Monthly Archives: February 2013

Hotel Mexico / ZZZs features in The Japan Times

Not my writing, but my colleague Shawn Despres has a couple of features in today’s JT on interesting bands that I also recommend. The first is on Kyoto indie band Hotel Mexico, whose new album I think shows a growing maturity and some fine songwriting, and the second is on Kansai no wave trio the ZZZ’s (I hate the apostrophe, but the band are the ones who put it there), who were No.13 in my 2012 top 20, and whose gig at Club Asia I’ll actually be DJing at in just over a week. Both bands are ace, so please check them out.

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Note regarding Japan Times links [UPDATED]:

Some people may have noticed that most of the links to Japan Times articles on here don’t work anymore. This is because the JT recently renewed its web site a couple of weeks ago, and while they seem to have imported all or most of the data from the old site to the new one, they don’t appear to have added any redirects for outside links, which means that everything you click just dumps you unceremoniously on the JT’s top page. Given that there are hundreds of JT links on this site as a result of my work for them, there’s no way I’m going to be able to go over this whole site fixing them. I’ve moaned about it to the web people, but I’m not holding out much hope. Sorry.

UPDATE: Have been checking with JT people and it seems to have been a glitch and all, or at least most, links seem to be functioning OK now. Hopefully things will stay this way now, but since it’s a new web site there may be future glitches, which will hopefully be sorted out similarly quickly.

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Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Buddy Girl and Mechanic

Buddy Girl and Mechanic

CD, self-released, 2013

Buddy Girl and Mechanic were a band who, off the back of a smart little demo CD and a couple of live performances, I tipped as ones to watch in 2012. Now my recommendations can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing, so it’s something of a relief that the guitar and synth-based quartet has survived long enough to present us with this self-titled debut album.

There’s something in the breathy, downtempo melodicism that’s a little reminiscent of Mazzy Star, although it’s really more like a Mazzy Star that’s having slow three-way sex with krautrock and psychedelic desert blues on a hot summer night, while the cracked neon sign flickers through the window of a cheap New Mexico motel room. Buddy Girl and Mechanic are sultry, sexy and hot, yet at the same time there’s something quite rigid, theoretical and European about how their music falls together. Fenix has a bit of Ege Bamyasi-era Can to it’s funky rattle and Satan’s Son recalls the laid-back confluence of blues and spacerock of early Spiritualized, while Ultra Witch Crafty Fab autobahns ahead ahead like a sexy Neu!

Yeah, I know I’m using the word “sexy” a lot in this review, but it’s a key word: there’s even a song on here called Sexy. And partly because of so much of the language of indie having been defined by socially awkward British 1980s outcasts and partly because of Japanese rock having its roots more in the theoretical and technical nature of jazz rather than the more primal forces at work in blues and R&B, the Japanese alternative scene has never really felt very comfortable with sex and never really been very good at articulating sexiness. As a result, Buddy Girl and Mechanic often seem like something being beamed in from another world rather than just a bunch of people performing on a stage a couple of feet away, and yet somehow it still works, which has a lot to do with the aforementioned krautrock influences, the mechanical and the sensual tussling for dominance in the songs, linked and made coherent by the languid psychedelia that overlays it all.

And yes, it’s very good. It’s atmospheric, the melodies are often spine-tingling, the arrangements are inventive, and most importantly, it sounds like nothing else in the Japanese indie and underground scene right now.

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Twee Grrrls Club: Indie Pop Lesson Exhibition (Feb 1st-28th, P/I Gallery, Shibuya Parco)

Indie Pop Lesson Exhibition

For any indie/twee pop fans out there in the Tokyo area, this exhibition by local fanzine/DJ collective Twee Grrrls Club could be well worth checking out. Anyone familiar with group figurehead Sumire Taya’s Shibuya boutique Violet & Claire, or indeed any of the Twee Grrrls’ numerous events and parties, will be familiar with the sorts of crafts on display, although if you want to check out more, the Grrrls have info on the exhibition posted up on their blog as well as some photos of the kinds of artworks and nicknacks they have on display.

The exhibition also acts as a sort of companion to the collective’s typically adorable looking new Indie Pop Lesson book, released last December, it should provide a fascinating introduction to this particular side of Tokyo DiY indie culture, encompassing music, art, writing and all manner of homemade miscellany.

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DYGL: DYGL

DYGLI first encountered DYGL (pronounced “day-glo”) in their earlier incarnation as the ungoogleable De Nada at a small show at the now defunct Shibuya Echo in December last year and was impressed by their energetic brand of jangly indiepop. Yeah, I know, another jangly, 80s-influenced Japanese indiepop band. There are a lot of them about, and really a lot of pretty good ones, although so slavishly devoted to a particular sort of lo-fi, C86, proto-shoegaze aesthetic are many of these bands that distinguishing the fine nuances that separate them can be a bit like trying to differentiate between different K-Pop groups on sound alone, i.e. the differences are there, but you have to be deeply buried in the subculture to recognise them when uniformity and adherence to a style are such important parts of what passes for musical identity.

Bearing this in mind, DYGL’s closest musical contemporaries might be Nagoya’s Lilacs, who share a similarly propulsive, uptempo rhythm. In particular, what I like about DYGL is that the vocalist actually sings properly. He’s actually got a rather nice soul singer’s voice, which is in evidence a bit more in his other band, the more musically adventurous Ykiki Beat, and when taken as a whole, DYGL’s musical repertoire seems less rigid than some of their more 80s-fixated peers, demonstrating a possible interest in, or at least echoes of, the genre’s 60s garage roots as well, which expands the range of sounds available to them.

The band also have a five-track CD/R that’s doing the rounds (not sure if it’s available to buy or even what the real title is, but track them down at one of their gigs and I suspect they’ll have a few copies). On the CD, things are a bit more conventional, with the homogenising nature of bedroom recording meaning that the vocals, the band’s strongest point, slip back into the dreamy murk that characterises Tokyo-based contemporaries like the (nevertheless very good) Boyish. That said, the levelling effect of the lo-fi recording means that DYGL’s songwriting has to stand by itself, and it does so confidently. There’s a lot of energy that the band are forced to repress in these recordings though, and the sense remains though that these are songs that would benefit from some time in a proper recording studio where the band can rock out and let the vocals sing out cleanly.

There are some excellent songs here and DYGL are a young band to watch out for. Especially if you get the chance to see them live, they really are one of the best bands in their genre, brimming with energy, their sound breezily retro, but not overwhelmed by museum-piece recreation of their idols.

UPDATE: DYGL now have their own Soundcloud with four songs, including some different ones to those linked here, up on it. Go check them out at this link.

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Strange Boutique (AKB48 hair-shaving weirdness special!)

So I wrote an emergency subsidiary Strange Boutique column for The Japan Times that was put online on Friday and went into the paper on Sunday, about the weirdness surrounding Minami Minegishi from AKB48, who was caught leaving the home of a boy (a boy, I say, of all the horrors!) and then subsequently demoted to the “trainee” team, and then appeared in a bizarre, weepy apology video with her hair shaved off.

Reactions were divided into five basic categories.

Firstly there are the core fans, whose argument is basically that she broke the rule and her punishment is justified. “Our fantasies of your virginity trump your actual rights over whether or not to have a virginity.”

Second are what we might call generalised J-Pop fans, including a lot of overseas fans. Their reaction was more along the lines of, “This goes a bit far, but then again, she did upset her fans. It’s strange that they need to have this rule but then again, if the rule is there…” These fans are probably well meaning, but every bit as much part of the problem.

Then there’s the general Japanese population, who also seem to basically buy into the whole, “It’s a rule” thing, but at the same time, generally think the whole hair-shaving, sobbing apology was way over the top and that it makes AKB48 look like some sort of cult. I also get the impression that among ordinary Japanese, there is a sort of defensive need to brush it off as insignificant and “part of that weird thing those people have”. There is a shame-fuelled eagerness that this incident not be seen as representative of wider Japanese culture, which suggests that even if few are willing to outright condemn it, they at least understand that it ain’t right.

There’s also the argument that says it’s all a publicity stunt orchestrated by evil mastermind Yasushi Akimoto. I don’t buy this, and if it was, it backfired. It came during the week that a new AKB48 documentary came out, and the management may have thought that by skillfully orchestrating an apology, they could turn a potential downer into a positive, but the fact that they’ve since pulled the video from their official YouTube channel suggests that the reaction was not what they were hoping for at all. I think the publicity stunt to promote the film was meant to be Tomomi Itano’s graduation news the following day, although all that ended up being was damage limitation. A distractor to divert negative publicity and column inches onto something more easily controlled.

Then there has been the English language reaction, which has ranged from some fairly ignorant, outright condemnation of Japanese culture as a whole to some slightly more moderate remarks. The reaction is of pretty uniform condemnation though.

So yeah, expect some fan kickback against this to be along the lines that this is just a manufactured scandal by foreigners who don’t understand Japanese culture, imposing their ignorant Western values on deep, preciously held Japanese traditions.

And there are some Japanese traditions here. Hair cutting is something people in Japan do, perhaps when breaking up with a boyfriend, making a symbolic new start, or maaaaaaybe in cases of penance. Shaving it all down to the bone is what you do when you join the army or go off to join a monastery though, so we’re still way off base here (unless you believe that AKB48 are a kind of religious cult, which is the way a lot of people are increasingly starting to think).

There’s the argument that she chose to do it herself. That her management begged her not to, but she did it secretly without telling them while they were privately discussing her punishment.

This is a mad argument.

Even if she did make the actual specific decision to cut it herself, you can hardly call it “her decision”. Anything she does while there are a bunch of people in the next room discussing what her punishment should be, and masses of fans pouring onto 2ch to discuss their outrage that she was seen with a boy, is something she did under duress, whether direct or indirect. What do the fans who make these kinds of arguments think happened?

MINEGISHI: I’m going to do it! I’m going to cut it all off!
AKIMOTO: Noooooooo! Miichan, your beautiful tresses! Please!
MINEGISHI: My heart is decided! The only way I can show my sincere repentance to my sweet fans is by being bold! (Bzzzzzzzzz-SNIP!)
AKIMOTO: Oh, the humanity! What have you done, you sweet, foolish child? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?!? … (Shouts out of frame) OK, GET THE CAMERA IN NOW, SHE’S DONE!

But fans don’t like to see the framework, they don’t like to see the wires, they like to believe that everything the girls do is just as they see it on the stage, because they have so much emotionally invested in the fantasy, in the narrative that they’re being sold, that it would crush them if they allowed their suspension of disbelief to slip. You can’t argue with AKB48 fans for the same reason you can’t argue with religious fundamentalists: because you’re not arguing with a person, you’re arguing with cognitive dissonance.

One particular objection I have with the whole story is the way some insist on calling it a “scandal”. A scandal implies she did something scandalous, whereas all I see here is a girl doing something ordinary. The only people who feel scandalised are the fans who believe that they have some kind of rights over her life, who feel that by signing that contract when she was thirteen, they own her, and that is the real scandal here. That fans and management have colluded first in forcing a young girl to sneak around in shame when visiting a boyfriend should be the most natural thing, and then when exposed to collaborate in her public humiliation, that is the only scandal that anyone should be talking about.

There’s a fan in the comments under my JT piece (who insists on referring to Akimoto as “Aki-P” — I mean, wow, do fans really call him that? Wow!) making all sorts of hysterical arguments, one of which seems to be that it’s actually people like me and all the other “foreigners” who are the real problem because we made a fuss about it. While it’s a wildly incoherent piece of logic, it does cut to the bone of what otaku fandom of pretty much all kinds is like. It basically says, “Leave us alone in our fantasy!” which I have some sympathy for in anime and manga fandom where no real humans are involved, but less so with idols who are actual lumps of more or less sentient organic matter, and certainly less so in the case of AKB48, who are the biggest pop group in the whole country, watched by millions. They don’t belong only to the otaku, they are part of Japanese popular culture as a whole and what happens with them feeds into discourse about society, its values and how it sees itself (and how it sees women in particular).

The main argument this particular commenter makes basically amounts to, “She’s not being punished for having a boyfriend, she’s being punished for breaking a rule.” Now I had to read that a few times before I could be sure I wasn’t missing something important, but it’s the same damn thing! The rule is the not-having-a-boyfriend thing. They. Are. The. Exact. Same. Thing.

The same commenter goes on to make the spurious point that the rule is actually not a no-boyfriends-at-all thing, just a not-seen-dating-in-public thing: sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell. Again, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t understand that this is how the system works in practice. Of course the management aren’t going to care what the girls do if they don’t get caught. This is partly why I’m inclined to blame fans fractionally more than management in this case, because it’s the fans’ sociopathic need to have their ambivalently sexual fantasies protected from reality. Because if AKB48 fans had any sense of perspective, or indeed any basic sense of what a young woman is really like and not what their moé fantasies say young women should be like, there would be no rule, no “scandal”, no apology.

And so when fans cry that “No, Mr. Martin, it’s not misogynistic because boy bands sometimes have similar contracts,” then yeah, some of them (Johnny’s stuff mostly, although in the 90s, the visual-kei scene was similar), although the culture seems to be coming from a slightly different place. I’m rather reluctant to talk about Johnny’s because it’s such a dark area, but one key difference between AKB48 and Johnny’s idols is that the former has these connections with anime and manga fan culture, which is very much focused on fetishised images of adolescent (and younger) female vulnerability and innocence, whereas Johnny’s acts seem to be coming from a slightly different tradition. In any case, I don’t see why the existence of a parallel weird cultlike fandom over at chez Kitagawa means that what’s going on under “Aki-P”‘s aegis is any less sick. The management of the boy in the Minami Minegishi case have made a statement to the effect that they don’t care what he does with his private life, and pointing and fans shouting, “But no, because LOOK OVER THERE!” doesn’t seem to be engaging with the problem on their own doorstop.

What’s most vile about comments like those of this so-called fan on the JT comments is that they still manage to convince themselves that they’re really true supporters of their beloved Miichan. They, who form the bulk of the culture that put her in this absurd position. And maybe she really is sincere in her desire to get back into their good graces, and maybe they really do feel bad about being forced to punish her like this, the abuser feeling dreadful for the abuse they inflict and the abused blaming herself and eagerly trying to work her way back into her abuser’s favour, and in the cult world of AKB48 and their fans, maybe this is normal, but what’s happened here is that whether the fans like it or not, the door has creaked open a little and society at large and the world as a whole are now, slightly more than previously, seeing them as the cult that they are.

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