Retro’s where the future’s at


Japan’s talking heads of a liberal persuasion are clearly troubled by a rising nationalistic sentiment they detect throughout the land. But while speculation on the geopolitical consequences of any such shift may be an absorbing topic, trends in the world of culture — and the changing tastes of consumers — offer some of the most fascinating and colorful insights into this apparent recasting of national identity.

In the world of art, works that reference traditional styles are certainly gaining in popularity. In music, too, a crop of bands fusing traditional instrumentation with modern musical styles — and others that simply don nostalgic garb — are finding an increasingly receptive audience.

While the success of the shamisen-twanging Yoshida Brothers, Okinawan warbler Chitose Hajime, multi-instrumental Imperial Court Musician Hideki Togi and trendy taiko drum troupe Gocoo has been well documented, a host of new, grassroots acts is also steadily emerging.

Music journalist Tomoki Ono, who writes for magazines like Esquire and Weekly Playboy, says that these “wa-style” bands fall into two distinct categories: “Some bands, like [instrumental jazz outfit] PE’Z, use Japanese-style costumes or instruments to give them appeal to overseas listeners, others are classically trained musicians who have found that their appeal is broader than they have been taught to believe.”

PE’Z, who dub their style “Samurai Jazz,” are certainly a phenomenon, having just completed a nine-date U.S. tour and with impressive sales notched up for an instrumental act. Their fans are fanatical: The editor of a small Tokyo fashion magazine reported that last month’s edition amazingly sold out within a week after the manic jazzsters were featured on the cover.

Although their music owes little to Japanese folk music, a new event called Japonescrew is championing innovative artists such as PE’Z who use traditional instrumentation to create a contemporary jazz-rock sound. The mastermind behind this showcase is none other than Ujigami Ichiban, founder of glam-rock outfit Kabuki Rocks, who have been dressing up in kabuki-style outfits since 1990 and banging out cheesy guitar-based numbers.

Meeting Ujigami at the Roppongi studios of Internet TV channel Japan Broadcasting System, the makeup-encrusted veteran rocker explained that while his own act does not incorporate any Japanese musical influences, he is providing a forum for those that do.

“I discovered a few young bands who have a lot of Japanese spirit,” he said in a booming, kabuki-style voice. “I think they’re going to put on a great show.”

Foremost among these is Matsuri Jinsei Gevil (literally: “festival-life-vulgarize”), a four-piece based around taiko drums. With a punk-rock sound, the band recreate a carnival atmosphere on stage by dressing up in happi coats and chanting “Wasshoi, wasshoi,” the Japanese equivalent of “heave ho,” which sweating shrine-bearers chant at summer festivals.

“We grew up with the taiko drums,” said frontman Hirozumi Jado, speaking at the offices of the band’s manager in Ebisu. “We discovered punk in our teens, and our love for the two styles developed into this.”

Having played to combined audiences of over 60,000 last year, Gevil, as they are popularly known, seem to have struck a chord with music fans. Jado says that the people who come to see them range from teenage girls to middle-aged salarymen, and that the appeal of their noisy performances lies in whipping up a festival frenzy that evokes nostalgia in the audience.

Another, better-heeled act on the Japonescrew lineup is Zan, a duo playing Western-style pop on the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) and koto (Japanese floor harp). That they are signed to a subsidiary of Avex Trax, the company that manages Ayumi Hamasaki and a host of other top-selling pop acts, is an indication that the record industry has identified mainstream potential behind the trend.

Music writer Ohno, however, is skeptical about the impact — and musical merit — of the movement. “None of these bands are actually selling that many records,” he says. “And they haven’t exactly wowed the music in-crowd, either. Maybe new acts with a more exciting repertoire will emerge in the future, but for the moment most of these folk-rock fusion outfits don’t seem to have much substance behind them — or even much in the way of broad appeal.”

It may be in its nascent stages, but Japanese folk-rock fusion looks like it is here to stay — whether music buffs like it or not.