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The Legacy of Shibuya-Kei Part Three

The First Wave Consolidates

Although a strict interpretation of the Shibuya-kei scene would start and end with Flipper’s Guitar, the words “Shibuya-kei” came to connote the stream of Japanese indiepop following in the original bands’ footsteps. The First Wave had been pioneers in introducing a whole panoply of new sounds to Japanese popular music: UK indie/alternative scenes like anorak pop, neo-acoustic, and Madchester (Flipper’s Guitar), hip hop (Scha Dara Parr), and ’60s softpop and club jazz (Pizzicato Five).

From ’89-’91, these bands had minimal interaction, but once FG was officially disbanded, they began a long history of crossover appearances. Oyamada Keigo produced Pizzicato Five’s 1993 album BOSSA NOVA 2001, which would codify the “Shibuya style” for the next decade as nostalgic borrowing from past sounds mixed with au courant dance beats. Meanwhile, Ozawa Kenji collaborated with SDP to create the 1994 mega-hit “Konya ha bugii bakku.

The Second Wave

After the breakup, Ozawa and Oyamada took two completely different routes with their solo careers.

Oyamada renamed himself Cornelius and in 1993 put out his debut The First Question Award. The album recalled a friendly, mid-period FG, but took its greatest influence (and hooks) from the hipster rediscovery of Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends. More importantly, he started the sub-label Trattoria on Polystar to release unavailable Western titles in Japan (like Apples in Stereo and Free Design) and kick start the careers of young Japanese indie stars like Bridge (Kaji Hideki‘s original band), Citrus, Seagull Screaming, Kiss Her, Kiss Her, and many others. Oyamada also produced some of his then girlfriend Kahimi Karie‘s first work and repaid his debt to Salon Music by adding them to the Trattoria roster. Regardless of his plunge into the shallows of the underground, Oyamada was still a bone fide rockstar. In 1993, he could be seen in the inside cover of magazines doing ads for the Uno brand of hair mousse.

In stark contrast, Ozawa went straight-up J-Pop, scoring a string of big hits and even appearing on the ultra-conservative NHK New Years’ variety show Kouhaku Uta Gassen. Core Flipper’s fans followed Ozawa’s work devotionally, but he essentially left the indie world and no longer influenced the Japanese underground music scene. If FG was the Beatles, Ozawa was Wings.

A host of new bands also joined the informal movement in the mid-early ’90s: Venus Peter (discovered by Oyamada and produced by Salon Music’s Yoshida), Love Tambourines (on Takemi Kenji’s influential Crue-l label) , the rap-pop act Tokyo No. 1 Soulset (discovered by Oyamada), and Original Love (ex-Pizzicato Five vocalist Tajima Takao). Dee-lite’s Towa Tei came back to Japan from New York in the mid-’90s, and although he was regarded as a pioneer and antecedent to Shibuya-kei, the sound of his solo releases resembled the movement’s signature style enough to imply a loose membership. Denki Groove were more of a dance-humor-pop act, but there was great crossover between fans of Shibuya-kei and their work.

Cornelius’ second album — the heavy metal/hip hop-influenced 69/96 — was released in 1995 and is still his best selling record to date. Kahimi Karie scored some big hits on the Oricon charts like “Good Morning World” with the Scottish producer/songwriter Momus on board.

Shibuya-kei fashion had been strictly Continental dandy, but starting around 1995, Oyamada’s close relation to the fashion director Nigo and his brand A Bathing Ape brought the indie-fashion world of Ura-Harajuku into the indie music world of Shibuya-kei. Both men had supposedly stumbled upon an obsession with Planet of the Apes at the same exact moment in 1993 — collaboration was inevitable. Soon after meeting, Bape was making tour T-shirts for Cornelius, and until around 2002, Oyamada always dressed head-to-toe in the brand for official appearances.

The Third Wave

By the late ’90s, the Shibuya-kei bands had become so ubiquitous that the term no longer implied any sort of rebellious alternative to the mainstream. Their influence had permeated society, and massive big budget projects like the Puffy and My Little Lover were obviously taking notes from the indiepop playbook.

However, the term “Shibuya-kei” still served as a convenient way to describe the new acts working in a similar style. The German label Bungalow Records‘ massively well-received Japanese “clubpop” compilation Sushi 4004 directly codified the featured bands as “Shibuya-kei.”

New additions to the scene were Naka Masashi’s Escalator Records group: Yukari Fresh, Cubismo Grafico, Neil and Iraiza, and later, Naka’s own Losfeld. Also, Oh! Penelope — the reincarnation of ex-J-Rockers Shijin no Chi — put out one album of dead-on Shibuya-sound ’60s tributes (Milk&Cookies) and earned a tenuous place on the stage. Ex-Fancy Face Groovy Name and Ozawa girlfriend Minekawa Takako came aboard with her bedroom analog synth concoctions. Psych-out turntabling krautrockers Buffalo Daugher also were lumped in. Ex-Denki Groove’s Sunahara Yoshinori (aka Marin)’s amazing concept album Take Off and Landing took the Shibuya-kei sound into the air with an electronic tribute to Pan Am jetset culture.

Pizzicato Five’s Konishi Yasuharu meanwhile started his own label Readymade and released works by the lounge/dance DJs Tanaka Tomoyuki (Fantastic Plastic Machine), Ikeda Masanori (Mansfield), and latin beat fanatic Comoestas Yaegashi. The label even tried to construct a revisionist “Shibuya-kei” past through their Good Night Tokyo and Midnight Tokyo collections of groovy tracks from the ’60s.

Cornelius’s masterpiece Fantasma came out in 1997 and can be said to be the culmination of the scene’s sound. The album is a seamless trip through a well-curated collection of music-nerd influences — hip hop, turntabling, High Llamas, My Bloody Valentine, ’70s punk, the Music Machine, cartoon soundtracks, drum’n’bass, Primal Scream, the Beach Boys, sampling, Apples in Stereo, retro-futurism, Bach, Disneyland, the Jesus and Mary Chain, drugs, theremin, and Cornelius self-references.

By the end of the decade, the term “Shibuya-kei” had snowballed and snowballed to a point where it almost included any and all anti-mainstream sounds that fit a specific mukokuseki internationalist aesthetic. It was no longer a canonized musical style, but an attitude — a devotion to sophistication, a penchant for reference and pastiche, an anti-Jpop stance, and an unwavering attention to design and detail. However, as we’ll see in the next chapter, the rest of Japan also scooped up these trends, and the mainstream use of the Shibuya-kei ingredients softened the impact and meaning of the indie rebellion.

Continued in Part Four

W. David MARX
November 19, 2004

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

11 Responses

  1. marxy Says:

    I apologize for this highly condensed history. I play loose with the actual timeline to form narrative streams. If anyone sees any places for correction, please comment below.

    When I started this, I intended to do an essay on why Shibuya-kei matters and where it’s going but I have gotten bogged down in this strictly textbook series of posts. Next time will be all analysis and perhaps more interesting.

  2. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Off-topic (or maybe not) but I wonder if you have any insight into relationship between Cornelius and Relax magazine. For a while he was in every issue, sometimes in several places.

  3. Momus Says:

    Yeah, this is fine and factual as far as it goes — I’d just add the importance of Gainsbourg to the Shibuya-kei artists. I’m looking forward to the analysis part. You use the word ‘curation’ to talk about Cornelius, and it’s even more Kahimi Karie’s modus operandi. I think something really interesting is the way that curation and globalism come together in Shibuya kei. Japan’s well-stocked record stores — Kahimi and Cornelius lived together in Roppongi, next to Wave, when I first met them — became a direct link to a wide, multi-cultural world. Merely buying records by foreign artists led to collaborations with them, and to their integration into the Shibuya-kei sound. Kahimi didn’t only work with me, but with Stereo Total, Philippe Katerine, Olivia Tremor Control, Add N To X, etc etc. Shibuya-kei was extremely mukokuseki as a movement, and not just in the limited Japanese way of ‘Let’s buy stuff by foreigners we’ll never meet or interact with’.

    It’s also interesting that Shibuya-kei influenced western artists in turn. Bungalow followed up their ‘Sushi 3003’ and ‘Sushi 4004’ compilations of Japanese bands with ‘RO 3003’, a Shibuya-kei inspired compilation of German bands who were ‘post-Shibuya’ in the sense of having been influenced by it, in somewhat the same way that Japanoise bands like the Boredoms have influenced the new American crop of ‘post-Japanoise’ groups like Black Dice and Lightning Bolt. The cultural exchange, and the ‘Japanization’ of some of the more progressive parts of the west, continue to this day.

    I can date the ‘Japanization’ of my own work to 1998, although it wasn’t really to anything resembling Shibuya-kei. The style I invented that year, ‘Analog Baroque’, was actually more influenced by Japanese street fashion as a form of postmodern globalist curation!

  4. marxy Says:

    Sparklig: Relax is one of the media in the late 90s to take the Shibuya-kei/Ura-Harajuku pre-curated template and roll with it in the late 90s. That’s a discussion better for next time.

    Momus: Oh, the analysis will be the fun part! That’s where they’ll be some revisionist strains, and I’ll probably need to be corrected. You are dead-on with the Serge reference, although I don’t feel it much in Cornelius’ direct work – more with P5 and Kahimi. Mr. Gainsbourg is one of the gods of good taste in Japan, certainly.

    Nice point on Bungalow. I will talk about this more next time as well, but I think that the Japanese were so much better at making the “clubpop” sound than anyone else.

  5. marxy Says:

    A couple of people I forgot to mention who would definitely be considered “Shibuya-kei”: Kaji Hideki, Chocolat (Shibuya-kei idol), Fishmans, and later on, Sunaga Tatsuo.

  6. marxy Says:

    Ah, I also forgot Crue-L! Momus, can you explain how they fit in?

  7. marxy Says:

    Looks like this will be a five-part story. I just wrote another big chunk about the end of Shibuya-kei and didn’t even have time to get to what it all means. I will post that next one tomorrow.

  8. Momus Says:

    Cru-el was started by Kenji Takimi, a close friend of Keigo Oyamada’s. He and Ken Makimura of Polystar (who dated Takako Minekawa at one point and gave Oyamada his Trattoria label) were key players in Shibuya-kei. Cru-el was very influenced by el Records, as you can tell from the name. Takimi had his own band, the Cru-el Grand Orchestra, which was a sort of pomo Love Unlimited Orchestra. His big hit though was with Love Tambourines, a soully pop band. Another important figure is Shoichi Kajino, who was at Nippon Columbia when I was there (as were Pizzicato 5) and then set up his own label, L’Appareil Photo. Kajino is a big fashion fan (he now designs Ryuko Tsushin magazine, though his label is still active) and a huge Francophile and Gainsbourg fan.

  9. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Marxy: I was wondering whether there was a specific business relationship between Relax and Shibuya-kei artists like Cornelius or their labels.

  10. marxy Says:

    Relax is a magazine produced by the large firm Magazine House. I don’t think there is any shady business connection, as much as Relax reinvented itself in the late 90s as a “Shibuya-kei/Ura-Harajuku” magazine and needed people like Cornelius to be in it. I am sure Cornelius himself was happy to be pick up a paycheck for going to a bunch of science museums.

  11. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Your discussion prompted me to seek and browse some early issues of Fool’s Mate magazine.
    I happened to be in Tokyo briefly this weekend for a friend’s marriage and on my way to the Shinkansen ride back home I stopped in at a shop on Yasukuni Doori which had a rather extensive collection of back issues.

    The earliest issues are even more impressive than the one’s from the mid- to late- 80’s that I’d seen before. There’s a sophisticated understanding and reporting of the London Postpunk and early industrial music scene with reporting on bands like SPK, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire. And popular articles on postmodern philosophy – weird circuit diagrams with Derrida and Deleuze in them. There’s also evidence of good connections with the international avant garde scene there – Fred Frith is on the editorial board of some of the early issues.

    It’s kind of fascinating to me that a group of music fans would take it upon themselves to document overseas underground music with such detail and balance of presentation that it can only be described as scholarly.