“Moi dix Mois ~ Madō Gathering Concert” Or: How Mana Changed My Life

On June 18th I once again had the opportunity to experience a live performance by one of my all-time favorite musical artists, Mana.  Before I provide my impressions however, I would like to offer a summary of how this musician has played such an important role in my life.

My history with Mana and his musical projects goes back to my days in junior high school, when I first discovered the world of what’s commonly known as visual kei music.  I was already well-versed in the works of classic bands like X Japan and then-newcomer Dir en grey, but when I heard the strains of a song called “Color Me Blood Red” at a Japanese cultural convention one year, I was so intrigued that I quickly asked a more knowledgeable friend which artist was responsible for the lilting, crazed melody that had entranced me at that time.  The name of the band was Malice Mizer.  Even the band’s moniker was elegantly impressive in its implications, said to represent the two primary aspects, malice and misery, that characterize our fleeting existence in this world.  Of course, being visual kei, a heavy emphasis was placed on the appearance of the band and their various stage performances.  I certainly wasn’t disappointed.  Experimenting in an array period costumes and elegant makeup, practically every song released by the band had its own unique visual theme and appropriate imagery to accompany it.  Live performances were certainly no exception, as concerts were often acted out as a series of dramatic plays intricately melded with the music and lyrics being offered to the audience, taking up subjects ranging from vampirism and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to epic romances of lost love, reincarnation, and journeys to the edge of sanity and beyond.

The band experienced several lineup changes over its 9-year history (1992-2001), experiencing the height of its popularity during the late 90s with vocalist Gackt (now a prolific solo artist, actor, and television personality) under the Nippon Columbia record label.  Three core players  always remained the same: Mana (guitar), Közi (guitar), and Yu~ki (bass).  However, the member of the band who immediately engaged me with his haunting androgynous beauty and inspired performances on the guitar was Mana.

I have been interested in the world of the Gothic ever since I can remember, but I feel that Mana and his dark, refined vision truly catalyzed my love for the beauty of the night.  Growing up in the more provincial regions of central Pennsylvania before the advent of high-speed (or even low-speed) Internet services, my choices for dark music were rather limited.  Most people around me assumed that Gothic music was personified by Marilyn Manson and various death metal bands, or perhaps the more erudite may have even heard of The Cure.  And while I greatly admire the aforementioned artists, I was unable to find the dignified and noble atmosphere that would call to mind the crumbling battlements of forgotten castles and the flying buttresses of magnificent cathedrals that featured so prominently in the Gothic literature that I was engrossed in at the time.  I earnestly sought after an artist whose music and image both offered a noble vision of the darkly romantic.  It was Mana who first provided that link for me.

As a fan in the early days, I ravenously procured any Malice Mizer merchandise that I could get my hands on, usually through the Internet or at various Japan-related conventions.  These included fan magazines and sometimes fan translations of interviews and articles featuring the band and its members, and it was there that I learned more about Mana himself.  Raised as the son of two music teachers, Mana cites as one of his primary musical influences the Baroque works to which he was exposed as a child, particularly those of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In addition to more recognizable progressive rock elements inspired by metal acts such as Motley Crüe, Mana is always quick to mention the deep impression left on him by horror films, particularly those of Italian maestros Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava.  Many of these movies were difficult to find in the US, and so it was through his introduction that I soon became enamored with immortal classics such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, whose phenomenal score was contributed by regular Argento collaborators Goblin, and Lucio Fulci’s macabre masterpiece The Beyond (L’aldilà).  Along with Mario Bava’s superb Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), the works of these directors now rank among my favorite films of all time.

Also featured in the articles were some of Mana’s personal collections, and I discovered that we shared a passion for classic video games, and particularly the Castlevania series in its various incarnations.  While I couldn’t read the Japanese text at the time, I looked on in wonder at photos of his collections of now-defunct console systems such as the 3DO Real, PC Engine, and CD-ROM2 (Mana currently writes a nostalgic gaming column for Game Labo magazine), as well as his various figurines and toys portraying Dracula and other creatures of the night.  In short, Mana became something of a role model to me during my formative junior and senior high school years.  His philosophy on life, tastes in music and cinema, and his flamboyant fashion sense all struck a chord deep inside of me, and inspired me to refine my clothing, lifestyle, and knowledge, and even pick up the guitar for a short period during my school years.

Unfortunately, only a few years after the departure of Gackt and the death of their beloved friend and drummer, Kami, Malice Mizer officially entered an indefinite hiatus as of December, 2001, but not before leaving behind what is, in my opinion, their most dramatic album.  Bara no seidō plays out like an extended funerary dirge, heavy on chorus and operatic vocals and predominated by a sonorous pipe organ and racing harpsichord melodies.  Used as the soundtrack of the band’s feature-length film interpretation of the Dracula tale, Bara no konrei, the songs on the album serve both as a requiem to their late drummer and a return to expression of the principles of malice and misery upon which the band was founded.  It was during this period that Mana crystallized his image in a fashion that he christened “Gothic Lolita,” a combination of the popular Victorian doll-inspired Lolita attire and the dark color schemes and heavy makeup of Gothic fashion.  The result was the production of his own clothing line, Moi-même-Moitié, with shops in several major cities around the country.  Mana also exhibited a return to his metal roots, particularly in songs such as “Beast of Blood” and “Gensō no rakuen.”

One can imagine my disappointment at the news of their disbandment, but it wasn’t long before Mana announced his new sound project, Moi dix Mois, in 2002.  Introducing a symphonic black metal sound that makes full use of Mana’s raging guitar and various classically inspired melodies, Moi dix Mois represents the culmination of his artistic vision, abandoning the French pop trappings of Malice Mizer to open up the adamantine gates of Hell and release his Luciferian vision in all of its fury.  The band’s albums often carry occult or magical themes, based on Mana’s own unique symbols and incorporating various elements from Western mysticism and his own favorite films.  When I eventually found my way to Japan, one of my private goals was to finally see and meet the man who had offered so much inspiration to me in my youth and, fortunately, I managed to do just that.  Since 2006 I have attended more than 10 separate concerts, and have been able to meet Mana in person during that time as well, finally having the opportunity to shake hands with someone I have respected and admired for so long.

And that brings me to the Madō Gathering Concert – The Moon’s Eighth Night, which took place this past Saturday at Shibuya O-West in Tokyo, Japan.  The rain was falling in a light drizzle when I arrived in Shibuya in full Moi-même-Moitié attire, and a darkly-clad group of fans was already hovering around the venue beneath a cloud of umbrellas.  Among the very first fans to enter the concert hall, I quickly assumed my usual position at the front right of the stage…directly before the spot where Mana would be standing only a short while later.  The venue was filled to capacity, and before long the band made its long awaited appearance to the ominous strains of “In Pardisum,” before breaking out into the violently melodic “The Seventh Veil.”  Not only the crowd, but also the band seemed subdued at first, and an almost solemn atmosphere pervaded the hall.  In fact, this very live should have been held on Mana’s birthday, March 19th, and was shifted to a later date due to the tragic events of Great East Japan Earthquake and the resultant tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis, the effects of which still reverberate throughout the nation.

As the event moved on, the tone shifted to a more optimistic one, as well-known tunes and new pieces from the latest D+Sect album stirred the crowd to a fever pitch.  The ritual song “Sanctum Regnum” included the usual “D-I-X…DIX” hand movements, but it was the return of “Immortal Madness” with its chants of “Dix Love” that truly brought the crowd together as one under the lead of vocalist Seth.  Of course, as one of the original purposes of the concert was to celebrate Mana’s birthday (according to a jocular comment in Mana’s blog, it was his birthday…in another dimension), it was soon time for the crowd to call out “Je t’aime, Mana-sama!” and summon him from backstage.  The crowd’s reaction can hardly be described when, to our surprise and amazement, the hauntingly familiar melody of Malice Mizer’s “ma chérie ~itoshii kimi he~” was heard and Mana took the stage on a small scooter, reminiscent of his early live performances.  In fact, Shibuya O-West was practically home territory for Malice Mizer in its early days, and the band made its start by playing at the small venue that now holds a great deal of fond memories for Mana.  A beautiful cake was brought out for the occasion, and Mana extinguished the candles to the fans’ enthusiastic applause.

For this live, Mana introduced his new ESP jeune fille X lazuli -Cross Ray- guitar, which radiated with a mysterious blue light from the darkness as the music brought the listeners deeper into Mana’s unique world of Gothic romance.  In addition to the new instrument (available at the Shibuya ESP Craft House), there were also several exciting announcements, including a new series of live performances to lead up to the band’s 10th anniversary, Le dixième anniversaire Live 2011~2012 – Tetsugaku no kakera, beginning with a prologue live on August 21. There was half-joking talk of a fan club trip to Mana’s hometown of Hiroshima to sample its famous variety of okonomiyaki, and I think I am not the only one hoping that there is some truth in those plans!

After a rousing mix of songs from the new album and older classics, the concert came to an end all too soon.  Mana’s unique blend of symphonic/black metal and classical elements is still as vital and powerful as ever and, if the recent release of D+Sect is any indication, fans can only expect even more brilliant music of the night from this talented artist for Moi dix Mois’ 10th anniversary…and Beyond…

The Top 9 Most Memorable Romero Moments

If you’re a fan of zombie films, or even horror cinema in general, then you know George A. Romero.  As I’ve often mentioned in my recent “Romero Retrospective” installments, the “Grandfather of the Zombie” is remembered as a maverick director who revolutionized the world of horror movies with his seminal Night of the Living Dead, ushering in a gory era of over-the-top splatter films and completely redefining the zombie genre, while at the same time weaving poignant social commentary throughout his dismal tales of ghoulish creatures terrorizing the land.  In subsequent films, particularly his magnum opus Dawn of the Dead, Romero continued to take a bloody bite out of contemporary society, attacking everything from America’s consumerist mall culture to modern views on war and terrorism.  Aside from all the gut-wrenching carnage and biting satire, each of Romero’s films is populated with a cast of unique and memorable characters, and humor is no small aspect of the director’s attempts to make his films enjoyable for diehard fans and newcomers alike.

But what are those scenes that we all really remember?  What are the images that are burned into our memories and haunt us to this day, or simply cause us to laugh out loud in spite of ourselves upon recalling them?   Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but as the epilogue to my Romero Retrospective, I intend to take a look at the nine scenes that were most memorable to me throughout Romero’s six Dead films.

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Romero Retrospective: Survival of the Dead

Well, folks.  The time has finally come.  To be honest, I had been avoiding doing this for some time, using work, errands, and other activities as an excuse to procrastinate.  But now, to quote an elegant phrase from Woody Harrelson in the film Zombieland, “it’s time to nut up, or shut up.”  Yes…this is George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead.

Survival isn’t just for the living…

The Good

Carrying on the tradition of the Diary of the Dead reboot, the year 2010 saw the release of George Romero’s latest and most critically controversial film in the form of Survival of the Dead.  By taking advantage of the tax breaks available in his new home of Ontario, Canada (hailed by some as the new Hollywood), Romero brings us an American/Canadian production that attempts to pass off Port Dover and Toronto as the Eastern seaboard of the United States, with mixed results.

One of the positive aspects of this film, and one which sets it apart from the first four installments, is the direct continuity between characters and events in the new story and the happenings described in its predecessor.  In fact, we start off with a familiar face from the previous film, with Alan van Sprang (who also played a presumably unrelated part in Land of the Dead) reprising his role as National Guard Sergeant ‘Nicotine’ Crockett.  One might be forgiven for failing to recall this minor character from the previous film, and so a flashback using archive footage informs us that the Sarge is actually the no-nonsense leader of the band of rebel soldiers who raided the Winnebago of our heroes in Diary.  After a brief explanation of the reasons behind his departure from the rest of the National Guard, the scene switches to Plum Island, a small settlement off the coast of Delaware that has served as a battleground for generations of two feuding Irish families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons.  The two clans are divided over the issue of how to deal with the sudden surge in the island’s population of walking corpses, with leader Patrick O’Flynn (a fine performance by Kenneth Welsh) advocating swift judgment from the business end of a 12-guage, and his rival Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) preferring to preserve the zombies for as long as possible until a cure for their condition may be found.  A face-off between the two factions results in Patrick O’Flynn’s exile from the island with a few of his cronies, while his daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe) decides to stay behind.

We cut forward to the Sarge and his crew, who discover through a young man known only as Boy (Devon Bostick) that there is an island safe from the zombie outbreak.  As it turns out, the island is Plum Island, and Patrick O’Flynn is only using the promise of an undead-free haven as bait to lure in survivors that can be looted for their valuables and sent to the island to cause trouble for the Muldoons.  After a brief battle, the Sarge’s gang manages to avoid O’Flynn’s trap and gain control of a ferry to the island.  The stubborn Irishman manages to get aboard, however, and an uneasy truce is formed as O’Flynn explains the situation on the island.

Back on Plum Island, we find that Janet has become a zombie who, interestingly enough, has decided to abandon the peripatetic pursuits of her putrefying pals in favor of more equestrian endeavors.  But wait!  Janet is still among the living, and it turns out that the undead doppelganger is actually her dearly departed twin sister, Jane.  Under Muldoon control, the island has become a farcical parody of its former rural beauty, as chained-up zombies attempt to go about the daily routines that they once took part in, while the rest of the ghouls are rounded up like cattle for Seamus’ experiments.  It appears that the self-righteous coot is convinced that the flesh-eating corpses can be broken of their cannibalistic tendencies and encouraged to feed on a diet of animal meat.  When the Sarge’s best friend Kenny (Eric Woolfe) is killed by one of Muldoon’s scouts, the game is on as he and his ragtag group attempt to take control of the island.

Mayhem ensues, and after a series of altercations the final showdown takes place at the Muldoon ranch. Seamus has Jane penned up with a horse in a last-ditch effort to prove his theory once and for all by having O’Flynn’s zombified daughter take a bite out of the animal.  Janet attempts to reach out to her undead twin, with predictably tragic results, and all hell breaks loose.  The other captive “dead-heads” are freed, the islanders fall prey to the rotting hordes, and the two clan leaders gun each other down, each refusing to submit to reason to the last.  The film ends with the Sarge and his remaining followers leaving the island while, unbeknownst to them, the zombies finally begin to feed on the ill-fated horse and prove that their hunger can indeed be sated with non-human flesh.

Heavily inspired by the Western epic, The Big Country (1958), the film offers up some spectacular views and dramatic camerawork that truly give credit to Romero’s skills.  Despite the higher budget ($4 million), the special effects don’t seem to go that much further than Diary, but still manage to be effective (like most other aspects of the film).

The Bad

So we’ve established that the film is effective…but how well does it carry on the legacy of the past installments?  Unfortunately, it is my opinion that Survival of the Dead stands as the least satisfying of the entire Dead series.  What makes it so underwhelming?  Well, get out your autopsy gloves, because we’re about to find out just what killed this promising addition to the zombie genre.

First of all, I have often pointed out that the strength of George A. Romero’s Dead films has always been in its powerful characterization.  A few identifiable characters drive the stories through realistic and (usually) believable dialogue, all of which is underpinned by stark imagery and gritty realism.  The people in the films rarely had to engage in expository dialogue or wax philosophical to get the point across.  Intelligent audiences could form their own conclusions about the social and cultural implications of the deeper mechanisms that lie behind the idea of a plague of undead and the plight of its survivors.  I also mentioned in my last review that my biggest problem with Diary was the fact that we in the audience are continuously battered with trite observations and pseudo-philosophical ramblings that tell us exactly what we are expected to think about a particular scene, and the questioning nature of the narrator only underscores the fact that we are being spoon-fed a CliffsNotes version of the sociological impact of a zombie apocalypse.  My review of goes into more detail about this subject, but in the end I realized that the very idea of a homemade documentary was a key element in conveying the ultimate message of the film, and paradoxically enabled the audience to assume an even deeper message that exists in a dialectic relationship with the incessant voices that bombard us throughout the narrative.

Where Diary succeeded, however, Survival ultimately fails.  Without the raison d’être of narration in a documentary film created by the characters, the Sarge’s disembodied voice simply ends up being distracting, and marks the first instance of such narrative framing in a Dead film.  This is not my only gripe, however.  Sarge’s gang and the Plum Island residents seem like casts from two separate films: the modern post-apocalyptic film, and the old-timey Hatfield-McCoy drama.  It becomes difficult to suspend disbelief and assume that such an island existed in 2010, and the O’Flynns and Muldoons seem more like cardboard cut-outs whose only purpose is to illustrate the film’s ultimate message.

So what is it?  What is the exact point where Survival of the Dead jumps the undead shark and loses its relevancy as a successor of the noble Dead legacy?  I have pinpointed the exact moment at the very end of the film, when the Sarge gives us this line: “In an us-versus-them world, someone puts up a flag; another person tears it down and puts up his own. Pretty soon no one remembers what started the war in the first place and the fighting becomes all about those stupid flags.” To punctuate this ham-fisted statement, we are treated to an image of a grassy hillside on Plum Island.  Looming beyond the horizon is an impossibly enormous moon, hanging ominously over the scene as zombie Seamus Muldoon and zombie Patrick O’Flynn face each other across the grassy plain, raise their guns, and pull the triggers.  The clicks of two empty chambers are the only sounds as the credits begin to roll.

The Undead

Unfortunately, I found that the walking (and riding) dead in Survival also contributed to the film’s lackluster performance, and only enhance the lack of relevancy found in this installment of the franchise.  Ironically enough, George Romero sums it up when he admits that the actual zombies themselves are less of an actual serious threat, and more of a passing annoyance.  The idea that the ghouls do what they were prone to do while still breathing has been explored brilliantly in Dawn, Day, and Land of the Dead, and this aspect isn’t really so much emphasized as briefly commented on in this latest effort.  Dawn of the Dead certainly had its share of humor, with the raiding gang using pies and seltzer water for comedic antics with the stenches at the end of the film, but at this point the flesh-eaters have been reduced to nothing more than glorified gag props.  One zombie has the contents of a fire extinguisher unloaded into his mouth until the foam bursts out of his ears and eye sockets.  Another undead gets stabbed through the forehead with a pronged fork (holding a wiener, no less), while yet another has an emergency flare stabbed into his chest, which somehow results in his head glowing and then bursting into flames along by the rest of his body.  Patrick O’Flynn even passes a stick of dynamite to an unsuspecting zombie behind a door, closing it on him and running off as the shack explodes behind him.  These Wile E. Coyote shenanigans run rampant throughout the film, and diminish any actual threat that the zombies may have originally posed.   Their sociological significance has been pushed aside in favor of what the director himself refers to as Looney Toons slapstick, and even the plot thread of the undead potentially feeding on animals has been touched on in other films (as a corpse can be seen munching on a centipede in the original Night of the Living Dead).

If humor was the sole purpose, then the film merely comes off as a late-comer to the party, joining the spate of comedic zombie films in the post-Shaun of the Dead cinematic world.  As a serious film, it fails to offer anything new to the genre and doesn’t have the strong characterization required to make the audience genuinely care about the people or their situations.  The zombies are marginal at best, and completely irrelevant at worst.  The anti-war message is so heavy-handed as to reduce its potential poignancy.  So what are we left with?  In the end, I would say that Survival of the Dead is an average zombie film, filling in the ranks and files of imitators and spinoffs among horror films these days.  Is it a terrible film?  Certainly not, but I would venture to say that when the latest installment of a series seems more like a poorly made imitation of the original that started it all, it isn’t a good sign, especially when we’re talking about a Romero film.  I have the utmost respect for Romero as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and as such, I hope to see more inspiring efforts in the future from the Grandfather of the Zombie.

And so, this concludes my six-part Romero Retrospective.  I hope that you enjoyed the journey, and I would be delighted if you would join me again soon as I continue to look back on other influential zombie films of the past!

And last but not least, my Black Veil report has recently been featured on the blog of my dear friend and Gothic Lolita fashion queen La Carmina.  Check it out here!