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PERFUME Live in LA

Photo my own.

Those who know me know that I pretty much never go to concerts – which is to say, standing up in a pulsing, shouting, crowd; loud; lasers and lights and smoke machines sorts of concerts. I /do/ go, fairly often, to sit-down concerts of so-called “world music,” and things in that vein; in the last couple years, I’ve seen Kealiʻi Reichel, Jake Shimabukuro, the Silk Road Ensemble (twice), Kodō, and the Vienna Philharmonic, among others. And, when I’m in Okinawa, I go to “live houses,” aka “shimauta bars” – touristy though they may be, still, it’s live Okinawan music, and it’s really fun. But, on the rare occasions that I’ve been to the other kind of concerts, I’ve generally found them to be just too loud, for one, and just somehow or other just not my thing.

But, I am *so* glad that my friends Yumiko and Carl suggested that we go see Perfume, live in concert, in Los Angeles. They were at the Wiltern Theater, and the show was just an absolute blast. In its aftermath, three days later, I still have the music and the visuals, and just a remnant feeling of the whole experience, still running around inside of me. I’m watching videos and listening to the group’s latest album – Cosmic Explorer – on YouTube, and as soon as I get to Japan in a couple weeks I am going to seek out a real physical copy. Now, for perhaps the first time, I really understand why people go to live shows, why they get so hyped up about them, why they enjoy them so much – and, why they follow bands, and albums, and why they get so hyped up about buying the merch. I made the mistake of not getting to know the album better before I went, and so unfortunately I only got really revved up during the two songs I knew (from earlier albums). In that moment, I understood why everyone else was already so revved up, throughout the show – knowing the songs better than I did, they were feeling that feeling I only felt during those two portions.

Photo my own.

I do wish I had known we were allowed to take photos. I’ve been to so many performances where they were not allowed, and so I just assumed they weren’t. If I’d known, I would have captured so many more moments – especially during the final song – the encore piece – which had just the most beautiful stage set + screens + costume design/aesthetic. But, so it goes. My huge thanks to those who took video and posted it up on YouTube, allowing me to share bits of the concert here.

I knew and loved Perfume already, from some years ago. Their songs “Polyrhythm,” “Baby Cruising Love,” “Chocolate Disco,” “Secret Secret,” “Nee,” and so forth are all just wonderfully energetic and catchy, and fill me with happiness. I also loved the robotic aesthetic to their dance style (and other aspects of their electronic sound, techno-electronic music videos, etc.), and the juxtaposition of that with cute, feminine, aspects of their hair, dresses, high-heel pumps, and so forth. Creative, unique, just wonderful. Not your typical J-pop, and certainly not your typical mainstream American fare.

A video of Perfume’s performance of “Story” at SXSW, 2015. Apparently, videos of last week’s LA concert are already getting taken down. :(

And all of that was well on show in this live concert. The live performance of “Story” (and the music video all the more so) was just pure techno wonderfulness. Perfume’s costume aesthetic, and robot-like dance moves were front and center. Indeed, they entered to a techno-style video, wearing Tron-like light-up outfits, and it just went on from there. I truly do love that aesthetic – it’s what makes Perfume Perfume, and actually just in the last couple days, watching some of their music videos from a few years ago, and comparing them to the concert, I really began to get a sense of how their style has evolved, matured, whatever we want to call it – and, yet, these fundamental attributes, that make them so distinctive, and so compelling, haven’t gone anywhere.

Ugh. The live version of this one has been taken down, too. Glad I saved/DLed it before that happened. Thanks once again to those who uploaded these videos!

But, in addition to that, on top of that, thinking about the concert, and also the more I listen to songs from the new album, what’s also really wonderful is just how varied it is. Perfume is by no means a one-trick pony, or a one-hit wonder. Within the bounds of that aesthetic (and sometimes venturing outside of it), they really do such wonderfully different stuff.Story” is the ultimate in the electronic, digitized, sort of aesthetic – indeed, it’s mostly techno sounds, bordering at times on machine noise, even, with tons of graphics, and a minimum, actually, of vocals or dancing. This, in contrast to “Cling Cling,” “Miracle Worker,” “Next Stage with YOU,” and a number of the other songs, which feature brightly colored dresses, and really focus on the girls, their voicemodded singing, and robot-inspired dancing.

Perfume – Baby Face (English Ver.) – Live in San Francisco

Perfume – Baby Face (English Ver.) – Live in San Francisco

Can’t seem to figure out how to embed this properly. Sorry.

I don’t know if this is weird, but, as much as I do love many of the songs overall, as whole pieces – the chorus, the melody, the overall thing that is each song – for whatever reason, I’ve gotten particular hooked on the brief instrumental sections. In “Baby Face,” this section features the wonderful sound of the clicks of some sort of wooden instrument – what I’ve been told is a synthesized sound of a pentatonic wood box. As much as I love the full and complex sounds of many of the other songs, I also love the simple, small, ton-ta-ton-ta-ton sound of this wooden box, and the cute hand-rolling to each side dance move that Perfume led us in. In “Star Train,” this is the whoa-oh, whoa whoa oh oh oh. And many of the other songs have something like it too – in “Cosmic Explorer,” they even sing it at the end, switching out of the fuller sound of the synthesized sounds, to the softer, “acoustic” sound of the girls singing it themselves.

I can’t even tell you how much fun I had at this concert. The ladies roused up the crowd, inviting us to sing and dance with them, and talking with us. They asked who had handmade Perfume “costumes” or “cosplay,” and seemed really genuinely impressed and enjoying seeing such passion in the fans. The three of them all demonstrated really good English, but they also selected someone from the crowd to even interpret for them, which must have been such a blast for her, even if it was nerve-wracking. (There was a great video of this, but that’s also been taken down.) I also especially liked the super-cute “Jenny ha gokigen naname,” a song from, apparently, way back in 1980, from a band called Juicy Fruits (I think I like the Perfume version much better. O_o) – which, as you can see in the video above, Perfume sings at their live shows as an opportunity for the crowd to get really involved and riled up, shouting the name of each girl as they come up.

Screenshot from a fan video of the concert, as Perfume performed “Star Train” as their final encore. Much thanks to whoever uploaded this, for helping capture this moment, and this incredible stage set. Glad I got the video, and the screenshot, before they were taken down by YouTube.

Finally, the whole experience came to its inevitable end. “Star Train,” which was the perfect piece to end on – a soft, kimochi wo komete (filled with feeling), nostalgic sort of song, which just really sort of touched me, leaving me (perhaps all of us) on a note of release, of relaxing and just enjoying the music, and then saying goodbye at the end of a intense fun time. Putting aside the pattern dancing, the girls sat on the steps of the stage set, or stood with mic-stands, in bright aqua dresses – the only bright color to be seen, providing a sort of shot of highlight, under an array of small lights hung from the ceiling to create the impression of a starry night sky. Video projected onto the back screen provided an English translation of the lyrics in a typewriter-style sort of font that lent, I don’t know what to call it, a certain aesthetic.

I think I understand now why people love concerts so much, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing out on. Looking forward to seeing what concerts I might be able to attend in Japan this coming year.

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I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

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It’s always nice to feel a bit still connected to goings-on at Japan Society in New York. Sadly, I won’t be in town to see most of this, but I thought I might share briefly about some stuff going on over there.

FILM:
First, an upcoming film series they’re doing. Entitled The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema, the series includes one film a month, from October to February, all chosen by “maverick avant-garde composer, musician and arranger John Zorn,” and representing a wide variety of genres and styles. None have been shown at Japan Society before, and so far as I am aware (but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about film) none are the typical standard ones you’re likely to have seen before.

Here’s the line-up, very briefly:

*Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (荒野のダッチワイフ)(Saturday, October 18, 7 PM) – a 1967 film directed by Yamatoya Atsushi, described as “about a hitman (Yuichi Minato) who is hired by a rich real estate agent to find an abducted woman (Noriko Tatsumi). This simple setup gives way to a hip and chaotic worldview full of hard-boiled characters, sexy action, and hallucinatory imagery.”

*Crossroads (十字路)(Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM) – a 1928 silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), and accompanied live on shamisen by experimental musician Yumiko Tanaka. I don’t know much about the film, or the director beyond having seen his film “Page of Madness” (狂った一頁), but, live shamisen? You can’t beat that.

*Top Stripper (丸本噂のストリッパー)(Thursday, December 11, 7 PM), a 1982 pink film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, who we are told “was one of the handful of young, radical directors who were given the opportunity to explore the visual medium via the constraints of the pink genre.”

*Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People)(Friday, January 23, 7 PM), by none other than Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla. Mushroom People. What more do we need to say?

*Finally, the first-ever official showing in the US of Ôshima Nagisa’s 1964 film It’s Me Here, Bellett (私のベレット), preceded by eight experimental shorts by the godfather of anime, Tezuka Osamu. Friday, February 20, 7 PM.

Here’s a blog post from Lucky Girl Media about the series that may fill you in further.

PERFORMING ARTS:
The film series – specifically the Nov 15 showing of Jûjiro – also intersects with a running theme of this year’s Performing Arts season schedule, “Shamisen Sessions,” a whole bunch of events I wish I could be there for, beginning with the rightfully sold out Sept 27 concert by Agatsuma Hiromitsu – easily one of the most famous Tsugaru players active today, after the Yoshida Brothers – and pop/jazz singer Yano Akiko, who has recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra in the past.

The Society’s performing arts programs are always great, but I think it is somewhat rare to have this many traditional (or traditional-related, given the experimental and exciting things some of these performers are doing with shamisen) events in one season. I don’t play shamisen myself, though I’d like to try/learn someday, and just listening is always wonderful. I would love, too, to hear any of these performers talk about their thoughts on tradition, on continuing/maintaining and experimenting with traditional instruments and songs, and on the place of traditional non-Western instruments in modern/contemporary music.

The season also includes shamisen performances, workshops on shamisen, Nihon Buyo, and Noh, and a concert with Okinawan sanshin player Yukito Ara (*dies*). In addition to the “Shamisen Sessions,” another series or theme this year is “Stories from the War,” which includes a series of performances of Noh plays new and old in May, and in January a performance written and directed by huge-big-name contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. I don’t see anything on the website indicating whether Yanagi-san will be there for a Q&A or anything, but, wow it would really be something to meet her.

GALLERY:

Of course, god forbid any of these performances should be shown during Christmas break, when many people, like myself, come home to New York and would love to get to see such things, but, at least the gallery will be open, and this fall/winter’s show, Garden of Unearthly Delights, which just opened earlier this week, and shows until January 11, looks to be an incredible one.

It features Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi, two of the artists from the Bye Bye Kitty exhibition a few years ago, plus teamlab, with whom I’m not so familiar, and continues, as I suppose I should have expected gallery director Miwako Tezuka would, in the wonderful exciting trend of Japan Society introducing New York, and the United States, to brilliant, creative, inspiring Japanese contemporary artists who are not Murakami Takashi or Yayoi Kusama, and who draw upon traditional imagery, motifs, and styles, to create some really incredible, vibrant, new and very 21st century work. This isn’t the 1960s anymore, and MoMa can keep its ostrich head in the sands of the past, but Japan Society is pressing forward with some of the newest works by some artists who are really pushing the boundaries and doing wonderful exciting stuff.

The show includes Tenmyouya’s first ever installation piece, based on or inspired by Zen rock gardens, as well as some animated pieces by teamlab clearly based on the work of Itô Jakuchû. While I don’t like the idea of saying “if Jakuchû were alive today, he’d be this (or that) sort of artist, and he’d make this or that sort of thing,” there really is something about these animated pieces – at least what I’ve seen of them so far in promos for the exhibit – that strikes me as falling within a continuity of his work, as not being opposed to it or a break from it. It’s bird-and-flower painting for the 21st century, not a break with the past but a continuation of it, a continuation of engaging in the same themes, the same aesthetics, and just bringing it up to the present (or the future). Ikeda and Tenmyouya’s work, meanwhile, remix past and present, erasing the borders between the two, and helping us imagine the past as being perhaps not so unlike our own time, and vice versa.

I really cannot wait to see this show. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prepare by watching some interviews with the artists.

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From the vibrant, colorful, and growing world of K-pop, back to Mali.

Not content to destroy ancient sacred sites and precious artifacts of Islam’s great intellectual past, the Islamist extremist rebels in Mali also banned music. Not just some music – not just music with certain political or moral messages – but all music.

As the New York Times reports today, in a short Op-Ed piece:

It has been almost nine months since Islamic militants in northern Mali announced that they were effectively banning all music. It’s hard to imagine, in a country that produced such internationally renowned music as Ali Farka Touré’s blues, Rokia Traoré’s soulful vocals and the Afro-pop traditions of Salif Keita.

The article goes on to explain the importance of music in Mali as a source of information, in largely illiterate communities, as a storehouse of oral traditions & histories, and as a key part of social traditions.

I have no words for the disgust, rage, and sadness I feel at learning about this additional dimension of the rebels’ thorough efforts to destroy Culture.

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Why PSY?

This is kind of old news; the Gangnam Style craze was months ago. But Shift East has just become the latest of a handful of blogs or websites to comment on the question of why Gangnam Style never caught on in Japan.

I tried to leave a comment on the page, but, like always, my comment was mistakenly auto-rejected as spam, and since Shift East has no contact form or email address, I’m instead posting my thoughts here.

In the full post, which is loaded with nice pictures, and which I encourage you to take a look at, Shift East writer Thomas Glucksmann-Smith provides a great explanation of the concept of “soft power,” how PSY and Gangnam Style fit into it, and why the two became so popular in the West (or at least in the US) so quickly and so powerfully.

He then goes on to say

PSY’s limited impact in Japan reflects the lack of Korean soft power spread through these music videos. For one thing most Japanese regarded the videos as stupid rather than funny and so were less inclined to share it with their friends, the fact that PSY was a relative no-body before the video went viral meant Japanese would not be interested and finally there are enough slap-stick, satirical comedians in Japan everyday on TV for Japanese people to care than much about PSY.

So the fact that PSY was Korean, probably had nothing to do with the limited reception in Japan.

What is meant by this last sentence? Is Glucksmann-Smith referring to the potential belief that PSY’s lack of popularity in Japan has something to do with regional tensions, with political or ethnic anti-Korean attitudes? If that’s what he means, I agree completely. I’m no expert in the contemporary regional tensions and ethnic sentiments, but I definitely get the impression that Korean pop culture remains very popular in Japan, and that political tensions, therefore, have nothing to do with it.

By contrast, I think it is precisely because K-Pop is already so popular, and so mainstream, in Japan, that PSY and Gangnam Style did not see the kind of overnight, viral popularity that it did here in the US. PSY’s appeal in the US, I think, stems chiefly from how different he and his music video are from what we are used to. They’re perceived as crazy, wacky, exotic, weird, silly… and yet, for the Japanese, this sort of thing is totally mainstream. Everything in this video that we take to be hilariously, wonderfully, wacky and strange, they see as perfectly typical of the music & music videos they’re used to (i.e. K-pop and J-pop music videos).

The real question, for me, is why did only PSY get so virally popular in the West, in a mainstream way, when everyone from SMAP and AKB48 to Girls’ Generation and Big Bang are making music and videos with very similar aesthetics, similar wackiness and exoticness (to the Western eye)?


My best guess is that, in part at least, it may have something to do with gender. Groups like Big Bang, and indeed a lot of “boy bands” in Japan and Korea, can be quite androgynous in their aesthetic, focusing on pretty boys and even crossdressing, a particular aesthetic of soft, gentle male beauty and an association with fashion that we might here in the US call “metrosexual.” Mainstream US society can still be quite conservative when it comes to gender performance, and this is a sort of masculinity that, I’d wager, not only doesn’t appeal, but is outright rejected by the American mainstream drive to constantly prove one’s macho manliness. The stigma of being a pussy, a nancy-boy, a sissy, or “gay” remains too strong in the US for the door to be open for these alternative masculinities.* In short, PSY fits our American definitions of masculinity better than, for example, G-Dragon (right), and is therefore more acceptable, more palatable, to mainstream America.**

This gendered interpretation, I think, not only explains why PSY was able to catch on in America where so many other Korean and Japanese acts did not (not in nearly as big, widespread, viral, mainstream a way), but I think it’s also a big part of why PSY was not so popular in Japan, where K-pop is so widely popular. As a post on Kotaku.com explains, quoting precisely the same source as a RocketNews24 post,

the reason K-Pop became so popular in Japan in the first place is because Korean artists are known for being beautiful, so PSY looked completely out of place on screen. Even if he debuted in Japan, I don’t think he would have sold very much.”

The stereotype in Japan is that Korean stars are extremely attractive. The men are handsome and kind. There was even a stereotype, based on Korean soap operas, that Korean men were nicer than Japanese men.

What do you think? Why has PSY achieved such viral popularity in the US, while so many other Korean and Japanese pop stars have not?

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*Though, to be clear, I don’t think that Korean or Japanese society are necessarily more open/liberal with these things. I believe, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that in South Korea and Japan today, being gay is still generally not very widely accepted; there is still a strong expectation that these performers, like all men in society, will adhere to Korean/Japanese notions of masculine gender roles in their personal relationships, and otherwise in their everyday lives off-camera. Much like how Takarazuka stars retire to become stereotypical Japanese housewives rather than living the rest of their lives as gender-bending societal rebels, here too, as in many realms, there is an expectation that performance is just performance, and that real-life should adhere to societal norms. Here in the US, we do not have as much of a separation, allowing for us to see performance as just performance – allowing people, in other words, to dress and look and behave however they wish onstage, including crossdressing or genderbending acts, without the public assuming that performer to be a genderbender in everyday life as well, and thus attracting whatever stigmas are associated with it.

**Though, the more I look at different K-pop stars, including G-Dragon, the more I get the sense that even with the pink hair and soft features, Korean singers are still, often, performing a more macho, street, tough masculinity than is typical among Japanese performers. We’ll be discussing gender & K-pop in one of my seminars in a couple weeks, so maybe I’ll be able to come back to this subject with more to say, or with deeper/better insights and understandings.

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I felt terribly underdressed in my t-shirt and jeans as Jero took the stage looking so slick in a royal blue matching suit – jacket, slacks, and vest – with matching blue baseball cap, a diamond-shaped pendant on a silver chain around his neck adding that dash of hip-hop flair, and white sneakers as spotless and shiny as if they were perfectly brand new. The balance between formal and hip could not be more perfect. How I wish I had a suit like that. Sometimes, often, what looks great on stage doesn’t really translate to everyday life. But this, somehow, this I think could work. And with enough self-confidence, I think I could pull it off properly.

Boy does Jero have style.

The night began, surprisingly, not with the performance, but with the interview portion of the program, as Jero sat down with John Wheeler, former executive vice president of Japan Society and Japan scholar in his own right. Wheeler played the role of James Lipton, asking Jero about his Japanese grandmother and half-Japanese mother and their influence upon him as a performer, as well as about difficulties he faces as a young, black, American, trying to make it in a musical genre that, some might say, is all about expressing a distinctively Japanese soul. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him say that he has been welcomed with open arms by the enka community.

Not that I truly pictured any of the performers, or fans, as cold or xenophobic types, particularly nationalistic, and arguing that only a Japanese could possibly understand enka. But, I guess the truly surprising and interesting part about this is that Jero says he often feels he is treated as if he were Japanese – because he is 1/4 Japanese, because he speaks Japanese, and perhaps most of all because he sings enka, people treat him as though he grew up in Japan and can be trusted to think the same way as they do. Thus, conversely to what we might expect (and what we foreigners experience on a daily basis), Jero says that he actually runs into the problem of people being shocked or confused when he makes some kind of linguistic or cultural mistake. Because they think of him as Japanese, as operating on the same assumptions and fundamental cultural understandings as someone born and raised in Japan.

Interesting.

I was struck by his skills of being onstage. After the interview, in between songs, he spoke briefly to the audience. That there was a tiny bit of awkwardness to all of this because it was in English was palpable. Jero is, of course, a native speaker of English, and as American, born and raised, as most people in the room, but still, it was clear that this was something he had much more experience doing in Japanese, and in fact that many of us (or myself at least) sort of felt should have been in Japanese – doing it in English, though understandably necessary, broke with the Japanese experience mindset we had entered into with the songs. Just like good theatre can carry you into its world, and make you forget your consciousness of being an audience member in a seat in a theatre, so here too the songs carried us into a world of enka, a setting where we expect Japanese greetings and commentary in between songs.

In any case, that aside (and of course we got used to it after the first moment or two), I thought it interesting how he has learned to do this sort of thing. To know what to say to an audience in between songs, to interact with an audience in this way. Just because you’re a good singer, just because you have a good voice, doesn’t mean you’re a good performer, and just because you’re a good performer doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at this particular thing, this “hello, how is everyone doing? I’m so glad to be here tonight. Thank you for coming. This next song is really special to me because …” thing. There were moments when I felt like he was a young man still starting out, still learning to do this sort of thing, and not “struggling” per se, not at all, but experimenting, just playing it by ear and hoping it goes well. But, then, there were other times when he really seemed, if not the seasoned veteran, certainly the professional, who has done this numerous times and knows what he’s doing and is perfectly comfortable on stage. Jero had his big break in 2008, and as recent as that seems in my mind, it’s been a whole four years since then. He’s had three or four singles, and at least five cover albums. Plenty of opportunities to practice speaking in public, beyond just being a good singer.

Jero’s debut single, Umiyuki:

I feel bad to share such an old & standard video. I love Umiyuki, but there are so many other songs… The suit he wears in this video is particularly, well, something.

The songs he sang the other night were incredible. Some, songs written for him, debuted by him, such as Umiyuki (one of my personal favorites), and his newest single, Yoake no kaze; others, old enka standards. But while I didn’t really get much out of listening to him do these covers when I listened to them on mp3, or on YouTube, the first time around, now that I have seen him perform them in concert, somehow it was quite different, and I feel a rejuvenated interest in buying his cover albums and listening, whether it’s new songs or old standards. Enka can be a difficult genre to get into, or rather, a difficult one to stay with, once the novelty fades. The first few times you hear enka, the emotionality can be quite powerful, or impressive, touching, or interesting. But soon it all starts to sound the same. I find that for me it comes in waves. I really enjoy enka best when I haven’t heard too much of it in a while. It’s like Coca-Cola that way.

Jero mentioned a new music video in which he transforms into a samurai. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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I’ve featured a few of my favorite songs or videos on here a few times before, but here’s some more I’d like to share. I don’t know if there’s a word for this sub-genre, or if it even is technically a sub-genre (any ethnomusicologists out there?), but I love the use of traditional instruments, sampling of traditional songs, to create very (post-?)modern, current music with the flavor of East Asian tradition.

I’m sure plenty could be written, and has been written, about the socio-cultural discursive impact of a neo-traditional revival movement, and performativity of identity. But, I’d rather not deal with that today. Just some of my favorite bands/artists who you might not learn of or come across otherwise. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


Guitar – Naoki

Guitar (ギター), also known as Michael Luckner, is a German music artist based in Germany. I love the koto(?) trills and such in this song. It’s easily my favorite of what I’ve heard of his, but there’s tons more that’s also quite good.


Shanghai Restoration Project – The Bund (instrumental)

The Shanghai Restoration Project is group headed by Chinese-American Dave Liang. Their music, as you can hear, is very modern, using elements of electronica (I guess?, or something along those lines?), but their use of traditional Chinese instruments, and especially their song titles – which include “Bund”, “Nanking Road”, and “MCMXXXVII” – definitely help evoke the idea/aesthetic of 1920s-1930s Shanghai as romanticized in fiction, film, etc. . Personally, I much prefer the instrumental versions of their songs, and am glad for the availability of these, as the vocals are often in English, and too hip-hop or otherwise non-traditional/non-Chinese for my taste. But, anyway, what I like of their stuff, I really like.


Rin’ – Jikuu


Rin’ – Murasaki no yukari, futatabi

RIN’, a trio of young women who graduated Geidai (Tokyo National University of the Arts) together, were only active from 2003 until 2009, when they broke up, but in the intervening time, they put out some really great stuff. Their music employs mainly koto, shakuhachi, and biwa, and includes an album inspired by the Tale of Genji, as well as one entitled “Inland Sea,” in which they collaborated with American vocalists (e.g. Lisa Loeb), producing something that was, I thought, the perfect blend of American mainstream and traditional Japanese – plenty accessible, yet with just enough of a twist to be interesting, novel, new, intriguing, and maybe enough to get American mainstream listeners to try out Japanese music.

I like the first song much better, but the second provides a visual example of the aesthetic of their videos, and indicating, I think, that they’re not about exploiting tradition for the benefit of modern music, but rather quite the opposite. The feeling I get from this video is one of trying to make the traditional more hip, more accessible, and trying to drum up interest in the traditional, showing how dynamic a shamisen can be, how rocking a Noh stage can be, and how cool kimono can be.


HIFANA – Uchi-nan-champloo

HIFANA is a Tokyo-based group mixing very Okinawan sounds with hip-hop/reggae and electronica flavors. This is easily one of my favorite tracks from all the artists I’ve heard who make use of Okinawan folk music sounds. The video for their song WAMONO is pretty awesome too.


Ryukyu Underground – Umaku Kamade

Ryukyu Underground is the duo Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor, from the UK and US respectively, who met in Okinawa, and DJed there for a time, mixing samples of Okinawan folk music with electronica and such. Gaining popularity, they were later able to collaborate directly with prominent Okinawan folk singers to produce original tracks. Many of their tracks are simply named after traditional folk songs that they remix – Tingsagu nu Hana Dub is one of my favorites. Other tracks have more general new age / electronica sort of titles, like “East is East” and “The Spaces Between.” But, then, too, a few, such as “Koza Riot” make it clear that they are familiar with, and are addressing, the complex and dark history of US involvement in Okinawa.


Yoshida Brothers – Modern


Monkey Majik feat. Yoshida Brothers – Change

Finally, we have Yoshida Brothers, who are surely the top, leading, most famous non-traditional shamisen players in Japan. What sets them apart from all these others is that (so far as I know) they don’t use electronica remixing or anything of the sort, but really rely chiefly on the shamisen itself. Their music is so energetic… it really highlights the energy and potential of traditional Japanese music – that there’s no need to think of it as dusty, old, or boring.

Monkey Majik is a pair of brothers from Canada, based now in Sendai, whose music, for the most part, is indistinguishable from that of a mainstream Canadian alternative rock band with no connections to Japan at all. That is to say, they do use some Japanese in their lyrics and song titles, making it pretty clear; but their sound is nothing remarkable to me. Except for this album on which they collaborated with Yoshida Brothers, and created some really incredible, catchy, wonderful stuff. … In any case, like their sound or not, I love their story – the fact that two brothers in Japan teaching English, just regular 20-something white guys, could become this popular and successful, rather than getting stuck still teaching English, or having to move back home, is pretty damn cool.

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So, that’s it. A quick romp through a few of my favorite bands/artists reviving (hopefully?) interest in traditional Japanese (or Chinese or Okinawan) sounds. I hope you like some of them; and if you have others you like, please leave a comment, and share it with us.

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2012 bring health and happiness, and hopefully some adventure (of the good kind) as well.

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