The fourth and latest album from Kaoru Ishibashi (professionally known as Kishi Bashi) is bright, poignant, heartfelt, and infused with a sense of hope, even during its more melancholy moments. From the breezy, acoustic-guitar-picked opening of "Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear" with its Harry Nilsson "Everybody's Talkin'" feel, to the sweeping symphonics and forlorn beauty of "Summer of '42," to the twangy fiddle-rousing banjo-plucked closer "Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea," Omoiyari is a stunner that remains uplifting despite its bleak inspiration: the WWII internment of Japanese Americans.
Omoiyari is a bit of a departure from Kishi Bashi's previous efforts, folkier while conversely more finely composed and orchestrated. Instead of mostly producing the entire album himself, the Berklee-trained musician (who sings and plays violin primarily, but also guitar and keys) brought on a band (including frequent collaborator Tall Tall Trees on bass and banjo) and some chamber players to back him up. It's also more political, though the parallels between what happened then versus what's happening now are examined more deeply and thoroughly in accompanying documentary Omoiyari: A Songfilm by Kishi Bashi, due out sometime next year.
For Kishi Bashi, Omoiyari's album form is less about examining a distressing moment in US history and more about exploring present-day issues reflected in our past. He uses themes of love, loss, and identity to spin tender tales that help us better relate to and empathize with people from a seemingly distant past. Initially, he says, he started to create something dark and heavy, but it wasn't working for him, so he shifted his focus to the bravery and resilience of the people who endured internment, who shed their culture and attempted to assimilate in a country that was actively discriminating against them, who held onto hope despite all the hate. He focused on the need for empathy, decency, and understanding as an answer to bigotry and fear, which informed the album and film's title: "Omoiyari" is a Japanese word for altruistic sensitivity—the idea of being kind and having sympathy and compassion toward another person, whether you know them or not.
"Summer of '42" is Omoiyari's clear centerpiece, about falling in love in an incarceration camp and ultimately losing that love. It opens with an urgent, dramatic bowing of strings, a musical theme that carries throughout the gorgeous, sparkling composition, its grandiose instrumentation actually taken from a 25-minute symphony Kishi Bashi premiered in Miami that set the stage for the rest of the album. Its direct inspiration was an internment camp site at the base of Heart Mountain in Wyoming. "The scenery definitely inspired me, but it was an interesting duality I had to struggle with for a while. You go to these camps, and you try to connect with people's experiences there—but you have trouble, because it's so pleasant and beautiful sometimes."
This dichotomy works, however—beauty amid the ugliness, hope amid despair—and it reflects Kishi Bashi's overall optimism about the future in a time when it often feels like American society is moving backward. As he puts it: "You can feel so dissatisfied, distraught, and distressed about what's happening in politics now. But at the end of the day, we're always progressing to become better. And I feel like in America, the ideals are still strong and there's the potential for compassion in everybody."