Here’s a piece I did for MTV 81 on Japanese alternative music. Personally, I think this should have been about five different, shorter articles, but my brief was basically to cover the entire history of alternative music in Japan in the space of one piece, so the end result is both too long and too short really. Still, I’m glad I was able to do it, and while it’s a bit dense, I think I covered a lot of important stuff and it’s a good summary of what’s what in Japanese alternative music.
Also, anyone who’s familiar with my style of writing will know that the closing “Now you know your J-rock, so ROCK ON” sign-off is not the sort of thing I say. It’s an MTV-ish editorial insert that was stuck in there because my original draft fizzled out in a pretty lame way. Obviously I’d have rather worked around it in another way, but to be honest, given the stuff I got away with in the article (Hadaka no Rallizes’ terrorist hijackings, Jun Togawa’s wartime imagery), I can’t really complain.
The bit about the 70s rock generation is stuff anyone who’s read Julian Cope’s lovely Japrocksampler will be familiar with, and it’s not really my area. I had to be a bit careful there, because Cope is notoriously freewheeling with the truth when an interesting lie will do the job, so I focused on the music and the more widely-reported factoids. Hadaka no Rallizes/Les Rallizes Denudes came up in my last Japan Times piece as well, because Kentaro Nakao (ex. Number Girl) suggested that they prefigured shoegaze in a way, and it’s interesting the way that, partly perhaps due to Cope’s book and the renewed Western attention it focused on them, they have been gradually gaining status as an influence in the underground scene once more.
Punk and especially new wave are my main areas of interest in Japanese music, and I think I gave them a fair shout in the article without me needing to add much here. One bit I thought was interesting was the way new wave infiltrated the mainstream. Miharu Koshi was a full-on 70s “new music” type in the vein of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya, but the shift to technopop she made in the 80s clearly owes just as much to the Plastics as it does to more established and respectable pop statesmen like YMO.
It’s also worth briefly re-emphasising here the importance of Halmens, not only in being ace, but also for kickstarting the careers of Jun Togawa and Maki Nomiya, the latter of which leads on neatly to Shibuya-kei.
Now Shibuya-kei is an area I feel particularly uncomfortable writing about. It’s so vaguely defined musically and seems to have much more to do with these little networks of friends and various assorted hipsters who just used to hang out at galleries, fashion events, record stores and exclusive bars together in the early 90s. Someone like me attempting to write authoritatively about it is inviting ridicule upon myself, so all I could really give was an outsider’s view based on what it looks like with the distorting eye of history.
There are two key things about Shibuya-kei, I think. Firstly, there’s the way big record stores give a lot of leeway to individual store buyers. This was important in creating the buzz around Shibuya at that time, and it continues to this day. When I was in Nagoya the other week, I heard that the buyer from Tower Records in Sakae had put up a massive display for the new album by hardcore mentalists Gauze, right next to a similar sized display for Ayumi Hamasaki. When my own Dancing After 1AM compilation came out last year, Tsutaya in Kumamoto had a large, prominent display for the album, despite it being a limited run of only 500 copies with virtually no promotion.
The second thing about Shibuya-kei is that at the time, it encompassed all sorts of music, from minimalist, lo-fi garage-punk to heavy, psychedelic spacerock. This eclecticism, as well as the whole incestuous galleries-and-hipsters network is what still exists behind a lot of the Tokyo indie (rather than alternative rock, which I think is a slightly different thing) scene.
I’ve written before about the importance of the early 2000s triumvirate of Supercar/Quruli/Number Girl and the shadow they cast over alt-rock of the past decade. Just looking at old Number Girl clips and comparing them to the kind of thing that passes for alternative music in the charts nowadays really drives home what an achievement it was that something as intense and raw as that could be so successful. It’s really a feature of the time — lots of money in the music industry, and with Shibuya-kei having largely dissolved, labels throwing the cash at all kinds of things in search of the next hit — and everything since then has been sanding off the edges without really moving that far forward.
Groups like Negoto are I think pretty decent bands, and it’s unfair to criticise them for not being Number Girl, but they’re obviously children of that generation, and the result is also clearly rather sanitised and poppified. In this sense, they too are a feature of their time — not much money in the music industry, and a greater fear on the part of even the major labels’ alternative imprints like Ki/oon of anything that might be inaccessible.
I wonder too if there’s also a difference in the record-buying public. The early 2000s kids were the ones who had grown up in the bubble and then come of age in the “lost decade” (or rather the first lost decade). They were facing insecurity and the collapse of what must have seemed a prosperous, secure future, and there was a genuine angst and anxiety. The generation coming through now have never known anything but this low-level, largely comfortable sense of decline, and the anguished yowls of insecurity have been replaced by whimsical reflection on their state.