Sakura songs home in on the reassuringly familiar

by Kendall Manlove

It is late March, and the crowds are about to descend in droves on the parks and gardens for hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing.

Sakura (cherry blossom) is also all over the air waves. Tune in, for example, to the music channels MTV Japan or Space Shower TV and you’ll be inundated with videos reflecting seasonal sentiments, employing the same metaphors and imagery.

Last year, Ketsumeishi struck big with “Sakura.” This year, “hip-pop” duo Funky Monkey Babys (their rapping is slightly better than their command of English spelling), singer-songwriter Angela Aki and female pop duo Rythem, among too many others, have got in on the act, registering chart hits with sakura-related songs.

But what — if anything — do these songs tell us about cherry blossoms and their significance to the Japanese? Joey Carbone, a bilingual American songwriter/producer based in Los Angeles and Tokyo who has penned hits for SMAP and Crystal Kay, says, “Sakura signifies new beginnings. The gorgeous flowers last only one week and signify that life is not just beautiful, but also brief.”

The chorus of “Lovin’ Life,” the new single from Funky Monkey Babys, sticks to traditional pop metaphors of love as a blossoming flower: “Kimi ni sasagu tada hitotsu no ai ga kono mune ni kono mune ni sakimidareteru. . . . Sakura, sakura, sakura, sakuyo boku no kokoro ni (I offer you this only one love that blossoms in this bosom. . . . Cherry blossoms blooming in my heart).” Almost enough to make a person weep.

“Sakura Iro (Color of Sakura),” the new single from Angela Aki, focuses more on the temporal aspects of the cherry blossom. For Aki, the inevitable loss of love comes with the passing of time, represented by the evanescent color of cherry blossoms. “Sakura iro no jidai o wa- surenai (I will not forget this period of my life),” she pleads. In the video, Aki sways at the piano as sakura petals flutter around her. Ouch.

Female pop duo Rythem’s new single, “Sakura Uta (Sakura Song),” utilizes similar metaphors. “Sakura mai ochite yuku saratte hitotsu nokorazu (Cherry-blossom petals dance in the sky until none remain),” they reminisce, before asking, “Rainen wa donna iro shita sakura ga saiteiru to omou? (What color will next year’s sakura bloom?)” Whitish pink? Or perhaps pinkish white?

Likening the brief period in which the cherry blossoms appear and then flutter to the ground to love has become the essence of such songs, as predictable as the fanfare surrounding the flowers themselves. Has the barrage of songs about sakura, with their similar themes, diluted its significance?

Not according to Yuta Ohashi, a 23-year-old student living in Hyogo Prefecture. For Ohashi, there is something reassuring in the these songs’ perennial themes, namely “love, affection and human relations.”

Spring also marks the end of the annual Japanese school year, and many of the singles released around this time, with videos featuring tearful high-school kids bidding farewell to their childhood, are adopted as graduation songs as well. The video of “Lovin’ Life,” for example, portrays a teacher recalling her own high-school days at the graduation ceremony for her students. The publications firm Recruit goes one step further, employing Chat Monchy’s “Saraba Seishun (Farewell Youth)” in an online ad congratulating high-school graduates. “Madananimo owatte inai shi, nanimo hajimatte i- nai (Nothing has ended, and nothing has begun),” the ad notes.

For Sae Nishida, a 22-year-old student from Kyoto’s Doshisha University and a fan of Aki’s “Sakura Iro,” the cherry trees symbolize the fleetingness of time, and are apt in describing her feelings. “I am graduating soon and I am becoming a little sentimental, so for me sakura represent a parting, graduation and feelings of melancholy.”

Even if the current crop give you the hump with hanami, a quick straw poll revealed a few “classic” sakura tunes from Japan’s pop past that you may like try next time you’re at karaoke. Both Carbone and Nishida recommend Ke- tsumeishi’s “Sakura,” while no story on sakura-related songs would be complete without a mention of Utada Hikaru’s “Sakura Drops,” a No. 1 hit in 2002.

This is not to say that these older songs are any different, which is in many ways the point. In the midst of new beginnings, it looks like we welcome songs that remind us of who we are, and where we’ve been. Take the chorus of “Sakura” by Ketsumeishi: “Hanabira mai chiru kioku maimodoru (Sakura petals dance and fall, and memories come back to me).” Sound familiar?