The Other Side of J-rock
While Japan was swept up in the wave of worldwide infatuation for U.K. and U.S. bands that started with the word “The,” such as The Shadows, The Ventures and The Beatles throughout the 1960s, Japanese music a decade later was still dominated by mild-mannered pop tunes and tender ballads.
However, the seeds of something young, brash and rebellious – and even downright weird had been sown. Following The Beatles’ legendary 1966 show at Tokyo’s famous Budokan, a wave of mop-topped guitar-slinging bands, known in the media as “GS” – or “Group Sounds” – had emerged. While tame by the standards of The Who or Hendrix, bands such as The Spiders, The Mops and The Tigers were like something from another planet in conservative 1960s Japan, and under the surface was even more dangerous stuff.
The coolest band in Japan in the late 1960s, if you could find them, were The Jacks. Their music was altogether darker and more poetic than their teen-pop contemporaries and they had even been banned from Japanese radio due to the lyrical content of their song “Vacant World.” Even so, they were nothing compared to the explosion of rock that followed them once the 1970s got underway.
The 1970s – Origins of the Japanese underground scene:
Most notorious are probably Hadaka no Rallizes (Les Rallizes Denudes), a group of long-haired freaks who played heavy, high octane feedback-drenched rock’n'roll, but got on the establishment’s bad side when bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi helped hijack an airliner and fly it to North Korea. Zuno Keisatsu were equally loud and similarly political (although in not quite so dramatic way). Other contemporary groups included Murahachibu, Speed, Glue & Shinki and the internationally successful Flower Travellin’ Band.
Sometimes known as “new rock,” the scene was running out of energy by the late 1970s, but its legacy remains strong in bands such as Acid Mothers Temple, and is finding a new generation of adherents in groups such as the UK-based Japanese psychedelic quartet Bo Ningen.
The 1980s – Punk and new wave:
The 1970s underground scene didn’t die out though, and many of the first wave of punk bands were remnants of the 1970s who had been inspired by the energetic new sounds of groups such as The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Friction formed in 1978 after members of the group had spent time in New York playing with bands such as DNA and The Contortions. Friction became a central point of the Japanese punk movement, organizing and appearing on the 1979 “Tokyo Rockers” compilation album that kicked off the scene.
Punk expanded rapidly in a number of directions, ranging from poppy bands such as Star Club and The Blue Hearts to harder groups such as Ging Nang Boyz and Michiro Endo’s legendarily violent band The Stalin, or the terrifying noise spectacles of Hijokaidan and Boredoms. Into the 1990s and beyond, groups such as Guitar Wolf and Melt Banana made Japanese punk notorious the world over, while at the other extreme, elements of punk became absorbed into the mainstream, with J-pop superstars Judy and Mary bringing pop-punk to the top of the charts.
New wave took punk’s sense of anything-goes and added an increased interest in synthesisers, with leading artists being the quirky Plastics, the spiky jittery synth-punk of P-Model and the more experimental Hikashu. One of the key labels at the time was Nagomu Records, home of the influential Uchoten. Nagomu became a byword for all things eclectic, anarchic and hyperactive, an image that was adopted and adapted into the fashion style of choice by the label’s legions of “Nagomu Gal” fangirls.
Established 1970s pop singers such as Miharu Koshi became fascinated by these new sounds and embraced new wave and techno-pop completely, while new stars also emerged. Chakra were a brilliant group who mixed synthesizer-based new wave music with sounds that sometimes resembled Okinawan folk songs, and Chakra’s singer Mishio Ogawa went on to have a successful career on the fringes of the mainstream. Another new wave band, Halmens, gave a kickstart to the career of Jun Togawa, who took ideas from saccharine idol music and twisted them into something fierce and deranged. Togawa went on to form the duo Guernica, whose music combined new wave synthesizers and 1930s jazz, along with controversial imagery that made awkward reference to Japan’s wartime past.
But it was another female singer, also formerly of Halmens, who helped set the stage for the big alternative movement of the 1990s.
The 1990s – Shibuya-kei:
Pizzicato Five had been making music with a limited degree of success since the mid-80s, but when the solo singer, model and ex-Halmens member Maki Nomiya joined producer Yasuharu Konishi in 1990, the group found its classic lineup. With a sound that combined electronic music, sampling, 1960s French pop and movie soundtracks, jazz, and bossa nova, Pizzicato Five were as stylish as they come and sounded like a record collecting geek’s dream come true. They formed an important part of the template for what became known as “Shibuya-kei”.
Pizzicato Five were never a true alternative group though, having spent most of their career on major labels such as Sony and CBS. Of equal, if not greater importance to Pizzicato Five was Flipper’s Guitar.
Formed in 1988, Flipper’s Guitar were influenced by 1980s British guitar and synth bands such as Aztec Camera, The Pastels and The Style Council, as well as the rich production and harmonies of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. Their later material drew on the indie-dance fusion of the late-1980s Manchester scene that produced bands such as The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, as well as early 1990s acid jazz. They group split up in 1991, with one half of the group, Kenji Ozawa, becoming a more conventional solo star, and the other half, Keigo Oyamada, adopting the pseudonym Cornelius and embarking on a more experimental and electronic direction.
“Shibuya-kei” took its name from the then-fashionable Shibuya district of Tokyo, where staff at the record stores HMV and Tower Records started picking up and promoting the music that sprung up in Pizzicato Five and Flippers Guitar’s wake.
Many of the bands were centered around Oyamada’s Trattoria Records label, with singers such as (Oyamada’s future wife) Takako Minekawa, Kahimi Karie and Hideki Kaji all classic Shibuya-kei artists, producing sweet, whimsical, sophisticated pop music. Konishi’s Readymade label was also influential, releasing music by the Pizzicato Five-esque Fantastic Plastic Machine, now known as FPM. Later on, new artists and labels began to spring up, with Escalator Records giving us the quirky Yukari Fresh. Producer Yasutaka Nakata also emerged out of the tail end of Shibuya-kei with the electronic pop duo capsule, before going on to become one of the most important producers of his generation with pop idols such as Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
However, while Shibuya-kei is usually characterized as a mix of French pop, British guitar pop, dance music, jazz and bossa nova, there was much more besides. Buffalo Daughter expanded their sound into a fusion of electronic and heavy psychedelic music, while Trattoria labelmates Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her were a stripped-down, dirty garage punk band.
The 2000s – Alt-rock:
As Shibuya-kei faded in the late 1990s, a new generation of bands, influenced by U.S. alternative rock bands such as Nirvana, The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., as well as U.K. shoegaze, indie-dance and Britpop bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream and Oasis, began to emerge into the limelight. The driving force behind this generation came from outside Tokyo, with bands from all over Japan converging on the capital with a harder-edged, more rock-oriented sound.
From Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto came Quruli, starting out as a fierce, aggressive punk band, they explored electronic music on their 2002 masterpiece “The World is Mine” before settling down as classic rock elder statesmen. From the far north in Aomori prefecture came Supercar, who mixed walls of feedback with electronic experimentation and sweetly melodic boy-girl vocals. Then from Fukuoka prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu came the raw, intense and fierce Number Girl, whose vocalist Shutoku Mukai became the voice of a generation to thousands of young punks.
Also from Fukuoka, a young singer by the name of Shiina Ringo appeared, with a rough-edged, emotional style, showing that women in Japanese rock didn’t need to be confined to the roles of idols or sophisticated chanteuses.
The late 1990s and early 2000s also saw a scene emerge out of Tokyo and Chiba heavily influenced by new wave and the Nagomu label. Most notable were Polysics, who borrowed heavily from the Plastics and P-Model, as well as Western bands such as Devo and XTC.
After Number Girl split up in 2002, Mukai formed the more experimental but no less successful Zazen Boys, while Shiina Ringo formed the jazz-influenced Tokyo Jihen. The real influence of this generation, however, came in the hundreds of new bands that they inspired and who sprung up in their wake.
The 2010s – All of the above and more besides:
The indie and alternative music scene in Japan nowadays is almost unimaginably diverse. At the more successful end of the spectrum, groups such as Sakanaction demonstrate a clear influence from Supercar and Quruli in their mixture of indie rock and dance music, while The Telephones have all that and throw in some new wave for good measure.
The successors to Shibuya-kei can still be found in live houses around Tokyo and beyond. Trattoria may have taken last orders in 2002, but Tokyo label Niw! Records channels some of its eclectic spirit, from the whimsical pop of Kushibiki and the 1980s style guitar pop of The Keys to the more alt-rock influenced Cubismo Grafico Five and the New York style punk of Miila and the Geeks. Kyoto imprint Second Royal maintains a similarly eclectic roster, including electronic artists such as Halfby and Handsomeboy Technique and more indie-oriented bands such as Hotel Mexico and New House. Meanwhile, true to the spirit of the first Shibuya-kei generation, artists such as Hazel Nuts Chocolate (now known as HNC) who started out influenced by the likes of Pizzicato Five and others continue to develop and hop from style to style in search of new sounds.
New wave and techno-pop are still around, often mixed up with elements of Shibuya-kei, and while groups such as ”chiptune” (music using sounds from old 8-bit video games) unit YMCK have gone onto a degree of major label success, others have linked up with the stranger, more underground fringes of the Akihabara otaku and idol scenes.
As for the punk and underground scenes, they never really went away, and bands too numerous to mention can be found in hundreds of venues, big and not-so-big, across Japan – playing fast, heavy or just downright freaky music at earsplitting volumes to crowds of furiously moshing fans. Now you know your J-rock, so ROCK ON.