Utattemita!

Old person that I am, I only recently discovered the world of the utaite.

One little-known genre of what we may call otaku music is the vocaloid field. Yes, Hatsune Miku recently gained international fame with Lady Gaga making her the opening act of some concerts, but that says very little about the scene itself. Because outside the fact that vocaloids are artificially created voices, the vocaloid industry is full of a diverse array of original songs composed specially for these created singers.

And here’s where the utaite come in. A phenomenon that started in the Japanese video hosting website Nico Nico but which has since spread to YouTube, the utaite is a human, often amateur, singer who covers songs. It wouldn’t be accurate to compare the utaite to other YouTube cover hits from the West (at the top of my mind are Boyce Avenue and Justin Bieber as examples): while they too are products of the online boom, you can’t really call the cover a distinct genre in the West. But since this is superflat Japan we’re talking about, a whole industry of itself has emerged from the utaite, called utattemita (literally ‘I tried to sing,’ the Nico Nico category for videos of this nature). Many singers do cross over to mainstream Japanese pop (if there is such a thing), but the vast majority of them continue to specialize in vocaloid covers, or sing original songs by composers for vocaloids. Many of them even release multiple albums of their covers. Today the genre seems to continue growing, what with even a magazine dedicated exclusively to them.

Utattemita no Hon, dedicated to the utaite

Which is not to say I’m an expert on this, good heavens I’m only just starting. For more information check this informative utaite wiki.

But what I can share is what I’ve experienced so far. And in four months, I think I’ve learned a few things.

For one thing, part of the charm of these amateurs is their mystique. Only a fraction of them ever release pictures, and even fewer actually perform live or make videos of themselves. Almost all of them appear on cover videos or albums as anime-style illustrations, and for most utaite that is all the clue the fans have as to what they might look like.

A notable exception is probably the female utaite 96neko (pronounced ‘kuroneko’). While she has appeared in person on videos and has performed live, her face has mostly been obscured by hair or a face mask.

Or a phone

I can’t really say I know what she looks like.

And as 96neko’s name suggests, it doesn’t mean they’re amateurs they don’t have creative talent. Many utaite actually arrange their covers to sound completely different from the original, and some even animate their own videos.

My first, and favourite, utaite is undoubtedly Kradness. I’m going to risk a guess here and say he would be categorized as a bishounen singer, evocative of a good looking young man. He has a very high vocal range, and he takes advantage of it by going over the top with his notes in his covers.

I also find his voice sophisticated, and chances are his covers are the best versions of songs out there. When he covers a song by the composer niki (who mostly makes fast paced rock songs for the sultry vocaloid Lily), you get the best demonstration of Japanese sexiness. His cover of ‘Hybrid’ is arguably the sexiest song in all of utattemita.

God I love this song

Kradness is known for his collaborations with other utaite. His most common collaborator is the female uitaite Reol, with whom he often sings songs that involve dialogue and interaction – a rare chance to hear the singers’ speaking voices.

‘Shinde shimau to wa nasakenai’ by Kradness and Reol, a parody of fantasy RPGs

One particular cover with Reol, the Hatsune Miku song ‘Sweet Devil,’ recently inspired me to tweak around with the structure of a short story. The attempt was successful, and it may see print soon. At least I know this venture in utattemita is productive for me!

It’s that part where they sing different verses together that influenced me

Kradness also mixes and arranges music, not only for himself and for others. I don’t know if he also illustrates, but he often appears as a young bishounen-type character with blonde, spiky hair. He also often has a little lion that serves as his mascot of sorts for reasons beyond me.

Being the eclectic person that I am though, I don’t love everything he covers. Sometimes he overdoes the birit, and it’s grating when he sounds like some emo singer. Also, he wasn’t able to do justice to ‘Senbonzakura.’ Then again, the original didn’t either, but more on that later.

Kradness has the best version of this classic vocaloid song, ‘Wave’

But enough of Kradness. Because the world of the utaite is full of other interesting characters and songs.

For one thing, there are what you call traps. These are singers who play with their appearance and voice: they’re one gender, but sound like another. 96neko sometimes sounds like a guy.

It becomes very amusing though when the male singer sounds like a woman. The most compelling example for me is Yoshitate Kyounosuke. He looks androgynous – either  a very feminine man or a boyish woman. But he sounds like an female enka singer. To contribute to this ambiguity, he often dresses as a woman.

Yoshitate Kyounosuke singing Senbonzakura with the traditional instrument ensemble Wagaku Hanadouchu. Yes, he’s a guy.

Here you see traditional Japanese tastes alive in the modern world. The Japanese fascination for gender ambiguity and artifice, dating perhaps back to the onnagata in Kabuki, has many JPop incarnations.

Speaking of traditional tastes, the flare for the folk is also very alive in the utaite scene. A complete modern song may be given a cover with traditional Japanese as well as rock instruments. Top of my list for this is Wagakki Band, with its vocalist Suzuhana Yuuko. Yuuko’s style of singing reminds me of Okinawa folk songs. She also happens to be a teacher of Shigin, traditional poetry recital.

Wagakki Band’s cover of Rokuchou to Ichiya Monogatari

I know no other culture which makes traditional adaptations of modern music. Closest I can think of is that Bollywood version of Thriller.

Yes Yuko Suzuhana is hot, and Kradness has a sexy voice (and if you don’t know he’s a guy, Kyounosuke sounds like a cute girl), but utaite are not all about bijin. Sometimes an utaite’s charm is his or her humour. This is the case with Glutamine. The male utaite is known for his high energy covers, often interjected with overzealous screaming, and his mumbling when he forgets the lyrics to a song. Which is not to say he has a bad voice: he can sound very ikemen-ish.

In this cover of MikotoP’s Yi Er Fanclub, he begins with a chant of the names of Chinese food

He is not alone in this field. Perhaps more outrageous is the male utaite Gero. His name itself, the Japanese onomatopoeia for a frog’s sound.

A cover of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s hit song ‘Ponponpon’ by Gero. Goodness this is crazy

Then the songs sung by utaite are also fascinating. As mentioned most utaite specialize in vocaloid songs, though as the ‘Ponponpon’ cover shows, they may cover more mainstream songs. They also sometimes go on singing original songs. Kradness’ covers of niki songs gained so much fandom that in his first album Krad Vortex, Kradness sings an original song by niki, ‘TRICK.’

It went on to become my Singapore soundtrack

But there are three vocaloid songs that are rather fascinating.

One of them is ‘Yi Er Fanclub’. A narrative song apparently about someone in Taiwan learning Chinese, the song has specific references to Wang Leehom and Jay Chou Most intriguingly, part of the lyrics go: ‘This is all so I can say good night to Leslie Cheung in heaven.‘ Learning to speak Chinese to bid Leslie Cheung goodbye: it’s a quiet tribute by one artist to another.

In light of recent China-Japan tensions, the Japanese song’s Sinophile tone makes it somehow relevant today.

Of course, the best version is by Kradness

Then there’s the hit ‘Senbonzakura.’ Literally ‘a thousand cherry blossoms,’ the song was written by producer KurousaP originally for Hatsune Miku. It has gone on to be one of the most covered songs in utattemita.

Senbonzakura, covered by male utaite Amatsuki

That mellow piano version up there haunted me and made me think about the lyrics. As the original song’s video indicate, the song deals heavily with the legacy of militaristic Japan (what with the mention of words ‘ICBM,’ ‘revolution,’ and the heavy nationalistic tone of it). Just before the chorus we have the words ‘shounen shoujo, sengoku musou, ukiyo no manima ni’: boys and girls in this (time) of war must be unrivaled, as they should be in this floating world.’ It’s a Buddhist castigation of militarism and its emphasis on excellence as attachment to the impermanent.

This crescendos to the evocative chorus, which goes thus:

‘Senbonzakura yoru no magire, kimi no koe mo todokanai yo
Koko wa utage, hagane no ori, sono dantoudai de miroshite
Sanzensekai tokoyo no yami, nageki no uta kikoenai yo…’

Thousands of cherry trees dissolve into the night. Not even your voice will reach.
This is a banquet inside a steel jail cell. Look down on us from your guillotine.

The whole world is shrouded in hellish darkness. Not even a lamenting song is audible.

At the end of the song the chorus ends:

‘Senbonzakura yoru ni magire, kimi ga utai boku wa odoru
koko wa utage, hagane no ori, saa kousenjuu o uchimagure’

Thousands of cherry trees dissolve into the night. You will sing, and I will dance.
This is a banquet inside a steel jail cell, so shoot randomly and ceaselessly with your raygun

What follows the ironic condemnation of war is the image of cherry blossoms scattered aimlessly in the night. Cherry blossoms, as flowers, are associated in Buddhist thought with impermanence. And of course, the night is dark – we get here beings of impermanence gloriously lost in ignorance, a recurring motif in Buddhist thought.

The Buddhist castigation of ignorance continues with the last lines of ‘so shoot randomly and aimlessly’. In the second verse we also get:

zenjoumon o kugurinukete  anraku-joudo yakubarai
kitto saigo wa daidan’en  hakushu no aima ni

To pass through the gate to dhyāna, and achieve nirvana with cleansing,
the closing act must be a happy finale, accompanied by applause from the audience.’

‘Anraku-joudo’ literally means ‘peaceful bliss of the pure land,’ and the line can have two meanings: the literal one as presented in the translation, or that crossing the gate of dhyana (Zen, that state of mind which is an aim of Buddhism but which has become a Japanese holy grail) entails rejecting the calm of peace (further adding to the sense of war in the song). Of course, any Buddhist will also know that the road to enlightenment is first and foremost a personal one, it does not entail recognition from others (in fact the popular koan ‘when you see the Buddha on the road, kill him’ may even imply ‘applause’ is bad for the aim to be detached).

I have never seen Buddhist thought expressed so ironically.

The image of a banquet in a steel cage in the chorus lends a more human touch to the war-crazed people: the Japanese have always been demonized for their role during WWII. But on reading a recent article on the BBC about a D-Day POW, I realized that war mania is a form of madness, and as all forms of madness go the madman is a victim. The Japanese too were victims during the war, trapped in their glorious cage of delusion, and their defeat was their liberation.

The image of ‘looking down from your guillotine’ is intriguing. The Japanese have always been fascinated by the decaying and those that are about to fall, an aesthetic that manifests itself in the concept of mono no aware.  Here is a subtle manifestation of that: while the addressees, the militarists, are trapped in their deluded madness, the pitiful nature of the predicament itself elevates them as objects of wonder. The line of course might simply be being ironic too.

I don’t usually cry because of songs, but this song moved me. The scale of the World War was overwhelming, and this song crystallizes the emotions of one dimension of it.

Another intriguing song is ‘Iroha Uta’ by Ginsaku, originally for the vocaloid Kagamine Rin. Just some background: the Iroha is a pangramic poem of Buddhist origin, which goes:

‘iroha nihoheto (iro wa niouedo)
chirinuru o
Waka (Waga) yo tare so (dare zo)
tsure naramu (naran)
Uwi (ui) no okuyama
kefu (kyou) koete
asaki yume mishi(yumemiji)
Wehi (ei) mo sesu (sezu)’

‘colours, though fragrant,
will scatter away
who in this world is unchanging?
The deep mountains of vanity –
we shall cross them today
and we shall not see shallow dreams
nor be deluded’

(I provide the actual Japanese in parentheticals, the text does not include voicing of kana and obsolete spelling)

The poignancy of the poem is in the first line: the words ‘flower’ or ‘petals’ are not used, but the image of falling tree blossoms is clearly evoked by colour, fragrance, and the movement of scattering. This subtlety allows the poem to develop its thought on impermanence.

‘Iroha Uta’ takes the original poem’s lyrics, but uses it to mean the exact opposite.

Piano version of ‘Iroha Uta’ by the male utaite Pokota. I think this is the best version so far.

Take a look at the chorus:

iroha nihoheto  chirinuru o
waga yo dare zo  tsune naran
shiritai no  motto motto fukaku made
ui no okuyama  kyou koete
asaki yume miji  yoi mo sezu
somarimashou  anata no
iroha nihoheto chirinuru o

colours, though fragrant,
who in this world is unchanging?
I wish to know, more and more, all the way to the core.

The deep mountains of vanity – we shall cross them today,
and we shall not see shallow dreams nor be deluded.
Let me become tinged with your color,
although colours, though fragrant, will scatter away.

Later there are variants to the ending

‘kawarimashou, anata no tame ni’

‘shall I change for you?’

and

ochimashou  anata to
iroha nihoheto doko made mo

‘let us fall together,
whilst fragrant, all the way to the bottom.

The first two lines of the poem are subverted in the chorus’ third line: the rhetorical question of ‘who is constant’ becomes that fascination for the world Buddhist thought often discourages as it promotes attachment.

Another act of subversion happens when ‘crossing the valley of vanity’ is given a new meaning: not overcoming, but entering. The lines ‘we will not experience shallow dreams nor be deluded’ thus lose their Buddhist implications and become instead phrases of love. The chorus ends with a rejection of that Buddhist dogma of impermanence over the particular love. The later variations contribute to this: ‘shall I change for you?’ even implies that the very impermanence of man does not stop love, as the change may still be for the loved one. Most fascinatingly, we see again mono no aware in ‘let us fall together whilst fragrant,’ but while the idea was originally conceived by Buddhist thinkers to remind people of impermanence, we see here that it may have the opposite effect: awareness of impermanence makes impermanence itself an object of beauty.

Yes, I’m into utaite and vocaloid because of the Buddhist themes in the lyrics!

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