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With her strong and versatile voice and proficiency on the piano, singer/songwriter Onitsuka Chihiro is viewed in Japan as a perfect alternative to prefabricated pop stars, especially since her music has a huge pop potential as well, consisting of mellow sentimental ballads interspersed with the occasional fast rock track. Onitsuka grew up on American pop like the Carpenters and Carole King, started writing her own poetry at the age of ten, found another source of inspiration in Alanis Morissette, and finally discovered the music of Jewel, who became her main influence and made her aim for a professional career. While still in high school, Onitsuka went through a lot of music contests, winning the 1998 Virgin Tokyo Artists Audition, and moved to Tokyo right after school to become a full-time musician, having several dozen entries in her private songbook already. Her debut single, "Shine," wasn't successful enough to make the Oricon Top 200, but the next single, "Gekkou" (2000), tied to the TV drama Trick, reached a decent number 30 and, more impressively, proved to be a long-runner (keeping steady sales for 12 weeks), which is an unusual thing for the rapidly changing Japanese musical charts. After that, her debut album, Insomnia, topped the same charts in 2001 and went on to sell 1.4 million units.

At the time, Onitsuka even enjoyed a bit of international attention, as her song "Innocence" was picked for a nationwide ad launched by a Silicon Valley company, Applied Materials, on CNN and CNBC. The public liked the song enough for the label to release the single "Cage" in the U.S., although its sales weren't strong enough to warrant further promotion of Onitsuka in the American market. In 2001 the famous French director Luc Besson also picked Onitsuka's "Rasen" for the soundtrack of the action-comedy flick Wasabi, which he produced. Onitsuka was busy on the domestic scene as well, releasing two albums in one year (This Armor and Sugar High, 2002) and landing a song in an ad by the megacorp Japanese Railway.

This burst of activity proved too much in the end. First, Onitsuka needed to stop in order to undergo throat surgery. The operation was nothing serious, but meanwhile her label, Toshiba EMI, changed release plans in what was viewed as milking fans for money, a move that prompted an angry Onitsuka to sign with Universal, although she was unable to stop Toshiba EMI from re-releasing her old material. In 2004 she introduced her new sound on the almost hard-rocking single "Sodatsu Zassou," and even covered "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Japanese TV (to much buzz), but the strain finally got the better of her, and after that Onitsuka went on a hiatus caused, as it was later revealed, by emotional problems. She returned three years later with a new LP, Las Vegas (2007), produced by Kobayashi Takeshi, who worked with the national rock gods Mr. Children. ~ Alexey Eremenko

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