Yesterday, over drinks, somebody cornered me to ask which I prized most- movies, music or reading. A terrifying question, to be sure. I wrestled with the answer, and what it said about me.
I guess the honest truth is this: while I love reading so much, if I were banned from reading again by some literary kangaroo court, there are always other ways to be told stories. Much as I love the romance of the cinema, films will never offer quite the same mental transportation. However, if you want to warp behind someone else’s eyes for an afternoon, the cinema can give you that. And watching documentaries is a poor substitute for reading about history and science, but at least it’s something.
On the other hand, nothing could possibly replace music, not even in a desultory, dissatisfying way. There is no substitute, not least because I can’t fully explain the role of music in my life. What on earth would the world look like without music? Not just no fresh-pressed albums, live bands or Spotify, but no music festivals, no movie soundtracks, no anthems (national or otherwise), no mood music and no dancing as such. No transcendental religious chanting or heady drums of summer. Not even any novelty songs, ad jingles or football chants. Life without a soundtrack is hard to imagine. (This is why I’m bad at small talk.)
My initial introduction to Japanese music was by far my biggest disappointment in the land of the rising sun. Long before I made the leap, I’d fallen in love with Japanese art and craft, and films. I’d been fascinated by the country’s history too, and by its complex relationships with other Asian countries. And then I listened to Japanese music, and found… a homogeneous blend of peppy j-pop and syrupy synth ballads. Or so I thought.
It might come as a surprise to you that I haven’t written about music more here. Truth is, it’s taken me time to unearth music that makes my heart move, which isn’t just a cultural curiosity. Japan’s mainstream music industry is big and slick and increasingly unimaginative, but around the edges of it are ceaseless hives of creativity. I thought I’d share with you some of the honey.
Nujabes is a legend in certain circles. Making a unique, seamless swirl of jazz, hip hop and modern electronica, he brings calm in the midst of chaos. He tragically died in a car crash before his third full album was released, but he also soundtracked anime and films along the way.
Nujabes’ wayward son, Uyama Hiroto recorded a lot with the electronic emissary, but after the former’s death he set off on his own path. Uyama likes hip hop too, but his own musical world leans towards jazz space exploration, swooping through alien soundscapes made of hip hop beats and Japanese folk with his saxophone and his clarinet. It’s the sound of somebody constantly in flight.
Man oh man, I can’t express how much fun Oledickfoggy were to watch live. Invited by a friend, I’d just enjoyed watching a fairly typical, if energetic, Hiroshima punk band, and neither of us knew what was coming next. We were overwhelmed by cello-backed sea shanties and boot-stomping folk-punk ballads, moshpits and strangers hugging it out (a far rarer sight in Japan than it is in England). The albums don’t disappoint, either.
Choosing an Asakawa Maki track to share is difficult- not just because her career spanned thirty years and at least twenty albums and much of it can’t be found on Youtube, but also because she shifted style so often. Her early albums are jazzy folk albums, with sprinkings of Shinto devotional music, but as she went on she produced trad jazz, polished, funky rock (in the late seventies) and then some mind-blowingly weird experimental music. As far as I can tell, she was constantly smoking a cigarette and always at least one whiskey down. What a hero.
Okay, so this isn’t my favourite Bonobos song, but it’s perhaps the one which best epitomises the sparkly, mid-morning-acid-trip-pep-talk weirdness of the band. This album, Hyper Folk, is great- it always feels like there’s more happening than you can possibly keep track of, but it’s a pleasure to get lost in the noise.
They ought to be too slick for me, but there’s just something about Suchmos. City pop has all the hallmarks of a bullshit pseudo-genre, but there’s a certain kind of easy cool that makes life more fun. Expect disco beats and big, stupid guitar riffs, and remember to smile more.
It’s the sound of summer, right? I wouldn’t feel right not putting some Tokyo Ska Orchestra on here. Big band, big beats, big brass. Big Mood. I particularly like the call-and-response interlocking of the vocals and the brass section in the bridge of this song. I’ve got some of their older stuff too, and it’s scuzzier and even brasher if anything.
Most people know Joe Hisaishi for his beautiful, bittersweet soundtracks to Studio Ghibli movies, and deservedly so. But he also wrote the music for one of the quietest, most understated, and yet most devastating of Japanese movies, Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997). You absolutely have to see it- it’s a reflection on violence, revenge and loss, told from the perspective of a policeman turned vigilante. This is the main theme, which accompanies the long, solitary driving scene at the outset of the movie. He also wrote the soundtrack to Kikujiro (1999), a more humanistic and deeply touching offering from the same director.
Wagakki Band are the kind of band who might work for Japan’s tourist board. Mixing modern power metal with traditional Japanese instrumentation like the koto and shakuhachi, they’re a teishoku of Japanese clichés. Absurd visual kei outfits? Check. Check. Temple backdrop? Check. Parasols, fans and kagura masks? Check, check and check. Fast-tempo, breathless chorus? You got it. They’re great fun though- i’d love to see them in concert.
Some woozy, weird dark electronica to finish off with. I don’t know much about Japanese experimental music, but I get the sense this impossible mix of postmodern weirdness and easy listening accessibility appears time and time again in Japanese music. Anyway, this is Ryuichi Sakamoto.
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I’ve missed out a lot of stuff I could have included, from anime soundtracks to fey indie rock. But I’ve still still only dipped my toe into the world of Japanese music, really. If I’m still here in autumn, I’m making a mental note to go to more concerts. I also want to discover more modern folk music, and learn more about Japan’s history of avant garde musical experimentation. Y’all know I love writing about music, so I’ll return with an update when I’ve got more worth saying.
Thank you for reading, and thanks for the music, Japan.
‘Til next time,
From your correspondent in Hiroshima.