She’d almost look like a Japanese doll—gorgeous kimono, jet-black hair and white skin—were it not for the grotesque red lipstick severing her mouth. Perhaps it was her haunting appearance that struck you first. Or was it her blood-chilling laughter before she cursed you?
Welcome to the circus. Inugami Kyouko will lead you down this path—but you might never come back.
For more than a decade, Inugami Circus-dan have used rock music as their medium to expose the wrongs of society in what they feel is a purgatory process. They’re certainly not for the faint of heart – on top of dealing with everything taboo, they fish into Japanese mythology for their bizarre and grotesque imagery; suicides, diseases, unwanted pregnancies and the like all take place on a backdrop of maggots, pus, and bloodied guts. On their 1999 debut album, “Jigoku no Komoriuta,” Kyouko, whose name is written with a character meaning “evil,” is first introduced as the inu-musume, a girl born from the love of her mother to a stray dog. Her fate is to merely entertain the curious as the main act of the Dog God circus troupe.
Since then, she has enacted multiple roles within the band’s universe: cult leader, rape victim, hoodlum and prostitute, to name only a few. She has also proven her efficiency and versatility as a vocalist—a deep, feminine timbre, a flawless technique that brings traditional enka vocals to mind, hair-rising shrieks marked with her chilling trademark laughter, not to mention the wide array of emotions that she can convey. Despite her short stature, she has enough presence to make any other frontman pale in comparison—even males, quite certainly a feat in itself.
Indeed, if females abound in mainstream genres like pop or R&B, the more aggressive genres like punk, metal or rock have always been the affair of men. In an industry where women are conspicuous by their absence, it is no surprise that few work up the courage to expose themselves to the social prejudices and gender stereotypes that are still predominant in Japan. Female gender is a double-edged sword; it can hinder the artist as much as it can advance her.
For those who succeed in making a case for themselves, femininity is a weapon. All-girl trio TsuShiMaMiRe play up the contrast between punk and sweet, girly looks; Shiina Ringo’s provocative demeanor has had the public on a hook since her debut; Kuroneko’s vocals, juxtaposed to those of her male counterpart, are key to Onmyouza’s yin and yang concept; Midori’s Goto Mariko makes a point of rocking even harder than the boys – in a schoolgirl uniform.
Framed by a unit like Inugami Circus-dan, Kyouko’s femininity is perhaps even more shocking. Deliberately bent out of shape, it acts as an intensifier to the band’s concept. Her makeup, though feminine in essence, is so exaggerated that it becomes repulsive; the band’s lyrical content, already disturbing to start with, is downright shocking when sung by a woman; and the mere fact of having a woman occupy the core position of the band is enough to make people uncomfortable. Her impact on the imaginary is so strong that many are actually driven away from the band—however, the braver will find themselves entranced by her and everything she represents.
In a country where most cases of sexual harassment still go unreported, Kyouko is a paradox. She basically slaughters all gender stereotypes when she calls men pigs and brutes, going as far as saying that they "make her want to puke" in “Kichiku.” The song “Koi Uta” would pass as a typical love song if it didn’t culminate with the narrator admitting that she was abused by her boyfriend. “Tsugou No Ii Onna,” written from the point of view of an unknowing mistress, denounces adultery with a biting final verse in which lover and wife meet unexpectedly. It is certainly no surprise that most inukko, the fans of Inugami Circus-dan, consist of females. Inugami Kyouko stands as the voice of everything repressed, the darkness inside each person, plaguing society and human relationships.
And yet, in between themes like overconsumption and debilitating religious faith, she’s penned the lyrics of the ballad “Hakobune,” in which she sings, "Let’s get on a boat and go to that far-away planet / For nothing scares me when I close my eyes, holding you". Could this be the real Kyouko? After all, when she leaves the stage and turns back into Okayama Kyouko—this time written with a harmless character meaning "respect"—you encounter a lovely woman with a bright smile and a warm handshake. You’re suddenly aware of the real person under the makeup and the weird aesthetics, and if she still looks just as intimidating as when in her stage attire, you can also feel a certain admiration towards her, perhaps even a certain fondness.