Japan’s indie music scene is a fractured miasma of competing and collaborating subgenres. The sheer number of bands is, as anyone who has looked at Pia’s live house listings recently, overwhelming. Like a fan searching for a hidden venue in the twisted back streets of Shimokitazawa or Koenji, you can easily get lost.
Information in English (the pages of The Japan Times entertainment section aside) is hard to come by. Comprehensive guides have focused more on the mainstream or, like the Rough Guide’s recent Japan CD, on traditional music rather than new sounds.
“Japanese Independent Music,” an exhaustive guide to the interesting, the out-there and the just plain weird, is a welcome addition.
Originally published in French, the book is the product of the tiny French record label Sonore. In a better world, The Japan Foundation would lavish this stalwart indie with kudos (and cash) for its promotion of Japanese culture. Since 1998, Sonore’s founder, Franck Stofer, has waged a one-man campaign to introduce the outer fringes of the Japanese music scene to the European public.
“It’s important for a label to publish some books once in a while,” says Stofer. “It shows how deep your quest is, even if you just have a bunch of releases in catalog.”
Judging by the fascinating, though admittedly academic, essays that preface the band-guide entries, Stofer’s take on Japanese music is pretty deep indeed. Shigetoshi Miyamoto’s lovingly detailed history of Japanese independent music, focusing on noise, free jazz, improvised music, avant-pop and psychedelia, provides an aesthetic framework. Interviews with many of the included artists give it texture.
The “lit-crit” tone of the essays is in complete contrast to the “gee-whiz” fanzine style of many of the book’s entries. Japanese indie music, particularly noise, has long been the realm of otaku and that music-freak intensity is reflected in extensive lists of releases and the sometimes obsessive enthusiasm of the reviewers.
One of the most engaging bits of the book is an essay by French music critic Michel Henritzi equating noise music, a major feature of the book, with sadomasochism. In short, the listener suffers. It is understandable if the listener approaches the accompanying CD with a little trepidation.
Luckily, the compilation cajoles rather than pummels. The CD starts slowly with Wono Satoru, who, taking a page from Marcus Popp’s Oval project, sculpts the crackle and hiss of a scratched record into quiet, yet rhythmic chamber music. It ends on a sassy note, with Ex Girl’s operatic, tribal new wave. The flow of the tracks, sandwiching difficult pieces between more accessible ones, makes it a good audio primer for the neophyte.
If “Japanese Independent Music” has any weaknesses, it is that it is still plagued by an “us against them” mentality that divides the musical world into indie true believers and sellouts. This leads to a lack of clear criteria for inclusion in the book and a corresponding unevenness in the entries.
The Boredoms (and particularly founder Eye Yamataka) hover in the background of many of the book’s listings, yet The Boredoms record for music conglomerate Warner Brothers. Skacore, almost entirely fueled by the sort of seat-of-the-pants operations often associated with indie music, is entirely absent.
Moreover, if independence is about avoiding the commodification of music, it is hard to see how Masami Akita’s Merzbow project, whose every studio doodle seems to turn into a collector’s fetish, can count. Henritzi writes of noise as “radical exoticism,” but the treatment of Japanese noise music in the band entries as an exotic “other” suggests a lack of critical rigor.
While noise artists are indulged, anything smacking of pop is quickly dismissed. Cornelius and Buffalo Daughter, arguably two of the most influential groups going, are breezily summarized in a few sentences. The authors have chosen to ignore Cornelius’ role as a champion of more adventurous music (he bankrolls Eye Yamataka’s Shockcity label) and the work of Buffalo Daughter’s Yumiko Ohno with Yann Tomita and John Zorn’s Cobra project. Club music, particularly hip-hop, some of the most interesting music now being produced in Japan, also gets short shrift.
Ultimately, “Japanese Independent Music” is a great resource on Japanese music, but it is still not independent enough.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.