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Ayumi Hamasaki – “Rule / Sparkle” CD Single


Ayumi Hamasaki has been a well-known Japanese pop music performer since the late 1990s. While the majority of Dragon Ball music since the DBZ TV series has been helmed by Hironobu Kageyama, Hamasaki was approached to perform the international theme song for the live action Dragon Ball Evolution movie released to theaters in 2009. The CD single for the song was released 25 February 2009 in three different packaging types, each containing slightly different track listings.

Quick Details:

Title: “Rule/Sparkle”
Artist: Ayumi Hamasaki
Catalogue #: AVCD-31605, AVCD-31606, AVCD-31607
Publisher: avex trax
Release Date: 25 February 2009
Price: ¥1800, ¥1050
Tracks: (various)

Review By: Mike LaBrie (VegettoEX)

For those of us that have been following Dragon Ball music for what seems like eons, we have been ecstatic to get a new Hironobu Kageyama song every year or so in conjunction with new video games. To have such a familiar voice and such a deep association with the franchise be brought into the modern era with new production values and collaborations (such as performances with Tower Of Power for the Budokai games), it was enough for any fanboy to be satisfied.

My familiarity with Ayumi Hamasaki is somewhat limited when you take a look at her back-catalogue and huge presence throughout all of Asia. At the same time, I perhaps have a more solid viewpoint than I otherwise think I have. After being “into” the anime scene for a few years beginning in the mid-1990s, and with the musical direction of Dragon Ball GT going this way, I tried to follow the J-Pop scene to get a taste of what was out there. I saw Amuro Namie continue to lead the pack of female artists. Two-Mix ruled with a golden fist with their work on the Gundam Wing series. Hikaru Utada was also just getting her career off the ground, but in a different way. It was Ayumi Hamasaki that was rising up during this time to take on the role of massive “idol” in a sense, and would continue to solidify her place here with a slightly different type of idol music and presentation: there was a very heavy “rock” element to the music.

It was around this time that I essentially abandoned J-Pop, finding little to hold my interest and seeing it as nothing more than the manufactured wash-rinse-repeat grind it is well known for. It would not be until Asian Kung-Fu Generation that I even remotely returned to Japanese music, and even then only with a select couple bands, and no longer just “because it was Japanese and therefore must be cool”.

Fast-forward to December 2008. I have been into Dragon Ball for well over a decade, and suddenly learn that Ayumi Hamasaki will be performing the international theme song to the (shockingly-enough, no longer a “rumor”) live action movie called Dragon Ball Evolution.

Huh.

While I was intrigued, being familiar with a few of her songs (mostly through friends’ Anime Music Videos, such as “Evolution” and “Zetsumo” with the songs “Evolution” and “Game”, respectively), I certainly felt a bit of concern. There was little chance that the song would fit the style we were used to with Dragon Ball music, but it was clear that Evolution was going to be its own entity with its own style, own tone, and own direction. I could accept that.

Samples of the song (and eventually the entire song, itself) leaked online several weeks before the CD single release. Being the type of fan I am, I clearly had to get a taste of the style, but I held back after just a couple listens, preferring to wait for the actual CD single to arrive to give it my full attention at full quality. Until then, the general thought here was, “Eh… it’s all right.”

I personally ordered the CD+DVD version of the single, called the “Jacket A” version. While this version of the single did not include any songs beyond “Rule” and “Sparkle” (the traditional b-side, or so I thought…), it did have the remixes from the other discs, as well as a bonus DVD that contained the music video for the song and a short “Making Of” feature.

For reference’s sake, the “Type A / Jacket B” version contains two versions of Hamasaki’s song “Days”, while the “Type B / Jacket C” version contains two versions of her song “Green”. However, since these versions of the single were not purchased, they will not be taken into any further consideration for review purposes.

The packaging for this release was a little under-whelming, especially considering I opted for the more expensive version. The CD and DVD are contained in a standard-thickness double jewel case, with the CD in the front and the DVD on the back flap. Both are designed with Akira Toriyama’s original sketch, showcasing Hamasaki decked out in Goku’s gi. The booklet contains no extra pages, listing the lyrics and credits inside with barely-legible greenish-black text on a bright yellow background.

The cover showcases Hamasaki herself in what could possibly be interpreted as a semi-Lunch cosplay (the green gloves being the most identifiable aspect), though this is most likely just a coincidence. The “Jacket A” version is a close up from the chest up, while other versions pose Hamasaki in different ways. The back cover lists all of the production credits in English on a bright purple background.

Personally, I have experienced a lot of problems getting my jewel case to close properly all the way. I am hesitant to blame it on the shipping, since my CDJapan packages have always been meticulously placed in layers of bubble-wrap, and this was no exception. Nothing appears to be broken anywhere, but it will “stick” and not fully close without a forceful squeeze shut.

My order actually came with a poster (due to it being a pre-order of the first printing), though I have not opened it yet. It is nicely rolled up in green paper and tied on the ends. With the move to the new house coming up, I figured it would be best to just leave it be and when we are ready to frame up the rest of our posters for the nerd room in the basement, I will unroll it and see what we have. If anyone else received one and wants to spoil it for me, go ahead and let me know. My bet is that it is just the cover art for the CD, though.

So how about that music…?

Track 1: “Rule”

First off, there are these very strange “wooo!” sounds in the background at the very beginning. When at the gym, I have a difficult time telling if they are sounds in the song, or someone on the elliptical next to me whooping and passing out. Just saying.

The hard-rock/pop style Hamasaki has become known for is in full effect with “Rule”. The guitars and drums pound harder than they have before with her music, but fade out as you would expect for the breakdown elements of the song. These breakdown elements are unfortunately far too cliché; were something slightly more original thrown in to mix up the song, it probably could have delivered a much more eye-popping product in the end.

The verses to the song have the standard digital effect placed on voices to distort them toward a “peaking” type of delivery (as if Hamasaki was singing too loudly into a microphone too close to her mouth), but it is rarely over-done, and feels at home with the rest of Hamasaki’s music.

The lyrics to the song, very much like the overall sound of the music, are very different from what we are used to with Dragon Ball songs. While the typical song would chant care-free, yet determined and confident lyrics about taking down a “strong guy”, the lyrics to “Rule” are at the opposite end of the same spectrum, if that makes any sense. Here we are overwhelmed with almost cocky lyrics essentially saying, “We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!!!” Everything is self-centered and the same Hollywood “tough guy” persona that one would associate with the overall image of Evolution (even if the “Goku” in the movie whines far too much for his own good, thus putting the song at contrast with the very character it is supposed to represent). Hamasaki’s Tokyo-girl talk drives this point home with the interesting points of emphasis and usage of words like boku, though you could argue that if the song is about “Goku”, it somewhat works.

At the end of the day, we are given a moderately well-produced, well-performed, and dynamically interesting song. Sure, it may not fit in with the style of Dragon Ball we are used to, but if you consider Evolution its own entity, the song works very well.

Track 2: “Sparkle”

I initially only knew that “Sparkle” was being used in a Japanese car commercial, and so I dismissed it as a standard, filler b-side. In fact, that is exactly how I viewed the song for a couple weeks… until it suddenly clicked with me. It did not overtake “Rule”, but it certainly held its on in my mind.

The song starts out in what feels like an out-of-place Daft Punk song, but quickly evolves into a classic Hamasaki track with hints of rock, albeit much more in the background. The clashing of the electronic and rock sounds works very well for the song, though I can understand why it might be used in a television commercial: I lose interest after 30-second spurts.

The song as a whole is interesting, but it feels much more repetitive than even the rest of her songs, which — let’s be honest — are very simple pop-structured songs. The song occasionally brings itself down to nothing and jumps back up with the, “No, no, no…” chants, and it is here that you realize the song is just not going anywhere.

It may sound like I am being pretty harsh on the song, which I admit to and fully defend. At the same time, there is a very catchy element to it, and it has a much more unique sound than even “Rule” does. In the end, “Sparkle” ends up being every much of an “A-side” single as “Rule” is (as seen by the title of the release being Rule/Sparkle), just in a much different way.

Track 3: “Rule” (80KIDZ’S “NO MORE RULE” MIX)

If the production on “Sparkle” was any indication, remixes for “Rule” could theoretically end up being extremely cool sounding. Unfortunately, we ended up with messy and pointless mixes.

To say that the music is “too loud” sounds like a strange complaint (and one of a cranky old man, perhaps), but that is exactly how this track feels. The vocals, which are represented in full (as opposed to the other remix), are completely down-played and drowned-out in favor of loud synth noises that do not follow any other musical elements of the song, trip over themselves, and add nothing of value.

If anything, this mix manages to slow down the song a little bit. The vocals are performed at (seemingly) the same speed as the original song mix, but because the backing music plays out differently, the entire product feels a little slower than the original.

The constant “Rule… Rule, Rule, Rule…!” vocal chants throughout the verses (and still present in the chorus, but pushed further into the background) are obnoxious and once again add nothing of interest to the song.

“No More Rule” could not possibly be any more descriptive for this remix. I feel a little cheap using its own title against it in such a cheesy tagline jab, but it is the honest truth. This remix is poorly thought out, goes on for at least a full minute or so too long, and contributes nothing to the package.

Track 4: “Rule” (REMO-CON “TECH DANCE” REMIX)

After the previous remix, I was confused as to whether I should expect another equally-atrocious remix, or figure that it could not go anywhere but up from here. Seeing a six-minute running time was not in the track’s favor, though.

The remix begins with the same kind of loud and off-beat style from the previous remix, but the tone and overall sound is much different. When the guitars do break in, they are brought in at the same volume as the rest of the track, all while the vocals hauntingly bring themselves to the forefront. In fact, the vocals are actually given a chance to shine in this remix, something I was completely not expecting based on the prior remix.

Unfortunately, the only lyrics we (for the most part) get in this version are the choruses. Equally disappointing was the realization that the backing music did not really build up to anything and felt just “there” more than anything else. There is the occasional breakdown similar to the original mix of the song, and thankfully the appropriate lyrical parts are brought in to flesh out the segments a little more.

While the song does move along at a pretty fast pace, around that four-and-a-half minute mark when it fades itself down, you expect it to be over and it would have been acceptable. Taking the previous remix to new levels is yet another extraneous minute-plus of the remix. It goes nowhere, barely treads new water with the “double-kick” beat beginnings, experiments with the horrible “vocaloid”-style effect on Hamasaki, and drones on for another minute until it dies with no real resolution.

This is another example of an only half-thought-out remix that probably could have benefited from more time and some additional collaboration. While I prefer it over the previous “No More Rule” mix, it is not something I see myself returning to. I occasionally wonder if these remixes are made with the sole purpose of having the consumer appreciate the original mix all the more…

Track 5: “Rule” (ORIGINAL MIX -INSTRUMENTAL-)

It is incredibly difficult to write anything substantial about the karaoke version of a song. You as an author have already said everything you wanted to say about the song itself, and now you are thrown into a version that is missing some of those elements. I suppose the right thing to do is write about what is brought out by those missing elements…?

The opening chorus sounds almost exactly the same as the original mix of the song, leading me to believe that Hamasaki and the other producers on the song liked the quasi-“gang vocals” effect. There is definitely a missing element (the backing vocals are much more flat than the over-dubbed performance), but a casual listener might not even realize the difference until the first verse.

Without the vocals in the verse section, the backing guitars get a chance to shine with the occasional one-off riffs being played. Hamasaki’s own backing track is completely overshadowed in the original mix, so the listener gets a nice look into the harmonies being created and otherwise ignored.

Beyond that, there is not much to say about the instrumental version of the song. It is a nice addition to have, but it is a standard on Japanese releases and should not be seen as any type of “extra” along the lines of the above remixes.

Track 6: “Sparkle” (ORIGINAL MIX -INSTRUMENTAL-)

Just as with the prior instrumental version, the karaoke version of “Sparkle” lets us hear a little bit of the harmonies created with the backing vocals. This particular instrumental feels much more sparse than that of “Rule”, however, but that could very well just be the nature of the song’s production rather than anything about the song, itself.

As opposed to “Rule” which features the heavy rock instrumentation, “Sparkle” is much more electronic in nature, creating a vastly different type of sound for the instrumental. I would argue that this instrumental is more interesting than that of the first title track, and is something I may return to more often.

Bonus DVD (Promotional Video + Making Of)

If you know anything about Ayumi Hamasaki and her videos, the video for Rule” should not surprise you. That does not mean I wasn’t flabbergasted by it.

I suppose I should stop thinking of Japanese “promotional videos” the way I have always seen American music videos. Despite it being tied to Evolution as its international theme song, there are little-to-no elements of the Dragon Ball franchise present at all. There are no real nods to the series, there are no scenes from the movie, etc. If anything, you could make a very loose claim that the golden rod that appears is a nod to Sun Wukong’s golden-hooped rod from Journey to the West, but that would be an incredible stretch.

Hamasaki appears with a smirk on her face all decked out in bondage gear. As she walks forward, she tilts the rod toward her minions and breaks off the masks of several of them. Commence dancing, twirling, and a random fight at the end.

There is little in the way of logical story or progression to the video. During the breakdown parts of the song, Hamasaki appears in an entirely new “princess”-style outfit moving her hands around (primarily by her face). This serves no purpose other than to visually show that the song has slowed down, and I can not for the life of me figure out how it relates to anything else.

Hamasaki’s dance moves appear more and more forced as the music video progresses, and she smiles less and less. By the final dance sequence, it looks like she is having a difficult time keeping up with the background dancers (perhaps due to her comparatively tiny stature).

The special effects are cheap but sparingly used, relegated solely to the ending blast to defeat the enemies and the CG birdie that flies around from time to time.

While not amazingly enthralling, the music video serves its purpose and is a welcome addition to the package. The only other included DVD extra is a short “Making Of” feature, clocking in at a mere three minutes and sixteen seconds (a full minute or so shorter than the music video itself).

Right away you are introduced to the fake tattoos being drawn on all of the extras, as well as Hamasaki herself. I will be brutally honest… I did not even notice that Hamasaki had one on her back until watching this feature. In retrospect, watching the music video you can notice it in a few places, but it is not all that prevalent.

Final Thoughts:

With the extra remix tracks being such expendable nonsense, the real question you should ask yourself is whether or not you are interested enough to just go ahead and pick up Hamasaki’s latest album, Next Level. The new album contains both “Rule” and “Sparkle”, and also has an alternate version with a bonus DVD that contains the music videos for both songs, what appears to be the same “Making Of” clip for “Rule” from this package, and so much more.

While Hamasaki has explored other territory in the past (like the 2006’s (Miss)understood with its R&B/hip-hop slant), Next Level appears to be a return to form with an electronic rock spin and contains the two title tracks of this release. Would you rather spend ~$18 for the single + DVD (~$10 for just the single), or go all-out and get the new album and DVD for ~$38 (~$30 for just the album)…?

The answer to that question is going to be all your own. If you are just a Dragon Ball fan looking to get Dragon Ball music, the single is the way to go. If you are a fan of J-Pop at large, the new Hamasaki album as a whole is probably the route you will want to go. When you consider that “Rule” does not make an appearance on the official soundtrack for Dragon Ball Evolution, casual fans will have to be picky with their Japanese CD purchase in this case.

For additional sound samples and discussion, check out Episode #0170 of our weekly podcast.

Purchase This Item:

Ayumi Hamasaki – “Rule/Sparkle” may be available at the following retailers:

AYUMI HAMASAKI – "RULE/SPARKLE" VARIATIONS

CDJapan

CDJapan

CDJapan
AYUMI HAMASAKI – "NEXT LEVEL" (FULL ALBUM)

CDJapan

CDJapan

CDJapan