Analysis of Ayumi Hamasaki's "Rock'n'Roll Circus" PVs, Part One: "Don't look back"

SPOILER ALERT - The video covered in this article has a twist ending. I highly recommend watching the full video before reading any further.

"[Rock'n'Roll Circus]...basically has a feeling of 'back-to-basics.' A feeling of Hamasaki Ayumi, and less of adventure. More digging down into the foundation. Which isn't to say I'm taking a step backward. It's about expressing my feelings on things I've always liked, but as the person I am now."
--SCawaii, February 2010

The reception for Ayumi Hamasaki's first few singles was lukewarm at best. But when her first full album, A Song for XX, was released on New Year's Day in 1999, it hit number one on the Oricon charts its first week. What happened? The world got to know Ayu.

Commercials for the album played clips of the songs "POWDER SNOW" and "A Song for XX," in which Hamasaki, covered up in a hooded coat, sang some very personal and rather sad lyrics. Then, in 2002, Hamasaki visited Asia and came back more conscious of her audience. Her songwriting, production, and videos reflected her awareness of the world outside herself. But was this a good thing? Many would argue that this was when the quality of Hamasaki's work began to sharply decline. Her lyrics began to include English for the first time. Her songs had a sense of community with her fans and the world. Her videos became more "safe." Rarely, if ever, was Hamasaki's work purely personal anymore. Many older fans, the ones that ironically Hamasaki had finally become aware of, dropped off.

With "Rock'n'Roll Circus," Hamasaki truly is returning to basics, doing what it was that made many people Ayu fans in the first place - singing about herself. Rather than simply being entertaining for the sake of her audience, she's being herself again, which is what Ayu's veteran fans have been waiting for since the early 00's. The videos featured on this album are likewise a return to form for Hamasaki. The concept of two different sides of Hamasaki is something that was once extremely common in her PVs and CD artwork. Hamasaki's more personal works have often dealt with coming to terms with a usually hidden or repressed side of herself, for instance her present self coming to terms with her past self in the "RAINBOW" PV (2003), or watching her stage-self objectively from the audience in the "Fly high" PV (2000). However, this concept hasn't been seen in PV form since Hamasaki encountered a faceless version of herself briefly in "Ladies Night" (2005). Hamasaki finally does this again, but it's the same means to a different end. The point has become "Ayu", the person, versus "Hamasaki Ayumi," the product.

Example number one that I'll be presenting to you is "Don't look back," a video reminiscent of minimalist surreal artwork of a sort. It screams "back to basics" with its limited color palette, lack of dancers or frills or crazy effects, and such a muted and seemingly simple song. Ayu hasn't had a PV with no cast and such a simple setting since "Daybreak" (2002), in which Ayu simply sang to the camera, forcing us to focus on her message rather than anything going on around her.

Ayu is in a room that appears to be very clean, polished, and tranquil based on the tightly-cropped shots and specific angles we're given. The room's high contrast but white-focused decor (probably echoing the whiteness of Hamasaki's real dwelling) gives a nearly sterile but friendly feeling. Ayu is seated at a table, various grooming implements spread out in front of her. Her appearance is, like the room around her, clean and unthreatening. She is well-lit, hair tightly pulled back, lipstick unfeathered. She has a face like something is stressing her out, and she seems to perhaps be nervous about whatever event she's groomed for.

In the meantime, the "product" is elsewhere. Hamasaki Ayumi, the persona that Ayu shows to the world, is laughing vacuously, smiling for no reason, in front of a vague backdrop. She seems to appear inhuman, like a robot who's been programmed to smile for the camera. The image isn't dissimilar to that of the "singing machine" shown in "alterna" (2005). She's cheerful, but there's still something eerie about the image of Hamasaki Ayumi, perfectly groomed, showing no real emotion in favor of ingratiating herself to the audience. However, the overall idea behind the video seems to be that the audience only ever gets a piece of the picture. Ayu chooses what she shows to you, and you have no idea the extent of what's behind that facade. She forces you to wonder if perhaps there's terrible melancholy behind the inhumanly perfect, "plastic" smiling face she shows us.

As we pull further away from Hamasaki Ayumi, we see that the A BEST 2 -BLACK- cover is behind her, having been slashed apart, torn, and destroyed. The explanation for its destruction is unknown, but it does conjure an image from several years ago: the A BEST cover, defaced by professors "studying" Hamasaki in the "ourselves" PV (2003).

That video had pretty obviously tackled Hamasaki's frustrations with fame, prominently displaying the covers of releases Hamasaki has had documented issues with. During the time A BEST 1 was released, jpop artists were typically three-album acts. After three albums, the best-of came out, and you were over. Hamasaki knew that and wasn't ready for her career to be over yet, and fought against releasing it. It would seem, from the similar defacement of the A BEST 2 cover, Ayu wasn't ready for Hamasaki Ayumi to release A BEST 2, either.

The video continues on showing that there are two sides to everything. A bowl of fruit shows to have gone rotten over time. The product Hamasaki Ayumi is shown to have two different moods - happy and tragic, though neither are presented as "true," and both have washed-out colors. We are given a bigger picture of the room Ayu is sitting in, and we see that it isn't as sterile as the tight shots from earlier would have us believe. During the quickened instrumental break in the song, we're dealt frantically cut-together images of the different sides of Ayu seeming to do battle.

Hamasaki Ayumi collapses, Ayu cries, slowly going mad at the loss of herself over time and allowing the facade, the product of Hamasaki Ayumi, to finally give way for the real Ayu to accidentally break through. Without even realizing it, this whole time, we are only permitted a good view of the left side of Ayu's face as she sits at her table - the right side is peeked at but never explored. When the last chorus kicks in, we finally see what's been hidden the entire time.

On the right side, Ayu's hair has been cut messily. Her mascara is running, her lipstick smeared. As she cries, she covers her mouth with her hands, and profoundly, Hamasaki Ayumi covers her face while laughing hysterically. We realize that anything that Ayu does can be presented as something different when stuck on the Hamasaki Ayumi product. "Hamasaki Ayumi" is more and more "Ayu" all the time, and "Ayu" isn't sure how she feels about being so exposed.

This sudden reveal after ages of only seeing one half of Ayu's face is rather shocking, and can nearly bring the viewer to sympathetic tears. Fame and popularity come at a price. If all you ever wanted was to entertain people, how can you be prepared to deal with the exposure of your true self that comes with it? It's something many entertainers simply don't think about when they enter into this profession, especially when they go into it when still teenagers. Hamasaki made her debut with avex at 19 after having pursued a career as an idol for four years prior. She was still arguably a child at the time, unaware that keeping her true self hidden for so many hours of the day would slowly eat away at her. While she certainly has found meaning to her existence in this profession, as she has said in interviews and lyrics, there are parts of the package deal that she seems to wish she wasn't stuck with.

Part two, coming tomorrow, will go in-depth into the "Microphone" and "Sexy little things" PVs. Check back for it!