Music

Embracing the Japan of the past through music with Meitei

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

As the Reiwa Era begins, Japanese music producer Daisuke Fujita, aka Meitei, is looking forward while sticking to the traditions of the past. Fresh from last year’s spook-summoning album “Kwaidan,” which featured in “Best Albums of 2018” accolades curated by the likes of Pitchfork and Bandcamp, the Hiroshima-based music maker has just released a follow-up, titled “Komachi.”

And it’s in his childhood hometown memories where we find the origins, not just for this album, but his entire approach to creating music.

“As a junior high school student, when I took a bath I had to burn wood in a kama (furnace) to make a fire,” Fujita says. “After a while the hot water in the bath would be boiling.

“The toilet space was outside my house, and there was a hole two meters or more deep in the basement of the house to store food in.”

After growing up so close to nature in a rural town, Fujita has brought life to his music with samples of the natural world. Frogs croak in “Maboroshi,” a swaying nocturnal track that features phantomatic vocal samples swooping through the air like a resident ghost; recordings of water — trickling in “Ike,” sloshing waves in “Nami” — appear again and again as a motif throughout; insects crowd the ambient spaces in the chime-infused “Utano.” Nature is a constant.

So why is it so important to incorporate nature into the music?

“That is because it is one of the many facets of Japan,” Fujita explains. “Nature elicits vague emotions and rustic simplicity in Japan. These are beautiful moods.”

Beauty certainly makes itself known for the duration of “Komachi” — from the variegated field recordings that jostle for space in Fujita’s vignettes of sound, to the original instrumentation that softly floats through it and the intricate percussion keeping time, like twigs cracking and temple bells: a definitive style from the crackling textures of album opener “Seto.”

“It seems to be a daily lifestyle,” Fujita says. “I don’t feel like I’m composing music. I feel like I am using paints. I just leave my own spirit to the beautiful feeling and unique elements of Japan.”

Aside from nature, Fujita also has a strong connection with tradition — something he believes seems to have faded away for many people in Japan today.

“My grandmother managed a small temple. From an early age, I would spend the end of the day with her there,” he says. “We read a sutra. There was incense burning. We put our hands together and prayed. We hit mokugyo (wood blocks).”

Each track on “Komachi” seems to be laced with this same delicacy, a reverence for ceremony and the sorts of sounds you’d hear from a small countryside temple: the sounds of bells, voices and wooden percussion from within — the rest of the world, nature pacing, breathing, vibrating without.

While this might not be the same for everyone growing up across the country, it is something that has instilled in Fujita a reality of sensitivity to faith.

“For me this was normal,” he says. “But I think there are very few Japanese people doing such a thing. I’m not a monk, but this style is my standard. This feeling is not usual for modern Japanese people today.”

With a perpetually increasing urban population, Fujita believes there is what he refers to as the “lost Japanese mood.”

Cultural styles, like bathrooms separate from your house, storing food underground, having to light a fire to take a bath — practices of a bygone age — naturally evolve. “It’s the natural flow of time, I won’t deny it,” Fujita says. “However, I know such a lost sense of life. I still have such a sense of Japan alive in me.”

It is not the lamenting of a blatant loss of tradition here, but rather a preservation of something that this creator has always known. Growing up with such a rustic lifestyle and observing tradition and religion isn’t something that necessarily should be enforced, but it’s something that until recently had been the norm for vast swaths of Japanese people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

“I think that tradition should always evolved and be inherited,” Fujita says. “In a new era, it’s natural that something different from the image of Japan that has already been created will be created anew.”

Holding back Japanese people from traditions, however — Fujita believes — is a sense of tradition being authoritative. “It seems the presence of specialized knowledge and education has created a distance between tradition and people,” he says.

And though Fujita isn’t the only one feeling this, perhaps he feels it in a different, even conflicted way. Kissaten (cafes) have become popular in a kitsch way. Retro music finds new ears. Though not traditions, things that were not valued in the past are being re-evaluated. “Modern Japanese people are interested in Japanese identity. Now they think it’s cool,” the music maker says. “I think we are in the process of reaffirming the value of our own beauty.”

“Komachi” has been offered up to the world at a relevant time. With Heisei a relic of bubbles bursting and increased digitalization, the new era opens up like an untrodden path.

“Without a doubt Reiwa will be a new start for me,” Fujita says.

Interestingly, the artwork for “Komachi” is a ukiyo-e print by Suzuki Harunobu, “Woman Admiring Plum Blossoms at Night,” and the paragraph in the Manyoshu poem from which the name Reiwa itself was derived explicitly mentions spring and plum blossoms. A new start. Is this a coincidence?

Fujita prefers to call it synchronicity. “I want to express Japan without being bound by the image of Japan that has already been made,” he says.

And again, at the crux of all this is nature. Dazzling nature, strange nature, constant nature. And on “Komachi,” where Fujita has captured it, like a butterfly in a net, and preserved it for all to hear, it is both the backdrop and the detailed inlays of the album — its background and message. Replicated, celebrated and soundtracked, like in the delicately chiming hallucinatory lantern parade of “Parade,” or anywhere else on this precious gift of an album.

“Nature sometimes brings spiritual and bewitching darkness to Japanese life,” Fujita says. “Such relationships do not become irrelevant.”

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