Music Musings: Chara (1990-1997)

Chara with her children Himi and Sumire
in the background, 2015
Music Musings: Chara (1998-2005) can be found here.

My love for songstress and actress Miwa Watabiki—also known as Chara—began when I heard "Yasashii Kimochi" over a decade ago. As I've lightly recapped her history before, there's no need for me to gush too much about her here. 

After her school days, a time when she was a well-known chatterbox or charachara (ちゃらちゃら), Watabiki left for the big city. After working as a rollerskating waitress and backing musician in the 80's, she gave her first solo live performance in 1990 and released her debut album in 1991 as Chara, the shortened form of her old nickname "Charabiki". 

This post chronicles Chara's main releases between her debut and 1997, the undisputed peak of her career in terms of popularity.

1st Album: Sweet スウィート (1991)
Sweet (1991)

Chara's debut album barely sold over 10,000 copies. Nevertheless, I personally consider this album to a be a diamond in the rough and rank it as one of her best. From the beginning of her career, Chara has played a major role in the formation of her songs, especially the lyrics. Similar to many of her future albums, Chara had a hand in writing the lyrics for all the songs on this record.

Although her early 20-something cheekiness peaks through, this album also marks the establishment of her trademark contemplative, heart-wrenching love songs.

"Rainbow Gossip" is a strong opener with a funky tune which talks about the power of love and female confidence (I used it for my Character Street video). Aside from "No Toy"—the weak link of this record—its fast-paced nature contrasts the majority of the tracks on this album. The rest are slower tempo songs or ballads.

"Sweet", the title track, has a distinctly 90's pop sound and funny lyrics about a girl who loves a guy even though he's ridiculously arrogant and obnoxious. I believe everyone can relate to puppy love; it's a cute, peppy song.

Although they're all wonderful, out of the ballads "Usotsuku no ni Narenaide (Don't Get Used to Lying)"; "X-Mas"; and "Break These Chain" (yes, the grammar of the title is incorrect) are my favorite. The title of "Usotsuku no ni Narenaide" is pretty clear. The song speaks of the pain of being lied to by a lover, but loving them anyway. Chara's childlike voice brings home the emotion and makes the song all the more painful. Similarly, "X-mas" is a saccharine balled which speaks of heartache in the form of unrequited love.

"Break These Chain", about a painful relationship, is a fan favorite and the star of the record for me. Chara's voice switches from babylike to raspy without transition on this track, so its an acquired taste. Nevertheless, I love the emotion in the song, which truly transcends language. 

Top picks: With the exception of "No Toy", I love all the tracks on this album. 

Soul Kiss (1992)

2nd Album: Soul Kiss ソウルキス (1992)

Despite the innocent look of the album jacket, Chara ditched the innocent exterior she presented in Sweet for an edgier, almost risque vibe by the release of Soul Kiss. At this point, she was well-known for her skimpy outfits and onstage grinding.

This album was considerably more successful than Chara's debut, but I have less favorites from this record. Still, its a solid album with a good balance between soft rock songs and ballads.

"Are wa ne (Is that right)" and "Soul Kiss xxx" are my favorite ballads. To me, "Are wa ne" sounds like the voice of a girl who's been led on a number of times. It's a sombre song, but the music is lovely. Like many of Chara's songs, "Soul Kiss xxx" refers to uncertainty in regards to relationships, namely the difficulty of finding the right person.

"Ai no Jibaku Souchi (Love Suicide Bombing Gear)" is the crazy number of album (if not apparent by its title). The song features famous Japanese guitarist Rolly Teranishi (Suicide Club) who also lends his vocals on the track. Everyone wants to be in the sweet "strawberry land" of love, but sometimes we self destruct on the way there or soon after we arrive!

Top picks: "Are wa ne (Is that right)"; "Ai no Jibaku Souchi (Love Suicide Bombing Gear)"; "Soul Kiss xxx"

Violet Blue (1993)
3rd Album: Violet Blue ヴァイオレットブルー (1993)

While Violet Blue successfully reached the fourth spot on the Oricon music chart, the songs on this album are in my opinion either great or generic. While this album has it's weaknesses (i.e., the title track "Violet Blue"; "Gifted Child"; and "19 Lover"), there are some gems. 

"Mujinto ni Watashi o Motte Itte...(Take Me to a Deserted Island...)"; "Ice Cream"; and "Aoi Tori (Blue Bird)" are the stars of this record. "Mujinto ni Watashi o Motte Itte..." gives a vacation feel, but the mixing and strong versus soft contrast between the chorus and verses make it unique. The setting of the song seems like  a dream in which the speaker's prince slips away. The radio effect at the end of the track superimposed with the sound of waves brings the song home.

"Ice Cream" is one of the many perky songs on this album and has a hip-hop inspired beat. Ice cream is used as a symbol for love; sweet, but sometimes hard to obtain and keep. I love the ending of the song which is somewhere between singing and rapping.

"Aoi Tori" is an awesome album closer. The pulsing background rhythm offers a great build-up to the climax of the song. The "laughing" birds and rain create a haunting image that the speaker somehow finds peace in; quite a poetic song.

Top picks: "Mujinto ni Watashi o Motte Itte...(Take Me to a Deserted Island...)"; "Ice Cream"; "Aoi Tori (Blue Bird)"

Happy Toy (1994)
4th Album: Happy Toy ハッピートイ(1994)

Like Violet Blue (1993); Happy Toy came in at #4 on the Oricon charts. While this album was equally successful to its predecessor, I find this one to be the better of the two and more enjoyable as a whole. 

After the soft, lullaby-like opener "Baby, Baby", the burst of "Atashi Nande Dakishimetai n Darou? (Why do I Wanna Hug Him?)" begins. It's a frisky, loud "party" song about playing hard-to-get. As the song says, "I don't wanna do the chasing". "Tsumibukaka Ashite yo (Love Me Sinfully)" is similar to the aforementioned track in that it's extremely upbeat. However, Chara's vocal manipulation is more apparent on this track.

"Happy Toy" is a solid fan favorite which makes its way into several Chara concerts even today. Arguably one of the best tracks of her career, this bittersweet love song seems timeless as it doesn't show any traces of the 90's and may as well have been released this year. The music is like a marriage between jazz and symphony, truly unique. There's an indescribable passion in this song that isn't found on any other track on this album. 

The slight creepiness of "Mabataki (Blink)" is masked by it's happy-go-lucky music. The speaker describes their quest for affection, and although stricken by lovesickness ("My chest hurts"), she seems happy within the pain. It's a catchy song that's worthy of the repeat button.

Top picks: "Atashi Nande Dakishimetai n Darou? (Why Do I Wanna Hug Him?"; "Tsumibukaku Ashite yo (Love Me Sinfully)"; "Happy Toy"; "Mabataki (Blink)"

Asano (Tsumuji) and Chara (Coco)
in Shunji Iwai's Picnic (1994; released in 1996)
During the mid-90's, Chara stepped into the world of acting. Her first major role was in Shunji Iwai's Picnic (1996) in which she plays Coco, a committed teen who killed her identical twin sister in a game to see who was the "fake". Coco befriends Tadanobu Asano's (Ichi the Killer; 47 Ronin; Thor) character Tsumuji, a fellow patient who murdered his teacher for supposedly tormenting him. After misreading the Bible, the two wait for the end of the world.

Chara and Asano married in 1995 shortly before the birth of their daughter; he would go on to produce and direct some of her songs and music videos until their 2009 divorce.

Soundtrack (w/ The Yen Town Band): Montage モンタージュ (1996)

Chara (Glico) in Swallowtail Butterfly (1996)
Montage (1996)
Iwai also included Chara in his 1996 critically-acclaimed dystopian film Swallowtail Butterfly. She plays Glico, a trilingual slum prostitute with a swallowtail butterfly tattoo on her chest (so she can be identified if she dies alone) and a desire to became a music sensation. With stolen money and the Yen Town Band, a strange collection of Japanese natives and foreigners, she works toward her dream.

The film and soundtrack, which was a real-life release by the movie's Yen Town Band, propelled Chara into fame. "Swallowtail Butterfly (Ai no Uta; Love Song)" is undoubtably the most famous song from this album. It deserves its popularity because it's a genuinely beautiful ballad that talks of chasing dreams in an unfriendly environment, which naturally reflects the film. Several musicians have covered "Swallowtail Butterfly" including Kumi Koda, Scott Murphy, and Ayano Tsuji.

"Shanghai Baby" begins with "我愛你,愛愛嗎?" (I love you, do you love me?) which is repeated throughout the song, fitting as Glico is originally of China. The song has a jazzy lounge feeling to it, somewhat relaxing. However, the beat in the background keeps the listener awake in and in a dreamlike state.

In the movie, one of Glico's friends encourages her to sing Frank Sinatra's "My Way". Covering the classics, especially one so popular, can be a risky move but Chara's version is wonderful. It stays true to the original yet with a slight edge. Chara's English diction is clear and precise as well.

The album debuted at #1 on the Oricon music charts, indirectly making it one of Chara's most successful albums. After 19 years, the Yen Town Band has reunited this year and is currently playing shows across Japan.

Top picks: A sublime record in its entirety, particularly "Swallowtail Butterfly~Ai no Uta~".

Junior Sweet (1997)

5th Album: Junior Sweet ジュニアスウイート (1997)

After becoming a mother and promoting Montage, Chara returned to her solo work with a cleaner image; however, she has never compromised in the realm of her lyrics. Junior Sweet is the highlight of Chara's discography for a reason. Mixing funk, hard and soft rock, and pop, there is not a single song I dislike on this album.

Out of the ballads, "Milk" and "Time Machine" are my favorite. "Milk" is a song about dealing with hardship on one's own, told from the perspective of a cat living in a "mirrorless" world. The cat explains that in order just to get milk, she has to beg and cry, so we have nothing to complain about. Basically, we have to learn how to deal with our hardships; I relate deeply with this song. "Time Machine" is quite personal as Chara essentially sings about not being able to live without Asano, now a painful listen since they've divorced.

"Yasashii Kimochi (Kind Feelings)"; "Shimashima no Bambi (Striped Bambi)"; and "Junior Sweet" all lie between the realm of funk and pop; I've written about the first and last song previously. There's something slightly psychedelic about "Shimashima no Bambi"; the mixing on the song is some of the best on the album. To touch on "Junior Sweet" again, I love the sensual undertones of the track. As a line in the song goes, "There's nothing in the fridge to eat, so eat me instead". 

"Katta ni Kita (Came on Their Own)" and "Doko ni Itta n Daro? Ano Baka (Where'd He Go? That Idiot) are my favorite of the more rock-inspired tracks. "Katta ni Kita" is a heavy-hitting grunge song that you can't listen to just once. I love the early-90s garage feel it has, which is fitting as the song is about frustration. "Doko ni Itta n Daro? Ano Baka" is a fun, acoustic driven track with fun overlay of male vocals that play nicely with Chara's. 

Junior Sweet was her first and only album to debut at #1 on the Oricon music chart, and would eventually sell over a million copies. Chara's Asakasa Bliz live which followed the release of this album and included members of the Yen Town Band is chillingly awesome as a well.

Top picks: Not exaggerating, the entire album is love and is the best of this time period, if not her career. 

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