Testing the Limits of Kawaii: Kawabe Chieco’s “Sakura Kiss”

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

Before “Sakura Kiss”, I was only vaguely aware of who Kawabe Chieco was. I knew she was part of the live-action Sailor Moon TV show – which I actually had several episodes of, a couple years back – though I couldn’t tell you which of the girls she was. I knew she released pop singles that were heavy on the cutesy stuff. And I knew there were photos of her in cute and funny situations.

None of it really interested me – well, actually, the Sailor Moon did, it was a pretty fun show (and I used to be a dedicated Sailor Moon fan, many many years ago) – but Chieco herself struck me as just another geinou trying to stand out from the crowd and failing. “Sakura Kiss” hasn’t changed my opinions too much – but if not making me a Chieco fan just yet, it’s made me appreciate what she’s capable of, given the right song and situation.

The PV’s concept is simplicity itself: Chieco dresses as a frog. Two buddies dress up as rabbits. They run around the city, toting a video camera, and film themselves around people who fall in love and kiss. Chieco has lunch afterwards. (Or maybe before, who knows.) The End.

In and of itself, the concept’s a bit too cute, a big whopping kawaii overdose waiting to happen. At first I told myself that Chieco in an animal mascot outfit must fulfill some wota’s sweat-soaked-polyester-felt fantasy out there, so maybe there’s a fetish thing going on here… But what could have been too saccharine for my taste – and keep in mind, a steady diet of Berryz has left me with a very high threshold for the unbearable lightness of kawaii – is actually heartwarming and fun because it knows exactly when to go too far and when to hold back.

For starters, I do appreciate that Chieco in her frog outfit never actually meddles in the interaction of the lovers. They don’t seem to even notice her, so wrapped up in each other that the presence of a pop idol in a huge artificial frog head is off their radar.

As a result, there is just a slight gesturing towards the idea of Chieco and her bunny pals being otherworldly emissaries of love – modern-day Cupids, unobserved but doing their part to ensure that true love finds its way.

The fact that such Cupids look so silly… well, a baby with wings and an archery set is pretty silly, too, right?

I also love the fact that the couples in the PV are from all walks of life, of all ages from little kids to senior citizens – though no middle-age couples were around, maybe they were all at work, conducting steamy affairs in stairwells and praying to God their spouses never find out – and that none of these couples looked particularly glamorous. The temptation to show a perfect couple in a perfect love match hasn’t seemed to enter the equation at all.

Here, Chieco shows she could have been a duck and not even needed an animal mascot to do it…

At some point, I guess Chieco’s love-mongering ways left her hungry. Interspersed between the shots of Chieco hovering around lovestruck couples is her having a hamburger and shake for lunch. In the proper mood, I do have a Homer Simpson-esque reaction to that meal. That is one very nice-looking hamburger, I must admit…

We also have shots of Chieco playing guitar. Unfortunately, she’s jumping around and strumming it in a very unconvincing way – it makes her look silly, and not in the good way that the frog outfit bestows on her. Luckily, her rabbit friends are holding up that blue-sky background to remind us that there are worst fates than playing bad air guitar while a real guitar’s strapped to you…

I have to say, watching the couples interact is very compelling… There is a range of behavior that’s perfectly in keeping with that prelude to a kiss. Some of the teenagers are tentative, unsure of their partner’s thoughts or desires but trying to signal their own intentions without scaring the other person away. The older couples tease and cajole, more confident in themselves and their partners as romance has stopped being so scary and actually becomes fun. The little kids have a boldness of movement, their romantic interludes just another bit of inconsequential childplay. The senior citizens have a warmth and familiarity, nestled into each other from years of togetherness.

And the wonder of it all is that the stark, almost documentarian way these couples are framed doesn’t make these interactions overly sentimental or Hallmark-esque. It is what it is, to quote a favorite reality show, and the nobility of love as a part of being human stands out in stark relief.

In that sense, Chieco and her bunny buddies have no need to interfere. Understanding the human desire for meaningful companionship, it’s just a matter of letting nature take its course. They can observe, they can revel in it – but to mess with it at all is to violate its beauty, its sanctity, its ability to blossom on its own accord. Kind of like what would have happened if some Berryz were forced to join Morning Musume…

So what function do the animal mascots perform in the video, thematically speaking? Are Chieco and pals supposed to be escaped lunatics from a nearby asylum? Are they supposed to be promoting the local All You Can Eat frog-and-rabbit-legs franchise but are goofing off on the job? Are they crusaders in the name of alternative fashion choices, brightening up a rainy day with bright splashes of pastel felt and wire meshed heads?

These rub rabbits… I’m not sure what to make of them, actually. Unlike Chieco, we don’t know who the fuck is inside there. For some reason, I want to believe Ishikawa Rika is in one of them, I’m not sure why. But not knowing anything about the people inside those costumes makes sense in that it doesn’t unnecessarily draw attention away from Chieco or the lovers… but it also causes a slight sense of unease. Like that guy in the bear costume in The Shining.

How do we know there isn’t a scowl behind the cute bunny smiles, that they’re not secretly flipping Chieco the middle finger because they have to play sidekick to her silly gadabout romps with a guitar? Who’s to say they’re not sweating up a storm and feeling claustrophobic in these outfits, ready to pass out and holding onto the sky background in the hopes of not hitting the ground just yet?

The mystery – who’s behind it, what gender these people are, how they know Chieco – adds a strange dimension to the PV. The dull truth is that they’re likely just a couple of crew members who lacked the seniority to refuse Bunny Bitch duty, and who made the best of an embarrassing situation. But as we don’t know one way or the other, I’ll continue with my conspiracy theories.

On a lighter note, it does seem that this trio of animal mascots aren’t always as on-point about their love quest as they could be. Watching them play basketball would have been amusing for a whole video, if only because such costumes are completely wrong for such movements.

If I’m hearing it right, the song has one of the greatest choruses I’ve heard in a song so effervescent: “Kiss kiss fall in love / Maybe you’re my love”. Adjusting for the accent, that first line becomes unbearably cute as it sounds more likem “Kees kees fall in lub”. It’s sweet, vaguely juvenile, remarkably optimisitic. We’re a long way from Pussy Galore’s “Groovy Hate Fuck”, boys and girls.

And the second line has what I call War Pigs Genius. For me, Ozzy Osbourne’s greatest moment wasn’t that TV show, but much earlier when he was writing the lyrics for “War Pigs” and decides the best word to rhyme with “masses” is… “masses”. So rhyming “love” with “love” here is okay, because it’s a cute song, another word to rhyme with “love” probably eluded the songwriters, and what really matters is that the bunny and frog costumes are all lined up.

And on a non-snotty note, the repetition actually does create a nice pop recitative feel to the chorus – so if something works, run with it.

Watching the PV again, I do get a sense the song runs a bit overlong. It tries to be a little more than a fun pop song, tries to push Chieco to really sing in certain parts – but those are actually weaker than the uber-buoyant boppy parts that stick in your head and never leave. I know I find myself chanting “Kees kees fall in love” at odd moments at work, even now, months after the fact.

As for Chieco herself… well, I must say I admire anyone willing to have this much fun in a big, clumsy frog costume. I had the earlier impression she’s supposed to be a light-hearted, fun-loving free spirit kind of geinou, and we do get a clear sense of that. It takes guts to appear this silly, even if one makes a living off being a wacky and free-spirited sort.

After all, there’s something of a jackass quality to wearing an animal mascot, no matter who you are. At the very least, it makes me think of the poor schlubs who’re stuck with promoting their fast food employer in such outfits, suffering abuse at the hand of passing pedestrians and motorists as they pray to God nobody recognizes it’s them.

And while it’s a little different when an idol does it, there’s still that whiff of debased integrity to consider. (Anybody besides me remember Paul Simon in a chicken suit? Not the politician, the singer.) Either you fight against it or you embrace it and run wild with it. Good idols know to enjoy it with a child-like simplicity and a manic sense of bull-in-a-china-shop aggression, and your fans will likely love you even more for that. (Hello! Project is actually really good about this, now that I think of it: all of their best and brightest seem to have done stints in animal mascot outfits and had a ball with it.)

And now that I think about it, there’s maybe something a little… erotic about the costume? Maybe it’s the shade of green. But I can picture it, “Mmm, baby. Drop the jumpsuit – but leave the frog head on. I’ll get the extra-large bottle of KY from the bathroom.”

As for the couples ignoring Chieco and her long-eared camera crew, what are we to think? Not that they’re invisible, but perhaps that they just take for granted that in the big city, there’ll be people in silly costumes running around? “At least these freaks aren’t asking me for a dollar to buy alcohol,” they may be thinking. Or, “If we ignore them, maybe they’ll go away and I’ll get this kiss.”

Or maybe they are invisible emissaries of a higher power! Though the camera is for what purposes? A blooper real of human relationships gone bad, to show to Eros or whoever these animals report to? “Oh, this is the one where she tried to feed him Nutter Butter cookies but he’s allergic to peanuts and went into anaphylactic shock…”

The funny part is, after a while a person in an animal costume gets boring real fast. I think that’s why we see Chieco running around and doing exercises and dance moves and so on, trying to keep the camera’s interests. As for the burger break sequences, we at least get a clear view of her face, how cute she is, the luscious pillows that are her lips… It’s a shame to hide such features – though really, if you have to hide it, a frog costume is a good choice.

The payoff of the video is when the couples start to actually kiss… again, a potentially cutesy moment is given a bit of dignity with the documentarian handling of the subjects, as well as an edge of absurdist humor with Chieco and the bunnies cheering in the background.

Is the kiss what Chieco and company are waiting for? To set things into motion, before moving on tothe next couple?

For that matter, perhaps there’s an aphrodisiac quality to frogs and bunnies? Or perhaps all these couple harbor their own cosplay fantasies and are whispering it to each other, sealing the deal with a kiss. Like this couple: “I’ll dress up as a moose if you’ll dress up like a French maid,” the woman says. He agrees, and they go smackity with the lips.

Or maybe there’s a bit of Mickey and Mallory to some of these couples. Maybe they’re trying to throw that frog freak girl off their track and, when Chieco least suspects it, make themselves some quality French cuisine of the idol, one leg at a time. Now there’s an alternate PV to conjure with…

Though I do have to wonder, what does she get out of this? What does Chieco get by being a Kermit-esque Jenny Appleseed of amour and spit-swapping?

The obvious answer is, she gets to be in a love song without alienating her fans by having a male love interest. She gets to act in a wacky cute way, which I assume is what her fans want, and charm the socks off viewers without having most of us wonder who gives her her own sakura kisses.

Because really, if you see anybody in an outfit like this, questions of their romantic life tend to fly out the window.

Unless you’re a plushie, of course.

Of course.

The food sequences does take on a different air, though, given that she denies herself love in this PV. Is it just hunger for food that drives her snack time, or is she sublimating, desiring something else?

Sure there’s the companion of other like-minded animal mascots of love. Perhaps there’s some weird thing going on between them? Do they swap sakura kisses with their animal heads still on? Are there women or men beneath the bunny costume? Again, the mystery of who’s in there takes on a new dimension!

And what does it mean that she can’t fit the burger in her mouth? Has the sublimation gone wrong? Do large lips mean a small mouth? Or is the attempt to substitute love with food shining a light on some other, more suggestive issue?

On the one hand, the obligatory Lexington Steele reference has to be made here. (And there it is.) On the other hand, it makes me want to eat a burger like that. Mmm… Lexington Steele burger…

Oddly, this video does not make me want to see more of Kawabe Chieco. The genki kawaii kowaii thing seems calibrated just so for thise PV, and it doesn’t spark any curiosity about her beyond this video.

Though it’s worth noting that with the video almost done, the burger goes pretty much uneaten. Freudians, take notice. Mmm… Freud burgers…

As a singer, she doesn’t stand out particularly. I never get a sense that she’s any more talented in that respect than as a model or actress or animal mascot or guitarist.

And while the song suits her well, pop confections as light as “Sakura Kiss” tend to stand on their own. Either you find it catchy or you don’t. This one caught me, but who’s to say that the next pop confection won’t come from some other actress / singer?

Maybe if she does a sequel to this video, perhaps with an army of multi-colored bunnies following her around on mopeds…? Hey, we may have something there!

The bunnies rush off, as they have blind dates at the Overlook Hotel…

The trio of animal mascots wait at the railway, strike a last pose…

… the train rushes past.

And like the supernatural emissaries of love I thought they could be, they disappear.

I like this video and song a lot. It has definite traction, and who knows? Maybe I’ll keep an eye out for Kawabe Chieco’s next single and video. If it’s anywhere as deep-dish strange and heartwarming as this one, I may still wind up a fan of hers…

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4 Responses to “Testing the Limits of Kawaii: Kawabe Chieco’s “Sakura Kiss””
  1. Chuck says:

    Chieco’s music has never appealed to me. It all seems incredibly generic. I suppose I’ll have to check this one out.

    Chieco herself seems kind of interesting, though. I like how she regularly blogs in English. And she’s apparently best friends with a porn star. That’s just neat.

    And she was better later on in Sailor Moon when her character actually became relevant to the A-plot of the show. Still not as good as Kitagawa Keiko or Sawai Miyu, but more memorable than early on.

  2. P. says:

    The TV length version must be viewed as well.

  3. Garamond says:

    I’d never heard of the girl before I read this, but I just now looked at the PV on Youtube. The song’s pretty catchy in my opinion, though I think that it and the PV is maybe a bit too cutesy. Still I found it quite charming.

    Your analysis was quite interesting/entertaining; I was especially impressed when you managed to bring Black Sabbath into it, Ray. And reading “The bunnies rush off, as they have blind dates at the Overlook Hotel…”, brought an evil-looking grin to my face hehe. 🙂

  4. Serene says:

    I think I’ve come across her name before.

    I think she looks kinda like Taiwanese pop singer Jolin Tsai.