As any Arashi fan who doesn't live under a rock might know by now, the new album is entitled Japonism (conception by Sakurai Sho), and its overarching theme? To fuse the beauty of Japanese musical elements into the usual pop/rock/whatever-it-is-that-one-labels-Arashi. Now, the whole fusing traditional with modern thing is something that's totally been done before by other Asian artists (Jay Chou, anyone?), and when it's done right, it can be absolutely soul-shatteringly brilliant. So how did Arashi do?
Well, let's take a look at the songs.
1. 日本よいとこ摩訶不思議 (Nihon Yoitoko Maka Fushigi, originally by Shonentai)
Ooh my ooh my! If songs could be colored, this baby would be a swathe of disco rainbows tipsy on just a whiff of alcohol. This song is f***ing, awesome. Period. It's intoxicating. I won't comment on the original version because I've only listened to grainy youtube videos of it so it really wouldn't be fair, but wow! What a spectacle! And I mean in a more auditory than visual sense. This song is wacky, it's fun, it's cheeky and nonsensical, nostalgic and at the same time airy and carefree (just listen to that breezy "wasshoi-sshoi!"). It draws you in, twirls you up to dizzying levels of high tension, and then keeps you bopping there for a glorious three minutes. The very music itself is positively acrobatic in nature; it begs visualization, it needs to be danced to. And if Friday's M-ste performance is anything to go by, we can all bet our bottom drawers that Arashi's going to be delivering a flippin' awesome show come November! I also love all the Japanese children's stories alluded to in the lyrics (esp. the rap part!) and can't get over Ohno's vibrant belting of "Makafushigi makafushigi makafushigi oh oh yeaaaaahhhh~!" Seriously, it's difficult to write a coherent paragraph about this song without inserting an exclamation mark into every other sentence, because you know what? It's impossible to resist the music any longer.... and I'm afraid my body is being drawn against its will to jive it up on the dance floor right this moment!
So thank you, Arashi, and thank you even more, Shonentai-san!
2. the Deep End
In one word, slick. It's probably the one song that would look least out of place on their previous Digitalian album, and even though I can't quite see the connection to the themes of "Japonism" or "reconnecting with their roots," my appreciation for the image of Arashi diving into a "new world" here is not at all diminished. I love every member's solo parts. Nino's "光誘う 意識はかすむ 幻想的に 包む silence" had my skin tingling with pleasure at the luscious texture of his voice. Then Jun just had to come in and whisper his sensual "もっと deep inside" to all of us. What are you, competing for ovary-buster of the year, Matsumiya? And then, when Ohno starts us off in the bridge with "涙の粒 パールみたいさ," I was so looking forward to hearing him reach out to new horizons with his voice in the next line, but Arashi pulled a quick one on me and instead dived into a beautiful harmony with "砂地に溶け 輝いてるよ." My poor heart can't take so much all at once, boys! Loved every part of this song, from the tight rhythm to the distinctly "modern" feel, and of course, it never hurts that this sounds like it makes for a wicked dance track, either.
3. 心の空 (Kokoro no Sora)
Ah, here we have it. The lead track. The main event. The song that ties everything together: Arashi (throw in some classic Sakurap), Japonism (add shamisen, taiko, one verse in "Asian" or "Oriental" scale) and some hardcore rock (key ingredient: a pinch of Hotei Tomoyasu). It's really quite a brilliantly conceived piece of music, very refreshing, very novel, with plenty of little things for both die-hard fans and casual music-lovers to appreciate. My personal favorite part of this song is the verse beginning around the 1:18 mark with "Haru machi zakura..." There's just such a delightful change in musical imagery there, from forceful samurai to delicate cherry blossoms, all encompassed in a quick strum of the shamisen and an immediate switch into the "Asian" scale. Boy, do I love the "Asian" scale! It's exotic (to non-Asians, hah!), it's pretty, and it always seems to carry some inherent poetry in it due to its lilting nature. I also love the direct juxtaposition of that tough Japanese masculinity to the equally classic and equally breathtaking Japanese femininity. Beautiful, truly beautiful little insertion into this otherwise completely adrenaline pumped song! Worth mentioning also is the perfect blend of Hotei-san's robust guitar riffs with the appropriately agitated beat of taiko drums underpinning this entire song. It's just such an energetic, high-tension combo! The Sakurap was excellent as well, with Sho swagging it out to a distant Japanese flute, yes, a Japanese flute! This track is just so well-crafted, with clear design and intent behind every element. I like it. And if Arashi wanted to open Japonism with a bang, they've definitely succeeded with "Kokoro no Sora."
4. Make a wish
Somehow, this feels like one of those "filler" songs again (see the paragraph on 僕らがつないでいく for what that means). It's pleasant enough. I liked the brass accents and chorus melodies (and was especially delighted when I heard the almost a capella version of the chorus) . It's a very uplifting song; I almost feel like it could be used in a drama soundtrack. ^.^
5. 君への想い (Kimi e no Omoi)
"Zutto kimi wa/boku no yume wo/negai tsudzukete kureta kara..."
Beautiful, beautiful, melody. It alone is enough to pin the whole song to the stars, and I'll admit that I fell in love with this hauntingly wistful sound upon my very first listen. The languid Japanese instruments in the beginning drew me right in, and the transition into a more synth/piano/wind-based background was absolutely seamless (if you listen for it, you can even find little Japanese accents throughout the song that give off just a hint of the traditional melancholy of the opening; I especially like the subtle runs of what sounds like a koto strumming among all the guitar/violins). The Sakurap is pitched just where Sho's voice is at its most magnetic, and the Nino bridge that follows is ghosted by another member's harmony in a way that nicely balances out his vocal tremors ("Tashikame ai/tsunaida/futari no te/hanasanai/tsuyoku chikai/aruite/hanashi tsudzuketa"). But in the end, it's the chorus; they always come back to the soulful chorus, and each time they do, the instrumentation changes slightly, as if on a mission to sequentially undo all our carefully fastened heartstrings. I have nothing more to say on this song except that its melody reminds me of the music that tinkles out of those ballerina jewelry boxes: dreamy, pensive, and so innocent it chips away at the heart like a soft, slow-working chisel. Love it. Whole-heartedly.
Fun fact: In the AraJapo Talk, Aiba revealed that he really liked this song for its pretty melody, and Jun commented that it seemed quite like the type of song Aiba would like.
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The first comment I read about "Don't you love me?" was on weibo, and it called this a "metropolitan love song" (都市恋曲), which, when I thought about it, is actually quite a decent description of what MatsuJun seems to be attempting here. It reminds me a lot of his LOVE solo "Dance in the Dark," which also had its fair share of jazzy brass and bop-wopping (compare the "doo-doo-wop-doo-doo-wop" to the "bou-bou-bounce" and "ta-ta-ta-da-la-ta-ta"). Jun seems to have a liking for these types of onomatopoeic phrases that he can sing while twisting those fine hips of his, and I think this type of retro dance song suits him, both vocally and physically. "Don't you love me?" is a little more fun than "Dance in the Dark," though; it's less seductive and more flirtatious, you get more of a playful than predatory vibe. There's an upscale, posh feeling about it, which again, is classic Jun, and I'm digging the suave beat and self-harmonizations here. All in all, it's a solid track, with Jun being his regular slick ol' self. And who's going to complain about that?
Fun fact: In the AraJapo Talk, the members were not even 3 seconds into listening to this song when Nino teased "You're already stripping, aren't you?" Aiba joined in the teasing, so now, we who are in the MatsuJun Abs Fan Club can only hope that the bopping diva will succumb to this peer pressure :P Jun also revealed that he chose this solo because he wanted a song that was easily sing-able and could translate well into a concert performance.
Framed beginning and end by the mystic thrums of what sounds like the koto, "miyabi-night" is one of the tracks in which the Japanese flair is a little more pronounced throughout. There is some Japanese string instrument that almost never leaves the background, and the lyrics, with their focus on natural imagery, feel markedly less "Western" so to speak. We can even catch a few hints of the Japanese in the melody itself (the "Hara hara chiru nuru wo kanade yo/kanata naku kazamidori" line seems to mark a transition briefly and very noticeably into the classic "Asian" or "Oriental" scale). The track is a bit noisier than what I'd normally like, and Arashi's harmonizations aren't as smooth a blend as they usually are here (aside from the "Aha~" parts in the beginning :P), but the solo lines of each member sound good and I think that the Tennen harmonies on "Yozora wo kazaru no wa/irotoridori no hana/hakanaku/saki hokotte/futari no kageboushi/kaze ni fukarete iru/tashika ni soko de/ikite iru yo" deserve a special mention for being both gentle and riveting. In general, the verses sounded better than the chorus, quite possibly because the synths were just a lot less noisier and allowed for better appreciation of the traditional instruments. Just listen to the beautiful chords on the string instrument underlying the verse beginning "Kaze yo katare/Odoreba honoo ni." There's enough excitement and bounce in there to sustain a song; absolutely no need for the synthetic blares they've inserted into the chorus. But I suppose they wanted a danceable digital track, and this fits that bill well.
8. 三日月 (Mikatzuki)
"Mikatsuki," which translates to "crescent moon," is a soothing auto-tuned lullaby that tinkles and travels and swells, with a delightful mix of engineered sounds that run like a smooth salve across weary ears. It's sort of along the same vein as "Kimi e no Omoi," but more distant, and less beseeching. The melody is pretty, and the tempo is sedate, and even though I was lukewarm at first to the digitally treated vocals, I've come to appreciate the soulful resonance and the wistful imagery of distant constellations it evokes. The stand-out point for this song, though, is the way all the different sound elements are pieced together; it's an excellent showcase of the talent behind Arashi's sound engineering team. With a melody this monotonous, much of the burden is placed on the instrumentation to create the dynamics and make the song come to life in as rich a way as possible. So we get all these humming strings, tinkling bells, detached synth arpeggios (that tiptoe across the soundscape almost playfully), wooden percussion, an unravelling piano, and the winds, oh my god the winds. There is no other instrument in this song that makes the mood as strongly as the the languid notes of these woodwind synths that draw themselves through Arashi's toned voices like a thick woolen drape of musical richness. Those long notes drawl and linger and makes the entire soundscape fuller. (Listen around the "Hoho ni nurashita hito shizuku wa" part to find that beautiful wind note, and around the 1:40 mark for the beginning of a lovely wind solo) And suddenly, the night sky in our minds' eyes is no longer empty and distant, but full of breezes, chills and humming with glitters of life. Couple that with the sotto voce of the low-pitched strings, and you have a dynamic song with both the detachment and passion of an untouchable love story that's playing out among the stars.
I'll be honest. Ultra fast tempos are usually not my thing, and that instrumental interlude of what sounded like bongo drums and whistles was such a frenzied build-up that I'm really not feeling all that inclined to listen to this track repeatedly for the purpose of writing about it (seriously, what's up with the whistles?). So I'll give my basic impression: "Bolero!" is fast, excited, passionate and has some pretty harmonies between the members in the verses. There are also some interesting shifts in the tone, like when they transition into the "Ano yoru no/ namida no buru- ga/ nagai toki wo koete/kirameku" part and we get a funny bouncy trombone background to buoy up the voices. That was a pleasant surprise in the course of listening, and piqued my interest in the song more. But most of the time, it felt as though this song was switching between a Latin dance and a circus act without being able to make its mind up about which one it really wanted to be.
10. Mr. FUNK (Aiba solo)
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Disco Star who-? Haha, come on, everyone, we all know that the comparisons are inevitable. And my verdict? Well, I adore Disco Star-sama. He was Aiba Masaki's not-so-secret alter-ego, valiantly fighting feelings of gloom and insecurity by being over-the-top, confident, flamboyant, and sassy to boot. He was Aiba's excuse to throw all propriety to the winds and give us a four-minute session of dorky, side-splitting fan service. And man, listening to Disco Star was like having a dose of 100% pep flow right through one's headphones and into one's brain! But that was a year ago, and that pink-fringed, bell-bottomed partymaker has now evolved into something sleeker, sexier, and infinitely classier. The balance is slick: there's less of a raucous factor and more of a gentle seduction. The beat is throbbing rather than blaring, and the vocals...mmm mmm mmm... Was there ever a melody better crafted for the dulcet tones of Aiba's velvety teddy voice? He's suave, he's inviting, his words are dripping swag but his tone is more sultry than cocky, which, in my opinion, is far more attractive. Where Disco Star demanded your attention, Mr. Funk is already confident that he has it, and when he sings "オレだけを見ろ" ("Keep your eyes on me alone"), it's almost like a redundant command, because he totally already has the entire room hypnotized with his "firebird" eyes (brilliant lyric there, by the way; "In the depths of my eyes there's a firebird" totally captures the magnetism of Mr. Funk!).
Beat and vocals aside, though, it's really the melody and rhythm that made this song an instant favorite of mine. It's sensual and dynamic from the first verse "小洒落たヤツらに 聞いてみな" ("Kojareta yatsura ni / Kiite mina"). The musical phrasing is just so playfully done, there's a teasing bounce to the melody that suits Aiba's voice very well. I also just love the line of this song's melody: the little dip in pitch at the end of "kiite mina," which is totally repeated in the "dynamite" line later on, and the slight waver at the end of every "darou" in the chorus. The rhythm is to die for, with a lightness in the verses that quickly transitions into full-on accented swag in the chorus, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone were to tell me that this was originally composed for Arashi's master of the debonair, Ohno Satoshi. This is a number my tension is sky-high for, and I cannot wait to see Aiba in the dance of refined seduction that this song just begs. A++ in my book, without a doubt.
"Mr. Funk" also features some much-anticipated Aiba-rap, which was probably the least suave part of the song, but nevertheless enjoyable, because hey, Aiba wouldn't be Aiba if he didn't leave some opportunity for a good laugh from his audience, now would he?
Fun facts: In the AraJapo Talk, Jun laughed at how "Mr. FUNK" included a line of lyrics that seemed to reference Disco Star ( 噂に聞いた Star？なんて 目じゃないのさ！"That Star everyone's been talking about? He's nothing compared to me!"), so Aiba revealed that Disco Star-sama and Mr. Funk live in the same era (They also share the same lyricist ^.^). Aiba also said that he considered asking Sho-kun to pen the rap lyrics, but decided against it because he thought Sho was probably too busy. After listening to the rap part, Sho then commented that it was probably best that he didn't write the lyrics, as he wouldn't have been able to come up with anything so old school.
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Wow. I am rendered speechless. Never mind the much-touted "Kokoro no Sora" or the unexpected cover of sempai's "Nihon Yoitoko Maka Fushigi," this Ohno solo is truly the song that will be remembered as the track that sets Japonism apart from all other Arashi albums. Easily the most heavily Japanese track on the album, "Akatsuki" (lit. "dawn") flaunts its traditional beauty from every aspect, at every turn, to stunning-no, to blistering- effect. Its melody swells, dives, supinates and warps like a patterned but restless kaleidoscope. Its lyrics are concise, poignant, every word pregnant with soul-shattering yearning that resonates across hearts and hearts of time-honored poets (it even quotes lines from an ancient poem by Emperor Sanjo!). And the instrumentation is unparalleled for its traditional-dominant sounds; the drums, the flutes, the strings, the whistles... I only wish I knew more about Japanese instruments so that I could identify them all: the shamisen, the koto, the biwa, the shakuhachi, the hichiriki... (I don't even know if they were all used in this track, and I'm sure there are many others that I don't know the name of as well) Blended together, these traditional elements tint Ohno's powerful voice with a touch of something ethereal, something mystical and ungraspable that makes you want to chase it but at the same time afraid to touch it. It's a perfectly balanced power ballad with a Japanese twist, and Ohno sounds superb in it. His voice just has that ability to perfectly hold brimming tension while transitioning from broad sweeping melodies ("Mou/konu hito wo/matsu you na/omoi de") to more dainty ones ("Hanareteku/Chigiregumo") in this very melodically dynamic song, and I honestly don't think any other member could have pulled a song like this off half so well (which is interesting, because in the AraJapo Talk, Ohno mentioned that all five of them had listened to a demo tape of this song when trying to explore ways to express the "Japonism" theme in the beginning). This is a melody that needed a full-bodied, belting voice that was also capable of doing subtle vibratos and end-phrase lilts, all of which Ohno fulfilled to perfection. A+++++. I cannot wait to see this performed live in concert. It is a spectacular song that needs no visuals to stun me into a paucity of speech, but add them in, and I will gladly be even more mesmerized.
Fun Fact: In the AraJapo Talk, Ohno said that he chose this song to be his solo because it just got so stuck in his head after he listened to it with the other members in the early stages of album planning. Nino also very quickly identified the instrument in the opening part as the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute.
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Rolling piano! Rolling melody! Rolling Sho! This entire song just flows, naturally, like a spring of emotions from Sho-kun's lips. I love the melody. I love the way he draws out the last note in his chorus and the buoyancy achieved with the broken chords on the piano. Sho's voice has always operated well in a rather limited range when it comes to singing (different story when it's rapping, though), so we can detect a bit of vocal strain when he's reaching for the higher notes in the chorus, but when he is in his comfortable range, he has this very characteristically tempered voice that somehow manages to blast undeniable masculinity with an almost plaintive quality in the way he wraps his tongue around each and every syllable. It's hard to express in words, and I don't know if anyone will get it when I say that his singing voice feels inelastic to me, but suffice it to say that given its so-termed inelasticity, it actually suited this song remarkably well (I think the rolling quality of the piano may have helped, too). The lyrics are top-notch poetry with a full dose of beautiful angst that one doesn't often see in a Sakurai Sho solo, and the rap... oh my god, the transition into Sakurap was inspired. The chorus clashes to an end full stop, and without losing a beat the rolling piano comes back at the exact same time we hear Sho's voice return, drenched in deep masculinity, dripping with a magnetism that is full-on sensual and holds no hint of the plaintive quality from before. The transformation is arresting, from distraught lover to an entity that's so seductive it's almost predatory. It sounds remarkably like the rap he had in 2013's "P.A.R.A.D.O.X.," which was seven steamy heavens of smexy, but this time, the context is so angsty, and the lyrics are so pervaded by regret that the rap sounds so much more complex and bittersweet. God, I love this rap, or well, at least the first seven lines of it. Once past the "wanna know?" part, he hikes up the tension, and starts sounding rather less melancholic and more... superficial. Ah, Sho-kun, you were perfect without the "Oh!"s and "Yeah yeah"s here. But I suppose the hip-hop vibe is more classic for Sakurap, and there are many fans out there who would love that style of Sakurap no matter where it's placed.
Fun fact: In an FC video message, Ohno mentioned that he really liked this song ^.^
13. イン・ザ・ルーム (In the Room)
What a seductive, adult-ish song. The verses drip with sensuality, and I love how they keep repeating the word "rouge;" it's a good word ^.^ The Sakurap is, of course, just where I like it, in the low and sexy range, and it's accompanied by this lovely bamboo whistle that gives it a slick sense of flirtation. I love all the little flares and turns on the whistle, too. The members all harmonize beautifully here, which is usually how the best Arashi sound is achieved anyways.
14. マスカレード (Masquerade)
Ah, here we get another taste of Arashi flying through a classic Showa-style pop song. Can you all see the headbands tied around their foreheads already? I mean, listen to "日本よいとこ摩訶不思議," and then to this (and further on, to "Japonesque") and you'll feel that 80's groove thrumming like a relentless machine in your ears. In the FC video message, MatsuJun mentioned that he liked this track, and I can see why; it's upbeat, rolling, dynamic and perfect for those hip-twisting moves he favors so much. In terms of impact factor, I'd say this song is kind of generic for its genre. Now don't get me wrong, it's not bad or anything, it just fits all-too-squarely within the confines of 80's J-pop and doesn't do much else. It's a pleasant enough track, and I'm digging the instrumentation (I mean, just listen to that party piano with the string accompaniment! And that's not to mention those inspired little electric guitar riffs peppered here and there!), but it's more a tribute to an era past than an exploration of musical novelty, so snooty fan reviewers (like me) just have to keep that in mind :P With that said, it is a very solid tribute to the past, and Ohno sounds wonderful (in both the OT5, OT3, OTP and solo parts). This sort of song is one of the many things that Ohno's voice can bring sparkling life to, and I love the dominance of him sound-wise here.
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It seems like almost every solo in this album has been top notch, and "MUSIC" is no exception. Nino's always been somewhat like a wild card when it comes to predicting what kind of solo he's going to come up with every year, but I bet none of you had even imagined that his solo contribution to Japonism would be this adorable little mixture of video game music! And yes, I repeat, video game music! Now isn't that just a perfect example of Nino being his cheeky self? I thought he was already maxed out on the cuteness when he decided to pen that song for his mother two years ago, but apparently, there is a new level of ovary-busting that the Neen is capable of. I almost feel like "MUSIC" is to Nino what "Disco Star" was to Aiba: a shameless, throw-all-caution-to-the-wind type of song that is meant solely for the purpose of unleashing a dorky side to its most ridiculous degree of completion. It's fan service. That's what it is! And I, as a fan, adore it. I adore that Nino can let go of his melancholic composer persona and flaunt his inner nerd in an album that's supposed to be all artsy and polished. I adore that he loves himself enough to not take himself too seriously.
The song itself is quite chipper, with its tropical accents (is that a xylophone I hear?) and playful instrumentation (love the brass). I also love how the track shuttles us between the light-hearted verses and the hard-hitting house music/techno chorus. And how awesome is it that the musical punctuation here is in the form of actual video game sound effects? "It's like a magic!" indeed. I particularly enjoy the effect of Nino's engines whirring down to a stop at the 2:25 mark, and the almost epic orchestral build-up that follows. Nino's vocals are adorable as ever, and no lie, the "whoa-whoa-yeaaah!" gave me a bit of a catecholamine rush. I'd say the only part I didn't like about this track were the "yeah-yeah" crowd effects right after Nino's "whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh oh yeaaah!" They sounded flat, lifeless and not at all up to Nino's level of high tension. But otherwise, this track was superb fun!
Fun facts: In the AraJapo Talk, Nino revealed that he will be dancing for the performance of this solo! He hasn't had a solo with original choreography since "Gimmick Game" eight years ago.
16. 伝えたいこと (Tsutaetai koto)
I feel like there's a song somewhere in Arashi's lengthy repertoire that sounds strikingly similar to this one, but I just can't quite put my finger on which. Perhaps one of the coupling tracks on WISH? It has a sort of holiday vibe to it, almost as if it were a modified Christmas carol of some sort, but judging from the lyrics, it doesn't seem to be related to any specific holiday, it's just a fairly simple message of gratitude. Musically, I enjoyed the electric guitar, and man, when Nino sings that "悲しみは永遠じゃないよ 顔を上げて" line, I think that sudden surge in melody alone is enough to put a smile on my face no matter what. It's a good pick-me-up song, that's for sure.
The intro is deceptively game-y and arcade-like in this one, but once we get to the pre-chorus, "燃えるような 熱い魂 (一度の命続く限り)" ("Moeru you na/ atsui tamashi (ichido no inochi tsuzuku kagiri)"), there's a sense of something more modern being inserted into this otherwise very nostalgically Showa-style pop. By the time the chorus proper came around, the sounds on my eardrums were quite frankly, groovy. Yep, groovy. And I'm using the word in the truest sense of its meaning here. "Japonesque" is really a retro gem, in a way that's mostly fun and bouncy, but with enough meandering melodic detours to make it interesting and above all, edgy. Just listen to all the buoyant "ja-jaa-la ja-jaa-la" parts that permeate the song. And then, just when you think you've got a handle on this peppy song, Arashi surprises us with sudden swerves into lines like "Hana mo tori no kaze mo tsuki mo" and it makes this song that much more dynamic. That "ゆらりゆらり揺れて" vibe sure speaks for itself!
If I had to point to one thing that absolutely won me over in this track, though, it would have to be the lyrics. I'm not exactly fluent in Japanese, so I feel like much of the beauty in the words is lost on me, but even I can appreciate the poetry in lines like "水面に浮かぶ月の影 朧げにこの街を染め" ("The moon casts its reflection upon the water / faintly it dyes this town") and "四季が織りなす 風の子守唄" ("A lullaby of the wind woven from the four seasons"). In the colorful repertoire of Arashi songs, this one definitely counts as one of the more vividly poetic ones. Couple it to a beat that's decidedly less reflective, and you get this interesting dichotomy of the deep and the frivolous, and it's just joy to my eager ears.
18. 僕らがつないでいく (Bokura ga tsunaideiku)
In an FC video message promoting the album, Sho-kun remarked that he thought this bonus track sounded like it could be a theme song to a romance movie, probably the kind that Aiba Masaki would star in. (Hilarious, Sho-kun, seeing as your dear band mate has only been in like one romance movie ever...) But listening to this song, I can sort of see where he's coming from. In most aspects, "Bokura ga tsunaideiku" sounds like one of those typical "filler" songs: soothing, pretty, and unmemorable. It's the kind of music you might put on when you need something pleasantly bland, something to fill up the background while you concentrate on more important things. "Tears" from LOVE, "Rise and Shine" from AoKimi, "Road to Glory" from Bittersweet... these are just some of the more recent numbers that might also fall under this comfortable category of "fillers." They're all easy to enjoy, the emotions moderate enough that you can sink into them without being too wrecked by the impact, yet each one has just those few standout lines that really make you stop and marvel every now and then. In "Bokura ga tsunaideiku," it's the resounding "ずっと聴こえてた 優しい子守歌 消えない 生命の言葉" part, where Arashi's Leader rouses those reluctant stirrings of your heart with the full power of his voice, that really gets me. Y'all know how much I love my call-and-answer phrases when it comes to Arashi! Overall, a solid track, with smoothly textured instrumentation and superb-sounding vocals (every member brings out the best in their voices here).
Japonism is an elegant, mature album with a few playful twists. It's perhaps not as "traditional Japanese" as I had expected back when the album name was first announced, but as MatsuJun himself revealed, the real theme here is about "going back to our roots," which encompasses both their "Japanese" roots as well as their "Johnny's" roots. That will perhaps help a casual listener understand the eclectic mix of songs and styles in this substantial new album, which is in many ways both an nostalgic tribute and an eager exploration of new artistic possibilities. Arashi is bringing back an old Shonentai number, with complementary side servings of "Masquerade" and "Japonesque," to give all their newer fans a chance to appreciate the golden oldies like they appreciated them back in the day. But Arashi, being Arashi, will never be satisfied with just looking back at a rose-tinged past, and there are also clear signs of innovation in this album, with an obvious emphasis on the "Japonism" theme. Standout tracks like "Akatsuki" and "Kokoro no Sora" give a convincing show that our five boys are ready to blend the modern with the traditional, and that they're not afraid to go all out and do it with fervor and flair. Subtler experimentations like "miyabi-night" and "Kimi e no Omoi" demonstrate an artful instinct to use the wealth of culture they've been gifted with in less showy, but equally enriching ways. Ohno and Nino are the vocal stars in this album, with their well-honed vibrato and abilities to sustain high-arching notes a valuable asset. Sakurai's rap fixtures dove into the sensual realm a lot more, and that's in keeping with the wealth of seductive numbers in this album (I'm looking at slick tracks like "In the Room" and "the Deep End"). Aiba is similarly toeing the sensuous line, though with more emphasis on the "entertainment" factor (especially in his solo), while Jun, the ever steady and reliable Jun, continues his act as the suave, quick-footed charmer.
As Arashi has stated, one of the things they've tried to do is to show Japan "from the perspective of an outsider" and I think they've done well in that regard. They've given us the taiko drums, the shamisen, the pentatonic scale, images of samurai and sakura... everything a foreigner thinks of when flipping through tourism brochures of Japan. But Arashi has also given us so much more than that in this album; they've also shown us, in passionate detail, the Japan from the perspective of Arashi, with their loving tributes to 80's style idolhood and their tireless exploration of what it means to be an idol now: the kawaii, the kakkoii, the romantic and the frivolous. Now, Japonism probably isn't going to overtake LOVE as my favorite album of all time, but it's sure up there as an album I'd want to show my Arashi-naive friends if they ever wanted a crash course into the five-colored rainbow.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional musician/pop culturist, nor am I an expert in Japanese culture. The opinions and commentary in this article are based only on my limited experiences with Arashi's works and of course, on my own feelings when I listen to their music. I have no musical authority whatsoever; I'm just a fan, blogging about my reactions to my favorite band's newest album. So kids, don't reference this for your music papers!