It’s easy to forget that the products we use every day are made up of smaller components, made not by big-name brands, but by small factories across the world.
Family-run, downtown factories, known as machikōba in Japanese, have recently become a popular subject in domestic media. With several television shows and books about machikōba being released in quick succession, including hit drama series “Shitamachi Rocket” and its recent sequel, it seems like Japan can’t get enough of nostalgic stories about honest hard work and manufacturing.
The team behind Industrial JP, a record label dedicated to capturing the sounds of machikōba, is also eager to cast a renewed light onto the small factories and workshops that have existed for decades across Japan. Instead of focusing on the struggles of machikōba, however, the label’s approach relies on the hypnotizing sights and sounds of the machinery.
Founded in 2016, today the label has 12 releases under its belt, as well as an award from the 2018 Japan Media Arts Festival. Its releases not only include tracks produced by Japanese artists using field recordings of factories, but music videos showcasing intricate technology and interviews with the owners.
Featuring respected names in electronic music such as DJ Nobu, Foodman and Gonno, the label brings the sounds of workshops and factories around the country to Japanese dancefloors. Some of the tracks have also been remixed by international talent like Chicago’s Traxman and French producer Voiski.
Core team members Rintaro Shimohama, Toshihide Kimura, Yuki Shintani and Kenya Miyashita, say there is plenty to discover in the often unnoticed world of small factories.
“Content about machikōba always leads with this story that running factories is difficult, or that the people who work there have a lot of grit,” says copywriter and sound director Kimura, also known as Moodman when in the DJ booth. “Our project is the opposite. We show the core aspects of the technology at the beginning, draw you in, and then have you explore the music or the article.”
Through this multimedia approach, the project aims to revitalize the machikōba in ways that traditional storytelling can’t quite cover. After talking to a small factory owner who was seeking new ways to enliven the manufacturing industry, art director Shimohama immediately felt invested.
“I took on his ambitious spirit and started researching,” he says. “That’s how we decided to showcase factories through sound and film.”
Watching metal arms rise and fall as they repeat precise motions and listening to the clinking of machines build into a groove, it’s easy to see why Industrial JP focuses on such sounds and visuals. Capturing these, however, is far from simple.
“Whether it’s for the article or for the film, I really want to include the most important processes of that factory,” Shimohama says. “What’s crucial is whether those processes are visible or not. For safety reasons, a lot of newer factories fence off sections or make it difficult to use lighting.”
Even if all the machinery is accessible, identifying what processes truly characterize a particular factory can take some time, Kimura says. “When we go on a field trip to a factory, we try to figure out what technology is at the core,” he says. “With all of us approaching it differently through film, sound or writing, the process is all about closing in on that core and going from there.”
For a label that is confined to making music from factory sounds, Industrial JP has put out an impressive mix of tracks with genres ranging from techno to ambient and footwork. How does the team go about picking the right soundtrack for machines at work?
“Of course we want to keep the sound within a certain scope, but it’s boring to have everything be four-on-the-floor,” Shimohama says. “I think it’s really fun to uncover the appeal of factories by getting at it from many angles.”
Sometimes the inspiration for music doesn’t come from the sounds themselves, but from the visual aspects of the factory.
“The factory from the footwork track makes metal wires, and we immediately thought of footwork when we saw the machines move,” Kimura says. “When the machine was weaving the wires together, the movements looked just like someone’s legs dancing to footwork.”
As a popular DJ who plays several times a month, Kimura makes sure that Industrial JP’s music seamlessly fits into his sets.
“What’s so interesting about this project is that, because we’ve made the tracks dance-ready, the music also sounds great in the club,” he says. “Even when you blast it on a proper system, the music still holds up.”
Part of the fun for Kimura is also about watching the unlikely cultural exchange between the music and manufacturing worlds unfold in real time.
“Usually when you’re at the club, people talk about music but they don’t tend to talk about factories,” Kimura says, as the whole team laughs in the background. “People I meet in the club say to me now, ‘that factory was cool!’ It makes me pretty happy.”
After visiting these factories, speaking to the owners and sharing their craft with the world, the Industrial JP team has discovered that, whether made by machine or not, behind every great product is a human touch.
“Even though some things are mass produced, you can still tell from our videos that every single product is made with such precision,” producer Miyashita says. “The minor adjustments and creativity that go into it are signs of true craftsmanship.”
This kind of dedication and attention to detail is what has kept small, family-run workshops afloat during times of intense global competition. However, when writer and photographer Shintani speaks to the owners, they’re often too humble to see it this way.
“I speak to them thinking that they have this special craftsmanship, especially because these are small factories that have survived until today. But when I ask, they say there’s nothing special, it’s all machines,” he says. “But the more I listen, I see that it’s real people who carefully examine the machinery and inspect each product with their fingers. It’s the human touch that comes into play before and after the machines.”
In Industrial JP’s latest video, “Ashigara Film,” which features the Fujifilm Ashigara factory and Japanese producer Sugiurumn, viewers get to see the manufacturing process behind the popular Instax instant camera film. Oddly, while the “human touch” can’t be seen on screen, the dynamic movement of water splashing, vivid liquids flowing over sleek surfaces and rolls of film spinning rhythmically all give the process its own charming character. To the Industrial JP team, however, this isn’t too surprising.
“As soon as you start recording, you find out that every factory has its own unique groove,” Kimura says.
For more information about Industrial JP, visit idstr.jp/en.