Her footprints as an artist, seen in her best-hits album “everywhere”
by Osamu Takahashi
Maaya Sakamoto is a woman who was born on March 31, 1980 in Tōkyō. Though she enrolled in a youth theatrical agency when she was eight, at the time that agency did not take part in stage productions, and instead focused on singing for commercial jingles and dubbing for foreign films.
Starting then, her young career centered on voice acting, dubbing lines for girls in foreign movies and television dramas. Even today, she handles much of the voice work for Natalie Portman, whose roles she has dubbed since her early days. Of late, if you have seen such young, popular actresses as Scarlett Johannson or Jessica Alba on TV, chances are the voice you hear is Maaya Sakamoto’s.
Her career as an anime voice actress began when she was abruptly handed the lead role in the 1996 TV animation “The Vision of Escaflowne”. Yōko Kanno, in charge of the animation’s soundtrack, homed in on Maaya’s voice and decided to have her sing the title song. The resulting track became her debut song, “I Don’t Need a Promise” (released in April 1996).
April 1997 brought the release of her first album “Grapefruit”, a Yōko Kanno production, with the majority of the lyrics coming from Yūho Iwasato. In the May 1997 issue of this magazine, Motoko Sekiya described it as “a pleasant album with the delicate tuning you would find in a movie directed by a woman,” and gave it a score of 9 [out of 10 points]. My own discovery of Maaya Sakamoto was through this album, which struck me with its beauty, and astonishingly, in the “100 Best Albums of the 90s” survey in the April 1998 issue, it had the audacity to appear at number seven.
Maaya Sakamoto’s popularity as a singer and as an anime voice actress began to rise at this time, but the pace of her work could only be described as leisurely. Singles would come out at a rate of once or twice a year, albums once every two years or so. However, prior to about 2003, thanks to the superb quality in the unstoppable combination of lyrics primarily from Yūho Iwasato or Maaya Sakamoto herself, arrangement from Yōko Kanno, and music from Tsuneo Imahori (guitar), Hitoshi Watanabe (bass), and Yasuo Sano (drums), she would go on to earn a solid reputation.
I was impressed when I saw her first concert, “Tanabota”, held with the very same band in August 2000 at Shibuya On Air East. Following this, though the bassist changed to Vagabond Suzuki, she held concerts put together by Yōko Kanno in 2001 and 2004. After separating from Kanno, the title of bandmaster went to Shin Kōno for her 2009 hall tour.
And though I have already mentioned this, she would part with Yōko Kanno as producer after her 2003 album “A Boy Named Alice”. At this point opinions among her fans split, but at the time “A Boy Named Alice” came out, I saw her as having reached a checkpoint, and so I was in favor of her teaming up with other people. I especially felt that “Loop” (2005), her next single, was brilliant, and that her album “Loop in the Evening Calm” had a sense of relaxed freedom, so in the January 2006 issue I selected it as one of my personal “Best Albums of 2005”.
Since then she has continued to collaborate with a variety of songwriters. Recently Shōko Suzuki has emerged as a sort of core partner, and her albums include several songs written by Suzuki. In her latest release, “Windreader” (2009), the combination of Maaya Sakamoto’s lyrics and Suzuki’s composition and arrangement bring out a rather nice atmosphere.
Starting in 2003, she stepped onto the stage when she took the part of Éponine (a cast of several rotate appearances for this role) in the Tōhō musical “Les Misérables”. As she apparently played last year as well, she has a total of seven years in the role. Still, as an actress this is currently the only production she has worked. As before, her voice-related work as a voice actress, singer, and radio personality is the main part of her career.
Speaking of radio, she recorded a show called “Konica Minolta Presents: Night on the Planet” (on TOKYO FM) in which she narrated astronomy knowledge and trivia, and I once burned these to CDs and spent an entire night listening to them in random order. What can I say? I love her voice. Also, she works with planetarium shows at Ikebukuro Sunshine, and I also found these quite satisfying.
On March 31, 2010, her birthday, Maaya will be in concert for the first time at the Budōkan. Also, on the same day she will release a self-selected two-disc (the first press is a three-disc set that includes a DVD) best-hits album called “everywhere”.
A quick glance at “everywhere”, which holds 30 songs selected from her 18 singles and ten albums, seems to reveal an appropriate amount of her most representative, well-known songs. But, after reading the tracklisting, something about it keeps it just short of coming into clear focus. When I asked myself why, I found it was because the songs are not ordered by their release dates. The ordering is a shuffling of release times. This would be somewhat understandable for a person whose style was well established since her debut, but to arrange in random order songs released between her debut at 16 and her late 20s is something that takes courage. The end of Disc 2, which has “Feel Myself” (1996), “Universe” (2007), “Empty Your Pockets” (1996), and “everywhere” (a new song) is particularly amazing.
But what is more amazing is that such an ordering doesn’t feel all that odd. What occurs to me as I listen to this best-hits album is that the character of Maaya Sakamoto’s songs have hardly changed since her debut. Her charm lies in that she sings without putting too much passion into her music, and perhaps because of her constancy in this, she has formed that shared perspective that surpasses any poorness of song or immaturity of voice.
In addition to this there is one more thing, and that is in Maaya Sakamoto’s own lyrics, she always paints a world that reflects who she is at the moment. One can point to the the changes in this world as evidence of her growth, but to me, the lyrics that epitomize Maaya Sakamoto are still those of “The Day the Wind Blows” (1997). The girl who sang with perfect honesty these lyrics written by Yūho Iwasato, especially the line that reads, “The person I wanted to be and the person I can be are never the same,” is my picture of Maaya Sakamoto, and in all the days since then, she has never once written lyrics that betray “The Day the Wind Blows”. I believe this is perhaps the main reason this tracklisting gives a sense of the passage of 15 years without sounding out of order.