Monday, April 27, 2009

Exposure

A few of the indy bands I've been writing about have recently been picking up legitimate exposure around Tokyo. Last month, Metropolis, the major English language publication, ran a few articles about some of my favorite local acts.

Sunset Drive got a little blurb hyping their upcoming Sleeping on the Dayshift, Vol. 2. I was pleasantly surprised to see the article when I opened the magazine. Click here and scroll down a few paragraphs.

Way back in November, I talked about a few run-ins with songwriter Kat McDowell, most notably at her performance at the very first Sleeping on the Dayshift. It seems that the Metropolis editors felt that her musical activities around town were worthy of a full page write up!

Congrats to both groups. Hope to see you in action soon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

片腕マシンガール: The Machine Girl

I got a huge kick out of this film poster when I first saw it back in November.
The title of the film, 片腕マシンガール literally translates to One Armed Machine Girl. The film is a titillating gorefest, as you could probably gather from the poster.

In the plot, the schoolgirl protagonist's brother is murdered by a gang of school bullies. She takes revenge by killing them off one by one. When her arm is severed by a samurai sword, the car mechanic mother of another bully victim crafts a Gatling Gun and attaches it to her stump.

The B-flick is quite obviously influenced by Robert Rodriguez's zombie movie, Planet Terror, the 2007 film where Rose McGowan obliterates zombies with an AK47 prosthetic leg. In the same vain, the violence is on cartoonish levels with blood and limbs flying everywhere.

What troubles me about this film is its fetishization of schoolgirls, something that greatly bothers me about Japanese culture. The film is loaded with obscene situations, sexual language, and inappropriate camerawork.

For example, look at the graphic on the lower right of the backside of the flyer.
Such imagery is perverse, but then again, is American culture, with teen sex comedies like American Pie and TV ads for Girls Gone Wild, any more pristine?

I could also potentially see this film as empowering to young girls. In a society with rampant and vicious school bullying, such a fantasy seems to reflect on the desire young people have to stick up for themselves. 

Excalibur, Lost Without a Home

I named my guitar Excalibur, or in Japanese Katakana, エクスカリバー. The axe is a searing stratocaster copy that grabbed me after first taking it off the rack at a shop in Ochanomizu back in October. I tried countless guitars of virtually the same make that day, but playing mine was like pulling the sword from the stone.

Earlier today, I was back in Ochanomizu with some musician friends doing a little gear shopping. I was eager to return to the same shop and poke around.

Low and behold, when I arrived, the entire building had been torn down! I could feel a pang of tragedy in my heart! Alas, Exalibur! Lost with no home! Now I shall protect you.

Frank Advice: Reader Discretion Advised

I was with a Japanese American friend today who had spent his childhood split between Tokyo and Upstate New York, constantly struggling to fit in and adapt to two vastly divergent cultures.

When I asked him about how to get people to help me out in this city, this was his frank response:

Dude, this is Japan. You scratch someone's back and give them a handjob, and they will scratch your back and give you a blowjob. People are constantly trying to one-up each other.

Sexual metaphors aside, what does he mean? Use the Japanese culture of humble respect to your advantage. Honor people and treat them as your superiors, always taking extra care to show your gratitude, and they will straight on hook you up. If someone does you a favor, you owe them big time. Keep the cycle alive, and you build relationships with people.

I constantly see this in my daily life here. If you meet Japanese people and give them a little, show them that you can see them beyond Western stereotypes, they will be more than eager to open up to you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tokyo Drift

In many previous articles, I've mentioned singer Izumi Ookawara, one of the first truly successful musicians I've met in Tokyo. She was quick to captivate me with her talent, beauty, and charm, and has since become a very good friend.

Her group Qypthone was a popular Shibuya-kei band that was started in the mid-90's. Fans of the genre know the group well. In their active days, they toured all over the world, from South Korea, to Russia, to Germany, and even New York City where they played on the 106th floor of the old World Trade Center.

The group is on break now while the members of the band are pursuing solo projects. Lead composer of the group, Takeshi Nakatsuka has since become quite a well-known DJ in the Tokyo club scene. Izumi took me to his show just a week ago and introduced me to his new crew.

Another one of Qypthone's major snippets of success was landing a song on the soundtrack to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. I finally got my hands on a copy of the film. Completely campy and awful, but very entertaining. Here is the scene with Qypthone's song, Mission "Bananaa" Muffin:
video

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The deBretts at Astro Hall

I was signed up as photog for British indy band, the deBretts who did a set at Astro Hall in Harajuku. They are off tomorrow for a one week, stop-at-every-major-city tour of Japan.

Polarity

I received a message from an old hometown friend who is teaching English in another city in Japan. I thought that his analysis of the polarity in experiencing this place was succinct and beautiful.

I'll steal a term from
Hokkaido Highway Blues to sum up my feelings on Japan: lovehate. I've never been so simultaneously split in my feelings about, well, anything! While there are certain things you could firmly categorize in the 'love it' column, and others in the 'hate it,' there are equally as many that inspire a throughly mixed, no... pureed, set of emotions; love and hate whipped together in some kind of twisted Venn Diagram. My list of reasons why I dislike Japan is simply a bad photocopy of my list of likes. (The cuteness, the defined roles, the status for foreigners... really, the modes and methdologies of self-identification and interpersonal interaction at a systemic level... meh).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Rock Chick (or Your Girlfriend on a Bad Day)

Last night, I attended Rock Chick, an event hosted by Metropolis, the biggest English language free paper in Tokyo. The magazine holds a periodic live music series called Saiko. This time, the theme was female rock musicians.

I was signed up as staff for Natccu, an up and coming indy rock songwriter. Last month, she played a show in LA and then did a series at South By Southwest in Austin. In the coming weeks, she's off to England for a 3 month tour arranged by her English husband and manager. She's a nice girl too. For my duties as roadie, Natccu treated me to a bowl of ramen after the show. Her webpage is pretty awesome. Tell me what you think of the music.
Next on the roster were my homegirls, Bo-Peep, never ceasing to rock the house down. Here is a snapshot of them goofing off before the show:
For being a bunch of nice polite Japanese ladies, you would not believe how heavy their sound is. Check out my all-time favorite song, B-Level Motion.

Mika: quiet and reserved in person, give her a guitar and she goes completely insane...
Ryoko: frail and delicate, but with drumsticks in hand she will smash through concrete blocks...
Take: quirky on stage, quirky off stage...
Third on the roster was Aiha Higurashi from the successful 90's alternative band, Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her.
Last was Mass of the Fermenting Dregs (totally sweet name!), a well known punk band. I see their ads all over the major record stores and music magazines. I didn't believe it was possible, but these guys were even heavier than Bo-Peep.

Conclusions for the night: As my friend bluntly put it, "Not all Asian chicks play the violin."

After the show when the audience had taken off, Bo-Peep, Natccu, their managers, their significant others, and myself got a little wild dancing and drinking. I probably should try a little harder to limit my exposure to alcohol and loud music.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Beatlemania

Last night, I was introduced by an American friend to a Japanese Beatlemaniac who has been an obsessive fan and collector since the 1960's. Together, we went to his favorite spot in Tokyo, The Cavern Club, a Beatles-themed club and bar with a retro atmosphere, memorabilia decorating the walls, and Beatles tribute bands playing every night of the week.

This type of focused mania is distinctly Japanese. I don't think you would ever come across a similar place anywhere in the world.

The real unique charm to the place was the band, Shirokuma Company, a fab group of four Japanese guys with mop tops, vintage black suits, and original period instruments. They played set after set of extremely well rehearsed note-for-note interpretations of all of the famous hits. From the sound of their amplifiers, the growl in their voices, and the shaking of their hair, these guys were as close to the Beatles as it gets.
Let's take a closer look:
'Paul', with his violin bass and puffy McCartney hairdo doesn't look so bad. He could also sing pretty well. 'John' however is a different story.

The guy's stage name is Mabu John (Mabu short for Hidemasa Mabuchi). His performance was a near perfect interpretation and his striking resemblance to John Lennon is absolutely uncanny, if not a bit eerie. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

JINKI

This post is a shout-out to Jinki, my new favorite cat in Tokyo.

A few weeks ago, my housemate and her friends dragged me to an all night party at a club in Aoyama. The cover was pretty hefty and two of the girls in our group didn't have ID's. Despite that no one in all of Japan cares about the drinking age and that the girls looked well over 20, they still wouldn't let us in. While we were considering what to do, a young asian guy popped his head out of the club, whispered some secret asian talk to the bouncer and ticket guy, and a minute later we were all inside. Completely confused about what was going on, I just smiled and nodded as we were hustled in.

While waiting for the rest of the crowd, Jinki, the guy in question, looked to my friend and said in Japanese, "you have a gaijin." Typical, I thought. The word isn't all that polite and its usage reflects the huge split between natives and foreigners. 

He then pointed to himself. "I'm gaijin too."

I've liked him ever since.

Jinki is Taiwanese but grew up living between Japan and Taiwan. He is a very cool guy and quite a socialite. Even though we have no common background whatsoever, the fact that both of us are treated like foreigners here in an odd way makes us compatriots.

Jinki pulled the same joke again tonight. We were at a bar in Ikebukuro with some Japanese friends. Two girls came over and sat down. He introduced me as "Mr. Gaijin," and then pointed to himself. "I'm Mr. Gaijin." The girls had a laugh figuring out what flavor of asian he is.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Watanabes: Independent Social Power

I've owed the Watanabes an album review for quite a while, actually since January. Sorry guys for being late.

But the more I think about their album, the less I want to "review" it. Most music journalists in this city are total quacks. Typical reviews look something like this: This band is a japanese version of [insert famous Western band here] mixed with [insert other famous Western band]. Unfortunately, my blog isn't much better. Me pretending to be a rock critic isn't going to help these guys a bit. Honestly, they just need to keep doing what they're doing; touring, promoting, recording, and spreading their message.

A month ago, Japanzine, one of the major free English language publications, gave their album a lack-luster review. I say giving a negative review to an up-and-coming unsigned indy band is a pretty dick move. I call it a classic case of "failed journalist moves to Japan and has no good beat to write about," or "shitty writer rises to editor at a major publication because there aren't many English speakers around."

I've been following bands around for quite some time now and I know that The Watanabes are the best Gaijin band in Tokyo. Most foreign musicians I know get far too much credence for having white skin. I'm going to have to punch somebody next time I have to pay 2000 yen for a lame show with foreigners who think they rock.

The Watanabes on the other hand have their money where their mouth is. The first time I saw these guys was Sleeping on the Dayshift back in the November. It was a solid show and they played to a full house of friends and fans. Last week at Sleeping on the Dayshift Vol. 2, the house wasn't as crowded, so I went right up to the front row with my camera, leaned on the bar, and soaked in their wall of sound. Regardless of what you think, or what they think, I thought that the show was incredible. They have a driving yet introspective indy rock sound. How about you stop reading and listen for yourself:

Stick It In A Novel - Most definitely my favorite song on the album
This Year - A rock song with driving indy bass
Nice Guy - A well-composed, quirky, yet introspective song with cute lyrics
Chin Up - A track that illustrates what their sound is all about

If you like what you hear, pick up their album on iTunes.
The Watanabes - Independent Social Power - Stick It In a Novel

As I see it, the band has two unique strengths. 1) Their music, but you can judge for yourself. 2) Their background. As I understand it, English brothers Duncan and Selwyn were teaching out in the sticks of Shikoku where they met Ashley and started the band. Through a few changes in lineup and sound, they eventually shifted into high gear, did a national tour, and made it to Tokyo. They unashamedly bring their alienated gaijin feelings to the characters in their songs.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Deeper Into the Tokyo Underground... Part III

I'm so far behind on my posting. Apologies.

Tonight, I went with Izumi Ookawara from Qypthone to see the group leader's solo project. He is a well known DJ, Takeshi Nakatsuka. More to come later... stay tuned...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sleeping on the Dayshift: Vol. 2

Shots from last night's show, Sleeping on the Dayshift: Vol.2.
I'm working on the article. Check back soon!

Toshi from Sunset Drive



Alastair
Duncan (foreground) and Ashley (background) from The Watanabes

Brothers Duncan and Selwyn Walsh
Selwyn
Hydrant House Purport Rife on Sleepy (a.k.a. Sleepy Head)


On the left is comedian, Makoto Izubuchi, one half of the famous Japanese comic duo, Razor Ramon.

Recommendations from the Master Herself: Translation

Last week, I wrote about meeting a group of people involved in film production in Tokyo. One of the women had been working as a script doctor with some the biggest names in the Japanese film industry for 50 years. Here is the English translation of her film recommendations:
  • Yasujiro Ozu - Tokyo Story, Late Spring
  • Mikio Naruse - Floating Clouds, Repast
  • Yuzo Kawashima - Suzaki Paradise Red Light, Sun In the Last Days of the Shogunate
  • Shohei Imamura - Pigs and Battleships, The Ballad of Narayama
  • Seijun Suzuki - Fighting Elegy, Zigeunerweisen
When I asked the woman which was the best film on the list, she took a moment to consider the question and then put a circle next to Floating Clouds.

This list is the culmination of 50 years of experience. Now you all have your homework.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dream of the Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms in full bloom stretching over the river in Nakameguro. Absolutely stunning.


It breaks my heart thinking they will all have wilted away by next week.

*Dream of the Cherry Blossoms is a famous composition for marimba by Japanese composer and percussionist, Keiko Abe.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

宇宙戦艦ラブ:Space Battleship Love

Guitar Wolf, the legendary Japanese punk band, played a comeback concert this past evening. Due to Guitar Wolf Seiji's hip surgery, they hadn't performed a concert in a year and a half. It had been four years since I had last seen the band perform when they were on their US tour. More on that below.

Here is the t-shirt I picked up, "Space Battleship Love."

ギターウルフ:Guitar Wolf - A Little Background

Odd as it sounds, Guitar Wolf was one of the initial inspirations behind my obsession with Japan. If you think I'm a huge geek, I'm just going to have to say "Fuck You." I think this photo explains my inner feelings.

I snapped this photo at a Guitar Wolf show at New York's CBGB's in spring of 2005. I was fortunate to have been there. It was one of the band's last performances under their original lineup; Bass Wolf Billy died of a heart attack literally a month later. The legendary New York City rock club has also since closed its doors.

A few years later, the starstruck teenage kid I was grew up into an adult. During my senior year of college, I applied for a Fulbright grant to research Japanese rock music culture. I unfortunately didn't get the grant, but in the long run, I honestly feel that the Werewolf project as it is today is way more indepth than any academic study I would have been able to do. In any case, this excerpt from my proposal gives you a little bit more background:

...I first became interested in this subject through my exposure to the Japanese punk band Guitar Wolf. During their spring 2005 tour, I was fortunate enough to see the band perform one of their last shows with the group’s original lineup. The self described “Jet Rock” band was by far the wildest group I had ever witnessed. In homage to 1970’s American punk rock bands such as The Ramones and Joan Jett, the members of Guitar Wolf all wear motorcycle leather, aviator sunglasses, and cowboy boots. The guitarist plays a Gibson SG running through a Marshall amplifier, the signature setup made famous by classic rock bands such as AC/DC. The words they sing are a mixture of Japanese lyrics with catchphrases from English songs. While the throwback look and sound of the band has its roots in American and British hard rock, their inexhaustible energy is distinctly Japanese. This attitude is called 'ganbari', the tenacity and endurance that the Japanese have long been known for.

In comparison with more mainstream groups, Guitar Wolf’s image and style comes off as outrageous, yet the band is a paradigm of how Western rock n’ roll culture has infiltrated Japan. This is evident in their 1999 cult film,
Wild Zero. In the movie, the rock legends who the protagonist idolizes are more than just role models; they are quasi-prophetic figures who appear in his dreams, help him to fight the onslaught of evil, and teach him the meaning of love. Rock n’ roll is deified as a transcendental and divine power...

Friday, April 3, 2009

On Being Lost...

I couldn't find the street that would take me from the Ochiai post office to Shimoochiai. I stopped a Japanese lady and asked her where the road was. She apologized and replied that she didn't know the area, but if I walked a few blocks and followed the river with blooming sakura trees, it would take me to where I was going.

For a half mile, the river was lined on both sides with cherry blossoms in full bloom. I found myself thinking what a strange and beautiful place I had stumbled upon.


Recommendations from the Master Herself

Tonight, the Yale and Harvard Clubs of Japan co-hosted a screening of emerging filmmaker Atsushi Ogata's latest short comedy, "Eternally Yours." The film is a fifteen minute short in which a Japanese grandma outsmarts a con-man. The film has garnered him much deserved attention in the Western and Japanese film industries and with newfound international support, he is now beginning production on a feature length Japanese comedy.

After the screening and meet and greet, when most of the guests had taken off, a few of us walked over to the bar to have a drink. I was sitting at a table with Atsushi, his assistant, one of the producers for the new film, and a few others. At first I chatted with the producer, a young bilingual Japanese woman who had an incredible background in the film world. She told me that right out of college, she got picked up to work on Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 as a Japan coordinator. From there, she worked in Tokyo with the film crews for Lost in Translation and Babel and also in China on The Kite Runner.  Lost in Translation is one of my all time favorite films and was indeed one of my initial inspirations for coming here. I have often wondered how American filmmakers would be able to coordinate such an endeavor in Japan. "Don't tell her it's your favorite film... Don't tell her it's your favorite film..." I kept thinking. I was trying not to be too star struck.

I mentioned to her a classic 1960's Japanese film that I had seen and enjoyed, Yajun no Seishun (Youth of the Beast) by Sejun Suzuki. She pointed to the woman sitting to my right and said that she was the real master. The woman next to me was Atsushi's co-writer on his next film. She was elderly and claimed to have 50 years of experience as a screenwriter in the Japanese film industry. When I mentioned the film by Suzuki, she said that they were good friends and that he was the go-between at her wedding! I asked her about other Japanese directors she had met and worked with over the years. She even once met Kurosawa in the editing room, but he was so focused on the editing reel that he didn't cede her any attention. She was telling all of us all sorts of interesting stories about famous directors and film producers in Japan but unfortunately for me, my Japanese comprehension dropped out a few characters in. Atsushi had to fill me in a bit.

Before taking off, I was sure to ask her to write me a list of her favorite Japanese films. The bull's-eye marks her number-one all time favorite.

I'll upload a translation tomorrow. It's well past midnight and all of my housemates are currently asleep. Apologies, but the characters are way beyond my typical comprehension.

And as a sidenote, in case you wanted to know... I did a little online research and it turns out that the screenwriter also wrote the script for a softcore erotic movie in the 1970's.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shalom from Israel

A friend of mine who is currently studying in Israel mailed me this update the other day:

There are about 230 or so international students on my program--mostly north american, but a few scattered others: german, french, belgian, polish, georgian, russian, AND, believe it or not, a few asians! Japanese, Korean, and Chinese! The Japanese guy is Jewish, he is a 42 year old physically disabled man who is constantly shouting in broken Hebrew/English about how he comes from a Jewish community in Japan...one of the lost tribes or something? Not too sure, but I must say he is quite an interesting addition to my Hebrew class!

The Lost Tribes of Israel in Japan? Maybe that should be the new title for my blog.

Juice: 10th Anniversary

After catching Prague's show last week, I got in touch with their manager and offered to take pictures at any upcoming show if he was interested. He invited me to catch one of his bands, Tobaccojuice, at a concert held tonight at Ebisu Liquid Room.

The event was the 10th anniversary party for Club Juice, a Japanese language free magazine that covers the music scene in Japan. I gathered from Fumi, my radiohost housemate from Osaka, that all the bands in tonight's lineup were moderately popular.

First up was a lively rock band, Otogibanashi, which my dictionary tells me means "fairy tale."
Tobaccojuice was second on the lineup. They play stoner rock with a bit of a country twist.

Last up was Flower Companies, a lively punk band that cranked the volume up a notch.
Yes, I know what you are thinking, Japanese band names don't sound all that cool in American English. I think that is their only weak point. You wouldn't believe how much energy these guys put into their shows.

Being Unofficial Photog was an experience. You may have noticed that I never turn down a slot on the guestlist. This time though, I got myself into trouble. Twice, Japanese staff members at the venue came up to me and told me to stop taking pictures. The first guy even told me to delete all of my data. Both times, I name dropped the manager which seemed to shut them up.

Between sets, I ran into Mika and Ryoko from Bo-Peep. They are still buzzing from their experience playing in LA and Austin's SXSW festival. They agreed to do an interview for my blog sometime so stay tuned.