The revolutionary tale of Mikami's enka blues

by David Hickey

Kan Mikami once beat the crap out of David Bowie.

Mikami’s dustup with the Thin White Duke occurred in the Pacific War saga “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), in which he had a small role opposite Bowie as the sadistic Lt. Ito. Bowie’s fame was then at its “Let’s Dance” peak; Mikami, by contrast, had lost his audience and largely given up on the singing career that had made him a star a decade earlier when he played at the Nakatsugawa Folk Jamboree — Japan’s answer to Woodstock.

Mikami turned to writing and acting, performing in the mid-’70s in the plays and films of his mentor and friend, the avant-garde dramatist Shuji Terayama. Around that time, Kinji Fukasaku — the don of realist yakuza movies — offered him a role in one of his films, “Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kumicho Saigo no Hi” (1976). Mikami found himself cast as a mobster assassin.

Last week Mikami released his latest solo album, “Juw,” worldwide on PSF, the noise-oriented label that brought the 58-year-old out of the musical wilderness in the early ’90s after a decade of silence. Hideo Ikeezumi, the label’s founder who coaxed Mikami back into the studio and produced the album, believes Mikami’s music is as relevant today as ever.

“It used to be that there were hardly any critics or listeners who appreciated Mikami,” he says. “But recently his reputation has been on the up thanks to younger, radical bands and people abroad. This makes me think that Mikami’s ‘song’ has bit by bit become more universal.”

Some describe Mikami’s music simply as “Japanese blues,” but really, Mikami has little in common with any Afro-American (or, for that matter, Anglo) tradition. The vernacular monthly music rag Snoozer, in naming his 1972 classic “Hiraku Yume Nado Aru Jya Nashi” (URC) among “the 150 greatest albums of Japanese rock ‘n’ roll” last December (at No. 42), came closer to the mark when it likened Mikami to both chanson singer Jacques Brel and enka star Hibari Misora. Mikami is a storyteller with an extraordinary voice — deliberately mannered with an enkaesque sense of poise, yet rough hewn and capable of breaking the sound barrier when he lets go.

What was the aim for your new album?

I’ve been playing abroad for the last five or six years. My challenge for this album was to in some way bridge the gap between Japan and Europe, even if I’m singing in a different language. I want to have the same impact on the listener whether they’re foreign or Japanese. I don’t know if I’ll fail or succeed. I’m not singing about God; European music has been drawn from the music of the Church. Even The Sex Pistols played proper chords. They had pretty harmonies, didn’t they?

You left your hometown — a fishing village in Aomori Prefecture — for Tokyo in 1968, then made your live debut at the notorious Station 70 bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in 1971. Tell us about that.

It was Japan’s first live venue. The guy who set it up built it with money from his parents. He was the son of someone high up at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. This was the guy who planned the Peace Kanbakudan (homemade explosives) attacks (in the ’60s and ’70s) and he hid out in the club for sometime after that. He was my friend. During the Vietnam War, which we were all against, he was selling ammunition and planes to the Vietnamese.

What sort of audience did you play to?

Members of the extreme far right and hard left would drop by Station 70 — (author Yukio) Mishima’s hangers-on and some of the young members of his private army, the Tatenokai, and members of (anarchist terrorist group) the Japanese Red Army. But they didn’t come to propagandize. These groups would hang out together in the music room. I went in there myself, but they didn’t talk much. Japan’s top student leaders would gather there night after night, but the atmosphere was actually pretty somber. People drank; they took sleeping pills — which was the “in” drug at the time. . . . They were an extreme bunch of people. It didn’t really matter if they were “left” or “right.”

I think these student leaders had the same impact on society in Japan as the hippie movement in America. At that time, political activism was very popular. It spread likes measles. Everyone was excited to be part of the movement. They were screaming, “What does it mean to be Japanese? Are we the same as America now?” We were longing to know.

From there you were picked up to play the Nakatsugawa Folk Jamboree in Gifu, alongside the likes of folk-rock pioneers Happy End and “Japan’s Bob Dylan,” Takuro Yoshida, and became a star virtually overnight. What do you remember about that festival?

I wasn’t expecting to become a star at Nakatsugawa. People kept coming to see me for a couple of years on the strength of that performance. When I came on stage, it felt like I was waking up sleeping children. Thirty thousand people came. Everyone there was disappointed with society. These people had a choice hanging over their heads that would define the rest of their lives. Would they carry on being part of the student movement? Would their parents keep on supporting them? At that time, university students came from the elite, the sons of civil servants and the like. But the people who came to the festival ended up graduating from university, they got jobs . . .

Sounds very hippie. Very Woodstock. And 25 years before the Fuji Rock Festival . . .

It was a copy of Woodstock. The best thing about it was that they did nothing to promote it. Everyone there had heard about it through word of mouth. I don’t think they even put up a single poster. The audience spread out as far as you could see. Some people got injured; one person died. There were hardly any toilets. There was hardly anything of anything.

Back then you were considered a folk troubadour, and in the early ’70s, folk was the soundtrack to the revolution being plotted by the student leftists. The revolution never came, did it?

At that time, nobody was thinking about music in terms of making a career. Our movement was the one that made society sit up and take notice of music. That lasted around four or five years. There were so few of us I can remember all their names — (Nobuyasu) Okabayashi, (Takuro) Yoshida, (Ryo) Kagawa . . . We were all as famous as each other. This was 1974-’75. Then, around that time, the student movement began to die down.

The Roon (a labor union for music fans) held a concert and some of these folkies, such as Takuro, became famous as a result of that. The movement died down when Okabayashi and Takuro became well known. All these singers started making a career out of music, forming their own companies and using the media. Fifty percent of me went in that direction too; the other half went toward the movie business.

I think the people in the student movement forgot their anger. They became civil servants and got jobs with the enemy. They changed sides in order to survive. But because they worked hard, Japan became strong, and that’s a good thing. . . . As far as I’m concerned, I think a person should set their mind on what they want to achieve for the rest of their life. Those people got swayed too easily.

Your songs took on taboo topics such as teenage killer-turned-death-row novelist Norio Nagayama, which in the early ’70s was tantamount to career suicide. Did you anticipate your songs would be withdrawn from the shops?

I thought certain songs would be banned if they came out. I knew they would be considered dangerous. At that time I was singing enka and performing in the traditional garb. My plan was to do that and save up enough money for a couple of years, then release these songs myself. But a director from Columbia said to me, “I hear you’ve been hiding some songs — let me have a listen.” Anyway, he liked them and released them. He ended up getting fired. Not because of me, though. My song “Omawari-san” was withdrawn after a week. Folk singers such as Masashi Sada and Takuro Yoshida did the same thing — it was a kind of status symbol (to have a song banned). I didn’t see it like that at all though.

What draws you to the music of Hibari Misora?

After she passed away (from pneumonia in 1989), I happened to watch a film of a concert she did in Hiroshima two weeks before she died. She only sang about seven songs. She was holding an oxygen cylinder to help her breathe. It made me think that singers should continue on like that. She exhaled the voice from within her body so completely. She gave everything. I found something heroic in that.

You’ve been singing for almost 40 years. What’s your message to young musicians?

You don’t need to start from the same point I did. Start from where I’ve ended up and do the next thing.

Kan Mikami plays Shibuya O-East (with Shibusashirazu Orchestra and Panorama Steel Orchestra) on Mar. 28; Aketa, Nishi-Ogikubo, Apr. 1; Kokubunji Chikyuya, Apr. 2; Muryoku Muzenji, Koenji, Apr. 4; Rain Dogs, Osaka, Apr. 5 and 11; Shuyukan, Shiga, Apr. 6; Kappabashi Shotengai Soba Natteiru House, Asakusa, Apr. 13; Kokuritsu Gekijyo, Tokyo (with Ondekoza), Apr. 18; Zen Pussy, Nishi-Ogikubo, April 27.

‘He’s an original’: in praise of Mikami

Shintaro Sakamoto, frontman of rockers Yura Yura Teikoku, tells David Hickey why Kan Mikami is a kindred spirit.

“When I first heard ‘Hiraku Yume Nado Aru Jya Nashi’ (Kan Mikami’s enka-inspired album from 1972) I was shocked: ‘Ring! Rice cooker ring! Shine! Natto shine!’ — such surreal lyrics (from the song ‘Hibike Denki Gama’) screamed in a voice that seemed on the verge of breaking point. I thought that was cool. I’d never heard any music that stirred in me such fear, but also had the power to make me laugh at the same time.

“Since discovering that album I’ve also seen Mikami play live, when his body and his guitar seemed perfectly at one. He has a very particular style. He’s an original.”

Yura Yura Teikoku play live in April, May and June; see for dates.