Japanic Pop Thrill
If you're a frequent viewer of Japanese national TV, you could be forgiven for despairing at the state of pop music in this country. Well, just look at it - a production-line of cloyingly cute or pretend-sexy girl singers straining to reach notes, legions of melody-free glam-rock (known as 'visual-kei') clothes horses with the charisma of elks, and boy bands reared (in all senses of the word - allegedly) farm-style from childhood to become part of the saccharin, self-important TV family. It's no wonder why we see the same people here on TV all the time: they appeal to all ages as they're so ordinary, their 'talent' (..cough !..) is spread thinly across as many areas as possible while they're still popular, and they don't exactly have to go away and market their product elsewhere in the world.
However, there is thankfully a wider picture. Live venues up and down the country showcase exciting, innovative bands, many of whom have emerged as successes despite the market dominance of the major labels, TV theme songs and big-name producers (much like the UK in the SAW-dominated late 80s). Not only that, but in the past year or so, the influence of new Japanese talent has started to reach further afield.
The prince of Japan's 'new Pop' is Keigo Oyamada, better known as CORNELIUS. His Trattoria label is the prime exponent of Shibuya-kei, the 'movement' which combines sounds, fashion and lifestyle into the concoction one can see in trendy areas like Harajuku week in week out, not to mention Camden Market too. His former band Flipper's Guitar had been a hugely successful Aztec Camera-style jangly pop group, but he split the group in order to make a succession of odd genre-hopping albums by himself, the most recent being Fantasma, a head-spinning trip across every style you've ever loved, which made quite an impression, critically if not commercially, in both the UK and US. Even the blessed NME has been taking him seriously. His influences are not difficult to spot - principally the Beach Boys, Screamadelica era Primals, and above all the soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine - yet like all the best parts of modern Japanese youth culture, Oyamada manages to transcend his influences and create a Pop that sounds so utterly modern you could fly to the moon in it.
Oyamada's label features a bizarre variety of acts, ranging from obscure footballers' songs, through Swedish pop, to fellow left-field but popular Japanese artists such as HIDEKI KAJI, whose Mini Skirt album featured Swedes Eggstone as his backing band, and KAHIMI KARIE, who sings in French and English as well as in Japanese. KK actually lives in Paris, and like her even odder labelmate TAKAKO MINEKAWA, works mostly these days with misunderstood Edinburgh genius Momus, who himself appears to be obsessed by Shibuya-kei. His song 'Anthem of Shibuya', from Ping Pong, is a good summary of what makes young hip Tokyo tick. The other group associated with Shibuya-kei to achieve international success is PIZZICATO FIVE, whose leader Konishi I recall Djing at the legendary Blow Up club in London. Their spunky, jazzy sound won many converts with the Happy End Of The World album two years ago.
And then there's the Beastie Boys connection - as well as showing the beauty of Shinjuku station to the world via their 'Intergalactic' video, they have provided, via their Grand Royal label, a world stage for BUFFALO DAUGHTER and CIBO MATTO, whose leader Yuka Honda is also the production brains behind boyfriend Sean Lennon. For John & Yoko, read Sean & Yuka ....
What about guitars, I hear you cry ? Rock n'roll ? Well, if Japan's pop music innovation tends to be in the field of camp, post-modern electronica, then its take on indie rock is often a mirror image of what it sees and likes - a bit like karaoke, really. Take WINO for example. They're a young group who look good, and sound great - it's just that their sound happens to be identical to that of the Charlatans. Likewise rising stars SUPERCAR - obviously big My Bloody Valentine fans, and very reminiscent of the lush textures of, erm, Lush. Their 'Lucky/Hello' single knocks socks of any noisepop to have come of the UK since, well, "Isn't Anything" - reminiscent too of the Drop Nineteens' lost classic 'Winona'.
These days, garage bands seem to be increasingly in vogue. The biggest live attraction has to be THEE MICHELLE GUN ELEPHANT - four blokes in black suits and sunglasses, playing an extremely fast and loud take on the blues. I have to say it did little for me when I saw them at an outdoor festival, but in a sweaty indoor box it's a different matter. Others worth looking out for: ELEPHANT KASHIMASHI, SEAGULL SCREAMING KISS HER KISS HER, THE HIGH LOWS and more.
But there is still however great pop to be found, even in the wastelands of the Oricon chart. A few artists manage to slip the net, chart and retain their quality. CHARA makes consistently good gentle funk, and THE BRILLIANT GREEN are probably the best Japanese pop group to have emerged in the past year - their first major single 'There Will Be Love There' catapulted them to stardom, even though (gasp !!) they sometimes sing in English, and NOT JUST IN THE TITLE ! Listen to 'Baby London Star' and 'Rock n' roll' from their eponymous album for what Oasis would sound like with a Japanese girl instead of Liam doing the singing.
And then there's PUFFY - arguably the one J-Pop act non-Japanese tend to go for. It's no coincidence, as Ami-chan and Yumi-chan's highly individual take on girlpop, a kind of halfway house between Shampoo and the Cardigans, has an enduring appeal. And every now and then, just as Stock Aitken Waterman did, money machine producer Tetsuya Komuro comes up with a perfect Pop gem such as Namie Amuro's 'Can You Celebrate' or Globe's 'Face'. So it isn't all wet-lipped, large-trousered dancing goons like V6, or weeping 'sukebe' (dirty old man) fodder like MORNING MUSUME ("Pull this string and I'll cry !") - the world of J-Pop has got plenty to offer.
Japan, particularly Tokyo, is a place where cute is strong, where vulnerability is aggressively celebrated. Never underestimate the importance of a good soft toy, a day-glo T-shirt, a book of Print Club stickers - it's the recipe for the wild world of 90s Shibuya-kei Pop.
© Darren Beach 1999.
e-mail Darren: firstname.lastname@example.org