Interview: Nisennenmondai

Instrumental no wave/krautrock trio Nisennenmondai were playing at the Neutralnation festival this year so I took the opportunity to get an interview with them for The Japan Times, which you can read here.

Nisennenmondai: Mirrorball

What’s going on in this piece is a weird inversion of the usual interview feature process, where the writer supplies information to the reader, while the band members illuminate those facts with opinions, ideas and stories. However, where a band are cagey, introverted or unfamiliar/uncomfortable with interview scenarios (or more likely in this case where the questions are simply bad), there aren’t those killer quotes to hang an interview off, so we’re left with the situation where the quotes are delivering rather dry, biographical or factual information, while the writer is wringing enthusiasm out of the gaps.

Actually, that’s part of the job of a writer in a way: To work a musician’s comments into a narrative that explains and reveals aspects of what they’re about. It’s just that here I think the contrast between the content of their comments and mine lays that aspect of the process bare. Of course since the hook that I hung this narrative off in the first place was the inherent contradictions of the band, this contrast is at least appropriate if nothing else.

Actually, there were a couple of interesting comments that came out of the interview that had to be cut out because they diverged a bit from the story I was telling. On the subject of women in rock, Sayaka Himeno, the bassist, admitted that she felt the fact that Nisennenmondai were an all-female group might have helped them to get attention, but also that she felt this kind of attention and interest was kind of unacceptable in terms of the way they prefer to be perceived. She also suggested that the issue of women in rock seemed to be something that was more of a concern in Europe or America than in Japan, or at least that it was rarely if ever brought up as an issue here.

Now this might just be down to politeness and people not wanting to suggest, “people only like you ’cause you’re girls,” but it’s an obvious fact that while men are still a majority, women are far better represented in rock music in Japan than they are in the West. I think that saying Japan is more advanced in terms of rock equality is a bit of a dangerous conclusion to draw, because I’ve heard from some music people that when you get into the power dynamics within bands, the men may tend to assert themselves more, but generally I’d have to agree that it seems like less of an issue. You certainly find more female sound engineers at venues in Japan, although again, the power dynamic between band and engineer is more like that between customer and waiter in Japan, rather than the employee/boss relationship that exists in much of Europe, so again, that doesn’t necessarily mean women are getting more authority.

Of course for an all-female band like Nisennenmondai, that’s irrelevant, and in the end, I decided it would be pretty cheap and a bit insulting to the band to use that as a hook for the interview. It’s interesting as a general point for further investigation though, since it’s something that lots of people I know have observed bu that few people have really studied in much depth.

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2 Comments

Filed under Features, Interviews

2 responses to “Interview: Nisennenmondai

  1. miffy

    A bit off tangent, but why are all female Japanese rock band are taken more seriously in Japan than anywhere else in the world? Looking at random Chatmonchy live vids, and they have a 70/30 split between male/females. And the songs they are singing are pretty girly.

  2. I really don’t know what it is in Japan, but outside things like the hardcore scene, Japanese music seems less infused with macho sentiment, although I don’t think it goes back that far. Atsuko/Illya from Juicy Fruits in 1980-ish is the earliest case I know of a Japanese band with a guitar-playing female frontperson, and Princess Princess a few years later surely did a lot to normalise the idea of women playing instruments in bands, and the new wave scene was pretty open to female musicians throughout the 80s. In the 90s, Yuki from Judy And Mary didn’t play an instrument (although she later played drums in Mean Machine) but she championed the idea of punk-influenced girly pop culture, and JAM were ridiculously influential among young female musicians (as was Shiina Ringo a bit later).

    Also, I wonder if part of it might be down to the social convention where men were traditionally expected to just study and work their whole lives, whereas women’s only real obligation was to get married before they were 30, which perhaps gave young women a bit more freedom to play about, put all those childhood music lessons to use in some form maybe. Obviously that wouldn’t be such an issue now, but it could have influenced the climate for successive generations of musicians.

    Another way of looking at it is to compare with something like football. Japanese football stadia are much less intimidating places, with much less risk of (sexually-directed or otherwise) verbal or physical harassment than in Europe, and so women and children seem to form a much higher percentage of the crowd. Similarly, gigs are usually much less dirty, macho, aggressive places, regardless of the gender ratio in the bands, so again they might have formed a more welcoming environment for girls.

    Then there’s the more contentious issue of whether audiences in Japan go, “Aww, cute, it’s girls!” which could come from either male or female fans really, albeit perhaps for different reasons sometimes.

    So, um, to summarise: I don’t know!

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