The kanji, lyrics, and translation of "Ophelia" are now up on This is NOT Greatest Site. We debated with ourselves about how many notes to write on this one, but decided to opt for completeness, because Ophelia's story is one that deserves to be told.

For those of you who don't know, Ophelia is a character from Shakespeare's play "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," a young noblewoman who has a romantic relationship with Hamlet, the eponymous prince. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet's father, the king, has just been murdered by his younger brother Claudius, and Claudius has assumed the throne. Naturally, Hamlet is all kinds of upset that his father has been murdered. He becomes obsessed with plotting revenge and starts acting suspiciously. 

Claudius fears (correctly) that Hamlet may be plotting against him, but his adviser, Polonius, who is Ophelia's father, says that Hamlet must have gone mad with love for Ophelia. Ophelia, though a noblewoman, is not technically highborn enough to be considered a suitable bride for Hamlet, but Polonius hopes that if he can convince the king that Hamlet's love is true, Hamlet will marry Ophelia. To confirm Hamlet's motivations, Claudius and Polonius order Ophelia to allow them to spy on her the next time she meets with Hamlet. 

Polonius has ordered Ophelia to break off her relationship with Hamlet, because he fears that Hamlet will "steal her virtue" and then ditch her. Dutifully, Ophelia tells Hamlet that she would like to return the love letters he sent her. Angrily, Hamlet rants that he never sent her any love letters, that he doesn't love her anymore, and finishes up by grandiloquently calling her a whore. (This is the famous "get thee to a nunnery" scene). 

Ophelia is, of course, distraught. Polonius and Claudius realize that lovesickness must not be Hamlet's problem after all, and continue to spy on him. Eventually, Hamlet finds out about the spying and murders Polonius in a crime of passion. Laertes, Ophelia's brother, swears revenge on Hamlet for the murder of their father. Ophelia, overcome with grief and horror that not only has her former lover murdered her father, but her brother now wants to murder her former lover, has a complete mental breakdown and begins to wander through the palace singing dirty songs about the treacheries of men and expounding on flower symbolism (Ophelia loves flowers, and knows a great deal about their symbolic meanings). Claudius has Ophelia placed under guard, but one day she manages to escape and runs off to pick flowers in a meadow near the palace. She climbs a willow tree which hangs over a river, but the branch breaks and she falls into the water. Unable to swim and hampered by waterlogged skirts, she floats down the river with her flowers until eventually, she drowns. Her beautiful, flower-strewn corpse is discovered by Gertrude, the queen, who breaks the news to Claudius and Laertes in a speech which has been labeled "the most beautiful death scene in literature." 

At Ophelia's funeral, Gertrude strews the grave with flowers, saying that she had hoped Hamlet would marry Ophelia, but the palace priest believes that Ophelia has committed suicide, and refuses to give her a full Christian burial. This enrages Laertes, who insults the priest, then jumps into Ophelia's grave, opens her coffin and begins to make a scene - whereupon Hamlet, who has been hiding in the graveyard watching the funeral in secret, jumps out and punches Laertes, declaring that he loved Ophelia more than Laertes ever did - pretty ironic, considering how cruelly he treated her while she was alive.

Symbolically, Ophelia is more or less the polar opposite to Salome. While Salome symbolizes dominant, overpowering female sexuality that cuts the heads off men (and let it not be lost on y'all that men have both a big head and a small head to cut off), Ophelia is the innocent woman who is destroyed as collateral damage in men's power games. In his "get thee to a nunnery" speech, Hamlet essentially accuses Ophelia of bewitching him with her feminine wiles, and curses her "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny" - i.e., "No matter how chaste you are, may everyone still think you're a whore."

The heavy implication behind this scene is that, claiming to love Ophelia, Hamlet seduced her, and he's now telling her that she's a slut for having slept with him, that he doesn't love her, and she'd be better off living in a convent than marrying a sinner like him and giving birth to more sinners. It's all about him, acting out the drama of his own angst - he doesn't care about her feelings, and he doesn't take responsibility for the fact that he was the one who seduced her in the first place. Instead, he makes everything her fault, which it patently is not (though as we saw with Salome, the original Biblical Salome was just like Ophelia, used as a pawn in the games of men.) After Ophelia's death, Hamlet starts a fight to defend her honor and his love for her - but again, it's not really about her, it's about him, being The World's Angstiest Man, Now with Extra Misery Because His Lover Just Died (tm).

In many stories, female characters like Ophelia remain voiceless and objectified, and never have a chance to express their feelings. However, in Shakespeare's story, Ophelia suffers a mental breakdown after Hamlet murders her father, and begins to act out by wandering the palace in a distracted state, singing songs about how the men in her life have wronged her. The other characters dismiss her words as nothing but the ramblings of insanity, but to the audience, it should be clear that there's method in her madness, just as there is in Hamlet's. Ophelia's breakdown is simultaneously a representation of the way women's mental/emotional health often falls victim to the ravages of patriarchal culture, and also an underhanded way for her to reclaim her agency. Consciously or unconsciously, Ophelia's breakdown is her way of saying "fuck this, I can't play this game anymore." Though whether her death is suicide or not is left ambiguous, assuming that it is suicide, her suicide, too, serves as a way for her to regain control.

It's easy to see why Sakurai responded to the story of Ophelia - he's been writing about the theme of madness through most of his career, probably because he's always struggled with depression himself. Though it's clear that he remains very much sane, it's also clear that he sees appealing freedom in the idea of letting go of sanity. He has also written many lyrics about a flirting with the idea of suicide - and while Hamlet is famous for his suicide contemplation in "To be or not to be," it's worth pointing out that Ophelia's the one who manages to actually die by her own hand, whereas (spoiler) Hamlet has to be murdered.

In fact, it's the assertion of agency in Ophelia's suicide which is the main subject of Sakurai's lyrics. The chorus of Sakurai's "Ophelia" is written from her perspective, as she narrates what her own death means to her. She seems joyous as she describes how she has let go of all her memories (painful ones, presumably), and how dying a beautiful death at a young age means that she will stay young and beautiful forever. She even describes her float down the river as a "waltz" - significant, given that, while Buck-Tick have previously never been given to writing waltzes, this album contains not one but two songs in waltz time: "Reishiki 13-gata 'Ai'," and "Guernica no Yoru," both of which also deal with themes of innocents living and dying in a cruel world. By contrast, the narrator voice who sings the rest of the "Ophelia" lyrics has no agency or character - this voice never does anything but bear witness to Ophelia's tale.

Therefore, this song could be seen as similar to "Moon -Sayonara wo Oshiete," in that in it, Sakurai is singing from a female/gender-ambiguous perspective. Whether both songs are about the same character or not is open to interpretation, but it seems to me that the music video for "Moon" contains a hefty helping of inspiration from "Ophelia" (drowning woman and all that). It's too bad they didn't go ahead and make a full music video for "Ophelia," too, because it would have been great to see them do the same kind of "live art" that they did with Rodchenko in "Keijijou Ryuusei," only with Millais' Ophelia.

It's significant that Ophelia and Salome appear in back-to-back tracks on the album. Taken at face value, together, they're a perfect symbol of the virgin-whore dichotomy: the way in which patriarchal society casts women either as "virgins," who are virtuous and revered, but only so long as they remain chaste, and "whores," who, by acting upon their own sexual desires, become reviled as creatures of evil and temptation. However, in Sakurai's hands, both characters become much more complicated than that. The man's voice in "Salome" doesn't sound relatable - he sounds crazed and over the top as he threatens her with violence. It's unclear whether she kills him or he kills her - the title "femme fatale" implies that she's the one who kills him, but the lyrics imply otherwise. Whatever happens, it's clear that the male character in "Salome" is far from some hapless lunch for a black widow, but rather an active participant, driven to distraction by lust to be the instigator or perpetrator of whatever crimes are committed.

However, in "Ophelia," rather than being deified by some man who admires her chaste purity (as is usual for "virgin" archetypes), Ophelia is the star of the show telling her own story, while the narrator can only look on with love and sadness. Both stories are fictions, not necessarily reflective of Sakurai's own personal thoughts or feelings - but at the same time, Sakurai's always been much more of a diarist than a fabulist, and it seems to me that he uses characters as vectors for expressing emotions which he has experienced personally, even if his experience wasn't literally the same as the events in his lyrics. If an aspect of Sakurai identifies with the man in Salome, another aspect of him appears to identify with Ophelia at least as strongly. There's a big theme on No. 0 of innocence being broken by experience. "Guernica no Yoru" is the dramatic death of innocents by violence, but "Ophelia" is the slow death by a thousand cuts. She longs so much for beauty, but as beauty is continuously destroyed, so she must destroy herself. Like a flower, she blooms and falls.

The most obscure lyric in the song is the line about the "trees along the roadway." While there were surely trees along roadways even in Shakespeare's time, something about the image feels modern to me, probably because in the play, Ophelia's suicide is described as taking place in a bucolic setting. To me, the mention of roadway trees and flowers at the same time conjure up an image of Tokyo in cherry blossom season - is Sakurai's Ophelia floating down the Meguro River? Somehow, bringing the city into it adds a new dimension, placing Ophelia into the real world, as opposed to leaving her entirely in a world of beautiful fantasy. Perhaps Sakurai added the phrase as a reminder that something in the real world was the source of her distress, or perhaps the narrator is remembering her while looking at the sunlight through the trees along the road - because at this point in the song, Ophelia has already "become a dream." In any case, this is the only line in the song that calls doubt on the idea that Sakurai wrote these lyrics specifically about Shakespeare's Ophelia, and suggests that Sakurai's Ophelia may be a more modern woman who met a similar fate.

Meguro River Cherry Blossom Festival (Photo by Cayce)

It's also not surprising that Sakurai chose to write about Ophelia, considering what a hot topic she's been in art history. Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse was so obsessed with Ophelia he made at least four paintings of her, while John Everett Millais' Ophelia made a big splash in Japan, once it was given a good review by novelist and national icon Natsume Soseki. Salvador Dali found Millais' Ophelia so inspiring her re-interpreted it not once but twice - in both painting and jewel form - and given that Sakurai is a big Dali fan, this alone might have been reason enough to write a song.

A Waterhouse Ophelia

Another Waterhouse Ophelia

John Everett Millais' Ophelia

Salvador Dali's Ophelia (inspired by Millais)

Salvador Dali's Ophelia (Jewelry Version)

Odilon Redon's "Ophelia Among the Flowers"

Margaret McDonald's Ophelia

Paul Albert Steck's "Ophelia Drowning" (note the similarity to the imagery in the music video for "Moon -Sayonara wo Oshiete")

 Alexandre Cabanel's Ophelia

 Joanna Smielowska's "White (Ophelia)"

All these paintings are beautiful, but personally, when I listen to Buck-Tick's "Ophelia," the artwork that springs most readily to mind isn't technically Ophelia at all - it's "Keeping Up the Pureness," by the Japanese painter Matsui Fuyuko. We've seen this one in person in the gallery, and the reproduction doesn't do it justice at all.

If you've never heard of Matsui Fuyuko, by all means look up her work. She may not be well known abroad, but she's very famous in Japan, and I'd be extremely surprised if Sakurai isn't familiar with her work. Plus, not only is she (in our opinion) one of the most talented artists alive in the world today, she's also one of Japan's most beautiful women. And lest we be criticized for reducing her to her appearance by saying that - we most certainly are not. Her work is stunning. But so is she. Just look at her.


More translations coming soon.


  1. Thank you once again for an amazing analysis!

  2. Remember the duet of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue (where wild roses grow) and especially the video. In a way just as bizarre as Ophelia and Hamlet. Strange!

  3. Apparently the Where the Wild Roses Grow video was explicitly inspired by Millais' Ophelia. I'm not sure I'd describe it as strange, though - just two Australians, singing about murder. That's what you get from a country founded by convicts :)

  4. Still I don't understand the fascination for the very colorless virgin Ophelia.And I feel sorry for Hamlet, maybe Paranoid of Black Sabbath is more suitable for him?

    1. Have you read the play? Whether you have or not, I encourage you to read it again. Hamlet's charismatic, but he's also kind of a pontificating self-obsessed asshole, which is part of the point, I think. As to Ophelia, it's likely that she's not a virgin, which plays into the agony she suffers later on. However, I think the artistic obsession with her comes from the fact that her suicide was is very photogenic. Pretty girls + flowers + tragic death = Romantic artists spill their coffee all over themselves in delight.

    2. It seems to me like there is definitely a fascination of artists with dead women, especially drowned ones. Look for the book The Drowned Muse if you want to know more.

    3. Another book to check out: The Afterlife of Ophelia.


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