It’s no secret that I’m more than a little in love with Shouta Aoi (seriously, the man has the face and voice of an angel). After watching Uta no Prince-sama and the live concerts, I looked him up and found some of his songs. I managed to “catch up” around 2015 when he released the lead single for his then-upcoming album UNLIMITED. Since then, I’ve been following his career as closely as possible and eventually took to following him on Twitter. When I started seeing posts about another upcoming album, I figured it would be a good idea to review it and further spread my love of this amazing young man.
The album was billed as the second one to be released under his current name (he’d previously debuted under the name SHOWTA), which confused me and several other fans. UNLIMITED was the first album under the “Shouta Aoi” name, but was then followed by S (which was his last under the Broccoli label) and then a Best Of album paying homage to his SHOWTA era. Many of us considered S to be his second album, though it seems the staff (and likely Shouta himself) considered it to be a best-of album so I suppose it doesn’t count. But from the title song, we got a taste of a new, more mature sound from Shouta, reminding us all that this bishounen marvel is in fact an adult man.
My first exposure to this new album Zero came mostly from radio rips in the beginning and it was a while before I was able to get my hands on the tracklist. But after the album was finally released on November 10, 2017, I finally tracked down the songs and am now able to give a full, heartfelt review for the entire album.
The titular song on the album, Zero is Shouta’s most aesthetically traditional single since Murasaki. Aside from the beautifully intricate visual elements, the use of certain archaic kanji in the printed lyrics greatly add to the overall aesthetic appeal of the song. The lyrics use the Buddhist term “shogyou mujou” (諸行無常) which refers to the “impermanence of worldly things” or, more loosely translated, “Nothing is permanent.” The line in question has been translated as “There is nothing forever in this world; Let’s go together to the end.” Though in saying “the end”, he uses the word “tougen” (桃源) which can be taken to mean “Paradise on Earth” (or more literally, Shangri-la), so perhaps he is suggesting that since there is no permanence in this world, they should go together to paradise. The mood of the song seems to evoke the feeling of an epic love poem, two lovers yearning to be together in a dream-like world.
A short preview of the music video was posted on Shouta’s YouTube channel on August 24, 2017 and I had been searching for the full version ever since. To my surprise, I eventually found it on Vimeo of all places. With the seamless blend of rock music with traditional Japanese instruments, as well as Shouta’s makeup and costuming in the video, I was very much reminded of Wagakki Band which was a huge positive. In addition to showcasing Shouta’s exemplary vocal range, the video does not fail to draw attention to his ever-surprising levels of adult maturity. Lying on a bed of flowers, sensually gazing at the camera (even causing a rather enticing “meme“), Shouta exudes a form of assertive sexiness not seen since Himitsu no Kuchizuke.
At first listen, Sousei comes across as upbeat yet strangely calming and more than a little pensive. It’s almost fantasy-esque in a sense, like it’s some kind of curse that prevents his dream from coming true. Calling himself “little doll maker” could refer to a doll he created that was then turned into this girl he can’t meet, or perhaps the girls was turned into a doll to prevent them from being together. The lyrics admittedly seem a bit nonsensical, but have a certain philosophical tone while speaking of the desire to fulfill his dream of being with the one he loves. He asks “How many times will time turn around?”, most likely meaning how many times are things going to repeat, such as meeting his destined love, and leave wishes ungranted.
In referencing “that clear blue star on the horizon”, the kanji actually reads “wakusei” or “planet” so it’s most likely referring to Earth (though I can’t say I’ve ever heard Earth referred to as a star). I feel like if I understood kanji better, I might have a better idea of why lyricists use a different kanji than the word they intend to be sung. It almost feels like he’s speaking from an otherworldly realm (perhaps what “this small garden place” is referencing?).
Nearly equal parts sad and beautiful, INVERTED paints a picture of chaos and loneliness, with a slight end-of-the-world vibe, as the speaker seems to want to spend the remaining time with the one he loves. The lyrics seem to embody his passion for her and his desire to stay by her side until the very end.
Despite the vague apocalyptic vibe shaped by the lyrics, the music itself is more upbeat with a few slow transitions between verses.
Our first glimpse at a new, edgy Shouta, DDD has an up-tempo, EDM-type beat with strong opening vocals. Shouta appears in a warehouse room surrounded by men dressed in black, possibly representing negative thoughts. He prompts his companion (similarly dressed, likely the embodiment of his “weak heart”) to fend off the on-comers while he sits back, almost hiding. When he and his companion seem overwhelmed, Shouta “catches” the light, as if willing himself to become stronger, which repels their attackers.
Released as a single on October 19, 2016 and used as the second opening theme for Future Card Buddyfight DDD, an anime based on a TCG of the same name, the lyrics speak to not giving in to doubt and becoming stronger through friends. Shouta’s visual transformation in the later part of the video, somewhat reminiscent of Hyde or GACKT, was our first look at a more hardcore side of him.
In this video, Shouta plays the role of a sort-of guardian angel watching over two children playing hide-and-seek. When one of them is unable to find her friend, Shouta comforts her and silently guides her to her friend who then greets her with a flower he picked while hiding. I almost wish there was some indication that Shouta really was an angel, or someone that only the children can see, but it was still a sweet theme to the video.
Speaking of things like “violent pure emotions” and saying “The armor of common sense is just a nuisance”, the lyrics bring to mind the fragility and literal innocence of children, and how children feel simply and fully without logic. This is potentially further represented by the song’s title and borderline rock tone, and also emphasizes the importance of holding onto friendships and childhood curiosity while braving the unknown future.
Innocent was officially released as a single on July 27, 2017 and used as the opening theme for Hatsukoi Monster a few weeks earlier. It was released on July 26 by US time, but since my birthday is on the 28th, it almost felt like an early birthday present (wouldn’t that be nice? ^_^).
Stay With Me!!
Easily the most romantic song on the album (at least in my opinion), I’d honestly expected Stay With Me!! to have a slower melody but I was definitely not disappointed. Admittedly I did question the repetitious parts (“Stay with stay with stay with me”), but sometimes even love songs have no logic. The lyrics portray a man thinking about the girl he loves and almost begging her to love him, wondering what he has to do to earn her affections. He comes off as a pure-hearted romantic wanting to enjoy the little things, like seeing her sleeping next to him and greeting him when he comes home, and almost desperately wishing he could change those “trivial coincidences” for them to meet into something guaranteed.
Just hearing the song alone is almost enough to make you feel the central heartache, but after reading a translated version, I noticed the lyrics had an utter purity and earnestness that perfectly embodies the innocence and pain of an unrequited love. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if Shouta was thinking of a specific person when he sang this song, but maybe some questions are better left unanswered.
Released as a single on January 25, 2017, Flower was Shouta’s first non-anime related song in seven years. Whether intentional or otherwise, the video almost gives a sense of purity with Shouta and the backup dancers dressed completely in white with white surroundings and images of flowers behind them. Though even with the pure imagery, the lyrics paint a dream world that the speaker strongly desires to make into a reality, inviting his lover to view it with him.
Talking about colorfully dyed flowers and vivid colors, it very much reminds me of his character from Magic-kyun! Renaissance, finally awaking to a world of color and wanting to share it with someone.
The sole track on the album penned and composed by Shouta himself, Powder Snow seems almost reflective and just a little sad. Admittedly, some parts of the lyrics made me wonder if Shouta was referencing his childhood bullying or the insecurities he’d had about his voice. Mention of a strong weight on his back and a stretched-out shadow sneering at him could make it sound almost like he’s still haunted by those memories, and that he wants to be proud of the “screwed-up person” they shaped him into. He describes this as an answer he’s waiting for, but uses the kanji 希望 meaning “hope”. Perhaps in that, he’s hoping to find an answer that explains why he had to go through such troubling and haunting experiences.
As I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Shouta personally, my knowledge of his past trauma is secondhand at best, hearing just that he’d been bullied due to his naturally high voice. I can’t even begin to imagine what he experienced, but for him to have made a career with his voice and to even write such a powerful song is more than an accomplishment.
Always Be Together
A short preview of the song of the song was posted on Shouta’s YouTube channel on September 20, 2017 and after a few listens, I suddenly started crying. Sure, it’s a beautiful song but out of nowhere, it had me thinking about an old friend who had passed away almost three years before. It’s not the first time a song has reminded me of him, but the others were released very soon after he died so the loss was still fresh. Anyone who’s ever lost a loved one certainly wants to believe they’re still with us, and Always Be Together certainly gives that feeling with the title alone.
Shouta’s performance of the song was all around calm and almost soothing, sitting on the edge of the stage for most of it. ABT already comes off as an acoustic song, but the live performance seemed even more so. I’d expected a gentle, romantic song, but thinking of my friend and reading the translation made me feel an extra level of warmth and comfort that anyone would appreciate.
Based solely on the title, I had expected something akin to Morning Musume’s Wolf Boy, or at least a vulpine theme. In actuality, the song turned out more bouncy and energetic than I’d imagined, even lending its name to Shouta’s radio program. The lyrics are almost nonsensical (which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker), but carry a general theme of music bringing happiness and encouragement. It can easily be used as a cheer-up tune but also has an element of being a love song, with the speaker talking about how his love’s voice is running through his head and wanting to make her happy.
The performance was equally energetic in its own right complete with pennant flags and fan chants (à la Touch-to-Take Trico). Shouta seemed to suffer a brief snafu with his pennant but was able to quickly adjust it, never losing focus on the song. The display screen gave the song an added level of whimsy with a comic-esque pop-art design. Though not written in the printed lyrics or featured on the display screen, there seemed to be a chant of “Shoutan!” after each “Hungry Night” in the chorus. Since it wasn’t written, it could also have been “Show time!”, but it makes no difference to me.
Koko ni (ココに)
Truly the finest example of Shouta’s vocal prowess I’ve come across, Koko ni is the right combination of low-key and uplifting needed to wind down the album’s track list. the lyrics perfectly encompass a sense of love and gratitude from Shouta to an unspecified someone for their warmth and support, and an eagerness to repay their kindness.
Ballads usually have their own brand of appeal, but this was definitely one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever heard. It was even used in a video tribute commemorating Shouta’s five-year anniversary as a performer. The lyricist thoroughly studied Shouta’s performances, comments, and blog posts in order to accurately capture the singer’s thoughts and feelings, even earning Shouta’s praise in the process.
SMILE SMILE SMILE
A perfect conclusion to the album, SMILE SMILE SMILE gives a very strong dance club feel, especially with “I’ll meet you in the spotlight” being repeated in the verses. It’s not a love song in the conventional sense, but still speaks to the image of two hearts becoming one and overcoming struggles together. It shows a guy wanting to “deliver a simple love” to someone and just make her happy.
To promote the release of Shouta’s WONDER lab. 0 on DVD and Blu-ray, several performance videos were uploaded to his YouTube channel, none longer than two minutes. However, with SMILE SMILE SMILE, the full video was posted. From a fan’s perspective, I’d speculate that this was because of Shouta’s unusually provocative dancing in this performance. It was quite surprising at the time seeing Shouta dance like that, but at certain points, it’s evident he’s trying to push himself and grow as an artist. All we can hope is that Shouta keeps persevering and improving.
I don’t know what more I can say about this album as a whole. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Shouta had written one of the songs himself, and that it touched on a rarely-mentioned part of his past. This is not the first he’s had a hand in songwriting, but I know many fans would love to see more in the future. More than anything, it’s more evident after listening to this album that this talented man has vastly more potential than I’d initially realized. It’s no question that the fandom is already eager to hear what new songs he has in store for us.