Tour The Mortal 2015
November 16th at Namba Hatch
November 17th at Osaka Orix Theater
November 19th at Shinkiba Studio Coast
November 25th at NHK Hall
November 26th at NHK Hall
Live Report by Cayce
“Mr. Sakurai ditched Buck-Tick and started his very own Goth as Fuck band!” – words we always secretly hoped to hear, but never thought we actually would. Oh, here comes that day! The bats have left the bell tower! Whatever this announcement meant, we knew from the instant it began that it could mean only good things.
Interestingly, as if sensing the possibility floating in the dark psychic aethers that connect underground creatures like us, back at the beginning of 2015, a number of you readers emailed us in a cluster, asking if we thought Mr. Sakurai would ever do another solo project. And for the first time, we answered yes, rather than maybe. How did we know, when Mr. Sakurai himself didn't even decide to do the project until March?
Actually, we didn't know. But it seemed to us at the time that he'd gained a new kind of confidence and self-perspective during the Yumemiru Uchuu and Arui wa Anarchy tours, asserting a new kind of dominance in songs like “Adult Children,” “Inter Raptor” and “Mudai,” and he'd also mentioned in recent interviews that he would like to give the solo project thing another try at some unspecified date in the nebulous future – which made a big contrast to what he said after Ai no Wakusei, which was, “maybe, but not any time soon!” Then there's the fact that he's approaching age fifty and no doubt careening into full-on midlife crisis mode...so the more we thought about it, the more the time seemed ripe. So perhaps in our thoughts, we called him on the psychic telephone (next best thing to a psychic TV!)...and what do you know, he picked up and said “moshi moshi.”
In truth, we've privately been imagining possibilities for Mr. Sakurai's hypothetical second solo project ever since the Ai no Wakusei project was over. Despite what certain Russian fangirl bloggers may erroneously believe, Mr. Sakurai is not President of Buck-Tick. Though we often joke about Sakurai and Imai being wedded by the holy vows of an indissoluble spiritual marriage made in heaven, it's very clear who's the wife in the relationship (hint: it's not Imai). Buck-Tick may have no official leader but anyone who knows the band well knows that most of the time, Imai's the one calling most of the shots, and the other band members can either acquiesce with grace or they can stand like a little storm cloud in a corner of the group photo with the guest lolitas Imai unilaterally invited, pouting like Grumpy Cat and wishing their husband would stop cheating on them with hoop-skirted chippies.
Anyhow, as a member of Buck-Tick, Mr. Sakurai may be the face and voice and muse, but he's still got a big B-T written on his cheek in invisible ink, which means that he's never quite free to just do whatever the hell he wants to do – he's bound and tied to the mission and vision of the band, which is in many ways Imai's vision. Anyone who knows the band well knows that most of the time, bound and tied is Mr. Sakurai's favorite way to be...but in his live tour for Ai no Wakusei, he demonstrated clearly that there are facets of his artistic voice he can't fully express through Buck-Tick.
It's easy to tell which Buck-tick songs Mr. Sakurai particularly likes – murky ballads and wine-red tangos all, and he darkens the stage into a mysterious catacomb of sinister sensuality when he sings them: “Kirameki no Naka de,” “Zekkai,” “Coyote,” “Yasou,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Mienai Mono,” “Adult Children,” “Shanikusai,” “Gesshoku,” “Satan,” “masQue,” “Mudai,” to name a few of the most recent. Sakurai fans: don't tell me you've never imagined what it would be like if Mr. Sakurai were to release an album full of nothing but songs like this! If you haven't imagined it, I'm thinking you're not as big of an Acchan fan as you think you are.
But Mr. Sakurai is nothing if not polite. He's often given to going out of his way not to get in the way of others, and he's the first to declare that he's not a self-starter. So to embark upon something so self-actualizing as his Goth as Fuck Band project, it would follow that he'd need permission. Lucky for him, then, that he has a friend like Mr. Tanaka (Buck-Tick's old album director from their Victor days), who has known Mr. Sakurai for thirty years, knows full well he needs the permission and is in a position to give it to him – “Sakurai, while Imai is working on Schaft, what if you were to consider working on another solo project, eh?” Selfish, surely – we have no doubt Mr. Tanaka wanted to hear Mr. Sakurai's voice at the front of the Goth as Fuck Band almost as much as Cayce always did.
In fact, Mr. Tanaka thinks like we do in more ways than one – if you'd asked us five years ago who we'd expect would be involved in Mr. Sakurai's hypothetical second solo project, we'd have told you, Jake Cloudchair and Yukio Murata, hands down...and who did Mr. Tanaka call up first? Why, Jake and Murata, of course. Not only are they both close at hand in Tokyo and easy to call on the phone (unlike, say, Wayne Hussey, Jim Foetus, or Robin Guthrie), but the more times we watch the video of the Explosion tour over the years, the more we notice that out of all the disparate sounds on Ai no Wakusei, the tortured yet dreamy darkness of “Hallelujah” and “Explosion” (composed by Murata) and “Neko” (composed by Jake) seem to be where Mr. Sakurai felt most comfortable and free, both to let loose the full sensitive expressive power of his vocal gifts without worrying about upstaging anyone else, and to delve deep into a bottomless psychosexual oubliette that Imai once visited very briefly during the Schwein years (but only because he was there with Ray and Acchan) and the other happy-go-lucky Beatles-and-Zeppelin-loving other members of Buck-Tick have probably never visited at all.
Mr. Sakurai is simply a darker soul than the other band members, and if he wanted to explore that darkness fully, he needed a new band to do it with. Folks, welcome to The Mortal.
From the people we spoke to at the tour, it seems that few Buck-Tick fans knew much about the other Mortal band members before they joined Mr. Sakurai's coven, so let's start with some background.
The Mortal's lead guitarist Jake Cloudchair first made a name for himself with Guniw Tools, the weirdest avant-garde art rock band you'll ever see, who blew down from Hokkaido in the mid 90's and somehow managed to take the visual kei scene by storm, despite not being a visual kei band at all (they were in the right place, at the right time.) Jake had already left the band by the time Buck-Tick and Guniw Tools undertook their reciprocal artistic collaborations (Imai wrote the song “Grazing” for Guniw Tools' penultimate album Dazzle, while Guniw Tools vocalist Full directed the PV for Buck-Tick's song “Candy” in his signature low-fi surrealist style). However, Jake remains good friends with remaining Guniw Tools members Asaki and Full, and it therefore follows that he was acquainted with Mr. Sakurai for quite some time before he was called upon to write the song for Ai no Wakusei which became “Neko.” (More on that HERE.)
Beyond that, Jake is well connected in the music scene, and was therefore able to bring Akiyama Takahiko into The Mortal project when they had lined up all the members except for a drummer. He may be younger than the other members, but he lacks nothing in skill, and according to Sakurai, he was delighted to have the chance to wear so much eyeliner onstage (because apparently he'd never done that before.)
Rhythm guitarist Yukio Murata, on the other hand, is a seasoned old soldier, hailing from the opposite side of the musical spectrum as visual kei – his longstanding indie band, My Way My Love, are kings of the most relentless kind of grating garage grunge. Fixtures in the Tokyo indie underground, My Way My Love have also toured overseas and attracted attention at festivals like South by Southwest. If his lyrics are anything to go by, Murata is serviceably fluent in English, and it's no wonder, seeing as his biggest influences are clearly Western no wave and noise – My Way My Love would sound right at home in a lineup opposite Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain.
With two guitarists already, there was no room for more, but Mr. Tanaka had already asked for the help of another familiar face from the Ai no Wakusei project – Miyo Ken, who played guitar along with Jake in Sakurai's stage band during the Explosion tour. However, Miyo is a talented multi-instrumentalist it was little trouble to ask him to play bass instead, this time around. Veteran of many tours with Kiyoharu and numerous other bands, Miyo is used to adapting himself to the needs of the moment, and took on the role of The Mortal's “band master” – mediating artistic differences between the members and meting out rehearsal time so that the songs took on a pleasing structure overall. Mr. Sakurai described him as the old-man jokester, ready to make as many bad puns as it would take to soften the gap between Jake's clean fastidious scales and Murata's break-everything musical tantrums. In addition, Miyo also contributed to song writing and arrangement, offering some balance between two extremes. “Ken-chan can write anything you ask him to,” said Sakurai to interviewer after interviewer – a comment which not only speaks to Mr. Miyo's talents, but also serves to remind us that while Mr. Sakurai may not have been responsible for composing the music, the overall artistic vision was his and his alone, and the other band members were there in service of bringing it to life.
Or rather, since this is a live report, not an album review, perhaps I should say, bringing it to live.
Given the time strictures of Buck-Tick's work schedule and Imai's involvement with Schaft, it's unlikely that The Mortal had much choice about when to schedule their tour, but even if it came out of nothing but pure physical necessity, they couldn't have picked a better season than November. In Tokyo, November is high autumn, and this year it seemed especially autumnal: day after day of cold wind, roiling grey clouds and frequent bursts of chilly rain, the leaves of the maples and cherries turning the deep crimson of drying blood and blanketing the damp ground in drifts while unkindnesses of ravens squawked above, dropping the occasional ragged black feather as they flew. The weather and ambiance was so well suited to the mood of The Mortal's work that it was hard to believe that while the band were writing the music for their debut album, it was still sweltering summer.
The tour started in Osaka, on a grey but warm-ish day. Unlike Buck-Tick tours, which invariably begin at halls, this tour started with a standing gig, on a Monday night at Namba Hatch, which is probably the only live house in Japan shaped exactly like a UFO. We've written about this venue before because Buck-Tick play there all the time – last time we were there, for the Metaform Nights or Anarchy Tour in 2014, we encountered third-rate idol singers and hordes of anime cosplayers in addition to the usual army of Buck-Tick fans, but we had no idea what we would find this time. Mr. Sakurai may possibly be the most popular member of Buck-Tick, but the tickets to this show had gone on sale well before the album was released, and how many fans would be willing to buy tickets to the show without ever having heard the album? Beyond that, The Mortal's work turned out to be several orders of magnitude harder and noisier than Buck-Tick...would the fangirls be able to deal with this development or would they give up in disgust before even attending the tour?
As it turned out, though, the crowd for The Mortal's virgin gig was perfect for the occasion – a somber and sedate group of black-clad Buck-Tick regulars, who waiting in line in a thoroughly quiet and dignified fashion, free of the usual squeeing antics that can be observed before Buck-Tick shows (though maybe this was just because they, like us, had no idea what to expect.) While we were sorry we didn't see more men in attendance (the audience looked to be about 95% women), we were encouraged to see so many familiar faces of fans who seemed to be more like general fans of Buck-Tick than idol-worshippers at the Altar of Acchan.
Even the line for tour goods was a laid-back affair – though it probably helped that there weren't many tour goods on offer in the first place, and many fans had already bought their preferred items through the Buck-Tick web shop in advance of the tour, which was why many of them sported band t-shirts already. It's something of a tradition in Buck-Tickistan to dress up in whatever fashions the band members are wearing on stage, and The Mortal proved no exception to this trend. We saw top hats and masks galore, and plenty of gothic aristocrat style coats, too – but our favorites were the wearers of the Bauhaus t-shirts (sold by Stigmata in Amerika Mura once upon a time), and one lone lady wearing a Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirt whose origin we couldn't guess. Of course, as we later learned, most people probably had no idea what her shirt meant or why she was wearing it, but personally, we wish we could have offered her a gold star.
The lead-up to a Buck-Tick show is generally celebratory, and the gift box at the venue entrance is usually overflowing with flowers and gift bags and bottles of booze for the band members, but tonight, as dusk fell and the venue staff began calling line numbers, the fans filed in quietly as if afraid to show any excitement lest they be chastised, and the gift box was sadly mostly empty (all the more room for us to add our box of bat-shaped chocolates!) When we arrived in the hall itself, the first few rows were crammed, but the crowd on the floor stayed quite sparse up until ten minutes before the start of the show, when the people who'd just rushed in from work arrived. Still, given that there were visible empty holes in the balcony, we assumed the show hadn't sold out. In a way it made us feel sorry for Sakurai, to see how much less popularity he has as a lone figure rather than part of a set of five, but in another way, it felt truer to the spirit of the project – like going back to a more indie and underground time.
The lights went down. The crowd waited with bated breath, hardly daring to move close enough to touch each other, as if full of reverence for the newness and rarity of the occasion. Standing with their hands clasped in front of their hearts, they all shuffled as close to the stage as they could, then stood still, staring upward at the scrim that currently hid the stage from view, while out of the speakers rolled a funereal dirge, heavy on bells and hollow chanting.
Cold grey light from a projector shone a series of still images onto the scrim, grainy like something cut out of an ancient withered magazine – closeups on chandeliers, bleeding hearts from gothic cathedrals, stonework, arches, and cloudy sky. From where we stood, directly beneath the stage, it was hard to see the images clearly, but that only added to the atmosphere of gloom and mystery. The monochrome of the scene was broken only by one sharp orange spotlight like the reflected glow of the setting sun, which shone straight down from the ceiling on a tableau of objects sitting on a low table between the vocal mic and the bass amp – the skull from the “Guignol” music video perched atop the ruff Sakurai wore for the album jacket shoot, with one of Sakurai's favorite Venetian masks beside it. Nearby, in front of the drumset, a gold candelabrum sat on an ornate gold table, its three sconces filled with white candles that flickered madly in the air currents. With a pang we realized we recognized it: it was the same one Mr. Sakurai used to great effect on the 13th Floor tour a decade earlier, carefully preserved for all these years (probably as décor in Mr. Sakurai's workroom at home.)
The chanting continued, and the band slipped onto the stage as quietly and stealthily as black cats, their the scrim making their figures look filmy and indistinct. Rather than waiting for the last second to make a dramatic appearance, Sakurai himself came out right behind them, striding up to the microphone stand and holding position as the crowd found their voices and cheered at last. When the stage entrance music died out, for a brief moment there was complete silence, broken only by a very few fangirl screams, and then the band launched into “Tenshi.”
Even after the song began, the scrim stayed down, giving the audience the feeling that they were looking through the filmy veil between the material world and the spirit world, at spirit musicians who had only just arrived and not quite yet crossed over. The feeling was only intensified by the slowly twirling coneflower of silver light that shone down on Sakurai, illuminating him from behind with a heavenly glow, as a matching cone appeared on the scrim, an image of floating grains of silver in clear water. The lights started dim, but as the song built up and opened out into its majestic chorus and soaring instrumental break, the cone on the scrim transformed into a pyramid, slowly revolving as bloody droplets fell into the water and the red and clear mingled and blurred, reminding me of the visuals from “Satan” on the Anarchy hall tour, only less brutal and more reverent.
Since The Mortal is Sakurai's solo project, perhaps it was no surprise that the other band members remained in darkness for much of the show, but even Sakurai himself felt at a much further remove than he does when performing with Buck-Tick, caught up in his own universe, master of some kind of esoteric ritual which the fans could only guess at. When “Tenshi” ended after an interlude of mournful noise, the band struck up “Dead Can Dance” and the scrim dropped, stage staff whisking it out of sight as fast as their hands would move. Yet even now that there was no physical barrier between the band and the audience, the members still felt like shadows, only intermittently visible under the pulses of blinding white strobe lights.
The rest of the show continued in much the same vein. As would be expected for the band's first-ever live performance, the band members had the songs together technically but still seemed a bit uncertain about the vibe. Mr. Sakurai has never been on tour with these band members before in this capacity, and though on one hand he seemed invigorated by his position as leader, he was also clearly still finding his footing with the new material. Even so, to those of use who had fallen madly in love with the album on first listen and had listened to it half a hundred times already, this first performance had a surreally perfect quality – each song so thoroughly realized that the songs seemed to end as soon as they started. The tour had barely begun and already I found myself regretting how quickly it would be over.
The following day, The Mortal remained in Osaka, but moved on from Hatch to a seated show at the Orix Theater. A damp, cloudy, chilly morning gave way to a deluge of cold drenching rain by mid-afternoon, just in time to soak the fans as they approached the venue, which fronts on a small attractive park, today carpeted with red and yellow leaves, all plastered to the ground in the downpour. If anything, the crowd this evening were even more subdued than the crowd at Namba Hatch last night, and hardly anyone waited in line for the goods – though we did feel encouraged to see a higher percentage of men in attendance this time, many of them with masks on their hats for good measure.
For such a short tour, it wouldn't have made sense to create different stage designs for hall and live house shows, so the staging and set list remained constant throughout the tour. The staging had clearly been designed to be filmed in the huge proscenium of NHK Hall, so overall, both the lights and sets were more visible at the hall shows than in the closer quarters of the live houses. Still, despite the elegance of the red plush carpets at Orix Theater, it didn't feel right to watch this kind of show while imprisoned in a theater seat. Goth music is music for dancing all night, and dancing politely in a seat just isn't the same. Every turn of the performance seemed to call to the audience to come closer and feel rather than observe, but being stuck in seats put a damper on the already rain-soaked vibe. Musically, the gig went off flawlessly, but we knew the band had it in them to do better. Thursday night, they were booked to play a standing live at Tokyo's Shinkiba Studio Coast, one of the best live houses in the country, and our hopes were high.
Located near Toyosu on the waterfront of the far side of Tokyo Bay, Shinkiba Studio Coast is better known as the home of Ageha club, Tokyo's biggest and most famous rave club. Boasting a waterfront park and five dance floors, including an outside floor (complete with a reflecting pool) from which it is possible to watch the dawn over the Pacific Ocean, Ageha is quite the experience whatever night you choose to attend (provided you don't make the mistake of going on Kyary Pamyu Pamyu night when you're apt to be surrounded by hordes of mouth-breathing male virgins over age 40.) The live house Studio Coast is only one part of the Ageha complex, but since it also serves as the stage for Ageha's big international acts, many of whom are world-class trance artists, it's outfitted with a sound system second to none. For this reason, Studio Coast is also the preferred venue for major-label rock bands from overseas – everyone from Marilyn Manson to My Bloody Valentine have played here at one time or another.
Beyond that, Studio Coast has cinematic appeal – from the gold Hollywood lights of the old-fashioned marquee, to the million-dollar views of the city lights across Tokyo Bay, going to a show here feels something like being part of a modern urban fairytale. Too bad, then, that most of the fans we saw massing at the venue doors seemed more concerned with defensively sizing up the people around them than soaking up the atmosphere. This, my friends, is the difference between Tokyo and the provinces. In any other city in Japan, a member of Buck-Tick passing through for a tour is a very special treat, but Tokyo fans have the world at their fingertips, and as a consequence, they're spoiled as rotten as Roman emperors, bored by even the rarest sweetmeats, and thus given over to bloodthirsty urges. We've been noticing this trend at Buck-Tick shows for years, and sadly, it persisted for The Mortal.
As in Osaka, the crowd started out thin – many people were still at work and only arrived shortly before the show began, but we also suspect that the show was not sold out. But where the Osaka fans had been calm and respectful, the Tokyo crowd appeared to steam with jealous tension. Though we spotted a few duos and trios of Jake and Murata fans over on the sides, nearly everyone else appeared to be here for Acchan-chan and nothing else. When the show finally began, they compacted violently into the stage, yet showed little of the joyful excitement of Buck-Tick fans. Instead, they seemed anxious, confused by the unfamiliar sound, unwilling to dance yet unwilling to give up the fight for the front row, oscillating between hitting each other and gawping like zombies.
How did they manage to remain so unenthusiastic on a night like this? The band members, having gained confidence from the two nights in Osaka, strode onto the stage with more swagger in their step, and none more so than Mr. Sakurai, who seemed delighted to be home, and for the moment took no notice of the fact that the candles in his beloved candelabrum were burning much lower than they had been at the start of the tour. Appearing to ignore the audience completely, he stayed still in the silence as the opening music died out, and “Tenshi” began yet again.
Over the stellar sound system, every note broke into the air with crystalline clarity, hanging in perfect balance. Such a gentle acoustic instrument as the human voice is easily overwhelmed by the crude barbarism of drums and electric guitars – but not tonight. Even a whisper would have carried to the back of the hall, and Sakurai took full advantage. Starting from a lullaby murmur, he crescendoed effortlessly into an operatic belt and back again, luxuriating in the sound he could produce, owning the stage completely through sheer grace and subtlety.
The magic spectacle unfolded from there, punctuated by a series of dreamlike interludes between the songs, like miniature one-act plays of their own. Drenched in blue and white lights, Murata and Jake dragged out the intro to “Dead Can Dance” with eerie plinks and plonks on their guitars, before Akiyama began pounding out the tripping, trilling drum beat and the stage fractured into a dozen flashing strobe-light polka dots. For much of the song it was difficult to see much of what was going on on the stage – the black costumes of the band members blurred into the darkness while white backlights shone blindingly into the eyes of the audience – perhaps a not-so-subtle hint that this is a song for dancing, not fangirling. Still, it's one of the sexiest songs on the album, and now that he'd got his groove on, Mr. Sakurai couldn't possibly pass up the chance to gyrate around and make lewd gestures on the mic stand, flipping up the hem of his tunic to show off the fact that after a long summer of hard work, he's gotten as skinny as Jack Skellington.
Without a break, the strobe-heavy rock riot continued with “Pain Drop,” the stage still drenched in a maelstrom of black and white flashes. Unable to see the band, the antsy fangirls close to the front began to push and shove each other at random, largely, it seemed, because they have no idea how to dance to thrash metal grooves like this one. What sets this song apart is the monologue at the end, though – it's something you'd never hear on a Buck-Tick album, and maybe that's why Sakurai seemed to take such amusement from delivering it. Though his expression remained suitably dark and tortured, just beneath the surface, he seemed to be reveling in this kind of no-holds-barred freedom to fuck around. “Tomorrow will come...is there such a miracle, really?” he called into the dark, almost as if he were suppressing a chuckle.
But now, after two rock numbers, it was time for a breather.
“Deep deep deep deep dreeeeeam!” Sakurai crooned at the audience in English, and the band started into “Yume.”
All the magazine reviewers described I Am Mortal as a relentlessly black, monochrome album, but I hear shades of color here and there, in “Yume” especially. The opening chords seem to pool like pale sunrise reflected in rippling water, and the stage visuals perfectly reflected the atmosphere, with the entire backdrop lighting up with more dancing silver motes of light over a wash of pastels like a winter morning, giving the audience a better look at the sets and costumes.
Buck-Tick are fond of large, bombastic set pieces, but the sets for Sakurai's Ai no Wakusei tour were almost zen in their simplicity, and The Mortal followed this trend, albeit with a more post-apocalyptic bent. Aside from the skull tableau and candelabrum, the only set pieces to speak of were black scaffolding which had been set on crazy diagonals to evoke the blasted bones of toppled skyscrapers. On stage right, between Jake and Miyo Ken, one of these scaffolds reared up at a steep angle topped by a crossbar, making a kind of half-fallen giant crucifix – something of a holdover from the “Jupiter” PV, but then, “Jupiter” was edging up on the world of The Mortal long before The Mortal ever existed. Rather than go through a progressive series of set changes as is often the case at Buck-Tick concerts, The Mortal's set remained largely the same throughout, with the exception of the backdrop, which switched depending on the number between a flat white screen and a more complex black wall with white windows set into it, each of which was a projection screen in its own right.
Much like the sets, the band members' costumes were simple, classic black, very similar to what they wore in the promotional photos and music videos. All five members sported masked tophats, though the hats and masks themselves were wont to change – Jake started out with the same steampunk topper he'd worn so dandily in the photos, but ended up with yet another steampunk topper that was almost exactly the same but even more steampunk (the new one had an elastic band over the top, which held on a pair of goggles. A little bird told us that Jake was very proud of this hat and bragged about it on social media.) Murata seemed largely indifferent to what he was wearing, and came onstage from the first song wearing one of the long, loose tour t-shirts under his black jacket, while Miyo Ken seemed determined to hide his entire identity under a stylishly shabby tophat and giant black sunglasses which might have actually been glued to his face, for all the audience could tell. Young Akiyama was by far the most glam, with satisfyingly thick rings of eyeliner around his eyes, and a slick satin hat with a lacy black mask on it for good measure.
As befitting the leader of the band, Mr. Sakurai was the only one who wore any kind of contrasting color. On all nights but the final night, he appeared in a black tunic with outlines of flowers, windowpane plaid and (I think) skulls, etched in luminous white like the inverse shadows left on sunprint paper. He completed his outfit with a black buttoned waistcoat, sculptural black crystalette scarf, black flared trousers, his usual high-heeled boots, and of course, his favorite silk top hat, this time dressed in a black dimensional mask accented subtly with black glitter.
No doubt many of the fans in the audience assumed that the whole band were simply dressed in black suits and top hats to imitate one of Mr. Sakurai's favorite looks, and surely that was part of it. But as I said in my album analysis article, everything about The Mortal, including the visuals, was carefully planned down to the smallest detail, and the costumes are no accident – see my album review for more details. Here I'll just say that while the man may have worn some truly strange and fantastic costumes in his time, The Mortal is where he proved yet again that simple is best. No distracting fringe or excessive raccoon makeup this time, just classic black in service of the music, as he crooned the final chorus to “Yume,” holding out the end of each phrase into a tiny tremolo of velvet vibrato, then let go.
“Yume” could almost be a Buck-Tick song, and no doubt it was a welcome interlude for fans who were still confused by all The Mortal's darkness and noise, but soon this interlude was over, and it was back to the horror show. Again the stage fell into cold blue semi-darkness and the guitarists made their instruments yowl as Sakurai stalked over to inspect the candelabrum. Cupping his hands carefully around the flames so they wouldn't go out, he picked the whole branch of candles up by the base and circled the stage, pausing every so often to tip streams of wax onto his own hands. Of course he didn't flinch – “candle play” is one of Mr. Sakurai's most favorite games, and he's naturally quite adept at it. Soon, though, he tired of playing alone, and went to the edge of the stage to tip more was onto the outstretched palms of the fangirls in the front row. They screamed, but we weren't at the correct angle to see whether they flinched or not.
But as soon as Sakurai set the candelabrum back down on the gold table, the instrumentalists went silent, and so did the crowd. Not even daring to cheer, they waited expectantly, until the only sound in the hall was Sakurai's heavy breathing over the microphone, like a predator waiting for the kill. Who is the predator? Why, Fantômas, of course.
The only thing that could have made this song cooler would have been a keyboardist playing organ synth live onstage, but we won't complain – this number is the essence of The Mortal, a chance for Sakurai to redevelop ideas he worked with in Buck-Tick songs in an altogether darker direction. As Sakurai growled and murmured the opening lines, the backdrop behind the stage came up with an infinite regression of empty gilt picture frames, evoking both the setting for the song's narrative and its connection to Buck-Tick's song “masQue”. Sakurai is clearly working with the same theme here, but this time it's nowhere near so gentle – Sakurai's lyrics for Buck-Tick are full of murder-as-metaphor, but this one is pretty clearly murder as murder. It's refreshing to see Sakurai embrace such a fully evil persona, and see him enjoy it so much that he didn't feel the need to act it out in pantomime too much, but rather just make the mask of the character his own for the duration of the song. Though the members were hidden again by strobes and shadows during the massive noisy breaks at the end of each verse, when the majestic pop chorus surfaced out of the chaos, the backdrop lit up in a flight of black swallowtail butterflies – butterflies of the soul, all burning to cinders with a blue-white flame that seemed to loft Sakurai's operatic vocals on the dust of their wings.
Then, when “Fantômas” ended, Sakurai crossed over to stage right, straight up to where Jake stood, getting his face up in Jake's face as close as Jake's face would allow. We could guess what was coming next. Jake has made no secret of his huge fanboy crush on Mr. Sakurai, but he made a stoic effort to keep his face in a suitable frown as he started strumming the opening riff to “Tsuki.” This song isn't about sex, but Sakurai was having so much fun tonight that he didn't seem to care, or maybe he felt inspired by Jake's – with each repetition of “Tsuki,” he made salacious thrusting motions into the air, cackling and rolling his eyes back in his head while the fans clawed and kicked each other.
From there it was straight on into “Grotesque.” Disembodied lips and eyeballs swarmed across the backdrop, and the stage grew so dark that it became nearly impossible to see the band members at all – all the band members, that was, except for Sakurai, who was back into his candle play now, taking it in turns to drip the wax on himself, then on the fans, then back on himself (and no doubt all over the floor, too.) Though he cackled and pointed at himself, then into the audience on the line “I am a nightmare, you are a nightmare,” for the most part, the fans didn't appear to grok this song at all – which honestly surprised me, given that this heavy metal waltz beat sounds like it could have been ripped straight off Dir en grey's Withering to death or any number of other old visual kei albums back when visual was still cool...and yet it seemed that no one in the audience knew how to headbang.
When we related our dismay about this to some Japanese fans after the show was over they shook their heads and replied, “Japanese fans just don't know how to dance to Western music.” To which we said...hold it right there, missy! First, The Mortal are not “Western” music, seeing as they are all Japanese, and second, there are people in Japan who most certainly DO know how to dance to this kind of music, and I'm sorry to say that while half of them may be dignified old-school metal heads, the other half are homicidal visual kei teenyboppers who like to mosh while wearing stiletto heels. We never once thought we'd miss sharing a concert venue with those people, but during “Grotesque,” we actually missed them quite a bit. When Sakurai raised his arms wide to sing “spread our wings/take off and fly,” we wished that everyone had been feeling that same joyful evil glory, instead of defensive confusion – this song is delicious, and it deserves to be reveled in.
At least once “Grotesque” ended, the fans got a break from the near-impossible task of trying to figure out how to move their bodies to the beats, because now it was time for a ballad: the deceptively gentle but ever-so-creepy “Mother.” To me, the instrumentals of this song sound like geometry, like some kind of glowing ball bouncing through an obstacle course of lines and polygons, so I felt both pleased and stunned to see the very same image appear on the backdrop: silver shapes growing slowly outward like a slinky, with a sphere floating through their midst, almost like a rehashing of the Constructivist imagery from the Anarchy tour, minus the red-accented color scheme.
Also a throwback to the Anarchy tour was the way in which Mr. Sakurai used his voluminous black crystalette scarf. If he hadn't been saving it for exactly that moment, he had certainly realized that it was too good a prop to waste...so what did he do, my friends? You already know what. He put the scarf over his head, that's what. And then, my friends, he looked titillated, that's what. Actually, we couldn't tell if he looked titillated or not, because his face was hidden by the scarf and the stage was dark as fuck and it was hard to see the band at all. But seeing as this is his big midlife manifesto, if he wants to indulge in public scarf pleasure (and we know he does!) we're going to give him a pass.
However, with Akiyama's rushing cymbal break, the geometry on the screen disappeared and the lights came up slightly, to focus the attention on Sakurai's restrained, almost understated performance – and that was all we needed. After three decades on the stage, just as Sakurai has honed the content of his lyrics to a haiku-like collection of the most piercing images, he has also honed the art of conveying meaning with a single small gesture or expression. Into the chilling second verse, with one stretch of his hand, Sakurai conjured up his terrified dreams of turning into a rapist and a murderer, reaching out with intense eyes and choking the air gently, almost lovingly, without remorse. As the song moved into the long instrumental outro, the lights flashed viciously black and white over Murata's thundering guitar, blooming into white sparkles as the main theme returned, then back into lightning flashes, until everything went still.
“Melt, and disappear...” Sakurai whispered into a split second of silence, and then the opening theme came back, along with the geometric graphics. “I want to melt into you, my moon,” Sakurai sang, and the song died in a slow cascade of feedback that slipped into silence once again.
The hall stayed silent. No one clapped, and no one cheered. No one could cheer after a song like this. Cheers felt too cheap.
The candles were burning low now. The one in the center had gone out entirely, and Sakurai eyed the others with concern. While the guitarists filled the pregnant silence with more eerie ambient noise, Sakurai went to confer with one of the staff. I half expected him to vanish into the wings and come running back out with extra candles, but no such thing happened. Perhaps he feared it would spoil the vibe, and the next song was one of the vibey-est yet – Miyo Ken's gothic Portishead tribute, “Guignol.”
Surely it's impossible for Mr. Sakurai to pick a favorite from this album, as all the songs are like his children, and they complement each other thematically to the point that none of them are quite complete without the others. Still, color me very surprised if “Guignol” isn't a special favorite of Acchan-chan's black little heart. From the tender way he picked up the table and the candles and moved them down front and center, still sheltering the flames against any errant breezes, to the way he went over to moon fondly at the tableau of the mask and skull, gently stroking the skull's cranium with one finger, with every movement he made he appeared enchanted by the song's entire existence. No wonder, really. It contains so many of his favorite elements: desire and drama, creep and cheek in equal measure. From dancing in step on “un deux trois,” to acting out the whole story in pantomime, leaning from the windows, smirking and pulling up the hem of his tunic to get physical with the mic stand, he delighted in the performance, hamming it up to the max, rolling his eyes in the uniquely theatrical fashion that only someone with such very large eyes can achieve.
Above him, on the backdrop, a shadow puppet merry-go-round of outstretched hands circled, finally giving way to a broken, faceless doll falling in slow motion as he danced around and around the stage, using the full space to tell us the story, pulling up his legs onto the monitors by invisible marionette strings, waltzing from Jake to Murata and back again, and never leaving the growling basement register in which he delivered the entire song. The layers of falsetto backup vocals on the chorus may be delicious, but Sakurai clearly wanted to stay on the lead line the whole time, and since there is only one of him, the backing vocals were piped in over the PA. Jake and Murata sang backing vocals on some of the other songs, but neither of them stood a chance of hitting those high notes, and they had the dignity not to try.
When "Guingol" had at last ground to an end, Sakurai addressed the audience again.
“Now, we're going to play a song which I released eleven years ago,” he said. Without missing a beat, The Mortal struck up “Sacrifice.”
We'd been waiting for, hoping for and expecting this since the first day in Osaka, but that didn't detract from the excitement of finally hearing this show-stopping number live. Since it seems that fan reception for Ai no Wakusei was lukewarm even among obsessive Acchan worshippers, and since many of the people who didn't seem to be having any fun tonight probably attended the Explosion tour and also failed to have fun at that one, we suspect we're in a minority here. But seeing as we never got to go to the Explosion tour ourselves, and after more than a decade of wearing out our metaphorical record needle playing Ai no Wakusei on repeat every rainy day, to us, hearing this song live for the first time felt like discovering that time travel was real after all.
Not only that, but in the intervening years, Sakurai has done a lot of growing up, and The Mortal is by definition a tighter, sleeker project than Ai no Wakusei was. For some people, “Goth as Fuck” might suggest melodrama, but The Mortal delivered a version of “Sacrifice” that felt simultaneously orthodox and pared-down – brisker tempo, drier guitar, and Sakurai pointedly changed the timing of some of the most dramatic lines, holding back “nukumori” until the very last moment, making the whole thing sound less self-conscious and more off-the-cuff, right down to the dying echoes of that last lonely arpeggio. Wayne Hussey, eat your heart out.
After “Sacrifice,” the stage went blue and gloomy again. Basking in the pale glow of the candles, Sakurai began murmuring softly into the microphone, fragments of words you will never, never hear from Buck-Tick.
“You...you...you...I'll rape your mother...I'll kill your father...” he murmured, and Murata struck the strings of his battered acoustic guitar. This, my friends, is “Hallelujah.”
As soon as the song began, a pair of round mirrors began to descend from the flyspace above, suspended on near-invisible wires, crawling downward until they hung on either side of Sakurai, just above the level of the top of his head. Gazing upward, we could see that similar mirrors hung high above, angled so that they reflected deep violet beams of light down onto the mirrors below. At first, the beams stood static as narrow pillars, but as the song went on, the mirrors turned and suddenly the beams made a cat's cradle lattice across the black stage. Orange lights shone off the barrier in front of Akiyama's drum set like the reflections of phantom candles as Sakurai slithered into the lyrics, starting barely above a whisper, breathing raggedly into the microphone, groaning, shrieking viciously, then pulling back into near silence, before soaring up once more into the broken pop melody of the chorus.
“Hallelujah! Stained in red,” he sang, and the lights turned abruptly from violet to crimson, the mirrors turning over and over, flashing sharp triangles of light in an alternating pattern of red and violet, red and violet, upward and downward, until they darkened again for the second verse.
Here, Sakurai knelt down on the stage, then crawled, somehow doing less than he did during the Explosion tour, and yet so much more. The song seemed to last an age, during which no one in the crowd moved an inch, and Murata, the song's author, remained in near complete darkness, lit only by the blinking blue lights on his guitar rig – he knew no one could possibly be looking at him, not with Sakurai screaming like a banshee to the last moment, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
The song's end echoed into an even deeper hush than at the end of “Mother.” For a long moment, no one moved to break it. Then at last, Jake shook some shiny pop chords out of his guitar, and the band shattered the tension in an instant by launching into “Wakusei.”
This song wasn't written by any of The Mortal's current members, but it easily could have been – it has that same rough, jangly, hollow, feedback-heavy sound, fitting it seamlessly into the set list while offering a little break from all the misery and mortality...or at least, it should have, in theory. In practice, we discovered that during the previous string of slow-burning ballads, the fangirls hadn't so much been paying attention as they had been storing their energy to beat the shit out of each other as soon as an up-tempo number came along.
The odd thing was, they still didn't appear to be enjoying themselves. Usually, at Buck-Tick shows, the happiness and excitement of the crowd are palpable, even if people are still occasionally pushing and shoving each other. The Mortal's show in Shinkiba, however, had all the violence and none of the joy. “Wakusei” saw the worst violence yet, to the point that it was hard to enjoy the song, and hard not to feel insulted on Mr. Sakurai's behalf. If these fangirls really loved him as much as they claim to, you'd think they'd respect the message of his song about the planet of love, and stop hitting each other, but no. Even if they couldn't respect such lofty ideals, you'd think they'd at least respect the fact that the man himself probably despises that sort of behavior, but again, no – because fangirls like this have made it abundantly clear that to them, he's not even a real person, he's nothing but a sex object, and always will be.
Luckily, “Wakusei” soon gave way to “Barbaric Man,” a mosh pit number if there ever was one. And in a mosh pit, my friends, if someone hits you, you hit back. Can't hack it? You're not metal enough. Go to the back of the hall! A short and sweet three minutes later, “Barbaric Man” screeched to a halt as quickly as it had begun, and the hall filled with a blurry chorus of vox synth, heralding the advent of “Mortal” – a song Buck-Tickish enough that everyone can like it. Now, at long last, the crowd gave up on fighting, at least for the moment. When the blinding white lights came up on the chorus, we actually saw people singing.
Of course, the last song had to be “Sayonara Waltz.” We'll admit it – when we first heard this song, we kind of hated it. For one thing, we couldn't help but hearing it sung in the voice of Full, vocalist of Guniw Tools – it sounded far too close to Guniw Tools' “Fade Story” for us to really take seriously. But apparently, everyone else took it very seriously. It seemed this was the only song on the album that all the sourpuss fangirls actually liked, which made us kind-of-hate it even more.
On the one hand, it's an important part of the arc of the album, and it's really hard to hate any song sung by Sakurai Atsushi. On the other hand, Sakurai's lyrics and vocals are just about the only thing that saves it from cliché. If you managed to listen all the way through I Am Mortal, only to arrive at the conclusion, “well, I liked 'Sayonara Waltz',” you've missed all the best parts of the whole point (read: every other track on the goddamn album). Plus, you're probably afraid of the dark, your favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla because you were too scared to try chocolate, and you probably also have a madly burning secret crush on Yoshiki. If you liked “Sayonara Waltz” the best, it suggests to me that you liked it mainly because it was the only song on the album that you remotely understood. Either that, or you have a massive weepy boner for schlocky songs. Either way, I really don't know why you persevere in claiming to be a fan of the acerbic Mr. Sakurai when the world is so full of schlocky ballad crooners who are clearly far better suited to fulfilling the desires of your tumidly milquetoast sentimentality.
And yet, tonight in Shinkiba, the song fell into place as it never had before. Mr. Sakurai nearly always sounds better live than on recording, but especially on numbers like this, that rely so much on personal magnetism to carry off, and by this point in the show, he was so thoroughly immersed in spinning the world of the music that it seemed like he could bend light and air molecules to his will. He delivered the whole song at a cool distance from the audience, standing poised behind the microphone stand, bathed in the same twirling flower of silver light that had illuminated him at the start of the show, during “Tenshi,” only this time, instead of descending from heaven, he was looking up into it, with the wide eyes of a little boy, singing in that boy's voice, reverting completely to both the innocence and fear of childhood as perhaps only a person with as troubled a childhood as his could manage.
With the abrupt darkening of theme in the second verse, the cone of light vanished, replaced by an image that filled the whole backdrop: the abandoned warehouse and broken windows from the album cover, large as life, and with the other band members minimally illuminated, it was easy to believe Sakurai was alone up there. While the appearance of crystal chandeliers in silhouette offered momentary hope, the hope was short lived – soon the chandeliers were falling in slow motion, shattering as they went, everything else breaking and falling alongside them, but Sakurai did not draw attention to the visuals or play the song up for drama in any way. Remaining true to character, he delivered the song to the end in the light, melodic voice of the Little Prince who has already set off for the stars.
It's an elegant gesture that this song goes out not with some sort of soaring chorus, but with the creaking, fading whimper of the last turn of a music box – but before the music box had stopped turning, Sakurai had left the stage, with the other band members soon to follow after. At last, only Jake remained, playing at being Imai in the gloom, making some extra noise on his guitar before retiring.
As if the fan behavior hadn't been disappointing enough already, the fangirls in the front section were even listless in cheering for an encore, though the people in the back sounded enthusiastic enough, and soon the stage lights came back up, heralding the second act. In Osaka, the band had all returned as a group and launched straight into their next set of songs, but tonight, Murata came on all by himself, marching over to his guitar rig with the air of a magician about to perform a fabulous magic trick.
Murata is quite the stunt guitarist, as well he should be, considering he has a rig the size of a Borg cube. In The Mortal, he largely played the role of rhythm guitarist, but on his own, he was free to show off with an instrument he'd only used intermittently during the main set, which looked like a guitar but had a blue flying saucer of lights surrounding the hole beneath the strings, and doubtless all sorts of synth gadgets built into it. Murata slung this guitar over his shoulder and then picked up a bow, which suddenly lit up and glowed like a blue lightsaber at the flick of a switch – and if the swoopy noises it made while Murata waved it around were any indication, it also doubled as a theremin. He gestured grandly with this theremin bow, wielding it like a conductor's baton while he tapped various pedals with the scuffed toe of his boot to unleash a buzzing, fizzing, throbbing wall of synthetic noise. Then at last, he brought the bow down grating on the strings of the guitar, the sound distorted beyond all recognition. Yet Murata has a gift with noise – his noise is atmospheric, not aimless, and we could have listened to it for quite a bit longer than he deigned to play it. But time tonight was limited, so after less than five minutes, he took an exaggerated bow, and moved back to his designated position to make way for the rest of the band.
Now it was time for the Classic Goth Covers section of the program. The lights went down, then came up acid white, as the band launched straight into “Shadow of Love.”
For this section of the program, eight tall bars of white light were arrayed in a semicircle behind the band members, only they weren't solid bars – they were banks of LEDs that could light up in different patterns. On “Shadow of Love,” they toggled back and forth in quick succession. First the left side of each light would light up, then the right, then the left again, creating something like a strobe effect, but with the spatial displacement of the toggling lights creating an illusion of vintage film or stop-motion animation. Under these lights, Sakurai appeared to move like a character in a silent horror flick, one moment sitting brooding beside the flames of the candelabrum (now filled with fresh tall white candles), the next moment standing and pacing across the stage, totally oblivious of the crowd before him.
“Shadow of Love” ended in a trill of synth, and Sakurai couldn't hold back from sharing his enthusiasm with the audience, a least a little bit.
“Siouxsie...and the...Banshees,” he growled. “Cities...in...DUST!”
A pale purple light shone diagonally across the stage between Jake and Sakurai, Jake struck the strings of his guitar, and so it began – the one we'd been waiting for.
I'm not going to venture into the territory of discussing whether Sakurai's cover of this song is better than Siouxsie's original version. The two versions are so different it seems silly to compare them, especially because Sakurai is at a much more mature stage of his career now than Siouxsie was when she recorded the song, and recording technology has progressed so much that an old analog recording is never going to sound as full or crisp as cutting-edge digital unless you've got the vinyl on a quality turntable hooked up to some nice big speakers. Also, Siouxsie was one of the major artists who defined the goth look and sound and Sakurai has cited her as an influence since Buck-Tick's early years, so who knows where Sakurai would be now if the original “Cities in Dust” had never been recorded...maybe he'd be singing green cheese ballads in some hole-in-the-wall karaoke bar awash in stale sweat and cheap beer! The world will never know.
However, we will say that we've spent approximately ten years secretly fantasizing about Mr. Sakurai covering a Siouxsie song, so we'd be willing to wager a tall stack of cash that no one was more excited about this one than we were. (The only thing that would have made it better were if it had been an actual duet between Mr. Sakurai and Ms. Sioux herself, but you can't have everything in life.) Though we rather missed The Mortal's omission of the catchy dance beat and killer synth line from the original version, the slow build of Jake's arrangement is perfectly suited to Sakurai's stage character, and a drop-dead stunning opportunity for him to show off his vocal skills, from crooning whispers to Valkyrie belt, sub-woofer growls to ethereal falsetto – plus the obligatory sexual panting in between, because where would he be without that? Between somewhere and nowhere my bet's on nowhere.
You may think I'm joking, but probably the most striking characteristic of The Mortal's version of this song is its unsettling intimacy. Siouxsie sang as an impartial observer, narrating the destruction of Pompeii. But with his mouth right up against the microphone like he's murmuring in your ear, Sakurai sounds like he's singing about the destruction of something much more personal, psychological, perhaps internal...and he starts so gently, it's hard to tell whose side he's on. Is he ally or enemy, lover or killer? Is he both and was it your mistake, to trust him just because you fell victim to his voice?
The Mortal's work is rife with these sorts of ambiguities, and this is how Sakurai made the cover songs his own – by reinterpreting them in service of his own themes. This, in my opinion, is what makes a good cover. A slavish imitation of the original is nothing but a copy. Ideally, a cover ought to be a new song, that happens to have the same lyrics and melody as an old one.
As the music started, Sakurai settled himself on the edge of Akiyama's drum platform, sitting sideways to the audience, murmuring the lines one after another, each slightly more intense than the last, while the rest of the band members stood all but motionless as they wove the sonic backdrop for the story. In Osaka, Sakurai had performed nearly the entire song from this position, completely withdrawn from the audience but for the fact that each falsetto note reverberated like bells up to the rafters. Tonight, however, there were at least a few people in the audience (admittedly, mostly foreigners) who were dancing with delight at hearing this gothic fangasm come to life, and Sakurai, tickled, decided to play it up. So when the chorus came around, rather than singing it himself, instead he stood up and held the microphone out towards the dancing fans, as if to say “hey, you sing along!” Of course the microphone wasn't going to pick up fan voices at that distance, so we were in no position to judge how many people actually took him up on it, but from where we were standing, it was nice to finally see some fanservice. Ignoring the crowd is the most goth thing to do (and this particular crowd were so badly behaved that I'd have ignored them too, if it were me) but classic covers should always be a singalong moment. Sakurai kept it up for the remainder of the song, holding out the microphone to the audience on each chorus but the last one, which he delivered himself before launching into a series of piercing screams, looking like he was having the time of his life.
Of course, the last song in the cover set had to be “Spirit” by Bauhaus, the title track of The Mortal's first mini-album. Bauhaus are such an iconic band in the history of goth that Sakurai could have felt justified in choosing almost any one of their songs to cover, but he told the magazines that he picked “Spirit” because its major-key pop melody line makes it more approachable than something like, say, “Stigmata Martyr” (though we'd have loved to see him cover that one.) However, personally I suspect that Sakurai had another reason for covering “Spirit” – namely, because it's a song about the animus of performance, and I think the subject resonates deeply with him. Of course, any performer thinks about performance a fair bit, but since Sakurai in particular has made it a theme of his work, with his repeated invocations of costumes, masks, and personae upon the stage. So despite being overall a good deal less dark and morbid than the rest of The Mortal's songs, “Spirit” still fits in well with the rest of the band's work – and more importantly, it fits with Mr. Sakurai's lifelong artistic trajectory, for which The Mortal has served as a sort of midlife consummation.
Whether the majority of the fans understood this, we can't say. For some reason, we'd always assumed that long-time Buck-Tick fans were probably familiar with Bauhaus. Not only did Sakurai and Imai cite Bauhaus as influences since as early as the Taboo era, but overt musical references to both Bauhaus and Love & Rockets can be heard all over the place throughout Kurutta Taiyou, Darker Than Darkness, and Six/Nine. Plus, in the 80's, British post punk and new wave gained significant popularity in Japan, and we'd have expected that the kids who grew up with Buck-Tick would have absorbed some of that, or at the very least that the dedicated fangirls of Mr. Sakurai would have found out who Peter Murphy was through the power of osmosis...but given the general apathy of the crowd, it seems not.
If anything, during the Tokyo leg of The Mortal's tour, I felt a troubling undercurrent of suppressed xenophobia, of a kind I've rarely if ever encountered at Buck-Tick gigs. Foreign fans we spoke to after the shows reported being selectively attacked – everything from malicious glares to deliberate kicking and hair-pulling. Maybe some Japanese fans experienced similar treatment, I don't know, but there was a feeling in the air I didn't like.
Could it have been the fault of the English lyrics? Because about those – a little birdy bird told us that Sakurai originally planned to sing this one in Japanese, too, and not only had the Japanese lyrics ready to go, he had the consent of three of the four members of Bauhaus, too – but then that fourth member (can you guess who it was?) came in and demanded the lyrics not be changed, because if you're in a famous band that broke up acrimoniously many years ago, you may still feel the need to assert your ego in any small way you can, or so I'm told. Sorry, Acchan. You know what they say about meeting your idols.
Anyway, the upshot of it was that Sakurai had to sing the lyrics in English. He did a good job of it too, especially considering that they aren't easy lyrics even for a native English speaker. It's clear he practiced his pronunciation for “Spirit” far more than he did for his cover of David Bowie's “Space Oddity” during the Ai no Wakusei tour, so here at NGS, we felt proud of him for rising to the challenge of singing in our good old native tongue, and will happily give him a pat on the back for it (once he stops watching cat videos on YouTube for long enough to text us back, that is.) But as we looked at the glum faces of the fans around us, we started to wonder if perhaps they felt threatened and out of their element, jealous that for once it was the foreign fans who could understand, and they who were left grasping at words in the dark. It's a pity they don't remember the part where it was Peter Murphy who inspired Mr. Sakurai to go goth in the first place.
Luckily, the band themselves took little notice of the crowd behavior. Murata was the one who arranged this song for The Mortal, and therefore, it's just as noisy as you'd expect it to be, a white-hot wall of sound flashing together with the hot white lights that suddenly lit up the stage bright as day. Sakurai paraded confidently to the front of the stage and reached out his arms as if to embrace the audience. Fully in control of the lyrics, he didn't flub a single one, and as the last chorus came around, the other members gathered together with him, standing in a line front and center, inviting the audience to sing along with the last line, “we love our audience.”
An old-school goth friend of ours who was also present at the show described this moment as “barf worthy,” but we didn't agree – silly as it may be to ask your audience to sing “we love our audience” when they seem to all hate each other, it had been a dark, gut-wrenching show, and if “Spirit” is the most lighthearted song in The Mortal's repertoire, it seemed a fitting place to throw in a little fan service and get some fans who'd seemed in danger of drowning back on the boat. Singalong was a game they could play, so they all joined in, so for a moment, there were smiles from both the crowd and the band members (though Mr. Sakurai quickly managed to get that shit-eating grin of his under control, as he knew it was not suitably goth for the occasion.) A moment later, they had left the stage.
This time, the cheering for an encore was more enthusiastic, and this time, instead of Murata, it was Jake who came in alone, My Bloody Valentine style. Jake has surely always been a more soulfully soulful soul than Murata, and his solo reflected that – where Murata summoned crashing storms of sound, Jake stroked his strings into shimmering sweet scales...wait, had we heard these before? A major seventh chord, played with a heavily delayed attack, so the tones appeared to slowly fade into being, in exactly the same style as Imai's introduction to “The Moon is Made of Green Cheese” on the Anarchy tour last year. It wasn't close enough to warrant copyright infringement, but it was hard not to wonder if this were Jake's attempt to Imai-ify himself in order to get his beloved Acchan to love him back. But Jake's a type-A disciplinarian on the fretboard, where Imai is a dumpster diver with a divine dowsing rod. Inevitably, Jake's work sounds concisely planned where Imai's sounds spontaneous – but that's okay. Swathed in a halo of blue light, Jake played a beautiful solo, thick with chorus and reverb, and when the rest of the band members came out to join him, it felt like he'd called them there as one calls cats. Then again, seeing as our sources have confirmed that Mr. Sakurai is, in fact, a cat, this makes complete sense.
Out of the lingering aura of Jake's solo, a cluster of metallic chimes jingled through the cheers of the fans, followed by a three-note sequence of high oboe-like synth tones that floated out of the speakers like the distant peal of an angel's trumpet. This song hadn't been heard live in eleven long years: “Yokan”! And this was new – they hadn't played it in Osaka, so it was a first for the tour.
We jumped, we cheered – but we were one of the few. In fact, instead of joining us in our enthusiasm, the fan in front of us was turning around and making a violent “shush” sign at us over and over, as if she were trying to tell us that Shinkiba Studio Coast was a library, where people were trying to read!
Nonplussed, we jumped and shouted again – but she only shushed harder. We debated the merits of explaining to her point by point that she was in fact at a standing rock gig at Tokyo's most renowned rave club, shoulder to shoulder in a hot and sweaty crowd of fans, seven rows from the stage and dead center, therefore in full view of Mr. Sakurai himself, who, like all rock stars, wants nothing more than for his fans to fucking cheer for him, but it seemed like too long an argument to make in the moment, so instead we just shouted “fuck yeah!” close to her ear, and made a point of dancing and cheering extra hard for the rest of the show. Rock concerts: you, my friend, are doing it very, very wrong.
Nothing could ruin “Yokan” for us, though...not even the lack of suggestive ladyflowers blooming on the project screen as they had during the Ai no Wakusei tour. The Mortal's “Yokan” kept effects to a minimum, and instead, the stage was bathed in the starry lights of a disco ball as Sakurai danced back and forth, celebrating the freedom afforded by his change of outfit – for this time, he had reappeared on stage having swapped his tunic and vest for the long, drapey I Am Mortal tour t-shirt, worn over a black racerback tank top to keep his nipples the way Gandalf told Frodo to keep the One Ring – keep 'em secret, keep 'em safe!
Thus attired and looking every inch the perfect poster child of casual goth, he shook his hips and crooned into the microphone, clearly unaware of the madness that was slowly possessing his fangirls, row by row. Though his very reasonable and normal outfit exposed only a small bare sliver of his clavicles and shoulders (body parts which every man, woman, and child on earth have), judging by the uproar that broke out on the internet immediately following the show, none of the women in the hall had ever had an orgasm before tonight, and yet tonight, they somehow all managed to have one for the first time, simultaneously, despite the fact that they were all hating and hitting and pinching and poking each other (or was it because of that fact…? That would sure explain a lot of fangirl behavior better than I've ever been able to…) Funny that they never batted an eyelash that time on the Utakata no Razzle Dazzle Tour when dear old Mr. Sakurai skivved out of his kilt and shook his full set of tree and shrubberies at them...but seeing as these sorts of fangirls seem so constantly, thoroughly surprised by men's bodies, perhaps they simply didn't understand what they were seeing. Either way, we would have liked to remind them that 1) having an orgasm in public is generally considered impolite and 2) “Climax Together” is a Buck-Tick song. This is The Mortal, not Buck-Tick. Know your bands, people!
Musically speaking, Sakurai appeared more at home with the song than ever before. Like the arrangements of “Sacrifice” and “Wakusei,” The Mortal's arrangement of “Yokan” felt simple and minimalist, yet more effective for that reason, and the dreamy atmosphere of the song helped diffuse some of the intense darkness from earlier in the show.
Next came another sweet and dreamy song we had all been waiting for: Jake's contribution to Ai no Wakusei, “Neko.” After Jake re-published his 2004 diary entry on the making of “Neko” as part of The Mortal's promotions, the story had been making the rounds in the fan community, and clearly it had also reached Mr. Sakurai's ears. Though in the final studio album mix of “Neko,” Sakurai did not whisper the title of the song over the intro, as detailed in Jake's diary entry, Sakurai went back to this delivery during the stage performance. As Jake struck the strings of his guitar with an upturned, soulful face, Sakurai murmured “Neko” softly into the microphone. None of the fans cheered, however, because everyone knows that cheering at rock concerts is bad manners.
On Ai no Wakusei, “Neko” felt like one of the lighter numbers – what could be more peaceful than a love song to a cat on a rainy morning? Though it contains its share of Sakurai's typical contemplative ambivalence and consciousness of the transience of life, it remains largely focused on the positive: the everyday happiness we can all find within ourselves if we're willing to sit still and enjoy the moment. However, in the context of The Mortal, “Neko” took on an infinitely sadder tone – the last of Sakurai's cats who were with him at the time he wrote “Neko” has now become a shining star in kitty heaven, and Sakurai mentioned in his typical offhand fashion that he was still too sad about being left catless for the first time in more than twenty years to be ready to consider adopting a new kitten just yet.
During the Ai no Wakusei tour, Sakurai performed the song with the hint of a sob in his voice, but with The Mortal, he was all gentleness – and it was much more effective. The power of this song lies in its simplicity. On the instrumental break, Jake changed things up by switching to a different guitar to play a shimmering, layered solo that sounded like nothing so much as a tribute to The Cure, while the stage lights shone around him in a starry blue halo.
The show was almost over now. Sakurai had barely spoken to the audience all evening, but at this point, he deigned to break the otherworldly mood for a moment in order to introduce the band members, complete with his judgments on their character.
“On drums, this drummer I love, Akiyama Takahiko!” The crowd cheered politely, and Akiyama looked just the tiniest bit embarrassed.
“On bass, our sweet and gentlemanly band-master, Miyo Ken!” With his top hat and flowing locks, Miyo Ken certainly looked every inch the gentleman as he bowed at the crowd – and relish it, fangirls, because thought the goth look suits him something fierce, he never looks this goth in normal life!
“On guitar, this man who's half crazy and half…hm….crazy!” Sakurai cackled at his own joke as he pointed to Murata, who also bowed like a gentleman. Murata's small coterie of fans on the right side of the auditorium cheered wildly.
“On guitar, the man of mellifluous melodies, Jake!” We noticed that the fangirls cheered more for Jake than for the others – after all, he wrote the only songs they liked.
Sakurai usually plays at being embarrassed when introducing himself onstage with Buck-Tick, but The Mortal is his band, and after such a stupendous show, he was proud and prepared to own it. “On vocal, I'm Sakurai Atsushi. Thank you for coming!”
The crowd went wild, the stage went dark, and out of waves and layers of dissonance and feedback, the band started into the final song – “Explosion.”
Murata wrote this one, but we hadn't dared to hope they'd actually play it live. Though it was released as a CD single in conjunction with Ai no Wakusei, only a thousand copies of the CD were ever produced – the CD was awarded as a prize in a bonus lottery which fans could enter if they bought copies of the other singles and the album. Copies of the original Explosion CD still surface on Japanese net auctions from time to time, but for prices that could easily pay weeks of rent on a small Tokyo apartment. The song was available on internet file sharing services if you looked for it, but its dark, abstruse, gothic-ambient verse and noisy raging chorus are both so aggressively anti-pop that they seemed guaranteed to alienate all but the small fringe group of fans who actually share Mr. Sakurai's taste for esoteric chants, dirges and invocations (the less catchy the better.)
Indeed, when The Mortal began to play “Explosion” at the end of the first night of the tour in Osaka, none of the fans seemed to have any idea what was going, and appeared perplexed at the fact that yours truly was excitedly dancing. But this is a dance song, if you know how to dance to it. Those tribal drums sound like a call to some kind of black magic voodoo ritual, and when the bass kicks in, goth club regulars should all have their hands in the air. Another cool thing about this song is its chameleonic ability to maintain its aura even in radically different arrangements – Murata's own version of the song, which appeared under the title “Black Sun Misery” on My Way My Love's album A Holy and Invader, sounds completely different to the Ai no Wakusei version and yet remains obviously the same song, and The Mortal's version was again different – more ambient, more post-punk, as was fitting.
Sakurai took as many liberties as he liked with the performance, which varied greatly depending on the night. On the first night of the tour he remained standing, still unsure of himself, but by the time Shinkiba rolled around, he was down on the stage, worshiping the candle flames, then rising to the call of the music, tossing his hair back, rolling his eyes, shouting and dancing in circles while the other band members slammed on their instruments until the song unraveled into a capricious cacophony.
Raising his arms, Sakurai bade the audience goodnight, and left the stage, with the other band members soon to follow, until Jake was the only one left, alone in the gloom, wailing a few farewell flanges on his guitar before he, too, made his exit. After witnessing the stunned silence of the crowd when Buck-Tick ended the main set of the first date of the Anarchy tour with “Mudai,” vanishing into the wings in the blackout without so much as a wave goodbye, we felt fiercely proud of Mr. Sakurai for sticking to this open-ended, uncomfortable way to end the show. “I want to make everything pitch dark, so you have to find your own light,” he told Dave Fromm on air before the tour began. “I hope the show will be a kind of catharsis.” After tonight, we could sure he meant it. The Mortal aren't here to make you happy, they're here to make you feel something in your little cold, black heart.
It was hard to imagine anything topping the show in Shinkiba, but the following week, the tour went on, and we followed the tour.
Monday dawned cold and rainy, and stayed that way – a perfect backdrop as the tour moved on to the invite-only free mini-live at Tower Records, and then by the two final dates at NHK Hall on Wednesday and Thursday.
Since the Shinkiba show had been announced on short notice and fell on a weeknight, many fans hadn't been able to make it, so for many of Mr. Sakurai's Tokyo-area admirers, NHK Hall would be their only chance to see The Mortal live in the flesh. The shaded promenade in front of the high glass venue doors may be the perfect place for fans to loiter in good weather, but in the cold and dark and freezing rain, nobody felt like spending too much time outside. Instead, groups of fans gathered in bars and restaurants down the block, confusing shop staff by registering all their groups under the name “Sakurai.” Rival factions of dressed-to-the-nines lolitas eyed each other jealously, and as we watched, a lone lolita was ejected from one of the groups and sent off to a table around the corner, to sulk and eat her French fries and ice cream in silence. What could she possibly have done to warrant such ostracism? Had she admitted to being a secret fan of Hoshino Hidehiko? We could only glance at her out of the corners of our eyes and wonder.
Over at the venue, fans who hadn't had a chance to buy tour goods were lined up under an awning, waiting to purchase stacks and stacks of the chocolate bars that had sold out rapidly in Shinkiba. Though rain-drenched goods lines in the November chill ought to be the last place to inspire violence, some of the customers were inexplicably spoiling for a fight, bringing the bad fan behavior on this tour down to a new low. As we reached the table after a twenty-minute wait, and began going down our list of items that you dear NGS readers requested we buy for you, the customer in line behind us began vigorously pushing and shoving us from behind, as if she thought Acchan-chan's body were for sale back there or something. When our icy glare failed to deter her, we had no choice but to push her back, upon which she swore loudly at us in Chinese.
Look, people, I don't care what nationality you are. When you come to Japan, you need to abide by Japanese standards of behavior, which include not physically attacking people while shopping. I don't know why I even have to explain this. I have never encountered this behavior at a Buck-Tick tour before and I hope that whoever you are, you grow the fuck up so I never have to encounter it again.
Then again, if these violent shoppers were blowing off the steam of pent-up annoyance at the choice of venue, we could maybe possibly sympathize a little bit – NHK Hall is a surprisingly terrible venue considering that it hosts symphony orchestras and nationally renowned TV programs on a regular basis. The acoustics in the place sound more like what you'd expect from a cavernous indoor swimming pool than a symphony hall, and the sound just gets worse the higher up you go...a great pity, considering that for some unfathomable reason, most of the good seats in the center of the first floor had been allocated to general ticket sales, which meant that most of the fans who purchased their tickets through Fish Tank were stuck up in the balcony, miles away from the stage.
What, exactly, is the point of being a Fish Tank member, if you can get better seats through general sales? Beyond that, the venue wasn't even sold out. Dark holes in the crowd on the ground floor betrayed spots where the general admission tickets had failed to sell, and on Night One, so few tickets had sold that the side sections of the second balcony weren't even open – they lay shrouded under black dust covers, dark and empty.
Also, NHK Hall being owned by NHK, which is now in the pockets of Japan's increasingly right-leaning government (whose main mission, as far as I can tell, is to prevent anyone anywhere from ever having any fun) there were naturally lots of Rules the band had to abide by, Rule #1 being No Candle Play Allowed. After all the fun Mr. Sakurai had with that very same candelabrum at the this very same venue ten years earlier on the 13th Floor With Moonshine tour, it appears that NHK put its foot down. No more fun, Mr. Sakurai, and no more wax on our floor! And that, my friends, is why you will not see any fun being had with candles on the Immortal DVD.
In summary: next time, they really ought to do like Schaft, and stick to standing venues only.
Therefore, all in all, the NHK Hall shows felt more like an encore or reprise than a grand finale. The band naturally seemed more confident than they had in Osaka the previous week, but Sakurai also appeared less energetic than he had at Shinkiba or Tower, and while he put on a technically accomplished performance, he didn't conjure quite the same level of magic...I guess he just wasn't quite feeling the Spirit.
Still, there were a few special moments. On Night One, at the end of “Barbaric Man,” Murata ended the song in a convulsion of crazed dancing, slipped and fell flat on his butt. It looked like a nasty spill from where we were standing, but a moment later, he rose intrepidly to his feet and raised his arms to the crowd, at which point Sakurai came over to check that he was okay, giving him a big grin and a firm “hang in there” pat on the back (while Jake no doubt looked on jealously from across the stage.)
Then, on Night Two, during the last encore, following “Yokan,” the band decided to unveil one last special treat. A gigantic yellow moon rose upon the screen behind the stage, swirling clouds of bats passing over its glowing surface as Jake began picking out a hypnotic dark arpeggio – “Shingetsu”! We know we weren't the only ones waiting for this one. It was one of the standout tracks on Ai no Wakusei, and well it should be, considering that it was written by Tsuchiya Masami, like a little premonition of Ka.f.ka. What a pity, then, that Tsuchiya Masami himself had attended Night One and wasn't in attendance tonight, to see this work of his performed live for the first time in eleven years...or perhaps he was the one who told them to go ahead and perform it without him? Arranged for a five-piece band, with less emphasis on the strings section, it took on a more danceable rock groove that would have been perfect for a standing venue...too bad. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.
Sakurai seemed to be thinking the same thing. As the song finished, he addressed the audience for the last time.
“Everyone, thank you for coming. This is the last night of the tour, and thus The Mortal will die.” He paused. “The Mortal will die once...but I'd like to resurrect it, at some point in the future...so until then, keep waiting!”
Oh yes, we'll be waiting! Because for all the bad fan behavior, misguided venue choices, ticket snafus, and inconvenient weeknight gigs, The Mortal is still one of the best things we've ever seen Mr. Sakurai do. Sorry, Buck-Tick. We cheated on you. And we sure hope The Mortal claws its way back out of its grave, so we get the chance to do it all over again.
02. Dead Can Dance
03. Pain Drop
13. Barbaric Man
15. Sayonara Waltz
16. Shadow of Love
17. Cities in Dust
19. Yokan (Shinkiba & NHK Hall only)
20. Shingetsu (11/26 only)