Dreaming Awake in Namie’s “Ningyo”

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

“Ningyo” was undoubtedly intended to contrast strikingly against the feel good R&B vibe of “Can’t Sleep, Can’t Eat, I’m Sick”, and even the language of the titles reflect differing sensibilities. While I certainly find myself prefering “Can’t Sleep” – more from an aversion to ballads than anything else – there are virtues to “Ningyo” that make it just as good, if not better in some ways.

The PV begins with the moon on a cloudy night, a moon large enough to reach out and grab…

The circle of the full moon then transitions to a door, establishing a subtle play on shifting images throughout the video…

The door opens slowly to reveal Namie, in a kimono.

So already, another contrast: if the Namie of “Can’t Sleep” is a modern young woman on the prowl for a good time, this Namie is in repose, waiting patiently in a kimono. The color scheme of “Can’t Sleep” Namie is primarily a gender-neutral white, while the “Ningyo” Namie is in a very feminine pink.

The background of the setting resembles a woodcut portrait common to feudal Japan, heightening the sense of history, of a time long past…

The song itself… well, it should put me to sleep. It’s very much a lullabye, with its gently monotonous rhythm, the lilt of strings being plucked, and bells chiming softly. In other words, it’s the kind of thing that usually annoys me. And did at first, I must admit.

However, repeated listenings benefit this song greatly – and considering what I wrote about Namie last time, this is just another case where she’s all about exceptions that prove the rule. Rather than growing tiresome and redundant over time, the lullabye corniness of the song gives way to an ever-stronger focus on Namie’s beautiful vocal delivery.

“Ningyo” is far and away a better showcase of Namie’s singing. She is given some range to show off the fullness of her voice, going from soft to more powerful belting over the course of the song.

And Namie’s Namie, so she’s also absolutely lovely – as usual. I’m not a kimono fetishist the way I am for schoolgirl outfits, but she wears it quite well here.

A schoolgirl outfit in this feudal Japanese setting would’ve been hot though.

Namie herself knows how to give that mix of vulnerability and strength, and here she’s accessible but – being alone – isn’t playing out the whole victim of Japanese feudal patriarchy thing, which a historical setting would require in a more realistic narrative.

There is a sorrow about her, a theatrically-paced deliberation in her movements that makes her solitude more meaningful.

Namie’s features are essentially melancholy, which is what makes her smiles seem guarded and rare in a setting such as this. The melancholy nature of her face and demeanor is used to good effect, as she never forces herself to look disturbed or troubled but lets a minor key of grief emerge in her singing and posing.

As a result, there is something seductive about Namie here, a woman awaiting her love with infinite patience, a lonely mistress much like the moon in the night sky.

The moon again, tempting the viewer, tempting Namie.

In effect, the moon is the counterpoint to Namie – two forces of nature inhabiting the night in shared solitude.

There is a sudden bloom of plant life that’s an interesting CGI effect, but immediately makes me think of Aa’s “First Kiss”. Not a bad thing in itself, by any means. Suzuki Airi in a schoolgirl outfit traipsing around this set would’ve been real hot…

There is a rush of energetic orchestration towards the middle of the song – a musical bridge which is appropriately reflected by Namie standing on a physical bridge. Rather than give in for some sudden wave of arms and emoting, Namie has the good sense to keep her stillness, to let the power of the instruments and her voice stand on their own.

The view of her legs is the closest we get to a sexy moment here, but is framed in such a way that it seems distant more than inviting.

Here is a key moment that sums up the PV and song’s sensibility: Namie sees the moon…

She reaches out and cups it in her hands…

And it truly is in her hands now, glowing and still looking like a big hunk of moldy irridiscent cheese. One may assume that tidal waves destroy whole continents since the moon’s gravitation pull has been brought down to earth… but of course, that’s being silly in my rationalism.

This is supposed to evoke a sense of dream logic, the way shapes can assume different meanings, the ability to do the impossible… It all seems to gesture towards some kind of psychological drama, but one played completely as subtext, as if we’re in the dream with Namie and not ready to wake and question just yet.

The dream logic of the moon-grab is followed through with a scene in a forest where there seem to be two Namies walking around… Dressed in white, the left-hand Namie may well be the moon, on her own quest like Namie the waiting lover.

Is this meant to be a splitting of self, a schism in her identity? An admission that there are two very different sides of her at work in her music?

And yet she integrates, becomes one Namie…

And this being a video of passivity – of letting the dream happen to you, of allowing its power to define the moment – she of course sits down on the forest floor again to do some more singing.

Giving this song a chance, I find that the dream logic and slow progression of the PV enhances “Ningyo” greatly, pulling at me emotionally in ways I’m reluctant to pin down. Is it impending parenthood giving the lullabye extra meaning? Maybe. Is the biography of Namie informing my reading of the PV, as it does whenever Namie shows her vulnerable side? Maybe not so much.

If anything, it is the sense of fragility – the moment out of time, or frozen in time – that makes this so compelling.

The closing shot of the woodcut-like imagery is a beautiful closer, reinforcing both the idea of a historical setting as well as the work existing outside of time.

“Ningyo” is an excellent counterpart to “Can’t Sleep” – it’s a very different beast, but also manages to stand up on its own merits. Give me the schoolgirls nine times out of ten… But a beautiful night sky and a waiting lover – even if just a dream – has its own virtues, as well.