For the uninitiated:
This is Seiko Oomori. After you’ve seen the video, you’re probably wondering, “What’s with this girl?” Well, strap yourself in, because it’s a long story.
The Anti-Idol Paradox
A lot of Anglophone commentators refer to her as an anti-idol. At first glance, one can see why she has this reputation. This is your typical idol song:
Pretty much fluffy bubblegum pop sung by teenage to young adult girls in cutesy skirts and high-pitched squeaky voices. It’s a huge phenomenon in Japan right now, to the point that they’re the centre of a lot of popular anime, video games, and anime conventions. Their appeal stems from them being girl-next-door archetypes, symbols of innocence and purity who fans can admire and follow closely. The genre is also fairly controversial, especially to people outside Japan, since idols’ images are highly controlled by management, their interactions with older male fans can be off-putting, and, well, they’re manufactured pop acts. Even other Japanese musicians will avoid the idol label because it carries a lack of talent connotation. But not Seiko. Despite being a very talented singer-songwriter who plays her own instruments, elements that tend to get an artist promoted as supposedly sticking it to the fakeness of the music industry (often by the music industry itself, funnily enough), she has nothing but admiration for idols.
Sure, at first glance and listen, she seems to subvert everything idols stand for. Many of her songs take perky, catchy idol melodies and turn them into something twisted and dissonant, often with pretty depressing lyrics and themes, and she can belt out some pretty sweet punk bangers. It helps that she also rose to prominence at around the same time that Brand-New Idol Society was literally declaring “IDOL IS DEAD” and mucking about with their violent, grotesque antics. And yet, calling her anti-idol is ironic. She endlessly fawns over Sayumi Michishige of Morning Musume, to the point of writing an entire song about her and even showing off her Sayumi body pillow (yes, really). She regularly writes the usual fluffy fare for other idols, and has a song in her own repertoire cheering idols on with their own catchphrases. If anything, she’s probably the biggest idol fangirl out there, and has done way more than most to promote them. To be honest, while there is merit in the subversion of idol conventions, I feel the “anti-idol” label has snobbery connotations coming from people who think they’re too good for pop music, which they end up projecting onto artists like Seiko even though it doesn’t really fit (worth noting that BiS isn’t truly against idols either; Pour Lui was also inspired by Morning Musume to start the group, and many people are fans of both traditional and alternative idols since they often intermingle).
Indeed, Seiko has repeatedly expressed her annoyance with being pigeonholed by labels, and deliberately contradicts herself to confound people. Her music is similarly all over the place, with her albums alternating between low-key and introspective to loud and in-your-face bombastic. If you pick any of her songs at random (or even from the above links), it’s like a genre roulette. And yet, you can instantly recognize her distinct voice and style, like there’s a common thread tying all her music together that says Seiko Oomori. At this point, one could say that’s her hook. She does her own thing, not giving a crap what people think, and is rewarded for standing out from the crowd. She’s a loud and vocal Japanese woman in a culture which primarily promotes conformity and submissiveness, and people admire that in her as a result. Heck, I myself find her (and alternative idols as a whole) a very welcome addition to the male-dominated punk genre, especially since up until being introduced to the likes of her and BiS, I’ve never seen punks that were so unapologetic girly before. Representation for the win, yo.
And yet, I still think there’s still more to the story.
The Menhera Connection
This is where I have to post a disclaimer: Be very careful with the term Menhera. Like with anything related to mental health, there’s a loaded, derogatory connotation to the term because of how stigmatized and misunderstood mental illness is. However, I post about it because I feel it’s key to truly understanding Seiko Oomori’s appeal.
Menhera, in short, refers to those seeking mental well-being. It has spawned its own variant of kawaii subculture, a kind of corrupted cuteness showcasing girls wearing their emotional wounds out in the open (for instance, its mascot, Menhera-chan). The whole thing may seem like Derelicte-style appropriation of mental health issues, but the key distinction is that it’s a form of self-expression by those who identify as Menhera, and not an outsider taking advantage of that self-expression (we hope).
In a way, it makes sense. Society generally expects people to hide their emotional pain, especially in a conformist society like Japan which doesn’t like people rocking the boat (heck, in the Japanese context, Menhera often gets used against anyone who shows nonconformist behaviour, similar to how the word “deviant” in English tends to be used primarily in a negative sense). Menhera art, in contrast, shows cracks in the happy, cutesy metaphorical mask, laying bare the troubled person underneath.
Seiko Oomori’s music sounds like it would fit in that mold, given that she has a tendency to go all in with her emotions, and she repeatedly sings about death and emptiness. Her passion is best heard in the opening song I posted, Ongaku wo Suteyo, Soshite Ongakue (Cast aside music, then move towards music), in which she repeatedly screams out the words “Music is not magic, but music is…,” sounding louder and more desperate with each iteration. And the album this song was first released on? Its name translates to “If I can’t use magic, I want to die.” As Ryo Miyauchi so aptly put it, “she actually takes this music thing very seriously.” So much so, that she became absolutely livid when another band retorted with “Music is magic.” (for context, it’s sort of like replying to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” in how it misses the point).
But again, Oomori isn’t the type you can easily pin down with labels (although “Menhera artist” arguably makes more sense than “anti-idol,” since she’s not doing it for shock value, but out of sincerity). Keita has argued that she herself is not Menhera, but a spokeswoman for Menhera. She doesn’t just wallow in her suffering, but by laying bare her heart, she also sends a message of strength and hope, that it’s possible to overcome pain. This, I’m convinced, is Seiko’s true power. The source of her magic.
The Patron Saint of the Shit and Ugly
I haven’t yet posted my personal favourite Seiko Oomori song, but now is time to bask in its glory.
This is it. The climax of her output thus far. Idol punk at its finest. A giant FUCK YOU to society’s norms from the voice of a cute Japanese woman who cast herself as a god trapped in a mortal’s body. The opening line? “Once upon a time, there were men and women and others.” Yes, she went there (it’s fitting that on the same album, she sang with the non-binary Noko of Shinsei Kamattechan). The rest? Well, I’ll just quote Ryo Miyauchi:
Hearing a musician who vaguely looks like me (at least from a foreigner’s eye) scream things like “I can’t even go outside in this body without putting on make up,” “I don’t really want to get married, I’m content, so don’t mind me,” or “ugly or just a piece of shit, I want to change the world” in my first language shattered my world. Now, watching her do the same but for a live audience? It’s a miracle any part of “Dogma Magma” was even allowed for broadcast in the first place.
I want to draw attention to the line, “Even the shit and ugly want to change the world.” It’s so powerful, Seiko even released a T-shirt of it. It ties in perfectly with the song’s thesis, that everyone deserves to be God, no matter who you are. And this is why her connection to Menhera subculture is relevant. Whether she identifies with the label is not as important as her sticking up for those who identify as Menhera, empowering those that most of society neglects. She may be a deviant idol, yet she, like all idols, makes music to spreading happiness and optimism to others.
And her next album’s opening song reaches out to her listeners in a more personal sense.
By laying bare her own insecurities as an artist, (Every second I die and am reborn again
Pick up the corpses one by one, and love; It’s scares me to have a moment that suits you turned into forever), she’s offering herself as a metaphorical sacrifice to the listener to convince them to live. One of the top voted comments has a commenter point out that she uploaded this video on September 1, which is infamous in Japan for being the day in which the most suicides occur in the country. After hearing her message, they are looking forward to school tomorrow even though they were late on that day.
I don’t think a YouTube comment has ever moved me to tears before, but I can’t help myself when reading that.
Every morning on Twitter, she posts a peppy message encouraging herself and others to make the best of the day. Such a thing may normally sound like trite lines from a self-help booklet, but remember, it’s in the context of a large part of her fanbase going through depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders. Fans constantly talk about Seiko saving them and her music having a healing effect that helps them keep going in their lives. It’s no wonder she’s so passionate about music, as she in turn is saved by them. The lyrics of Magic Mirror are dedicated to them (e.g. My fame shines only for your loneliness). Her words carry special meaning because she’s one of them. One of us.
I’ve written before about how amazing it is to see a movie accurately portray mental illness, even if many people don’t see that implication. I feel similarly about Seiko Oomori, like my personal media tastes were leading me to her music all along. I was always weird, but bottled up my negative feelings because I was used to people not giving a shit (with rare exceptions who I call friends). A lot of positive messaging didn’t work on me because I couldn’t relate to it (at worst, it would remind me of my North American suburban upbringing, a culture seemingly dedicated to turning a blind eye to people’s problems). But once I became obsessed with Seiko, I finally understood. All this time, I didn’t need to be told I wasn’t broken. What I needed to hear, was that I was broken, but that’s okay. Indeed, what motivated me to learn more about her as a person was reading Sayumi’s letter to her; in particular, the part about her learning from Seiko that it was okay to let out her negative emotions. That was particularly impactful coming from one of the most iconic idols out there. Even those who seem happy and well-adjusted are often hiding some deep insecurity, and it takes someone special that one can trust with one’s emotions to let them out. I guess that’s why I still believe in idol culture after all; it’s constantly showing how powerful female friendship can be.
All this is why I wanted to spread the word about one of the most interesting artists to come out of Japan. I have barely any knowledge of Japanese, and have relied on external sources to translate information about Seiko, so if anything I say is inaccurate, please let me know. For now, though, you can learn more about Seiko Oomori through the following links:
- Her Twitter and Line Blog. (in Japanese, natch)
- Kittys’ Blues posts lyrics translations.
- Ryo Miyauchi has some insightful commentary on her albums.
- Tokyo Girls Update also has interesting song interpretations.
- Not directly related, but Fuck Yeah Menhera is a good introduction to the term and associated subculture.