Atom Miraiha No. 9: Album Review and Tour Report
October 8th at Yokosuka Arts Theater
October 10th at Ichikawa City Cultural Hall
October 17th at Kawaguchi Lilia
October 27th at Omiya Sonic City
November 9th at Nakano Sun Plaza
November 10th at Nakano Sun Plaza
November 13th at Olympus Hall Hachioji
December 1st at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall
December 22nd at Shizuoka Shimin Bunka Kaikan
December 29th at the Nippon Budoukan
Live Report by Cayce
Unlike for the majority of Buck-Tick's Japanese fanbase, who discovered the band in their pre-Kurutta Taiyou early years of fame, fortune, and youthful silliness, it was the electronics of the band's later 90's work that hooked yours truly. The band's masterful blend of bleeps and bloops with acoustic instruments during this period remains unique. Most bands veer to one side or the other – computers or guitar strings, but not both in equal balance, let alone with such stunning vocals. With the glaring exception of Depeche Mode, electronic music in its sci-fi sterility tends to veer away from superstar vocalists towards the ethereal, diffuse, guttural or twee. But for a few gorgeous years in there, Buck-Tick managed a Satanically perfect balance among techno futurism, rock-n-roll jive, and the narrative art song, and like most wonderful things, we didn't quite realize how perfect it was until it vanished.
Buck-Tick's allergy to ever doing the same thing twice has kept them relevant and interesting all these years, so we can't complain too hard. Yet it's hard to escape the sense that their work in the past decade lost a certain edge over that late 90's cyberpunk period. Not uniformly, of course – individual songs still maintain the 90's spirit to full degree. But album for album, there's always been a spot (or two, or three) where the atmosphere breaks down into pop silliness. Maybe Ariola is to blame for “Message” (just about the only blemish on the otherwise perfect face of Memento Mori) or the pile of overproduced runway samples that made up Razzle Dazzle, a collection of excellent pop songs dressed up in way too many studio effects, like dewy teenage models rendered strangely repulsive by the application of way too much lipstick and eye shadow in garish colors.
For the rest, though, blame Imai. It might be unfair to begrudge him life satisfaction, but I can't help but feel that everything he gained in happiness and stability in his personal life, he lost in musical edginess. The fact is, happiness and stability don't give rise to good art. Human beings use art to make sense of things we can't understand in other ways, and foremost among those things is our own suffering. The transformation of suffering into art is both and emotional purgatory for the artist, and a reassurance to those who experience the artwork. You're not alone in this, it says. I've felt it, too. Here is my insight. Art born from happiness doesn't go nearly as far toward touching the inner recesses of our beings, because we don't need to struggle to understand joy.
As far as I can guess, Mona Lisa Overdrive marked the end of Buck-Tick's era of heavy drug use, and while that was surely a good thing for the health of the band members (especially Mr. Sakurai), Mr. Sakurai never needed psychedelics and coke to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche – he'll be fucked up forever thanks to his fucked up family, and he was probably born a melancholic philosopher to begin with, anyway – whereas what beloved, well-adjusted Imai lost in tabs of acid, he subsequently gained in anime pop and too many chorus repeats. Pink and sparkly as Cosmos may be, goth-loli dolls and Alices would never have been welcome (that is, unless Alice went ahead and ate some more of those mushrooms.)
Not to trash, here – Yumemiru Uchuu was a perfect album in its own way, but despite its existential themes, it's a daytime album you can listen to on the beach in the sun...yet just imagine what Arui wa Anarchy could have been without “Sekai wa Yami de Michiteiru” and “Once Upon a Time” horning in there to kill the vibe and ruin the flow?
To be honest, we never expected that dark 90's Buck-Tick to come back. As they've aged, they may not have gotten as boring as some of their fangirls perversely like to believe (on the contrary, even Toll is still known to stay out drinking until dawn)...but still, life's a one-way arrow and dark tortured youth doesn't come back. We'd made our peace with that and kissed it goodbye...or thought we had, until Atom Miraiha rose up out of its genetically engineered, radiation-shielded cryogenic coffin like the corpse of Schweinstein reanimated, and all the memories of our lost love flooded back to us in a rush, and we threw ourselves into its arms weeping in joy.
Dark tortured youth may not come back, but welcome dark tortured middle age! Nothing like a half century on earth to point your eyes in the direction of the Abyss again, and looking at the state of the world these days, that Abyss is seeming rather closer than ever before. Look at the latest data on climate change, let alone recent political events, and the punk slogan “No Future” never seemed so mainstream. And yet, the current trend in the Japanese music industry is to deny anything remotely negative. Everything has to be white, bright and sparkly, with no sadness, anger, frustration, or criticism to be found. It's profoundly dishonest and it just gets worse every year, which only serves to highlight the invisible elephant of people's growing desperation. Though Buck-Tick no longer receive mainstream airplay, the massive contrast between the cynical darkness of Atom Miraiha and the platitude-ridden pop-schlock of the rest of what passes for “music” from major labels in Japan these days just makes Atom Miraiha all the more meaningful by comparison.
Buck-Tick have never wanted to get overtly political, but beneath their new album's catchy synth riffs and amusing pop culture references flows a deep current of nuclear fear carried over from the post-WWI PTSD culture (Dada, Italian Futurism, etc.) which inspired Arui wa Anarchy, through Hiroshima and the Cold War to our post-Fukushima present. By government suppression and denialist consensus, talk about Fukushima in Japan these days has become a major taboo – but Buck-Tick have always embraced taboo (pun intended). There's not a single track on Atom Miraiha which lacks reference to the terror and uncertainty of the nuclear age. Buck-Tick have never been older than they are now, but they've also never been more relevant.
Who do we have to thank for this? Mr. Sakurai, of course. We wondered what effect The Mortal would have on Buck-Tick – well, this is it. For The Mortal, Sakurai explained that he'd decided not to censor himself anymore. No more would he pander to fan expectations, Imai's wishes, or Buck-Tick's “image” – he was going to say exactly what he meant, and if listeners couldn't handle it, then they could suck it up. The Mortal was clearly a massively cathartic, self-finding experience for him, to the extent that after it was over, he told FT that he felt “completely empty” and had “no idea what to do next.” You can't come back from an experience like that. Every second of Atom Miraiha makes it clear that Sakurai has continued to exert his newfound artistic authority, and is now much less likely to compromise in the themes he tackles, which seems to have reminded Imai of all the reasons why Sakurai was his muse in the first place. The last time Mr. Sakurai asserted his creative authority this dramatically was in the making of Kurutta Taiyou, and that was the defining moment when Buck-Tick left their dandelion-headed childhood behind and came into their adulthood as a band. Does that mean that Atom Miraiha marks the beginning of a new epoch for Buck-Tick yet again? It would certainly seem so. Let's hope the trend continues.
And yet, despite the fact that Atom Miraiha is not only a bold new artistic step for Buck-Tick, but also a homecoming after a year of separation, fan enthusiasm for the Atom Miraiha No. 9 hall tour came across strangely muted. Like most of Buck-Tick's recent hall tours, the Atom Miraiha No. 9 tour spanned the entire fall season, including about 30 shows in cities all over Japan. Many of the venues were places where Buck-Tick have performed countless times, and most were sold out, yet at nearly every show, the crowd displayed a hesitance to fully engage. For every show where the crowd demonstrated wild excitement, there were two shows where crowd response hovered between tepid and lukewarm, except for a few tired crowd-pleaser numbers. Given the catchy EBM beats throughout Atom Miraiha, I wouldn't have expected this. Nobody seemed to know how to dance to “Pinoa Icchio” or “Septem Peccata Mortalia,” let alone “Bi Neo Universe,” which the crowd uniformly treated as a “no dancing allowed” ballad. Ballad? Kids, “Message” was a ballad. “Universe” is a dance track, and a good one. But gone are the danceable days of Mona Lisa Overdrive Xanadu, and apparently, the fans from those days are gone too.
Could this be a hangover from The Mortal? Were the all fangirls who balked at the darkness and violence of Sakurai's solo work continuing to balk at the darkness and violence of Atom Miraiha? It certainly doesn't help that the fussy and restrictive atmosphere of concert hall tours is directly at odds with the needs of dance music, which calls for an open floor and the possibility of getting down. Yet beyond that, it seemed that on this tour, more than ever before, Buck-Tick's fanbase are completely mismatched from Buck-Tick's music, and that Buck-Tick themselves might have done better to move to Berlin (where people actually know how to dance to EBM), change their names to something Latinate (to avoid being targeted as undesirable refugees from a culturally repressive country), and start their career all over again calling themselves Das Buchbauten-Tikwerk. That way, at least, they'd be able to perform at Wave Gotik Treffen! As it was, to attend the Atom Miraiha No. 9 tour in Japan was to feel overwhelmed by a gorgeous tide of gripping visuals and hip-shaking, gut-wrenching music, yet alone in a sea of people who, to a great extent, seemed to have no idea what the fuck was going on.
Overall, from opening night at the Yokosuka Arts Theater, the vibe was subdued. Crowds gathering outside the venue were silent or talked in hushed tones. Yet despite the fact that they queued in exquisitely polite fashion, the small army of security guards still felt the need to issue loud instructions every few minutes. This time, for the first time ever, the hall doors were sealed for the first ten minutes after the show began, meaning that if you were still waiting to use the toilet, or you were rushing over from work, you'd have to miss the first two songs. Surely they instituted this policy because the start time for the shows had been moved up from 7PM to 6:30PM, and they didn't want the opening to be disturbed by late arrivals, but overall, it seemed uncharitable. With many of the shows falling on weeknights and most of the fans being working people in a country obsessed with overtime, arriving on time to a 6:30PM show is difficult for many people. Add to that a severe shortage of toilet facilities in most of the venues causing mile-long queues, and you've got something that looks very much like discrimination against the working women who are Buck-Tick's bread and butter.
However, those fans who were able to arrive at the venue before the doors were sealed were treated to the usual selection of Imai's chosen background music, though it was played at an unusually dim volume and only intermittently audible. The stage was already fully visible, blanketed in a tesselated floor of white triangles with rounded corners, and overhung with a massive white balloon shaped like a space-filling model of a large (and therefore probably radioactive) atom. After the usual guitar techs came out to check the instruments, a new addition to the Buck-Tick staff appeared: a tall man whose function seemed to be mainly to serve as a body double for Mr. Sakurai. After all, if they had a shorter guy on mic check, the mic stand wouldn't be at the right height, eh? #realvocalistproblems.
The opening sequences to Buck-Tick's hall tours are always spectacles in and of themselves, and this tour was no exception. The overture music put together by Imai and Yokoyama Kazutoshi for Atom Mirhaiha was even more atonal and experimental than the industrial-noise-heavy theme that introduced the Anarchy tour – a cascade of bleeping synth notes, blinking in and out of existence like the spotlights that danced across the white atom, soon to be joined by heavy, metallic drum beats as projections transformed the atom into a giant red pulsing heart, surrounded by a cyberpunk cage of snaking steel, evoking the work of H.R. Giger and the sentient machines from The Matrix. Piano joined with the synthesizers, tracing a seemingly random series of chords as the heart pulsed and fizzled, until finally, a dance beat came in at last, and the heart melted into a writing blob and exploded into fragments which orbited the atom-balloon like the detritus of a destroyed planet, while meanwhile, down below, the band members stepped out onto a stage that was so dark they were barely visible. With a few more clinks and crashes, the opening sequence ended, blending seamlessly into the grating, bubbling opening of “cum uh sol nu.”
“Cum uh sol nu” sets the stage for the terror of nuclear holocaust that pervades Atom Miraiha. Alchemically engineered monsters might be humorous, but the goals of Medieval alchemy mirrored the goals of nuclear development – the pursuit of absolute power and hubristic dominion over nature. Is the search for knowledge really a search for enlightenment when the knowledge discovered can bring about such profound destruction? The Russians were searching for Shambhala in the hopes of making telekinetic supermen, but the bomb has made us the supermen who could kill Planet Earth.
“Cum uh sol nu” is a killer opening number, but the very slow tempo and lack of propulsive visuals meant that it took the band a while to really own the performance. Imai tended to play this number sitting down, and on the first few nights, Hide appeared so focused on the timing of his acoustic guitar downstrokes that the whole thing came across slightly hesitant and stilted – yet once they got it up to speed, it filled the whole hall with an atmosphere of ritual magic Buck-Tick haven't evoked since Juusankai wa Gekkou. Golden spots shone out into the audience, while the crinkled silver backdrop was drenched in watery blue-green, and the band remained hidden in the shadows. Up on the atom, a flesh-colored larva hung suspended in an artificial womb, stirring slightly and then finally, on the last chorus, opening one horrible eye and glaring down at the crowd.
Completing the immersive effect were Sakurai's vocals, which effortlessly commanded every cubic centimeter of air. Clad in a slinky coat and turban, when he rubbed his hand between his legs to sing of man-made Adam (which makes me wonder if he's read about animalcules), then raised his arms to chant “Shambhala-Agarttha,” he appeared more than ready to summon an entire army of homunculi to eat the fangirls alive. Though he told FT he approached this song as an Australian aboriginal war dance, to us, it seemed more like a Maori haka, with Sakurai as leader, and Imai and Hide as the chorus, following along, equal parts threat and celebration (minus the puffed cheeks and popping eyeballs). Though Imai's guitar interpretations were extremely loose, and we missed the final sitar chord which signals the end of the song in the studio recording, that's part of the fun of the live experience – it isn't a studio recording, and it's different every time.
After a brief moment of instrument recalibration, the show plowed onward into “Pinoa Icchio.” This song is the most atomic of the bunch – it may be a comic fantasia about mutants created by radiation, but it's plastered with warning signs – don't mix, don't touch. The deliberately repetitive, simplistic melody complements the chanting in “cum uh sol nu” while evoking something of Kraftwerk's definitive hit “Radioactivity,” cranked up to twice its normal speed. In sync with the blistering synth line, a row of spotlights at the top of the stage proscenium came up acid green, and circled around in dizzy arcs over the audience, while strobes flashed below, rendering the band members almost invisible. Up on the white atom, a simple wireframe cube appeared with shuddering black atoms inside it which slowly multiplied, until they exploded into a horde as Imai slammed into the instrumental break, moving back and forth between his guitar and synthesizer to launch what sounded more like a sonic airstrike of video game missiles than a guitar solo in any traditional sense. Yet thrilling as this was, the shell-shocked audience danced very little, aside from a lackluster raising of arms on the chorus.
Next, breaking from the album track list, came another dark, electronic number: “Bi Neo Universe.” One of the very few bright spots on the album, there's nothing overtly atomic in this song, yet a vague sense of threat remains in Sakurai's evocation of chaos and his exhortation to penetrate deeper into love, and to appreciate. Musically, the song bears a strong similarity to “Paradise,” one of Buck-Tick's best under-appreciated b-sides. While I still wouldn't mind hearing “Paradise” played live again, the song did benefit from reincarnation – in contrast to “Paradise,” both the melody and arrangement of “Bi Universe” have been stripped down and simplified to the point that with a few tweaks, the song wouldn't sound out of place at a techno or trance party...yet still, the fans obstinately refused to dance.
Perhaps they were all too focused on Sakurai, who spent most of the song slithering through a series of low, lewd crouches and making sexual gestures on the microphone stand. Yet far from stealing the spotlight, on this number, Sakurai was but one element of the whole grand picture. The trade-off of the guitar line between Imai and Hide is noticeable even when listening to the studio recording of the album on a normal stereo, but over the hall's massive speakers, it created a spine-tingling left-right echo effect, augmented by the fact that Imai and Hide spent most of their time at the opposite ends of the hanamichi to the sides of the stage, mugging for the fans in the corners. Meanwhile, the stage and hall transformed into an outer space dreamland, with white pin spots blinking over the floor, then out into the audience, piercing the darkness like bright white needles, while a series of Hubble images of galaxies and nebulae danced across the white atom.
At the start of the instrumental break, the stage went nearly dark as a row of lights along the bottom of the backdrop blinked slowly into life, undulating through a color gradient from ultramarine to violet to rose – exactly the same color scheme as the redshift in those Hubble photos. Before the final chorus, the galaxies on the atom transformed into a golden supernova, exploding like a slow-motion firework. Maybe this performance of “Bi Universe” didn't top the stunt Buck-Tick pulled on their Seventh Heaven tour in which a thousand real red roses rained down on the stage, but it's easily one of the most beautiful performances they've put on in the past ten years.
Then, pulling back from new material for a moment, the show continued with some old favorites – “Baby, I want you,” followed by “My Fuckin' Valentine.” On the one hand, it's easy to see why the band chose these songs in particular – the electronic backtrack of “Baby” fits hand in glove with the EBM grooves of Atom Miraiha, and the “Believe it future” refrain in “Valentine” couldn't be more thematically on point if Imai had rewritten it specifically for the occasion. On the other hand, these are both songs Buck-Tick perform with such regularity that hearing them played live yet again no longer holds much thrill. Usually, Buck-Tick have brought out at least two or three unexpected back catalog selections per hall tour, but none of that happened this time...and why not? This band spent close to a decade writing electronics-heavy futuristic music, so couldn't they have dusted off some different old songs for a change? Perhaps they simply don't want to bother with rehearsing songs they haven't played in a long while, but I can't help but suspect that part of this is management pressure to please a fanbase of people with extremely limited tastes.
In fact, Mr. Sakurai admitted as much when asked by FT about the set list for Climax Together 3rd. “I usually choose the songs for standalone lives, but you could say I don't really understand fan psychology,” he said. “I kept hearing through the grapevine about how people didn't like the set lists for certain previous shows, which shocked me. This time, I kept quiet and listened to the opinions of the other band members. And somehow, the crowd response this time was very good.”
If this same phenomenon persisted on the Atom Miraiha tour, it wouldn't be surprising. Tell us, kids: what's it like to be a self-proclaimed Sakurai fangirl who hates Sakurai's chosen set lists? Because we have absolutely no idea. Last time we checked, there were eleven other excellent songs on Sexy Streamliner besides “My Fuckin' Valentine,” and we'd like to hear them more often.
Still, a good thing about the insertion of overplayed crowd-pleaser songs was that the lights finally grew bright enough to give us a good look at the band members' costumes. In keeping with the futurist theme of Atom Miraiha, white, black, and silver predominated. Hide alternated a shiny silver jacket with an all-white outfit centered on a dashing Napoleonic pirate coat, while Yutaka switched between a black jacket covered in white diamond outlines (it matched the stage!) and a sporty, stripy concoction of black and silver leather. Toll broke the color scheme with his blue and red drum major's jacket, but as usual, it was Imai who stood out the most. Though Imai had already denied any association between the “Atomu” in the album title and the “Atomu” of Osamu Tezuka's beloved Tetsuwan Atomu (better known to overseas fans as Astro Boy), starting the first day of the tour, he came out wearing a hairdo that evoked Astro Boy's hairstyle explicitly – only to top himself the second day by appearing in a collage-style clown suit of white and black polkadot satin, which one of our intrepid readers identified as a near-copy of a Marc Jacobs runway look. The catch: the Marc Jacobs model was female.
Still, Imai's mild bit of cross-dressing homage had nothing on Sakurai, who started the tour in a typically shiny, swishy goth ensemble in contrasting shades and textures of black, but then reappeared on Night 2 not in drag, but in an outfit obviously inspired by his leopard-spotted Bengal kitten Kurumi. If the semi-see-through leopard print robe and matching turban didn't give this away, then his cat-style winged eyeliner and leopard print shoes surely did. Who cosplayed his own cat on stage? Mr. Sakurai, that's who. Who somehow managed to look impressively sexy and macho, despite the fact that he was cosplaying his own cat? Mr. Sakurai, that's who. Catgirls: they're not just for girls anymore! Next time, we demand ears, a tail, and a collar to go with.
After “My Fuckin' Valentine,” it was time to return to the narrative of the album, and enter the second act of the performance with a dramatic set change. This is something Buck-Tick have always been good at – using set pieces to divide their live shows into distinct acts, much like a piece of theater. For Atom Miraiha, the change was particularly dramatic. As the opening bass notes and hollow whistles of “El Dorado” came up over the PA, the white atom collapsed into itself and withdrew, as a second balloon creature inflated in its place, extending feeler arms like an octopus before swelling into a shape like a cross between a monstrous insect and cattleya orchid, blatantly evocative of female anatomy like a three-dimensional Georgia O'Keefe painting.
Could this be why Mr. Sakurai appeared so delighted? The first act had set the mood, but in the second act, Sakurai took over the show as completely as it if were a more brightly colored version of The Mortal, immersing himself in the world of the lyrics and acting them out in pantomime with the rest of the band merely serving to provide accompaniment. The images projected on the flower overhead painted the narrative of “El Dorado” with broad brushstrokes – swirling psychedelic colors were soon replaced with desert skies and a spinning obelisk of black stone – but it was Sakurai who wove the tale with nothing but his gestures and expressions. Dramatically backlit in blue, he stomped out a few steps of flamenco, downed shots of invisible tequila, reached toward the sky then stared down in desperation at his empty hands as piercing golden spotlights came up on the audience as the chorus rolled around – “Ah, a splinter shard of pure gold / Say can you see El Dorado?” The place may not exist, not even in the story of the song, and yet, for a shining moment, Sakurai managed to transport us there nonetheless.
All the more heartbreaking, then, to see him scratching in the dirt on the second verse, then gazing up into more spotlights which perfectly evoked desert evening sun, to sing “The sun, you see?” This is the emotional heart of the song – the word “sun” falls on a rising, hopeful pair of notes, but all the hopes are dashed by the falling minor third of the second pair of notes underlying “you see,” as if what Sakurai is really asking us to see is not the sun at all, but all the lies.
These lyrics are as mutli-layered as anything Sakurai produced for The Mortal, and an excellent example of the way taking some time off from Buck-Tick to do his own work has made him an even better artist than he was before. The El Topo inspired grotesque surrealism is only the top layer. Taken in the context of the rest of Atom Miraiha, what else could blistering desert, death gods and mountains of trash evoke but Los Alamos, Trinity, and nuclear testing in general? The bomb was El Dorado for the scientists of the Manhattan Project who developed it – something they weren't sure was even possible, something which they knew would change the world entirely. How bright the gold of the first explosion must have seemed! Upon seeing the first atom bomb explode at the Trinity test site, J. Robert Oppenheimer is famous for having quoted the line Bhagavad Ghita,
“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One
Now I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds”
– not so far from the kind of language Mr. Sakurai employs in this song. And wait, what about that black obelisk? Could it be the black obelisk which stands as a memorial on the site of the Trinity test today? You decide.
Oh, and the references here go even deeper than that – the desert where the Trinity test site is located is known as Jornada del Muerto (“The Journey of a Dead Man”), a name given to it by those same Spanish conquistadors who sought for the mythical kingdom of El Dorado in Central America and New Mexico… which brings us to the third layer of meaning in these lyrics: colonialism, and attendant environmental destruction. The lyrics are full of the images of post-industrial waste – asphalt, coal tar, ruined drive-ins, garbage mountains, with a hint of exploitation in the recurring evocation of the prostitute and drug abuse (“Drink yourself to sleep enchanted / Come sleep to forget death”). The drug cartels and violence that plague Mexico today are as close to this song as nuclear fallout… but would the country have ended up the way it is today if the conquistadors had never interfered in its history? And for those of you who question Mr. Sakurai's right to write a song about Mexico, a country who shares very little history or connection with Japan – the connections aren't as slim as you might think. In fact, many Japanese immigrants were living and working in Mexico as early as the turn of the 20th century, and one of them, Kingo Nonaka, played a major role in the Mexican Revolution. The more you know!
It's hard to tell what the fans in general thought of this song, since by fangirl decree it, too, was branded a “ballad,” and therefore no one danced to it (why not? “El Dorado” is not a ballad by any goth club definition – it's a mid-tempo twirly-arms dance number!) But anyone who calls themselves a Buck-Tick fan yet didn't appreciate this song is missing most of the point: “El Dorado” exemplifies everything Buck-Tick do best as a band, collages of oblique references and mid-tempo dance beats included. If we never hear the song again after this tour because it's not catchy and repetitive and it was written by Hide, I'll be very, very sorry.
“El Dorado” finished to complete silence and blackout, broken only by a few notes and shuffling sounds until the band launched into another macabre theatrical number, the eerie ghost story “Jukai.” On the album, this is a difficult track to listen to for various reasons – it abjures all catchiness, its confusing off-kilter rhythm is hard to adapt to after the driving pulse of “Boy septem peccata mortalia” immediately before, and the lyrics are some of the darkest on the album after “Ai no Souretsu” and “Manjusaka.” Yet on stage, it developed into one of the most impressive performance of the tour, yet again thanks in no small part to Mr. Sakurai.
The staging was aggressively simple – nothing but brushy, shifting blue-green light on the crinkled silver backdrop, evoking moonlit trees, with a single orange spot coming in from stage right. As the song opened, Sakurai went all the way over to the side of the stage to stand in front of this light so it illuminated him in sharp silhouette and largely failed to penetrate the green gloom that settled over Hide and the other band members. Twisting in the orange glare, with a few evocative gestures, Sakurai mimed his tale of love and anguish, licking his finger for just the slightest taste of sweet sap, before whirling over to center stage, waltzing trip-footed with an invisible partner before bending down as if to bury everything in a hole beneath the wet leaves, a gesture he repeated without fail at every show. During the solo, the band members seemed to melt into a drenching flood of green light, until the second verse arrived, and Sakurai appeared over at stage left this time, in another ghostly orange spotlight, sighing his lament in perfectly modulated falsetto – vocal technique which he honed during The Mortal's tour.
This song is too colorful for The Mortal, yet it's many shades darker than most of Buck-Tick's work to date. If there are any precedents for “Jukai,” they're in Buck-Tick's 90's work, particularly Darker Than Darkness. Yet this song is far older and more jaded in outlook than anything the band could have written back when they were young. The “look how dark and dramatic we are” self-consciousness is all gone, and so is the love affair “Jukai” narrates. Rather than writhing in the immediacy of present passion, as on earlier albums, the lyrics for “Jukai” tell the tale of passion so old, the sufferer feels in danger of forgetting the reason for his suffering, even as it continues to torment him. In that sense, “Jukai” is something of a cousin to “Yasou” – a cautionary tale about how quickly the seasons change, both in the forest and in our lives. Yet even “Yasou” held out hope for one last tryst before night falls, while “Jukai” is a love song to a ghost we sense is long deceased. In addition, Sakurai drops strong hints that the relationship mourned by the narrator of “Jukai” was an abusive one, that the narrator may have been the instigator of the abuse, and may even have been part of the cause of the lost beloved's implied suicide.
That the story never becomes clearer than this is a testament to Sakurai's skill as a lyricist – he's singing from the point of view of a narrator who's in the midst of losing his mind and memories, so a clear narrative would be out of character. But beyond that, the intensity of Sakurai's performance of this song, and his reluctance to talk about the meaning of these lyrics with magazine interviewers, makes me suspect that whether or not the surface details of the story told by “Jukai” are literally true, Sakurai has incorporated very real, very dark feelings of his own into the crafting of this song, and it's as effective as it is unsettling. Most of Buck-Tick's Japanese-style ghost stories are gentle, offering the possibility of reunion with lost love (“Yumeji,” “Serenade,” “Utsusemi,” “Kimi ga Shindara,” “Solaris,” “Gekka Reijin”). “Jukai” offers no succor but the oblivion of forgetting everything. This, and the unusual rhythm and arrangement make “Jukai” a step in a new direction for Buck-Tick – let's hope they take another on the next album.
Still, it was very heavy, and afterward, we needed a break. Perfect, then, that the tone of the show proceeded to lighten somewhat with “Melancholia,” complete with all the riveting psychedelic visuals the band used in 2015 at the Lunatic Festival and on the Day in Question tour. “Melancholia,” too, has gotten a lot of stage time – but it's hard to find fault with that when it's so well staged every time, and these lyrics, like the lyrics of the two preceding songs, represent Sakurai at his most evocative and symbolic, thereby preserving the atmosphere in preparation for the bombast of “Devil's Wings.”
Now at last, we saw the function of the winged O'Keefe flower. As Imai clawed out the first martial cascade of notes, the projector transformed the flower into the skeletal wings of some hell demon, outlined in lurid red and green. Rather than staying in his usual spot at the front and center, Sakurai chose instead to sing most of this song from the back platform, standing between Toll and Yutaka, commanding the stage like a dictator, but letting the guitarists take the fore. All of Imai's contributions to Atom Miraiha involve some element of anime or manga pastiche, but “Devil's Wings” is the only set of lyrics penned by Sakurai which includes such a reference – specifically, by Sakurai's own words, to the manga and anime series Devil Man, which first ran/aired in the early 70's, when the Buck-Tick members were young boys. Since most of Imai's cartoon references are similarly dated, Sakurai's Devil Man reference helps build up the retro-future Showa era nostalgia vibe running through the album as a whole, yet as usual, the ultimate effect of Sakurai's artistic choices ends up distinctly different from Imai's.
There's a palpable undercurrent of romance whenever Imai writes about monsters. The tone of “Brain Whisper Head Hate is Noise” was celebratory, a sort of monster fight song, and the monsters in “Madman Blues” had noble intentions, openly declaring their desire for peaceful coexistence. “Cyborg Dolly” and “Buster” veered closer to paranoia, yet there was still a sense of identification, of reveling in monsterdom. On Atom Miraiha, the love is right there in the lyrics – “Yeah I love you” is the opening line not only of “cum uh sol nu,” but of the whole album, while the fracturing radioactive crystals in “Pinoa Icchio” are labeled crystals of love. Later on the album in “Future Song,” Imai welcomes the future in all its violence, whereas in “The Seaside Story,” the Little Mermaid may not be a monster, but she's a hybrid supernatural creature – and still more gushily sympathetic and lovelorn. Sure, there's a strong element of sarcasm in all these songs. But when it comes to our atomic future, Imai, like a photographer, offers images up to us without comment, and lets us make of them what we will, clearly hoping we'll make the best. He's been doing this for a while. Remember, in “Sid Vicious on the Beach,” Sid was kicking back on the seaside, awaiting the nuclear apocalypse with typical punk Devil-may-care style.
In Sakurai's work, however, the Devil does care. As in Imai's monster songs, in “Devil's Wings,” Sakurai speaks from the monster's point of view – but this time, the monster isn't the hapless creation of some mad scientist, forced to make due with the hand that was dealt him. Sakurai's monster is the corrupt human soul, and his moral judgment is scathing: “all our souls unto depravity.” “Devil's Wings” is an impressive song, mainly because it's the most political Buck-Tick's ever dared to get, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The major label Japanese music industry grows more allergic to politics by the year, and as we stated previously, the ongoing impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear crisis have been hushed up by the media almost completely, meaning that the post-disaster protest music we might have expected largely failed to materialize. It's too bad that Buck-Tick's major label sales commitments and willfully apolitical fanbase prevent them from being more directly and openly critical, but on the other hand, Sakurai is still being remarkably brave here, to address even in an oblique way the most threatening global issues that no one talks about: overpopulation and, implicitly, climate change. Not only that, he identifies the root of the world's problems not in some kind of enemy other, but in the genetic selfishness of the human animal, slave to its basest impulses to do what feels good to the flesh in the immediate moment, to reproduce and proliferate, even to the point that humanity becomes a cancer upon the face of the planet, consuming its host and destroying itself in the process. Ultimately, “Devil's Wings” is a song about how it feels good to do evil, and nobody's immune from the temptation.
This is the sort of song Sakurai couldn't have written before The Mortal. It crosses a line Buck-Tick's earlier work never crossed – the characters in “Trigger,” “Genzai” and “Katte ni Shiyagare” weren't nice guys, but neither were they evil – they were simply tormented by their fear of mortality. The Mortal, specifically in “Barbaric Man” and “Fantomas,” was the first place where Sakurai took on the role of cold-blooded killer, and in “Devil's Wings” and “Boy septem peccata mortalia,” Sakurai seems to be carrying on that idea, albeit slightly less baldly. Instead of regretting his sins, he questions the very need for morality. If it feels good to me, right now, why not do it? After all, that's what the world's dictators, hedge fund managers, and presidents seem to be doing as we speak.
The live performance of “Devil's Wings” made maximum use of the best element of a hall tour: the ability to put on a spectacular visual show. The graphic projections saturated the whole stage, practically absorbing the band members as the eponymous devil's wings transformed into a gaping vampire maw filled with sharp white fangs. Especially when viewed from the balcony, it almost felt like watching a real life anime, the end credits a return of the wings, outlined in red, pulsing as if with blood.
After this number, the band took a short break, Imai noodling on the guitar and synthesizer for long enough to allow the other band members to take some much-needed sips of water before proceeding into another one of the album's showstoppers, “BOY septem peccata mortalia.”
According to Sakurai, this song came about the way it did because Imai had entitled his original demo tape “Greed,” which put Sakurai in the mind of the seven deadly sins. It's something of an open secret that Imai was inspired to write “cum uh sol nu” at least in part by the manga/anime Fullmetal Alchemist, which happens to involve seven deadly sins references in addition to flasks and homunculi. However, it seems doubtful to me that Fullmetal Alchemist was Sakurai's main source of inspiration here – the use of Latin in the lyrics to “Boy” suggest to me that it's another holdover from The Mortal – either something Sakurai couldn't manage to work in, or something he thought of after I Am Mortal was already written, and filed away for later use.
With its cheeky, taunting sexiness and catchy EBM beat, “Boy” has all the mainstream fan appeal that the harsher and more abstruse work of The Mortal lacked. This is the kind of song that even the goth-loli day trippers who loved “Romance” but hated “Pain Drop” can enjoy. At the same time, “Boy” is every bit as deep and troubling as its thematic prequels, “Adult Children” and “Barbaric Man.” As in “Devil's Wings,” Sakurai is wrestling with the potential worst aspects of humanity, but in “Boy” they become personal – the potential worst aspects of himself. In “Adult Children,” the Devil came at night to tempt the boy, but in “Boy,” he's given in to the temptation.
Given Sakurai's lifelong preoccupation with sexual themes, one might expect this temptation to be sexual in nature, but it's not, and that's one of the things that makes “Boy” such an interesting song. In the first stanza, Sakurai poo-poohs the sin of Lust as not even worth mentioning – what tempts him are Sloth and Envy. And here's where things get personal. Sloth and envy are the greatest dangers to the creative artist. The temptation to compare oneself unfavorably to others, to become paralyzed by these comparisons, and slack off one's artistic work is a constant fear. Fangirls might question what cause a beautiful, talented, successful man like Mr. Sakurai could possibly have for envy, but that's the thing about envy – it's not rational. Even the eminently enviable fall prey to it, just as any of us can fall prey to the temptation to procrastinate, to not show up, to be lazy, sloppy, careless, or rest on our laurels. Lustfulness is just part of a rock star's libertine appeal, but jealousy and laziness aren't glamorous things to admit to, which is what makes Sakurai's particular focus on these two both daring and subversive.
He couldn't leave lust out of it entirely, though. “Boy” feels like one of the most definitive, important tracks on Atom Miraiha mainly because it serves to tie together so many of the album's themes. As we already saw in “Devil's Wings,” the danger of carnal temptation is one of them, but the selfish and abusive side of love is another. We see it in the abusive affair in “Jukai” and in the encounter with the prostitute in “El Dorado,” but it's present in “Bi Universe” and “New World,” as well. In “Bi Universe,” blind lust is what leads the singer toward chaos rather than appreciation, whereas in “New World,” Sakurai questions the very meaning of love, lamenting that it may be nothing but “empty dreams.” This question, of whether unconditional love is possible, or if all love ends up being some form of selfish advantage seeking, was already a big theme on I Am Mortal, summed up by the gut-punching bridge lyric on the title track, “Love, and the illusion I thought was love / Still it astounds how they throw my heart from its orbit.” The conclusion of “Boy septem peccata mortalia” feels equally decisive and devastating –
“Speaking of love
I know it too
I'm sure it's black magic
And I want some more.”
This is one of Atom Miraiha's definitive moments, made all the more persuasive by Sakurai's covetously gentle vocals. The vocals on this track are some of the best Sakurai has ever recorded, and they span a great deal of his performance range, but it's his sweet wheedling on those “motto hoshii” lines that packs the most punch. When he puts it like that, who could refuse him?
It took the band a while to work this song up to full power on the tour, and unfortunately, the visuals for this number conspicuously failed to measure up to the quality of the music (or the quality of the visuals for the other numbers). Both the Latin and Japanese words for the seven sins jumped and flashed across a set of six screens which ringed the O'Keefe flower, but the ugly fonts and neon colors (bright orange, neon green, bubblegum pink) detracted from the menacing atmosphere. Still, the band members more than saved the song from a cheesy demise, especially once they'd broken it in a bit.
The introductory section, which started as little more than Imai guitar noodles, gradually developed into a full-on theatrical sketch. “I know love,” Sakurai crooned as Imai diddled away on synthesizer and guitar. “I know love, so tell me...why is it wrong,” Sakurai continued, breathing heavily like a Catholic schoolboy who's been told that every time he masturbates, God kills a kitten. For Mr. Sakurai, choosing between masturbation and kittens must be a dire moral quandary indeed! During the second performance at Nakano Sun Plaza, Sakurai injected so much realism into this section that fangirls in the back might have been forgiven for thinking that they were witnessing him in flagrante delicto up there.
When the song started, Sakurai remained crouching like a guilty child until the chorus, when he came out front and center to gyrate, lick his lips and leer at the audience, then attempt to stuff the microphone down his pants (he tried admirably, but the pants were simply too tight to allow it). Meanwhile, Imai took to performing most of the song lying flat on his back somewhere in the vicinity of the stage left hanamichi, rolling front side to side and kicking his curly-toed boots into the air, while Hide, over on the other hanamichi, lip-synched to the lyrics as broadly as he could, winking lustily (or should we say luxuriously?) at every woman who glanced his way.
We were into the dance portion of the show now, and the set changed accordingly – the O'keefe flower vanishing out of sight in the blackout to reveal a simple large projection screen, which burst into a swarm of colorful, squirming, striped tube worms as the band struck up “Future Song.” Every Buck-Tick album has a theme song – it's tradition. For Atom Miraiha, “Future Song” is that theme, and just as with the rest of the album, the number of layers of meaning it manages to pack into less than four minutes is beautiful to behold. You can't get more quintessentially Buck-Tick than this, to the point that it seems pointless to try and count the ways. Not only is “Future Song” a perfect blend of Imai and Sakurai's vocals, it touches on all the band's major lyric themes (monsters, destruction, debauchery, art history) and even incorporates most of their definitive musical styles, from industrial techno to gothic cabaret to ethnic fusion (if you think the ethnic fusion thing started with this record, go back and listen to “Maboroshi no Miyako,” “Brain Whisper Head Hate is Noise,” “Die,” “Rakuen,” “Kalavinka,” “Memento Mori”… you get the picture). Buck-Tick have done plenty of Imai-Sakurai trade-off songs like this before (“Tango Swanka,” “Rhapsody,” “Check-Up” etc.) but never before have Imai and Sakurai's parts meshed so perfectly together to evoke the essence of an album.
“Future Song” couches scenes of passion and eros in the modern obsession with violence and destruction in the name of “progress” – the beauty of Nike of Samothrace is overshadowed by the beauty of the arcing bullets, while the body of Bonita admired by Sakurai turns, in Imai's hands, into the body of a gun. The song is full of constant impatience – “kick their asses,” “out of the way, here comes the future,” calls Imai, as if mocking the cries of oblivious late-stage capitalists and tech entrepreneurs and the players of bloodbath video games alike. We're losing sight of everything and we're going to pay the price, he says, invoking Lovecraft's monster Nyarlathotep. There sure are an awful lot of monsters on this album, aren't there?
Together, Imai and Sakurai manage to strike the chords of both optimism and nihilism simultaneously. Just as Imai exhorts the audience to welcome the future, Sakurai's entreaty of “please take me with you” echoes his “please invite me” request later on “Ai no Souretsu,” reminding us what the future holds in store for each of us eventually. Not a single word or note is wasted.
Luckily, the fans quickly warmed up to this song, and actually danced, as the stage swam in the shifting light of the psychedelic sunbursts that swirled across the backdrop during the chorus. But there's another curious thing about Buck-Tick's fanbase – despite the band's long and colorful history of drug imagery, they have never acquired a contingent of appreciative druggie fans, the way they surely would have had they been born in the UK instead. You could blame this on the very strict taboo against drug use in Japanese society, but the drug laws in Japan weren't always as strict as they are today, and in any case, strict drug laws never seemed to stop the Buck-Tick members (at least after 1988, that is) so why should it have stopped the fangirls? I'm certainly not advocating substance abuse, Buck-Tick have used some gorgeous acid-rock-style graphics in their recent tours, and it's too bad there aren't more fans out there who are capable of appreciating them.
Following “Future Song,” the band took another short break so Imai could play a solo, this one with a tropical breezes surf rock feel. As with “Boy,” Sakurai didn't take advantage of this opportunity right away, but by the end of the tour, he'd added some acting to accompany Imai's playing. Draping his black scarf over his head like mermaid's tresses, he perched himself on his stool as if he were sunning himself on a rock in the middle of the sea, combing his flowing hair. Though it took the fans a while to catch on to the meaning of this pantomime, eventually they got it, and the laughter and cheering from the crowd grew louder at each subsequent show.
The staging for “The Seaside Story” lived up admirably to the introduction. In keeping with the retro shojo anime theme vibe of the song, the stage lit up bright as a disco, flashing blue and green during the electronic instrumental sections, then centering into colored spotlights on Sakurai during the verses. One each successive lyric, a different colored spotlight shone on Sakurai from a different direction, till the chorus rolled around and blue and gold lights lit up like sunlight sparkling on the ocean.
This song is one of the outliers on the album – both the music and lyrics are much more lighthearted than the other songs, and there's nothing overtly atomic about any of it. However, it still fits in with the theme of retro anime pastiche, childhood nostalgia, and an implicit longing for simpler times. Also, the darkness of Andersen's fairytale can't be ignored. Beneath all the feel-good girl power in the lyrics lies a story of a woman who chooses death in the service of unrequited love, and in that sense, this song calls out to the broken love stories in “Jukai” and “Manjusaka.” Beyond that, the live-fast-die-young attitude espoused by the song's protagonist mirrors that of Sid Vicious in Imai's previous nuclear holocaust surf rock anthem, “Sid Vicious on the Beach.” The use of heavy industrial electronics throughout Atom Miraiha instantly invites comparison to Mona Lisa Overdrive, but dancepop sarcasm is another thing the two albums have in common.
What makes “The Seaside Story” different from any song Buck-Tick have attempted before is that it's obviously and overtly a drag number. Sakurai has experimented before with writing from a woman's perspective, but coming from him, it was an exercise in the psychology of duality and the androgyny of the soul. Imai, however, has never written this kind of song before, and his use of the kind of stylized feminine Japanese found in anime dialogue makes it seem that he's not so much trying to put himself in a woman's shoes as he is writing an idealized female persona, of the type taken on by drag queens and female-role Kabuki actors alike. And while Sakurai acted out the role narrated by the lyrics through stylized girly gestures and his mermaid-hair pantomime, he made no effort whatsoever to act feminine during his performance. By this point in the show, he was sweating beneath the stage lights, and had long since shed his coat to show off his thickly muscled arms, which he crossed over his (flat, boobie-free) chest as he belted “I'm the Mermaid Princess!” in a deep, masculine voice. Secretly, we wished he'd donned high heels and a sequin skirt to complete the look.
Even when “The Seaside Story” ended, the dance section of the program wasn't over – next, the band jumped straight into “Cuba Libre.” The first night of the tour, this was just about the only new song which elicited full-scale enthusiasm from all the fans. A great cheer went up from the crowd as the song began, but before you get too excited – no, it wasn't for the Latin dancing. We'd expected people to salsa or tango or at the very least dance in rhythm with the bouncy, catchy bass line...but somewhat to our surprise, the only bit of the song the fangirls at large seemed to have picked up on was Toll's use of the clap pad – something which we ourselves hadn't actually noticed until the moment the fans all began to clap in unison along with it. Did they dance? No, they did not. Did they sway? No, they did not. Did they put on their red shoes and dance the blues? Oh fuck no.
No, my friends, the fangirls showed their great enthusiasm for “Cuba Libre” by standing stock still and clapping in unison, then putting up their hands on the chorus and waving them back and forth in an altogether rigid and robotic manner. If Sakurai felt disappointed by this, though, he didn't show it – he himself was having too much fun stomping his Cuban heels on the stage, dancing, clapping, and shouting out random Spanish words during the instrumental break, as Imai and Hide practically tore the strings off their acoustic guitars and a host of Dia de los Muertos skulls and roses appeared on the backdrop.
Buck-Tick have been experimenting with Latin music influences for a long time, and “Cuba Libre” sounds like nothing so much as an updated, more upbeat version of “Zekkai.” Maybe it was Imai's apology gift to Mr. Sakurai after cheating on him with Fujii Maki – it's no secret that “Zekkai” is one of Sakurai's favorite songs.
But it's not just Buck-Tick, and it's not just one way: goth has long been popular in Latin America, and given the Roman Catholic preoccupation with luxury, death and melodrama, that's probably no surprise. Even Siouxsie and the Banshees remarked upon this when touring South America in the 80's – they sensed a passion from their Latin American fans that went over and beyond the sort of response they normally received in Europe and the US – and Nick Cave actually lived in Brazil for a number of years. With the love of goth firmly in place already, visual kei was a logical next step for Latin American fans, especially given the significant Japanese diaspora in Peru and Brazil in particular. International visual kei fandom may have peaked around 2009, but even today, Latin America hosts one of the largest and most active communities of overseas j-rock fans, and Buck-Tick is wildly popular. Whether the band themselves know this is hard to say – could it be that knowledge of their popularity in Latin America inspired them to experiment more with Latin-inspired music on Atom Miraiha?
Maybe that's a stretch, or maybe it isn't, but either way, “Cuba Libre” takes the Latin inspiration a step further than simple music appreciation. The rousing sensuality of the song may blind the listener momentarily to the darkness underneath, but beyond the resurrection of the “drink and make merry, for tomorrow we die” theme, what does the Cuban setting of “Cuba Libre” evoke more readily than the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly started a nuclear war? Even the sunshine is vaguely ominous – here, the sweetly sparkling “kirakira” of “The Seaside Story” becomes the more sinister, overwhelming “giragira,” the sun of a depleted ozone layer and accelerating global warming, or perhaps the artificial sun of the Trinity atomic test once again. “Full sun is shining down,” sings Sakurai on the chorus, and during the live performance bright yellow spots washed the whole stage in blinding light. Moths to a flame or to a mushroom cloud, the outcome is the same. Arui wa Anarchy gave us “Survival Dance,” but on Atom Miraiha, survival is questionable.
“Cuba Libre” went out with a bang like a bomb, and in the silence following, the bright yellow of artificial sunshine darkened into deep crimson and vermilion, like the setting sun or arterial blood. It was time for “Manjusaka.”
It's easy to appreciate this song for its pretty melody, or for Hide's obvious homage to The Cure in his guitar work. Many fans drew a parallel between “Manjusaka” and “Gekka Reijin,” and if you listen to the songs back to back, the similarities are obvious, especially in the guitar parts, the layered backing vocal, and the floral theme in the lyrics. However, while Imai chose a simple scale for both the guitar and bass lines of “Gekka Reijin,” Hide breaks the guitar line for “Manjusaka” into a glittering, jangling arpeggio which goes around and around in circles, just like the bassline. Propelled by an electronic backbeat, “Gekka Reijin” is a dance number, full of forward momentum, while “Manjusaka” is a quintessential ballad, filled with hesitation expressed through a series of repeating yet gradually evolving riffs. The only synth here is a metallic sweep sound that washes in and out behind the music like clouds passing across the moon or will-o-the-wisps in the woods – that is, until the instrumental break, when a cold, blinking tone comes in, pulsing and fading. This is exactly the same tone Hide used in the instrumental break of “Pixy,” but while that song evoked a magical encounter with a lovely forest faerie, “Manjusaka” evokes the dark side of nature: death and the unknown. Even the drum line adds to the atmosphere here – it's a very unusual one for Buck-Tick, heavy on rim shots and wood blocks, all clicks and clacks, like the clattering of bones.
The lyrics and vocals on “Manjusaka” are some of Sakurai's best ever. In this song, more than anywhere else on Atom Miraiha, he demonstrates the ways in which The Mortal helped him to grow and mature as a singer and writer. He couldn't have written or sung a song quite like this even as recently as 2014, and I mean that in the best way possible. But the gentleness and subtlety of the vocals, as well as the beauty of the imagery in the lyrics, is liable to distract listeners from the very, very dark undertones in this song. Beyond the obvious theme of the sorrow of final parting, symbolized by the flower in the title and the evocation of rain and thunderstorms, the lyrics are riddled with subtle references to what appears to be cancer and chemotherapy – “ailing soul,” “spitting blood,” “the poison takes effect,” “the stench of moldering,” “melting the skeleton.” Radiation sickness? Sakurai leaves that open to question, but given the title of the album, the implication is there. In its own way, “Manjusaka” is darker even than “Ai no Souretsu,” because it offers no hope of salvation. At least in “Ai no Souretsu,” we all go together when we go.
Still, given the vivid imagery in the lyrics, this song seemed made for live performance, and the band did not disappoint. The stage stayed dark red for the duration of the song, while a series of images of hurricane lilies came up on the backdrop. First there was just one, then a whole field of them, then another singleton, drenched in rain as lightning flashed behind, till the flower faded into a silhouette like a blood-red X-ray.
And once again, we were watching the Sakurai Atsushi show. Like most of The Mortal, Sakurai's performance of this song was pure theater and no fan service, yet all the more riveting because of that, especially during the second verse, where Sakurai appears to sing a call-and-response duet with Hide's guitar. Every note Hoshino Hidehiko contributed to Atom Miraiha is pure perfection, and while it's impossible to imagine Buck-Tick without Imai Hisashi, Hide's continuing maturation as a songwriter does make me hope more than ever that someday, he'll get around to releasing a solo album, and invite Mr. Sakurai over to do guest vocals. Together, on Atom Miraiha, the two of them have managed to reach emotional and artistic depths Buck-Tick has only ever touched a few times before (some previous times when they succeeded in digging this deep: “Die” and “Mienai Mono.”)
Most of the time, Buck-Tick prefer to end their main set with an up-tempo song or at least a mildly feel-good ballad, rather than a deep dark downer. On the first day of the Anarchy tour, they broke this tradition by ending with “Mudai,” exiting the stage in darkness without a word – a thrilling move (instigated by Mr. Sakurai, of course) which they abandoned almost immediately due to fan complaints. This time, though, we're going to go ahead and assume that Sakurai drew on the newfound confidence he gained from The Mortal to put his foot down good and hard about the end of the set... because after “Manjusaka,” the band went straight into “Ai no Souretsu.”
Then again, “straight into” is a relative term when it comes to “Ai no Souretsu,” because this song starts slowly, and the band drew out the slowness, keeping the stage very dark while the sound of pouring rain filled the hall, to be gradually joined by echoing voices. Fujii Maki (of minus, Schaft, and Soft Ballet) wrote the arrangement and played all the synth parts for this song, and his touch is obvious. Every bit of every synth track in here is an homage to classic goth songs, from London After Midnight's “Sacrifice” to Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus,” to The Damned's “Sanctum Sanctorum,” and there's even a riff more or less stolen from the She Wants Revenge hit “True Romance.” When we glimpsed Fujii Maki and Imai Hisashi in the balcony of NHK Hall on the final night of The Mortal's tour, we should have guessed that this is what it was leading up to!
It's no wonder Sakurai declared again and again that it was his favorite song on the album – Fujii may have pulled the orchestration from classic goth, but Imai pulled the melody wholesale from the enka songs Sakurai listened to as a boy (he reports lying on the floor listening to the radio for hours on Sunday afternoons, to the enka and kayoukyoku specials.) By his own reporting, enka radio was Sakurai's first real exposure to music, and surely it fed into his desire to ditch the drums and become a vocalist later on. Plus, his voice was made for this type of melody. Anyone can make a decent crack at an upbeat punk song, but slow ballads require a much higher level of vocal skill, which Sakurai has now in spades, and showed off to great effect on this song.
Put it all together and you've got a gorgeous, luxurious fantasia of grief and sorrow, so thick and rich you could shower in it. At six minutes, 52 seconds, it's one of the longest songs Buck-Tick have ever recorded, second only to the Koroshi no Shirabe version of “Victims of Love” at 7:24 and the album mix of “Kodou” at 6:53. For a band who gained their popularity through the short, sweet, and catchy, a song this long is a daring move...let alone a song this dark! Buck-Tick have written a fair few sad, dark songs in their time, but in terms of sheer minor-key gothic ballad bombast combined with very, very depressing lyrics, “Ai no Souretsu” takes the red velvet cake with black frosting, hands down. It hardly even sounds like Buck-Tick at all! Brendan Perry's “Death Will Be My Bride” can duke it out with the Sisters of Mercy's “Black Planet” and Bauhaus' “Hollow Hills” for the title of Most Goth Song Ever Written™, but how many goth bands have actually gone so far as to write a real funeral march? Not as many as you'd expect.
Of course, 2016 was a dark year, full of many deaths. Given Fujii's involvement, there's a strong implication that “Ai no Souretsu” is a requiem for Ken Morioka – Ken was a long time friend of Buck-Tick and participated in a number of their recordings, the most recent being “Sekai wa Yami de Michiteiru” for Arui wa Anarchy. Still, there were plenty of other people to mourn, too – there's no question that another dense downpour of this song's rain falls for David Bowie, who was a tremendous influence on Sakurai and Imai, as he was on countless other musicians. To let 2016 go by without a requiem seems irreverent. Yet it's also important to remember that Atom Miraiha looks forward to the future. How many lives will ultimately be claimed by the radioactive fallout from Fukushima? How many more will die in earthquakes, and in wars? Even peaceful, natural death brings sorrow. As the future continues to dawn each morning, one by one, each and every one of us is destined to bid farewell to those we love. The funeral parade of love goes on, and on, and on. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. More than anything else, “Ai no Souretsu” is exactly what Mr. Sakurai says it is: a requiem for you, and for me.
And yet, there's a very interesting question embedded in this song: why? Not the usual “why do we die,” but an even more obvious question: since death is inevitable, why does it inevitably make us so sad? After all, if we all eventually join the parade again, the goodbye is only temporary, isn't it? Sakurai has no answer for this question, but he offers an important reminder – we still have time! Don't get so lost in grief and fear of death that you forget to live while you're alive! Coming on the heels of The Mortal, it sounds very much like he's admonishing himself. Don't gaze too long into that abyss, or you'll fall right in! “Ai no Souretsu” is the dark mirror to “Love Parade,” but if you dwell on that too much, you'll miss the fun.
However, watching this song performed live was like watching The Mortal redux, and for those of us who loved the shit out of The Mortal, it was pure joy. The stage stayed very dark, bathed in deep violet light, just barely illuminating the band members' silhouettes, as Sakurai stood very still behind the microphone stand, his black scarf once again draped over his head, now evoking not mermaid's tresses, but a funeral shroud. As the music went on, the lights slowly came up ghostly white, one spotlight on each band member, exploding into cold brightness on the chorus, as the backdrop filled with a slow procession of hazy, spectral forms, drifting off into the darkness. As the song drew to a close, the band members left the stage silently, one by one, no smiles or fan service. Sakurai, usually the first to leave the stage at the end of the set, was the last one off this time, watching over the band members as they made their exits, before at last moving to follow them.
The main set was over. On to the encore!
Encores are usually the place where Buck-Tick feel free to have fun, to play around, and bring out old songs they haven't played in a long while. Usually, they go through a rotation of eight or ten different numbers. This time, for whatever reason, they mostly played the same songs each night, and while some of their picks were excellent choices, it was still disappointing. The first encore each night was the goth section of the program, obviously selected by Mr. Sakurai: “Kirameki no Naka de,” followed by “Mienai Mono wo Miyou to Suru Gokai Subete Gokai da,” followed by either “Mudai” or “Keijijou Ryuusei.” All of these songs are strong, and “Mienai Mono” in particular seemed perfectly suited to both the sound and philosophical themes of Atom Miraiha. “Mudai,” for its part, is a song that many fangirls reportedly hate, but artistically, it's some of Buck-Tick's most interesting work, Sakurai clearly loves it to pieces, and it's a hell of spectacle when played live, which are all good reasons in my book for the band to play it at every show. At the same time, the band played all these songs frequently even before the Atom Miraiha tour, so I wouldn't have minded hearing some different but equally dark and existential selections from Six/Nine and Darker Than Darkness instead.
Predictably, the second encore set was nothing but upbeat crowd-pleasers, but the only good thing I can say about the song selections here was at least we didn't have to suffer through “Muma” or “Aku no Hana.” This time, the number of choice was “Tenshi wa Dare da,” and really, kids, how many times are we going to be forced to hear this fucking song again before we die? We confess that we actually liked it when it came out, but since then, the band have performed it on just about every tour, repeating that chorus again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again till we're practically nauseous with Gestaltzerfall. The worst part? At many of the shows, this was the only song the fangirls danced to besides “Cuba Libre.”
Another common pick for the second encore was “Makka na Yoru,” which is a really great number on which to wave your hands back and forth in sync with the fangirls around you, but aside from that has very little to offer – it was easily the most boring track on Memento Mori, and furthermore, it has nothing to do with the future.
The only exciting, unusual pick the band offered us this time was “Genzai,” off Mona Lisa Overdrive, a rip-roaring speed punk number that ought to have driven the fans far crazier than “Tenshi wa Dare da,” and yet didn't – probably because fangirls don't appreciate hearing a song whose chorus is more or less entirely made up of their beloved Acchan-chan singing about his c**k. After all, they like to pretend he doesn't have one.
And then, at last, it was time for the finale: “New World.” Perhaps we were too hard on this song when it came out – superficially, out of the context of the album, it's not very interesting – Buck-Tick have already written loads of songs which sound just like this, but better. However, taken in the context of the album, as the breaking dawn at the end of the “Ai no Souretsu” dark night of the soul, it offers a much-needed release from the intense catharsis of the previous twelve tracks. Also, unlike almost every other Buck-Tick single, the album mix is better than the single mix. Deepened resonance on the synth lines makes them sound like light beams dancing through deep water, like the flashing moments of light and inspiration expressed verbally in the lyrics and visually in the PV.
The music video for “New World” is one of the best in Buck-Tick's recent history. Rather than telling an overt story, everything is expressed through subtle visual symbolism which may require repeated viewings to fully absorb. Why that title, “New World”? Because, according to Sakurai, each new moment we live through is, in effect, a new reality. “The future” isn't just an abstract concept – it turns into the present minute by minute. In fact, we are witnessing the future continuously every day...yet we are dogged by attachment to the past and fear of the unknown, and the terrible sadness that, shut up in our own heads as we are, perhaps we will never be able to properly share what we see and feel with anyone else. Thus we see the band in an empty warehouse in a black and white world – the black and white of duality, of good and evil, light and shadow, night and day, life and death, understanding and confusion, known and unknown. Outside the windows, it's night, like the eternal night of outer space. The band members move forward and backward, flitting through different instants much like our stream of consciousness, and then we see Sakurai alone, cut off from the rest of them, searching through the shadows with nothing but a single flashlight, twirling through a hurricane of bouncy balls and paper airplanes like all our dreams and thoughts and wild crazy ideas, then sitting in a chair to relive the same moment and melody over and over and over, like the loops we go through in our heads and in our lives. And then at last, for one shining moment at the end of the video, white light shines through the formerly dark warehouse windows. If we cut through the darkness for long enough, we can reach the light, right?
It would have been thrilling to see the band stage this song like a live version of the PV, as they did for “Keijijou Ryuusei” on the Anarchy tour. However, for the most part, they performed “New World” without visuals, aided only by chrysanthemum-shaped white spotlights. The exception was the bridge. At last, here, graphics appeared on the backdrop, illustrating the lyrics – and here, at last, we got the first and last overt image of the atomic future. As Sakurai sang, “and such a tragic world,” for a split second, footage of an atomic bomb test came up, quickly to replaced by the face of a crying woman on “you're like a falling tear.” But in case you wondered – the band haven't lost their sense of humor. On “It's such a funny world,” the backdrop changed again, this time presenting us with the image of an evil clown.
A minute or two later, the show was over. This time, as per usual, Sakurai left the stage first, leaving the other band members to their ritual of throwing sticks, picks and towels. A few minutes later still, and the fans were already lining up to leave the hall.
In total, we saw the show nine and a half times, and on many of these occasions from a seat at the back of the first floor, or up in the balcony, so the specific details of each night we witnessed tend to blur together (to the extent that we could actually see the band members from so far away). Still, there were a fair few specific memorable moments to recount.
Ten years ago, Halloween was practically unknown in Japan (at least outside of the goth community), but a combination of Disney, Tim Burton, a major anime boom, and the capitalist greed of candy companies have conspired to make it “a thing,” as the kids say these days. In the past three years or so, Halloween has really taken off in Japan, though mostly the “celebrations” skew towards cutesy plastic pumpkin decorations and anime cosplay than anything truly scary or spiritual (nobody in Japan has ever seen a real pumpkin). Still, when has Imai ever passed up an excuse to wear a weird outfit? At Omiya Sonic City on the 27th of October, Imai came out onstage wearing a big black witch hat at a jaunty angle, which he showed off using the hanamichi as a catwalk while Sakurai wished the audience a happy Halloween. It was only later, when we got home and checked Imai's blog, that we noticed he'd done his makeup in a lopsided witch grin stretching from ear to ear, in clear homage to Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. This is what sucks about hall tours: if you get a seat far from the stage, you're liable to miss half the fun.
However, as you all know, post-Halloween, the fun was short lived. November 9th, which in Japan was the date of Buck-Tick's first of two back-to-back appearances at Nakano Sun Plaza Hall in central Tokyo, was November 8th in the USA – an election day which is sure to live in infamy in world history for many centuries to come, assuming the world can even survive another four years with an anthropomorphic, nuclear-armed orange kitchen sponge as president of the country with not only “the best words,” but the most “nuclear” on the planet. Sure, he probably still thinks the Nuclear Football is some kind of sports championship to rival the World Cup, but that didn't make hearing the news of his (Heimlich me I'm choking here) democratic election any easier. Japanese TV had already been steeped in US election coverage for weeks... so we don't think it was our imagination that the band members looked distinctly glum when they took the stage that evening. If we'd hoped that seeing a Buck-Tick show could distract us from our own feelings about the news, we hoped in vain. The band proceeded to play the most lethargic, listless show they'd played all tour.
Luckily, they recovered their oomph the following day, and gave their best performance yet for the cameras of NicoVideo, which were filming the show. Funny, because Sakurai's usually shy around cameras... yet this time, far from being shy, instead he went so far as to pull up his swishy goth pants and show off his very buff bare thighs, driving the fangirls into complete hysteria (and for those of you who didn't know, the word “hysteria” originally referred to the idea that a woman's womb could migrate around her body, driving her to wild and irrational behavior. We're using “hysteria” here in its original sense.) Could Sakurai's out-of-character display of cheekiness have had anything to do with the fact that several members of The Mortal (we'll let you guess which ones) had been spotted in the balcony on a romantic group date, arms linked like schoolgirls, dressed in matching black coats and black hats (despite the fact that this isn't how they would normally dress) so as to avoid offending fan sensibilities by betraying the sad reality that they're not, in fact, LGBTQ (Legit Goth Boys of Top Quality) but merely Goth For Acchan? Could it be that he was showing off for his friends in hopes that afterwards, they'd indulge him in yet another game of “let's play ambiguously gay vampires while Jake plays guitar”? We may never know for certain, but we have our suspicions.
About those thighs, though... once Mr. Sakurai had deigned to show them off, they became the talk of the tour. Night after night, venue after venue, and yours truly (that is to say we, Cayce) were stopped by various fangirls, many of whom I could not recall having ever met before, who inquired of me, “have you seen Acchan's thighs?” In the name of saving time, we nodded curtly and moved along, but in truth, we longed to stop and ask them – of all the sexual displays Mr. Sakurai has indulged in on stage over the years, is showing off his bare legs really the most scandalous? What about that time on the Cosmic Dreamer tour when in between songs, he turned his back on the audience, undid his pants, took out his whole… erm… kit… and readjusted it while making the rest of the band and the fans wait for him? Remember, the guy never wears underwear – anything he takes out of his pants is out in public! Then again, what about the many times he put things into his pants instead – hands, microphones, you name it! Not to mention all the things he's said, all the splits he's done, all the unspeakable actions he's inflicted on his long-suffering microphone stand...the list goes on. Yet it wasn't till they saw Mr. Sakurai's thighs in shorts like any old gyaru girl on a hot summer day in Shibuya that the fangirls freaked out. It's almost like they don't know he's got anything in his pants besides thighs to hide.
Newflash, kids: Mr. Sakurai is a troll. The more the fangirls freaked out, the more he upped his game. By the time the December 1st show at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall in Yokohama rolled around, he wasn't even attempting to be serious anymore. After turning “Devil's Wings” from a horror story to a comic farce by singing the entire song with one hand on the microphone and the other hand holding up his pant leg to show off his thigh, he spent most of “Septem Peccata Mortalia” showing off his thighs some more, rubbing his hands over them as if to make sure they were still there, and even momentarily allowing some saucy old ladies in the front row to do the same.
“Yokohama,” he called to the crowd. “Yokohama, the rows of golden ginkgo trees suit you well! So many travelers have crossed the sea to walk your streets… and… run away… again… I think?” Totally losing the thread of what had begun as a very poetic, dramatic narrative, he began to laugh, and the fans laughed with him. Yokohama has been home to foreign diplomats and business people since the time of Commodore Perry, and even today, the city has an unusual European-style atmosphere unlike any other city in Japan (except maybe Sapporo). It was this history Sakurai was alluding to in his statement, though I suspect it also had to do with the unusually large number of foreign fans present at the Yokohama show, which must have just been coincidence, seeing as most of them were clearly tourists.
In fact, Sakurai had been doing dramatic MCs like this at more or less every show, before “Cuba Libre” – attempting each time to tell a short story about a memory of past summers. “Do you remember that summer?” he'd asked, trying to utter a complete sentence of retro romance before bursting out laughing. He failed every time.
But speaking of romance... in Yokohama, during the second encore, instead of the damnable “Tenshi wa Dare da,” “Romance” was the song the band chose to play, and by this point, Sakurai had given up every shred of pretense that he was remotely serious about this show. Putting on his top hat and sitting down on the stairs leading up to Toll and Yutaka's platform, he raised his left leg high, placing it on the edge of the platform like a burlesque dancer, so as to show off his thighs to the maximal extent possible. He then proceeded to perform most of the song like this, making sure to continue rubbing his hands up and down his legs in a sensual fashion every 30 seconds or so, just to make extra double sure everyone was still paying attention enough to notice the stripe of lace up the side of his thigh-high stockings. Yes, kids, they were women's stockings – nobody makes thigh-high stockings for men. Anyhow, if Mr. Sakurai's ever done a better rendition of “Romance” than this one, we can't recall it. After all, what could be more romantic than a male stripper in a tophat, barely managing to suppress a fit of maniacal giggling? Nothing, my friends. Nothing is more romantic than that.
Of the shows we saw, the show at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall was probably the best of the lot. We'd had high hopes for the show in Shizuoka on December 22nd, but sadly, circumstances conspired against us.
It takes less than an hour to get from Tokyo to Shizuoka by bullet train, so when we arrived at the train station at 4:30 PM, we thought we were making good time – be in Shizuoka by 5:30 PM and be at the venue by 5:45, with 45 minutes to spare before the start of the show at 6:30. We bought our ticket, went through the ticket gates, climbed the stairs, and waited patiently for the next Kodama train to pull up to the platform. There it was! And then, the fateful announcement rang out: “Bullet train service between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka Stations has been temporarily suspended due to a fire along the tracks. We are confirming the circumstances at this time. Please wait for further information.”
Well, kids. We weren't to know it at the time, but this “fire” they spoke of was more of a towering inferno. A vacant warehouse in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa, only about 20 minutes by bullet train from where we sat, had gone up in a blaze of glory. The entire building was consumed with flames leaping several stories high. The good news? No one was injured. The bad news? Today, the only day in the past six months when yours truly needed to ride the bullet train, was the only day the bullet train was stopped for a full hour and a half. And I might add that bullet train suspension is extremely rare. For obvious reasons, bullet train tracks are fenced off from the public with razor wire, so the sorts of snafus that often stop local commuter trains – suicidal people jumping onto the tracks, drunk guys falling onto the tracks accidentally, total dumbasses dropping their smartphones onto the tracks, perverts running away along the tracks to escape police after being busted for groping women – just don't happen to bullet trains. The only times I've ever heard of a bullet train stopping for anything short of a typhoon, earthquake, or blizzard were 1) the time the Yamagata bullet train hit a deer by accident, 2) the MULTIPLE times a live (but non-venomous) snake got loose on the Tokaido bullet train and the passengers freaked the fuck out, and 3) the time a crazy guy boarded the Tokaido bullet train, then promptly set himself on fire. Can you believe our luck?
We'd slowly given up on seeing the first half of the show, but just as it was dawning on us that if the train were stopped for any longer, we wouldn't even be able to make it in time for the encore, the train abruptly started again. To add irony to injury, we arrived in Shizuoka 45 minutes later to an apocalyptic downpour. While we recognize Mr. Sakurai's need to take the rain with him wherever he goes… a little rain in Hiratsuka would have been nice, eh? Might have put that fire out faster! As fast as we could, we jumped into a taxi, and next minute, we were running across the broad square in front of the Bunka Kaikan. By the time we reached the doors, we were soaked, but we weren't alone – a number of other fans had been on the same bullet train with us, and there was actually a queue to get into the venue. We got into the hall itself just in time to hear the beginning of “Ai no Souretsu”...which was pretty much the perfect song to sum up how we felt in that moment.
The moral of the story? Get to the venue as early as you can. You never know when bad luck is going to thumb its nose at you. Oh, and to top it all off – when we returned to Tokyo later that night, the downpour followed us, and now the Tokyo trains were stopped, too. Hundreds of people queued for taxis at the station. Getting home was yet another ordeal. Only for Buck-Tick would we go to such lengths! If they don't know the depth of our love by now, shame on them (but we're pretty sure they know.)
A short week later, the tour ended at the Nippon Budoukan. And soon, all of you will be able to watch the Budoukan performance on DVD in the comfort of your homes – all of it, including Mr. Sakurai's garter belt, which he added at the last minute as a final bit of trolling. Was it kinky? Probably. It's hard to say for certain, because it's hard to see much of anything in the Budoukan, unless you've got a very good seat. In all likelihood, you're better off watching the show on DVD.
Yet even so, there's something that the DVD can't capture, and the more Buck-Tick tours I attend, the clearer it becomes. What is that something? It's the spectacle. The vista. The view of the whole stage in totality. The sense of immersion you get, when you look at that big stage and all the colors and lights and feel like you're practically swimming in it. It was a dark, sad year, and Atom Miraiha is a dark, sad, album – yet this tour was the brightest, most visually stunning tour we've ever personally witnessed Buck-Tick put on (maybe 13kai was better, but we weren't able to attend that one). That grandeur, that richness, the vividness of all those colors – none of that translates to video. Once it's gone, it's gone – just one more reminder to savor the present while it lasts, because in fact, the present is the only future we'll ever be able to know.
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