The state of the world in 2020 is one that Lastlings, a half-Japanese, half-Australian musical sibling duo, seem oddly prepared for, right down to their name.
“Lastlings” was the title of a short story that guitarist and producer Josh Dowdle, 27, wrote in high school about the survivors of an apocalyptic event. Nature has reclaimed the cities, nothing is open and the “lastlings” are the only remaining people on Earth.
“We have a dystopian aesthetic,” Josh says on a video call from a studio in Australia. “I guess it’s a coincidence.”
Josh and his sister, Amy, 21, have just released their debut album, “First Contact,” with an anime-inspired three-minute video trailer shot entirely in Tokyo. Their studied poses, artful silhouettes and symmetric good looks set against metamorphosing cityscapes recall scenes from a psychedelic Satoshi Kon anime. Were it not for the pandemic, you could’ve seen them perform live here this month.
“We were supposed to play (in Tokyo) right about now,” says Josh. “It’s actually pretty sad.”
Less coincidental is their sound, a mix of ambient, bass-driven electronic music leavened by Amy’s pop-oriented vocals and lyrics. Its roots are miles away from the surf rock that dominates their geographic home in the rural Gold Coast region of northeast Australia.
Last year, their unique electro-pop blend took them to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California, as well as Los Angeles State Historic Park and Colorado’s gorgeous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where they supported Rufus Du Sol, fellow Australians who play alternative dance music.
But it’s neither America nor Australia that serves as their muse. It’s Japan.
The Dowdle siblings visited Japan 13 times during their childhood and teenage years, shuttling between the vibrant metropolises of Yokohama and Tokyo while visiting their aunt, and the still and nearly silent fishing village in Aomori where their grandparents live.
The contrast was a source of fascination. Nothing in Australia compared to either environment, they say, but in both they found an otherworldly atmosphere that they can now appreciate in books by Haruki Murakami and anime classics such as “Akira,” “Spirited Away” and “Ghost in the Shell,” films they often stream in the background while recording music.
“I wrote a lot of the lyrics for our album at our grandparents’ place because there’s nothing to do up there,” Amy says. “You just sleep and eat and watch the snow. It’s so beautiful. We don’t even get snow where we are in Australia.”
While the experience of being biracial doesn’t feature in Amy’s lyrics, the siblings agree that the relentless teasing they went through for being part Japanese while growing up in Australia is what led them to music.
According to Josh, “a lot of people are quite ignorant about other races, other cultures,” and so the Dowdles took refuge in composing and performing. Josh is classically trained, but taught himself to play guitar and started forming garage bands as a teenager. Amy played classical piano, sang in a choir and began writing songs when she was just 10 years old.
The Dowdles aren’t the only ones who have searched for creative ways to explore and understand their identity. In 2013, Megumi Nishikura and Laura Perez Takagi co-directed a documentary film called “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan,” telling the stories of five residents who are “hāfu” (a colloquial term for individuals who are half-Japanese). Nishikura, born in Tokyo to an Irish American mother and Japanese father, sees a shift in the way half-Japanese and other mixed-race Asians now champion an ethnic identity they once tried to conceal.
“Many multiracial Asians in the United States have felt they have to choose one heritage over the other in order to survive,” she says. “But today we are seeing a growing number of people who embrace both of their backgrounds, and in particular, claim their Asian identities.”
Takagi, who is half-Spanish and was born in Tokyo, believes Japan is undergoing a similar cultural transition. Her early childhood years in Tokyo and Chiba were so marred by bullying that she no longer wanted to be a part of Japanese society. But after living abroad, she returned to Japan in her 20s, and she gradually felt more at home.
“I did go through a period of wanting to neglect my Japanese side, but I eventually overcame my insecurities after being back in Japan,” she says. “Today I am proud of both cultures that make up who I am.”
People who are half-Japanese have been making headlines here in the past several years. In 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, who is half-Black American, was the first biracial woman to be crowned Miss Universe Japan. Last year, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese heritage, relinquished her U.S citizenship and chose to take sole Japanese nationality to represent the country in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. More recently, it was announced that Osaka will feature as the protagonist of a manga series released by the magazine Nakayoshi later this month.
At the end of November, sports giant Nike released a bold advertisement in Japan featuring three female athletes, all from half-Japanese households, struggling against domestic prejudice.
“Growing up half is very difficult when you’re younger, but once you’re older, no one believes that you’re half-Japanese,” says Josh. “So we’ve become more open about it and proud of it.”
Even the former schoolmates who once made fun of him, he adds, now fill Instagram feeds with photos from their holiday trips to Japan, usually raving about the food, hospitality and ski resorts.
In a year when few can travel, let alone go on tour, Josh and Amy have been locally focused. They were able to perform a limited-capacity, seated-only show in nearby Brisbane, and they hope to play in Sydney after COVID-19 restrictions are eased. The Lastlings Japan Tour is postponed until 2021, but their first stop won’t be a music venue. They want to climb Mount Fuji.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.
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