ett (and the three nostalgias)
In his book Cognitive Variations, G.E.R. Lloyd discusses the Russian word toska, a word that denotes the feeling that one gets when “one wants some things to happen and knows they can’t happen.” It’s like a kind of nostalgia for a future that one already knows will never come to pass. This strikes me as being different from the American form of nostalgia, which seems to generally tread one of two paths: On the one hand there’s what I will call ‘eBay nostalgia,’ which is that cotton-candy pleasure we get when we encounter commercial artifacts from our childhood that it wouldn’t bother us (deep down) if we never actually saw again; on the other hand there is a deeper form of nostalgia that is a melancholy longing for a now unrecoverable past. There’s a whole politics that could be read into this: Russian toska as the base emotion of a citizenry that once invested its hopes in a perfect Soviet future while already fully aware that this future was extremely unlikely to come into existence vs. a U.S. imaginary that longs for the perfect democratic past that must surely have existed somewhere in the hearts and intentions of the Founding Fathers.
If you’re wondering what all of this could possibly have to do with music, the answer is that I had been excited for weeks to see one of my favorite bands — Ett — perform at Osaka’s Musica Japonica. Unfortunately, the night before the performance I acquired a terrible case of fever, chills, and stuffed-up head and that’s when the feeling of toska kicked in. A nostalgic longing for an event that I would now never get see. This especially depressed me because it has been ages and ages since I’ve had a chance to see Sayuri and Kei, who are wonderful people, and I was looking forward to saying hello to them again before returning to the States at the end of March.
Japanese has it’s own word for nostalgia — natsukashi (懐かし) — which has a slightly different feeling than the English nostalgia. In fact, natsukashi really has no direct English equivalent. It doesn’t exactly mean ‘nostalgia,’ or (as my electronic dictionary would have it) ‘dear, desired, missed.’ If I absolutely had to describe what natsukashi means I would have to say it’s ‘the feeling you get while having a fond memory of some certain aspect of your past.’ Often a sense of familiarity is part of this feeling, as well as a feeling of fulfillment that goes along with the act of remembering. And a sweet sadness might make its presence known as well. (LetsJapan has an interesting post about the word natsukashi that points out, in no uncertain terms, how much more commonly it’s used by Japanese people than nostalgia is by English speakers.)
Whenever I hear Ett’s music I get a little bit of a natsukashi feeling because they’re one of the first Japanese bands that I fell in love with after moving to Japan. My friend Marié and I went to see Ett play with Ryukusanburu Koen and it was an incredibly wonderful show. Marié plays accordion on a few tracks from 無茶の茶 (TEA/NO TEA), Ett’s third album, and also translated the lyrics for the album into English (I get a co-translator credit, but really I just gave a bit of advice about word choice and tone). Kei has called Ett’s style of music “Zen pop,” and there’s definitely something to this. Many of the lyrics are spare and contemplative , and several of them explicitly reference the problem of being/not being in the world, as in this lyric from “Who” —
You are not I.
You are also I.
It’s when you lose yourself
That you become yourself.
A lot of Ett’s lyrics also invoke the natsukashi feeling of (re)encountering elements of past experience in the present, or they stress the beautiful transience of experiences and customs that used to be as commonplace as breathing but that are now disappearing as quickly as a mist. Even the formal simplicity of the songs — many of them referring back to folk melodies, or the types of songs that children might once have learned to sing — enacts a kind nostalgic relay to the past. But I think that what’s important in the way that Ett uses natsukashi elements in their work is that these elements are always used not to produce a desire for the past, or to disparage the present, but rather to bring the fullness of an emotion connected to the past into the present and let it live and breath here. The moment of feeling natsukashi becomes a moment replete with contemplative fullness — joyful, fondly familiar, refreshing and sad, a rush of the life of the past that is as beautiful as a swallow’s flight through a warm hall in winter.
I wanted to find more videos of Ett, but it turns out that they’re few and far between. This video, a performance of the song “First Thing in the Open Morning,” is one of the better ones.
Early empty crispy morning is of a freshly-painted color
A wild dove is singing
There are people taking walks, even this early in the morning
The footsteps get near, crunch in the dirt, and fade into the distance
Meanwhile, the color becomes more and more vivid and bright
An absolutely beautiful morning
The same morning as always.
Looking for something in the empty mind —
It was all ocean.
On the quiet ocean, desperately
Meanwhile, the color becomes more
and more vivid and bright
An absolutely beautiful morning
I want to show it to you too
The same morning as always.
Of course, like all great Zen poets, Kei and Sayuri have a fantastic capacity for humor. This video — which is cut short just as the song starts to get going — is by Inunco of Aozoratei (青空亭) fame. The song is called “Tooth-brushing Song” and it’s a cautionary tale about oral hygiene:
If you don’t brush your teeth,
A cockroach will bite your lips
They’ll get swollen when you’re bitten
And it stings and hurts sometimes.
But it’s not just for kids —
Hey, you there, passed out
With beer in your mouth,
You’ll get bitten by a roach
Bitten, bitten, bitten
And if you miss Ett, you’ll be bitten by regret . . .
Filed under: animation, culture, Japan, music | 2 Comments
Tags: エット, 無茶の茶, Ett, 西本 さゆり, forms of nostalgia, Kei, music, natsukashi, Nishimoto Sayuri, nostalgia, Sayuri Nishimoto, TEA/NO TEA, toska, Zen, Zen pop, 懐かし, 渓