Meet me at Paradeplatz: thoughts on FictionJunction at AnimagiC 2023

It’s been four years since I’d last had a proper holiday, so I incorporated my visit to the AnimagiC 2023 convention into a European city break trip that I was already planning to make sometime this year. I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen August due to the summer crowds, and I wasn’t yet sure which particular cities I wanted to see either, but it worked out well enough in the end.

The train route to Mannheim goes through Frankfurt, so I decided to spend a couple of days there to break up the journey. Although Frankfurt is a pleasant enough place with a selection of interesting sights, it struck me as a little intimidating and better suited to businesspeople and shoppers than tourists. Mannheim in contrast is somewhat smaller, more picturesque, and the grid layout of its streets makes it easier to find your way around. There’s a pretty good selection of cafes, restaurants, museums and art galleries that are an ideal way to spend your time when it’s raining (as it was on the week I visited), and the stunning Luisenpark when the weather is better.

The Rosengarten is a concert hall that also functions well as a conference centre, so is a perfect place to host a convention that’s holding a number of live music events. It’s spacious and modern, but retains a beautiful Art Nouveau façade that blends in well with its surroundings. It’s also walking distance from the main train station, which is very convenient: if you can’t find an affordable hotel in Mannheim itself, I’d suggest looking at the area across the river near Ludwigshafen Mitte, which is only a couple of minutes away by local train.

Of all the music-related guests, FictionJunction was the only one that I was very familiar with. Even so, Kashitaro Ito impressed me with his “unplugged” performance where he sung with an acoustic guitarist as accompaniment, and I thoroughly enjoyed the “Anime In Concert” orchestral set as well. This was somewhat longer than the others (which were only 30 minutes or so in length) and featured full woodwind and horns sections who performed theme tunes and soundtrack numbers from popular franchises such as Sailor Moon, One Piece and a couple of Studio Ghibli movies. It was also much less “stiff” and formal than the classical concerts that I’m used to, so was tremendous fun.

Two other well-known artists on the bill were ASCA and ReoNa, who are part of the SACRA Music label so unsurprisingly have fairly similar visual and musical styles. I enjoyed both of their concerts more than I expected though, and was particularly impressed by ASCA’s stage presence and rapport with the crowd.

The two FictionJunction concerts were immediately after the opening ceremony and before the closing one, which may be part of the reason why the venue was almost full for both. Like all the live shows I saw that weekend (with the exception of the orchestral one), most of the instruments were on pre-recorded backing tracks, although Yuki was provided with a grand piano. Despite it not being 100% “live”, the sound levels all sounded pretty good from where I was sitting, and I had no trouble hearing Yuki, Joelle, Yuriko, Keiko or Kaori clearly.

I’ve not attended a FJ live show in person before, but I think that they made good use of their time slots. Walking on stage to the Parade album’s Prologue intro, they started the set proper with the title track and Distance. Both concerts leaned heavily towards songs that showcased the vocalists’ skills in performing together while being accessible to people who may not be hardcore fans: Parallel Hearts, Sokyu no Fanfare and Moonlight Melody.

The more interesting moments for me were the four “piano and solo singer” numbers: two different songs performed at each concert, which featured just Yuki on piano and gave each individual voice a chance to shine. On the Friday Keiko sung Kaze no Machi e and Joelle Fake Wings; on the Sunday it was Kaori’s turn with Heaven and Yuriko with Lullaby. As always, Keiko’s performance was warm and soothing, and Joelle’s expressiveness and English fluency allowed her to turn a light and contemplative tune into something more dramatic and forceful. Heaven dates back to the early See-Saw era (I must confess that I didn’t even recognise it!) so it was a bit of a treat, especially with Kaori’s energetic liveliness. On a strictly personal level though, Lullaby was a highlight purely because Yuriko’s original version comes from the Noir soundtrack, which was my introduction to Yuki’s music back in the mid 2000s. I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear at that point.

A happy coincidence in all this was that the Sunday happened to be Yuki’s birthday. Towards the end of the concert the convention’s hosts led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” and presented her with a couple of flower bouquets. Given that her family spent several years living in Germany during her childhood – according to her social media posts during the convention, she even took a short trip to Dusseldorf on the Saturday for nostalgia’s sake – it all felt quite poignant, and provided a very uplifting and emotional way to end the weekend.

I figured that I may as well share my thoughts about the Parade album itself now as well, since I was recovering from Covid when my CD arrived so I wasn’t really able to form coherent thoughts about it at the time. Sokyu no Fanfare wasn’t one of my favourites, but now that I’ve heard it performed by the four “core” members of the FJ vocal line-up, I’ve warmed to it a lot more and much prefer it sung that way rather than with the extra guest vocalists. Similarly, I enjoy the Parade version of Moonlight Melody more than the one from the Princess Principal soundtrack, and it sounds even better still when sung live.

My first impressions of the album were that it was a bit of a mixed bag, being made up of a mixture of the “old” FJ sound with Keiko, Kaori, Yuriko and now Joelle (who occupies the sonic space that Wakana occupied until around 2018) and new voices that I’m not yet sold on. On reflection though, it gets better with repeated listens: in the same way that it took a while for me to appreciate Joelle’s versatility and professionalism, I’m sure that I’ll enjoy listening to rito and LINO LEIA more as they record more songs and gain experience as performers. FJ really always has been something of a loose collective rather than a steady line-up, so seeing individuals come and go is something that fans just have to get used to, but it’s also fascinating to see them learn and grow over time.

Aimer is another artist with a very unique voice and has provided some strong performances with the ending themes to the three Heaven’s Feel anime films, so I was mildly disappointed that her only contribution here was one song, Kai, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Mizu no Akashi so felt a little redundant and only made me feel Wakana’s absence more keenly. As with the additional singers on Sokyu no Fanfare, the inclusion of from the edge feels like a commercial decision rather than a musical one due to its high profile; there are three other songs performed by LiSA and written by Yuki that are also strong enough in my opinion to deserve a place on a full-length LP.

Of course, it’s been a number of years since the last FJ studio album, so there’s not enough space on one CD to fit every well-known song that Yuki has released since her last album. And what is included is pretty solid when viewed alongside the track listings of Everlasting Songs and Elemental: Koto no Hoka Yawarakai is quintessential “dark” FJ with its brooding strings, layered harmonised vocals and its insistent four-on-the-floor beat; Hachigatsu no Organ does an excellent job of balancing melancholy with hope; while the title track has a wonderfully triumphant and nostalgic vibe, like catching up with old friends.

There are also several tracks that are “self-covers” of sorts, some dating back to the time when Yuki collaborated with Saeko Chiba, so I doubt that the track listing was dictated purely by an agency or record company. If anything, I suspect that at this point in her career she has acquired enough of a back catalogue and industry reputation to be given quite a lot of artistic freedom in which songs are released and who she collaborates with. Although the other music guests at AnimagiC had their own enthusiastic audiences and deservedly so, I got a distinct impression that Yuki occupies a special place in the fan community that could almost be described as anisong royalty…a status that I personally feel is well-deserved after three pretty prolific decades. A very happy birthday indeed to a true queen.

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