CHARA + James Iha: Flourishing Passionate and Peaceful Lifestyles August 2001

Chara has been one of the leading female songwriters in Japan for nearly a decade. She stands as a distinct figure in the music industry and is considered one of the most interesting individuals in Japan. Her lifestyle is looked upon with envy, and her personality adored by many. Obviously, the Chara fanatics idolize her, but the impression she has left upon society goes deeper than merely infatuating the die-hard fans. She has had a great influence on the evolving consciousness of the younger generation as a whole, not only in opening their awareness to new music and fashion, but in helping create a whole "positive" philosophy on living life.

Starting her life in music at the age of four, her talent has been nurtured slowly through the years. She debuted in 1991 with the single, "heaven," followed up with the album "sweet." With her natural songwriting skill and unique lyrics, she drew an immediate fan base. From the beginning of her career, live performances of her's have always been jam packed. Picking up speed in the 1990's, her talents as a performing artist didn't stop with music. The movie Swallow Tail Butterfly (1996), which she starred in, became an instant cult classic. This post-apocalyptic tale is set in a burnt-out future Tokyo which is called ironically, "Yen Town," because of all the money that can be plundered from within the chaotic city. Chara plays the role of a prostitute/singer. She and a group of cyber-punk freaks go cruising through life with the prime motive of having fun, while trying to get enough money to keep it that way. The image of Chara in this movie has become an archetype of "positive coolness" for the youth, who look up to the heavens and get a glimpse of the future – and 'lo and behold see a Swallow Tail Butterfly world.

There is an energy sweeping the youth in Japan sort of reminiscent of the "love and peace" movement in the U.S. in the 1960's. There are a few things, though, that clearly differ from the hippie movement. Mainly, that the times have changed, and there are many more possibilities now than then of finding the scene that fits your style. With the advances in technology, people are able to express their voice to more people than ever before, and everyone is slowly finding out that they are never alone. There is always someone out there who shares the same tastes. By reaching out and finding these like-minded people and getting together, a true bond is created. With this happening everywhere, everyone is getting hip to the fact that all everybody else wants is basically the same thing, which is mainly to have fun.

Once this consensus is reached, it is then possible to drop out of mainstream society and search for the ideal way of having fun, together with the group you are in. With the power of common tastes bonding you to a group, where's the need in having to think about things like a stable job? Most importantly, while each group continues their search, there is the common knowledge that all groups are aiming for the same thing. Then these groups, each with their own particular lifestyles, can mingle with each other to form a strongly bonded net of humans all with the common goal of having fun – each in their own way. In this way, respect for each other remains, while the versatility in the ways of having fun keeps increasing every time a new group is introduced into the network. The scene is nothing revolutionary or sensational, but just a quiet, ever-present vibe slowly nurturing within the youth. You can see it all around, in the way kids express themselves more freely in their clothes, language, and lifestyle. Chara has been one of the influential figures to lead this movement, especially in leading the young girls. The gurus of 21st century Japan are definitely from the entertainment business.

Chara and James Iha
Her most recent album, "Madrigal," includes songs that are collaborations with James Iha, guitarist of the former alternative giant, the Smashing Pumpkins. How these two got together is a mystery, but if you listen to Chara's songs and James Iha's album and compare, you can see how it might have come to be. Their songs have a very similar feel to them, an atmospheric gentleness that comes from within their personalities. A shiny warm glow that is pure and honest like a child's newly forming emotions. The combination has made a wonderful match. In "Madrigal," James composed and wrote the lyrics for two of the songs, "Boku ni Utsushite" and "Skirt." The first song in the album, "Boku ni Utsushite," is a quiet, melancholic song. Hints of the Smashing Pumpkins can be heard from the slow plucking riff of the acoustic guitar. "Skirt" is a song that is reminescent of the Smashing Pumpkins song "1979," and grooves with a nice running beat. This alternative spaced-out pop song has fazed sounds swinging left and right through the speakers. Also involved in the album is Andy Chase, producer of Tahiti 80, who helped out for five of the songs in the album.

Chara, James and Andy got together in Japan to record the songs for "Madrigal" this spring. Committing to the studio day and night, Chara and the staff worked overtime on the creation of the album. Unfortunately, the schedules of James and Andy forced them to return to the US before the completion of the album. Chara's staff gave them each a gameboy and a small polaroid camera as going-away presents, which apparently they were very happy to receive. After they left, Chara called and e-mailed them many times to make sure that the album was perfected to the final touches. Regardless of the limitations put on them by time and space, the album is a very good one. The songs have a sincere mellowness to them that brings out a nice simple smile. Listening to the album lying back in an armchair in the middle of a pinewood forest would be about just right.

At a concert during her "Live House Tour 21," Chara appeared with her band in striking form. One of the concerts in Tokyo was held in the new venue in Shibuya called "AX" on May 17. They started off the concert with "Lemon Candy," her latest single, and broke into a hit parade from the whole span of her career, in no particular order. Some of the songs were really hard alternative rock songs with a distinct guitar sound familiar to the psychedelic effects of the British band Verve. Others songs were really mellow and quiet, with Chara accompanying her singing with strumming on a light blue acoustic guitar. Some of the songs were like anthems, with the crowd singing along to them. During the pauses between songs, there would be cries from the audience, mostly from girls, calling out to their little baby, "Chara! Kawaii!" Chara sings with a powerful voice, and her expressions as she sings are quite a thing to watch. She expresses her emotions using her whole body, dancing and jumping around during songs, sort of like Bjork.

There is a distinct contrast between Chara singing and her just talking to the crowd. While being completely serious when she sings, when she talks she's just like a little girl. The way which she speaks to the crowd is like her talking to a friend who's sitting right next to her. Sort of in an amae mode (like to a lover when cuddled up together) and with a baby voice. At the concert she said things like, "Mm, there's so many boys out there today... Hmm. Wonder why?" The band had a very friendly aura around them, as if they knew each other well and enjoyed playing together. Through their presence, Chara and her band sent out the message of "friendly peace and love." The whole band was dressed in cyber-hippie clothing, with rainbow colors and mandala type designs. It seemed like a bunch of mellow ravers together after a party jamming. With the concert over, the crowds exited the event space to the sounds of "Truckin'" by the Grateful Dead.

The thing about Chara is that she sings directly from the heart. A large proportion of her fans are girls who have read her lyrics and sympathize with her. It's like she sings the resonance of a girl's heart. Her lyrics are so "in-your-face," direct and real, that it is hard to ignore her. Lots of her lyrics have an undertone of sex that sometimes becomes overtly explicit which also appeal to the girls who listen to her.

It's just honest emotion, and since Chara sings it in such an innocent way, there's no dirtiness implicit in it. But her lyrics go beyond the sexual, and into the philosophical. In her song, "Atashi no Kawaii Te" (my cute hand), which is the last song in her new album "Madrigal," she sings, "life is pretty much fulfilled by overwhelming emotions, step on the useless borders because life's a trip." Many of the youth today live off the emotions of "kimochii" (feeling good), and "tanoshii" (fun), and care only about these two sensations. Chara speaks the thoughts of these youth in her song, knowing that by being overwhelmed by these two emotions is enough to be content.

Chara and Asano Tadanobu
Chara's real name is Sato Miwa. She is 33 years old, and has a family of her own. She is married to the actor Asano Tadanobu (27), and they have two children, Sumire and Himi. The two met during the filming of the movie PiCNiC, in 1993. The couple got together beautifully. In an interview Chara recalls, "We both saw each other as ‘new type' people (she must have her own deep conception of what she was referring to with this term), so we bonded together filling the holes that we each had inside ourselves. It's not the kind of thing to say out loud, but by instinct, we felt and knew that we needed each other."

They got married in 1995 when they discovered that Chara was pregnant with Sumire, their first daughter. Chara has a tattoo of Tadanobu, Sumire and Himi's names on her body, a testimony to the close relationship the family must have. Tadanobu helps out with the lyrics for some of Chara's songs, and he himself likes to play music. He is the vocalist in an avante-garde band Mach 1.67 (the speed of the Earth's rotation around it's axis). In an interview, Chara states that their family life is very normal, "Well, we pretty much take care of ourselves, though our work keeps us really busy. If I don't have the time, then he takes the kids out to the zoo and stuff." There is a really strong bond between husband and wife, because she seems to know him very well. "He's a very emotional person. We'd be watching a documentary and all of a sudden he'd start crying sayin' "aww..." Living with him, he taught me how to be confident in myself. He taught me that it's important to be able to think to yourself, "Hey, I'm an alright person."

Asano Tadanobu is an actor who specializes in roles where he plays people who are a bit psychologically strange. He has appeared in several movies that have won awards in international movie festivals. In Maboroshi no Hikari (1995) which won an award in the Venetian movie festival, he played the role of a quiet mysterious husband in a happy family who suddenly commits suicide. In PiCNiC, directed by Iwai Shunji, he played the role of a boy who wished for the end of the world. Chara played the role of a girl in a mental institute who believed that when she died, the world would die also. The two meet, and because of the curious similarities within their souls, get together and go on a curious journey towards a cliff by the oceanside. The movie won an award in the Berlin Movie festival. The movie, Focus (1996) in which he played the role of a boy obsessed with listening in on other people's conversations by tapping into their phone lines, also won an award in the Berlin Movie festival. His most recent movie appearance is in Distance, which is about a religious sect in Japan much like the AUM Shinrikyo. The sect which Asano's character is in is called Shinri-no-Hakobune (ark of truth) and it commits an indiscriminate massacre that kills over a 100 people. The story is about five former members of the sect three years after the incident, who meet and have to face up to their pasts together.

Chara and Asano both have distinct worlds of their own, which makes for quite the unique couple. While on the outside their outstanding talents shine out in bright lights, their family lives are just the opposite: normal, quiet and peaceful. It is evident from the lives of Chara and Asano that people get power from being together with someone who is close. Both of them agree that their marriage has helped them concentrate more of their efforts on their careers. The two will probably continue to influence the youth in Japan with their work. Soon their will be a flurry of people in Japan who have passionate and peaceful lifestyles, living happy yet busy lives.