Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hip-Hop Japan meets Giant Robots

Anyone interested in music and Japanese pop culture (i.e. ME) should take a look at Hip-Hop Japan written by anthropologist and MIT professor Ian Condry. The book was first recommended to me by a Yale professor when I was putting together my soon to be doomed Fulbright application back during senior year. (Fulrbight didn't work out, but a year later, the Werewolf was born...)

The book is an inspiring in-depth analysis of Japanese Hip-hop culture as observed directly from the streets. Condry spent years following and researching underground rap groups at the most legit Tokyo clubs and late-night spots. The perspective of the book is of an ethnographer who sees Hip-hop in Japan as the unique result of modern globalization.

I picked up the book last week and read it once again cover to cover. It resonated with me even more strongly this time around, considering that many of the places he writes about are hangouts in and around my scene. On a whim the other day, I decided to email Condry about the Werewolf project and see if he would be around Tokyo in the near future. He responded to my message promptly. As luck would have it, he is in town this very week with an MIT theater troupe. The group is performing a play that he wrote, "Live Action Anime: Madness at Mokuba." He invited me to the performance this past evening.

The show is a somewhat nonsensical modern piece woven together by Japanese pop cultural stereotypes and over-the-top costuming. The main character is a Japanese school girl and the villians are two salarywomen who attempt to brainwash children with the siezure-inducing flashing lights of a Pokemonesque video game. Various anime and Japanese character clichés are worked into the plot, with a finale battle royale between giant styrofoam robots of quite brilliant adhoc construction.
I'm not one to read into such things too much, but I think the point of the show was to create an amusing high tech satire that simultaneously celebrates and mocks stereotypes of this nation's popular culture. I was really into the performance, but I worry one would have to be privy to all the references to get it.

I stuck around for the cast and crew after-party for a few hours and met some very interesting people, many of whom knew of Condry through the academic world. I brought along my copy of Hip-Hop Japan and approached Condry later in the night for an autograph. He had had a few drinks and was noticeably buzzed with a little rose color in his cheeks. The conversation went as follows.

"Would I be a total loser if I asked you to sign my book." I said pulling out the volume and a black marker.

"I love that shit. It makes me feel important," he replied with a hint of slurred speech. He grabbed the book and marker, sat down, and opened to the first page to sign. "Jonathan, right?"

"No. Ethan," I corrected him.

He then wrote in my book "To Ethan- キープ・リアル!!P.E.A.C.E." The Japanese transliterates to keepu rearu, of course meaning keep it real.

I have to say it was very cool for me to meet someone who has made a career out of this kind of research. The Tokyo Werewolf takes a humble bow.

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