On the face of it, the lineup for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival has not been kind to Japanese artists, with representation on the higher profile stages confined to such stalwarts as melodic punk rocker Ken Yokoyama and dance duo Boom Boom Satellites. The lack of any real challenge to these oldies’ dominance is either an indictment of the ambition of the younger generation of musicians, or more likely of an increasingly conservative music industry.
On the other hand, what seems to be happening over recent years is that a growing number of more interesting, experimental or just plain quirky local artists have been able to creep in around the edges of the festival.
Just as youth doesn’t necessarily signify energy and vibrancy (Asian Kung-Fu Generation are still in their early 30s, but have sounded middle-aged since they were teenagers), age doesn’t have to mean plodding tedium, a fact best exemplified by the marvelous Hikashu.
“The good thing about aging,” explains Hikashu frontman Koichi Makigami, “is that I can do anything I want. Five years ago or so we played with the Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal, who’s over 70 years old. I was called by the percussionist to play onstage together with them, but while we were backstage, Hermeto came up to us and said he was just going to do a piano solo. Then he finally went on stage and just played a Japanese kettle, so when I saw that, I thought aging was a good thing.”
Formed in 1978 to soundtrack Makigami’s avant-garde theater company, Hikashu found themselves caught up in the revolution of postpunk and new wave that was brewing in Japan; and like contemporaries Plastics, Hikashu were able to use this new experimentalism in pop to re-imagine Japan’s musical identity.
“I hated the sort of commercial music that was around at that time,” says Makigami, “In Japan, we don’t really have rock music, but in the new-wave style I was able to find something I could do within the context of Japanese music. I adapted my singing style from traditional Japanese vocal styles, and the melodies, too.”
Hikashu’s first couple of albums were landmarks in Japanese avant-pop, combining catchy melodies, eccentric vocal gymnastics and often esoteric lyrical content. For many fans, songs such as “20 Seiki no Owari ni” and “Pike” are iconic representations of the era, and Makigami admits to having sometimes felt his music constrained by the enduring popularity of that early material, even to the point where they would go out of their way to subvert audience expectations.
“Back at the beginning we used to do that sort of thing,” he says. “We did a gig where we put a table on the stage and just sat there eating a meal. It’s difficult to do that with the current lineup though, since they’re all proper musicians now.”
Playing Fuji Rock for the first time has thrown up its own challenges for Hikashu, with Makigami concerned that the band’s usual freewheeling approach to live shows might be unsuited to the environment.
“Normally when we do a gig we don’t have a set list,” says Makigami. “We just get onstage and start performing. Somebody just starts doing something, and maybe he knows what he’s doing, so the rest of us just follow him. When we rehearse, we actually play songs, so by the time we’re onstage we don’t feel like playing them properly anymore. It’s our first time to play at Fuji Rock though, so we should probably decide on about four or five songs beforehand and then take it from there.”
Lately, however, Makigami has tired of the term “avant pop” and feels that a more accurate description of the band is ” ‘pataphysic rock.” Based on a psuedoscientific philosophical theory first advanced by French playwright Alfred Jarry, ‘pataphysics is a term that defies easy explanation. Perhaps described best as proto-Dadaist, it was once described by Jean Baudrillard as “philosophy of the gaseous state . . . it can only define itself by its own term, thus: it doesn’t exist.”
To really understand Hikashu’s ‘pataphysical bent, you have to experience them live. The band’s tendency toward improvisation, combined with the theatricality Makigami brings to his role as vocalist and conductor, draws the audience’s attention to the structure of the music, and the incorporation of errors and other unexpected occurrences into the performance throws the structure open to the element of chance.
If that sounds impossibly pretentious, then, well, perhaps it is, but it’s also an enormous amount of fun. Watching Hikashu at the Jazz Art Sengawa festival, which Makigami curates, their final run through “Pike” was a joyous experience, stretching, bending, and twisting the original song, with Makigami bouncing around all over the stage, scissor-kicking, doing kung-fu moves and shadow boxing with his theremin.
Makigami, typically, has a more succinct, although not necessarily more illuminating description of what their music represents: “It’s about how we can create love by science.”
Hikashu aren’t the only Japanese band who bring an offbeat sensibility to this year’s Fuji Rock festival. Buffalo Daughter are a familiar but welcome face at the Red Marquee on Sunday night, and noise-punk band Bloodthirsty Butchers are set to storm the White Stage.
For fans of postrock delivered with dazzling technical proficiency, if you’re not completely blown away by toe, who play the White Stage on Friday, then Lite will surely finish the job at the Red Marquee on Saturday morning.
The Naeba Shokudo Stage, which is set up in the evenings over by the Oasis area, provides a fascinating evening of music on Sunday, with multi-instrumentalist Shugo Tokumaru’s eclectic postpunk quintet Gellers promising to kick things off in style, followed by prolific experimental pop pianist Eiko Ishibashi and then indie-pop veteran Hideki Kaji, all of whom manage to make music that is both accessible and unique.
Finally, the Rookie a Go-Go stage, focusing on supposed newcomers (although almost invariably bands who have been gigging and releasing CDs for years) usually throws up a few great acts of the sort you might see in a Tokyo live venue, with the furious assault of Core of Bells likely to be a Sunday night highlight, and intriguing bands such as lo-fi alternative rap group Alt and space-popsters Uchuujin playing throughout the weekend.