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The dream of the ’90s is alive in Kansai

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

A big part of Japanese music’s wild overseas image is defined by groundbreaking artists from the Kansai area.

Encompassing Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, as well as nearby Nara and Wakayama, Kansai’s scene has exerted a powerful influence over international perceptions of Japanese music, particularly when it comes to punk, experimental and noise. In the 1980s and ’90s, Boredoms, Acid Mothers Temple and Shonen Knife all blazed trails for the country’s underground overseas. The Alchemy Records noise label, run by Jojo Hiroshige of noise pioneers Hijokaidan, was also influential. All of these acts hail from Osaka or made it their home.

Arriving with sparse knowledge of Kansai’s current music scene, I found the sheer volume (in both senses) of what was going on musically was initially dizzying and relentless. Fortunately, I found myself repeatedly running into Maki Kanou and Makoto Wakisaka of postpunk duo Trespass, whose impeccable musical taste helped navigate me through a blizzard of information from the cities’ dozens of live venues.

Osaka’s main live-music centers are in the Umeda area and the triangle of commercial districts around Shinsaibashi, Americamura and Namba. It’s in this latter area that a lot of Osaka’s most famous record stores can also be found, such as punk specialist Time Bomb, the more mixed King Kong, the pop- and indie-orientated Flake, and avant-garde specialist Forever Records.

According to Keizo Suhara of the Gyuune Cassette label, the underlying ethos of the Osaka scene has remained consistent from when he started releasing music in the ’90s, explaining, “Bands are different, but the road they’re traveling is the same.”

Osaka-based British musician Matthew Bell believes that “road” is characterized by its love for the underdog, which can make magnificently unrefined and expressive music, in contrast to the obsessive, almost scientific professionalism or complexity of Tokyo bands. However, it can also hold the local scene back at times, by manifesting itself in a kind of sloppiness.

Of Osaka’s two biggest neighbors, Kobe stretches westward along the coast of Osaka Bay in a seamless blend of urban sprawl. While Kobe has its own network of live venues, such as legendary punk basement Helluva Lounge, life seems to move at a visibly slower pace. New cafe-gallery-music spaces, like the Motomachi area’s confusingly named Space Eauuu, comfortably share the narrow streets with chaotic used record stores and Showa Era (1926-1989) shops that still sell electric typewriters.

Kyoto, on the other hand, feels distinct from Osaka. Its heritage as a former capital and a city largely spared from Allied bombing during World War II (and hence a lot of postwar development) gives the city a unique and contradictory psycho-geographic makeup.

The city’s many universities and colleges give the music scene a younger, more fashionable atmosphere, but it’s also more transient, with bands quick to both pop up and disappear once members graduate. Nevertheless, the music scene’s infrastructure of record stores and live venues is firmly established. Indie and club specialist Jet Set Records in particular has a reach that extends far beyond Kyoto’s city limits through its smaller Tokyo branch, while the eclectic Second Royal label has its own record shop and merchandise store nearby.

One of the things I find most striking about Kansai as a whole is how much more character the live venues have compared to those in Tokyo. Osaka’s Hokage and King Cobra have the atmosphere of European squats, and Kyoto Metro feels like an underground club from a dystopian 1980s sci-fi flick in its mix of modernism, decadence and decay.

Though Kansai has had a lower profile overseas recently, there is no shortage of bands. Theatrical Kyoto garage rockers Otoboke Beaver and the melodic Homecomings, as well as Osaka’s minimal, rhythmical Goat are all hot property in the indie scene right now. During my stay, I discovered promising Kobe indie rockers Kasuppa and discordant postpunk trio Douglas, while Osaka’s KK Manga fly the flag for their city’s long tradition of ferociously noisy geek-punk and Kyoto’s Odd Eyes, Lego Chameleon and pan-Kansai bubble gum-hardcore trio O’Summer Vacation represent a more refined take on art-punk discord.

It’s been a recurring theme when traveling around Japan that everyone thinks their local music scene is going through hard times, but on the basis of the furious barrage of fantastic new music the Kansai area subjected me to over two short weeks, it seems rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Read more about Ian Martin’s travels at www.burnyourhometown.wordpress.com.