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Tattoo you — Mika’s call to arms

Pop star Mika Nakashima talks about her career at the very pinnacle of Japanese music

by Robert Michael Poole

“I believe in my voice as a singer,” declares Mika Nakashima, alluding to the three words tattooed in English around her right wrist. ” ‘Trust your voice,’ in a broad sense, means we should accept everything and believe in many things. I learned this in New York and developed myself in many ways that I don’t want to ever forget.”

Her management looks on a little displeased. “I knew I’d be reprimanded (for getting tattoes) if I told them I was going to do it! But that’s why the tour is called ‘Trust Our Voice.’ “

The 26-year-old’s ability to balance her elegant good looks with her rebellious fashion sense has been a distinct trait of her own long journey to stardom since she chose not to attend high school in her youth. Raised in the provincial town of Hioki in Kagoshima Prefecture, she has since gone on to score five No. 1 albums — of which three topped the 1-million sales mark — and star in the screen adaptation of the famed Ai Yazawa manga “Nana” in 2005. Playing the character Nana Osaki, an ambitious young punk singer, only solidified the notion that behind the love songs and adult ballads of her music lay a more wayward soul. Discussing the star tattoo on her left wrist, she explains: “As I’ve been working like this, I have kind of resolved to live as a star. And I think I have something linked with the stars because I have so many songs about them. But when I told the audience of one of my live shows, they burst into laughter even though I meant it! They thought it was a joke.”

Nakashima is currently on the road supporting her second compilation, “No More Rules,” put together for makeup brand Kate, for which she is the international face. She also has a new single, “Over Load,” for which she was keen to write the lyrics. “Basically, I love writing lyrics. I get the inspiration from the sound and the melody, but this time I was given the theme first, about supporting people who are doing their best.”

Sporting luscious jet-black locks cropped long across her face and a stunning necklace adornment of a golden-green cluster of leaves, “Over Load” is another stylist’s triumph paraded by the eclectic Nakashima.

“I love to think of images and to feel things intuitively, so sometimes I get images in my head when I listen to the song. On the other hand, I love changing myself, so if my stylist or makeup artist says that something would suit me very well, I would try them out. I love anything, so to speak!”

Nakashima’s wide tastes may result from her isolated and fractured upbringing. Living in Hioki, she claims she had few influences.

“There’s nothing there. Not only music! Nothing! You could only listen to enka there!” she proclaims. “I loved singing so much, but I never thought of singing as my profession. I listened to enka singer Eiko Segawa and learned classical Japanese dance.”

“At first, I loved clothing and makeup, so I wanted to work for magazines, but I wasn’t tall enough to be a model.”

After graduation from junior high school, Nakashima started working right away and soon moved to Fukuoka by herself, where she lived in a house-share. “I’ve lived as I like since [I was] 15. There were three of us [in the house], they were older and taking care of me. I don’t know why I went to Fukuoka. I’ve just done all things by intuition in my life!”

Her big break came in acting when she was cast as the heroine Mirai Shimazaki in the Fuji TV drama “Kizudarake no Labusongu” (“A Wounded Love Song,” 2001), and sang its theme tune, “Stars.”

“I was at the final screening but didn’t know what it was for! The other girls [told me] it was for a drama.”

Her singing career took off immediately — debut album “True” in 2002 was a million selling No. 1.

“I was really surprised at first, but I assumed that that was the way it is, because I really knew nothing at all.”

After the relative safety of her first three albums, Nakashima began to experiment much more, perhaps enjoying the sort of liberty that only top-selling artists can attain. Asked the question, “Who is the real Mika Nakashima?,” she is herself lost for words. After much pondering, she responds: “The music of my voice comes first. I love ballads and actually I am not good with the full blast [of a band] because you can’t hear my voice.”

The most famous deviation from her established sound was punk singer Nana, the film character that allowed her to release a No. 1 single (“Glamorous Sky,” 2005) and album (“The End,” 2006) under that name. And she admits that she is much more like her screen counterpart than first appears.

“I found that Nana’s character was exactly like me when I was reading the original manga. I don’t think of myself as a bad girl. But I’d say it is easier to be thought of like that!”

As a clear counterpoint, in 2006, Nakashima got involved in the cleanup of Hurricane Katrina and ended up an honorary citizen of Memphis, Tenn., thanks to a gospel-filled charity single for New Orleans titled “All Hands Together.”

“We wanted to go to Memphis to shoot the promotion video, and then came Hurricane Katrina. We couldn’t just ignore it. We thought we should do something for New Orleans, the land where music was born. Some people say there might not have been music without New Orleans, so we thought we needed to do something for the land as our gratitude.”

“I was given a key (to the city) and I was told I would be treated as an honored guest.”

As well as Memphis, Nakashima is now a frequent visitor to New York, where she attends voice-training classes and rents an apartment near Wall Street. Despite the links to the U.S., however, she admits her English is barely improving. “I come over all timid in front of strangers, but it’s a nice location to live.”

She did, however, test her English out on one song recently, the rock track “I Don’t Know,” in 2008, under the pseudonym Mica 3 Chu.

“I wanted to vent my complaints and enjoy doing something really silly. That, and the music of the song was too short to put so many words in Japanese” she admits. “It was better in English, and if I feel like doing it [again], there will be more.”

True to the words she learned in New York, that “we should accept everything,” her latest tour features two opposing colors, purple and yellow, one color she loves and another that she hates. The combination has apparently given her a new appreciation of the latter.

“I tried to start doing something new” she explains. “And I want to change my previous image of a singer who sings a lot of ballads, so on this tour I sing more uptempo songs and, naturally, I get tired!”

During her performance at Tokyo’s Kokusai Forum on April 29, she was asked multiple questions by the mixed crowd. One fan calls out “Mika-chan, please praise me!,” to which she replies firmly but fairly “Praise? For what!” But she is at her most revealing when elaborating on her fascination with the beauty of imperfections and skin decorations. “I love scars and bruises, because they are beautiful and I can imagine stories of people from them,” she explains.

“From scars from a surgery, a burn, or a scald, I can imagine a lot of hard feelings and pain. I can imagine their stories from them. There is a big difference in life between before and after people get them. Tattoos as well. We need to have reasons, and we need resolution.”

“Over Load” was released May 13. Mika Nakashima performs at the NHK Hall in Yoyogi, Tokyo, July 8 and 9.