From high-velocity Japanese psychobilly to ten-year-old fish propaganda songs, here's a wholly uninformed analysis of the current state of Japanese music, based entirely on whatever I happened to hear during a two-week visit.
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 25/05/2002
Strange but true: I didn't really have much time for Japanese pop music until I visited Hong Kong in 2001. As I wrote in Year Of The Monkey back then, I spent most of the outbound flight listening to the J-Pop channel on the in-flight radio, bored with the sheer blandness of the local Cantopop. Within a couple of hours of landing at HK's sexy new international airport, I was making my jet-lagged way around the HMV shop in Causeway Bay, buying up virtually every Japanese pop CD I'd heard plugged on the plane. So it was inevitable that when The Belated Birthday Girl and I went to Japan the following year (more details on our trip in Land Of The Rising Monkey), checking out the current state of J-Pop would be high on our list of things to do.
There were three artists in particular who impressed me in that in-flight programme: luckily, all of them had released a new album since my Hong Kong trip, so I could catch up on how much they'd progressed. (Spookily, two of them released those new albums while I was in Japan.) Of the three, Love Psychedelico were easily my favourites, their single Last Smile effortlessly making it onto my 2001 compilation CD. Their new album, Love Psychedelic Orchestra, doesn't really develop their sound much from the blueprint laid down on last year's The Greatest Hits: a laidback retro groove thang with lyrics that switch from English to Japanese and back again at the drop of a [insert name of Japanese hat here]. As before, the lyrics teeter on the brink of meaning, and random English lines like "green light / untied / high tide / breaking the wind" leap out at you like dyslexic ninjas. But there's as much good stuff on here as there was on their debut. It's a shame that although Love Psychedelico can make it over to England to pose in front of Battersea Power Station for their sleeve photos, they haven't hung around long enough to play any dates here yet. (Annoyingly, their March/April tour of Japan took a two-week break in the middle that coincided exactly with our visit.)
My discovery of the band Judy and Mary last year came a little too late to be of any use, as they'd just split up. Their singer Yuki has now gone solo, and her debut album Prismic hit the shops in March. She's gathered a wilfully diverse group of collaborators, including members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and (nomination for best Japanese band name ever) Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, and taken the gimmicky rock of Judy and Mary just that little bit further. The result has been very successful, with at least one hit single being played repeatedly in every record shop we visited. (The song in question, by the way, was called The End Of Shite. The BBG and I mused for a while on what the Japanese word 'shee-tay' could possibly mean, only to find on examining the lyric sheet that Yuki is actually referring to 'shite' in the English sense. "I never counted it / how many times / we've been through all this shit around us...")
And finally, the band that I was most ashamed of the Virgin Atlantic DJ for making me like. I'd gathered that Morning Musume were some sort of unstoppable force in Japanese pop culture, but it wasn't until I was in Tokyo that I realised just how pervasive they are. They're everywhere, with posters all over the place showing them plugging everything from chocolate bars to air conditioning units. With all this high profile activity, it's surprising to discover that the newly-released album Ikimasshoi! ('Let's go!') is their first new work in close on two years. (When I first encountered them last year, it was via their greatest hits album Best! and a series of solo projects.) The group now consists of no less than thirteen girls in their teens and twenties, their newly augmented numbers meaning they can add SHOUTING to their arsenal of sonic terrorism. Their Svengali figure, the evil pop genius Tsunku, has written and produced another collection of dangerously catchy songs like the single Souda! We're ALIVE, described by the music critic of the Daily Yomiuri as "a single composed entirely of good bits" as if that was some sort of problem. Those good bits, admittedly, include a shouty stadium rock intro, two entirely unrelated slabs of disco cheese, a deranged techno-Cossack interlude and a verse where they sing the words 'boom' and 'yeah' 26 times in a row. Coherent? No. Fun? Hell yes.
So those were the people who were big in Japan in 2001. But who's big now? The answer would seem to be Ayumi Hamasaki, judging from the Time cover feature she was hogging while we were there. She's the latest pop idol in a country whose skill at manufacturing them makes Simon Cowell look like a workshy twat. Hamasaki's Time cover accompanied an article insisting that she'll be the first true J-Pop star to cross over into Western stardom. Well, she's probably bland enough to pull it off, on the evidence of her latest album Ayu-Mi-X: a dance mix of her greatest hits that's been worked over by 30 or so remix teams until all trace of a human personality at its centre has been utterly destroyed.
But it's difficult to get a real handle on what people are listening to. The barometer I used in 2001 - what they were playing on flights to Asia - didn't work this year, as instead of the ear-grabbing quirkiness of Love Psychedelico or Morning Musume, we got endless dull ballads. And that seems to be the thing right now, based purely on the empirical evidence of what's being played in the record shops of Tokyo and Kyoto. The one time an album stopped me in its tracks in a shop, it turned out to be a compilation of old stuff: Do The Best by Do As Infinity, a boy/girl guitar-based duo whose sound has elements of Judy and Mary's noisy rock fun inside it, though without that enthusiasm for atonal noise that makes late period J&M especially interesting. Do As Infinity's greatest hits album is particularly notable for being the first CD I've ever bought with copy protection encoding on it, a feature that if anything makes you even more determined to find ways of ripping tracks into audio files and splatting them all over the Internet.
Other than that, it's all sugary pop and the occasional novelty record, like the single which reached number 2 in the charts during our visit. O-Sakana Tengoku by Hiromi Shibaya is based on a ten-year-old ad jingle by the equivalent of the Japanese Fish Marketing Board. As Datta pointed out on our return, it seems like a colossal waste of resources to have an organisation devoted to making the Japanese eat more fish, particularly when it's done using the unsubtle tactic of having the phrase "Sakana! Sakana! Sakana!" ("Fish! Fish! Fish!") repeated several times in the chorus. But releasing the song as a pop single is a stroke of genius: when it's left on continuous auto-repeat in a shop (as it was when we first heard it), it quickly eats its way into your brain like pop cancer.
Obviously this wasn't helping our attempts at identifying what The Kids were listening to: we really needed to go out and experience some live gigs. The first of the two we went to in Tokyo was at the world music venue they call Tribute To The Love Generation, incongruously sat inside the bayside Mediage complex between the Yellow Submarine ride and Coca-Cola World. It was a somewhat sedate seated affair, despite the best efforts of Cohan to get everyone moving. A theoretically interesting combination of traditional Japanese drums and a conventional rock band, but in practice the two elements never mesh quite as well as they should: all too often, a Cohan number consists of a song followed by a drum solo. A short middle section where lead drummer Megumu Nishino came out alone and gave the o-daiko a damn good thrashing showed where their strengths really lie, but all too often Cohan rely on the typical rock dynamics of loud and bloody loud. Still, compared with your typical J-Pop band, this is raw, powerful stuff in parts.
But the real answer to our question came the next day, when we went to Club Citta in Kawasaki. The aim was to see ancient English ska band Bad Manners play live in front of a Tokyo audience, more for the purposes of crowd watching than any enormous interest in the band. And as crowd watching experiments go, it was an absolute success, particularly as there couldn't have been more than half a dozen of us gaijin in the audience. The kids who made up the rest of the crowd had obviously decided to make an effort to welcome their English visitors, so there were a number of England football shirts being worn, plus the traditional ska fan's pork-pie hat and, less obviously, a whole array of flat caps. The other notable fashion item was a towel knotted round the neck like a muffler, for handy access if you need to mop yourself off after a period of sweaty leaping up and down. Which is a splendidly practical idea: but combine that with the flat caps, and you're sometimes left with the impression that you're dancing with a couple of dozen Japanese teenage versions of Albert Steptoe.
The phrase 'plus support' can cover a multitude of sins on a concert poster. But there was no indication that we'd actually get three local support bands on top of the headliners for our four thousand yen, all of varying degrees of excellence. Central were okay as an opener, playing tasteful Latin type stuff: as gigs start and end reasonably early in Japan, you don't really want anything too raucous at 6pm. After their precisely 30 minute set and a precisely 15 minute interval (and this level of timekeeping is sustained throughout the four hour duration of the gig), we get Tokyo Skunx, a Japanese psychobilly outfit based around a banjo that's been miked up like a Fender. Fast, loud, incomprehensible: my idea of a good night out, and we're nowhere near the headliners yet.
The revelation of the gig is Oi-Skall Mates: after Japanese salsa and Japanese cowpunk, it shouldn't really be too much of a surprise to discover that Japanese ska exists. The Mates are obviously heavily influenced by the whole Two-Tone movement of the late Seventies in England, but add speed, surreal English lyrics and the sheer chaos you get when eleven people are playing simultaneously on a stage. For a while it looks as if they're going to blow the headliners off the stage completely, particularly when they take on the Clash's Career Opportunities at an even faster lick than the original. Of their own material - which steals prodigiously from all over the place - Scooter Boy Scooter Girl is a solid gold instant classic, and gets the full-on nutty dancing to a peak that's never quite reached by the headliners.
(Though to be fair, the Bad Manners away team - no, they're not Japanese, but I'm going to review them anyway - still manage to round the evening off magnificently. They were never a band with personalities, like their Two-Tone contemporaries: there was the rikishi-sized frontman Buster Bloodvessel, and an anonymous bunch of players behind him. This, however, isn't fair on their horn section, one of the most incredibly tight I've ever heard: goofing around on stage throughout, but still capable of hurling a double-time quote from the Animal Magic theme into an instrumental break despite only six people in the audience getting the joke. They did all the singles you've forgotten (there's more than you think), threw in a hilarious ska-ed up cover of Deep Purple's Black Night, and climaxed with a crazed party medley of Hi Ho Silver Lining, Knees Up Mother Brown, Hokey Cokey, Auld Lang Syne and The Can Can which had everyone leaping around like good 'uns. It's funny, but when I imagined what Japan would be like, the image of teenage Japanese Steptoes dancing to Knees Up Mother Brown never sprang to mind.)
So despite the doldrums of its mainstream, Japanese pop isn't doing too badly really: although I suspect that the trick is to take that little hint of the Tokyo underground we saw at Club Citta that night, and research it furiously to see what else is out there. And I certainly intend to in the future. I can't say I heard anything you could describe as evil out there, so I'll be damned if I'm going to speak any evil about it. Being a monkey, and all.
Love Psychedelico, Yuki, Morning Musume, Ayumi Hamasaki, Do As Infinity, Cohan, Tokyo Skunx, Oi-Skall Mates all have official sites in various degrees of Japaneseness. That goes for Bad Manners too, except for the Japaneseness bit.
CD Japan is my favourite place on the web for buying Japanese music and films. I don't have a sponsorship deal with them or anything, I just use them because they're pretty reliable.
Mediage is the huge entertainment complex in Tokyo that includes the music venue Tribute To The Love Generation [dead link]. Or rather, included: it appears from the site that TLG closed down just a week after we visited it (as did a number of other Mediage attractions, including the Yellow Submarine ride). New attractions are promised for Summer 2002, apparently. Club Citta, meanwhile, is still going at the time of writing, and you can find out about gigs past, present and future there.
Megchan provides a useful resource for people who want to find out more about J-Pop without the bother of learning Japanese (she's got lots of song lyrics in both English and Japanese). She's also got an internet radio station [dead link] featuring her current favourite tunes, courtesy of Live365.
The War Against Silence is a music review site written by Glenn McDonald. He recently wrote a rather splendid piece entitled thirteen pop songs in a language I will one day understand, describing his experiences of J-Pop as an inexperienced Japanese language student. It includes a slightly obsessive take on the Do As Infinity Do The Best album.