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Origa (1970-2015)

Remembering the Ghost in the Shell singer

The singer Origa, who died on 17th January, will always be remembered for the mesmerising, alien lyrics heard in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Born in 1970 as Olga Yakovleva in the small Siberian village of Kochenevo near Novosibirsk, she began studying music from the age of five. At eleven she was invited to appear on a TV show to perform a song one of her own compositions. Enrolling at the Novosibirsk Musical College in the mid-1980s, she was invited to represent Russian culture at several festivals in Sapporo.

The young Yakovleva knew nothing about Japan apart from a few geography lessons at school. She arrived expecting a smog-bound dystopia with oxygen bars on the street corners. “But I realised that the moment I stepped onto Japanese soil, that I had found a place where I belonged,” she told the Russian magazine My Japan. “People don’t believe me when I have said that I had absolutely no problems or discomfort whatsoever. I immediately started to learn Japanese.”

Her comments belied a degree of tension in her teens, when she arrived back in her home village, brightly announcing that her Japanese sponsors were going to call imminently and bring her back for a musical career. Yakovleva began composing new songs, but as the months ticked by and no call came, she felt that she had been forgotten. It was only two years later, after she had given up waiting and taken a job at a restaurant, that the phone rang with news that her visa was cleared and she was required back in Tokyo.

She started off in in ambient “healing” music before drifting into electronica. Her first album took its title from her new stage name, Origa, and wove a broad range of influences and styles, incorporating ethnic elements and jazz arrangements, but also embracing contemporary music.

Her music often had a lush, immersive quality to it, providing a perfect foundation for her evocative vocals. She could also adapt to singing in Japanese, English or her native Russian. Her 1998 album Eternity, which became the first Russian language album to grace the Japanese charts, marked early success. The contemplative tones of ‘Polyushko Pole’ from the album was used as a theme song for the TV series Ao no Jidai (Blue Era), opening up new areas for Origa in the world of advertising, radio and television.

The song was used in an advertising campaign, gaining her much wider media exposure, and making her feel successful for the first time. “I started to think in Japanese, and became more confident. By then I was living in Japan full-time.”

She first met Yoko Kanno in Tokyo when Kanno played the piano on one of the tracks on her first album. Perhaps the most notable early collaboration between the pair was when the Russian took on vocal duties for ‘Moon’. Originally an insert song for Turn- A Gundam sung by Kanno, Origa took the song to new and impressive heights when she sang it for a special Turn-A Gundam concert.

Her friendship with Kanno meant that Origa was a natural fit when the Japanese composer began work on the Stand Alone Complex series. This included the dramatic melodies of ‘Player’ and the frenzied rock-infused ‘Date of Rebirth’, as well as the haunting melodies of the opening theme ‘Inner Universe’.

The contrast between Kanno’s fractured rhythms and Origa’s distinctive soaring vocals provided a perfect combination for the Ghost in The Shell series, lending the anime a widescreen pop appeal.  For the sequel series (Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG) Origa sang the opening theme ‘Rise’, written by fellow Kanno collaborator Tim Jensen.

Although her contributions to Ghost in the Shell are her most well-known anime contributions, Origa also provided musical duties for Fantastic Children with the song ‘Mizu no Madoromi’, demonstrating her fluency in adopting a Japanese vocal for a compelling tune that sounds like it’s escaped from a Miyazaki film. Origa also once cited composer Akira Senju as one of her favourite collaborations and worked with the musician on the soundtrack for the 2001 Princess Arete movie.

Origa was also a popular draw at live shows and anime conventions worldwide at which she would provide live renditions of her most well known songs. It also wasn’t unusual for the singer to perform acapella versions of her Ghost in the Shell themes, demonstrating the sheer power of her voice alone.

She met her husband, an Iranian computer programmer, at a Tokyo party, and the couple’s son, Alyosha, grew up speaking Persian and Japanese. “Sometimes I worry,” she confessed to the magazine Argumenti i Fakti, “that he doesn’t understand me so well when I speak Russian.”

Despite her great fame, her stage persona was so far removed from her everyday self that she was rarely recognised in the street. “It makes me happy,” she confessed, “that living in Japan has given me such a great opportunity to have a personal life and a professional life. But I never forget that I have a mother and two sisters back near Novosibirsk. I make sure to visit them every year.”

Her death from lung cancer at the tragically young age of 44 has robbed both the music world and the anime world of a rare talent.

Paul Browne and Jonathan Clements

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