FOR MANY YEARS, for as long as I could remember, I have always looked to the West for inspiration. For someone who was born and bred in a decidedly south-east country smack dab in the middle of Asia, that may seem preposterous.
Honestly, I am not entirely to blame. Ask my whole generation who did they grow up to and invariably you will get answers like the Rolling Stones. Or Bon Jovi. Or Nirvana. Or even Britney Spears.
Habit and easier access to western music – notably from the States – made it difficult to explore music from other parts of the world. On second thought, I won’t say ‘difficult’. It wasn’t difficult, I was just lazy. I just took whatever that was playing on the radio without question. It just didn’t occur to me to listen to other things.
You think I am the only one?
And then there is the language barrier. Excluding Singapore and Indonesia where Bahasa Malaysia and English are practised side by side, songs from other parts of Asia (depending on your ethnicity) would mean nothing but a bunch of foreign words joined together in a string of melodies. It shouldn’t have been a deterrent but somehow it was. Well, I am older now … and perhaps a little bit wiser. And after many misguided years, I finally discovered Mr. Children.
Personally, Mr Children is important not only because they make good music but also because they represent a great paradigm shift : proving that you can rock with the best of the lot and still stay true to your roots. Their music is decidedly western. Yet their ‘feel’ is decidedly Japanese. I have always been bothered by the ‘be true to your roots’ arguments and discovering Mr Children is like being able to prove a point after searching long and wide for concrete evidence. How is that possible? I will let you decide for yourself.
I first bumped into Mr Children (or as the Japanese would say .. MISUCHIRU) when I bought a 6-CD compilation album containing dorama theme songs hits of all times. The year was 1999. Strangely enough, through my western-flavoured years I was able to recall one or two j-pop hits. Chage and Aska’s ‘Say Yes’ for instance, has been in my head since 1985 or so (although all that I could remember was ‘Mayuazumi .. say yes…’)
As of any CDs, you normally jump to songs that you are familiar with before you sit back and savour the whole album. The onslaught of Japanese doramas then made a lot of songs familiar. ‘Namo Naki Uta’ was sandwiched between two songs that I was familiar with. I was about to press Skip when Ita said, let the song play. So what if my introduction to Mr Children was purely by accident? It was a happy one at that. After listening to Namo Naki Uta (loosely translated as ‘Poem With No Name’) in its entirety, I was blown away .
Mr Children released their first album to the unsuspecting public in 1992. Three albums later they garnered a host of awards and millions of fans. Mr. Children borrows heavily from the hippy sixties, the mod seventies and the disco era to make their statement – an influence that is predominant in all their albums. Listening to their more commercial releases, two bands came to my mind. Everything (It’s You) reminds me of Aerosmith while Hana~Memento Mori is reminiscent of U2.
By far the reason I am attracted to the band is their camaraderie and ‘ordinariness’. They were high school friends who banded together by their love of music (and perhaps, fame) who then proceeded to become one of the biggest household names in Japan. They are not flamboyant. They dress like normal people. They look just like that nice, well-spoken college boys next door. You can’t help but think, if it could happen to them… it could happen to me. A lot of their singles became theme songs for popular doramas in Japan (a strange phenomenon of its own, these doramas). But make no mistake, Mr. Children’s success was not based on pure, dumb luck. It took a lot of hard work. Sakurai was once purported to have said (during their early days) ‘I want to sell a million copies of our single.’ So they worked and worked and worked to sell that million copies.
Sakurai got his wish. Two of their singles, namely ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Namo Naki Uta’ sold in excess of TWO million units each. That was an amazing feat considering their exposure was (and still is) limited to Japan. Mr. Children has always been historically known to write hard-to-follow lyrics set against simple melodies. But that didn’t deter their fans. When the single ‘Innocent World’ was released in 1994, it became the most requested song at karaoke bars that year despite being notoriously difficult to sing. Theirs is the kind of music so ‘childishly’ simple it makes you go ‘Why didn’t I think of that?!’; the kind that makes you wish you had written them instead. Here’s something to illustrate the point. When I transcribed the chords to ‘Surrender’, I cursed and banged my head on the wall because I couldn’t believe how deceptively simple it was. I wished I wrote it! I wished I wrote it! I wished I wrote it!
Sakurai’s vocals is confident, playful and pleasant and Mr Children’s feel-good music fits right into the college-circuit scene. He sings in a very peculiar way, I later was informed that Sakurai has a unique pronunciation style. Mr. Children’s playfulness is also apparent in their music videos. They always look like they are having a ball! The songs bore little pretensions; and if they did Mr. Children did it unashamedly. What I like with Mr. Children is that they don’t stick to any single formula. If it works and it sounds good, then it goes into the album. For instance, for the song Paddle from Shifuku no Oto, they simply used the drum demo that they have been using during the practice session. When asked whether they are going to re-record the drum part, Hideya Suzuki (drummer) asked, “Why? What was wrong with it?”
For reasons unknown the band stopped releasing full albums for a while (Ijah’s note: Exact timeline is unknown but 1998-early 1999 would be a good guess). The number stops at 9 with at least 3 being ‘live’ albums recorded during their concerts. Technically, full album releases stopped at 6. My limited knowledge of the Japanese language and that information on Mr. Children is very hard to come by made it difficult for me to ascertain the facts. After the conclusion of their wildly successful ‘1997 regress~progress tour final’, Mr. Children unexpectedly went below the radar. Although they continued to hold series of concerts throughout Japan and released several singles, they remained mostly quiet.
As it turned out with most ‘unions’ (marriage, business partnerships, Steve Jacobs/Bill Gates thingamajig et cetera), they needed a little time away to regain focus. The various members branched out to do their own stuff, much like how Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi recorded solo albums of their own. But it is still very interesting to note that even with minimal appearances as Mr. Children the group, their singles never fail to reach the top of the Oricon charts. Owari Naki Tabi, Nishie Higashi, Kuchibue and Yasashii Uta (to name a few) were all hits in absentia. The name ‘Mr. Children’ is very powerful indeed. It has become a brand of its own.
In late 2001 there were talks that the band will finally come out of their self imposed exile and present their fans with their first studio album in 4 years or so? Before that, they released 2 new singles : Yasashii Uta and Youthful Days – which were also featured in a hot new dorama entitled ‘Antique’ (it’s about 4 men and a cake shop—DON’T ASK). And yes the dorama is really funny, in case you want to know. The whole dorama was choc-a-bloc with Mr. Children’s songs. In fact there was a scene where a boy’s backpack fell open and every single Mr. Children’s CDs came out! It was either an obvious plug for their highly anticipated album, or the director just really love Mr. Children.
The long awaited comeback was marked by the release of the insipid It’s A Wonderful World in 2002. Many felt it was the end of the road for this likable band. But in 2004, Shifuku no Oto was born. My opinion? It is probably their best work yet. I love Shinkai. But Shifuku no Oto, quite frankly, kicks Shinkai’s ass. Shifuku no Oto is a collection of songs written by Sakurai around the time he discovered that he had a serious illness that required surgery (Ijah’s note: some websites described it as ‘brain tumor’, some says it’s a blood clot. Due to my inability to speak or read Japanese, I can’t say which is which. Suffice to know that it was life-threatening and the band’s activities kinda got frozen in ice to allow Sakurai time to recuperate). Understandably, such experience would move someone greatly – as a person and as an artiste.
Mr Children is signed under the Toy Factory label. For information and album orders, please check out Toy Factory’s official site. If you don’t understand Japanese you can try to translate the page using Altavista’s Babel Fish online translation services at Altavista.com . However, I do not vouch for the accuracy. Translation is tricky business.
Unfurtunately, Mr Children materials is no longer available in music stores in Malaysia. I found that CD-now offers the lowest price as compared to other sites that sell Japanese CDs so if you can’t find the albums in the stores you may want to order them online. Prices start from RM150 (incl. shipping and tax) and it takes about a week to reach you, give and take a couple of days.
If you have any further information on Mr Children, or if any of the facts I wrote for this article is wrong, feel free to correct me. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to record my thanks to Wiria Pramudia – Gamemasterz, Kodomo-san, Mark Bennet, Azrul Amir Omar, Yuhei-san, Pinky-san, Isla-san, Boo and the good people running the centigrade-j, and all the people at Mr Children Mailing List.