Ultra stakes a claim on Japan’s music festival throne with help from Chainsmokers, Tiesto and more

by

Special To The Japan Times

Security tugs a woozy-looking man toward the exit of Odaiba Ultra Park after he got in a scuffle with another festivalgoer. His opponent, only steps behind, has bright red bumps on his face. He approaches a guard and, with a smile, snaps a selfie.

This perpetual positivity seemed to be part and parcel of the three-day Ultra Japan festival, whose participants danced through both rain and heat over its duration.

The middle of the gathering happened as Typhoon Talim passed to Tokyo’s north on Sunday, the latter half of the day unfolding under persistent showers. Regardless, several thousand fans — many in ponchos, others risking their health to party it up in cosplay — packed the grounds and danced away to the busy sounds of DJs such as the Netherlands’ Hardwell and American duo The Chainsmokers.

Scenes like this, though, have been common since the event first came to Tokyo in 2014, right down to the meteorological interference. The first Ultra was held in Miami in 1999, and it has morphed into a worldwide series highlighting contemporary electronic dance music, typically referred to as EDM. The Japan installment has proven quite popular, and the 2017 edition featured all the hallmarks of the brand — DJs playing hard-hitting music on a giant stage, at times shooting off flames or streamers.

This year, however, Ultra Japan grew. The space it was held in was bigger — an area outside of Odaiba’s DiverCity shopping center that was gobbled up by ravers. More significantly, Ultra added a live stage that hosted artists such as Porter Robinson, Pendulum and Empire of the Sun — names most big-name rock festivals here would love to see on their own rosters. Sunday night saw Underworld close out the event two years after the British duo headlined the stadium stage at Summer Sonic.

It felt like an effort to move from EDM niche event to something trying to usurp the reign of Japan’s “big four” summer festivals: Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic, Rock in Japan and Rising Sun Rock Festival. Besides electronic acts and DJs, the live stage hosted rock acts (Crossfaith and Miyavi), genre-skipping J-pop (Wednesday Campanella, performing a chunk of her set from the top of a ladder in the middle of the crowd) and a genre somewhat ignored by Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic in recent years, hip-hop (Kohh, Salu).

And while the “big four” have come to lean on domestic acts more, Ultra Japan prioritizes overseas performers, especially on the main stage. Japanese DJs were relegated to opening roles, including J-pop power player Yasutaka Nakata, playing midday Monday.

“People at this festival get more excited about my original songs, unlike those at a club,” says Japanese producer Banvox (who doesn’t reveal his real name, saying, “I want to be like a ninja … secret”). He’s arguably the country’s most famous EDM artist, thanks in part to his song, “New Style,” soundtracking an Android phone commercial. He has toured internationally and played every installment of Ultra Japan. He kicked off this year’s festival at 11 a.m.

“The stage itself has gotten better over the years,” he says. “It has always been big, but now it has better visuals, better LED lighting.”

Most non-Japanese DJs on this beefed-up stage, meanwhile, played just as much hip-hop and pop as they did EDM. Nick Martin got a huge singalong going when he dropped “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, while Angeleno Slushii catered to locals with snippets of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and, unexpectedly, samples of comedy duo Downtown. Who needs one of the Gallagher brothers when a DJ can get thousands singing along to “Wonderwall” — but with a jackknife bass drop?

Maybe a better way to look at Ultra’s place in the domestic music-festival ecosystem is as a true alternative at a time when the other big gatherings are starting to look the same. Longer running events such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic have been attracting noticeably older crowds over the past three years. After efforts to court the youth (Fuji Rock’s flirtation with EDM acts can now safely be called a mid-life crisis) these events embraced what they are, and the end result is seeing plenty of age diversity, happy crowds … and a lot of families in attendance.

Ultra Japan goes the other way — to get in, you have to be over 20, so no luck for dads wanting to bond with their kids over a Tiesto set. That age requirement prompts a type of fun you don’t see at other gatherings, with groups of punters dressing up in matching costumes and people waving large flags at the main stage.

It’s also more chaotic. Attendees wandered the nearby DiverCity mall, vexing families and elderly tourists. Alcohol stalls outnumbered food ones by at least a 2-to-1 margin, and fans certainly got messy over the three days. On Saturday, more than a few shirtless dudes were passed out in the grass outside the main gate by 1 p.m.

Yet as sloppy as it got (Ultra reached peak “Mad Max” during The Chainsmokers’ hotly anticipated Sunday headline set, which saw the duo move from their dirt-bag pop originals to bass-heavy drops and even a taste of “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King”), fans were generally upbeat and friendly to one another. It was a diverse set owing to Ultra’s destination-festival status, with people hailing from all across Asia and beyond (the Japan Tourism Agency was a major sponsor, go on and pat yourselves on the backs guys). And regardless of weather, they seemed downright giddy.

“It’s just incredible, man,” says Dave, a student from the University of California, Los Angeles, visiting Japan. He’s running along the street connecting the main stage with the live stage high-fiving everyone he can, stopping to talk with me (“It’s tough to find other English speakers here!”). This is Dave’s first trip to Japan, and Ultra Japan was on his list of priorities. As the sound of synthesized steel drums coming from Norwegian DJ Kygo’s set echo in the distance, he stretches his arms out.

“How could you not love this, all of this!?” He then dashes off, arms in the air. I’m sure he’ll hit Meiji Shrine eventually.