Sayan Ghosh: Fishman’s ‘98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare’

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 5:49pm

On Dec. 28, 1998, the Japanese dream pop group Fishmans performed for the last time at Akasaka Blitz in Tokyo. For a little longer than two hours, the band played their biggest hits throughout their discography, as well as the entirety of their album Long Season. The performance is a stunning example of a band’s final goodbye, with every last second filled to the brim with rich detail and stunning performances.

I discovered 98.12.28 through the classic music lover’s past-time of perusing through internet boards such as Rate Your Music. I usually greet albums like 98.12.28 — rather rare, foreign works with an unusually high level of acclaim on such internet boards — with skepticism. Quite often, such albums offer little uniqueness beyond a sense of mystery and allure.

98.12.28, on the other hand, is one of the most profoundly affecting live albums — scratch that, just albums — I have ever heard. It remains one of the few examples of a work that truly took me on an odyssey. Lead singer Shinji Sato has a uniquely androgynous voice that may be somewhat of an acquired taste, but on 98.12.28, he manages to extract every ounce of raw power and passion he can muster for the entire two-hour duration.

The album’s brilliance also lies in traversing such a wide variety of emotions. As someone who cannot understand the lyrics, the album nonetheless has the same effect as any great symphony or opera of being able to transmit feeling simply through the transitions and development of the music. The background chords of the album’s opener “Oh! Slime” are reminiscent of instrumentals on The Avalanche’s “Since I Left You,” carrying a pure, innocent sense of joy and uplift. As “Since I Left You” features a sunny sample of dialogue from the movie “Club-Med” (“Have a drink have a good time now, welcome to paradise”), Sato starts the concert with a simple “Are you feel good?” Yet Fishmans is equally capable of exploring feelings of melancholy and loss.

Fishmans uses typical dream pop tropes such as heavily washed out guitars and a slow, almost sloppy manner of playing, but it shines due to the small details and interludes interspersed throughout the album. Moments such as the short violin interlude in “Oh! Slime” and a chorus of bells in “Long Season” add new dimensions to the music not present in the studio recordings. These short moments are where the band truly feels as if they are transcending the confines of their stage.

Sato’s constant banter with the audience, although obviously unintelligible to non-Japanese speakers, makes the album feel truly organic. This point is what made me realize why I enjoyed 98.12.28 so much more than the band’s studio albums. It is the rare live album that starkly exceeds the impact of the group’s studio albums precisely because one gets the sense that the artists are pouring everything into the performance. The instrumentals aren’t perfect, Sato’s voice wavers and strains, but none of it matters because it all feels so real.

Overall, 98.12.28 is a triumph. There is really just no other way to describe it. It is a masterful display of skill, ingenuity and passion, and to fully dissect its brilliance is nearly impossible. Shinji Sato died tragically of heart disease just three months after the performance, unable to see the monumental impact of his magnum opus on people around the world. But he can rest assured that few people have said goodbye in such a brilliant way.