Playing to a packed house as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, Ichiko Aoba transports us through a set of a dozen songs that feel like the expression of imagined adventures. The Studio Ghibli influence is clear (she is a fan), but the touches of Francis Lai-type French chanson jazz with Asian scales act like drops in a koi pond making for a pure zen sound. Fans of Studio Ghibli’s other-worldly animation will find themselves in familiar territory with Aoba’s ethereal mix of bossa nova, along with classical music that accompanies her pure and often melancholic voice. This is combined flawlessly with folksy strumming, making her a natural musical descendent of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, and Piero Milesi.
Aoba is joined by a suitably pared down Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which adds another dimension to her bright vocals. Their first song together is reminiscent of the Merpeople’s song in Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire. This is music to listen to whilst floating on a pontoon on a Scottish loch on a fine day while wrapped in the softest cashmere blanket, knowing there’s oysters for tea and that someone else is shucking them. The strings – with their sleepy droning and buoyant plucking – only add to the ethereal feel. At no time is Aoba’s voice lost amid the strings, despite never forcing her range above its reed-like whisper. It’s a perfect pairing.
Occasionally, Aoba teases out a short whistle and if there’s any downside to this evening it’s that there could be more whistling. The ability of Aoba to create sound landscapes not only of the physical realm but the emotional realm, too, eases the audience through acres of blossom time, first love, redemption, longing, heartbreak, colour-washed seascapes, and the colours of autumn. The fact she achieves all this with just a change of key and a susurrating vocal is mesmerising; so much so that a few audience members inevitably end up resting their eyes.
An ideal soundtrack to savour for a special re-reading of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Ichiko Aoba is an instant favourite, to be tucked alongside other special Japanese treats like Midnight Diner, Yoko Ono, Koichi Sugii, and Yayoi Kusama.