The Summer’s Best PV – Otsuka Ai’s “Smily”

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I’d been waiting for something better to show up, and Amuro Namie’s “Wo Wa” came pretty close… but with Fourth of July behind us and back-to-school commercials already appearing on TV, it’s time to make a decision. This year’s best summertime PV is none other than Otsuka Ai’s glorious, upbeat, demented “Smily”.

This PV is so good, it provokes a flurry of descriptions that require the F-word – especially when describing Otsuka Ai herself. She’s not just funny, she’s so fucking funny. She’s not just cute, she’s so fucking cute. And while she’s not the queen of hip pop, F-word or not, one often gets the sense that Otsuka Ai is the empress of the wide, wacky world of her mind.

Otsuka Ai is so fucking cute. She’s just adorable as all get-out. And that’s her secret weapon: she lures you inwith her cuteness, then whacks you over the head with weird things.

And unlike Amuro’s “Wo Wa,” the cuteness does make all the strangeness palatable. “Wo Wa” left me feeling unsettled after its strange pageantry of pink cats and rollerskating pom pom girls and pure Namie sexiness; there was a sense of a world not making sense, quite. In Otsuka Ai’s world, all the strange stuff she throws at you fits in, makes sense. It’s kind of like Alice in Wonderland, where everybody being insane makes the situation comfortably sane… once you’re in the right frame of mind. It’s the seduction of surrealism, but without the pretension.

That’s what Otsuka Ai’s cuteness does: it sucks you in and makes all the other weirdness acceptable. It drives you into her own frame of mind.

Otsuka’s posse. Gwen Stefani has her Harajuku girls; Otsuka Ai has her all-male Polynesian posse. And that’s way cooler than Gwen’s girls, if not nearly as slutty.

Now, there are very few situations where I’ll want to see a whole bunch of fat Polynesian men in speedos. I’m fine with looking at the fat Filipino guy in the mirror, but you’ve gotta have limits. Otsuka’s posse worked for me, though, because they were more than just “local color”, for lack of a better term. She could have made them background figures. Instead, they play different roles – victim, hero, friend – and Otsuka Ai’s bubbly personality makes you believe these are all possible. The stereotype of Polynesian natives – either a quaint people still bound to their grass skirt traditions, or the invisible workers who make the resort islands a paradise to tourists – is first parodied, then completely set aside. These guys don the grass skirts, then go on to speedos, then T-shirts. They may not stand out as individuals, but they’re not faceless props either. For the political correct person in me, that’s something of a triumph.

Okay, and I’ll admit it – a sick, sick part of me (which is distinctly politically incorrect) has this scenario where Otsuka Ai “thanks” her posse in true Annabel Chong fashion. Which I know didn’t happen, it couldn’t possibly have happened… but… but…

Well, you know. It’s fun to think about.

Kancho! Oh, yeah. One of the things I learned from my Japanese friends and wife was this little game. Seeing Otsuka Ai actually do it on some poor bastard in a speedo is priceless.

I like how she does the wind-up, too – fingers forming the gun, the arc of her hand movement – pow! Kancho!

And it’s funny to see the guy jump, of course. Though really, Otsuka Ai can stick her fingers up my ass whenever she wants. But that’s just me.

Queen of the cookout. While the boys prepare a barbecue and try to get a sneak taste, Otsuka keeps an eye on them and warns them off. It’s tasty looking food, I must admit

Watermelon pinatas. I’d seen this in other examples of Japanese pop culture, but it’s fun to see Otsuka Ai approach this with such enthusiasm. You know she wants to whack the shit out of the watermelon and eat whatever shards are left behind…

That said, I must admit to some puzzlement at this sport. Doesn’t a whole lot of watermelon get wasted? Or is that beside the point? It must be beside the point, if you think about it.

Otsuka Ai is so fucking scary. Given her idol persona, would you really trust her blindfolded with a stick? Best case scenario: she’s a woman-child who’ll flail the stick wildly wherever she likes. Worst case scenario: the voices in her head tell her to go all-out and destroy everything in her path. This is part of her unpredictability and, yes, it does have a dark side. Well, a sorta dark side.

Polynesian head pinatas. And to make this point, we see Otsuka Ai approaching a watermelon that… isn’t. The guy tries to look scared but doesn’t quite pull it off, which is something of a relief. Nevertheless, the idea that Otsuka Ai would actually split this guy’s head in two does seem likely, given that it’s Otsuka Ai and she’s in the middle of a watermelon-bashing frenzy.

Of course, it would’ve been even scarier if Otsuka Ai decided to keep playing kancho while blindfolded and armed with a big wooden stick…

Top-rate choreography. Walking down the middle of the street, Otsuka Ai and her posse stop, lift a leg, and do a chicken cluck. Okay, this isn’t Amuro Namie or Koda Kumi… or Minimoni, for that matter… but at least it’s to the rhythm of the song. And it’s goofy and we can picture it being a normal part of their daily walks.

The Smily lamp post. Whoever thought this up – a big anthropomorphic smily head swoops down and scares the hell out of Otsuka Ai and her all-male Polynesian posse – was on some serious, serious drugs.

I’d like to think it was Otsuka Ai’s idea. But of course, she doesn’t take drugs. (At least, I wouldn’t think so. What’d she need them for?)

Hey, the song is pretty catchy. It’s a feel-good summer song with a strong beat and easy to sing-along with. It has some masculine chanting parts like “Happy Days” which balances nicely with Otsuka Ai’s high-pitched girly voice. And when you get to the bridge, there’s a beautiful Link Wray guitar lick that makes the song momentarily transcendent, a shimmery wave of pure summer refreshment.

Plus, you get a cool Japanese guitarist who also does the chicken dance.

Otsuka Ai runs from a big red truck. The hazards of walking down the middle of a street – sooner or later, a big red truck is going to try to mow you down. This is perhaps the silliest part of the PV – again, Otsuka Ai can’t take this seriously, there’s no sense of danger in watching her run behind an obviously slow-moving vehicle. But we’re dealing with a living, breathing cartoon here – it’s not like we’d worry about Roadrunner, for Christ’s sake.

Otsuka Ai gets saved… sorta. One of her posse decides to save her by running up and… kicking her… out of harm’s way. That’s just fucking wrong. And funny, in a childish, sadistic way. This whole segment becomes deliriously silly, complete with cartoon-style sound effects.

Otsuka Ai is so fucking sexy. Okay, this is perhaps the wrong picture to make this statement…

Otsuka Ai is so fucking funny. Otsuka Ai’s fearlessness is most obvious in her willingness to look stupid for the sake of a laugh. She has the perfect look on her face here, that of the comical loser aware of her lot in life. It’s her Wile E Coyote moment. But this is only for the moment, as she’s clearly in command the rest of the video.

Otsuka Ai is so fucking cool. I don’t particularly care about cool – I’m too old, really – but Otsuka Ai is most definitely cool. It’s a state of mind, the way one projects oneself, and she has that in spades. And cool is about not caring what other people think, right? So why aren’t more crazy people cool, since they rarely care what other people think?

Otsuka Ai is so… beautiful in her own way. No, really. She’s not quite radiant, more like radioactive – filled with energy and unafraid to project a very quirky persona that could be as alienating to some as it is welcoming to others. While it’s possible to be indifferent to her, she actively provokes a reaction. She doesn’t hide behind old cliches of Jpop cuteness, she amps it up and then makes it toxic. She doesn’t resort to Jpop diva flourishes, she makes even grander – if mildly insane – gestures that deflate the notion of an artist having to take herself serious… just so long as the work itself is taken seriously. That is, jubilantly, maniacally, serious.

At her very best, Otsuka Ai seems to tap into some cosmic life force and render it into a pop song cartoon.

A happy ending to a happy day. Call me a sucker, but I thought the sunset was a perfect ending to the PV, especially with Otsuka Ai planted firmly on the shoulders of one of her posse. It’s a very traditional ending and shows that Otsuka Ai’s eclecticism is as much about knowing what old stuff worked well along with what new stuff should be tried out for the hell of it.

Otsuka Ai is unusual in that she seems to manipulate all the conventions of Japanese pop music, twist it to fit her own view of the world, and create works that project an optimism and happiness that feels far from shallow. It’s easy to have a dark view of the world and claim that it says “something deep.” It’s usually not true, either, just the same knee-jerk solipsisms that adolescents and arrested adolescents have spouted for thousands of years. It’s more difficult to have a view of the world that is positive, that seeks out and finds beauty, and give it a certain dramatic weight. Otsuka Ai at her very best – including this PV – manages to achieve that, to make you see the world the way she does. It isn’t so much a child’s sense of wonder as a child’s sense of mischief and glee – but filtered through a mature, even adult, sensibility. For all Otsuka Ai’s childish impulses, there’s a definite adult sensibility which gives her work a certain edge and danger, a twist of sex and violence that’s part of her success.

In that sense, she’s a true artist. A pop artist in the Warholian sense, perhaps, but that gives her a brighter, wider, more dynamic palette to work on. She can do serious, and pull that off as well – but it’s her persona of mad love goddess when she’s most compelling to me.