Part II. Melancholia.
As soon as I opened up the lyric booklet for this single, I could already see the fan criticisms lying in wait for the lyrics to “Melancholia.” Artistic laziness! Sakurai is using the same words again! Angels, devils, blood, clowns! He's losing his touch, like a touched-in-the-head-clown! (See what I did there?)
As a matter of fact, I have a confession to make...even I had that reaction the first time I read the lyrics. But I immediately changed my mind when I listened to the song, and the reason can be summed up in one word: reversals.
A reversal is a literary term for when the writer takes the expectations of the reader/watcher/listener and turns them on their head. A reversal is a subversion of cliché. In the lyrics to “Melancholia,” Sakurai makes masterful use of reversals in the lyrics to convey a feeling of powerlessness and lack of agency, a very unusual mood for his lyrics overall—something that makes this song highly original and also deeply cryptic.
The first reversal in “Melancholia” comes in the first stanza. In the first line, Sakurai (as the narrator) tells us he’s “acting a clown.” We generally expect that acting occurs on a stage, but in the second line, Sakurai tells us that isn’t the case—the narrator isn’t on the stage, he’s in the audience. In fact, he’s the only one in the audience, which is unusual in itself. Sakurai’s written a lot of songs about performing alone onstage in front of large crowds (hmm I wonder why?) But alone in the audience? He’s never done that before, which makes the situation all the more confusing.
The second reversal comes in the second stanza, when he tells us about the person who IS on the stage: she’s a smiling goddess. But instead of acting like we would expect a smiling goddess to act—benevolent, protective, beatific—she’s pouring blood into a glass. Though the association between blood and the divine female conjures ideas of both childbirth and female sexuality as symbolized by menstruation, and the idea of a glass full of liquid conjures ideas about gratitude and optimism vs. pessimism (is the glass half empty or half full?), it remains a disturbing image. It takes an awful lot of blood to fill up a glass… so whose blood is it? Whether the blood belongs to the narrator or some unnamed third party, there’s an undercurrent of sacrifice or payment of blood debt, which just underscores the lack of agency we saw in the first stanza—narrator as spectator, passively watching.
The third and most important reversal comes in the second verse, when Sakurai sings of an angel with white feathers, dyeing the Devil red. Wait...what? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the Devil be beating up on the Angel? This is a huge subversion of expectations and tradition. Of course, we can’t be sure the angel is really doing anything bad. Maybe he’s just using them feathers to paint the Devil’s naughty bits with red finger paint because that’s how Mr. Devil gets his jollies…but given the recurring image of blood throughout the lyrics, it seems pretty clear that “dyed in red” is a symbolic way of saying “stained with blood,” which in turn is a symbolic way of saying “guilty of violence.” In that case, is the Angel punishing the Devil for his crimes? It’s hard to tell, since as far as we know, according to this song, the Devil hasn’t actually committed any crimes, though perhaps being a Devil is crime enough.
The whole setup becomes even more complex when you consider that beyond the surprise of making the Angel into an aggressor, Sakurai’s given the Angel an awfully flimsy instrument of pain—a white feather. How are you supposed to hurt a bad guy like a devil with nothing but a white feather? Something about this smacks of a codependent abusive relationship—as if the Devil is just standing there, allowing the Angel to abuse him, or as if the Devil becomes guilty simply through the existence of the Angel. As if the goodness of the Angel is what defines the Devil’s evil. Either way, the Devil is passive, or at least passively complicit, which is an unusual state of being for a Devil. After all, it’s the angels who are supposed to be meek and mild.
Sakurai’s written plenty of songs about being abused or punished—“Cain,” “Chikashitsu no Melody,” “Megami,” “Sacrifice,” “Hallelujah,” even “Gesshoku”— but even as a victim, he’s retained his agency, focusing largely on his own actions in response to abuse or punishment, rather than the actions of his tormentor. In “Cain” and “Megami,” he actively embraces punishment (“Run till you die, at risk of your life/Tonight, I become you,” “I sin and long for punishment”). In “Sacrifice,” he offers the sacrifice of his own free will (I’ll sacrifice to the devil/If you desire it/Sacrifice everything”). And in “Gesshoku” and “Hallelujah” he takes on the role of torturer, at least in part—fangirls are going to hate me for this one but in fact, the words he repeats over and over again at the end of the live version of “Hallelujah” translate to “you know I’ll surely rape and kill you.” For what it’s worth, I’m quite sure that the real-life Mr. Sakurai doesn’t actually want to rape and kill anyone, and that “Hallelujah” was really exploring a psychological dynamic rather than a physical reality, but the point is, in his own songs, Sakurai (playing the character of the narrator) is usually the one in charge, whether he’s the one inflicting pain (quite uncommon) or the one sitting there saying “please mistress, punish me harder” (a lot less uncommon.)
Having the narrator be a passive spectator rather than an agent makes “Melancholia” stand out from Sakurai’s other work. Here, rather than embracing the role of victim, the narrator sits in the audience, watching events happen on the stage, seemingly unable to participate. The feeling of powerlessness intensifies in the chorus, with the invocation of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Things crumble into nothing and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
To make matters worse, the narrator is mentally compromised (“touched in the head”) or at least pretending to be so. Beyond that, he’s a clown—someone to be laughed at, someone not to be taken seriously. A caricature, not a real person. We’ve seen this clown before—he was the main character in Juusankai wa Gekkou, and even longer ago in Aku no Hana. Sakurai seems to use this clown to represent the way he feels objectified as a performer, the way he feels that no one can see beyond his stage image. But while in “Aku no Hana” and “Doukeshi A” he seemed to mostly be wrestling with loneliness and isolation, in “Melancholia” when he talks about acting “a clown touched in the mind” we’re left to wonder if there’s a method to his feigned madness—is it a defense mechanism a la Stockholm syndrome? Is it a way of denying responsibility in the face of something he feels is too big to take responsibility for? Is he saying that somehow, he feels disconnected from himself, as if he were just playing a role?
This, I think, is where the title of the song comes into play. Melancholia is another word for depression, and the defining feature of depression is a feeling of powerlessness and futility. Feeling cut off from your life, as if you were watching it from the outside, going through the motions without any control. Feeling as if your actions are pointless, a farce, something acted out by a clown. Feeling caught up in the same thought loops, as if you were watching the same scene in a play over and over again.
If the song does have an agent, it’s the goddess/angel, and given their mutual divinity and the fact that they are both described as the actors on the stage, I get the sense they are really the same person, though it’s interesting that while the angel lacks gender, the goddess is gendered by definition, which brings a sexual power dynamic into play. I also think it’s significant that no actual violence is taking place in the song, it’s all symbolic. Neither pouring blood nor painting with blood is a violent act in and of itself. Furthermore, the goddess/angel appears to be untouched by the blood. The feathers are still white, not red, and the goddess is smiling. There’s no indication that she’s even aware of the punishment she seems to be dealing out.
Couple that with the association between blood and female sexuality and I begin to wonder if the narrator is feeling tortured by her beauty and goodness. She is inherently above him. She’s standing on stage, while he’s in the audience. She is a supernatural, divine being, while he is nothing but a pretend-clown. The glass of blood may even be a gift she’s offering to him—“here, drink this!” Perhaps, just looking at her reminds him of his own faults, flaws, and sins.
Ultimately, “Melancholia” is an unusually obscure and cryptic song that could be interpreted in any number of ways. What is it really about? Is it about lingering feelings of inadequacy leftover from his abusive childhood? Is it about regretting the ways he feels he failed a woman he loved to the point of worship? Is it about feeling victimized or in some way cast as a villain against his will? Is it simply a symbolic exploration of the paralytic state of being depressed? To my mind, this open-endedness increases its artistic merit. I just wanted to call your collective attention to the layered, ambiguous quality of the imagery here, before people start pulling out that self-plagiarism card yet again.