Diary of a Japan tour part 9: March 23rd at Saga Rag-G

The final date in Kyushu was at Rag-G in Saga. I’d been here once before, when Zibanchinka supported Bo Ningen in 2011, and both the town and the venue are interesting places.

One of many decidedly odd buildings left over from another age and largely colonised by the local sex industry.

One of many decidedly odd buildings left over from another age and largely colonised by the local sex industry.

When travelling in Kyushu, the step-changes in economic growth and reconstruction of the various cities can make each stop seem a bit like travelling ten years further back in time. While Fukuoka looks more or less like the present day (and the Momochi area is outright futuristic), Kumamoto feels more like the 1990s, with a familiar enough atmosphere, but lacking some of the glitter and glitz of the 2000s. Kagoshima is like a faded 1980s theme park, with the bright, brash, plastic bubble-era storefronts and building artifices bleached and dashed by two decades of volcanic dust. Saga then brings us back to the ’70s. On a Sunday afternoon, the town is deserted. You can walk from the station to the venue fifteen minutes away almost without seeing a single person, just passing hostess bars and brothels shuttered for the daylight hours, the whole town bathed in a sort of orange light giving it a sense of a permanent sunset. Signs advertising Coca Cola and other well-known brands showed no sign of having been changed or moved since they were first placed there decades ago, which makes a striking contrast to Tokyo where such retro ephemera is diligently collected and arranged to create a perfectly curated designer’s-mind facsimile of the past. N’toko turned to me at one point and said something to the effect that it was like India after being hit by a neutron bomb.

Saga Rag-G

Saga Rag-G

Saga is also crisscrossed by hundreds of tiny streams, giving it the impression of a run-down toytown Venice, and it’s on the corner of one of these streams that Rag-G sits, opposite a really quite beautiful temple, with an open space and seats laid out in front of it. Sitting outside was really so nice that it felt like an enormous hassle even to go inside and listen to the music, the only thing ruining the atmosphere being the grindingly repetitive blues music chittering away out of a portable CD player by the venue’s entrance (one that Omi from Futtachi swiftly replaced with some avant-garde guitar improv CD he had with him).

There was a panda wandering around outside for some reason.

There was a panda wandering around outside for some reason.

Keeping a live venue open in a small town like Saga is a different challenge to running a venue in a competitive environment like Tokyo. In big cities, rent is a big constraining factor in the size of a venue, and basically means that a small venue will always only have small bands. In Saga (population about a quarter of a million), there are only a couple of live venues to serve the whole city, so they have to be able to accommodate anything, from tiny underground shows to washed-up old stars, and encompassing a variety of genres. Rent on the other hand is not constrained so much, which means that Rag-G is a phenomenally large venue by the standards of most larger cities. The smaller size of the city, however, means that it’s difficult to support underground or experimental music in such a space without doing, as they did at this show, an all-day event with about ten bands playing.Johnny Ohkura Daijin: Yasu Megumi no Theme

It’s a fascinating lineup though, with N’toko and Futtachi both present and correct again, the latter performing in their minimalist psychedelic duo incarnation, and an interesting mix of local and nearby bands joining them. Headlining was Johnny Ohkura Daijin from the band Suichuu Sore wa Kurushii, who’s a Koenji local that I’ve known for a long time and who was by coincidence playing the same night. He’s one of those singers “you have to be Japanese” to really get, rattling through a series of folk-punk tunes with funny lyrics and just generally tilting along the tightrope between music and variety performance. It’s the kind of thing I always find much easier to take in a small room.

Saga is close enough to Fukuoka that it's pretty easy to visit and several Fukuoka mates came. DJ TKC and Iguz from Futtachi were partying in the street well into the evening.

Saga is close enough to Fukuoka that it’s pretty easy to visit and several Fukuoka mates came. DJ TKC and Iguz from Futtachi were partying in the street well into the evening.

I can’t pretend to even remember many of the bands who played that night, but Yaoyoloz were superb, and Hakuchi are one of my favourite bands right now. One interesting fact I picked up recently is that the word “hakuchi” (meaning “idiot”) is on the list of words banned by Japanese TV, so when the band’s drummer Ann, who is an omnivorous, oddball teenage musical genius in her own right, recently appeared on local TV, they weren’t allowed to say the name of her band. Given that Hakuchi is also the Japanese title of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (from where the band took their name), it makes you wonder what literary discussions on Japanese TV are like, with one Russian friend of mine suggesting, “Today we will be discussing Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and <BEEP!>” (I prefer to imagine the censorship effect as a comedy sound like a swanee whistle or a cuckoo clock).

Kanami from Nakigao Twintail: too cool for school.

Kanami from Nakigao Twintail: too cool for school.

Also attending the show were four members of another great Saga band, the quite amazing Nakigao Twintail, who split up last year. The drummer, bassist and two guitarists were present, so after Hakuchi, they commandeered their equipment and played a couple of songs themselves. Now given what an impact they had on me when I saw them in Fukuoka in 2013, this was a special moment for me, since I thought that one occasion would end up being the first and last chance I’d ever have to see them live. Given its impromptu nature and their limited gear and setup, their brief set was less the furious garage-punk explosion of their full band sets and more a chaotic, dadaist disassemblage of rock’n’roll. I’m not sure what sort of musical endeavours any of them will end up engaging in in the future, and it could be horrible, but there’s still enouch childish nonsense in what they do that it’s fun.Hakuchi: Suttoko Dokkoi

Iguz from Futtachi finds a psychedelic flower shop.

Iguz from Futtachi finds a psychedelic flower shop.

N’toko had to work his way through some sound difficulties, perhaps as a result of being the only electronic act on the bill, but after some furious mucking about with the wires and some cajoling from me in my asshole manager hat, things got pumped up to the necessary volume and enough of the cool people there stuck around to watch him. Futtachi had no such technical issues and perhaps even more than in Fukuoka their minimalist, industrial-psych was hypnotic and utterly compelling. Shiro-Boshi were a pretty good indie rock band from Fukuoka, while The Amber Tortoise had the best bandname of the evening.

It was also exhausting, and by the time the post-gig food and drink started winding down, N’toko and I were both dead on our feet. A few days rest beckoned before one last gig on the road, way out in Takamatsu, a place neither of us had ever been to or had any image of, and which I’d accidentally booked while drunk a few weeks previously. It was in the hands of good people though, so what could go wrong?

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