Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sukiyaki and Chips: The Japanese Sounds of Music

1995. Took a note to have some period reference to where the West was at. The top five hits of 1995, according to the Billboard Top 100, were: 5. “On Bended Knee” Boyz II Men, 4. “Kiss from a Rose” Seal, 3. “Creep” TLC, 2. “Waterfalls” TLC (was a good year for them, obviously) and 1. “Gangsta’s Paradise” Coolio. When it comes to albums, same source, we had: 5. “CrazySexyCool” TLC, 4. “Hell Freezes Over” The Eagles (Really?! C’mon people! A 70s band?! Whatever…), 3. “II” Boyz II Men, 2. “The Hits” Garth Brooks and 1. “Cracked Rear View” Hootie & The Blowfish. If memory serves at all, I was somewhere in the territory of Pearl Jam, Silverchair, Alanis Morissette, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Nirvana, Green Day, Oasis, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Björk, Nick Cave … you get the idea.*

Now that I set the scene for the ‘back in the days as I think it was’, you will understand why my eyebrows arched 1:32 minutes into “Sukiyaki and Chips”. Harajuku Park, Tokyo: Japanese rockers looking a bit à la Danny Zuko, with added variations on that style, dancing away in what seemed like freeform Twist to rock’n’roll. But it started to make sense when the girl said, “This is the best place in Japan for me. I can forget all about what I’m supposed to do or be and just loose myself in the rock’n’roll.” I stood corrected. Who was I to scoff at this?! Wasn’t this what it’s all about?!  The “this” and “it” being music and freedom that comes with music, or vice versa – take your pick regarding the order. Hell, take your pick whichever way! I had to put my ethnomusicologist / sociologist / anthropologist / cultural studies /journalist / keen-observer / for-once-open-minded-individual, or whatever it should’ve been, hat on for this documentary.

Next was the phenomenon of Lollipops – short term pop idols that were truly a flash in a pan. Groomed here, gone tomorrow. The disparaging teenager commentary voiceover encapsulated this music “scene” to a T. But hey, such is still the lot of pop music, I say. As it turned out, the prime customer base for Lollipop music was more clued in that it might’ve seemed at first. Actually, Japanese of all ages were aware of their escapist tendencies. As the barman said of the videos screened in the bars to keep the customers drinking, “Of course, I like naughty things. I like pornography. Soft porn, that is. So do most men after all. I think porn is about the most popular entertainment of all around here.” The voiceover added, “In some places is highbrow stuff. Expensive. For businessmen or foreign tourists. They take medieval classics and turn them into striptease. Very Japanese. These are a mixture of medieval and modern, in both story and music.” Cue in a hard rock track to a piece by kimono garbed, geisha-shogun coiffed performers emulating a sex scene. And the boobs came out. Then she gingerly hammered the bell to traditional music while stark naked.

Shift. Dr. Tsunoda had an explanation for why classical Japanese music sounds different. Something about the brain wiring that had to do with the uniqueness of the Japanese language. Left brain listens more. Even to Beethoven – the example of western music. More or less, that is. He threw in what I saw as a challenge – that westerners find Japanese classical music hard to understand. Ha! So rests play a huge part. OK … This was just his opinion all around anyhow. Cue in an avant-garde musical performance by one with many instruments. Admittedly, seeing it being done made it more fascinating. Just like any ‘challenging’ piece – from east or west, north or south. Bravo to the finale – a cow sound toy! All inspired by the sounds of Japan, its traditions, the silence … somehow … or so she said.

Ah, Yamaha pianos. Start learning music at 4! Embrace electronics! After all, they want to get to your “heart and soul.” Yamaha hoped to move the human race forward, at least musically, with the help of these new electronic instruments. Doof doof for world peace? Venture into space age sounds? Well… Just faster production of pop music for “the Japanese public [that] is so terribly limited in its taste.” Turned out that thinking about the musical wants of the Japanese public would’ve compromised, not so much the artistry, but the ability of some musicians to have a job they like and to express themselves as products of their environment. That’s if you are a pop group that can afford such notions (see Yellow Magic Orchestra in the studio below), because as everywhere around the world, the lot of Japanese musicians upholding the traditions was tough. Poor pay, fickle audiences wanting mainly some entertainment in the music hall, or reflections of their lives to sing to. They chose. Hell, they could make their own entertainment in the karaoke taxi while on the way to work! You better serve! They were the stars, in their spare time.

If you think I have spilled a lot of detail, fear not. If you pay attention, “Sukiyaki and Chips: The Japanese Sounds of Music” is dense with clues and information as to why Japanese music and music scenes were just so. The variety was there – whether up to your taste or not – and the music is everywhere, even in the most mundane.

*Disclaimer: Although stamped as a 1995-production, the “Sukiyaki and Chips: The Japanese Sounds of Music” footage turns out to be all 80s. That explains a lot. Me and 80s have a strange retrospective relationship. I draw a blank as to what I listened to back then as far as the entire decade is concerned. Madonna and Kylie Minogue featured somewhere in the second half … So much for my feigned alternative music snobbery.

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