On June 18th I once again had the opportunity to experience a live performance by one of my all-time favorite musical artists, Mana. Before I provide my impressions however, I would like to offer a summary of how this musician has played such an important role in my life.
My history with Mana and his musical projects goes back to my days in junior high school, when I first discovered the world of what’s commonly known as visual kei music. I was already well-versed in the works of classic bands like X Japan and then-newcomer Dir en grey, but when I heard the strains of a song called “Color Me Blood Red” at a Japanese cultural convention one year, I was so intrigued that I quickly asked a more knowledgeable friend which artist was responsible for the lilting, crazed melody that had entranced me at that time. The name of the band was Malice Mizer. Even the band’s moniker was elegantly impressive in its implications, said to represent the two primary aspects, malice and misery, that characterize our fleeting existence in this world. Of course, being visual kei, a heavy emphasis was placed on the appearance of the band and their various stage performances. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Experimenting in an array period costumes and elegant makeup, practically every song released by the band had its own unique visual theme and appropriate imagery to accompany it. Live performances were certainly no exception, as concerts were often acted out as a series of dramatic plays intricately melded with the music and lyrics being offered to the audience, taking up subjects ranging from vampirism and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to epic romances of lost love, reincarnation, and journeys to the edge of sanity and beyond.
The band experienced several lineup changes over its 9-year history (1992-2001), experiencing the height of its popularity during the late 90s with vocalist Gackt (now a prolific solo artist, actor, and television personality) under the Nippon Columbia record label. Three core players always remained the same: Mana (guitar), Közi (guitar), and Yu~ki (bass). However, the member of the band who immediately engaged me with his haunting androgynous beauty and inspired performances on the guitar was Mana.
I have been interested in the world of the Gothic ever since I can remember, but I feel that Mana and his dark, refined vision truly catalyzed my love for the beauty of the night. Growing up in the more provincial regions of central Pennsylvania before the advent of high-speed (or even low-speed) Internet services, my choices for dark music were rather limited. Most people around me assumed that Gothic music was personified by Marilyn Manson and various death metal bands, or perhaps the more erudite may have even heard of The Cure. And while I greatly admire the aforementioned artists, I was unable to find the dignified and noble atmosphere that would call to mind the crumbling battlements of forgotten castles and the flying buttresses of magnificent cathedrals that featured so prominently in the Gothic literature that I was engrossed in at the time. I earnestly sought after an artist whose music and image both offered a noble vision of the darkly romantic. It was Mana who first provided that link for me.
As a fan in the early days, I ravenously procured any Malice Mizer merchandise that I could get my hands on, usually through the Internet or at various Japan-related conventions. These included fan magazines and sometimes fan translations of interviews and articles featuring the band and its members, and it was there that I learned more about Mana himself. Raised as the son of two music teachers, Mana cites as one of his primary musical influences the Baroque works to which he was exposed as a child, particularly those of Johann Sebastian Bach. In addition to more recognizable progressive rock elements inspired by metal acts such as Motley Crüe, Mana is always quick to mention the deep impression left on him by horror films, particularly those of Italian maestros Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava. Many of these movies were difficult to find in the US, and so it was through his introduction that I soon became enamored with immortal classics such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, whose phenomenal score was contributed by regular Argento collaborators Goblin, and Lucio Fulci’s macabre masterpiece The Beyond (L’aldilà). Along with Mario Bava’s superb Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), the works of these directors now rank among my favorite films of all time.
Also featured in the articles were some of Mana’s personal collections, and I discovered that we shared a passion for classic video games, and particularly the Castlevania series in its various incarnations. While I couldn’t read the Japanese text at the time, I looked on in wonder at photos of his collections of now-defunct console systems such as the 3DO Real, PC Engine, and CD-ROM2 (Mana currently writes a nostalgic gaming column for Game Labo magazine), as well as his various figurines and toys portraying Dracula and other creatures of the night. In short, Mana became something of a role model to me during my formative junior and senior high school years. His philosophy on life, tastes in music and cinema, and his flamboyant fashion sense all struck a chord deep inside of me, and inspired me to refine my clothing, lifestyle, and knowledge, and even pick up the guitar for a short period during my school years.
Unfortunately, only a few years after the departure of Gackt and the death of their beloved friend and drummer, Kami, Malice Mizer officially entered an indefinite hiatus as of December, 2001, but not before leaving behind what is, in my opinion, their most dramatic album. Bara no seidō plays out like an extended funerary dirge, heavy on chorus and operatic vocals and predominated by a sonorous pipe organ and racing harpsichord melodies. Used as the soundtrack of the band’s feature-length film interpretation of the Dracula tale, Bara no konrei, the songs on the album serve both as a requiem to their late drummer and a return to expression of the principles of malice and misery upon which the band was founded. It was during this period that Mana crystallized his image in a fashion that he christened “Gothic Lolita,” a combination of the popular Victorian doll-inspired Lolita attire and the dark color schemes and heavy makeup of Gothic fashion. The result was the production of his own clothing line, Moi-même-Moitié, with shops in several major cities around the country. Mana also exhibited a return to his metal roots, particularly in songs such as “Beast of Blood” and “Gensō no rakuen.”
One can imagine my disappointment at the news of their disbandment, but it wasn’t long before Mana announced his new sound project, Moi dix Mois, in 2002. Introducing a symphonic black metal sound that makes full use of Mana’s raging guitar and various classically inspired melodies, Moi dix Mois represents the culmination of his artistic vision, abandoning the French pop trappings of Malice Mizer to open up the adamantine gates of Hell and release his Luciferian vision in all of its fury. The band’s albums often carry occult or magical themes, based on Mana’s own unique symbols and incorporating various elements from Western mysticism and his own favorite films. When I eventually found my way to Japan, one of my private goals was to finally see and meet the man who had offered so much inspiration to me in my youth and, fortunately, I managed to do just that. Since 2006 I have attended more than 10 separate concerts, and have been able to meet Mana in person during that time as well, finally having the opportunity to shake hands with someone I have respected and admired for so long.
And that brings me to the Madō Gathering Concert – The Moon’s Eighth Night, which took place this past Saturday at Shibuya O-West in Tokyo, Japan. The rain was falling in a light drizzle when I arrived in Shibuya in full Moi-même-Moitié attire, and a darkly-clad group of fans was already hovering around the venue beneath a cloud of umbrellas. Among the very first fans to enter the concert hall, I quickly assumed my usual position at the front right of the stage…directly before the spot where Mana would be standing only a short while later. The venue was filled to capacity, and before long the band made its long awaited appearance to the ominous strains of “In Pardisum,” before breaking out into the violently melodic “The Seventh Veil.” Not only the crowd, but also the band seemed subdued at first, and an almost solemn atmosphere pervaded the hall. In fact, this very live should have been held on Mana’s birthday, March 19th, and was shifted to a later date due to the tragic events of Great East Japan Earthquake and the resultant tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis, the effects of which still reverberate throughout the nation.
As the event moved on, the tone shifted to a more optimistic one, as well-known tunes and new pieces from the latest D+Sect album stirred the crowd to a fever pitch. The ritual song “Sanctum Regnum” included the usual “D-I-X…DIX” hand movements, but it was the return of “Immortal Madness” with its chants of “Dix Love” that truly brought the crowd together as one under the lead of vocalist Seth. Of course, as one of the original purposes of the concert was to celebrate Mana’s birthday (according to a jocular comment in Mana’s blog, it was his birthday…in another dimension), it was soon time for the crowd to call out “Je t’aime, Mana-sama!” and summon him from backstage. The crowd’s reaction can hardly be described when, to our surprise and amazement, the hauntingly familiar melody of Malice Mizer’s “ma chérie ~itoshii kimi he~” was heard and Mana took the stage on a small scooter, reminiscent of his early live performances. In fact, Shibuya O-West was practically home territory for Malice Mizer in its early days, and the band made its start by playing at the small venue that now holds a great deal of fond memories for Mana. A beautiful cake was brought out for the occasion, and Mana extinguished the candles to the fans’ enthusiastic applause.
For this live, Mana introduced his new ESP jeune fille X lazuli -Cross Ray- guitar, which radiated with a mysterious blue light from the darkness as the music brought the listeners deeper into Mana’s unique world of Gothic romance. In addition to the new instrument (available at the Shibuya ESP Craft House), there were also several exciting announcements, including a new series of live performances to lead up to the band’s 10th anniversary, Le dixième anniversaire Live 2011~2012 – Tetsugaku no kakera, beginning with a prologue live on August 21. There was half-joking talk of a fan club trip to Mana’s hometown of Hiroshima to sample its famous variety of okonomiyaki, and I think I am not the only one hoping that there is some truth in those plans!
After a rousing mix of songs from the new album and older classics, the concert came to an end all too soon. Mana’s unique blend of symphonic/black metal and classical elements is still as vital and powerful as ever and, if the recent release of D+Sect is any indication, fans can only expect even more brilliant music of the night from this talented artist for Moi dix Mois’ 10th anniversary…and Beyond…