In this age of hyperbole, we are far too quick to label everything as “art.” But in the case of “Kodou no Himitsu” by Tokyo Girls’ Style, I think it legitimately applies.
Fans of Tokyo Girls’ Style have been familiar with this song for a while now, having seen it performed numerous times at livestreamed shows. But with this PV, “Kodou no Himitsu” finally comes into its own—not just as “Hey we made a video to go with the song,” but as a unique work of art, greater than the sum of its parts. Everything comes together to express something that could not have been done by hearing the song alone or just seeing it performed live. “Kodou no Himitsu,” as a four-minute video production, becomes complete.
As I may have mentioned in the past, I’m not one to bother much with lyrics, whether Japanese or English. Many of them are just placeholders for greater musical ideas at large and besides there are lyrically only 3 types of idol songs (1. Love is great, 2. Love sucks, 3. Do your best). So I’m not about to say whether the lyrics of “Kodou no Himitsu” have some grand meaning to them. From what I can pick out, they seem like Type 1.5, that bittersweet variation between 1. and 2. where you’re overcome by an aching longing and wish you could understand your own feelings. But THAT’S NOT THE POINT. The point is, now that the video exists, you don’t need the lyrics anyway, because the message is there for your eyes to see. And it is a message deeper and more thought-provoking than lyrics alone might be capable of.
Even the title itself has hidden layers of meaning—the little-used kanji compound “kodou,” which means “beat” or “pulse” or “palpitation,” could mean different things, and when the song only existed in live form I always thought it was something Engrish-y like “secret of pulse” or a “secret pulse” or “palpitating secret.” (“Himitsu,” of course, meaning “secret.”) But ONE LOOK AT THE TITLE CARD and it makes freaking sense now. Not just any pulse or beat, but a heartbeat! I feel kinda stupid for not picking that up from the dictionary definition. But there it is, the “secret of a heartbeat,” or a “heartbeat’s secret,” or even—knowing the ambiguity of Japanese prepositions/particles—the “secret within a heartbeat”? Now that’s a thought that sticks in one’s head. It suggests a world that even song cannot express—that deep within the inner workings of one’s heart, there are feelings we cannot ever hope to understand, even when we are experiencing them.
And then the actual video begins.
In live incarnations of this song, the girls have always introduced it in slightly different ways. Perhaps one of the more interesting observations was when Miyu pointed out the “robot-like” aspect of the dance routine. The herky-jerky movements and stop-and-go rotation certainly suggest as much, but when combined with those lush goth-loli dresses, one does not think robots. One thinks clockwork. Clockwork girls. It’s very steampunk. Another hauntingly beautiful idea.
You see, it plays right into the very heart (heartbeat?) of the idol concept. For an idol to perform, and for an audience to observe that performance, is to challenge the distinctions between fantasy and reality. They are real human beings, yes, but how much of it is an on-stage facade? How much of it is an expression of their true selves, and how much of it is a rehearsed act? The real answer lies somewhere between the critics’ sanctimonious cries of “DUUHHHRRRR ALL IDOLS ARE FAKE” and the fannish wailing of “YURI LOOKED AT ME THAT MUST MEAN SHE IS MY WAIFU.” And it is not that Tokyo Girls’ Style, in this video, is telling you the answer. They are simply pointing out the existence of the question.
The idea of this eternal duel between the real and the artificial is further reinforced by the other elements in the video: the ropes, the glass case, the ghostly observers drifting by. Not that it is glorifying the objectification or exploitation of the group, but simply questioning why it must be so. Is this all the Tokyo Girls’ Style means to you? Are they just a museum piece to be enjoyed from afar? Another aspect of idolhood, after all, is to be so beautiful that one cannot possibly be human—how many times has a fan uttered, “she must be an angel from another world!”—but the negative consequence of that is to see idols as little more than dolls to be kept in a display case. The performer-audience relationship is a sacred thing, yet if the audience should devalue the existence of performers by perceiving them as things and not people, it’s not very fair, is it?
Which is why the rest of the video is also necessary—and why idol acts do the things they do. They hold handshake events and make up goofy memes and act lame on purpose, because as some famouse social critic may have once said, “Idols are perfect because they are imperfect.” They break the angelic illusion to give us a glimpse of reality, an inkling that a human heart does beat within the doll-like exterior, that maybe there are ways to break through the glass case. Like what happens 1 minute and 40 seconds in.
The broken-glass metaphor comes to life with shots like this these (one for each of the girls), where a still pose “shatters” to reveal a face staring directly at the viewer. More than just a cool effect, it symbolizes that crossing over between worlds—the shattering of barriers between artificial and real. Eye contact, after all, is one of the universal aspects of human communication, and when someone looks at you, you cannot deny that the person is alive. The doll, so to speak, has been awakened.
The inkblot metaphor plays into the real-artificial duality as well, although perhaps from a more indirect angle. First there is the idea of ink itself: it is shown in the video dripping from the ropes, as well as in mysterious floating cubes and in exploding clouds like this one. Ink is one of the building blocks of creating fantasy worlds: with ink, we have writing and drawing, precursors to literature and art, which in turn leads to fiction and representation and things that we pretend are real. Photocards and photobooks are made from ink. When an idol signs her carefully memorized autograph, she does so with ink. Ink is for creating symbols, but never for creating the thing itself; ink is for recording history but not the actual historical event, ink gives you cute pictures of Tokyo Girls’ Style in the magazines but it will never give you actual Tokyo Girls’ Style.
So when ink clouds come shooting into the five life-size vials at 2:55, and morphs into actual Tokyo Girls’ Style, the thought of such an impossibility shakes up our imaginations. Yes, it’s also a cool-looking effect, but that overt violation of the reality-fantasy barrier (and the role of ink as an element of that barrier) is what makes the scene’s content so striking.
And then there are the inkblots, animating into bizarre symmetrical shapes that have little to do with the video but everything to do with Rorschach and how “reality is what you perceive it to be.” Look at this random blobby shape, what to do you see? A standard psychologist’s question, but perhaps also a question that we should ask ourselves as observers of the idol world. Look at Tokyo Girls’ Style, what do you see? Look at AKB48, what do you see? Look at SNSD, what do you see? Much as we like to chatter about the concrete qualities of the performers, it is how we perceive those performers that also shapes the fan experience. Everyone hears the same songs and watches the same videos, but let me tell you something [not to drift into AKB territory or anything]—”Hikoukigumo” always transports me back to a balcony in New York; “Ponytail to Shushu” always takes me back to a California convention hall in midsummer. And “Love Like Candy Floss” will be forever associated with that sleepless week in February when I stayed up for damn near every Ustream event TGS was at.
Our memories, our perceptions, and our interaction as fans inform an idol’s existence as much as the work they do on stage, in the studio, and behind the scenes. That’s what the inkblots are telling us.
They spend their careers creating worlds of fantasy, and it is the work of the audience to build the corresponding reality.
But now, before I dig myself too deep a rabbit hole dissecting the visual elements of the video—remember how I said it was more than the sum of its parts? That it’s the overall package that makes this work complete? Well now we can briefly consider the music (and I WILL try to be brief or we’ll be chewing on theory all night).
One of the secondary elements of music—aside from the basics of pitch, rhythm, and volume—is articulation, or the WAY you play a note. Of course this is easier on some instruments than others; a struck piano key is always going to sound like a struck piano key, whereas drawing a bow across a violin can produce infinitely many variations of tone (although only some of them are variations worth listening to). But one of the basic concepts in articulation is that you can play staccato, short and choppy, or legato, long and flowing, and that interesting things happen when you contrast the two.
In the case of “Kodou no Himitsu,” a very interesting thing happens when you consider the transition from the verse to the chorus. Up to 0:52, all the lines that are sung are short, staccato phrases, herky-jerky bursts of melody accentuated by the clockwork dance moves. Going into the prechorus, the melody lines become smoother, but still with brief pauses to keep them apart—and of course the last phrase at 1:03 is the staccato-est, with sharp percussion beats to mark it out. That phrase also happens to mirror the last part of the intro: it’s where things come to a halting, mechanical stop. Clockwork girls, singing their short and choppy melody.
And then, a transformation.
That entire first line of the chorus (1:09-1:12) is long, flowing, and as legato as a sensuous legato melody can be. And it would not be nearly as impactful were it not for the contrast it creates against the articulation in the verse. Equally remarkable is how the dance moves change to match this new mode of expression: the hand-behind-the-head leg curls, which are as smooth and flowing as the earlier steps are detached and robotic. This is no coincidence on the choreographer’s part: it’s a form of visual articulation designed to match the musical articulation that is happening at the same time. tl;dr: SERIOUSLY, HOW AMAZING IS THIS?
Other ear-catching contrasts abound: the harmonic shifts from a minor-keyed intro riff, to flashes of major in the verse, to a prechorus that’s predominantly major but ends emphatically in minor—and then busting out in a major-keyed chorus. So much more varied and sophisticated than the Hammer-of-Thor key-changes that usually happen in a ***48 single. That interplay between major and minor, between staccato and legato, is not just musical gimmickry but itself a manifestation of the song’s underlying message: the unending battle between two different worlds. The staccato, the minor-keyed, the robotic, the artificial, forever locked in a yin-and-yang dance with the legato, the major-keyed, the flowing, the real. Human girls acting like clockwork girls to remind us of how human they are—and it is we, as observers, who ultimately determine that line between reality and humanity.
This video does not have the answer. It only points out the existence of the question. Is it right to lock idols away forever, to keep them immortalized as beautiful little dolls inside roped-off glass cases? It does us well to ponder that, to contemplate our perception of reality—and whether that perception veers over too much into fantasy. In the end, it is the video’s explosive final scene that comes closest to leaning one way or the other: the glass shatters irrevocably, leaving only an empty display case.
And in that emptiness, all the dreams and creations our minds can hold.