Flashback to the Japan of 1983: Childish idol Seiko Matsuda was topping the charts, Japanese guys were trying to dress like Boy George and kids in discos vainly watched themselves dance in floor-to-ceiling mirrors as Frankie told them to “Relax.” Believe it or not, this is the exact moment hip-hop hit Japan like a bolt from the blue (or the South Bronx, to be precise).
In October 1983, the seminal independent movie “Wild Style” opened in Shinjuku’s Milanoza Theater. The film is a document of New York City’s nascent hip-hop culture of breakdancing, rapping, deejaying and graffiti art, and it lit the fuse on a new type of youth culture that exploded across the world.
Directed by Charlie Ahearn and featuring the likes of Rock Steady Crew, Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash, Fantastic Freaks and more, “Wild Style” may have been an underground sensation in the U.S., but in Japan it went mainstream.
Independent film producer and distributor Kaz Kuzui had seen “Wild Style” at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York and recalls, with some bemusement, how he “wasn’t sure if Japanese people would go for it or not.”
He put his money where his instincts were, though, booking the film and then flying over 36 members of the cast and crew for a promotional tour of Japan (an incredible number, considering even Hollywood productions routinely fly over only a couple of people). Seibu Department Stores had a “New York Nights” event planned and Kozui managed to convince them to put “Wild Style” at its center, which led to in-store promotions, concerts and club events in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, and major exposure in the national media.
In fact, “Wild Style” premiered in Japan a month before New York.
“Japan was a bit ahead of the curve,” Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy — who played one of the main characters in “Wild Style” — tells The Japan Times. “At that point, (rap) was barely even reaching other parts of (the U.S.), it was still primarily a New York thing.” (Many will remember Fab 5 Freddy as the longtime host of “Yo! MTV Raps” and the creator of one of the most-sampled records of all time, “Change The Beat.”)
“The response was way beyond anything we imagined — unbelievably big press conferences,” says Brathwaite. “Nothing comparable happened in America.”
Director Ahearn remembers seeing newsstands in Japan where “people from the movie were in every teen magazine on the shelves.”
You can find clips on YouTube of the breakdancing Rock Steady Crew wowing a local TV audience as Busy Bee trades rhymes with, believe it or not, top TV personality Tamori. Later on the tour, a van covered in graffiti art ferried the group to Yoyogi Park, where they encountered the Takenoko-zoku dance troupes and the perennial leather-clad rockers, who, Ahearn recalls, the Bronx kids warily mistook for a gang.
“Rock Steady Crew put a boombox down and we formed a cypher, they started hitting windmills and headspins, and it completely freaked people out,” says Ahearn.
The impact was huge: Tokyo hip-hop icon DJ Krush is but one of many who cite “Wild Style” as life-changing. Brathwaite recalls going to a club in Kyoto where “one of our DJs gave a little demonstration on the turntables. And like anybody at this time, they’d never seen anything like it. Most people would stand around looking at the DJ like ‘How you doing that?’ Literally not more than a week later, we were back in the same club, and we walked in and we were like, ‘Wait a minute, is somebody scratching?’
“In that one week, the (Kyoto) DJs had figured it out. They didn’t have it down perfect, but they were close enough to add some scratches on the beats. That was an education that we were gonna connect,” says Brathwaite.
The embrace that Japan gave to “Wild Style” was so warm, one wonders if the mostly black and Hispanic crew ever encountered in Japan the kind of racial attitudes that originally slowed hip-hop’s growth in America.
Not really, says Ahearn, but he adds that “they were picking up girls at the clubs, and that was an issue — there was an enormous amount of resistance to that.”
While Japan opened up to hip-hop culture in a big way, its originators were only just beginning to realize how wide their scene might spread.
“Almost everybody who went on the tour, not only had they never been out of the USA, but many of them had never been outside NYC,” says Ahearn. “The majority of them had never been on an airplane before.”
Brathwaite notes that most of the primary people in the culture were just teenagers living at home in New York.
“They’d get 200 bucks to play a gig now and then, the whole showbiz thing was totally removed from everyone’s sensibility,” says Brathwaite. “I often think that’s why the roots of this thing are so deep, because it started off so sincere and humble, like I want to be somebody on my block, in my neighborhood — I just want people to recognize me.”
Three decades on, hip-hop culture is woven into the fabric of Japan — the fashion omnipresent and its dance styles dominant, yet the cultural openness and curiosity that marked 1980s Japan would hit its peak during the bubble era, before entering a slow fade into the more inward-looking J-pop- and anime-centric scene we find today.
As for the Bronx, Ahearn says people wanted him to make “Wild Style 2” but New York “had changed so much by 1988.”
“Crack had really swept through the Bronx, and so many people in the movie were getting high on crack or they were in prison — those were very harsh times.”
“Wild Style” is playing at Cinema Rise in Tokyo through April 9. For more information, visit www.cinemarise.com/theater.