Written by Erin Grace
BoA has undeniably been one of the biggest acts in Japanese music history. Sure, she’s not a legend like GLAY or Ayumi Hamasaki, but as the only non-Japanese Asian performer to have two albums sell over a million copies in Japan, and as one of only two performers ever to have six consecutive number one Oricon-ranked studio albums, she certainly commands some respect. The 2010 “IDENTITY” tour marked her first live tour in two years, and as a live concert DVD, it’s flawless. However, despite excellent quality everywhere else in the DVD, BoA’s own lackluster performance makes you wonder if her identity is shifting from J-pop princess to burned out diva.
The concert opens up with “This Is Who I Am,” a gorgeous song featuring piano and strings, and BoA appears at the top of the set, a massive group of interlocking staircases. The song does a great job welcoming you into the concert, and BoA amps up the energy by quickly moving from it into “EASY,” then into “Energetic,” which lives up to its name. She takes a quick break to give the audience a little MC time, then she picks it back up with “make a secret,” starting a set of slower songs. So far she’s doing great: the dancing is everything you would expect and the vocal performances are flawless, if very likely lip-synced. Still, if they are lip-synced, they’re not obviously so, and it helps to maintain the high quality in the other elements of the concert. BoA’s job is to entertain, and if that means lip-syncing sometimes so the music doesn’t suffer for the dance moves, I don’t see any shame in that.
The concert progresses through a few slower songs, moving through different genres until we hit the jazzy “is this love.” To this point, the concert is thoroughly enjoyable: the lighting rocks, the sound quality is amazing, the camera work keeps it fresh, both dance and musical performances leave nothing to be desired, and BoA looks like she’s having a blast. But halfway through “is this love,” something happens. Suddenly I was less engaged; the concert was suddenly boring. At first I had no idea why, but on subsequent viewings it became clear. BoA checks out during this song. Far from enjoying herself, she looks like she’s singing for her supper – this is her 9 to 5, and she’s just trudging through it. She’s able to recover somewhat, but from there the concert goes downhill – she’s no longer having fun, and neither am I. Although the lighting still rocks and the sound quality is still amazing, though the camera work still keeps it fresh and the dancers and musicians perform perfectly, there’s a little less spring in BoA’s step now. Her dance moves are a little less tight, her smiles a little more forced. During my first view, I just turned the DVD off halfway through. I was too bored to keep watching. I picked it back up later, but I needed a break, and that’s disappointing.
Ignoring this one major flaw, everything else about the performance is awesome. I’d have liked to see the set used in more creative ways, but the lighting is great and the camera work and editing are amazing. Each shot looks as though it’s just as choreographed as the dancing, and it was difficult for me to tell if the specific shots were the result of a handful of very talented cameramen grabbing lovely shots as they happened, or if those lovely shots were literally hand-crafted by an artistic director to be captured whether someone physically manned the camera or not. Either way, several of the shots have the artistic quality of a photographic still, and in addition to keeping up visual interest, they act to highlight the concert’s best features.
The supporting performers are also great – I would go so far as to say that they make the DVD worth it. Each of them gets at least a little time in the spotlight (literally), and despite BoA’s being checked out, they’re all clearly focused and having a great time. Their talent carries a majority of the concert, and they never seem to falter. Even better, it’s clear that they’re regarded as equally essential to the concert as BoA herself: in addition to time in the spotlight, they each get plenty of time on camera, they’re all mentioned by name in the opening credits, and all given individual introductions at the end of the concert. For that if nothing else, BoA has my admiration. It would be easy for her to ignore the “little people” that make her job possible, but instead she pushes them to the front. A good thing too – if they’d languished in the background, I’d never have made it even halfway on my first view.
Unfortunately, supporting performances and technical work aside, the DVD still leaves much to be desired. The bonus material consists of alternate camera shots of “EASY” and “Energetic,” focusing on the dance moves. It’s interesting to watch once, but not something that would appeal strongly to most fans. Also, although the MCs were left in, there’s no option to subtitle them, which is a major downside for Western fans. I can understand why other bands don’t bother to offer subtitles for their DVDs, but BoA actually had an American debut; if ever there was a J-artist whose concert DVDs called for subtitles, BoA is the one. Perhaps the lack of subtitles is the result of a poor reception to her debut in America, but I doubt it.
In the end, the “IDENTITY” DVD makes me wonder if BoA didn’t accidentally reveal her hand: although she’s still a big enough name that she can afford the best of the best when it comes to support and technical staff, she doesn’t have enough energy or passion left to be as successful as she once was. Her most recent sales seem to agree: the “Identity” album was her first not to debut at number one on the weekly Oricon charts, and is also her only studio album to sell fewer than 100,000 units. Perhaps her lackluster performance at the concert is a symptom of her comparatively lackluster performance on the charts, but perhaps the problem is systemic. At the opening of the concert, BoA throws up a quote from herself on the projector:
"14 years old. It was with hope and uneasiness that I made my start in Japan. I was still a child. I was chasing after everything. Every day was uneasy. Who am I? Who is the real me? My feelings right now... It's okay to fall down. I want to make it on my own. I've made my decision. This is my story. Tonight you will see. This Is Who I Am."
And maybe that’s exactly what she shows us: a woman who’s been performing since she was a girl, and who’s probably getting complacent about it. It’s good that she recognizes that “it’s okay to fall down,” because that’s precisely what will happen if she doesn’t have passion for her music. And while we’re on maybes, maybe “I want to make it on my own” means something, too. Maybe she’s just waiting to reinvent herself and come back. Maybe this album and this tour are just a small bump in a larger road for her. Or maybe this really is who BoA is: a slowly fading j-pop star; a soon-to-be has-been. We’ll just have to wait and see.