The Cacophony of Mortality
An Exploration of the Symbolism on I Am Mortal
by Cayce, March 7th 2016

Trigger Warning: Mr. Sakurai is a walking trigger. This article is all about Mr. Sakurai. Therefore, this article is nothing but a walking trigger. If you're trigger-happy, you've likely already been triggered by now, but if you haven't yet, you've now been warned. No seriously, I mean it. If you're the kind who gets triggered easily, don't say I didn't warn you. I'm about to talk about some Heavy Shit. Gird your loins!

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Introduction

If you've ever taken an introductory logic class, you've probably seen the following three sentences:

Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Perhaps you copied the three sentences into your notebook, while your professor began to introduce the concept of deductive reasoning. Then, perhaps you remembered the bit about how Socrates, one of the most celebrated philosophers of the ancient world, was executed for criticizing the government...and maybe that was the moment when it all felt real to you for the first time, when you knew, not just intellectually, but viscerally, with a cold sweat of prickling dread creeping up your spine and clamping down around your guts, that someday much too soon, you, too, would vanish into nothingness and there would be absolutely nothing you could do to stop it.

Maybe you felt dizzy, maybe you felt nauseous. Maybe you had to get up and leave the room, go outside, stare up at the sun and the trees and wonder how everything could look so peaceful in the face of the yawning black chasm of this inescapable truth. Or maybe you stayed in class, took a deep breath, and felt fine a moment later. But either way, you'd rewritten your sentences – 

I am human.
All humans are mortal.
I am mortal.

And you never looked at those words in quite the same way again.

I Am Mortal album cover

I Am Mortal – it's a humdinger of an album title. You could chuckle at it for being glaringly obvious, until you take a second or two to think about what it really means. The word “death” is such a cliche in goth and metal music that we hardly notice it – tack “of death” on the end of any noun phrase and you've pretty much got the title of a metal album ready to go, and goth lyrics are apt to portray death as at least as sexy as any flesh-and-blood lover. We wear skulls all over our clothes and jewelry without ever thinking about the skulls inside our very own heads, waiting to come out.

But the word “mortal” has an entirely different ring. There's a humility to it that death lacks. Death has no need to be humble, because death always wins, but what is a mortal? An ephemeral, insignificant creature, often modified by the adjective “mere.” The opposite to a god. Something nobody wants to be, yet everyone is: the human condition.

When The Mortal project was first announced, Mr. Sakurai was heavily questioned about his take on the meaning of the word “mortal”. When Buck-Tick released Keijijou Ryuusei, most Japanese fans I spoke to confessed to not knowing the meaning of the word “keijijou” (it means “metaphysics”), yet everyone seems to know the meaning of “mortal.” The magazines rendered it into Japanese as “shinu beki unmei,” which could be roughly translated back into English as “fated to die,” but that translation would leave out the fact that “beki” carries a connotation not only of something that must happen, but something that should happen – which comes across, to me at least, as far more Buddhist than anything the English language allows for in so few words...far more zen (if you will) about the inevitability of death than the sin and damnation of the Judeo-Christian European tradition.

Sakurai, however, had a different answer to the question “what does 'mortal' mean to you?”

“We are fated to die, therefore we are human,” he told Kanemitsu Hirofumi in the December 2015 issue of Ongaku to Hito. “That's why we're scared, why we get violent and act out. That's why I'm up here being so loud about saying all this stuff, you know? For the moment, let's not consider giving up. We're struggling. Because it's terrifying, that's why we get up and scream. That's what I think…

“And I could say I'm obsessed by it, by that fear. So I want to do something about it...no, there's no point resisting, but I want to at least say something, just let me have my say, you know? I realized that my attachment to being alive is so strong it's indecent. When I write different kinds of lyrics, I always end up facing off with myself. And I realize that, to an indecent degree...I want to live, I want to cling to life...so it's the complete flipside, you see? The Mortal made me self-conscious about that in a new way...it's not cool. I realized, that's what I was showing everyone. I was putting on such an act that it wasn't cool anymore.”

Death has long been a theme in Mr. Sakurai's work, but now, at fifty, he's reached an age where thinking about mortality takes on a new and more frenzied dimension. Up till this point, both in his work with Buck-Tick and in his previous solo project, Sakurai carefully balanced death with love, despair with salvation, even in his darkest work. Buck-Tick's album Darker Than Darkness is more or less a concept album about death, yet it spends at least half its time writhing through ecstatic trysts with the sensual pleasures of life, and by the time it reaches its conclusion with “Die,” death sounds by turns glorious and gentle (“the warmth called death in my skin.”)

The following album, Six/Nine, was shot through with existential dread, and contains some of the darkest songs Buck-Tick has ever produced, most notably "Mienai Mono wo Miyou to Suru Gokai Subete Gokai da," “Detarame Yarou,” and “Kagirinaku Nezumi” – yet it still remained bound at each end by the song “loop,” in which Sakurai repeats the word “rinne” over and over. “Rinne” is the Buddhist cycle of death and reincarnation, as six is merely nine upside-down. The cycle never ends, so death is not real.

Later on, with his first solo project, Ai no Wakusei, Sakurai was free to explore his own aesthetic world without the need to live up to Buck-Tick's image or find compromise with Imai's creative visions, but on Ai no Wakusei, the theme was love, and it was right there in the title. In fact, it's impressive how little death figures on this album at all, despite a fair few references to murder. “This life is a gift – take good care of it,” writes Sakurai in “Wakusei.” “Everyone, we could learn happiness/Everyone, we're born and then we die,” he writes in “Neko.” “Everyone is alone/that's why we're together,” he says in “Marchen.” He remains relentlessly focused on what we have, not what we will lose.

But we will lose, and fifty is a big number of years to have already gone past. Everyone has that “oh, shit” moment, even goths. I Am Mortal – it's the quintessential title for an elder goth's midlife crisis album.

In addition to possessing a tone of humility, the word “mortal” also has a somewhat grand archaic ring. It calls to mind phrases like “this mortal coil,” which just happens to also be the name of a first-wave goth/dreampop supergroup of sorts, produced by the record label 4AD as a collective of its various artists. At the time of their debut, This Mortal Coil were reviewed in Japan as “music too beautiful to be borne,” and since Sakurai mentioned in at least one long-ago interview that he was a fan of the group, no doubt this is where he first learned the word.

Of course, the phrase “this mortal coil” has much older origins than 4AD records – it comes, like so many beautiful English phrases, from Shakespeare, specifically from Hamlet, specifically from Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” where he ponders the pros and cons of suicide: 

To die, to sleep; 
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause – 

Sakurai has done his homework, here.  Anyone who has ever studied English literature has probably read “To be or not to be,” even if they haven't read all of “Hamlet,” but in Japan, English literature is far less studied, for obvious reasons. I can't be certain, of course, but I'm doubting Mr. Sakurai read this one in school – my guess is that he looked it up later, once he started to listen to bands like This Mortal Coil, and looking at the symbolism in The Mortal's lyrics and visuals, it's clear he revisited it when he began to put together the concept for The Mortal.

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Visual Symbolism

One of the most beautiful, satisfying things about The Mortal as a project is the use of many layers of consistent symbolism throughout all of the band's work. Buck-Tick have done this kind of thing, too, especially for Juusankai wa Gekkou and Arui wa Anarchy, but never quite to the same extent that The Mortal has – perhaps because Imai's the one who comes up with the concepts for Buck-Tick's albums, and then he has to contend with Sakurai's clashing sensibilities. Plus, Sakurai is more focused in his preferred themes than Imai, and The Mortal was the perfect opportunity for him to crystallize the interconnected ideas and imagery of his previous work into one coherent statement. Perhaps he also felt inspired by Imai's idea for Anarchy, of writing an album based on art history, or perhaps he's always been just as nerdy as Imai...likely both. But either way, The Mortal has drawn a lot from Medieval and Renaissance European art and literature.

But wait – wasn't The Mortal supposed to be a re-imagining of classic 80's goth? Yes, it's true that project director Mr. Tanaka suggested to Sakurai that his new solo project should be a resurrection of the first-wave goth that Sakurai loves best, and indeed, The Mortal does borrow heavily from 80's looks, especially the zine-style monochrome photography. At the same time, the 80's goths were drawing on many much earlier influences – silent horror films, Victorian gothic novels, Romantic literature, and ghoulish religious art from Medieval Europe (to learn more, check out my article So You Want to Be a Goth?) – and The Mortal keeps up this tradition by being brimful of old-school references itself.

We'll get to the song lyrics in a bit, but first, let's focus on imagery: the skull, the top hats, the masks, the dove, the lilies of the valley, the grapes – where did they come from, and what do they mean?


The skull, of course, is the easiest to figure out, since it's been a symbol of death in every culture since the dawn of humanity, and Sakurai already used a skull to great effect with Buck-Tick on the Memento Mori tour.  However, this time, based on his costuming, I think he's using the skull specifically as a reference to another famous scene in “Hamlet.” Much later in the play following the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, Prince Hamlet goes for a walk in the graveyard with his ambiguous best “friend” Horatio, and talks to some wisecracking gravediggers, who hand him the skull of Yorick, the dearly departed court jester who was Hamlet's playmate when he was a boy. Gazing at the skull, Hamlet says, 

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination is it! My gorge rims at it

Hamlet holding the skull of his dead childhood friend: it's such a ghoulish, iconic image, no wonder it's been alluded to and aped so many times in art and literature since the play was written. Every actor who plays “Hamlet” is waiting for the chance to hold up a prop skull and act that scene!

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick

Atsushi Sakurai as Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick

In The Mortal's album booklet, Sakurai not only holds his own pet skull in the same iconic pose, but he also wears a classic Elizabethan ruff, obvious sartorial shorthand for “I'm making a Shakespeare reference here.” But he doesn't just drop it there – he runs with it, speaking the phrase “to be or not to be” over and over during the break in “Dead Can Dance” – not only was this a lovely way of tying the visual imagery together with the music, but also, Lisa Gerrard of the gothic ambient band Dead Can Dance contributed several songs to the debut album of This Mortal Coil...the spiderweb of references is beautiful to behold!

A Danse Macabre painting

Of course, skulls and skeletons were the central image in Medieval Memento Mori and Danse Macabre artworks, but as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance the skull also became the centerpiece of a new genre of death-obsessed painting known as the vanitas.

In modern English, we associate the word “vanity” with excessive love of one's own personal appearance, but in Latin, “vanitas” means “emptiness.” Thus, the purpose of vanitas paintings was to remind viewers of the brevity of life and the transience of pleasure. Most vanitas paintings were still lifes. The skull was pretty much an obligatory object in the setup, but the other symbols were more varied – common items included watches and clocks (passing time), candlesticks and bubbles (the brevity of life), family keepsakes such as portraits and lockets (the inevitable death of loved ones), coins and jewels (you can't take the money with you when you die), musical instruments and flowers (the fleeting nature of joy and beauty), seashells (literal emptiness), and fruit, especially rotten fruit (the frailty of the flesh.)

Below: some examples of vanitas paintings

A number of these images (fruit, flowers, candles) appear in The Mortal's album booklet, but as an added bonus, the picture tickets for the tour featured a full-on vanity still life, featuring the skull, a candle, a snail shell, a bunch of grapes, and the lily of the valley flowers on the left, with a figurine of a swan, old books bound up in twine, and more fruit on the right. Every speck of The Mortal's visuals has its own special meaning!

The Mortal's blank ticket vanitas

Of course, some bits of imagery are more important than others, and for a band who performs live, the costumes are a big deal. Sakurai's ruff may be Elizabethan, but the rest of his outfit isn't...why not? What's the significance of the top hats and masks?


Black top hats and masks are such popular wardrobe items among goths that perhaps some of you didn't even consider that they might have a special meaning, but they do. The black top hat, coat and waistcoat became popular in goth fashion because it was the uniform of the Victorian undertaker – and not only did Victorian gothic literature have a huge influence on the development of the goth subculture, but also, mourning and death rites in Victorian times were Serious Business. Without the advantages of modern medical technology, people died a lot younger and a lot more visibly, especially of disease, and whole elaborate rituals of fashion and etiquette grew up around mourning, which could last for months or years. While in mourning, people had to wear mourning clothes, but if they were mourning for years, they were wearing those clothes a LOT.

Mourning fashion (heavy on the black by definition) became a sort of cult of its own, giving modern-day goths a lot to work with. In addition, there were plenty of other ghoulish traditions – sometimes dead children who had never been photographed during their lives were posed for photographs after death, as if they were still alive. Keepsake lockets with a portrait and lock of hair from the deceased were also common mementos, and the oval portrait of Sakurai holding the skull which appears on the Eau de Mortalité perfume bottle seems to be to be a reference to such lockets, but in any case, you can see why the black top hat and waistcoat combination was a perfect costume choice for the members of The Mortal.


Beyond that, far from cold Victorian England, under the Caribbean sun, the same dark uniform was the garb of Baron Samedi, the death loa of Haitian Vodou. Samedi was usually depicted as a skeleton in a fine black suit and tophat, with glasses that had only one lens (because, as the gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the Baron was looking at both worlds at once.) Who can say whether Mr. Sakurai's heard of Baron Samedi or not, but I hope he has, because they'd get on famously – Baron Samedi is known in Vodou folklore as the dirtiest old bastard there ever was. He and his followers love nothing more than getting drunk on rum infused with so many chili peppers it would burn mere mortals to death, and making smutty jokes and lewd overtures to anyone and everyone in the vicinity. If the Baron ever met Mr. Sakurai, surely he'd take him up into his entourage at once.

So that's the hats – what about the masks? Sakurai's always been a big fan of masks, so this may have simply been him imposing his aesthetic on the other band members for fun. At the same time, the mask comes with a lot of symbolism – the roles we play and the personae we take on upon the stage of life (and there's another Shakespeare reference for you – see Jacques' “All the world's a stage” speech from “As You Like It.”) Masks can also symbolize the way we can never really know the true nature of one another, or the nature of love, or the nature of death. The mask also goes along with the puppetry image in “Guignol,” and with the titular character in “Fantômas.”

But more on that when we get to the songs...first, what about the lily of the valley flowers? The child featured on the cover of Spirit is holding them in his hand, and Sakurai has them in his breast pocket in all the album booklet shots. Not only that, but five lily of the valley bells are part of the band's logo – one for each of the five band members.


So what do they mean? In European religious tradition, lily of the valley has been associated with the Virgin Mary. Supposedly, when Mary wept over the body of Jesus, her tears turned into lily of the valley, and this is why the flowers are still sometimes referred to as virgin's tears or Mary's tears. Thus, it follows that they mean innocence, purity, and happiness – in Victorian flower language, lily of the valley meant “return of happiness,” and was commonly used in wedding bouquets for this reason. At the same time, lily of the valley is actually a very poisonous plant, and if you eat too many of the appealing orange berries, you will die. In this way, it's like a vanitas painting all by itself – we're all reaching for that pure love, pure bliss, but can we ever actually possess it?

However, I think the Virgin Mary image is more significant. Sakurai mentioned in interviews that originally, he had wanted to name the band Mother, rather than The Mortal, but copyright issues got in the way. Thus, “Mother” became a song title, rather than the name of the band…but using the Virgin Mary's flower as a symbol in the band logo helps to keep the mother idea going, albeit in a surreptitious way. Sakurai himself may not be a Christian, but since he built the whole album concept around European themes, invoking Mother Mary seems fitting nonetheless.

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Music

It was a hugely significant decision on the part of Mr. Tanaka to set up The Mortal as a five-piece band. Sakurai characterizes himself as an introvert who has trouble opening up around new people, which isn't the ideal personality type for the kind of grab-bag collaboration with multiple artists that gave rise to Ai no Wakusei.  In fact, in interviews for The Mortal, Sakurai stated that in retrospect, there were many of aspects of the Ai no Wakusei project he found extremely stressful, not least of which was having to work with so many different people. Luckily, Tanaka has known Sakurai for thirty years, knows that he works best with familiar faces, and set about pulling together the right people.

I'd had a gut hunch all along that if Sakurai ever did another solo project, it would involve Jake and Murata, but even if these two hadn't been the most easily accessible members of the Ai no Wakusei team, the decision to throw the two of them together as the main songwriters for one band was truly brilliant. Musical polar opposites, they fit together like two halves of a yin-yang. A perfect balance between order and chaos, together, they were able to achieve a level of originality for The Mortal's sound that neither one could have approached on his own.

Jake is the white half of the yin yang, the guardian of melody and order. As a musician, Jake is at least as much a guitar nerd as Imai, but unlike Imai, he's a classically trained type-A player, as becomes abundantly clear in his early work on the Guniw Tools albums Niwlun and Other Goose, for which he acted as main composer. Both these records are crisscrossed with dizzying filigree of acoustic guitar coloratura, and after Jake split from the band, he continued further down the path of guitar nerdery as the solo act Cloudchair, playing psychedelic twelve-minute vocal-free epics based around live loops and samples he layers one by one through a smorgasbord of special pedals and equipment, (which he advertises liberally on social media in his spare time.) Given as he is to caprices of sweet major-key melody, nothing he's written on his own really rings “goth” on first hearing, but in recent years, even before joining The Mortal, he has become enamored of steampunk fashions, so he's aware of the subculture, and as a highly trained and structured player, he's capable of adapting to the needs of the day – plus, as he himself is the first to admit, he loves Mr. Sakurai. 

Murata Yukio, on the other hand, is the black half of the yin yang, summoner of chaos, guardian of destruction and transformation. Sakurai describes Murata as a man possessed by two madnesses: one cold and quiet, the other raging and roaring. Listen to My Way My Love's “Tell Me What Went Wrong My Baby” (repurposed from “Hallelujah”) or “Black Sun Misery” (repurposed from “Explosion” - though Mr. Murata denies either song has any connection to the Sakurai versions) and it's easy to see what he's talking about. Murata by and large eschews the kind of music that could be described as melodic, pleasant, or “in tune,” choosing instead to construct massive dissonant latticed walls of sound between cool, quiet, ragged breathing spaces of detuned acoustic guitar strumming that turns the guitar into a sort of melodic percussion instrument, like someone playing on a chain link fence or razor wire. Murata is a showman in the art of noise, defiantly indie in his sound, clearly indebted to many Western shoegaze and noise acts, but inspired, never derivative – and because of this, his compositions often achieve a level of surprise and originality that Jake's more orthodox works sometimes lack.

Yet just as each swirl of the yin yang holds a droplet of the opposite color at its heart, so, too, is Jake possessed of a fondness for heavily distorted metal guitar effects, while Murata has his own brief but piercing moments of twisted melodic pop genius that strike the listener like shafts of sunlight through dark clouds, and have all the more impact for their sheer rarity (listen to My Way My Love's “Lemon” to see what I'm talking about.) The two would doubtless never have entered a studio together if it weren't for Mr. Sakurai, but their diametrically opposed styles were sure to make for musical dynamite, especially for a project this intense.

At the same time, the point of making The Mortal a five-piece band was to create a unified front to support Sakurai so he could feel comfortable enough to let loose – antagonism can be great for creativity, but you also need balance. Enter Miyo Ken, a longstanding support musician for Kiyoharu, among other artists. As a support musician, he has the mindset of a fixer, keeping his ears trained on the totality of sound and his gifts bent toward making things work. Speaking about Miyo in Massive Magazine volume 20, Sakurai said, “Miyo-chan weighs balance heavily, and takes care of people's feelings...I don't think I could ever really imitate what he does. He's the king of balance. It's the most difficult thing, being in that kind of a position, isn't it?” Sakurai also extolled Miyo's ability to write any kind of music. Thus, Miyo was the perfect candidate for the role of “band master,” directing the creative process with an eye toward a unity of sound – and indeed, Miyo's compositions lie somewhere between Jake's and Murata's in terms of their relative levels of euphony and cacophony.

At the same time, all of this effort to gather together a dynamic, fractious dream team might have been wasted if they couldn't locate the perfect drummer to give the whole thing some shape and backbone – lucky for them, then, that Jake was able to introduce them to Akiyama Takahiko. Though Sakurai had never met Akiyama before The Mortal, he professed fandom of Akiyama's main act, Downy, and it's easy to see why – Akiyama may be a young rocker, but he's got the discipline of a seasoned professional and the grace and cartwheeling spontaneity of a jazz drummer. Rather than selfishly indulging in macho displays of strength and power, like a shiatsu masseur, Akiyama knows when to press hard, when to be gentle, and when to go tumbling off into mad cadences of cymbals and toms like thousands of rocks skipping over the ocean at once – and it's hard to tell sometimes whether it feels like falling apart at the seams, or like pure freedom. The last rock drummer this supple and inventive to come along was Dir en grey's Shinya, but Akiyama has a lighter touch. His beats breathe life into The Mortal's songs, without ever drowning out the real star of the show – Mr. Sakurai himself.

Many things separate The Mortal's sound from Buck-Tick, but perhaps none so much as the live quality of the sound. Buck-Tick have usually relied heavily on electronic backtracks – it's one of the defining characteristics of their music, one of the things that makes them interesting and sets them apart from other bands. However, reliance on backtracks can make their music feel more like electronica than rock, at times – less organic and more technological. It also means that there's a limit to how much they can experiment during live shows, because as soon as they get out of synch with the backtracks, it's over. The Mortal, on the other hand, employs almost no electronics whatever, beyond some synth lines on “Mortal,” “Fantômas” and “Shadow of Love,” making the overall sound far more acoustic and raw than Buck-Tick.

In addition to that, though these days most bands (including Buck-Tick) record each instrument separately, then mix the tracks together after the fact, many parts of I Am Mortal were reportedly recorded with all the instrumentalists in the studio simultaneously. The result was that even if the instruments were recorded through different microphones, bleed-over in recording made it difficult for the sound engineers to change the tracks excessively during the mixing process – giving the music an overall more spontaneous feel. This kind of spontaneity is deeply true to the spirit of early goth, which, after all, came about as an offshoot of the punk scene, with sweaty kids screeching in low-ceilinged basements. But beyond that, spontaneity is also the musical embodiment of the band's concept – real life is nearly always ensemble playing, but it doesn't allow for do-overs. We muddle through and try to make the best music we can. Often we aren't in tune, but with luck, there's beauty to be found even in the mistakes.

Another impressive element of The Mortal's sound is the skillful borrowing from the sonic repertoire of goth, without ever stooping to the level of imitation. It's easy to imitate iconic goth sounds, such as the spidery guitar-string scratch of Bauhaus or the bombastic arpeggios of The Mission, but The Mortal's three songwriters have drawn from a far wider variety of influences, yet only taken scraps from each, so that the end product sounds fresh and new overall – especially because few of the early goth acts had vocalists as gifted and well-trained as Sakurai.

The voice of raw, untrained youth was part of the aesthetic of first-wave goth, another thing they took with them out of the punk scene. Some of these vocalists got training as they grew up, and developed into competent singers, whereas others compensated for their fundamental lack of vocal talent with sheer character or complete indifference. Sakurai, however, has been blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful natural voice – a rare gift that sets him apart the instant he opens his mouth. There's a sensual, luxurious velvet in his vocal timbre that soothes as it invites, giving his voice near-universal appeal. Play one of Buck-Tick's post-Kurutta Taiyou records for someone who's never heard the band, and even if they don't particularly like the music, within thirty seconds, they're likely to be asking you, who is this singer? If he were a pop crooner, he'd be topping the charts with every single – just listen to “Bolero” or “Sekai wa Yami de Michiteiru.”

For this reason, it's thrilling to hear him delve into a world as dark as The Mortal. Pop melodies are great, and Buck-Tick's pop melodies are a big part of their appeal, but the point of The Mortal was to give him a chance to experiment with things he can't do with Buck-Tick, and that includes different kinds of singing. Over the course of I Am Mortal's twelve tracks, Sakurai tries out just about every conceivable vocal style – breathy shoegaze whispers, smooth ballad crooning, big operatic vibrato, deep growly Goth Voice, sarcastic falsetto, guttural screaming, frenetic spoken word, and several styles more or less unique to him, including a kind of melodramatic harsh, nasalized, vibrato-heavy quaver, and a melodic dirty-talk murmur right up against the microphone. Some of it is very gorgeous, but plenty of it is just plain creepy, and this is another thing he hasn't had much of a chance to do in Buck-Tick: be evil.

As he himself said in at least one interview, Buck-Tick's musical world is full of color, but true to their monochrome photoshoots and costumes The Mortal's world contains only one color: black. It makes sense, of course. Black, the color of night, of the vacuum of outer space, of darkness which is the absence of light, is naturally also the color of the unknown, and what greater unknown is there than Death, the undiscovered country? Goth or not, black is the obvious color choice for a death-themed band, and the monochrome promo photos and music videos not only evoke the aesthetics of classic goth, but also call to mind remembrance of things past – monochrome is the color of vintage photos and old memories, and all of us will be nothing but old memories soon enough. However, the visuals are nothing but support for the music. The music itself comes across as relentlessly dark and black, but why? This is where the songwriters show their prodigious skills. They knew what they were doing, to build up this world using nothing but sound, but each of them does it in a different way.

Murata, the darkest of the three, relies mainly on his two favorite friends, dissonance and noise. Both are often byproducts of musicians who don't know what they're doing, but in Murata's case, it's all deliberate. "Basically, nothing I do is accidental," he told us when we asked him about it in person. The guitars are deliberately slightly out of tune. The guitar parts are deliberately out of synch with each other, so that they overlap and create an impenetrable wall of buzzing, fractured tones, like TV static or hair tangled full of sticky burrs. Many of the chords aren't really chords at all, but sets of consecutive notes, all played at the same time – a truly unusual technique which Murata employed effectively on “Tenshi,” but brought to its full potential on “Pain Drop,” where each note in the main riff is actually a cluster of three or four adjacent notes played simultaneously, layered on top of each other. Unresolved dissonance is a great way to create a feeling of pain, discomfort, or unease. Our ears want to hear harmony, so dissonant intervals sound like those problems we hash over while lying awake at night, the thorns in our sides that won't stop sticking us, and that's why Murata's music sounds so unsettling.

Miyo also uses his fair share of dissonance – it's a classic technique, so why waste it? But what really gives his songs for The Mortal their distinctive flavor is his masterful use of chromatic scales and the tritone.

Chromatic scales sound creepy because they include all twelve semitones in an octave, rather than just some of them, which tends to conjure up images of scuttling creepy-crawlies just out of sight. Something about them sounds dirty or polluted, like all the colors on a palette mixed together till they look like mud. Miyo uses these qualities of the chromatic scale to create a dark and dangerous mood in “Fantômas” and "Grotesque," and to a lesser extent on “Dead Can Dance.”

The tritone is also sometimes known as “the Devil's harmony.” Located right between the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth, the tritone sounds so imperfect it hurts, which is why it has been used by composers through the ages to evoke anxiety and menace. The tritone is not a particularly common interval in goth music, which tends to prefer open fourths, fifths and octaves, but tritones are enormously popular in metal for obvious reasons. Dir en grey are a good example of a band who used the tritone liberally throughout their work to great effect, which is maybe why bits of The Mortal remind me oddly of moments from Withering to death and Kisou – listen to Dir en grey's “Kigan” and “Gyakujou Tannou Keloid Milk” and then The Mortal's “Dead Can Dance,” and tell me what you think – all three songs are built almost entirely out of tritones, and it works. Instant creep factor! I realize it's no longer cool to like visual kei, but it doesn't bother me in the least that some of this particularly Japanese flavor of spastic metal shows up in The Mortal's work. If they sounded too Western, it would be boring.

Jake, on the other hand, managed to write songs that fit with the black color scheme, yet still kept snatches of color here and there. On songs like “Mortal” and “Yume,” his mastery of the archetypal goth sound is so perfect that you start to wonder if Sakurai started him off by giving him a mixtape of the greatest hits of goth, then admonishing him to go home and study hard. Though he uses plenty of orthodox pop-song tricks, and isn't the least bit shy about using sweet major chords, the brighter colors that come through on moments like these feel insubstantial, effervescent, like fading sunsets or rainbows in a soap bubble. It's hard to say why, but I think it boils down to the guitar. Murata's sound is always blurry with distortion, but in the arpeggios of “Yume,” “Mortal,” and “Sayonara Waltz,” Jake uses a tone so clean it pierces like razor wire, creating shimmering spiderwebs of sound that vanish almost as soon as they appear. And such sad chords, too. Whether or not Jake's a George Harrison fan (though I strongly suspect that he is), his guitar gently weeps.

Lyrics

Over this tangled musical landscape, Sakurai builds his world. He said that he set out at the beginning to write an album that would sum up the human condition. A tall order, but he's been working toward this his whole life. In my previous lyrics analysis article, I discussed the way in which Sakurai has created a sort of mythos out of the evolution of recurring imagery in his lyrical world, so it should come as no surprise that much of the same imagery appears on I Am Mortal, often in an updated and darker guise.

Dreams, lies, angels. Masks, mirrors, paintings. Rain, the moon, the Mother Goddess, and the terrible tension between the desire to be nurtured and the desire to destroy. Demons and devils have been lurking in Sakurai's work since the beginning, but they're bigger and blacker now, swirling around the disturbing and nearly unspeakable question of whether love is ever possible without violation. Yes, the album succeeds quite admirably in summing up the human condition – but perhaps more to the point, from Sakurai's point of view, it's also a succinct and wrenching summation of the themes he's been processing since he first found his voice. The “I” in “I Am Mortal” becomes very personal...so without further ado, let's dig in and see what we can find.

On first listen, one thing that immediately stands out about the lyrics in I Am Mortal is how many of them are deeper explorations of themes Sakurai first worked with on Arui wa Anarchy, specifically in “Keijijou Ryuusei,” “masQue,” “Melancholia,” and “Mudai”.

The refrain of “Keijijou Ryuusei” ends with the phrase, “I was dreaming.” Dreams (“yume” in Japanese) are one of the major themes in Sakurai's work, but usually, for him, they have meant something positive – either aspirations and hopes for the future, or at the very least, a beautiful fantasy world that's comforting and uplifting to the point that it doesn't necessarily even matter that it's not real.

To use some examples of songs that used the word “yume” a lot: “Yumeji” may be something of a ghost story, but the dreaming is a country or a road that can be traveled together. Dreams of love bring the lovers back to each other's sides. In “Kagerou,” the “dreamy midsummer night's dream” lyric evokes the Heian-era use of the word “yume” as a poetic symbol for a sexual tryst.

Keijijou Ryuusei,” though, is partly about how limited our understanding of the world is – the lost child disappears into the fog, as Sakurai entreats him to join in a game played blindfolded. If the metaphysical meteor itself is an allegory for Life itself, then the phrase “I was dreaming” comes to mean something like “life is but a dream” – and not in a happy-go-lucky way, either. Life can be so confusing, while we're living it. Twisted up in our own minds, our perspectives become muddled. We can never know the real truth. And then, when we look back on our memories of the past, how quickly they blur, exactly like dreams upon waking. Life is a dream in the sense that it is fleeting and hallucinatory, and, in the grand scheme of things, vanishingly insignificant. It's probably a stretch to argue that Sakurai was making a Shakespeare reference here, but I can't help but want to quote Prospero: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.” This is what dreams mean in “Keijijou Ryuusei,” and also what they mean on I Am Mortal.

Then, in the second verse of “Keijijou Ryuusei,” there's a phrase that goes “and when you speak aloud/it seems a lie.” Lies are an image that Sakurai uses a lot when dealing with existentialist themes – look at the album version of “Mienai Mono,” where he ends the song with these lines:

Truth in seeing
And the lies, and the lies, and the lies

Also, look at the bridge in “Galaxy,” which goes,

No need to worry about sad things to come
I lied
at midnight

In these older songs, the truth of existence (that we all die) is so enormous that a lie would be preferable. But in “Keijijou Ryuusei,” it's the opposite. In “Keijijou Ryuusei,” he's telling the truth for once, only the truth itself is so difficult to wrap your head around that it seems like a lie. It's hard to tell what truth this is, exactly – it might be the truth about death, but it might be the truth about life. The ambiguity is part of the beauty, and Sakurai continues to deal with the idea of lies in this manner on I Am Mortal.

The themes from “masQue” that Sakurai delves further into on I Am Mortal are the mask itself, and the grotesque, as well as the general aura of European decadence. “Melancholia” gave us numerous dichotomies: actor/audience, angel/devil, aggressor/victim – all themes which Sakurai develops in depth in his lyrics for The Mortal, along with the mother/goddess imagery of the goddess angel pouring a cup of blood (see my analysis of "Melancholia" for further discussion of this.)

But the song from Arui wa Anarchy that comes closest to resembling the work of The Mortal is “Mudai,” without a doubt. It's obvious that Sakurai was very proud of this song, and that it means a lot to him, so I'm tempted to think of it as the seed from which The Mortal sprang. “Mudai,” like the whole Mortal project, is about the question of existence, the human condition from birth to death. It also, whether deliberately or by accident, can be interpreted as an occult riddle, given that it invokes three figures from the major arcana of the Tarot: the mother (The Empress, card III), the father (The Emperor, card IV), and card 0, The Fool.

The 22-card sequence of the Tarot's major arcana tell the story of the Fool's journey through growth and learning, trial and temptation, death and resurrection, to a final understanding, and I can't help but see I Am Mortal as another kind of fool's journey. “Mudai” ends with the line “to the ends of the dark/the fool goes,” and isn't that the beginning of I Am Mortal, right there? I Am Mortal is the Fool's journey into darkness, and his journey through the stages of grief.

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Tenshi

The album starts out deceptively calm with “Tenshi.” It was Sakurai's choice that this should be the first track on the album, and Murata was impressed. "These days, nobody starts an album with a slow track like this," he said in PHY magazine. "This is Sakurai's challenge to the world."

As many of you know, "tenshi" is the Japanese word for “Angel.” Perhaps some listeners really were thrown off guard – this is a Murata song, but it doesn't sound noisy and crazy. It opens like calm waves on the seashore or a slow waking from sleep, layered with little taps and cracks, which may be deliberate, or may be unfiltered background noise. I hope they were the latter, because the imperfections on this track do so much to give it warmth and dimension, very rare qualities in this era of sterile over-production. The guitar is also slightly out of tune, and the reverb is too heavy, which makes Sakurai sound like he's singing through water, and also keeps this song from ever turning into a comfortable pop anthem.

But it's not just the music that's slightly off-kilter, here. The angel Sakurai invokes in the title only appears in the lyrics implicitly, in the opening lines:

The universe is
The pupil of your eye
This planet earth is
That eye's tear

This is the beginning of the journey – the descent from heaven. Or, as Sakurai puts it in the bridge, “the 'in' in infinity.” Following this line, he breathes over the microphone, which he actually went so far as to render in the lyric booklet as a series of hiragana “a” characters, so we know it's important. Much of Buddhist meditation is deeply concerned with breathing, because the rhythm of our breathing is what defines the infinitesimal present moment. Breath is the most concrete manifestation of right now, and the aim of the meditation is to banish all thoughts of the past and the future and live completely in the moment – in the 'in' in infinity, if you will...so it's particularly beautiful that you can't tell, on the recording, if Sakurai is breathing in or breathing out. Symbolically, he is doing both at once. If “Tenshi” were a tarot card, it would be The World – integrated understanding of the totality of existence.

“Tenshi” also introduces two themes that become extremely important over the course of the rest of the album. The first is the “life is but a dream” theme I already mentioned. The phrase “muchuu de” that I translated as “in a trance” literally means “in a dream,” if you just consider the separate meanings of the two kanji. But in practice, “muchuu” is usually used to refer not to the dreams we have while sleeping, but the daydreams and fantasies we have while waking. Specifically, Sakurai suggests that the actions that occur in a trance or reverie are falling in love, and breaking someone down – which brings us to the other big theme which crops up throughout the album, which is rape.

Not necessarily rape in a sexual sense, (though there are tinges of some of that later, as we shall see.) Mostly, it's rape in an emotional or psychological sense – the idea of treating another person as an object to be used selfishly for one's own ends, or reaching inside another person's psyche and breaking it. In many ways, rape is the diametric opposite of love, and Sakurai contrasts the two in the chorus to “Tenshi.” In the first chorus, he begs to be loved, then broken, while in the second chorus, he vows to love and break an unspecified “you” – is it a human partner, or the Angel itself, who is Life, the Universe, and Everything? It's unclear. We live life as if dreaming, so how can it really ever be clear?

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Dead Can Dance

Things get a lot clearer on “Dead Can Dance.” First of all, the slow, atmospheric intro to this song sounds like an obvious tribute to the band Dead Can Dance, from whose name Sakurai stole the title for the song. If you don't know what Dead Can Dance the band sound like, well, they sound a lot like the first fifteen seconds of “Dead Can Dance,” the song. Hashtag #gothjokes, everyone!

Sakurai says that this is the last song he wrote the lyrics for, and therefore, he wrote it to sum up the thing he felt he hadn't yet adequately dealt with: his passionate love of life. This song IS the Danse Macabre, but it's also a futile yet satisfying fuck-you to death. After all, what does death mean, if the dead can dance?

This song is also the closest The Mortal comes to the kind of deliriously purple graphic sex that Buck-Tick revels in. Thematically, it's not that far removed from songs like “Lady Skeleton” and “Sakuran Baby,” but the conclusion is much less positive. Rather than “saying fuck it, let's keep dancing,” Sakurai ends with a desperate declaration: “I live and still I live and still it's never enough.” As Dylan Thomas put it, rage against the dying of the light!

Even the repetition of “to be or not to be” sounds desperate. In the original play, Hamlet is attempting to carefully weigh his options, and describes suicide as a way of asserting agency.  But in “Dead Can Dance,” Sakurai speaks the words over and over again, “to be or not to be, or not to be, or not to be.” He sounds increasingly crazed and stricken each time, as if paralyzed with surprise and horror at the fact that in the end, none of us gets a choice.

The music perfectly reflects this frenzied quality. The tempo is rapid and frenetic, the drumbeats trilling like someone running in a hamster wheel or tripping over their own feet. The guitar and bass are all heavily distorted and tripping over each other, but always coming back to that ever-so-unstable tritone, until the chorus breaks out into an ebullient major key – but still, it's haunted. The instruments are clashing, there's too much noise, and Sakurai sings like he's trying too hard, the melody getting lost in the vibrato. If “Dead Can Dance” were a tarot card, it would be Judgment, the moment when the dead rise up to the call of the angel's trumpet and dance once more.

“Dead Can Dance” ends abruptly, to dead silence. But rather than give us time to catch our breath, the album hurtles onward into the deeper, more violent darkness of “Barbaric Man.”

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Barbaric Man

Short as a wham, bam, thank-you ma'am, this song packs a huge amount of punch into a small space. Murata uses both the guitars and the bass like percussion instruments, practically tuneless but intensely rhythmic, like sex on speed, or an endless volley of machine gun fire.

This song, in particular, is one that cannot be properly appreciated unless you hear it on big speakers – the sound is massively three-dimensional, hard and heavy as a freight train, but without big speakers the thickness and richness of it doesn't properly come through. Over the proper sound system, though, the sound explodes outward in a violent splatter, musical bullets, blood and guts. Sakurai's spoken-word vocals crackle and sputter like movement under strobe lights or images on a bad TV, but though he mutters like a madman talking to himself, the mutters seem to float above the noise. It's all so convoluted that it can be hard to hear what he's saying at first, but after a few listens, all the words become audible. This kind of sound would be more than enough to make a song out of for many metal bands, but Murata isn't content to stop there – for suddenly, out of nowhere, Sakurai breaks from the percussive instrumentals into a light, almost jazzy falsetto-inflected melody that contrasts sharply with the vulgar lyrics (apparently Murata is also playing harmonica in this section but it's hard to tell). Harmonica or no, it's a revelatory “aha!” moment on first listen, but Murata doesn't milk it – four slim lines later we're back to shrieking and shouting.

Deceptively simple, “Barbaric Man” is actually one of the most layered, complex songs on the album, lyrically speaking. With Buck-Tick, Sakuai rarely touches themes like this. The closest he ever came was “Trigger,” off Kyokutou I Love You, though there are shades of it in “Genzai” and “Detarame Yarou,” too – especially in the music video, where Sakurai shrieks out of the shadows with blood smeared luridly all around his mouth. The industrial sex-and-violence concept behind Schwein also gave Sakurai an opportunity to let out the more bloodthirsty side of his psyche, but it's been nearly fifteen years since then, and in any case, with Schwein, he was clearly playing a role, whereas with The Mortal, he's attempting to embody the quintessence of himself.

One reason “Barbaric Man” comes across as so challenging is that the violent, nihilistic horny bastard who narrates the song is not an aspect of Mr. Sakurai's quintessence that his moony fangirls want to see. The Barbaric Man is the opposite of the lovestruck vampire character from songs like “Romance” who made Sakurai popular among the sort of women who secretly wish they were Bella Swan (though they'd never admit it, of course.) For one thing, Barbaric Man is a narcissist who loves himself even as he hates himself. The song opens with the lines,

It's not like I want to see your face, reflected in the mirror
But tonight still I kiss you, twining tongues

Sakurai is just talking about himself here – fed up with his own beauty and popularity, but getting off on it anyway. The sex in this song is just masturbation – whether or not there's a partner there, it's all about him and his cock. In addition to lines like “beat off till you get off” and “I just burst and scatter” there's the repeated line in the chorus, “Bang! Bang! Bang! Barbaric Man,” which evokes not only gunshots but also ejaculation at the end of short and meaningless sexual liaisons (plus, the gun is the most phallic of phallic symbols). Many of the verbs in the song are imperatives – “shake those hips,” “make me sing” – like selfish orders to a sex partner whose own pleasure is irrelevant.

And here's that disturbing theme again: the relationship between love and rape. There's a way in which sex is the ultimate surrender of ego: to become physically part of another person, even for a brief time, can easily make one feel as if the boundaries around the self are being broken down. On the other hand, there's also a way in which sex is ultimately selfish: biologically speaking, we do it to pass on our own DNA, in a bid for the only form of immortality we can ever achieve – genetic immortality. Oftentimes, our sexual goals are fundamentally at odds.

It's easy, especially for men, to feel sexually entitled – to feel that they deserve to get what they want sexually, simply because they want it so badly. It's also so easy to feel conflicted, to want someone but not want to surrender a piece of yourself to that person for fear that if you give anything of yourself away, you'll never be whole again. If sex is a breakdown of ego boundaries, isn't there a way in which it's a violation by definition? Most people are fearful of having their boundaries broken down.

On the other hand, ever since we leave the womb, we have a desire to break down those boundaries and once again become a part of someone else, and though sex sort of allows us to do that, it doesn't last – in the end we're always fundamentally alone. When we realize this, it's easy to start feeling that the deepest love is also a sort of betrayal or consummate lie: if we can't ever truly become one, then aren't love and sex completely meaningless after all? And if love and sex are meaningless, then we're back to the first scenario, in which sexual intimacy is really just mutual violation, where each of the partners is pleasuring themselves at the expense of the other.

The post-coital tristesse of realizing you can never truly meld with another person is a longstanding theme of Sakurai's, going all the way back to “Victims of Love.” (More on that here.) He began to touch a bit on the idea of mutual violation much later, in “Shanikusai” (the track directly following “Trigger” on Kyokutou I Love You), but the ultimate conclusion was a positive one –

Shed me just a little blood
And we'll fall in love
We'll forgive

In “Shanikusai,” any suffering is ultimately worth it.

“Barbaric Man,” however, wants to cling to nihilism. In the line which I translated as “barbarity of apes and lips of saints tangle like a dance,” Sakurai uses the unusual word “koushin,” which can mean either the lips of the mouth or the labia, conjuring an image of a beast sexually violating the divine – but as they say, it takes two to tango. If the apes and the saints “tangle like a dance,” that tends to imply that the saints are complicit in the act – so then the question becomes, is sanctity being violated by barbarity, or is barbarity being violated by sanctity? 

Sakurai previous dealt with this idea in “Melancholia,” using the image of an angel painting a devil with blood – the blood of the victim marks the criminal as criminal. If you're stained with the blood of your acts of violence, how can you shrug off what you've done? Nothing threatens comfortable defensive nihilism more than real love. Once you admit to actually feeling something, you can't go back, and you open yourself up to the pain of grief – but the first stage of grief is denial, and the second is anger.

Why does Barbaric Man behave so badly? Because he's going to die, of course. The grief is preemptive grief, for the himself and whoever he loves, but he denies it vigorously, by lashing out in violence against himself and others, and by pretending he doesn't actually care. Self-destructive behavior is a way of seeking agency when you have none. You may be powerless to avoid death, but at least you have the power to kill other people! 

God betrays you but Death she laughs – Death won't ever betray

he says, desperately, nakedly trying to console himself over the pain of emotional rejection. This is the sour grapes psychology of the violent misogynist – if she won't love you back, at least you can hurt her! “I hate you too,” he says. “There's no such thing as the end of the world, I just burst and scatter.” There's something intensely sexual in these final lines – “burst and scatter” is violent death (as from gunfire) but it's also clearly ejaculation – not for nothing is orgasm often referred to as “the little death.” It's the end of pleasure, the end of that illusion that we're not alone. The end of the world – that's what it feels like to be rejected by someone you love. But Barbaric Man insists that there's no such thing as the end of the world. Emotionally, nothing matters. It's all just a casual fuck.

If “Barbaric Man” were a tarot card, it would be The Devil – the temptation of the bestial urges within all of us, that we must learn to master. In just three minutes and four seconds, Sakurai has pretty much summed up the psychology of murderers and men's rights activists – and this is only track three on the album.

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Yume

Track four brings us the haunting “Yume,” which offers a much-needed break from shrieky noise even though it offers little emotional solace. In contrast to most of the other songs on the album, this song is unabashedly melodic and achingly beautiful. Haunting minor chords fall like water into a pool of wet reverb that ripples beneath Sakurai's voice at his most spine-tingling level of loveliness.

Lyrically speaking, this song sounds a lot like a sequel to “Keijijou Ryuusei” or “Yumeji.” The melodies are similar, and all three songs focus on dreams. But where “Yumeji” was a fantasia and “Keijijou Ryuusei” was, quite literally, a metaphysical discourse, “Yume” is, if anything, a requiem. In keeping with the “life as dream” idea, nothing in the world of this song is real – every stanza is full of words like “transparent,” “illusive,” “see-through” and “wavering.” The line “hey, it's like a lie” is taken straight from “Keijijou Ryuusei,” but “Keijijou Ryuusei” was driven by a desire for action (“reach out your hand”), “Yume” has given up. If a dream is all there is, then the narrator is content to drift in dreams forever, without waking.

Arguably, this song represents the cruelest use Sakurai has ever made of the word “Yume” – in the first verse, the “you” that the dreamer dreams about was already a dream within a dream, but in the second verse, all traces of this “you” person disappear, and the dreamer is left alone. Sakurai claimed in an interview that Jake's beautiful melody had put him in a sentimental mood, and these are simply the sort of lyrics he writes when he's feeling sentimental, but I tend to think that was a polite elision of the fact that this song oozes with a sense of loss more profound than anything else on the album – what happens when you lose someone you love, even from your dreams?

If “Barbaric Man” represented the first two stages of grief (denial/anger), then “Yume” represents the third: bargaining. The narrator of the song claims to have accepted the loss (“a dream is fine”), but the unexpectedly heavy drumbeats and expansive melody of the chorus suggest that he's still hoping against hope that he'll wake up to the relief of realizing it was literally all just a dream. He keeps begging to be heard, saying “hey, listen to me.” But in the end, he answers his own question – “in our dreams, in our dreams, in our dreams.”

If “Yume” were a tarot card, it would be The Hanged Man – the place where the Fool, trapped between life and death, contemplates the river of life while hanging upside down, head in the water and feet in the sky, asking "why?"

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Fantômas  – Tenrankai no Otoko

Fantômas  – The Man in the Exhibition”  is the kind of song we've come to expect from Sakurai at this point: the vampire story. He's done a bunch of these – “Ghost,” “Shingetsu,” “Romance,” “Kuchizuke,” “Yougetsu” – each essentially a retelling of the same basic tale. “Fantômas” tells the story yet again – but with a twist.

If The Mortal has a playful side, we see it here. From the ooky-spooky intro to the big synth organ chords on the catchy-as-hell major-key pop chorus, the song is humorously, self-consciously goth as a Tim Burton film. Yet it manages to keep its cool without ever sliding into cheese like Juusankai wa Gekkou did at times, and the drama of the music bolsters the narrative style of the lyrics.

Lyrically, this song picks up right where “masQue” left off, in a fantasy of Europe in days of yore, only now we've traveled from Italy during the Renaissance to France at the turn of the 20th century. Sakurai gets lots of goth points here for invoking the character of Fantômas, who, as a black-clad man in a mask, fits in easily with Sakurai's own stage persona. In the original Fantômas novels, Fantômas was a serial killer, and serial killer has never really been Sakurai's thing, but Fantômas was also debonair and sexy enough to easily be recast as a vampire in Sakurai's own image.

The art exhibition setting is also significant. As I mentioned earlier, if Arui wa Anarchy was Imai's art-themed concept album, I Am Mortal is Sakurai's – and what better way to evoke that than by singing about an actual exhibition? Sakurai has always been heavily influenced by visual art. For years, on his profile on Buck-Tick's official site, under the category “artists who inspire you,” he listed Egon Schiele, Marc Chagall, and Gustav Klimt. “Asylum Garden” is a whole song all about the madness of Vincent Van Gogh, and “Mudai” was conceived as a sort of surrealist painting in musical form.

Sakurai has always been extremely interested in the relationship between the artist, the art, and the audience, and in a way, an art exhibition is no different from a stage performance – the art is hanging on the wall for all to see, as if the artist's soul itself is on display. Paintings are a lot like songs: basically too small to express more than one main idea. Beyond that, paintings are not real. They're nothing but an artist's interpretation of the world, stuck inside a gilt frame. However you choose to frame your illusions, they are still illusions – and this ties back in with the vanitas theme of The Mortal's visuals, and with the “life as dream” theme that pervades the whole album.

So what's the plot twist? In Sakurai's previous vampire stories, the vampire character has either ridden off into the moonset with or without his paramour as in “Ghost,” “Kuchizuke,” and “Yougetsu”, or (it seems) been murdered by his mortal lover, as in “Shingetsu” and “Romance.” But Fantômas is nothing if not a killer, and this time, it's Fantômas who does both the seducing and the murdering.

This is massive shift from most of Sakurai's other work – Sakurai talks a lot about wanting to die/be killed, but I can't think of a single Buck-Tick song in which Sakurai casts himself in the role of killer (except for “Just One More Kiss,” which definitely doesn't count.) In fact, the only other songs where Sakurai explores the idea of murder as a sexual fetish are on Ai no Wakusei: “X-Lover” and “Hallelujah.” I tend to think he only felt free to write songs like this for his solo projects because he has an inkling that the Buck-Tick fangirls wouldn't be able to handle it.

Does Sakurai really get turned on by murdering people? Maybe, but somehow I doubt it. If anything, murder is an allegory for unfulfilled, unfulfillable desire – the kind of desire where you want someone so much you wish you physically were that person, to the point where you'd like to drink their blood and eat their flesh to make them part of you. Sakurai dealt with this kind of desire in a mutual sense in “Passion” ("maybe I'll eat you down to your bones") and “Satan,” ("hey, did you look in my eyes when you kissed me and killed me then?") but he takes it further on “Fantômas” by making it abundantly clear that the victim has no idea what's coming – she thinks Mr. Phantom is just some hot guy she met at the museum! Little does she know! Once you get over the horror of the premise, this, too, is humorous – what is this song if not a warning from Sakurai to his fangirls: look but don't touch...I bite!

The Fantômas of the French novels was an ice cold sociopath who would never even have felt any remorse for his actions, but Sakurai's Fantômas is more complex than that. “Please forgive me,” he begs the listener. “I go mad in my hunger.”

Does he really mean to kill because he enjoys it, or is he simply killing because he's a predator like Inter Raptor, who must kill in order to survive? Living things all eat each other in order to survive. Vegans may like to pretend that vegetables don't count, but killing to survive is part of mortality. Sakurai's Fantômas both laments and glories in the death of his victim – for him, this is love. But it's also rape, the ultimate form of rape, and when at the end of the song he ends up all alone again, he's back in the same position as Barbaric Man. Sex won't make two into one, and neither will cannibalism. If “Fantômas” were a tarot card, it would be Death, for obvious reasons. 

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Mother

Thus, we move on to “Mother” – one of the more melodic songs Murata has ever written, and what would have been the theme song of the band if copyright issues hadn't gotten in the way of Sakurai naming the band Mother instead of The Mortal.

Both musically and thematically, “Mother” might as well be the sequel to “Adult Children.” Though “Mother” is much harsher and darker in its arrangement, the simple major-key melody sounds as much like a children's song as “Adult Children” did, while the bouncy back-and-forth opening riff evokes nursery rhymes or schoolyard games. Even the opening lyrics sound like a nursery rhyme:

You are joy
You are my sunshine
You are sorrow
You are my moon

It's hard to render in English, but the words Sakurai uses for “sun” and “moon” here aren't the generic words “taiyou” and “tsuki,” but the more fanciful “ohisama” and “otsukisama” – the kind of whimsy small children often use while speaking.

Like “Adult Children,” “Mother” is largely narrated from the perspective of a very small child, and both children talk about their dreams, but I get the sense that the child in “Mother” is even younger than the child in “Adult Children.” The kid in “Adult Children” confronted the devil night after night, but it seems to me that the kid in “Mother” has only just learned of the existence of death.

Think back – do you remember that moment in your own life? Do you remember what sparked it? Do you remember the moment when you realized that your mother wouldn't always be there to love, comfort and protect you? 

Of course, some people are unlucky enough to grow up without ever being held in the arms of a loving parent, but for most of us, when we're small, being held by mama is where we think we're safe. There's a reason behind the cliché of adults shouting “I want my mommy” when they're very frightened. Somewhere deep down, we still think that whatever happens, mother will protect us. To call mother both joy and sorrow, sun and moon, is not hyperbole. The idea that someday, mother won't be there anymore is earth-shattering. Or, as Sakurai says in the song,

Please, tell me it's a lie
Tell me it's all a dream

Here are our big themes again: dreams, lies, and the stages of grief (we're back to stage one: denial.) And if you're wondering where the other big themes of rape and murder are...well, they're in the second verse:

I dreamed a dream
Where I was raping
I dreamed a dream
Where I was killing

Boy, is this song straightforward! But why would a child dream about that stuff? 

Again, this is an allegory. This is the moment when the young boy loses that first bit of innocence, seeing the first inkling of the follies of Barbaric Man, all committed in fear of mortality. The young boy is all men (no #notallmen here!) – and I do mean men. Rape is almost always committed by men, and there's a shade of mea culpa here, but also a bit of a wherefore. After all, our mother is the only person with whom any of us have ever and will ever be physically one with (excepting conjoined twins.) Mother is the one big exception to the great truth that we are all alone and always will be – but we leave her far too soon, and then she leaves us. Women, through pregnancy, can experience this physical joining again, but men never can, not ever.

On an extremely deep, subconscious level, this is part of what draws men to women, part of why they fear women's rejection so much, and also, I think, part of the psychological root of misogyny, which Sakurai already dealt with in “Barbaric Man.” Using destructive behavior to assert agency when you feel you have none – nothing makes me feel worse than being rejected by her, but at least I can rape/oppress her instead!

Naturally, the young boy in “Mother” is horrified, and wants nothing to do with all this. He begs and pleads:

Please, hold me close
So tight I can't breathe

Please, take me with you
Don't leave me here alone

This is the third stage of grief again: bargaining. If only he could go along with mother wherever she went, even into death, everything would be fixed. Thus, the last line of the song:

I want to melt into you
My moon

If only, if only he could return to his mother's womb and stay there, but he cannot. At the beginning of the song, he said “you are sorrow/you are my moon,” and now, at last, we know what he really means by that confusing line. The moon has always been a symbol of the feminine because it has a monthly cycle, as women do, and because the moon appears at night, which is associated with the feminine principle of yin or yoni (it's dark and mysterious inside vaginas!!) And the sorrow, for Sakurai, is that he can never again be one with the feminine, not in the same way as he was in utero. Mother is gone.

If “Mother” were a tarot card, it would be The Empress – the mother goddess and feminine principle.

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Guignol

Like “Fantômas,” "Guignol" is a Miyo Ken song – something about Miyo Ken's songwriting sure inspires Sakurai to write about French horror! Miyo Ken himself declared that he'd intended this song to be a sort of Portishead tribute, only with a live band rather than electronic samples. This is what I mean about The Mortal drawing from a wide variety of influences – no record collector would ever classify Portishead as goth, but they're widely beloved among goths anyway and it's easy to see why: if there's any lady vocalist out there who's sadder and angstier than Beth Gibbons, I haven't heard her (by the way kids, if you've never listened to Portishead, stop reading right now and go listen to “Wandering Star” and “All Mine” immediately!)

“Guignol” comes out sounding a whole lot more hard-rock than Portishead ever did, mainly due to the fact that Portishead built their tracks almost entirely out of samples and never used a guitar at all – but Miyo Ken has the trip-hop rhythm down, and the flute sample that repeats throughout the song is so much like something Portishead would use that to me, it sounds like an auditory in-joke. “Guignol” also evokes Beth Gibbon's tortured soprano vocals in an oblique way, by heavily layering the chorus sections with multiple tracks of Sakurai singing in falsetto, two octaves above the lead line. Right from the opening riff all built of tritones, there's so much about “Guignol” that ought to be repulsive, yet somehow the song comes across, to me at least, as the most sensual, romantic number on the entire album.

Perhaps it's because this is the only song on the album that primarily concerns itself with romantic love. Whether or not it was deliberate on Sakurai's part, the line “leaning from the windowsill, let us fall in love” calls to mind the famous balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” There's also something comical about the whole affair – when Sakurai sings “lifting up our dresses' skirts let us make our love” I can't help but think of him as the puppeteer, making the dolls act out sex for his own amusement – after all, isn't that kind of what he does with Buck-Tick? He even pokes fun at Imai – what else is the purpose of including the English word “lullaby” in the lyrics to the chorus, other than to invoke the spirit of the man who keeps writing the same goth song over and over and titles it “Lullaby” every time?

The main lyrical conceit of the song is that life as a human being is like being a puppet in a puppet theater of the macabre – the Grand Guignol was not known for staging happy plays (see my notes for more info.) But at the same time, there's still a kind of joy in the song, nonetheless. Maybe it comes from the word plays, which Sakurai uses in far greater abundance than he ever does with Buck-Tick, where puns are usually Imai's domain.

Or maybe, the joy comes from the fact that Sakurai is clearly pleased as punch to have complete freedom to let loose here and be as wildly melodramatic and over the top as he wants, without anyone being able to dare to tell him it's too much. Goth has always reveled in the “too much” school of melodrama, which is why so many goths love opera. “Guignol” strikes me as an itsy-bitsy opera in rock song form. If “Guignol” were a tarot card, it would be The Lovers.

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Tsuki

Next comes “Tsuki,” the one and only Jake song that isn't a ballad. At less than three minutes, this is the shortest song on the album, and musically, it's nothing special – just a fun rock-n-roll number to lighten the mood, really. “Tsuki” means “moon” in Japanese, and anyone who's been paying attention to Sakurai's lyrics for any length of time knows that he loves writing about the moon...so what could be special here?

Actually, quite a lot. For the most part, in his lyrics for Buck-Tick, Sakurai evokes the moon as a way to add gothic ambiance. Everything feels more mysterious and romantic if it happens by moonlight! But phonetically, “tsuki” is also a verb root meaning “to thrust” or “to stab,” and in this song, Sakurai takes advantage of the wordplay potential for the first time, by jumbling the word “tsuki” meaning “moon” with the words “tsukinukeru” (“to pierce through”) and “tsukisasu” (“to stab”).

Beyond that, the moon is also a symbol, not just of gothic atmosphere, but also of the indifference of inanimate nature to the suffering of mortal beings. The moon is not only nothing but dead rock, it's also quite literally “above it all,” seeing as it's located way out in outer space. The moon is the consummate impartial observer of the sound and fury of earthlings. (Sakurai previously used the moon as a symbol in this way in "Gekka Reijin," among others.)

Thus, “Tsuki” is the first song on I Am Mortal in which Sakurai ventures outside the world of the living entirely, and into the world of the dead. “I am a ghost with no name,” he declares in the first line of the song. And like the moon, this ghost gives no fucks – in the first verse, it symbolically slices to pieces all the things that humans fear the most: the self, the other, nightmares, heaven, and hell. In the second verse, it slices through the joys and sorrows of mortal life, symbolized colorfully by blue ocean, dark night (think dark night of the soul) and “red dreams” (think sex and violence.) Death is the great leveller. What the fuck do we care, when we're dead?

“Tsuki” is “Muma -The Nightmare” done right. If “Tsuki” were a tarot card, it would be The Moon – symbolizing the harrowing journey through the dark recesses of one's own consciousness, toward a higher understanding.

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Pain Drop

Moon symbolism figures prominently in “Pain Drop,” as well. Here, as in “Tsuki,” the moon is the knife of the impartial, indifferent universe, that doesn't care if we live or die. Plus, the character in "Pain Drop" is feeling so terrible that even the moon seems to cut him like a blade (it is kind of shaped like a blade, after all.) Rain, the other central image, is also impartial, yet it feels personal – rain, when one is miserable, feels like cosmic validation - outward manifestation of one's inner feelings.

Sakurai mixes and mingles the imagery of the rain with the narrator's tears, and his feeling that he's been mashed to a wet pulp inside. It was hard to render in English, but the lyrics to “Pain Drop” are full onomatopoeia: words like “betabeta” and “guchagucha,” which express something wet, sticky, smooshed and squashed. There's another Japanese expression, “nureta kokoro” (“wet heart”), which refers to the sensitivity and vulnerability of intense feeling, especially love. Sakurai didn't actually use it in this song, but when he uses the word “guchagucha” to describe his heart, he seems to be calling to it anyway.

The music for “Pain Drop” is stunning in its noisiness – it sounds like someone crumpling up a rock song and attempting to flush it down the toilet. Sakurai gets more experimental on the vocals for this song than almost anywhere else on the album – it's not quite spoken word but it's surely not singing in the traditional sense. The only other song he's ever done that sounded like this was “Detarame Yarou” on Six/Nine, for which he wrote the “melody” line himself, so I tend to think that for “Pain Drop,” Murata urged him to take complete freedom to fuck around, and this was the result – a hysterical rant, because the character in this song is too crazed with misery to be able to sing.

Despair is usually a cold and lonely feeling, but “Pain Drop” is about something more immediate. Have you ever had a moment of such intense emotional turmoil that you lost all perspective of reality and ended up curled up on the ground in the fetal position, crying and screaming till your chest hurt from sobbing? That's the kind of feeling Sakurai is dealing with here, and I must say I've never heard a better  musical summation of moments like this. This is another song built around those unstable tritones, and as Sakurai wails “Keep on raining down, pain! Pain! Pain! Pain!” Akiyama's drumbeats burst and scatter like fragments of glass smashing on concrete.

Feelings of this kind can be triggered by all kinds of things – breakups, betrayals by friends, nasty family arguments, the deaths of loved ones. This is the fourth stage of grief: depression, arriving as a massive, tsunami-like wave. Misery like this is past all sanity, to the point that the root cause doesn't even matter anymore. This is hitting bottom, and there's nothing to do but cry it out...which is why the truly brilliant part of this song is the coda.

Unlike “Barbaric Man” and “Tsuki,” “Pain Drop” doesn't abruptly end, it changes tone into a detuned wash of wonky major-key chords, while Sakurai calms down a bit and starts speaking a little less crazily. The rain has stopped now, and he's stopped crying, too. He doesn't feel any better, but he's worn out and hasn't got the energy to keep being madly miserable, a least for now, so he catches his breath between intermittent sobs and looks up at the moon:

From the tip of the crescent moon, so silently now, it beads and falls…
One drop

For a moment, perhaps he's imagining that even the moon feels his pain. Or maybe he himself is that one drop, falling and falling. If “Pain Drop” were a tarot card, it would be the fearsome Tower – the shocking lightning flash of revelation that destroys illusions and forces us to confront a new reality.

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Grotesque

Next, without an emotional break of any kind, comes “Grotesque.” This was the song that nobody seemed to get the first time around – and I can't really blame y'all, as it's very dense and hard to parse. Not does it jump back and forth between time signatures and crawl up and down chromatic scales till you barely know what key it's in, it's also dense with dissonant guitar distortion and yep, you guessed it, more tritones. The song itself is nowhere near as orthodox in orchestration as “Tsuki” or “Sayonara Waltz,” but it contains enough heavy metal tropes that it comes across as closer to metal than goth. (If you loved this song and you've never heard Dir en grey's album Withering to death, please stop reading and go listen.)

The word “Grotesque” itself has two meanings. The first, and more well-known meaning is “fantastically ugly, odd or absurd in shape, appearance, or character.” The second, older meaning refers to a fantastical combination of human, animal and plant forms, as in Medieval illuminated manuscripts.

 
Above: some extremely questionable details from Medieval illuminations.

And here, my friends, is where we start to wonder if Mr. Sakurai reads NGS/Blog-Tick, though we always thought our English was too convoluted for him. We wrote a translation note on the meaning of the word “grotesque” to accompany our translation to Buck-Tick's “masQue” – but in the lyrics to that song, the word Sakurai used which we translated as “grotesque” was “bake,” which literally means “ghost” or “monster.” We took the liberty of translating it as “grotesque” despite what the dictionary said because we felt the second meaning of “grotesque” fit well with the spirit of the song. English semantics on this level are usually pretty far out of reach of Japanese musicians...so did he read our note? We'll never have proof, but we'll be perfectly happy to take credit for it even so (just kidding.)

Anyhow, the beauty of the lyrics to “Grotesque” is that they actually sketch out a grotesque. The whole first stanza is full of a riot of life: all manner of animals, growing, blooming, eating and fucking. It's easy to envision this song spread out across a canvas like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, and we know Sakurai is familiar with Bosch, because Buck-Tick used a projection of Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights” as the backdrop for “Baudelaire de Nemurenai” on the Anarchy tour last year. Interestingly, the first stanza of “Grotesque” also contains many of the same symbols that we saw in the vanitas paintings – flowers, shells and red fruit (symbolized in the album booklet by a bunch of red grapes which Sakurai is rather self-consciously macking on.)

Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (click to enlarge.)

Sakurai macking on a bunch of grapes (the lyrics to "Grotesque" are on the facing page, not pictured

But no sooner does Sakurai sketch a luscious illustration of paradise then he tears it down. Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a triptych which also includes a terrifying vision of Hell, and that is what the second part of “Grotesque” the song looks like – the demons awake and destroy everything. “Tsuki” was just a fantasy, but now it's real. The nightmares and ghosts have entered the living world and are tearing it apart, and we are all complicit. “You are a Nightmare, I am a Nightmare,” Sakurai sings, and then, in the chorus, he juxtaposes a sexual proposition – “shall we make love, darling?”) – for another proposition – “shall we kill one another, darling?

This marks the final incarnation of the rape theme on I Am Mortal: our mutual complicity in the rape of our mother. Not our literal biological mothers, of course, but our cosmic mother, Mother Earth. There is no salvation. If “Grotesque” were a tarot card, it would be The Wheel of Fortune – it goes up and comes down, and we ride it but we're powerless to stop it.

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Mortal

Now, at last, we come to “Mortal,” the theme song of both the album and the band. It's not like the album actually needs a theme song, but Sakurai seems to like them – Ai no Wakusei had a theme song, too (for folks who haven't been paying attention, that's “Wakusei”).  And certainly, from the listener's perspective, after so much angst and chaos, it feels good to have a big catchy singable, danceable song to let loose to. Plus, what kind of a goth album would this be if there weren't at least one song that you could put on in the club to get all the goths dancing?

Of course, Jake had to be the one to write it, and it's so masterfully done it feels a little too perfect – from the opening saw wave and vox synth in stacks of open fifths in the intro, to the powerful guitar arpeggios, to the gothic-rock chord progression, it feels a little more like a fashion designer's runway vision of the ideal goth look, rather than the DIY outfit of some kid on the dance floor at the club. It owes a lot to The Mission – listen to The Mission's “Deliverance” and it sounds like you're listening to a sonic template for “Mortal,” though the tempo of “Mortal” has been slowed down to a sexier, more luxurious Sisters of Mercy speed – “Dominion -Mother Russia-,” anyone? This is what I mean when I say that Jake's not the most original songwriter out there...in the hands of anyone but Sakurai, “Mortal” could easily have become pure goth pastiche.

However, since Sakurai has at least as much character as any iconic goth vocalist out there, he easily makes it work – plus, for us longtime fans, there's a gleeful satisfaction in seeing him do such a quintessential goth song, and thus (metaphorically) be the goth queen he wanted to be when he was twelve.


It also helps that the members of The Mortal are so goddamn good at their instruments. The execution is flawless. Does it really matter that the song isn't particularly original when it sounds this good? Originality is a bit of a chimaera anyway...critics can get very snobby about it, but every musical genre has its conventions, every musical instrument has its limits, and there are only twelve tones in the scale – whether deliberately or not, eventually, you'll end up reusing ideas. It's even written in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” After a certain point, when it comes to art, it's the execution and the emotion that matter more.

In the end, “Mortal” is all about emotion. Sakurai returns to an image he's used many times in his previous work: the seashore as the cusp of life and death. We've seen this in “Kalavinka,” “Taiji,” and “Galaxy,” among others. In “Mortal,” this image dominates the first stanza:

Go through the ocean
Of the moonlight
With your tiptoes
A sliding step in

But water is also symbolic of emotions, especially love. Isn't that how we live our lives – with one foot on the dry land of reality and logic, and the other foot in the Sea of Feelings?

Rain is water, too, and Sakurai brings back the image of rain in “Mortal,” but this time, opposite to “Pain Drop,” the rain becomes a blessing. After all, rain is what waters the ground so that life can grow.  At last, we've reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. We must live as part of nature, or, as he says in the lyrics,

Just like the waves flow
Just like the wind blows

We haven't got a choice. This is what it is to be mortal.

In the second verse, Sakurai evokes with haiku-like poignancy the brevity and preciousness of love. No sooner has it begun than it's over and he's looking back on it sadly, promising not to forget. This, to me, is the emotional heart of the song and the album as a whole, culminating with the bridge:

Love and the illusion I thought was love
Still it astounds how they throw my heart from its orbit

In my opinion, it's one of the best lyrics he's ever written. There's so much shock and wonder here, at how these feelings never go away or get any easier, even when they're based on nothing but illusions – still it astounds. Still it astounds! Just when you think you've gotten back on your feet, something else comes up and knocks you right back down.

To me, this lyric also sounds especially personal. He could be talking about all of us, but I get the sense somehow that primarily, he's talking about himself. He's saying, “after all, I'm this way: I've spend so much energy on love, I've deluded myself again and again, and even now I still can't stop.” This is the point at which desperate attachment to life becomes uncool, but he admits it freely.

If “Mortal” were a tarot card, it would be The Sun – the Fool has passed through death, temptation, the destruction of illusions and the dark night of the soul, and has finally arrived at understanding and self-acceptance.

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Sayonara Waltz

I Am Mortal could easily end right here, and it would still work, as an album. But this journey began with a descent from heaven, and to heaven it must return. Plus, after this intense catharsis, it can be healing to calm down and have a good cry. And so, we reach “Sayonara Waltz.”

The waltz tempo and acoustic arrangement give this number the atmosphere of a timeless folk song, and Sakurai said that in part, he was inspired by a children's music program he'd watched on NHK as a child, which included death ballads surprisingly often, much to the horror of the children who watched.

There's a modern tendency to try and shelter children from the existence of death, but it's important to remember that this is a very recent phenomenon – consider the ghoulishness of the original Grimm and Andersen fairytales! As I mentioned much earlier in this article, before the advent of modern medicine, death was much more visible in daily life. Children often died in childhood of infectious disease, and siblings had to learn to cope. The death ballad is an extremely common type of folk song, so here, yet again, Sakurai is following the goth tradition of hearkening back to history.

When I listen to this song, I also can't help but think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, the story of another innocent boy crash landed on the desert of earth, confused by the cold hard pettiness of adults, the insignificance and significance of love. Like the character in “Sayonara Waltz,” the Little Prince embraces death as a positive, a return to the stars, a return home (it's okay, you can take a moment to shed a tear for David Bowie before we continue.)

Sakurai freely admitted that he wanted to write “Sayonara Waltz” as a song that would make people cry, but like most of his work, it's also more complicated than that, and very personal. Like “Mother,” “Sayonara Waltz” is narrated from the point of view of a very small boy, who clearly represents Sakurai's own boyhood and inner child.

To me, the end of the album is salvation,” Sakurai told PHY magazine. “The boy's parents are waiting for him in heaven, that's the kind of image. But...was he loved...or did he just want to be loved, really. It's a beautiful dream, a dream where his parents actually love him and love each other. And there I am...I'm dreaming that dream, that's what it means. It would be in bad taste for me to explain further. He wants to believe he is loved...he wants to think that...something like that.

“Did writing this album help save you, or did it just exhaust you?” PHY asked.

Hm...I think a bit of both,” Sakurai answered. “I really tired myself out. I feel better for getting all that stuff of my chest, so there's a way in which I felt saved. But...I had symptoms, from before. I had trouble sleeping, I was having nightmares, all kinds of symptoms. And they got worse. Hahaha!

I always end up this way. [Facing up to] my boyhood, when I was powerless. I keep regretting it….not matter how much time passes I still end up shouting and carrying on about it no matter what I do. But because I can't change it, it seems I just keep crying about it...the depth of the wound can never be filled up, though of course I'm sure there are many people out there who grew up in much worse environments than I did.

I keep thinking lately [that maybe this is why I was drawn to singing]. I feel that somehow I'm writing this on behalf of my parents. For better or for worse. But if I hadn't had this kind of experience, there's no way I would be singing songs like this, and I might not even have become a singer at all.”


So there you have it, he said it himself. At least as much as I Am Mortal is an exploration of the human condition, it's Sakurai's own very personal reckoning with himself and his past.

This is why “Sayonara Waltz” works, as a song. There's no artifice, no knowing condescension. Some adults seem to have forgotten what it was like to be a child, but Sakurai still remembers vividly, so he's able to go back and inhabit that head space. By doing so, take us back there with him, especially in the second verse:

Mama listen to me
Today I want to say
Today I had a dream
I'm just a little bit afraid

Aren't we all? In the face of the unknown, aren't we all still children? We pretend like we know what's going on, but none of us has a clue, we're just drifting onward through our dreams, wondering what to do, still secretly wishing that mama would listen.

If “Sayonara Waltz” were a tarot card, it would be The Star – innocence and hope, the light in the darkness.

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In “To be or not to be,” Hamlet claims that we lack the courage for suicide because we fear the great unknown of what happens after death, but I think if we look carefully at I Am Mortal, we see that Sakurai is giving us a different answer. Our dreams may drive us crazy, but they also give us hope. Even if it's an illusion, we still can't help believing in it. As he says in “Dead Can Dance,” it never stops, it's never enough. We keep loving. We keep hoping. We live in the eye of an angel, and the door is open. Outside that door, there could still be one more tomorrow, one more dream, one more sunset, one more kiss.

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Full disclosure: I stole this ascii skull off the internet. I didn't make it myself. Thank you, person who made it. You are awesome. The photos in this article were taken from Wikipedia's art archives, The Mortal's official social media feeds, and some randos on tumblr.
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