PALACE OF WONDER

The art of the party at Fuji Rock

by Jason Jenkins and Koichi Hanafusa

No one denies the power of danger and vice to push boundaries, and whether we admit it or not, the two have a way of rattling some pretty inspired performances out of people. No surprise, then, that Fuji Rock Festival has been a breeding ground for such mischief, and that the Palace of Wonder, Fuji’s own little renegade province, has shown what happens when these forces are left to their own devices.

Since 2001, the Palace has grown like an invasive species, its art and installations reaching more monstrous proportions with each passing summer. Add in a steady schedule of big top-style entertainment and some good music, and you start to see how this venue for bands and DJs quickly transformed into one weekend-long performance piece disguised as Fuji Rock’s most ambitious party.

Part carnival, part exhibition, part absurdist theater, the Palace has gone from a parking lot to a decadent showpiece in only five years. Here sculpture doubles as furniture and the fashion leans toward leather, feathers and fedoras. And while Fuji Rock’s other venues pause to regroup between acts, once the Palace opens for business around 10:30 p.m., there is a constant stream of spectacle until long after dawn. Unsigned artists play the Rookie a Go Go stage, while the club tent hosts burlesque shows, ska bands and DJs spinning vintage vinyl. Wander within the Palace walls and you’ll also stumble onto a casino (with peepshow), a chainsaw sculptor and other acts that flirt with fear and pain.

The crown jewel this year, however, is the Crystal Palace, an 800-capacity luxury tent replete with a purple dance floor and a bar serving champagne. The hot-as-a-chicken-shack atmosphere of the past club tents was always a favorite spot in the Palace, but the Speigeltent marks a watershed: we’re talking county fair to midnight ballroom here, folks.

At the controls of the Palace are stage manager Shinichi “Chris” Kurisawa and Jason Mayall, head of the U.K. office of Smash, the promoter responsible for Fuji Rock. Through conversations with Kurisawa in Tokyo and Mayall in London, I heard about the many authors of this piece of surreal theater, and how quite often the script seemed to write itself.

“No one had any idea that this would happen,” says Kurisawa, still sounding a bit surprised. “Not at all! But we worked hard to make it better each year and it came together naturally.”

In 2001, the Palace area was basically a venue for the Circus of Horrors, a British stage production best described as a mix of P.T. Barnum, Rocky Horror Picture Show and a Halloween party turned crime scene. The next year Kurisawa and Mayall injected some art with Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Project, whose massive scrap-metal sculptures have dominated the site ever since. So massive, in fact, that many stay on-site until the following summer.

Rush and the Mutoids honed their talents at the Lost Vagueness area of England’s Glastonbury festival, the world’s largest open-air music festival and a model for Fuji Rock. Mayall believes that they were a perfect fit here, as well.

“Joe and his crew are essential,” he says. “They dress up, act the part and bring the festival vibe, really.”

That same year, Smash boss Masa Hidaka invited Clash frontman and old friend Joe Strummer and his friends to the Palace. Not to perform per se, but to hang out, tend to the bonfire and keep everyone engaged, even if that meant coercing bystanders into singing karaoke. Some concertgoers ventured in, he says, but the majority of Palace visitors that year were “crew, staff and bands that didn’t want to go home.”

“It was too bizarre for most people,” Mayall continues. “But the next year there was a lot of rain, and we had a big fire, so a lot of people came in to dry out. Now everyone is brave enough to enter.”

That includes musicians who play the festival. With its proximity to the Naeba Prince Hotel, where most groups stay, the Palace has become the place where artists gear up, wind down or both.

“It’s kind of like a dressing room or backstage party,” says Kurisawa with a smile. The only difference is that it’s not backstage. It’s not even on the festival grounds, technically: set just outside the ticket gates, the Palace is free and open to the public, something Kurisawa is proud of. And whether by fate, by technicality or by design, it’s fitting that the Palace is in its own way off the map.

“It’s places like the Palace and the boardwalk that really tie a festival together,” says Mayall, referring to the raised wooden footpaths that connect the Green Stage to the Orange Court venue. Built and repaired every year by volunteers, the boardwalk has become known for spontaneous, unscheduled performances and time-bending decorations after dark (expect more this year). Aside from Palace and Boardwalk duties, Mayall and his crew are also responsible for a lot of eye-candy found throughout the festival, including the decorative lighting and giant inflatable sculptures at the Orange Court stage.

“We couldn’t do this with just the bands on the main stages,” Kurisawa says. “That’s just a rock concert.”

But the entertainment is just as important, and Mayall revels in procuring it.

“I’m always looking for something that makes you gasp,” he says. “I wanted to bring the Human Cannonball, which would have been fantastic. You know, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . BANG! A 5-minute show, two or three times a night. It would have been crazy and stupid and dangerous and loud. But the cost of bringing something like that is astronomical.”

With or without explosives, memories of the Palace of Wonder tend to burn brightest despite being experienced in the woozy haze of dawn. After a day of standing watching a stage, it’s inspiring to experience something where you feel like an active participant in the production. And if the powers of danger and vice begin to rattle you, don’t worry: you’re in great company.

This year’s gallery of rogues

The Mutoid Waste Project: A tree made of mufflers, an ant eating an SUV. Who knows what the Mutoids will add this year?

LuciFire: This vicious vixen’s vaudevillian antics involve wince-inducing dance moves with fire and metal hooks through the skin. Not for the faint of heart.

Fire Tusk Painproof Circus: LuciFire and husband show how much love can hurt through bloodletting, beds of nails and splits on broken glass.

Eddie Egals’ Fire Shower: Read that literally. Legendary pyrotechnician Egals’ cold shower heats up quickly with the help of flamethrowers.

Big Willie’s Burlesque: If last year is anything to go by, Ol’ Willie and crew will play tight jazz/lounge as lovely pasty-clad pole dancers swing to the beat.

Murasaki Babydoll: The Japanese burlesque troupe just won the title of Miss Exotic World in Vegas in May. And ladies, this one’s co-ed.

Camera Obscura: A “primitive” pinhole camera bigger than some Tokyo apartments, it will be moved daily to different locations in the festival grounds.

AD Treepirate: This UK chainsaw artist juggles fire and carves furniture out of English oak. That’s his bus-sized scorpion you’ll be taking pictures of.