My August (and I like to believe also august) column went up on The Japan Times’ web site last week, on the subject of Shibuya-kei. The event that kicked it off was when we noticed that September 1st, as well as being the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and my wife’s [CENSORED] birthday, marked twenty years since the release of Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada’ first solo single.
Obviously he’d been around for years before that with Flipper’s Guitar, who were almost certainly of greater importance in terms of bringing indie music into the mainstream in Japan, sort of like a weedy-voiced, twee Nirvana, and The Sun Is My Enemy isn’t his best song by a long shot, but in its style, its release though Oyamada’s Trattoria label, and the significance of the name Cornelius in Shibuya-kei’s popularity and influence overseas, it’s a useful benchmark.Cornelius: The Sun Is My Enemy [Sorry for the annoying twat talking over the intro]
There was some discussion on Twitter afterwards about what song would be a better choice if there were to be a single track chosen to define Shibuya-kei, and I think there is a general agreement that it would probably have to be something connected with Oyamada. One suggestion was Flipper’s Guitar’s track Dolphin Song, which is almost certainly the band’s tour de force, bringing their neo-acoustic melodic sense together with experimentation with sound production and sampling that pushes the boundaries of what indie and pop music in Japan were doing at that time way back.Flipper’s Guitar: Dolphin Song
Another possibility would be Kahimi Karie’s Good Morning World, released by Oyamada through Trattoria, which takes the sort of faux-sixties aesthete-pop that Pizzicato Five had been doing for a while, and adds an arrangement and lyrics — courtesy of British songwriter and (tender) pervert Momus — that are some of the oddest and most subversive things ever to sneak into the upper echelons of the Oricon charts.Kahimi Karie: Good Morning World
I also used the article to have another go at “Cool Japan”, which is one of my recurring bugbears about Japanese pop culture. A lot of interesting discussion came out of that as well. At the end of the article where I contrast the enduring overseas respect afforded to Cornelius with the declining fortunes of anime and video games abroad, it’s obviously not meant to be a direct comparison of a single artist to an entire industry. My point is that creating an environment where original artists can emerge is going to be more helpful to Japan’s image overseas than just treating culture like venture capital and chucking money at marketing stuff that’s been born out of particular economic conditions.
Anime in particular is an embarrassment at the moment, and despite the popularity of cosplay among certain groups of people, there is no one who actually thinks it’s cool. Its cultural cachet is confined to a niche group and is considered a joke by outsiders. Video games are in a better position, but the Japanese games industry isn’t what it once was. Sony seem to be getting some positive advance coverage of the PS4 but they’ve done that partly through Microsoft’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity and partly by going back to the old ways of scrubbing the machine’s Japaneseness from it, creating something blankly international like the Walkman.
My belief is that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry isn’t the best institution to be dealing with cultural matters, and that rather than wasting it on evil bastards like advertising giants Dentsu, the money would be more usefully spent in a similar way to how it’s been used in British theatre, i.e. in providing infrastructure that allows artists to experiment and develop ideas free of commercial constraints. Out of that, you’ll surely get a lot of wank, but you’ll also get uncommercial but notable art that would have been strangled at birth under the current system, and you’ll also get works that do have commercial potential that can then be developed into something bigger under the existing commercial infrastructure.
Encouraging international collaboration and cooperation too will be beneficial. A system of grants to help artists with the expensive business of touring overseas should be a basic given (almost every European country has this), as well as helping to build up connections with similar overseas organisations. Relaxing visa requirements for overseas artists wanting to visit Japan would also be very helpful (the opposite of what Canada is doing here, basically). As it stands, Cornelius and Shibuya-kei was a fantastic one-off, but so much more could be done to build an environment where more one-off talents could emerge.Cornelius: Gum (Ultimate Sensuous Synchronized Show)