A reflection on KajiFes 2023

The Budokan arena probably doesn’t need any introduction, being one of the world’s most prestigious venues. Even though it’s not the biggest, newest or even the most well-suited spot for a live music event, there’s still that hard-to-define sense that any show held there is a special occasion. This one certainly was.

My only other similar experience to this was back in January 2018, for Kalafina’s tenth anniversary show, but the atmosphere felt noticeably different to me. The weather of December 2023 was all mild autumnal temperatures and glorious sunshine instead of cold winds and snow, and I think the circumstances played an important part as well. I recall a vague sense of gloom and uncertainty in 2018, and fans’ worst fears were confirmed by the disbandment soon afterwards. This time around, the vibe was much more upbeat and celebratory.

The spectre of the pandemic may have dampened this mood, but not by much. My impression from talking to other fans outside the venue was that I wasn’t the only one who had been looking forward to something like this for a long time…and that many others had travelled a long way for the occasion as well. Ticket sales catering specifically to overseas attendees are a relatively new thing, but a welcome one for people who can’t rely on friends/acquaintances inside the country (or, in my case, contacting a professional forwarding/ticketing service). Perhaps this new development is why there seemed to be so many folks from far-flung places: I met people who had travelled from Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Thailand, Singapore and Australia…which put my own 14-hour flight from London into perspective!

Cramming a three-decade back catalogue into just two evenings of live performances is always tricky when you have such a diverse range of listeners who have their own “jumping-in points” and differing expectations. We were treated to a thoughtfully-chosen mixture of old fan favourites, recent hits and a few almost-forgotten surprises that I think satisfied fans old and new alike.

An accordion solo, performed by Yoshiaki Sato before the rest of the band walked on stage, felt like an overture from a narrator- or town crier-style figure, which gave a sense of the theatrical…perhaps my imagination, or a nod to Kajiura’s lifelong appreciation of opera and musical storytelling. On the first night, this was immediately followed by Yuriko performing “Canta Per Me” from the Noir soundtrack with Yuki on piano and Hitoshi Konno’s string quartet providing additional accompaniment. Right off the bat, the whole experience made my journey worthwhile: that series had been my introduction to her music in the first place, almost twenty years earlier.

There were other old classic tunes such as “The World”, “Liminality” and “Salva Nos” that paid tribute to those early soundtracks of the 2000s, with an additional “operatic” dimension thanks to the support of REMI and Yuri Kasahara. That’s not to say that the regular vocalist line-up of Yuriko, Kaori, Keiko and Joelle weren’t on top form; it just felt like we were being treated to something more elaborate than the familiar roll-call of singers and musicians that we all know and love from previous tours.

Aimer was one of the special guests of the first night, and in my opinion she didn’t disappoint. The Parade album track “Kai” and the first two ending theme songs to the Heaven’s Feel feature films helped represent the more recent end of the YK/FJ discography, but also provided an opportunity to witness the striking contrast between Aimer’s shy demeanour and the intensity of her vocal performance.

Revo joined the rest of the band later in the set for a FJ/Sound Horizon crossover that I presume was a nod to their “Dream Port” live collaboration event from 2008. I’m not familiar with SH’s own songs sadly, but Revo’s stage persona seemed like a lot of fun and I wish that he’d had more time to spend with them all. But alas, there’s only so much that you can do in the space of three hours.

As it was, the encore consisted of an epic rendition of “The Image Theme of Xenosaga II” – another personal favourite – with an impressive performance from Naomi Nakahara on the uilleann pipes, and a triumphant rendition of “Sokyu no Fanfare”. The worry lingering in my head as I took the train back to my hotel was, “how could they possibly top this?”

That question was answered the following day, although I should’ve spotted the signs when I’d seen the earlier start time and the list of guest vocalists. Although the first night was better than I’d dared hope, the second was by far the bigger and more impressive. I do wonder why this had an even longer guest line-up and was able to run to almost four full hours, but I’m also mindful of how physically demanding it must have been for the supporting musicians to be active on stage for such a long time for two back-to-back evenings.

The second day delivered some of the most anticipated crowd-pleasers right at the outset, with a couple of instrumental pieces from the Madoka Magica soundtrack to warm up the crowd for an absolutely blistering rendition of “Magia”. I don’t know whether it was the relatively restful period of her post-Kalafina solo career or whether the enormity of the event provided the additional motivation, but it felt like one of Hikaru’s strongest ever performances. She also joined her old bandmates – with Joelle bravely and admirably filling Wakana’s shoes, and the ever-dependable Yuriko providing additional chorus support – with some more Kalafina numbers: “Storia”, “Kimi no Gin no Niwa” and “To the Beginning”.

Hikaru did return to the stage later for a joyous “Into the World”, but this was a hard act to follow. JUNNA always impresses me with her strong, gutsy vocal that belies her relatively young age, but her time on stage took place between the Kalafina almost-reunion and a couple of powerful back-to-back numbers featuring Eri Itou, so I felt almost sorry for her.

We were also treated to a couple of songs led by KOKIA, who is an experienced and accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right. It was quite a privilege to see her on stage with Yuki and the others, and I hope that any YK/FJ fans who weren’t already familiar with her work are now going to give it a closer look.

The pleasant surprises just kept on coming, with some more old See-Saw Dream Field- and FJ YUUKA-era tracks and an energetic rendition of “Zodiacal Sign” in an arrangement familiar to anyone who watched the “Volume 1 Reprise” live-stream.

Fans who have heard the Volume 15 live album from 2020 will have known what to expect from “Red Rose”, lifted from obscurity on Yuki’s first solo album Fiction and transformed into a jaw-dropping extended jam session that gives Naomi’s pipe playing a serious workout and the rest of the band the chance to really shine. All those years of recording and touring together really have made them into a well-oiled machine, and they were visibly happy at being on stage together. Kicking off the weekend with a couple of songs from the Noir soundtrack seemed especially poignant to me, and the same can be said of the final encore that ended on the title track to the Parade album because it brought everything round full circle.

There was a conspicuous absence of songs from the Cossette and Garden of Sinners soundtracks, but I couldn’t say whether this was for reasons of time constraints, or simply because they wouldn’t have matched the intended mood for the rest of the set. Again: it’s a difficult balancing act, and I find it hard to imagine anyone walking home from the arena unsatisfied. Whichever old tune or obscure album track or b-side that we missed out on was made up for by what we did get to hear; there was even a performance of the new Keiko-fronted song “Yuyami no Uta”, several weeks before its official release.

A silver lining to the awfulness of the pandemic was the opportunity to spend more time saving up for a big overseas trip, so I was able to do a lot of standard tourist-y sightseeing and splash some cash at the merch tent without worrying too much about my bank balance when I returned home.

There was one unexpected after-effect though. Looking at what I’d intended to see at the 2020 live show, and the sort of set list and line-up for most “regular” Kajiura/FictionJunction tours, I don’t know when I’ll be making a similar journey again. I guess what I’m trying to say is, KajiFes 2023 absolutely spoiled me. The set lists were huge, the musicians were on top form and it’ll be hard for them to assemble such an impressive selection of guest vocalists any time soon. After waiting almost two decades to hear some of these songs, I worry that any live show of theirs that I attend in the next year or two would pale in comparison. It would have to be a very different sort of occasion – one of the solo or “Jump Out Live” events, perhaps? – for me to truly appreciate it without making unfair comparisons.

On the plus side, TV broadcasts of both performances are scheduled for sometime early in 2024, and I think we can expect a home video release sometime shortly afterwards as well. There’s also the fact that Kajiura – along with a number of her most well-known collaborators – has a seemingly good working relationship with the new Highway Star agency, which is run by her old trusted manager. We’ll have to wait and see what they have planned for the year ahead, but this time it will at least be a time of optimism and productivity rather than 2018’s discord and uncertainty.

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