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Last Friday’s Concert: Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide

Posted in J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 22nd, 2013

Thanks to all who turned out for last Friday’s concert at International House, University of Chicago, by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide. It was the keynote performance for the 2013 Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting. The theme of the conference was “Performance and Japanese Literature,” and the concert turned into a powerful instance of performance in all of its aspects: ephemeral, emotional, communal. Many in the audience ended up in tears, including those who spoke no Japanese and were responding solely to the music itself. The concert ended with three standing ovations and two encores.

In the weeks leading up to the event I wrote a series of blog entries here and on the conference website, introducing the performers and their music. I found it a struggle all along: song lyrics never submit willingly to translation, and I often found myself flailing as I tried to find apt words to convey what the pieces were doing. For example, I described Hayakawa’s composition “Tosan e no tegami” (Letter to my father) as an act of musical mourning. That never felt quite right, but I couldn’t find better words to name the performance the song carries out.

Watching it and the other pieces being played last Friday night, though, it hit me. The songs aren’t about mourning; they are about the struggle that art mounts against death. I didn’t feel it was my place to announce here or in introducing the band that Sakuma has been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and that this could turn out to be one his final live performances (Sakuma has himself been very frank about his illness on his own blog, where he writes movingly about the difficulties he has faced since the discovery of a brain tumor this past summer: often his hands won’t move the way he wants them to along the neck of his guitar). But Hayakawa mentioned the illness from the stage on Friday evening and turned the concert into a tribute to his longtime collaborator.

Suddenly, the songs took on a new hue. That magnificent coda in ”Karada to uta dake no kankei” (The direct relation between body and song), a cover of a song originally done by hi-posis but that Hayakawa has very much made his own, never felt so powerful. The pounding, repetitive music of the early verses, with their overtly sexual lyrics depicting music almost as a kind of animal rutting, suddenly shifts to a sweet, soaring melodic line, and Hayakawa sings with passion “Uta dake ga nokoru” (only the song remains: in other words, the only thing that will get out alive is the music itself). It’s always a cathartic moment, but under the circumstances on Friday it became unforgettable. Watching Hayakawa’s face as he sung and Sakuma’s hands as he played, the message was clear: we will all die soon enough, but as long as we are playing music, we’re still alive. And even after death wins out over us individually, the music will live on as a trace of our struggle.

It’s a theme Hayakawa returns to over and over in his compositions, especially in those from the years since his 1994 return to music. Art and eros are our only flimsy weapons in the fight to hold death at bay. Death will surely win in the end, but we will continue singing until then, and if we are lucky the song will persist after we are gone. It’s a simple message and not a particularly new one. Yet on Friday night, we could feel its truthfulness in our flesh, in the goosebumps and tears that the music summoned up.

The set list:

1) 「ひまわりの花」(Himawari no hana; Sunflowers): title song from Hayakawa’s 1995 solo album
2) 「赤色のワンピース」 (Akairo no wanpiisu; Red dress)
3) 「堕天使ロック」(Datenshi rokku; Fallen angel rock): one of two JACKS’ songs in the set
4) 「サルビアの花」 (Sarubia no hana: Salvia Flowers): Hayakawa’s best-known composition
5) 「H」 (H=Japanese slang for sexual desire)
6) 「躁と鬱の間で」(So to utsu no aida de; Between sadness and melancholy)
7) 「父さんへの手紙」 (Tosan e no tegami; Letter to my father)
8) 「身体と歌だけの関係」(Karada to uta dake no kankei; The direct relation between body and song)
9) 「青い月」(Aoi tsuki, Blue moon): a new song.
10) 「いつか」 (Itsuka; Sometime)
11) 「からっぽの世界」 (Karappo no sekai; Vacant world): JACKS’s debut single from 1968

First encore:
「この世で一番キレイなもの」(Kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono; The most beautiful thing in the world): title track from Hayakawa’s 1994 comeback solo album

Second encore:
「君でなくちゃだめさ」(Kimi de nakucha dame sa; Nobody but you)

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