Rallying round home-grown sounds


It’s the final day of this year’s Rock in Japan festival, which took place Aug. 5-7. Holding court in the HMV DJ booth is entertainer Yoshiaki Umegaki. He’s a late fortysomething transvestite sporting a tall blue wig and playing with his plastic breasts under a fetching blue sequined number while pouring beer down the front of his trousers. And all the while he’s singing comedy chansons and sticking giant green peas up his nose and blowing them out on members of the audience who are only too happy to be on the receiving end of Umegaki’s “green stuff.”

Back on the Grass Stage, the pedestrian emo of Asian Kung-Fu Generation was more in keeping with the mainstream script that Rock in Japan is renowned for (read: no Cuban-Jamaican ska or Senegalese drummers here, a la Fuji Rock, no Californian skater-punk on a beach, a la Summer Sonic). Midway through Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s set, which was sandwiched between the pub rock of Tamio Okuda and the sublime atmospherics of elder statesman Ryuichi Sakamoto, the four-piece unleashed their recent No. 1 single “Blackout” and a sea of 20,000 festivalgoers in the late afternoon sunshine launch in unison into perfectly timed hand claps for the verse and familiar “ooh ooh oohs!” for the chorus. No one was left out, no one was left behind.

Such all-inclusiveness might be typical of summer music festivals, but Rock in Japan — staged at a seaside park in Ibaraki Prefecture by the publishers of Japan’s leading rock read, Rockin’ On — differs from Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic in one key respect. There are no foreign bands here. So the total of 135,000 fans who visited over the three days — a bigger cumulative crowd than Fuji Rock — were assaulted with the good, the bad and the beautiful of the Japanese music scene, from J-pop kitsch to J-rock and J-rap.

Ones to watch

The Sound of Forest, an intimate stage that showcased lesser-known and up-and-coming Japanese talent, was a welcome new edition to Rock in Japan this year (though “Stage Surrounded by a Few Trees” might have been a more appropriate moniker). Ukulele-wielding Kyoto native Tsuji Ayano, who debuted at Rock In Japan three years ago, fitted the bill. Looking like a stern elementary school teacher with her thick-rimmed glasses and unfussy dress, she wrapped her high and reedy vocals around some breezy FM-friendly melodies.

Meanwhile, indie-rockers Art-School, who headlined the Sound of Forest on Friday night, belong firmly in the up-and-coming category. In print, singer/guitarist Riki Kinoshita has waxed on about Rimbaud and Martin Scorcese, and mused on Mozart and the nature of addiction while confessing to necking his 20th beer of the day. Live, Kinoshita dropped the posing and concentrated on leading his band through half-a-dozen or so shimmering dance rock songs, propelled by the flexing bass and pulsing beats of recent NYC punk-funk.

If there was a defining sound of Rock in Japan ’05, it wasn’t the dance-rock of Art-School but the polished clang of teenage-friendly punk-rock anthems produced for mainstream consumption. Take Saitama’s Going Underground, who borrow from U.S. rock bands like Weezer as well as popular Japanese rock acts like The Blue Hearts. While Art-School may have been too navel-gazing for mass pogoing, Going Underground on Saturday morning at the Lake Stage had no such trouble whipping up a mosh pit (and the obligatory “ooh ooh oohs’).

Neither did Bazra, who mixed punk with hard rock, in the Sound of Forest. Not Desert Rat escapees from urban patrol in southeastern Iraq, Bazra are a Japanese three-piece led by the extravagantly bearded Teppei Inoue, whose girth suggests he might struggle to get past an army medical. Inoue’s energetic performance brought the kids out of the shade and into the sun on Saturday morning.

Later that afternoon the Ging Nang Boyz made the most punk gesture of the weekend by getting butt-naked to the embarrassment of the live TV broadcasters. These boys are unlikely to be invited back next year.

That won’t be the case with Sparta Locals, though, having won over the Sound of Forest late Saturday. Led by the plainly unhinged singer/guitarist Kosei Abe, one of the unsung heroes of the festival, Sparta injected an adrenaline shot straight into the veins of the usually reserved indie fans. While Kousuke is a pent-up ball of energy, guitarist Shinichi Ito also deserves plaudits for his scratchy, inventive guitar work over an edgy postpunk and melodic guitar-pop base.

That’s entertainment

Rock in Japan ’05 wasn’t all about young and noisy Japanese acts. There were also the slick routines of an older generation of rockers, such as the cabaret of Southern All-Stars, and the no-nonsense Tamio Okuda. Same goes for Osaka’s favorite sons, the Stetson-wearing, feather-boa’d up Ulfuls. Fronted by the bouncy Tortoise Matsumoto, Ulfuls ran through their very Japanese take on vintage Dixie-fried Southern rock. Tortoise and his sidekicks were consummate showmen, trading guitar licks as easily as they uttered one-liners, and had little trouble in inciting mass hand-clapping.

While he may also be getting on in his years, Ryuichi Sakamoto is hardly rock, and on the festival’s final night he provided a leftfield performance that was the highlight of the three days. Sakamoto glided regally onto stage, sporting a dapper scarf and exuding an icy aloofness. But, as soon as he got behind his array of synths and sequencers, he cut loose. Goading his band (which included Keigo Oyamada, a.k.a. Cornelius, on keyboards) with his industrial electronica, he managed to pack more subversive elements into one song than all the pop-punkers will manage in their entire careers.

Rockin’ On started off in the early 1970s, hatched as a fiercely DIY specialist rock magazine that, in the early days, had to fabricate interviews with icons like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. It’s some measure of how far the magazine has come that it has, since 2000, had the self-confidence to put on its own music festival and attract names like Sakamoto. That Rock in Japan can do so without inviting bands from overseas to join the party is also a sign of the local music scene’s vibrancy.

The voices of J-rockers

Simon Bartz (“19,” Japan Times music columnist)

Top three bands at Rock in Japan 05: Southern All Stars (if you’ve attracted about 35,000 fans singing together in a field to your karaoke-style pop-rock, well, respect is due); Ryuichi Sakamoto (who showed age does not affect pure genius — and his center-parting haircut with a big fringe wasn’t too bad either); Art-School (the best haircuts of the weekend, and not too bad at rocking out either).

Bands who should be here: For starters, Yokkaichi’s Gasoline, Fukuoka’s Thee ’50s High Teens, Nagoya’s The Syrup, Osaka legends Shonen Knife and Tokyo’s The Pebbles. The best bands in Japan remain in the underground. Get these bands on board next year! And how about stealing Kiyoshiro Imawano from Fuji Rock for 2006?

Best thing: Luscious sweet-smelling green grass to lie down on with your partner of choice (a refreshing change after the mud of Fuji Rock Festival and the gray tarmac of Summer Sonic); non-smelly portaloos; and the fantastic fireworks display that closed the Southern All Stars headlining show at the Grass Stage on Sunday.

Best meal: Huge iced tomatoes (with a beer in your other hand, of course). You can’t beat that on a scorching summer day.

Chihare (25, nurse) and Fumie (25, midwife)

Top three bands: HY, Air, Ryukudisco

Bands who should be here: Denki Groove

Best thing: A place where people can relax and see their fave bands

Worst thing: Too hot!

Best meal at Rock in Japan: Thai ramen

Hiko, (20, student)

Top three bands: Zazen Boys, Yuki, Sambomaster

Bands who should be here: Yura Yura Teikoku

Best thing: Clean, green and beautiful

Worst thing: Too many people!

Best meal: Natto rice and beer

Takahiro (39, salaryman)

Top three bands: Sambomaster, Kazuyoshi Saito, Tomio Okuda

Bands who should be here: The Mods

Best thing: Free and easy vibe and natural surroundings

Worst thing: Too hot!

Best meal: Draft beer