O hey the new year changed and COVID’s still here. It’s a strange sensation to pass into 2021 and have it feel like an extension of the previous year. I’m not big on NYE celebrations anymore but the relatively anticlimactic turn into January has really shown me how time is societally constructed. Before I knew it, I was back on my work laptop hopping back into projects while the country continued to throw curve balls. January was particularly awful with white supremacists getting a backstage pass into federal buildings which culminated in tech companies finally feeling brave enough to ban accounts that have festered false information and outright evil communication on their platforms for years. Obviously this courage came from the passing of the torch to a new president and a Democratic majority which brings some relief in comparison to the last four years. There are ambitious plans for vaccinating that haven’t really hit the ground running yet but at least the older members of my family are receiving them. That should give me hope but when I watch my state pretend that the problem has already gone away I go back to being furious. The fact that I feel like an outlier when it comes to solving this crisis, lockdown and pay people to stay there, only exacerbates my feelings.
I am very lucky that I’m in the position though. I work remotely and I am not forced to interact with people on a daily basis that care less about my health and more about enjoying a meal outside their home. I don’t want to let the point slip that we’ve already started to backtrack on calling them essential workers to “burger flippers” and ignore the multitude of lessons from this pandemic. I don’t blame people for wanting normalcy (going out on weekends, seeing family and friends) and I’ve been caught up wishing for things to. Before I dive into that, I want to make it abundantly clear that there’s a difference in wanting things to go back to normal and forcing things to go back to normal. Reopening when there barely any ICU beds available versus when numbers have dropped are wildly different.
The number one thing I’ve started to miss lately: concerts. They are also the last thing that will be reinstated after this pandemic. How the hell can you control disease spread amongst a hundred people in a pit? That hasn’t stopped me from reveling in past experiences. I miss being part of a group of people all collectively losing their minds to songs. There is nothing more rejuvenating than a good show. Dancing horribly (in my case) for a few hours to songs that fill my entire body with excitement is exhilarating. Shows can be strangely unifying; a collective consensus amongst everyone in attendance that this is what’s important for the next few hours. I’m present on a show floor in a way that’s hard to replicate elsewhere in my life. People have described dancing to music as meditative and in the best of times it can be. At a good show I can let myself be taken in by the music and it fills my whole body with joy. The past few years I’ve stepped back from attending a lot of shows, a far cry from college when I’d trek down the couple of hours to LA every other weekend to see DJs. There’s still a restorative practice to the infrequent shows. My interest in whatever type of music I saw shoots way up and the positive emotions can carry over for days.
These feelings have all been exacerbated during the past couple of weeks from an unlikely source. Individuals in the music industry have had to find ways to pivot. A lot have turned to live-streaming but I’ve found that hard to want to keep up with when I’m at home (it’s hard to have the energy to dance all night in my apartment). I bought a dj controller to get back into mixing but I haven’t played with it as much as I hoped I would. Shifting energy levels from day to day have made it hard for me to access my excitement for dance music consistently. But I’ve found that when I’m playing Tokyo Mirage Sessions all I want to do is dance at a show.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a RPG dungeon crawler that’s also a crossover between the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) and Fire Emblem universes that was originally released on the Wii U before being ported to Switch last year. SMT games are structured around teens crossing over to an alternate dimension to fight monsters using the powers of avatars or spirits from that alternate world. My experience with SMT is through the Persona games, which balance monster fighting with everyday activities like school and hanging with friends. Those games have you balancing a social calendar (you can only do a few “real world” social activities per in game day) with a time limit for finishing an alternate world dungeon. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is structured the same way albeit without the strict calendar of the Persona games. Instead of creating brand new avatars and boss enemies for our protagonists to fight along/against, Tokyo Mirage Sessions reinterprets classic Fire Emblem characters. Dedicated fans will recognize the long list of Fire Emblem characters they bring over although many of them come from harder to find or lesser played games here in North America (the remastered version of the most referenced one was released quietly last year). My lack of knowledge about Fire Emblem didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the game and I was able to pick up on a few characters that are now in Smash (namely Chrom, the protagonist’s spirit). This is a game with a primarily Japanese audience where Fire Emblem is a much larger cultural franchise. Tokyo Mirage Sessions only has a Japanese language track mainly because the developers wanted to keep the character voice’s inline with their songs. Did I mention the teens are all pop idols?
Maybe my description of everyday teens was a misnomer; these are teens with a following. They’re all part of “Fortuna Entertainment” a talent agency that covers both musical and acting spectrums. The protagonists don’t worry about school and instead are focused on their upcoming concerts, newly released singles, television gigs, or potential film offers. The teens range from pop idols to Tokusatsu actors (live action genre shows or movies, think Ultraman or our American Power Rangers). This filters into the alternate world as they wield microphones as weapons and have special moves corresponding to their field. The special moves are derived from the side story missions, where the protagonist Itsuki Aoi helps them overcome some sort of career or personal stumbling block. Once you finish the commission, you’re treated to a snippet of their show or movie or in the case of the pop idols their concert.
I was struck by two feelings watching the concert cutscenes; wow this is a fun reward and holy shit do I miss these. I didn’t even really attend these types of concerts! Given that their pop idols, the cutscenes show huge arena sized stage shows with intricate performances and special effects. Which is very cool and why you attend those! There’s something particularly inspiring seeing a show that requires so many moving parts being pulled off. The effects and music are jacked up to 11 too so it can fill every part of the gigantic apparatus the audience is in. You’re dwarfed by an outsized wall of lights and music and you have to let it just wash over you.
But wait, how many times has this perfect situation happened? Those shows are ridiculously expensive so you may end up in the stands relatively removed from the energetic pit. The arena seats don’t give much room to maneuver either; you’re sandwiched in a weird aisle that’s meant to only facilitate people getting to their seats and then sitting down. How are you supposed to really dance? Grabbing even a cheap beer is ridiculously expensive and the crowd can be a real mix of people who are engaged vs others who don’t give a shit. I don’t even like pop music that much, so why am I feeling like I miss this? What I really miss is the small club shows. The $10-20 sets hosted a dance floor only venue for at max a couple hundred people. Arriving to a sparsely attended floor and watching it fill up by midnight. Dancing to a dj with a tall beer in my hand and getting lost in the mix. The feeling that this relatively small group of people are on the same page and losing their minds.
Yet I play Tokyo Mirage Sessions and I find myself getting this sinking feeling of not being at one of those giant concerts. The lack of live music has broadened my pallet to wanting to see just about anything. My instinct says I would shell out large amounts of money just to have the full concert experience. Being cut off from shows for a year has removed that refreshing experience. I noticed I lost a lot of my connection to music over the past year and there were a few months where I just had no desire to listen to any dance music (by far my most listened to genre). I would refill my cup at those shows and now I’m pining to see just about anything.
Of course concerts are going to be last on the list of any possible reopenings. There is no way to make it risk free, save a bubble concert, and even then I have my reservations. I’m not advocating to push through and pretend like hosting concerts and shows are the way to save businesses even as they cost lives. The music industry (artists, small venues, independent labels) need stimulus from the government and not make it a problem for citizens. Still I can’t help but want that part of normal life to return. I want to plan for a festival even though the logistics of even pre pandemic life make that hard. I’ll continue to play through Tokyo Mirage Sessions and find myself wishing I was losing my mind in the crowd at an anime J pop idol concert.