Favorite PVs of 2005: #1, Amuro Namie’s “Wo Wa”

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

It seems I’m all out of Top 10 lists. Except this one.

So since I’ve been putting it off for as long as possible (yes, I’ve been a bastard), here’s my Favorite PV of 2005: Amuro Namie’s "Wo Wa". Which may seem a tad anti-climactic – after all, I’ve already written about this particular video at great length… but as it turns out, I do have a lot more to say about this video and why it’s my favorite PV in a year of some very excellent PVs. It’s a video that rewards repeat viewings and intense thought, yet fools you into thinking otherwise.

Namie’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Let’s consider how the PV starts: Amuro is in a room, lying on the floor, watching an old-fashioned TV. I originally wrote, "It’d be stylishly postmodern if it wasn’t so cliche." Which means I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have. Or perhaps that I fell too easily for this PV’s well-tricked-out mousetrap of desire.

Consider what she views: two Pink Panthers writing down "Queen of Hip Hop"… and then an act of erasure, as female Pink erases the H and replaces it with a P. Which is, of course, the title Amuro has taken on.

And then the female Pink writes the song title and then dashes off with the proper cartoon sound-effect. It’s all here in the beginning: the power of the gaze, the simplicity of iconography, the complementary doubling, erasure and revision… What I initially took as a strange psychosexual pageantry of lame cartoon characters and hot Avex grinding was actually much, much more.

The whole PV is a cartoon. This seems obvious, but the Pink Panthers aren’t the only cartoony aspect of the PV. The whole video is about exagerration and excess, doused in various shades of pink. It may involve real people, but the live action sequences of this PV are as removed from reality as the Pink Panther sequences. It’s all through the looking glass of the television screen.

The act of watching is very much on point. That’s the whole point of this tracking shot from the DJ, to the dancers taking a drink…

And when it reaches Namie, they all look straight at the camera – they know we’re watching and wondering what we’re doing here. It’s a break of the fourth wall, one greeted with puzzlement and annoyance.

She knows you’re out there and she’s going to get you good.

Iconography is everything. Roller-skates…

Pom-poms…

Roller-skating cheerleaders. Wheels and skirt shots, constant movement, pale pink uniforms, with Namie at the center of this sexually-charged eight-wheeled circus.

The iconic sexual power of the rollerskating cheerleader is worth unraveling. On the one hand,  there’s the clear allure of a specific fantasy: high school dreams of being the quarterback taking his pick of the latest crop of would-be homecoming queens. The cheerleader is alternately a vision of virginal allure or of knowing seduction, depending on what decade you’re looking at. The roller skates, though, tend to point to an earlier, more innocent time – except that’s been subverted by pop culture as well, with roller disco (a la Roller Girl from Boogie Nights) was much more overt, providing sleek speed and fantasies of imbalance waiting to be taken advantage of.

So what we have with both the cheerleader and the rollerskating are symbols that are twinned in their own rights, that can be about both innocence and seduction. That’s where the modern allure and dis-ease of the rollerskating cheerleader comes from: is she the 50s high school girl next door, or the 70s roller queen looking to get laid?

In this case, neither. She’s the newer, more improved model: the Jpop idol cosplay dance troupe. Cosplay being a form of madquerade and roleplaying, trucking in the iconography of pop culture to try to take on its aura for oneself…

Visual sound effects are a clue. To point out how cartoonish this world is, Amuro has comic book sound effects for the chorus… Wo Wo…

Wa Wa…

And as with cartoons, incredible physical feats are performed effortlessly. It’s not quite Roadrunner running past a cliff’s edge, but these acrobatics function as sexualized play. The sexual I’ve already discussed…

But the play aspect is important as well. It’s all a put-on, after all. The acrobatics promise you a world of unearthly carnal delights – but how accessible are those delights? And must they be enjoyed under the watchful eye of an audience, as cheerleaders do? It’s all about oohs and ahhs as well as wo’s and wa’s – the spectacle and the dazzle is pleasurable on several different levels.

In short, Namie’s messing with the viewers. She knows you’re out there and she’s giving you the most ridiculous display of pop cutie poontang you’re likely to ever want or ask for.

That’s part and parcel of being a pop diva – the slap and tickle, the tease of the elaborate sexual fantasies couched in slinky pop songs. Which isn’t to discount the song – it may not be as aggressively horny as "Want Me, Want Me," but it has much going for it. The move from whistling wistfulness to the insistent drum beat is a master stroke, and the song doesn’t have to try very hard to win over the listener. The c
horus has the cachet of silliness associated with classic pop, and Namie coos masterfully through the song with sangfroid insouciance. Here she’s the regal queen of hip pop, cool headed and pretending to be oblivious at how she drives the listener crazy just by being Amuro Namie.

Night and day. The first hint we get that the doubling theme is going to play a bigger role is when day gives way to night for Amuro and her cheerleaders.

We should also pay attention to the actual back-up dancers with Amuro. Not the cheerleaders, but the women in white with pink visors. While the rollerskating cheerleaders circle Amuro like little pink wagon trains, these four dancers are at her side the entire time.

Like Namie, they’re not as iconic as the cheerleaders. They’re more modern-day, casual, and in on the joke – as the tracking shot shows. If the cheerleaders are fluffers for the viewer’s private AV fantasy, these dancers are the untouchable starlets of scenes not in your script.

But then, what does that makes Namie herself? The star of the show, but one who’s been directing your attention all over the place. Look at the cheerleaders! Look at the dancers! Look at the Pink Panthers!

If "Want Me, Want Me" is all about being direct and demanding (and smartly cautious), "Wo Wa" is all about being abstruse, mysterious, about leading you on and not knowing where you stand. Even the main Namie-ism of the song reflects this: "Who’s got the Wo Wa?" What is the wo wa? Is it a reference to something sexual? Or is it a straight-ahead metafictive reference to the song itself, like "Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp"? It seems to be a big deal to her, and yet the pleasure of it seems to be in the way it’s sung, the pucker of lips as if about to whistle, the movement of the mouth. Indeed, watching Namie actually whistle is the sexiest thing about the entire PV.

All that busy-ness – cheerleaders and pom poms and panthers – and all that misdirection should have clued me in that this PV is an elaborate con, an elaborate play on seduction and not seduction itself. But of course, we’re looking through the looking glass so how effective could seduction be anyway?

Namie and her back-up dancers strike a pose and then just shake their pom-poms. It’s a tease that leads into the second cartoon sequence and – beyond the bend – a kind of thematic closure…

Highway to heaven. For some reason, I think of California when we get to this sequence. Why not Florida or some other tropical coast – perhaps the road to Haleiwa? Because the decadence associated with a certain image of California – I’m thinking Venice Beach, or even San Narciso in The Crying of Lot 49 – is the perfect setting for all that we’ve seen so far. This should be no different.

Female Pink is trying to appear unimpressed, standoffish…

But male Pink is intent on impressing her with how cool he is. He gives a little play of sex-and-death with all his automobile shenanigans, and yet the death part isn’t really a big deal – they’re cartoon characters, after all, and don’t have to crash if they don’t want to. And if they did, nobody ever gets hurt in these cartoons for long.

Even Freud is a cartoon joke. Let’s face it, a car going through a tunnel is pretty fucking obvious…  And make Pink standing erect in the driver’s seat should fill in whatever doubts are left.

But it also provides a connection between the two worlds. The darkness of the cartoon tunnel…

Gives way to a live-action light at the end…

The idol rewrites herself. Amuro in silhouette, and looking so lovely for it. I originally compared her to the  "naked-girl mudflaps on eighteen wheelers" – and that’s the point. Here she’s re-inscripting herself in the story of the PV, taking on the nature of an ideogram before playing a new role.

The movement of her body – undulating, erotically charged…

The play between light and dark. It’s no longer about night and day but a simple spotlight – the artifice has been stripped down to a basic on/off switch, and Amuro inhabits both aspects with supreme confidence. In the light, her face becomes the center of attention…

In the dark, what we get is her body in motion. Which is essentially her? The way she looks at us or the way she moves?

I originally drooled over the black dress she wears here, and I haven’t stopped drooling since. This is a look that’s meant to catch your attention – the hair is now windswept instead of kewpie doll curly, the lines are sleeker and more direct. There’s no distractions – no cheerleaders, no pom poms, no panthers – just Namie herself, being Namie.

The real video seduction is now under way.

The temptation is to say that the pink cheerleader Namie is a bit of cosplay frippery and this black-clad Namie is the "real" Namie, the round-the-way girl who’s a little bit street and a little bit flash.

But of course, that would be buying into the whole cult of authenticity that surrounds so-called "street" pop culture. More often than not, it’s a crock of shit.

Amuro knows this, of course. For all her J-urban cool and rat-a-tat dance moves, she never makes as if this is more than a facade for the music. That is, "street" is a style for her and her music, not a way of life. It is as much of a put-on – albeit a very pleasurable, highly marketable put-on – as the pink-soaked cheerleader.

These are complementary aspects of her idol persona. Here we have the Queen of Pop – sweet in pink, a tad juvenile, a cheerleader with her girl friends.

And here’s the Queen of Hip – considerably more mature in her look, more serious and womanly, with male back-up dancers that accentuate sexuality.

One of the most intriguing things about Amuro as an idol is how she alternates masterfully between gently vulnerable and a kind of weary hardness. Which isn’t that unusual, except it feels so real in both cases. When she looks sweet and friendly, you’re sucked in immediately – it’s the eyes and the tilt of the head. But when she looks pissed and tired of it all, that’s just as convincing. This is another way her Queen of Hip Pop persona splits into neatly complementary halves, the gentle angel and the gruff devil.

Part of it may be reading her biography into her persona. Sometimes you’ve gotta wonder how the tragedies in her life influenced her – or for that matter, just being a divorced mother with a very demanding job. But if that’s the case, maybe that’s an in-road to seeing her pop music as art – to find the self-expression and depth of meaning that goes beyond simple posturing.

I’m not going to get into an involved discussion of the place of capital-a Art in Jpop here – that’s best left for its own series of long-winded essays down the road – but I find it interesting how the Avex divas are split in how their personae create a sense of art in their presentation. On the one hand, you have the splash and flash of strict postmodernists like Koda Kumi and Ayumi Hamasaki – they thrive on being mercurial and playing with their images, often creating elaborate PV worlds in the process. Then there are the faux postmodernists with essentialist hearts – Otsuka Ai and Amuro – who also know how to manipulate their images, but more clearly play with a "real" self that helps guide and make sense of the more outrageous moments. For Otsuka Ai, it’s the free-spirited (and seemingly bipolar) artistic soul; for Namie, it’s the mournful woman-child, trained to be an idol from a very young age and struggling with its cost.

(Though I guess I should add a faux postmodernist is as good as a strict postmodernist, since all postmodernism is supposed to be faux anyways…)

We get a last shot of Namie’s silhouette… and then the PV’s last cartoon sequence, which wraps a big pink ribbon around the video’s playful message…

The fine art of seduction. The two Pinks dancing at the beach, female Pink keeping her distance a little, playing hard-to-get.

And male Pink decides to game the moment with a tap on the coconut tree.

Shake your coconuts. That’s all you really need to do. Shake em loose…

… Let them drop…

… Hit the car’s hood…  

… pop open the hood with a loud sound…

… and send the female Pink running scared right into male Pink’s arms.

It’s a Rube Goldberg kind of romance – elaborately mechanistic, built off an unlikely chain of pre-planned events.

But it works. And now, I can’t help but look at male Pink’s winking at us and think of Amuro also winking at the viewer throughout the PV. If you can fall for the whistling, the sexy costumes, the rollerskating cheerleaders, and all these other contrivances, you’re no different from female Pink and Amuro’s as masterful in her manipulation of you as male Pink.

In short, the male Pink Panther is an alter-ego for Namie the Idol: dazzling you with her skills and inviting you into an unreal world of strange, pink desire. 

Crunch crunch crunch. The framing of the entire PV with Namie watching the Pink Panther make clear the unreal / metafictive motifs. We’re like her, watching passively like a bored child on Saturday morning. In a way, this PV is all about creating the outsized seduction fantasy machine expected from pop music – but in such a way that the seams and creases show, to have all these signs telling us to Ignore the Woman Behind the Curtain just so we can see Namie there, muching on popcorn and taking it all in, just like us. Except where we’re watching her, we’re wrong to assume she’s watching the Pink Panther – what she really has under her gaze, under her control, is her audience.

So now the appeal of the PV – and why it’s my favorite of the year – should be clear. This was not only the sexiest PV of the year, it was also the smartest and most playful – postmodernism meets peek-a-boo, so to speak. And it took me a good part of 2005 to figure it out.