Music

Fuji Rock sees a slow pivot to a more Japanese lineup

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

When Fuji Rock Festival started in late 1990s, the principal attractions were invariably imported. Although the event also featured plenty of Japanese bands, even in the early years, it was Westerners that exerted the biggest draw — from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters to Bjork, Aphex Twin and The Prodigy.

Two decades on, Fuji Rock isn’t quite the bastion of international music it once was. Slowly but inevitably, the lineup has gone domestic; this year marks the first time that half of the groups playing on the main Green Stage won’t be flying in for the occasion.

Despite a proliferation of festivals in Japan, Fuji Rock remains one of the only ones to book overseas artists, and some fear that by leaning more on home-grown acts, it’s giving up its main selling point. But you won’t find a more diverse selection of Japanese music at any other event this summer. Here are a few of the acts to catch.

Friday

Taiji Sato & Kasumiren: As the frontman for Theatre Brook, shaggy-haired rocker Taiji Sato is a regular presence at Fuji Rock. However, he’ll be appearing in a slightly different guise this year: The Tokushima native is wielding his electric guitar alongside performers specializing in the city’s signature traditional festival, the Awa Odori. Matsuri rock, anyone? (Cafe de Paris, 1 p.m.)

Sakanaction: When these anthemic electro rockers last played here in 2012, leader Ichiro Yamaguchi told The Japan Times that he wasn’t sure if they’d fit in. But don’t be surprised if Sakanaction ends up drawing a bigger crowd than Friday’s actual headliners, N.E.R.D. Coming straight off a national tour that featured little new material and plenty of hits, the group should be on peak crowd-pleasing form. (Green Stage, 6:50 p.m.)

Goma & The Jungle Rhythm Section: Didgeridoo player Goma’s remarkable comeback after a car accident left him with severe amnesia has been well documented, but the percussive assault he whips up with his Jungle Rhythm Section would hold its own even without the backstory. If you’re wondering where to find Fuji Rock’s hippy contingent, they’ll be in the front row. (Field of Heaven, 3.20 p.m.)

Tokyo Shiokouji: Easily the most highbrow act on this year’s Rookie A Go-Go stage (Fuji Rock’s proving ground for emerging artists), Tokyo Shiokouji draws inspiration from minimal music and meticulous, ECM-style jazz. The ensemble will be performing in a more streamlined version of its usual 15-member lineup—because, hey, it’s a small stage. (Rookie A Go-Go, 3 a.m.)

Zombie-Chang: While last year’s “Gang!” album suggested Zombie-Chang might replicate the crossover success of Wednesday Campanella, the singer/producer has already zipped off in a different direction. On her just-released follow-up, “Petit Petit Petit,” she enlists a three-piece band for some scrappy new wave, with nods to ’80s avant-pop icons like Jun Togawa. (Naeba Shokudo, 8:20 p.m.)

Saturday

Tokiko Kato: When the great Kiyoshiro Imawano passed away in 2009, the informal mantle of Fuji Rock’s lucky mascot passed to Tokiko Kato. The 75-year-old torch singer seems to pop up somewhere on the lineup every year, and she became one of the festival’s all-time legends when she crashed the stage during a performance by Onda Vaga in 2012. (Cafe de Paris, 4 p.m.)

More The Man: The enduring popularity of ska music in Japan is a mystery that we don’t have space to unravel here. Suffice to say that More The Man, the latest outfit of former Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra mainstay Tatsuyuki Hiyamuta, may be the dumbest thing you watch all weekend — and the most fun. (Red Marquee, 12:40 p.m.)

D.A.N.: One of many Rookie A Go-Go alumni returning this year, D.A.N. has since opened for James Blake and The xx, which should tell you all you need to know about where this trio is coming from. There’s more than a hint of ’90s trip-hop in the group’s melancholic electronic rock, which on sophomore album “Sonatine” — released just last week — acquires a cinematic sweep. (Red Marquee, 5:50 p.m.)

Kazunori Kumagai: Though it’s squirrelled away at the far end of the campsite, the Pyramid Garden attracts some surprisingly big names. It’s worth dragging yourself over there on Saturday night for an audience with Japan’s foremost tap dancer, performing here in a stripped-back session with Senegalese percussionists Latyr Sy and Karamo Cissokho. (Pyramid Garden, 10:30 p.m.)

Minyo Crusaders: This punningly named 10-piece blends Latin rhythms and the odd bit of Afrobeat with the lilting vocals of Japanese folk (that’s the minyō part). While last year’s “Echoes of Japan” album was agreeable enough, Minyo Crusaders should come into their own in a festival setting, and the late-night Crystal Palace Tent provides an ideal venue. (Crystal Palace Tent, 1:30 a.m.)

Dentoh Butai Geijutsu: This year’s most unlikely booking, Dentoh Butai Geijutsu is dedicated to preserving Japan’s venerable performing arts, including the ancient court music known as gagaku. The troupe played for Ivanka Trump during her visit to the country last year, but if they can win over a rowdy Fuji Rock crowd on Saturday night, they’ll really have something to brag about. (Naeba Shokudo, 6:20 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday)

Sunday

Kodo: The art of taiko drumming is defined as much by athleticism and spectacle as by music, and no one does it better than this ensemble from Niigata’s Sado Island. Sure, Kodo has taken some iffy turns in recent years — a collaboration with virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku being the most glaring example — but the group remains a thrilling live prospect. Suchmos, next up on the Green Stage, will have a tough act to follow. (Green Stage, 11 a.m.)

King Gnu: There’s a lot of buzz around this four-piece, led by Tokyo University of the Arts alum Daiki Tsuneta. Formerly known as Srv.Vinci, King Gnu underwent a name change and embraced a more boisterous sound last year. Recent single “Flash!” sounds like a young Kasabian, but at other times the band seems poised for even bigger things. (Red Marquee, 11:30 a.m.)

Hanah Spring: In a parallel J-pop universe where the cream of the talent actually rises to the top, Hanah Spring would be a bona fide star. The daughter of jazz musician parents, she boasts stellar vocal chops and an inviting nu-soul sound redolent of early Erykah Badu. Assuming the notoriously fickle weather in Naeba is on its best behavior, this should provide the ideal soundtrack for a sunny Sunday afternoon. (Gypsy Avalon, 3:45 p.m.)

Cero: While many of the group’s peers have found what they were good at and stuck with it, Cero has continued to evolve dramatically from one album to the next. This year’s “Poly Life Multi Soul” is the best thing the trio has produced to date, mixing jazz, Brazilian, Afrobeat and club influences into audacious polyrhythmic arrangements. (White Stage, 8:20 p.m.)

Chai: Though they’re appearing as the official pick from last year’s Rookie A Go-Go lineup, it’s not like Chai needed any extra support at this point. The quartet has been unstoppable over the past year, and the charm of its effervescent, ’80s-inflected new-wave pop doesn’t show any sign of fading. If you were thinking of sneaking home early at the end of the festival, here’s your reason to stay. (Red Marquee, midnight)

Fuji Rock Festival takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture on July 27, 28 and 29. For more information, visit www.fujirock-eng.com.