A divide runs through the music business in Japan. It’s most obviously apparent in record stores where locally produced “J-Pop” and overseas music are strictly separated, often to the point of being placed on different floors, but it also exists in the live music arena, where overseas touring bands rarely get the chance to interact with the local music scene and the fan bases of domestic and foreign bands tend to differ accordingly.
One place where you do get to see bands from abroad rubbing up alongside their Japanese contemporaries is at big music festivals like Fuji Rock, held this year on July 26–28 at the Naeba ski resort in Niigata Prefecture. With a dozen stages featuring musicians from Saitama to Ethiopia, there is a broad range of backgrounds and genres on display. More than that, a gathering like Fuji Rock provides an opportunity to see Japanese rock music outside of its cocoon.
A Liberating Mix of Musical Styles
There’s a clear difference in the mixture of reverence and curiosity with which the audience responds to exotic visitors, like British shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, compared with the uncomplicated way they consume locally produced comfort food like Ibaraki post-hardcore punks Brahman. But the most interesting acts are often the ones that blur the international boundaries.
Bo Ningen are a bunch of long-haired Japanese hippy freaks, playing a species of heavy psychedelic music that draws on a tradition that runs from 1970s underground bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés through to the contemporary likes of Acid Mothers Temple. The band formed out of London’s Japanese expat scene and would likely never have even heard of a lot of the artists whose tradition they have mined if it weren’t for the interest sparked by the 2007 book Japrocksampler by British rock weirdo Julian Cope. The result is music that combines the technical virtuosity of the Japanese underground scene with the swagger and instinctive sense of its own innate rock stardom that characterizes so much UK music.
In a very different vein, Maeno Kenta & Soaplanders take songs born from the Japanese yojōhan singer-songwriter style of the 1970s—named for the humble “four-and-a-half tatami mat” room where a young couple might live together—and then, with a band of virtuoso musicians including pianist Ishibashi Eiko and American experimental musician (and former Sonic Youth member) Jim O’Rourke, bends and twists the songs in a variety of styles, from power ballad to disco-funk.
International Interplay on Stage
There’s a sense that Fuji Rock is really all about the foreign bands though, with Ego-Wrappin’ and the Gossip of Jaxx the only Japanese act to merit a headlining slot on any of the big stages. While musicians from Russell Mael of Sparks and Jehnny Beth of Savages to Speedo of Rocket From the Crypt gamely engaged with their audience in Japanese, punk rockers Ircle, who played on the new/amateur bands’ Rookie A Go-Go stage on Friday night, leveled a (non-malicious) jibe at all the big overseas headliners, announcing to the small crowd that they don’t speak English and declaring proudly that they were playing real Japanese rock music.
On Saturday morning, Natsuki Mari also made a point of remarking on her lack of English skills, although in her case, it was more by way of an explanation for why the Janis Joplin covers she obviously loves so much were being delivered in Japanese translated versions. In fact, her two sets (a morning performance at the Orange Court and a raucous, semi-drunk evening show at the intimate Naeba Shokudō stage) formed another moment of fascinating international musical crossover, with the Japanese lyrics frequently overrunning the constraints of the music, drifting in and out of the rhythm. Natsuki’s insistence on making sure her songs were relatable and easily graspable by her audience forces you to consider the passionate intensity and raw sexuality of her performance in a Japanese context, not as something alien and imported. At 61 years of age, time seems to have only intensified her fire, and judging from the admiring screams from the girls in the crowd, traditional media-approved images of Japanese femininity have a clear blind spot, to say the least.
In the end, the Japanese artists that seemed to shine in the international context of Fuji Rock were neither the ones that mimicked Western styles nor those most closely molded to the J-Pop industry standard, but the ones who offered up something distinctive and authentic all of their own, regardless of style or genre. It’s just a shame that the music calendar only gives us one weekend a year to experience it.
(Originally written in English on August 10, 2013)