Fuji Rock Festival: It may not make sense on paper, but the end results are glorious

by

Special To The Japan Times

This year’s Fuji Rock Festival was a damp and turbulent affair, albeit only in the most literal sense. Whatever the formula is for convincing people to blow their entire summer vacation budget on a few days in the Japan Alps — much of which will likely be spent lining up for the toilet, getting drenched in thunderstorms and searching for a stall selling beer that isn’t Heineken — this year’s festival appears to have cracked it.

Only a few years ago, every edition of Fuji Rock seemed to be greeted by rumors that it might be the last. It was hard to square such pessimistic talk with the scenes that unfurled at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture last weekend. Fresh from celebrating its 20th anniversary last year, the festival drew capacity crowds on Saturday, and came within a whisker of selling out on its other two days.

At times, the site more closely resembled a Tokyo subway station during rush hour. When 1990s pop star Kenji Ozawa made a rare appearance on the White Stage on Saturday evening, it caused an almighty traffic jam that hadn’t eased by the time LCD Soundsystem took to the same stage later in the night. This happened multiple times on Sunday, making the walk between the festival’s two biggest stages feel like a trip through Dante’s Purgatory.

Jamaican singer Jamar McNaughton, better known as Chronixx, performs during a rain shower on the White Stage on Saturday.
Jamaican singer Jamar McNaughton, better known as Chronixx, performs during a rain shower on the White Stage on Saturday. | JAMES HADFIELD

The same thing could be said about the weather. If recent editions of the festival had lulled attendees into a sense of sun-kissed complacency, this year’s was a reminder of how soggy Fuji Rock can get. On Saturday in particular, the rain barely let up all day, and at times provided a dramatic counterpoint to the onstage action.

When a torrential downpour erupted during Aphex Twin’s headlining set on the main Green Stage, you could have been forgiven for wondering if he was using an exotic modular synth that allowed him to control the elements.

The anarchic producer’s performance was one of the highlights of the weekend: a brain-boggling rave apocalypse that pushed the PA system to the absolute limit, while an accompanying VJ wreaked havoc with images of the audience and publicity shots of other artists performing at the festival. It was the most experimental thing Fuji Rock had ever featured in its headliner slot, and it made almost everyone else on that day’s lineup — even the otherwise formidable Chronixx and LCD Soundsystem — sound a little frail in comparison.

Furious set: Hip-hop act Death Grips were a standout when they played Fuji Rock in 2013 and knocked it out of the park again this year.
Furious set: Hip-hop act Death Grips were a standout when they played Fuji Rock in 2013 and knocked it out of the park again this year. | JAMES HADFIELD

The one exception, not surprisingly, was Death Grips. The hip-hop pugilists were the standout when they last played at Fuji Rock in 2013, and they repeated the trick this year. Vocalist MC Ride and drummer Zach Hill shimmered in a haze of sweat and raindrops as they summoned a sustained hour-long assault that aimed straight for the adrenal gland. In a word: furious.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the aforementioned Kenji Ozawa was one of a number of artists offering a dose of musical comfort food to Fuji Rock’s aging core demographic. The singer milked the occasion by projecting the lyrics for each of his songs on an overhead screen, encouraging the audience to sing along, karaoke-style. Elsewhere, the nostalgically inclined could catch other ’90s J-pop stalwarts such as Love Psychedelico, Yuki, Scha Dara Parr and Cocco, who performed with an intensity that rivaled Death Grips.

This was also a strong year for younger Japanese indie rockers, with appearances from the likes of Yogee New Waves, never young beach and The fin. DYGL’s energetic set on Sunday afternoon suggested that Fuji Rock could probably skip inviting flavor-of-the-month international guitar acts like The Amazons and The Lemon Twigs in the future: The local kids are doing it better now.

Take to the crowd: Wednesday Campanella
Take to the crowd: Wednesday Campanella’s Kom_I floats across the crowd during a performance at the Red Marquee on Sunday night. | JAMES HADFIELD

Wednesday Campanella’s hotly anticipated Sunday night show featured perhaps the most imaginative staging of the weekend. Singer Kom_I spent much of the performance taking a shoulder ride through the crowd that made it look like she was floating over them. At one point, someone handed her a phone, then a small child, who she nonchalantly cradled as she sang — a moment of strange, dream-like beauty.

While Fuji Rock seems to have abandoned its short-lived flirtation with EDM, it’s still dabbling in the shallow waters of the Japanese commercial mainstream, as if seeking to attract listeners who might otherwise go to this weekend’s Rock In Japan instead.

Piano man: Radwimps performed on the White Stage on Friday, a set that included their hit song
Piano man: Radwimps performed on the White Stage on Friday, a set that included their hit song ‘Zenzenzense.’ | JAMES HADFIELD

Following on from One OK Rock, Man with a Mission and Babymetal, this year’s token “as seen on TV” act was Radwimps, whose performance on Friday afternoon was an exercise in bland efficiency. Though the local Naeba police showed up to hear signature hit “Zenzenzense,” the group didn’t seem to have brought in much additional traffic, at least not in the way that Babymetal did at last year’s festival.

Tellingly, The xx pulled a far larger crowd when they played on the same stage afterward, and were given a hero’s welcome that left the band looking genuinely moved.

It was hard to tell what emotions were swaying Bjork during her headlining set on Sunday. The singer sported an outsized pink costume with a frilled collaret obscuring her face, like an Italian clown suffering a wardrobe malfunction. Joined onstage by a string orchestra and producer Arca (no stranger to outre fashions himself), she delved into the more luscious, stately corners of her back catalog, supplemented by bursts of stage pyrotechnics and footage of mating insects.

Like Fuji Rock as a whole, it didn’t make much sense on paper, but the end results were rather glorious.


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