Thursday, June 14, 2007

Suicide, Hikikomori and the Death of Sakai Izumi


The visit of Michael Zielenziger to Japan has stimulated a frenzy of commentary on his book in the NBR Forum and a very energetic side argument on the prevalence of suicide in Japan.

Some mention has been made of the suicide by hanging of Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Matsuoka Toshikatsu and of Yamazaki Shin'ichi of Japan Green Resources stepping off the side of his apartment building into thin air.

It is odd...or perhaps not that in the storm of invective no one has made mention of the unique professional path and mysterious death of Sakai Izumi.

Sakai Izumi was The Voice of the Lost Decade. Ostensibly, she was the lead vocalist of a pop group called ZARD. The number two female recording artist in terms of singles sales, Sakai Izumi (real name: Komachi Sachiko) was both omnipresent and invisible. Her versions of her songs were the musical wallpaper of the 1990s as well as being massively popular as karaoke numbers.

However, unlike every other recording artist in Japan, Sakai refused to do live promotional work. Except for a very few appearances early in her career, she did not sing on any of the myriad Tops of the Pops television programs. She refused to go on live tours or do club performances. She never appeared on the talk shows or variety shows--the bane of the existence of every other pop performer, even ones with real pipes and chops like Utada Hikaru.

Instead, Sakai inhabited an image of a person who had put an impossible distance between herself and the rest of humanity. Her videos, when they were not a series of stills of her with her never looking at the camera, featured her driving around through unidentifiable landscapes. While her being in the driver's seat was visually empowering, she was always making the journey alone...and never seemed to be getting anywhere. She had a hard time staying in the frame...and again, never looked into the lens.

In time, the urban legend grew up that ZARD was the Japanese version of Milli Vanilli--that Sakai's was the pretty face shown in videos and on album covers but the voice belonged to someone else.

Part of the legend was true: there was really no band ZARD. Izumi wrote the songs and sang the vocals. The musicians who played the instruments remained exchangeable non-entities.

The legend about there another woman providing the vocals for ZARD recordings was both weird and unnecessary. The voice one heard was not very strong or achingly beautiful. Why would anyone go to all the trouble of pretending Sakai was the singer when the voice on the tracks was no better than average?

It was Sakai's maddening iconoclasm toward every convention of Japanese pop music promotion that made the legend believable, of course. Professionally, she did not exist--at least in terms of the whirlwind of idiocy that goes for normal interaction between a pop phenomenon, her fans and the media.

Others had managed to completely withdraw from popular culture superstardom before, most notably Hara Setsuko (who must still be alive, probably still living in seclusion in Kamakura). What made the ZARD phenomenon so different from Hara's retreat into obscurity was that Sakai was able to withdraw while continuing to work as a pop star.

[For those into hikikomori, NEETs and otaku culture, this would be a good point to start your exegesis]

What made her complete withdrawal from normal pop star life all the stranger was that Sakai had started out in what at first glance would be one of the least likely places to produce a withdrawn, publicity-allergic singer-songwriter: the world of auto racing queens.

It must have seemed the perfect marketing ploy to a producer--have a crowd of non-descript musicians fronted by one of the fantasy dolls in spandex who has made her living by doing nothing more than displaying her body alongside high performance automobiles and handsome daredevil race car drivers while hundreds of drooling jerks photograph her from every angle.

Indeed the entire invisible life of Sakai--not even the scandal magazines had anything to say about her or managed to take paparazzi photographs of her--may have been spent in escape of those first few years when she had been ogled and pawed by the throng.

What only added to the weirdness of the ZARD phenomenon was Sakai's ability to withdraw from normal life not only in spatial terms but temporal ones as well. Even as the years rolled past, the young woman in the photographs and snippets of video did not age. Indeed, while she grew thinner, more transparent, her hair pulled back into a school girl's pony tail, she only increased in loveliness-- the eternal onēsan, always singing about her romantic dreams, never succeeding in getting married or leaving home.

It is not clear what finally pulled Sakai out of her shell for a brief experiment in public performance. After trying a live set before a limited number of fans in 1999 (on a cruise liner!) Sakai finally decided to do a musical tour in 2004, 13 years after the debut ZARD single.

On the tour Sakai would appear out of a black hole at the center of a matte black stage. She would be wearing simple matte black clothing. The only gesture toward excess was the brigade of musicians, all dressed in black as well. 10 performances over 4 months.

These 2004 tour dates were to be her only public appearances.

Following the detection of cervical cancer in mid-2006, Sakai was to spend the last year of her life in Keio Hospital. Knowing Japanese hospitalization practices and Izumi's obsessive privacy, it must have been a prison-like 11 months of increasingly painful half-life.

In April of this year, doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized to her lungs.

Sakai died on May 27, according to reports, from a brain injury resulting from a fall. That she had fallen on or from a multistoried wheelchair access ramp and was discovered in the morning "on the hospital grounds" somehow led to no police inquiry or calls for an investigation of hospital practices.

She fell, hit her head and died--that's all.

Did the Makenai de ("Don't Be Defeated") girl give up on life, as the Mainichi Online morbidly wonders?

Given the circumstances... probably yes.

But while Matsuoka Toshikatsu and Yamazaki Shin'ichi will each be making their 1/32,000 th contribution to next year's totals of suicides in Japan, Sakai Izumi's death will be listed among the accidents.

Accidents do happen.

* * *
I have embedded one of the later ZARD hits Eien in the side column. Clicking on the image starts the feed at the top of this post. For a taste of ZARD imagery and music, here is a You Tube clip of one of her later hits Eien (Forever).

8 comments:

"Cassandra" said...

It is difficult to be poignant with such parsimony. Well done, and thanks for that!

Christopher said...

Fascinating and informative. Thank you.

Jay said...

I just found out this week from youtube and was deeply saddened. I listen to her all the time as a Gen X'er from college in Los Angeles in the mid-90s until now... I just can't believe that she died... I'm glad that I'm not the only one who was touched by her and her music.... Forever Zard. -Jay

Anonymous said...

i do believe that sakai's voice is way beyond lovely. a moment of listening to her singing made my bro realized how 'achingly beautiful' her voice was- just how it had gotten my attention too... She, i think was the best female performer that I have ever encountered in the jpop world, and made anime soundtracks totaly inspirational at that. Yep, I am a fan. And it pains me to confront the fact that she's already gone, and what's left of her are precious memories, intangible in all its sense and will surely, pragmatically speaking, wud fade in time... Thanks for the info u shared. It helped. For a short period of time of making myself inclined with zard's lead singer, I feel like I've known her enough already. I hope I could witness more of her though...

MTC said...

anonymous -

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Sakai Izumi's voice, her work and her life.

In terms of pure sound production, Sakai's voice was pretty but not strong or technically proficient. That being said, Sakai was a phenomenon, an artist whose work touched a wide range of individuals. She was a woman who laid down her own rules about what she could or would not do, in defiance of convention. In an industry that on a daily basis redefines the definitions of shameless self-promotion and crude exploitation, she lived a life of near hermetic privacy and refinement.

Anonymous said...

This is very sad. She is one of my favorite Japanese music artist. My heart goes out to her fans, her friends, and most of all, her family, the people who knew her best. May you Rest in Peace, Izumi Sakai. Thanks for the fantastic music! We will miss you.

Anonymous said...

Her voice is never the most powerful, technically proficient or beautiful one. But she has a gift which only a few singers has. She can sing into one's heart and comfort its soul.

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to be more mistaken and presumptuous. Tired of reading English language opinions on Japanese subjects revealing a deep incongruity with facts, reality, and understanding of cultural differences.