Music: Big in Japan... but anywhere else?

Collaborations between Tokyo's finest and the best of the UK's vibrant club scene are finally lending Japanese pop music some much-needed credibility. And, what's more, the cuter, trashier and fluffier the result, the better.
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The Independent Culture
CONVENTIONAL BRITISH reserve decrees that the Japanese always take things too far. Chris Tarrant cackles over excerpts from masochistic Japanese game shows and Clive James squeezes scornfully into their little capsule hotels. Even in our so-called cosmopolitan capital, identity-crazed Japanese youths are frowned upon for having the widest flares, the tallest platforms and the silliest hair.

Their irony-free obsession with all things cute in popular culture, (baby doll chic, Lilliputian gadgetry, squeaky cartoon characters, for example) is something that sits uncomfortably with British sensibilities - indeed it is a notion that is completely at odds with their reputation as a super- efficient country full of madly hard-working people.

Even their top-selling style bible, bursting with fanatically outlandish future aesthetics, is called Cutie.

We may flail in the face of Japanese technological know-how and marvel at their flair for cutting-edge design, but when it comes to Japanese pop music we snigger condescendingly, safe in the knowledge that here, at least, is something that we do better. Even though the Japanese boast more record shops than us, buy more CDs per week than any other country and churn out premium record- and CD-playing equipment, they seem almost incapable of producing a good mainstream pop record. We may have silently thanked them for taking the likes of Shampoo, Dannii Minogue and, more recently, Naomi Campbell off our hands, but their success in Japan confirmed for us that the country's musical taste embodies all that, to Western ears, is thoroughly naff.

But, like successions of European bands, Japanese musicians seem desperate to please the West and view the British music industry as a benchmark of success, despite the fact that few have made it over here.

The all-girl rock outfit Shonen Knife are one of the few Japanese bands to have dented the market in the West, having supported Nirvana on their British tour. Their tuneful post-punk sound, little-girl attire and frivolous lyrics about boys, cuddly toys and ice-cream appealed to unruly young girls and sent teenage boys into a cold sweat. It helped that they sang in English.

The Yellow Monkey were also a relatively successful Japanese export in spangly glam-rock circles, but they were short-lived and failed to reach the charts, having made the fatal mistake of singing in Japanese. But there is still a multitude of vastly successful pop bands in Japan who have never infiltrated the British charts.

The relentless growth of the club scene has recently afforded an outlet to more underground Japanese artists. Dance music is much easier to infiltrate, since the genre effortlessly crosses language barriers and, hot on the heels of the newly popular Asian club scene, Japanese records have prompted a considerable defrosting in the UK.

The Mo Wax impresario James Lavelle was so enthusiastic about Japanese club music that after his own record label first took off, he travelled to Tokyo in search of new sounds and welcomed DJ Krush, among others, into his fashionable fold.

Other Japanese acts are now finding their way into London clubs - notably Cornelius (a huge icon in Japan and hailed as the country's answer to France's Air), Pizzicato 5 (associated with last year's easy listening fad), Fantastic Plastic Machine, Ken Ishii, Denki Groove and the Boom Boom Satellites - and fashionable promoters are falling over each other to import Eastern DJs and start Japanese nights.

Last year's launch over here of the Beastie Boys' label Grand Royal gave a platform to the discordant electro-rock crossover band Buffalo Daughter, who this year have been touring with the Beasties' keyboardist Money Mark.

An independent German label, Bungalow Records, recently identified this trend and, having met up with Pizzicato 5 and been assured of an abundance of other class acts, produced a compilation called Sushi 4004. The album is composed of a melange of different sounds from established Japanese names, as well as including debuts from new artists such as Collette and Qythone.

Judging by this collection, Japanese dance music bears little relation to the country's traditional music. Where bands such as Asian Dub Foundation use the sitar to give their sound the Indian rubber stamp, Tokyo DJs seem determined to obliterate all references to Japanese tradition, preferring to sample from Western sources and collaborate with Western artists.

But musicians deny that this is simply a tactic to woo Western consumers. Tomoyuki Tanaka, of Fantastic Plastic Machine, one of the album's contributors, says: "A lot of our musicians consciously reject Japanese sounds, as they associate it with poor quality. Japan doesn't really have a history of modern music. When you think of America you think of hip-hop, with Germany it's electronic music and England is associated with punk, new wave and drum 'n' bass. This is something we don't have in Japan. So we borrow from anything and everything."

On occasions this can make their sound virtually indistinguishable from their Western counterparts, though what separates the Sushi tracks from British dance is their irrepressible predilection for kitsch, characterised by happy-clappy melodies, trashy samples and bouncing bass lines.

Tanaka says: "We don't really care about whether we fit into a certain style; we just like to have fun when we make music." It is this playful quality that has earned them the label "club pop" over here. It fits neatly into their fondness for everything that is cute.

The packaging of their albums also reflects this image. They are decorated with reflective or sparkling materials and lurid colours, displaying a honey-coated yet slickly executed future aesthetic embracing astronauts, aliens, spaceships and other typically Western preoccupations.

The collaborative aspect of dance music has also been beneficial to Japanese artists. Ken Ishii is working with Talvin Singh, DJ Krush has worked with the ultra-hip British producer Howie B and recently ex-Deee-lite man Towa Tei has made a single with Kylie Minogue, though in this case you get the feeling that Minogue is making use of Tei's far-reaching reputation, rather than the other way around. The track "German Bold Italic" has a significantly more exotic flavour than Tei's customary club anthems and features Minogue talking and giggling over a minimalist house rhythm. A particularly bizarre accompanying video sees Minogue scuttling around the back streets of Tokyo dressed as a Geisha girl and looking suitably sweet.

"She is the ideal icon that appeals to both Japanese and Western people" says Tei. "She is very much a part of the club scene already, particularly among the gay community, and she looks amazing."

Though Tei makes use of Japanese iconography to promote his work, he still insists that the future of Japanese music is in the club scene. "Western notions of Japanese music have always revolved around Karaoke and it's not that far from the truth. But the technology available in Japan has steered artists towards dance music. It would be stupid not to take advantage of that."

`Sushi 4004' is out on Bungalow Records on 7 September. Towa Tei's single `German Bold Italic', featuring Kylie Minogue, is out on Coalition Records on 5 October

Who's Who in the Nippon New Wave

Yellow Magic Orchestra is one of the more creditable ambassadors for Japanese pop. This all-male instrumental group cultivated an underground following in the late Seventies and early Eighties with their German-inspired electronica. Their 1980 single "Computer Game (theme from The Invaders)" stayed in the charts for 11 weeks.

Ryuichi Sakamoto left Yellow Magic Orchestra and went on to enter the charts four times in the early Eighties with collaborations with Japan's David Sylvian. He is now an established composer of film sound tracks, with titles such

as Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and The Last Emperor gracing

his CV.

Sandii & The Sunsetz are a poodle-haired outfit headed by the PVC-clad Sandii. They were responsible for "Alive", which epitomised Eastern tack and became one of the most famous Japanese pop songs of the Eighties. Despite heavy endorsements from the likes of David Bowie and the Eurythmics, the band had a short-lived international impact.

Shonen Knife is one of the few Japanese rock bands to make it big over here. This all-female ensemble, characterised by a giggly, Riot Grrrls aesthetic, favoured a pop-punk thrust during the late Eighties, citing the Sex Pistols, XTC and the Ramones as their primary influences.

DJ Krush is the ultra-cool Tokyo-based DJ who was appropriated by James Lavelle for his ground-breaking Headz album. A far cry from his ostentatious clubby counterparts, Krush prefers lackadaisical hip-hop rhythms overlaid with spooky sampling.