Concert Review: Chara (live at the Urban Simple Life Festival - Xinyi 信義)

Chara is known for her childish "whisper" voice.
At 47, she should also be known for her inability to age!
She plays the guitar and piano, and writes nearly all of her songs.
(Photo from her Facebook page).
Chara (real name: Watabiki Miwa 綿引美和), is hands-down my favorite female Japanese singer. I discovered her music as a junior high student when I was looking for new Japanese artists to listen to. Immediately, I was mesmerized by her soft, slightly raspy voice which occasionally takes on a husky, almost harsh tone. Chara's speaking voice is actually somewhat deep, yet it often transforms into a light, high-pitched tone when she sings.

I admire the personal nature of Chara's music and her willingness to share her deep inner feelings in her lyrics. Innocence (Sweet), intimacy (Junior Sweet, her performance of this song with TSPO on the left), and divorce (Breaking Hearts) have all been subjects of her songs. I admire Chara because no topic appears to be "off limits" for her when writing music. Chara's creativity transcends her sound; to add a sense of childlike innocence to her songs, she often uses the male personal pronoun boku (僕).

Chara's thoughtfulness in regards to her music hasn't changed since her major debut in 1990, yet her style has evolved through many phases: mainstream with a touch of black gospel in the early 90s; acoustic-heavy in the mid to late 90s; experimental indie in the early 2000s; mainstream pop in the mid 2000s; and mostly popish experimental indies style today. Nevertheless, she has always distinctly remained herself.

Chara peaked in popularity in the mid-90s after her lead role in the successful Shunji Iwai film, Swaillowtail Butterfly. In the film, she played Glico (yes, taken from the snack company), a Chinese immigrant turned lead singer of the fictional Yen Town Band; to accompany the movie, Chara and the Yen Town Band released a record which took first place on the Japanese Oricon music chart for quite some time. On the right is a clip of her gospel-like performance of Happy Toy from the 1997 Asasaka Blitz tour, not long after the movie was released. (A couple members of the Yen Town Band played support on the tour, and TSPO's founder ASA-CHANG was on percussion. He helped produce some of her songs as well). Despite her emergence as a well-known singer, actress, and fashion icon, after the 90s, Chara focused on motherhood and preferred a more indie existence as a musician.

Yasashii Kimochi (やさしい気持ち; Kind Feelings) - one of her most popular songs, second only to Swallowtail Butterfly - was the first song of her's that I heard all those years ago. Still, the dreamlike feeling of the song sounds fresh to me. To my delight, in 2013 Chara released Jewel, a self-cover album which includes Yasashii Kimochi, Swallowail Butterfly, and 10 other songs. I thought it would be amazing to watch her perform after Jewel was released because, naturally, she would be playing several songs from across her discography that she hadn't played in a few years. Little did I know I'd get an opportunity to see her without having to go to Japan!

I loved the design of the entryway.
When I saw information on Chara's Facebook fansite that she would be performing at the Urban Simple Life Festival in Taipei, I was shocked! As an indie artist for much of her career, I didn't think Chara had enough fans in Taipei; I never thought I'd see her outside Japan. So when I realized I'd have a chance to watch her perform after years of waiting for the opportunity, I jumped at it and bought my ticket for the festival the day after they went on sale. 

Naturally, several other artists were performing at Simple Life. In addition, the festival was comprised of art displays and talks regarding aesthetics and urban life. However, I was incredibly busy in December, so I didn't make time to see any of the other events at the festival. Honestly, I was only interested in going because Chara was there!

There were several stages at the festival; Chara was to perform on the main stage. I arrived about 30 minutes before early, got a snack from the outdoor 7-11 set up for the event, and waited until around 10 minutes before her set to find a place in the front to stand. As it was a spacious outdoor venue, it was easy for me to get a spot toward the front of the crowd. A taller guy blocked my view occasionally, but I was able to see the stage comfortably for the entire one-hour performance. 
Many festival-goes made themselves comfortable
on the lawn picnic-style.
The crowd waiting for Chara.
Right after the arrival of the queen!
Right on time, Chara emerged from backstage along with The Novembers, an indie band who act as Chara's support when they tour with her. Chara did a twirl for the crowd in a tribal-themed dress and trademark healed ankle boots before beginning the concert with a lively version of Yasashii Kimochi. I couldn't believe I was only a few feet from her, finally seeing her in the flesh! I enjoyed the opener, but couldn't help but notice her voice wasn't completely warmed up. She struggled a little through the middle of the second song, Eien Wo Shiranaika (永遠を知らないか; Unknown Eternity [?]), but by the third - Sekai (世界; World) - she her voice regained its strength. 

A vibrant Chara after the rough beginning.
Mr. Tall Nautica made it a little challenging to take pics!
The Jewel versions of Happy Toy, Junior Sweet, and Time Machine followed with short interactions between Chara and the crowd in Japanese. As the concert was outdoors, it was great to listen to Tsuki to Amai Namida (月と甘い涙; The Moon and Sweet Tears) under an almost full-moon sky; I think it was the most magical portion of her performance.

The Novembers took over briefly and performed one of their songs. As I do not follow their band, I don't know what the song was called, yet it sounded beautiful; their vocalist has a relaxing voice.

A member of the Novembers performing a solo song.
The show ended with the Jewel album version of Swallowtail Butterfly, which is similar to the original 1996 version. I think the arrangement of the song wasn't altered much for Jewel as it is a classic track; I would have been saddened if it were changed too much. 

After about an hour, Chara and The Novembers thanked the crowd and disappeared backstage. I waited around, but after about 15 minutes it was clear there would be no encore. The short nature of the performance was a pity in my opinion, but as Chara was playing as part of a festival and sharing the stage, it was to be expected. 

I think the best aspect of the concert, aside from listening to a few of my favorite songs, was getting to "meet" Chara. In a mostly Taiwanese crowd, I am definitely noticeable and was able to make eye-contact with her a couple of times - a big deal when you're a huge fan! 

I would certainly love to see Chara again, preferably on one of her solo tours. I don't know what goes on behind the scenes when musicians prepare to perform, but I had the feeling that being out of her element might have affected her preparations, hence the lack of strength in the beginning of her performance. Nonetheless, she recovered quickly and showed her power and vocal range for most of the concert.

Rating: 4/5

By the way, after 19 (!) years, Chara has reunited temporarily with the Yen Town Band and will perform with them on September 12th of this year in Tokyo. Maybe there will be some miraculous twist of fate that will allow me to attend? Maybe not, but if you have the chance to see Chara, I highly suggest you do!


  1. This is great. Chara is great. She's writing her best music now. Secret Garden is so good. And other recent songs like Carol and Mister Lonely are some of my favorites. I'm so glad you write about her. I like your website.

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment!

      Yes, she is simply amazing! I think she has indeed gotten better with age. I really hope I can see her perform with the Yen Town Band this year, or at least see her in concert again. :)