The uninitiated might have been puzzled by Tomoe Shinohara’s concert with Hikashu at the Japan Society on May 13. Here was a pop singer and TV personality best known for her gusto paired with a cult experimental band. On the surface, Shinohara’s bubbly stage presence—she entered the stage grinning infectiously and tossing fake flower petals onto the audience—and sweet pop music have no obvious connection to a techno group unorthodox enough to open the set with beatboxing.
But Shinohara has been a vocal fan of Hikashu for years, and the band asked her to perform with them. “Even when I’m in the very back of the venue, their concert is so powerful that I suddenly feel like I’m in the front row,” she says. “Today, the audience was very involved and very together with the band. I wanted to be in the audience with them.”
Shinohara may have the ‘genki’ mannerisms and cute outfits emblematic of the pop idol genre, but she’s multifaceted and comes off genuine. She writes her music, and she’s worked with left-field pop musicians, from the aforementioned Ishino and Hikashu to Hirotaka Shimizu from Cornelius’s band and Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto. Thus, her music has more artistic intrigue than, say, that of AKB48 or Johnny’s idols. “You can look at the side of me that’s an idol, but I also collaborate with Hikashu,” she says. “That’s all part of me.” Shinohara points out that some idols give off the impression they’re trying to be pretty little things. She says in English, “Almost idol is so scary manager, is”—she thrusts her finger and imitates a manager commanding his protégé to look cute and pretty. “I don’t have manager. Myself produce idol.” Back to Japanese, “Being an idol for me is about showing people I’m having a great time and having fun.”
The May 13 show was Shinohara’s first performance in New York City, and she loved it. “I felt like the audience was not just an audience but friends,” she reflects. “I didn’t feel like there was a step between us so I was higher up on the stage and the audience was one step lower. I felt as if it was just flat.”
Being in an audience was actually where Shinohara was first noticed more than 16 years ago. A Sony “bigshot” (her word choice) spotted her dressed flamboyantly and reacting enthusiastically to a concert, and he offered her a contract. When he asked her what musicians she liked, she mentioned Takkyuu Ishino of Denki Groove, who subsequently produced her zany 1996 debut album, Super Model. “Super lucky girl,” Shinohara describes herself in English.
The same year her album was released, Shinohara began co-hosting the music variety show LOVE LOVE Aishiteru on Fuji TV. In her own segment, “Pre Pre Pretty,” she interviewed Western celebrities including Tim Burton. Ever the achiever, she has acted in dramas and films since 1997, voiced anime characters, participated in a children’s TV program, led a dance and performance group, and created paintings live.
Shinohara’s also a certified aromatherapist who uses scents to set the mood for her shows. For a calm performance, she might use sandalwood. She wanted the Japan Society audience to be happy, so she chose a rose theme and used the scent and fake flower petals to communicate it.
In the United States, she’s is best known for “Ultra Relax,” the theme song to the 90’s anime Kodomo no Omocha. The cartoon is hyper, endearing, and surprising—much like Shinohara herself.
For the Japan Society show, Shinohara eschewed her well-known songs and dug up demos she had recorded a decade ago. She and Hikashu picked the songs they thought they could work with and put together a concert of never-before-heard material. However, Shinohara performed the same way she does in Japan, merely shifting her communicative focus from her words to her hands to compensate for the language barrier. “I wanted to bring myself as a gift,” she explains.
Originally, she and Hikashu had planned to put on a purely happy, fun show. But then the Tohoku earthquake sent Japan into turmoil on March 11, and the Japan Society decided to dedicate half of its ticket sales this season toward earthquake relief. “At this stage I’m not saying no to any charity concerts,” Shinohara says. “One of the messages I embedded in the back of my head was, ‘Don’t worry, things are going to be fine. Let’s just move forward together for recovery.’” Thus, the concert was a mood-lifter on the whole. Shinohara was playful, leading the audience in a dance and joking that Hikashu’s beatboxing sounded “like animals.”
Until this year, Shinohara had not released any new solo music since 2005. After the earthquake, she made the song “Sakura no saku made” available as a digital download on the charity Web site DIY Hearts. In November, she will release the songs she performed with Hikashu as solo recordings. It will be her first self-produced CD, which is why it’s been taking a long time to make.
Shinohara did include one song in tribute to the earthquake victims, a highlight consisting of just her singing and percussion by guest drummer Steve Eto. When I recalled the song was titled “Jasmine,” Shinohara was pleased. “Wah, I’m so happy,” she squealed.
Translation by Fumiko Miyamoto