First Person

February 21, 2014 7:55 pm

First Person: Masami Orimo

‘My artificial leg doubles as a musical instrument’
Orimo and her “cyborg” prosthetic, which she plays onstage with her punk band, Shampoo©Takao Ochi

Orimo and her “cyborg” prosthetic, which she plays onstage with her punk band, Shampoo

I didn’t plan to be the world’s first cyborg pop singer; it’s simply how things have turned out. Most people see it as an absolute tragedy to lose a leg but I came to see it as an opportunity to enhance myself and my art.

I’ve been the lead in my band Shampoo, on and off, for more than 30 years. I was always mad about music. I spent years in hospital beds after I damaged my right leg in a car crash when I was 10 – I spent half my childhood listening to the radio instead of going to school. Then about four years ago I developed cancer in the same leg and it had to be amputated at the knee. I thought my career on stage was over. But because my roots are in punk – my band is very new wave-influenced – I know there can be great beauty in the maligned, the unconventional.

The idea of adding a violin string to my artificial leg came to me when, on top of everything else, I was stopped in my tracks with hepatitis, so I hadn’t performed for a while. Why not use my leg to make a prop, an asset, for my stage show? Before then I had basically hidden my prosthesis out of sight on stage. I got a metalworker friend to produce this wonderfully sculpted “acoustic” add-on to my prosthetic leg.

I use a violin bow to scrape at its string during my act. It’s more of a guitar or electronic synthesiser sound I’m after rather than that of a violin.

I’m proud of this embellishment and the audience seem to love it, although the first performance was nerve-racking. After a frightening silence – you know how shy Japanese can be – people suddenly rushed closer, saying stuff like, “How cool, how stylish!” It has made a massive difference since I incorporated my leg-cum-musical instrument into my life.

When punk came along in the 1970s, I knew this was the music for me. It was 1977 and I sold all my old records and started buying songs by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, PiL and so on. Very rebellious for Japan and a public schoolgirl! I felt protected by that music because we have to follow form here and with my bad leg I looked very different – not good in Japan! Punk made me free. I formed Shampoo when I was about 16.

We had a punk attitude with pop sensibilities – three girls all recruited from my school.

We used to do mad shows, scaring the audience in our bin-liner dresses. We got picked up by a record company and started making records as one of the first home-grown punk bands – we were rubbish at the beginning but we made it.

I’m 52 now and I got my first prosthetic limb in 2009. I felt like I needed something there and I was glad to have it. It’s a high-tech robotic leg: you can see all the engineering that goes into it. I like that better than the ersatz, flesh-and-blood look. My prostheses – I have two – have sensors so they give me natural gait and step. Very advanced, as you might expect from something made and designed in Japan. More and more people with these limbs are sculpting and decorating them into artworks. It’s a cool new movement, very sci-fi!

I don’t know what will happen in the future. Sometimes Shampoo performs with other amputees and it would be great to make a full amputee band. The person who makes my legs suggested I put together a cyborg band. It’s a possibility. Technology is a great enabler for the disabled. I can’t see why the future won’t offer everyone the option for combining more manoeuvrability and beauty. There is a movement around the world promoting cyborgs, and a surprising number of people want to be one. I know I had no problem in my mind becoming a cyborg. In fact, I half-enjoy it – it was always a kind of a punk-cyborg dream of mine: like a lot of Japanese I love sci-fi and manga. But there can be a dark side to all this so-called transhumanism, where some people believe humans and computers will become one. We will have to see.

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