Strange Boutique (August 2013)

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)

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10 Comments

Filed under Classic Pop, Features, Strange Boutique

10 responses to “Strange Boutique (August 2013)

  1. miffy

    Agreed.
    I have a few observations to make

    1. Shibuya-kei is one-off thing but how do bands like Crossfaith fit into the hypothetical government initiative? Purely on anecdotal evidence, Crossfaith has a bigger following in South East Asia than One Ok Rock. Yet, barely mention in Japanese news. No domestic recognition thus not Cool Japan?

    2. Government assisted music scene? Japan is still the 3rd biggest economy in the world so Japanese consumers should play a part. If these ossan came in, they will probably throw money at those so bad Japanese pop punks bands.

    • I don’t think government money should be sponsoring major label-supported bands like Crossfaith. Ideally, people with some experience of the relevant arts should be in a position to decide what gets to benefit, not government officials (in Europe, where there is a lot of funding for the arts, I can’t think of any country where civil servants make those kinds of decisions — the relevant foundations or arts centres are always run by people who actually know something about art, theatre, film or whatever).

      In Britain, a lot of the money comes from the National Lottery, so it is consumers who are paying for it, albeit obliquely. In any case, we’re talking about insignificant amounts of money in the greater economy even if they did decide to go the tax-funding route, and if you’re going to take a purely business position (which you shouldn’t because art in and of itself has value all of its own), the experience of organisations like the now (idiotically) disbanded UK Film Council suggests that the return to the economy from those works that do break out pays back the investment many times over.

      In any case, as I said, the money would be better spent on infrastructure, reducing some of the financial barriers to experimentation and development of new ideas (perhaps also for technical training for producers, engineers and the like), rather than on the promotion of specific artists.

      As far as funding support for overseas touring goes, they could set up different foundations for different types of project and decide on a case by case basis. European artists applying for funding to tour Japan usually need to fill out an application showing that they already have gigs booked and perhaps show some evidence that they have promotion support over here (I’ve had to write letters a couple of times showing that I’m promoting the tour and that I’ve invited the artist over). Sometimes they get the money, sometimes they don’t.

      • miffy

        In other words, METI should just invite guys like your caliber over for the talks.
        Imagine being in the same room telling your recommendations then Martin Friedman jumps in, hair waving majestically, “Japan is soooo awesomeeeee”

      • I wouldn’t want the responsibility!

      • “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”

        I’m not into anime but what kind of argument is that ? Outsiders also look down on video games and manga, does that mean it’s an embarassement and that their fans should be looked down on ? Anime conventions in France, the biggest market outside Japan, attract more people every year. Japan Expo (which is not only about anime but mostly) brought 220 000 people in three days, that’s a phenomenal result.

        Other than that I liked your article.

      • Ach, anime’s a red button topic for me, so I apologise in advance for what might at times turn into an unpleasant rant.

        The way I look at it is that if your girlfriend came in and saw you playing popular Japanese videogames Biohazard or MGS or something, she might sort of roll her eyes and mutter indulgently, “Oh, grow up!” but it wouldn’t be a big deal. These games have cultural cachet in the West, and even with less popular games, saying, “I like Japanese video games” doesn’t really have any negative connotations. In the 90s, Japan was where video games came from so being into Japanese games was the coolest thing, and some of that cultural cachet remains even though arguably Japan has fallen behind a bit over the past decade.

        Now imagine you’re watching something like Girls und Panzer or Stella Women’s Academy, High School Division Class C3 and your girlfriend comes in. You’re more likely to get a sigh of exasperation and an, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” There was a time, again in the 90s, where anime seemed like it might be on its way to being cool, and stuff like Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop still linger in the memory, but being into anime nowadays has way too much creepy lolita-ish baggage attached. Anime conventions might be packed out (and I gather France has adopted many elements of Japanese pop culture on a larger scale than elsewhere), but more often than not the attendees go home and hide their hobbies in the attic where their loved ones will never find it. Even the other nerds think anime fans are an embarrassment, with their para para dance circles and incessant habit of peppering their speech with Japanese terms and phrases. At a time when geek culture is exploding into the mainstream (even being into comics is cool now), anime is huddled in the corner pretending to itself that it doesn’t want to fuck its little sister.

        And this market isn’t set up to create the kinds of successes that anime would need to break out of its niche. The magnificent and totally badass Redline had a tepid reception from the anime community, despite being exactly the kind of brilliantly realised high octane trash that was starting to tentatively make anime hot in the 90s (think Fist of the North Star, Ninja Scroll). Interesting shows like Flowers of Evil also lose their chance to reach audiences that could make them cult hits because of the stigma attached to anime. I’m not saying anime fans should be looked down on (some of them definitely should, because they’re fucking idiots, although that’s true in pretty much any obsessive subculture), but they are. It has an image problem.

        Now I don’t know if government programmes could do anything to remedy this; market forces have made anime the way it is, and I don’t think the government has much power to influence that. Again though, I think providing assistance for people doing interesting and original work would help. More things like Kick-Heart, which was funded via Kickstart, might be easier to develop if there were more financial assistance available. Maybe if an idea’s deemed to be an interesting project and if certain external funding levels could be met, the government money could come in to top it up. Wouldn’t make much difference, but if the money’s already there and it has to be spent on something, it could perhaps provide another route for creative, imaginative young animators rather then just cranking out episode after episode of slice-of-life moé cartoons or overblown 50-episode toy commercials. And in the end, it’s going to be these creative, original works that people remember and which contribute most to Japan’s cultural influence.

        As I said, sorry for going off on one here, and I’m sure I’m exaggerating a bit, but anime has huge problems. Japanese video games still hold an important position, and Japanese music perhaps benefits from the fact that still no one outside Asia really knows much about it so doesn’t have such fixed preconceptions, and those artists who are known, tend to be quite unique talents rather than scenes as such. I think anime is stuck in an unhealthy loop at the moment though, and promoting cosplay events and things isn’t going to help its image.

  2. Pingback: Anime Is Both Hot and Bull - Project Otaku

  3. perfumeophile

    just trivia, but kahimi karie’s song “good morning world” features a bunch of soft machine samples…stumbled across this song in my personal cd collection about a year ago [the album this is on got an american release, surprisingly enough]

    • Yeah, I think it might be quite revealing that both the songs we selected as being key representative tracks of Shibuya-kei are very savvy in their choice of samples. The Flipper’s Guitar track does it too, using The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” but more importantly (I think!), the track’s underpinned by the synth line from Eyeless In Gaza’s “Changing Stations”.

  4. Pingback: Strange Boutique (September 2013) | Clear And Refreshing

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