A Personal Document of How I Came to Love Japanese Music

Readers of Viewing Gum may or may not be aware that, since 2005, I have presented Tokyo Soundscape, a Japanese music podcast hosted by SOAS Radio (based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). Many episodes have been lost in the annals of history, and I usually record them in brief spurts, based on what material I have to hand and what related events and gigs are taking place in London, but I largely cover contemporary alternative pop, rock and electronic music from Japanese artists, with a few curveballs thrown in for good measure.

It all came about when the initiative was launched to have a radio station at SOAS which would have a brief FM broadcast in November/December 2005. Then titled Open Air Radio, the station transmitted music and talk shows live around London for three weeks, including 3 editions of Tokyo Soundscape. Almost six years later, I have just recorded a couple more and I thought it would be a good time to perhaps talk a little bit about how I came to be interested in Japanese music. I had developed an interest in its popular culture, largely through a Japanese friend of mine at school when I was little, and more recently cinema, particularly the likes of Ringu, Audition, Battle Royale, and Brother. However, my love of the music specifically can be traced back to Spaced: 1999.

Spaced was in many ways a ‘game-changer’ for me, in that as funny and exciting and brilliantly performed as it was, it’s kinetic camerawork and tightly-packed references and in-jokes spoke to me on a deeply personal level, especially as a teenager still giddy from seeing Evil Dead II for the first time as part of Channel 4’s Uncensored season the year before (shown avec un intro de Mark Kermode, along with Zombie Flesh Eaters). However, I only started watching when my friend Stu informed me the last episode had zombies appearing out of Resident Evil 2 and terrorising the characters. What sounded like the greatest thing ever, in a rare occurrence, did indeed turn out to be the greatest thing ever, and so I watched in awe from episode 4 (aka ‘the paintball one’) onwards.

But we’re getting a little side-tracked here. As the Spaced DVD was released, so too, in a welcome surprise, was the soundtrack. The show had matched a great visual style with a nifty song selection too which, coupled with Guy Pratt’s own superb original compositions, really contributed to the feel of the show, and helped it stand out from any comedy that had come before. Amongst the likes of Ocean’s 11 scorer David Holmes, Nightmares on Wax and Coldcut, two contributors stood out: Fantastic Plastic Machine and Cornelius. And it was only after internet research that I discovered they just so happened to be Japanese (also known as Tomoyuki Tanaka and Keigo Oyamada respectively).

As leading lights of the Shibuya-kei music scene (so-called because their offerings, a mix of French ye-ye, bossa nova and beats, became popular at the HMV in Shibuya, Tokyo’s hip fashion district), their tunes struck a chord. In particular, Cornelius’ blistering ‘Count Five or Six’ was my new favourite song, and encouraged by critical consensus, I ordered the album it came from, 1998’s Fantasma, off Amazon. Upon receipt, I listened to it from start to finish, poring over the beautifully designed and detailed inlay, with a big grin on my face. It was like a magical musical mystery tour through influences as diverse as Beck, Bach, and Boys both Beach and Beastie.

It was about this time that Jet Set Radio was released on the Sega Dreamcast. A graffiti-tagging roller-blading slice of videogame cool, Smilebit’s classic featured ground-breaking cel-shaded graphics and, more to the point, wonderful music. Guest tracks came from hip-hop posse Jurassic 5, Headhunter scorer and Metropolis Street Racer songsmith Richard Jacques, and Japanese indie rockers Guitar Vader, but the music was largely provided by Hideki Naganuma, who built upon a Shibuya-kei sensibility with a lively and vibrant soundtrack which fitted the game’s action and aesthetic perfectly. Both Spaced and Jet Set Radio became key touchstones in my blossoming love for Japanese music, which came to be solidified watching coverage of the 2002 Fuji Rock Festival on late-night Channel 4 (back when late-night Channel 4, especially its 4Later strand, was something to get excited about). Cornelius performed ‘Star Fruits Surf Rider’ and it was also my first introduction to one of my favourite bands Supercar.

However, probably the finest exponent of cool Japanese music around the time was the excellent Adam and Joe Go Tokyo! on BBC Three in the summer of 2003. Hosted by the brilliantly funny Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, …Go Tokyo! was a magazine show of sorts, charting their unsuccessful attempts to integrate into and understand Japanese culture, with informative and entertaining interviews, reports and features.  On the music side of things, there were the latest pop promos and their own attempts at chart stardom (with Gaijin Invasion), but they also closed each show with a live act, and featured some great performances from Guitar Wolf, Polysics, Hoover’s Ooover, and Plus-Tech Squeeze Box.

When I finally had the chance to visit Japan as part of my gap year trip, I put my education into practice, spending hours in HMV and Tower Records listening to the in-store headset, and picking up Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’s Cartooom! and Supercar’s Futurama. And my study year in Kyoto allowed for regular trips to rental emporium Tsutaya, second-hand CD goodness from Book-Off, and the opportunities to see the likes of Cornelius, Hoover’s Ooover, and YMO live. Yet, when I spoke to any Japanese person about the bands I liked, they would usually draw a blank, as little of the J-pop idol stuff, anime theme tunes or extravagant visual-kei malarkey that many would associate with contemporary Japanese music really appealed to me.

Though I still spend time seeking out new artists, it was this early blossoming period that still holds most sway when it comes to my taste in music, even if its kind has fallen somewhat out of favour. There are still examples out there (Kyoto’s Second Royal Records offer a raft of DJs big on playful beats and noises) but they’re harder to find. Even the artists have evolved, with Fantastic Plastic Machine following a more trad house route, while Cornelius stripping back his sound to a more minimalist, but still magical, approach. I have had to recently go back to the well somewhat by finally getting a copy of videogame sequel Jet Set Radio Future, close to 10 years since its release.

But it can all be traced back to a time when all my interests seemed to fit into place – and Spaced kicked it all off, just as Edgar Wright’s subsequent works spoke to my specific love of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (in Shaun of the Dead) and intimate knowledge of Wells town centre (in Hot Fuzz). It all seemed to culminate with Scott Pilgrim vs The World – based on a graphic novel series which I only read because it was announced post-Shaun that Wright was due to direct. And amongst all the videogame nods, crazy visuals and referential humour, what should be found on the soundtrack but an original composition by Mr. Keigo Oyamada himself, Cornelius.

 

UPDATE! 24th July 2012

I had the immense privlege and pleasure to meet and interview Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius when he was in London to perform with singer Salyu as part of their salyu x salyu project. You can listen to the interview on this episode of Tokyo Soundscape. As you can see from this post, Cornelius is one of my all-time heroes, so it was an honour to be in his company. I even got him to sign my copy of 69/96 (bought second hand from a Book Off in Tokyo), and it turned out it was also the first album drummer and salyu x salyu band member Asa-chang had performed on, so he signed it as well.

Just one thing…how come he’s wearing the same cardigan and t-shirt meeting me as he is with Edgar Wright in the picture above?

 

Having touched on a bunch of Japanese musicians in the main text, here are just three of my favourite albums in a little more detail:

Cornelius – Fantasma (1998)

Cornelius was originally a member of early Shibuya-kei duo Flipper’s Guitar before releasing his first solo album The First Question Award in 1994. 69/96 would follow, opting for a bigger, bolder and more sample-led sound, but Fantasma remains his masterwork. A glorious patchwork of influences pieced together to form a unique whole, it still manages to be a hugely entertaining and satisfying listen from start to finish.

Plus-Tech Squeeze Box – Fakevox (2000)

Tokyo duo Tomonori Hayashibe and Takeshi Wakiya’s debut release is like trying to tune a perpetually scrambling radio from the future while on a wild sugar-rush bender. Stand-out tracks ‘early RISER’ and ‘Sneaker Song!’ show their pico-pop neo-Shibuya-kei stylings at their most wild and wacky, but every track, even the mini interludes, is a delight. Since their 2004 follow-up Cartooom!, they have focused more on remixes, side-projects and production recently, but an appearance on the Spongebob Squarepants Movie soundtrack was a gleeful reminder that no-one does manic electro-pop better than them.

Supercar – Highvision (2002)

Having started out as a somewhat conventional, if still excellent, indie rock band, Supercar gradually developed a more electronic sound, with Highvision marking the high-point of their straddling of genres, venturing close to dance music territory with the likes of ‘Yumegiwa Last Boy’ (featured in quirky comedy drama Ping Pong). Even David Bowie claimed to be a fan. Though they called it a day as a group in 2005, lead Koji Nakamura has released his own material under the moniker iLL, and just this year started a new band with former bandmate Miki Furukawa as LAMA.

To listen to Tokyo Soundscape, please visit the official site at SOAS Radio, or you can subscribe on iTunes. Please also like the show on Facebook.

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