Prescient and unprecedented monument to indeterminacy, electronic hiss, ruptured nostalgia, guitar / siren wail, ghostly future times past, patriotism, distant bells, radio transmissions, tape manipulation, fatal pre-war swagger, and perhaps in the end, friendship. For all the artiness of the undertaking - avant garde to its core - the "Opera" is intensely autobiographical, entirely original and completely engaging.
Ichiyanagi compares music to Japanese garden design: meticulous, painfully ordered yet always interacting with indeterminate elements - moisture, light, wind. Despite Ichiyanagi’s self-declared tilt at natural multiplicity over concentrated construct, the do-it-yourself flow of patchwork elements benefits from an intimate aleatoric framing. The details look after themselves.
To Tadanori Yokoo, magus of Japanese pop design. Like Ichiyanagi, Yokoo's multi-layered approach is highly personal and gives the lie to easy comparisons, notably "the Japanese Warhol" moniker. Modus operandi converge. Yokoo saturating and manipulating popular by-gone images in bang up to date lysergic colour; Ichiyanagi knitting traditional enka with musique concrète and psych feakout à la mode. Both artists tackle loaded themes of nationalism and nationhood: Yokoo's risqué red sun ray flag (kyoku jitsu-ki) as recurring motif; Ichiyanagi's sampling of rousing miltary marching song. More cultural reclamation than the revivalist impulse that drove contemporary - and great Yokoo friend and influence - Mishima Yukio.
The “Opera” is a multi-media affair; the importance attached to the visual side of the production well ahead of its time. Attention to sonic and visual detail - however indeterminate -as meticulous as only Japanese traditional art and crafts can be. The work is ahead of its time in other ways, as we shall see. Arguably, the rest have yet to catch up.
1 Aria ichi [Aria one]
Traditional ballad setting leit motif of melancholy nostalgia.
2 Erekutorikku chanto [Electric chant]
More hiss and whine than chant. "Chant" well-chosen, nevertheless, as sickly electronic Buddhist drone morphs into air-raid siren. Cue martial brass band and military singing. Oppressive and rousing; attracting as it repels. 20 years later, the likes of Current 93 and Death In June would court controversy with similar use of Nazi martial tunes. Ichiyanagi's ploy is utterly outrageous. No gimmicks here though and is of a piece with the pervasive tension between comforting nostalgia and repellent militarism.
3 Otoko no junjo [Man’s pure heart]
Distant noises, footsteps, two men feeling their way into a song on skeletal piano. Complaining about the piano, they notice the environing silence:
"Everybody’s gone – nobody is watching. Should we continue when there is no one?"
Big question. Finally, free from background noise, the song is delivered in full.
Switch: crowd noise. Rumpus. Sports match? Riot? Protest? Woman sobbing - with fear or erotic excitement?
A low-flying aircraft passes overhead.
(1966, a group of Narita locals residents combine with student activists and left-wing political parties to form Sanrizuka-Shibayama Union to Oppose the Airport)
4 Uchida Yuya to Za Furawaazu (Uchida Yuya and the Flowers)
27-minute long psych free form freak out. 20 mins. one side, remainder on next. Ichiyanagi let loose the reins on budding young psychonauts with the sole stipulation that the piece be titled after Yokoo's signature 1965 poster I Was Dead.
The central slogan on Yokoo's poster: “Having reached a climax at the age of 29, I was dead". An inkling that on one level Ichiyanagi is having a joke at young gun expense.
5 Uchida Yuya to Za Furawaazu (Uchida Yuya and the Flowers)
Caution, mind melting in progress. 7 more minutes.
6 Nyuyooku no uta [New York song]
Poem recited in Edo-jidai Japanese, then contemporary dialogue and short monogatari.
At this point, check again Ichiyanagi's integration of Yokoo thematic riffs. For instance, the "Opera" shares imagistic and sonic links to Yokoo's 1965 animation Kach Kachi Yama:
7 Kayo myuzikare [Kayo musicale]
Medley: radio jingles, random commentary, film excerpt (adult scolds initially recalcitrant but ultimately pliable young woman for accepting something from a stranger), and Meiji Chocolate ad given the full Group Sound treatment chokoreeto – chokoreeto. Switch: European church bells, harpsichord looped, echoed, deconstructed. Switch: sound of massive bombing raid. End.
Adding up to what? Let's venture: a comment on corrosive Western / capitalist influence? Whether low art - reedy GS organ peddling chocolate - or high - Bach keyboards selling God - the outcome obliterates.
8 Love Blinded Ballad Uta 1969
Archival announcements, patriotic songs, marching fanfares, speeches, classical violin, military songs intermixed curvilinear fashion. Whirlwind tour through 30s & 40s public sphere. Pervading unease and eeriness recalls Derrida's hauntology. Ichiyanagi way ahead of "nostalgia for the future" curve.
And blinded by love for what exactly? Patriotism again points the way.
9 Spite Song Uta 1969 Frogs croak, waterfowl cackle, crows caw; earlier patriotic choruses hover ghostly in the background. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake subjected to discordant squeaking as AM radio tunes in and out of romantic cliché to the point of unlistenability. Ironically, final transition to bombing alert siren is a relief.
10 Takakura Ken, Tadanori Yokoo o utau [Ken Takakura sings to Tadanori Yokoo]
Or is it more an "All Clear" signal? That would make sense as next and last up is an enka serenade by yakuza movie hard man Takakura Ken.