Mega-hit kids’ song may very well be an ode to the dead.

Those in Japan, especially parents, should be pretty familiar with the song “Paprika” by now. Kenshi Yonezu’s tie-in song with the 2020 Olympic Games is a catchy and spirited song that kids everywhere can’t help but sing and dance along to.

Last year when we reported the release of the English version of “Paprika,” some readers pointed out that the word “hallelujah” was taken out. The reason why seems fairly obvious as the Olympic song’s goal was to be as inclusive as possible and the religious connotations of the word might get in the way of that aim.

However, it brings up the other question of why the word was used in the first place. Sure, it’s a well-understood celebratory word, but on a casual listen the entire entire song almost seems like a mishmash of random exclamations and descriptions with little cohesiveness.

▼ Just give the English version a listen, as it’s a rather close translation of the Japanese one, and try to make sense of what it all means.

Besides the “hallelujah,” there are a few other subtle things about this song that stick out to me as odd too. Probably the biggest one is the main line of the chorus: “Paprika when the flowers start to bloom.”

In Japanese, “paprika” refers to the capsicum annum group of plants, especially red bell peppers. Although less famous that the fruits, these plants also have pretty white flowers.


So it kind of makes sense, but for blogger Nobuhiko Izumi, the line triggered a completely different memory after hearing his kids sing it a few hundred times.

He wrote that in Japanese the line uses the words “hana ga saitara,” a phrase which means “when/if the flowers bloom” and has the infinitive root “hana ga saku.” “Hana ga Saku” also just happens to be a famous charity song made in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake.

“Hana ga Saku” features an all-star ensemble singing lyrics by Shunji Iwai, the words of which are written from the perspective of people who died during the earthquake and tsunami. Taking that into consideration, go back and listen to Paprika and tell me that doesn’t sound like someone singing to us from beyond the grave, telling us not to be sad because everything is okay, they are in a better place now, and we will all meet again someday.

It’s also very important to note that a Japanese concept of stereotypical heaven differs from the western one of clouds and pearly gates, and often resembles a warm sunny field of grass and trees.

▼ A place where one could play all day?

It’s little easier to see in some of the details of the Japanese lyrics, but still comes across in the English words. Suddenly, lyrics that I couldn’t really make sense of before have become crystal-clear when considering the song this way. However, that still doesn’t explain what the heck bell peppers or their flowers have to do with anything.

For that, Izumi cites the hanakotoba (the language of flowers), a traditional Japanese lexicon of flower symbolism. In hanakotoba a daffodil means “respect,” a tiger lily means “wealth,” and a paprika (capsicum annum) flower means: “I will never forget you.”

The hints don’t stop there either. In a futile effort to impress my kids, I learned how to play the song on piano and found it quite challenging at first, mainly because it’s written in a rather unusual key.

The first verse is arranged in F sharp minor which is famously described by German composer John Mattheson as “gloomy and lamenting” but the chorus switches into F sharp major which Mattheson describes as a “sigh of relief” and “triumph over obstacles.” 

So even though the song is very upbeat and simple sounding upfront, there’s a distinct sense of melancholy transitioning to happiness running underneath it all.


Then there are the visual clues. For example, in the two live-action videos I was always struck by a certain dance move the kids did that was very reminiscent of the “Thriller” video. Actually a few times throughout the dance the kids make a gesture in which their hands bend sharply down at the wrist — a common way Japanese people mimic ghosts.

▼ It’s most easy to see right around when they sing “hallelujah”

Also, in an instructional dance video of the song, the move is actually named yurei (“ghost”) and is the first move performed.

As for the animated video in which Yonezu sings the song himself, it almost smacks you right in the face after learning all this — that kid with the red cape is a ghost! Looking carefully you can even see that the red-caped child looks slightly younger than the other two kids, as if they are still alive and had aged eight years beyond the other one.

▼ You can see the animated version here.

By they way, this video was released during Obon, a holiday season in which it is traditionally believed that the spirits of the dead return to the realm of the living.

After hearing Izumi’s revelation, others online speculated further, such as comparing the “Thriller dance” to mimicking a paper crane, or the final line and pose of the song (pointing fingers to the sky) as a reference to the statue in Nagasaki’s Peace Park which commemorated the atomic bombing that took place there.

▼ A photo of the famous “pointing” statue that acts as a memorial to the victims.

Wikipedia/Tomi Mäkitalo

However, in interviews and descriptions of the song, Yonezu reportedly said is was just written as random snapshots of his own memories growing up in rural Japan, and that Paprika was chosen as the title simply because it sounded peppy.

Also, people have a tendency to apply supernatural themes of death to otherwise innocuous works of art from My Neighbor Totoro to Sazae-san to Pokémon. It almost seems like human nature, and that might be the case here as well.

But in this case the evidence is especially overwhelming and found all throughout this song’s lyrics, composition, dancing, and even release dates, heavily suggesting that Kenshi Yonezu intentionally added a very deep layer of poignant subtext to this otherwise bouncy kids tune. If that really is the case, then damn… he’s good.

Source: Quora/Nobuhiko Izumi, Hachima Kiko, Ledgernote
Top image: YouTube/米津玄師
Insert images: YouTube/NHK, YouTube/Foorin – Paprika

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