If you wanted an idealized vision of how great the Japanese music underground can be, 2019’s Black Opera was a good place to start. Held at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo in November, this audacious stage show brought together artists from disparate genres — hip-hop, noise, taiko drumming, jazz, contemporary dance, acoustic folk, spoken word and whatever it is that throat-singing shaman Fuyuki Yamakawa does — and made them feel like one big family.
As music scenes fragment and listening habits grow increasingly atomized, with everyone retreating into their own personalized Spotify bubble, it was a reminder of the importance of communal experience. Part of what made Black Opera so rewarding was the sense of hidden connections being revealed, or sometimes created on the spot. That it also offered a commentary on the turbulent times we’re living through made it all the more vital.
Given the pressures that Japanese musicians working outside the commercial mainstream face, a little solidarity goes a long way. Some of the cast of Black Opera were as much community organizers as musicians such as sound artist Atsuhiro Ito and wayward rapper Killer-Bong, founder of Black Smoker Records. The members of experimental rock trio Kukangendai, who played at the opening party, also run the live venue Soto in Kyoto, a key hub for exploratory music in the Kansai region.
Then there’s Mahito The People, the frontman for rock group Gezan. His own band may be hit-or-miss, but as an instigator he’s invaluable. In October, Mahito and pals tried to launch a Tokyo-area version of their Zenkankaku festival, a mildly anarchic Osaka event where even the food is free. When Typhoon Hagibis forced them to cancel, they managed to rustle together a replacement at half a dozen venues in central Tokyo instead — a bravura bit of last-minute organization.
A month earlier, Gezan also headlined The M/ALL, a free, crowd-funded festival in Tokyo that aimed to encourage political engagement. In addition to live music and DJ sets, audience members could pick up some eye-catching agitprop T-shirts and listen to discussion sessions on topics such as voter apathy, censorship, racism and safe spaces.
Some of these causes were championed during the Shibuya Protest Rave, a demonstration organized over the Halloween weekend by DJ and producer Mars89, under the slogan “We dance together. We fight together.” It was a welcome riposte to the oft-heard charge that Japanese musicians are too apathetic about politics, even if the list of causes — nearly 40 in all, from hate speech and the consumption tax hike to tax evasion and government corruption — was perhaps a little too inclusive for its own good.
The same weekend that Gezan saved Zenkankaku from the jaws of adversity, the organizers of long-running techno festival The Labyrinth, held at a camping ground in Gunma Prefecture this year, also bested a bad situation. While Typhoon Hagibis forced other festivals — notably Asagiri Jam — to cancel, The Labyrinth rode out the storm and started a day later than planned, delivering a party that was no less ecstatic for being slightly abbreviated. It was a bold move, and hard to imagine without a well-established community of regulars who were guaranteed to turn up.
This wasn’t the only time during 2019 that the weather gods scowled on Japan’s outdoor festival scene. A typhoon led to the cancellation of the first day of Rising Sun Rock Festival in Hokkaido, including a hotly anticipated appearance by reformed 1990s alt-rockers Number Girl. Fuji Rock Festival, typically a soggy affair at the best of times, was subjected to downpours so torrential they made the rainfall in previous years seem like drizzle in comparison.
As such extreme weather events become more common, the festival circuit — one of the few sources of vitality for Japan’s music scene — may be due for a serious reckoning. Perhaps off-season outliers such as Rainbow Disco Club, held in April, or November’s Festival de Frue, will become more normal as promoters seek a sweet spot on the calendar that’s unlikely to be affected by typhoons.
It would be a shame if everything had to move indoors, though there’s now plenty of precedent for that. All-day festivals spread across multiple venues used to be a novelty in Tokyo, but they’re fast becoming the norm. Whether these events end up cannibalizing an audience that might otherwise go to more conventional gigs is open to debate. Watching local bands perform on a weekday evening can be awfully lonely, but it’s hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the case.
Some of the best shows I’ve been to this year weren’t at regular venues, but at rehearsal studios. There’s now an informal circuit of indie gigs at practice spaces around Tokyo, which cuts down on costs and — unlike most DIY shows — doesn’t run the risk of getting noise complaints. Cramming dozens of people into a room designed for a four-piece band is probably asking for trouble, but it doesn’t get more communal than that.
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