatos” (“at midnight we’ll shiver all alone”) and in “Kirameki no Naka de” (“I shudder in terror in the middle of the bed”)—and both these are both songs about living in fear of death.
If twisted sheets represent nightmares as well as sex, the juxtaposition with the champagne, an image of joy and celebration, is pretty striking—reckless abandon to joy in the face of terror. This is the heart of “Sakuran Baby”: the heady madness of living in the moment. It’s repeated in the last stanza, in the line “shake your hips baby.” If life’s so short it might make you cry, there’s nothing to do but keep on dancing and not think too hard about anything.
In essence, that’s what “Lady Skeleton” is also about. Only the difference is, with “Lady Skeleton,” Sakurai has framed his theme as a black comedy. To my mind, criticizing “Lady Skeleton” for not saying anything “original” is beside the point. Sakurai’s not really trying to say something new here, he’s just making an extended (and sexy!) black joke, and he said as much in various interviews. Why “Lady Skeleton”? Why the Garden of Eden, why the Tower of Babel? I think what Sakurai is saying here is, love and lust are as old as humanity, as old as Adam and Eve. And Adam and Eve are dead, and so are most of the people who have ever lived, and you and are I gonna be dead soon, so basically we might as well be skeletons having skeleton sex! (Watch the video in this link, it's great.)
Like all black comedy, if you think about it too hard, it reveals itself as being tragic and maybe even disturbing. The key to the humor is the speed with which it passes by. Comedy is all in the timing.
Comedy also relies heavily on subverting existing assumptions, which is something Sakurai does masterfully in this song, and he does it by taking common metaphorical clichés lat face value. The joke rests on the idea that the characters in the song might actually be animate skeletons. The phrase “love me right down to my bones” becomes pretty funny if you imagine two skeletons making out. Likewise, the phrase
Yeah you know I love you Baby Skeleton
See, so much I could die
—saying you love someone so much you could die isn’t clichéd metaphorical hyperbole anymore if the two of you are both already literally dead. So, fans who didn’t like the lyrics to this song because they’re “too cliché”…the cliché is precisely the point. It is the clichés at which Sakurai is poking fun.
As for the use of the words “dance” and “baby,” first of all, is there really anything wrong with using the phrase “dance dance you can dance” in a dance song? Musically, “Lady Skeleton” owes a lot to the 1950’s rockabilly hits that the guys with the Regent hairstyles and the girls in the poodle skirts are still dancing to every Sunday in Yoyogi Park. It’s a Saturday night boogie song to get the teenagers to kick up their heels, and to my mind, that means that being totally simple and straightforward is okay.
The word “Baby,” on the other hand, is only used once in the entire song, in the context of the phrase “Baby Skeleton.” And when you stop to think about it, that image is downright ghoulish. Sure, it’s obvious that here, the word “baby” has the same meaning as it does in “Baby, I want you”—a pet name for someone sexually desirable. But it also invites you to imagine an actual, literal baby’s skeleton, and if you don’t find that at least a little teeny bit creepy, there’s probably something wrong with you (though it’s also a little teeny bit cute; perhaps my saying that means there’s something wrong with me.) Anyway, I simply have to admire Sakurai for tossing around such a hard-hitting image with such casual humor. In effect, he’s saying, “face it little baby, you may be young now, but no matter what, pretty soon you’ll be dead!” And…that cuts! To the bone (if I may)!
The whole Yumemiru Uchuu album is full of lines like this…lines that seem casual but really bite. Which is why, though Yumemiru Uchuu may be musically bright, I consider it to be a very dark album. “Lady Skeleton” is a humorous dance tune on the surface, but beneath the surface it’s absolutely macabre, and this serious undercurrent is summed up in the line “The night is comin’ soon.” Variants of this same phrase pop up throughout the album, which was a very deliberate choice on Sakurai’s part. He stated in multiple interviews that he built his part of the album up from a few unifying phrases and concepts, so whatever internal repetition you may find within Yumemiru Uchuu is there on purpose.
Of course, the song on Yumemiru Uchuu that makes the greatest use of the phrase “the night is coming” is “Yasou.” Sakurai explained in several interviews that the word “yasou” was one of the phrases he initially came up with as a concept for the album (together with “raptor,” “adult children,” and the phrase “yumemiru uchuu” itself.) However, the life of the word “yasou” in Sakurai’s lexicon began not with Yumemiru Uchuu, but back during his solo project in 2004, when he released a book of photography, drawings and poetry that was also entitled Yasou.
As I explained in my translator’s note, “yasou” is an interesting word. The word “yasou-kyoku” means “nocturne,” as in a piece of music, so “yasou” by itself could be translated as “nocturne” with a more loose interpretation…not just a nocturne as in a piece of music, but any sort of art or atmosphere evoking or rhapsodizing the night. But since “yasou” is spelled with the kanji for “night” put together with the kanji for “visions” (this kanji can also mean “reveries,” “musings,” or “love,” depending on the context) I translated the title of the song as “night visions.” As in, visions of the night. Because in world of the song, the “night” hasn’t happened yet, it’s merely on its way. And also, to me the word “nocturne” has a soft, sweet, dreamy quality, like Chopin’s nocturnes, and Buck-Tick’s song “Yasou” may be dreamy but sweet it is not. It’s bitter. It stings. It cuts. In CD Data, Sakurai described the lyrics to “Yasou” as “a gentle way of saying something cruel.”
“Yasou,” for me, is one of the standout songs on the album, due in no small part to the lyrics (I’d say the lyrics and music are both of equally high quality, the best balance a song can have.) I also think “Yasou” is a perfect example of Sakurai re-using the same exact words to say something new. This song is full of his favorite words and phrases.
First, you’ve got the line “cherry blossoms bloom out of season.”
Similar phrases appear in both “Heaven” (“The cherry blossoms bloom and blow in the wind”)
and “Kalavinka” (“The cherry blossoms bloom, suck red blood and sing”).
Then, you’ve got the lines “gonna swallow the last of the honey” and “gonna swallow the last of the poison.”
The swallowing honey image appears several times, in “Gensou no Hana” (“We swallow the sweet honey”)
“Kalavinka” (“You bloom and seduce me with the scent of honey”)
and “Death Wish” (“Ah...the smell of sweet honey/Fruit so sweet it's rotting”) among others.
In addition, Sakurai used the “swallowing poison” image in “Kalavinka” (“So sweet and bitter as I realize you are poison”)
and also “Passion” (“When I drink the poison/I'll drink it all”).
Then there are the lines “Crazy cicadas, the sound and the fury/As the sweet summer dies.”
The line “natsu ga yuku,” which I translated in “Yasou” as “the sweet summer dies,” first appeared in “Ijin no Yoru” (“The summer ends, the flowers scatter and die”),
while the “crazy cicadas” line calls to “Utsusemi” (“The cicada in the pouring rain”).
Last but definitely, definitely not least, there’s the line “Wanna suck on your pale white tits.”
We all know how much Sakurai loves to talk about sucking on titties in just about like…every song ever, including “Spider” (“Your breasts heaving/Running palely”),
“Sapphire” (“In the circle of the moon/Your breasts so pale in the moonlight”),
“Kimi no Vanilla” (“Your breasts so lovely/I adore your mortal life”),
“Hallelujah” (“Like a slug, I crawl/Over your white breast”),
“Schizo Gensou” (“Her lullaby/The lullaby of the breast”)
“Fuck the Pain Away” (“suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me”)…whoops I think that last song is actually by Peaches my bad.
So, if just about all the phrases in “Yasou” are echoes of other songs, could “Yasou” possibly say anything new? I’m going to argue that it does. But the effectiveness of “Yasou” mostly does not lie in the individual words. Instead, it lies in the parallel phrasing—the repetitions of the same phrases in each verse with variations each time, to build narrative momentum. This lyrical technique is more characteristic of folk ballads than of rock songs. In folk ballads, each verse is often a mini-story in itself, and this is true of the lyrics to “Yasou.”
First, we get a story about cavorting in springtime, symbolized by the cherry blossoms and honey—but it doesn’t last (“scattering blood”). Next, we get a story about summer, symbolized by the cicadas. Just as cherry blossoms are the essential Japanese stock metaphor for spring, so cicadas are the essential Japanese stock metaphor for summer; this convention goes all the way back to the poetry of the Heian period, more than a thousand years ago. But the summer doesn’t last, either—now the honey has turned to poison. And last, we get a story about autumn, symbolized by the moon. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the moon is the essential Japanese stock metaphor for autumn, but autumn is the season of moon viewing and traditional Japanese autumn imagery often includes images of the moon with susuki grass, so I think it fits. And at the autumn, all that’s left is to make love, because there’s nothing else…winter is coming. (Now Game of Thrones fans please let us go in the proverbial corner for a moment and have a nice big quiet lul.)
But seriously. This song says something new for the sole reason that Sakurai would never have written this song when he was younger, because it’s about the end of youth. He’s looking back on all the joys (honey) and regrets (poison), and realizing it’s all water under the bridge now. Shit Got Real.
The line comparing moonlight to makeup is interesting because it calls to mind both the line in “Taiyou ni Korosareta” (“the death makeup I wear for you/peeling off and falling away”) as well as the line from “Kirameki no Naka de” (“wash off my makeup and now I’m naked/who am I?”) “Kirameki no Naka de” deals with the same basic theme as “Yasou”—that crushing dread of mortality. “Taiyou ni Korosareta” was more about Sakurai feeling immolated by the fire of his own stardom, but it’s tangentially related to “Yasou” in that that phase of his life is over now, a metaphorical “end of summer.” He’s not young anymore and he’s got no makeup to hide behind. But the point is, this narrative progression of seasons is the propulsive force of the song. Sakurai makes sure that you want to find out what happens next. The individual images matter a lot less than the story as a whole.
The other technique Sakurai uses very effectively in this song is direct, explicit statements alternated with thoughts that are hinted at but left almost entirely unspoken. “The night is coming,” he repeats over and over. What does he mean by that? He means: You’re Gonna Die, I’m Gonna Die, We’re All Gonna Die. Ouch! Pretty blunt there, Mr. Sakurai! I can’t really think of a time when he’s been more blunt, except for the time when he pretty much said those exact words (“you’re gonna die, I’m gonna die, we’re all gonna die”) during the spoken section of “Kirameki no Naka de” on the Memento Mori Rebirth tour (for those of you who are interested in looking this up, it’s on the Fish Tanker’s Only Tour 2009 live DVD. Those of you who want this DVD but are not members of Fish Tank, email me.)
But then, Sakurai keeps repeating this other phrase “konna ni mo aa omae wo,” which is difficult to translate, because it’s a sentence fragment, with an object but no subject or predicate. I translated it as “like you do ah I wanna with you,” but literally, it means something like “like this already ah you…” but the “you” takes the accusative particle “wo,” so we know that the “you” is a direct object. The subject, implicitly, is the narrator of the song…but it’s unclear. All told, it’s a very ambiguous statement, the implicit meaning of which changes depending on the context. In the first verse, the singer might be eating “you” just like honey…but not necessarily. In the second verse he might be eating “you” just like poison…but not necessarily. In the third verse, it’s even more unclear. What’s going to happen to “you”? Who is doing what to whom? By deliberately breaking off the phrase halfway, Sakurai’s implying that whatever it is, it doesn’t bear speaking about. He either doesn’t know what to say, or he does but he can’t bring himself to say it, so it hangs there, looming, unknown, unresolved. GET IT? IT’S JUST LIKE DEATH, GUYS. We know exactly what it is, yet we don’t know at all.
Also, I want to point out the beauty of the contradiction in the last line: “together here, yeah we’re all alone.” It’s a little hard to get it across in the translation, but in this line Sakurai doesn’t mean, “you and I are the only two people in the universe.” What he means is, “even though we’re together, we’re actually both separately alone and isolated from each other.” Which is, when you think about it, always true. No matter how physically close we get to someone else, we’re always alone in our own heads. Each of us has a distinct body, consciousness, and life to live. We can’t merge. And that, my friends, is a gentle way of saying something very cruel.
Conclusion: this song is fucking brilliant, and Sakurai’s a fucking genius. The end.
But but but…what about “Kalavinka,” you say? If Sakurai’s such a genius, why does “Kalavinka” contain so many similar images to “Yasou”? To which I say, listen to “Kalavinka” again. Stylistically, the two songs are completely different, both musically and lyrically. Lyrically, in “Kalavinka,” Sakurai was working with a sort of classical-Japanese-cum-Buddhist-sutra image, from the title on up. Far from the personal, conversational tone of “Yasou,” in “Kalavinka,” Sakurai adopts archaic, oracular diction, using a lot of big words not often seen in song lyrics, like “hiki komogomo” (“pleasures and griefs”), “shuuen” (“demise”), and “imawano giwa” (“the cusp of life and death”). Also in contrast to “Yasou,” “Kalavinka” is propelled not so much by narrative tension as by a series of unusual alliterations, such as “kaze midara ni, mune arawa ni” (“bare in the wind, naked in my heart”) and “imawano giwa, namiuchi giwa” (“the cusp of life and death, the cusp of shore and sea”) that give the song a mantra-like quality, like something a monk would chant in a temple.
In “Kalavinka,” Sakurai also conjures a number of very vivid, unusual, surrealistic images. The cherry blossoms in “Yasou” scatter like blood, but in “Kalavinka,” the cherry blossoms are actually sucking blood, like lots of little vampires…now isn’t that spooky! In fact, in “Kalavinka,” both the cherry blossoms and the roses are anthropomorphized:
The roses bloom, singing drenched in crimson red
The cherry blossoms bloom, suck red blood and sing
Now can’t you just imagine a bunch of creepy little bloodthirsty flower people? (Who all appear to be desperate to do the deed with our friend Acchan?) Conversely, just as the flowers in the song are anthropomorphized, the “you” in the song, who I can only assume is a human being, is transformed into a flower (angiospermatized?), in the lines,
You bloom and seduce me with the scent of honey
So sweet and bitter as I realize you are poison.
I’m not going to draw any comparisons with Little Shop of Horrors here, because I think “Kalavinka” is a great song and I don’t want to ruin its Very Serious Mood (btw on a completely unrelated note, “Serious Mood” is also the title of a great song by De+Lax.)
Also, the lyrics to “Kalavinka” are busting-out-of-their-knickers full of sexual connotations, so if you had a feeling that those fretless bass riffs signaled “sex” but you weren’t quite sure…now you know, your hunches were correct.
So, we’ve talked in depth about a lot of songs here…hopefully I’ve begun to persuade you that the deeper you probe into the knickers of a song, the more the hidden meanings just keep growing and growing (
All three of these songs are textbook examples of deceptive simplicity. And based the questions the interviewers asked Sakurai when “Galaxy” was released, and the comments I’ve heard from fans on “Adult Children,” that very simplicity has given rise to a tremendous amount of point-missing. I think both of these are great songs with great lyrics, and therefore, I think the point-missing is quite regrettable and would like to correct it. Listen up good. I’m going to explain The Point now.
It’s hard to know for sure, but I suspect that Buck-Tick released “Heaven” and “Galaxy” as singles at least partially in response to pressure from their label. I’ve mentioned it before, but lately, the mainstream Japanese music industry is heavily biased towards happy, upbeat songs with “positive messages.” Artists who write about dark themes and negative emotions are quickly marginalized and branded as “scary.” These days, if you want to hit it big, it seems you have to pretend to smile all the time. Really, this is a strange position to take. For more than a thousand years, Japanese art has been dominated by a dark, tragic aesthetic, so this current focus on “happiness” is a historical anomaly.
Plus, people need music as a source of solace from bad feelings like fear, anxiety, grief and heartbreak. Music that deals with painful feelings is a powerful source of healing. When you’re feeling bad about something, falsely cheerful songs that admonish you to smile all the time aren’t the least bit helpful. In fact, they’re insulting, and they don’t resonate. Listening to songs like that, all I can think of is, “why are you so happy, and why are you rubbing it in my face?” Denying the existence of negative emotions is disingenuous in the extreme. All these pop songs that just repeat “I’ll love you forever,” and “Thank you from my heart” over and over again are basically hollow lies, part of a cultural propaganda machine that’s deeply invested for some reason in selling everyone on the idea that the ultimate goal of life is happiness, and the only way to find happiness is through starting a family based on a monogamous marriage. Excuse me, but no one has forever to love, and in any case, love is a lot more complicated than that. The words ring hollow. Imai directly attacks this phenomenon in the lyrics to “Elise no Tame ni,” but I already wrote about that in my review of the Elise no Tame ni single, so go read it if you’re curious.
In any case, Buck-Tick’s promotional manager at Ariola was trying very hard for a while to sell Buck-Tick to a more mainstream audience, and I think the “Galaxy” and “Heaven” singles were a result of pressure from the label for Buck-Tick to write more mainstream-sounding songs. All told, the band delivered well, even under the pressure, producing two simple, catchy pop ballads in major keys with lyrics about superficially positive themes, that nonetheless remained true to Buck-Tick’s signature sound and managed to avoid all the common pop-ballad deathtraps like string arrangements, half-step modulations, and children’s choruses. But I especially have to tip my hat to Sakurai for writing lyrics that appear to adhere to the conventions of modern mainstream Japanese pop, while secretly commenting on them and subverting them at the same time. And it’s telling that most magazine and television interviews (and fans as well) were too dense to realize that that’s what he was doing.
When the “Heaven” and “Galaxy” singles were released, Sakurai was interviewed by a lot of female magazine writers who kept remarking that they were surprised at how “bright” the songs were compared to the “darkness” of Sakurai’s previous work, and asking him in a tone of barely-disguised eagerness if this meant he had “moved beyond the dark and gothic thing now.” First of all, all self-respecting Buck-Tick fans should be insulted that these bimbeenies sounded so excited at the prospect of Sakurai giving up The Goth. I mean, what’s going on in their heads when they say that? Are they thinking, “this guy is really hot, but if he weren’t so dark and scary he’d be even hotter?”
News flash: The Goth IS Sakurai, and Sakurai IS The Goth. He is NEVER going to give it up, and we wouldn’t want him to! It’s what he does best, it’s what his fans love about him. He puts the “amp” in “vampire,” he puts the “host” in “ghost,” he puts the “bra” in “macabre.” And stuff. Second of all, when we take a closer look at the lyrics to both “Heaven” and “Galaxy,” we can see that in fact, they’re not as cheerful as all that…Sakurai just slipped his usual darkness in under the radar.
In “Heaven,” the darkness comes through overtly in lines like
In this beautiful world growing dark
In this beautiful world rotting away
A white carnation sticks in my heart.
The darkness inherent in the “world growing dark” and “world rotting away” images speaks for itself, but the white carnation is a dark image, too…white carnations are traditionally worn on Mother’s Day by children (and adults) whose mothers have died. Thus, this line is clearly about Sakurai continuing to mourn the death of his mother…which is kind of the opposite of happy. There are other ominous images scattered through the song, too—especially in the line “sleepless night of gunshots is over at last.” Though Sakurai claims the gunshots are over, all we have to do is turn on the news to realize that’s not actually true, and Sakurai implicitly acknowledges this reality in the lines about the world growing dark and rotting. If anything, “Heaven” is a song is about finding love, peace and happiness despite the fragility of existence and all the terrible things in the world. It doesn’t deny the darkness, it merely encourages us to rise above it. The lines
We kiss each other through the bars
Angels embracing over national borders
Our soaring wings cast a single shadow
sum it up nicely—defiantly finding love even through the prison of destructive human systems like war and nationalism. One of the smarter writers who interviewed Sakurai about this song compared it to Lennon’s “Imagine,” and I think that comparison is pretty appropriate. But “Imagine” is also a deceptively positive song…because just as it invites us to imagine a better world, it forces us to face up to the dark realities of the world as we know it.
The dark side of “Heaven” may be easier to see than the dark side of “Galaxy.” After all, the idea of “heaven” does tend to simultaneously conjure the idea of dying. But I’m actually going to argue that “Galaxy” is a darker song, even though it sounds brighter on the surface. “Heaven” offers a kind of promise of salvation, but “Galaxy” doesn’t really offer any sort of solution except for denial.
The first three stanzas of “Galaxy” are given over entirely to positive imagery—a young person with a heart full of love and peace, taking off at dawn into a sparkling brand-new day. But the tone shifts abruptly in the fourth stanza, with the lines
On those nights full of sad omens
Just run, run through the darkness
I think a lot of fans read this as Sakurai’s way of saying “don’t worry, be happy,” but I think it’s a lot sadder and more profound than that. First, the use of the word “omen” implies a sense of something that hasn’t happened yet but will happen in the future…and all people who don’t themselves die young experience this. People’s parents die, their relatives die, their friends die. You can’t escape it and you don’t know when it will happen. Life is one big crap shoot, full of unknowns, but what can you do about it? All you can do is keep on living. If you think about it, life can really be a lot like running through darkness—the metaphorical darkness of uncertainty, but with a certain end.
Then we get to the chorus,
At midnight, you’re dreaming and crying
You had such a beautiful dream
At midnight, you’re dreaming and shivering
There’s nothing to be sad about
Once again, I think a lot of the more superficial fan types read this as reassurance. After all, if the dream is beautiful, the dreamer must be crying out of happiness, right? After all, Sakurai says it right there—“there’s nothing to be sad about.” But actually, we all know, there are plenty of things to be sad about, and no one knows it better than Sakurai, who lost both his parents before the age of thirty, and who had a brush with life-threatening illness himself. Yet these days, the Japanese pop songs at the top of the charts all adamantly deny the existence of sad things, which is why I think it was so brilliant of Sakurai to include this line in his lyrics. The stupid critics ate it all up and were none the wiser, believing that Mr. Goth as Fuck had at last come over to their side—but, of course, he hasn’t gone over to their side, he’s just up to his subtle tricks again. Sakurai is saying one thing, while meaning the exact opposite thing. He’s used this technique in a number of other songs, most notably at the end of “Misshitsu,” where he says, “Ah, nothing, I want for nothing.” He says “I want for nothing,” but we know he’s lying, because we’ve just listened to him sing a whole song about how desperately he wants a person he can’t have. So at the end, when he says, “Ah, I want for nothing,” it’s agonizing. You ache for him, and his categorical denial of everything he just spent the whole song singing about is far more effective than saying, “Ah I want you so much” would have been.
By the same token, in “Galaxy,” when Sakurai says, “there’s nothing to be sad about,” what he really means is, the world is so sad it might break your heart, but don’t let it break you. “Midnight” as mentioned here is not just literal midnight, when we wake from our nightmares in a cold sweat, but also the metaphorical dark night of the soul. Sakurai has used the midnight image in the same way before, notably in the line in “Thanatos” I previously mentioned (“At midnight we'll shiver all alone”), and also in “Barairo no Hibi” (“At midnight, I awaken in a nightmare/Gazing at your hand dyed the color of roses.”) The crying might be tears of happiness, from dreaming the beautiful dream…or they might be tears of sadness, at waking to find that the beautiful dream wasn’t actually real. The contradictory ambiguity of the line is surely deliberate.
Ultimately, however, the impact of the whole song really hinges on the bridge:
No need to worry about sad things to come
The phrase “I lied” is the most important part. I know another translator rendered this line as “the sad things aren’t real, I made them up,” and I think she made that choice because she, like a lot of other people, hoped that Sakurai was offering reassurance, and not casually proclaiming a bitter, bitter truth. For what it’s worth, my translation is the more literal one…in Japanese, he says “boku wa uso wo tsuita,” which literally means, “I lied.” But whether you prefer her translation or mine, it amounts to the same thing. Sakurai denies the existence of the sad things to come, but it doesn’t matter. They’re still there. There it is again, guys—the looming prospect of Death! By denying it, Sakurai is deliberately calling attention to it. What he means when he says “I lied,” is, “I’d love to tell you nothing bad will ever happen, but I can’t, because that would be a lie.” Read: YOU’RE GONNA DIE, KIDDO. It’s just as agonizing as the “I want for nothing” line in “Misshitsu.”
Now do you get why I think “Galaxy” is such a dark song?
However, taken in the context of the song as a whole, the implicit message is, “I know, it’s terrifying, but focus on the beauty and do not succumb to your fear.” So all in all, I guess the underlying message of “Galaxy” is essentially positive…but it still brings up a big terrifying subject without really offering any solutions, so in a way, it’s also kind of tragic. In its own way, “Galaxy” cuts almost as much as “Yasou.”
On the one hand, I’m proud of Sakurai for sneaking this under the tyrannical Happiness Radar. On the other hand, I’m disappointed in everyone else for being too stupid to get it. If I just made you see this song in a whole new way…sorry to burst your bubble.
Which brings me to the last song in this article, “Adult Children.” Pardon me, but I think this is another song where a lot of people missed the point. I guess they felt it was too subtle. I think the subtlety kind of IS the point, but more on that in a minute.
Before the album was released, Sakurai explained in various interviews that he wrote “Adult Children” as a sort of exorcism of the trauma he experience as a child. He said that up until this point he’d felt incapable of writing about it, but he was now ready to address it directly. So, a word on the trauma for those of you who just became Buck-Tick fans last Tuesday: Sakurai grew up in a profoundly broken home. By his account, his father was a violent alcoholic who beat him and his mother and brother. Atsushi is the younger of the two brothers, and recounts that his older brother also beat and bullied him on a regular basis. Sakurai describes himself as a cold, quiet, isolated child, who had no friends and had no interest in or enthusiasm for anything, though he apparently got good marks in school and won at least one award for his drawings. In middle school, he joined a gang of troublemakers, older boys who became his first friends, and who were later involved in some sort of “incident,” which Sakurai has never talked about in detail, but as he himself was not directly involved in the incident, the upshot of it was that his gang friends got in trouble with the police and Sakurai was ordered to completely cut ties with them.
Sakurai, to his credit, cut ties with the gang and stayed in high school (most of the gang members were high school dropouts), and eventually was invited to the fabled hangout sessions at Imai’s house, where he met the other band members and eventually became the drummer of Buck-Tick. However, it took him a long time to straighten himself out. He describes feeling completely at a loss after graduating high school, of drinking heavily and being unable to hold down a job because he would regularly blow off work either to go to rock shows or to drive aimlessly through the mountains in his car (this is, I believe, where he got the inspiration for the lyrics to “Machine.”) The other band members had moved to Tokyo, but despite the fact that Sakurai’s controlling father died suddenly around this time, Sakurai felt that he couldn’t abandon his mother, so he stayed in Gunma.
He describes that the turning point in his life was when he realized he wanted to be the vocalist of Buck-Tick; that he realized he was meant to be a singer and it was the first time he had ever wanted anything. Imai claims that Araki, Buck-Tick’s original vocalist, left the band because of “changes in musical direction” (i.e. Araki wasn’t a good enough singer to be able to sing Imai’s melodies.) Sakurai claims that through the force of his growing desire to be the vocalist, he pressured Araki into quitting. Toll, who had already spent years teaching Sakurai to play drums, claims that the first time Sakurai stood in the front behind the microphone, he “looked like a suffocated fish that had finally found water.”
There may be more information forthcoming about Sakurai’s life, since he’s just given what is reportedly a big long personal “tell-all” interview to Bridge magazine, but we shall see. (If you want me to translate the interview I’ll be taking donations.) Anyhow, that’s basically a summary of what Sakurai has said publicly about his childhood and teenage years. For what it’s worth, I’ll also note that Sakurai’s brother looks nothing like him, but while there are just about no photographs of Sakurai’s father in public circulation, Sakurai himself claims that he looks exactly like his father. So if you’re wondering why his mother was willing to put up with his father if his father was really such an asshole, maybe that’s an explanation, I don’t know. Certainly it might be something else for Sakurai to feel fucked up about.
As I mentioned in my translator’s notes, Sakurai explained in the recent interviews that he came up with the phrase “adult children” to describe the way in which people who were abused as children remain children even if when they grow up—even though the people themselves are adults, the part of them that was affected by the abuse remains a terrified child. I don’t know what the fans who complain that the song isn’t “overt” enough wished Sakurai had written…maybe something like, “When my poppa beats my momma it makes me SO CUT UP INSIDE.” I don’t know, I really don’t. It’s true, it’s not overt. But to my mind, the obliqueness makes it stronger.
As always, Imai wrote the music for this song before Sakurai wrote the lyrics. Sakurai explained in some of the recent interviews that he already had the idea in his head that he was going to write a song called “Adult Children,” and decided to pair this particular set of lyrics with this particular melody precisely because the melody by itself sounds so bright and cheerful. He thought the contrast of bright and dark would be effective.
But there’s more to it than that—the melody and the lyrics fit together absolutely perfectly. The melody is based around the pentatonic scale so characteristic of traditional Asian music, which makes it sound like a Japanese folk song, or like one of the kayoukyoku that were popular on the radio at the time Sakurai and Imai were children. The staccato synth melodies and Imai’s chanting in the background only add to the effect, calling to mind the sounds of Japanese stringed instruments like the shamisen and koto, as well as taiko drums and festival songs. These are the sorts of songs that a small child growing up in a small, rural town in the 1960’s would have been familiar with…the folk songs sung at school, and the songs sung at summer festivals - and summer festivals are still a really big deal even today, especially in rural parts of Japan (those of you who’ve been to Gunma know that it’s still basically the middle of nowhere, but back then it was even more nowhere than it is today.)
With this in mind, the lyrics fit the melody perfectly, because they’re simple like a folk song, simple enough that a child could have written them. Sakurai evokes a child’s world by using childlike words and images: a bedroom, a bad dream, a (mother’s?) loving embrace. The kid has a nightmare and wakes up crying, and the mother comes in and says, there there, it was nothing but a bad dream, go back to sleep now. Even the use of the sentence particles “ne” and “yo” at the end of the first two lines (“itsumo obieteita ne/itsumo furueteita yo”) seem to me to be an evocation of children’s diction. Young Japanese children tend to speak in plain speech rather than keigo (they haven’t mastered formal speech yet), and they also use sentence particles a lot more than adults, perhaps out of eagerness to communicate in their newly acquired language.
The impact of the song derives from the contrast between the innocent, childlike style of wording and the dark nature of the subject matter the words are talking about. Sakurai starts out nebulous in the first stanza, establishing that the kid’s afraid, but in the second stanza he gets real:
Ah and when I killed my screaming voice
Ah that's when and how I killed myself
Life is dream. Life is but a dream.
Nothing but a bad dream
This is an elegant subversion of the sorts of children’s songs that tell kids to relax, bad dreams are nothing to be afraid of because they aren’t real, and it’s another example of Sakurai saying the opposite of what he means for dramatic effect. The abuse he experienced wasn’t a bad dream at all, it was cold hard real life. Only as a child, it’s too big and too terrible for him to understand, so he withdraws inside himself and goes into denial, pretending it’s all just a bad dream. Also, as I mentioned in my previous article on Blog-Tick, the sudden casual reference to suicide is jarring. Even if it’s only a metaphor, the image of a suicidal child is pretty heartbreaking. Kids aren’t supposed to be suicidal. Their emotions aren’t complex enough yet. They don’t yet understand death. They’re supposed to be embracing and reveling in their life, not wishing for its end.
Then we get the lines
But is this room
All that there is?
Is there nothing
In this world?
There’s the “room” image again, and we know that it’s both a literal room (baby Sakurai’s bedroom aw isn’t that cute) and also a metaphorical room, representing the way, as a child, he’s mentally trapped in a tiny space, because he doesn’t know anything about the world, he’s tiny and helpless, beholden to his family and unable to control the circumstances of his own life. This, I think, is the fundamental question of every person who was abused in childhood: can I ever escape the prison of my past? Will I ever be whole?
Then we get to the chorus, which presents us with another jarring juxtaposition, in the lines
At night the Devil comes inviting you
Midnight, he crawls out from the shadows
Just as we don’t expect kids to be suicidal, we also don’t expect them to know about the devil. Kids are supposed to be innocent, right? They’re not supposed to understand evil. But here we’ve come to the moment in this boy’s life when the possibility of evil has come out to meet him. He’s seen bad things happen and now he’s lying awake in the dead of night, wondering (and there’s that midnight image again.) The Devil makes a strangely attractive invitation—
Come on and love with me
Come on go crazy
You should know that you are free
Why is the Devil making an invitation to love? Isn’t love supposed to be a good thing? It’s hard to know what Sakurai means by this line. The surface interpretation might be that it’s an invitation to actually love the Devil. But Sakurai might also be referring here to all the destructive, crazy things that love can lead us to do, and how the choices we make are on our shoulders, because we’re free beings. This is a big epiphany for a child to be having, but I don’t think it’s an epiphany Sakurai ever had as a child. Though Sakurai’s child self is undoubtedly the main character in the song, another voice is also visible throughout, in the way the lines trade back and forth between “I” statements and “you” statements. It’s very ambiguous and open to interpretation, but I believe this second voice is the voice of Sakurai’s mature adult self, and I believe that it’s this adult voice that is speaking in the second stanza of the chorus:
And I think how this world is wonderful
I see all the angels smiling
Come on dance with me
You should know that you are free
Surely it isn’t the Devil speaking these lines, but I don’t think it’s the kid, either, because these lines also contain an invitation, “come on dance with me,” so it seems to me that another figure besides the Devil is speaking to the kid, offering him an alternative path, which he is free to choose.
The second verse opens,
When you hold me so close within your arms
When you hold me so close within your love
To me, this immediately evokes the image of a loving, protective mother, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a mother…it might be Sakurai growing up and learning to love himself. Then we get the line “I drift into a sleep.” On the surface, this evokes an image of a child falling asleep in his mother’s arms, but at the same time it’s a little ominous. The word “ochiru,” which I translated as “to drift,” literally means “to fall,” with all the attendant negative connotations.
Sakurai used this word in “Sakura” (“I was always watching/As your dying fingers fell”) which was another reference to the death of his mother.
He also used it in “tight rope” in the lines “Wherever I am, I feel I'm falling/Nothing to hold on to/But the sweet smell of death,” and in a number of other songs in a similar context.
But since clearly, Sakurai isn’t talking about dying in this song, what does this line mean? I think the music gives a little clue. Right after the line “I drift into a sleep,” the vocals stop and Imai plays a long, extended guitar solo. I’ll talk about it more in my upcoming live reports, but during the live performances of this song, Sakurai has spent the entirety of the solo keeled over, lying flat on the stage. It’s like his astral journey of soul-searching, his good long gaze into the Abyss. And when he comes back, he’s finally gained a new understanding:
I'm going now
Leaving this room
So let me thank you
And say goodbye...
He realized, he is really, truly free. He doesn’t have to remain trapped in the small room, trapped in his childhood trauma. He can open the door and just walk away.
So who is he thanking, and why is he saying goodbye? Once again, I think there are layers of meaning. It’s almost certainly in part a thank you and goodbye to his dearly departed mother. But the “thank you” may also be a “thank you” to his new understanding, to his adult self for having risen above the past. And it may simultaneously be a thank-you to his past, for making him who he is now, even though now, he bids his past self farewell.
And then, in the last stanza, he finds his purpose in life:
Come on sing with me
You should know that you are free.
The very understatement of this line is what makes it so beautiful. After all, there are so many songs out there that include lines like “come sing with me,” “let’s sing together,” etc., and it doesn’t really mean anything. In general, in song lyrics, saying “let’s sing together” is just like saying “dance dance you can dance,” or “rocking and rolling all night long” or “shots shots shots shots”—just a simple description of whatever action the singer and the audience are doing at that moment: singing, dancing, rocking out drinking way too much tequila.
But given what “Adult Children” is about, and given what we know about Sakurai’s personal history, the line “Come on sing with me” takes on a whole new meaning. Here’s his adult self speaking to his child self again, saying: don’t be tempted by the Devil, I know what you should do instead—become the vocalist of Buck-Tick! You are a singer, that is your purpose in life, live it up. You life is yours to choose.
Shucks, I think I might cry now.
And thus concludes my lyrics analysis! We considered nine songs in depth, and others tangentially. But what have we learned? Well, we’re seen a lot of examples of Sakurai using the same words and images over and over. But if you’re one of the fans who was bothered by this, I hope I’ve helped you realize the way in which using the same recurring image in multiple songs can help deepen, rather than cheapen, the meaning of the individual songs. Over the years, Sakurai has done a kind of world-building, similar to what science fiction and fantasy writers do when they imagine fictional universes. In his lyrics, Sakurai has built up a sort of personal code language or symbology composed of recurring images. This symbology unifies his work and gives him a unique artistic identity. Each subsequent time he uses a given symbol, we can look back at the ways he used the symbol previously, and make inferences about what his meaning is this time around—because as we’ve seen, his use of these symbols has changed over time. If Sakurai didn’t use these recurring images, each of his songs would be a self-contained unit. The recurring imagery allows each song to become part of a larger whole, and each song becomes more meaningful for being part of the whole—kind of like a patchwork quilt where the design of each square is different by the fabrics are the same.
But even if I haven’t convinced you, I hope I’ve at least encouraged you to probe under the surface a bit. And if you’re not used to this kind of literary analysis, I hope I’ve given you an example of the kinds of thought processes you can use to search for meaning in songs and poetry.
I wrote this article partly in response to popular demand, and Buck-Tick has a lot more lyrics to offer than the songs I analyzed here. It’s true that I don’t have a whole lot of free time, but I want to write content that my readers want to read. So if you enjoyed this article and you have more suggestions for songs you want me to analyze, just send me an email, and when I have time I’ll put together a second article.