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The Legacy of Shibuya-Kei Part Six


In the last two years, there has been a small-scale, nostalgic revival of early Shibuya-kei — two Flipper’s Guitar tribute albums in four months, the model Meg scoring a minor hit with a cover of “Groove Tube,” and magazines/stores anointing a new generation of bands “Neo-Shibuya-kei.” At this point in time, the groovy Continental sound itself is so ingrained within Japanese culture that it is hard to understand why anything would be a “new” version, but the “Neo” label makes more sense when we look at the three distinct groups carrying the Shibuya-kei torch into the 21st century.

The first group should be called “post-Shibuya-kei” because they were influenced as contemporaries (being only a few years younger than the original artists), but were outsiders to the central Shibuya-kei clique. This group includes Spank Happy, Akakage, Qypthone, Cymbals, Paris Match, and Stoned Soul Picnic.

There is also a stream of artists who have been handpicked by the original crew to be a part of the direct lineage — for example, Halfby (Readymade), Nomoto Karia (Readymade), and Harvard (Escalator).

The third group — Neo-Shibuya-kei — describes the younger acts who listened to Shibuya-kei as middle-school kids and are now creating new music based on the aesthetic principles of the original recordings. The P5-clones Capsule are the de facto leaders of this movement (although producer/songwriter wünderkind Nakata Yasutaka claims he’s never heard much of Konishi’s work). Other acts include Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Aprils, Dahlia, Petset, Spaghetti Vabune!, Pictogram Color, Kofta, Orangenoise Shortcut, and Tetrapletrap.

There are many neo-Shibuya-kei indie pop labels active in Japan at the moment — like abcdefg-record, Sucre, and Softly! — which do a very light, innocent cute pop thing. Marquee is the media guide to the movement, which editor-in-chief MMM calls “Future Pop” to include the parallel cohort of electronic-tinged artists like the avant garde-meets-Disney sample-pop maniacs Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and the electropop acts of the label Usagi-Chang Records (MacDonald Duck Eclair, Micro Mach Machine, YMCK, Sonic Coaster Pop, and Pine*AM.) While they are all students of the Shibuya-kei movement, these young musicians’ level of actual influence ranges from just sharing the “spirit” (Plus-Tech or MDDE) to certain melodic qualities (Aprils) to full out imitation (Tetrapletrap, who are a Flipper’s Guitar pakuri act.)

The interesting part of the story is that the original Shibuya-kei musicians generally have zero interest in this younger group and have tried to distance themselves accordingly. Comoestas and Mike Alway like Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, and that’s about the strongest link I can find between the two generations. There is particular internal tension within Marquee itself, since the magazine features the old timers and the upcoming young ‘ens. (There was an issue a couple of months ago where Naka Masashi from Escalator Records was clearly very upset by having his Yukari Rotten release be compared to Capsule.) The reason for the hostility seems to stem from the fact that the elders created this sound from scratch — they personally dug up the references and set the sound’s boundaries and rules. Konishi loved ’60s AM softpop before that was an acceptable thing to like. The new kids are just working within this old paradigm, which they inherited wholesale and updated only with greater technical skills and electronic gimmicks. The core of the new work, however, is essentially the same plastic aesthetic message.

I would also suspect that in a very Japanese way, there is something hostile about unknown major label-sponsored outsiders doing the same sound as you without being invited to the party. The neo-Shibuya-kei kids are part of the first generation of Japanese musicians who had mainstream access to hipster sounds without needing to gain physical admission to the hipster world. And these kids are clogging up the record bins with their bossa nova or ’60s-revival twee pop at the same time when Konishi is trying to launch his own young bossa nova dancepop producers and ’60s-retro pop idols.

This is also the first generation in a long time to grow up with a radio full of decent Japanese music. Who needs to protest against the mainstream Japanese industry and search for obscure European indie music when Cornelius is the mainstream Japanese music industry? The Shibuya-kei oeuvre was interesting enough to tie up the young listeners’ ears and wallets for a decade — a long span of time in which they could have been out crate-digging themselves. Those Japanese artists now provide the template for new music creation, and the Neo- imitation of the highly imitative Shibuya-kei is creating a “copy of a copy” clarity problem. Moreover, the whole “anti-major label” attitude that was at the heart of Flipper’s Guitar is gone. Many of the Neo kids have explained to me that the big difference between them and the indie spirit ten years ago was that they no longer have any animosity against the mainstream. In fact, their goal is to be accepted by the mainstream. They’ve got just as much Ozawa Kenji in them as Oyamada Keigo.

When all is said and done, these factors explain why the older generation isn’t lending a helping hand, but should not lead us to dismiss them on such broad charges. Admittedly, some of the neo-Shibuya-kei artists are complete knock-offs of their big brothers, but many of the young acts in the same peer group are highly original and listenable. Petset’s Sound Sphere does something emotional for me that no other Japanese indie record ever has. Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’s Hayashibe Tomonari is of genius caliber and has created a fiercely original and difficult version of pop music. Everything on Usagi-Chang is top notch. I like that Aprils sound like an amalgam of Flipper’s Guitar without directly imitating any of their songs. If you like guitar pop, Spaghetti Vabune! are your guys.

I am sure that most of these artists in particular would not liked to be called neo-Shibuya-kei, which was a title attached by Tower Records and Marquee as a way to sell this new peer group of bands as the “next big thing.” The title is convenient, however, as “indies” no longer connotes bands that sound like Western indie artists, but just all the bands who are not on major labels. “Indies” is selling great these days in Japan, but the Shibuya-kei thread is not — even the original artists are seeing their sales at 1/10th of the ’90s level. Five years ago, someone like Neil and Iraiza could easily break the 10K mark, but now the indie market is overwhelmingly pre-major label training league punk, ska, and “urban” sounds. After a huge financial push from Yamaha, Capsule have begun to sell reasonably well (in the x000 range, I would guess), but no one from the neo-Shibuya-kei group has done what made the Shibuya-kei group shine in the first place: score a substantial hit with their unique sound in the mainstream market.

The shadow of Shibuya-kei is long, and anyone engaging in creative pursuits here in Japan is either working under it or against it. The music revolutionized both Japan’s domestic consumer market and the nation’s international reputation. As the Japanese music charts return to being manufactured J-Pop idols, stale J-Rock, and imitative punk/hip hop, the memory of Shibuya-kei burns even brighter. I find it hard to imagine now, but indeed there was a time when you could turn on the radio and find something that you liked.

W. David MARX
November 24, 2004

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

13 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    Interesting. I think my attitude is pretty typical of the original Shibuya-kei generation. I’ve rejected advances from some of the neo-Shi bands you mention here, and really decided against Console, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box et al on hearing their work. I endorse experimentalists like Toshi Nakamura… just like Kahimi Karie does. (I wonder what she makes of Tujiko Noriko?)

    It seems to me that many of the Shibuya-kei artists are in the shadow of Queen Bjork — in other words, held rapt by the idea of super-creative, high fashion deviance and constant whacky experimentalism. It’s a kind of aristocratic choice, consistent with the ‘snobbery’ of their crate-digging origins and curating style. And although it doesn’t translate into strong mainstream sales, it works as a strategy for keeping the glossy magazines and creative directors on board. Kahimi’s profile is kept high by magazine features. Her records these days are almost incidental accessories to her status as a ‘taste mentor’. Which brings us back to Bourdieu, I guess.

  2. marxy Says:

    Momus: Good comment. I like that you called Capsule “Console.” That pretty much sums it up. I think Plus-Tech Squeeze Box are better than their music, which is a meaningless statement, but ultimately true.

    in other words, held rapt by the idea of super-creative, high fashion deviance and constant whacky experimentalism.

    Well put. I think the elder Shibuya-kei brethren are no longer influential on the younger generation and sell records only on their old success. But they’re surely making “neat” music that makes me feel less cool. I think they’ve lost their relevance, but you’re right: they’re still in an upper echelon of taste-making.

  3. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: A bit OT, but how familiar are you with other genres of local “underground” music? I’d like to start up a seperate conversation with someone who knows the current electronica/dub or just non pop sounds. If you want to email me, I’ve put a valid email address in this time.

  4. marxy Says:

    how familiar are you with other genres of local “underground” music? I’d like to start up a seperate conversation with someone who knows the current electronica/dub or just non pop sounds.

    I am an unabashed pop fan. I am vaguely familiar with electronic artists in Japan, but not knowledgable. Robert Duckworth is your guy for experimental electronic stuff in Japan. Momus also knows a lot in that territory. As for Dub, there are some semi-pop artists like Dry and Heavy around. There seems to be a hipster scene of reggae/dub/old-school hip hop that I run into once and a while, but I don’t really have any info other than it’s based around the clubs Milk and Organ B..

    What do you mean by “local”? Like the Chiba-ken Gabba scene?

  5. Chris_B Says:

    I know Dry n Heavy, I have one of their CDs, good enough stuff. Really old school jdub like Mute Beat was great. Loved their brass.

    I guess by local I just meant “in japan”. I’m too much the salaryman now to do much clubbing even though I live right in the heart of Tokyo. My last clubbing memory here was sometime in the late 90s when one of the DJs/members of Loop Guru was spinning. I cant even remember what club it was.

  6. Sebastian Says:

    I`m from Europe, so please excuse my bad English and my quarter-knowledge of japanese pop scene…

    First of all I thought, that bourdieu CRITIZICED the accumulation of cultural capital as an aspect of power over and distinction from the lower class – in analogy of the accumulation of financial capital. But I`m not a socilog, and I don`t think that sociological theories are the propper paradigma to talk about the quality of music (as its popularity and its roll in certain peer groups are also not a matter of its quality, in my opinion).

    Second: have a look on the niveau, you are complaining. Maybe, in the so called “new shibuya-kei”-scene (I didn`t heared that term before) there is a lot of imitation. But compared to the german pop scene (emphasis on “pop”) there is still a very lively and creative scene in japan, that seems to seek for a new direction. And with a view on the nouveau chanson in France you can see, that “imitation” and “innovation” is often very nearby.

    I also think, that the aprils (as far as I know them) have the most freshest and unique sound, that seems to direct into an independend style. But in my opinion also capsule is not as bad, as you pointed out (if you don`t care about their pseudo P5 presentation). The old shibuya bands are mostly dead, I agree, and the memory is still fresh and their shadow is long. But couldn`t it be the fact, that the young bands are on their way to their own style?

    But besides all different opinions, the shibuya-kei articles are very good and interesting!

    (to momus: first of all I associated “bjork” with the cover of kahimis montage-cd.)

  7. marxy Says:

    Sebastian: Thanks for the post.

    In regards to Bourdieu, I also distrust the concept of “cool” or “good taste” as a societal conceit created to divide people into socio-economic or consumer classes. I think you can apply the idea to the Shibuya-kei artists’ social position, but not necessarily whether Shibuya-kei is “good” or not.

    Aprils: I like them. They are my friends. I think their first album is very original, but their new one is very “90s Shibuya-kei.” I don’t think this is bad personally, but I understand why the older generation may not be interested. Same goes with Capsule: I’ve never said they were “bad” as much as I think Konishi may not like them very much.

    Good point, though: Is neo-Shibuya-kei more imitative than Jpop? No, it is not. But it is also non-mainstream music, and therefore, naturally gets held to higher standards.

  8. Sebastian Says:

    Hello Marxy,

    according to bourdieu: yes, I agree, maybee a good method to describe the social position of the stars (Kahimi as taste-mentor). But I thought about the discussion, that “popularity” and the easy account to information (through commercialisation or media like internet) is the death of every sub- or protest-culture like the “shibuya-movement” was. The second point: the neo-shibuya bands use the same paradigma as the original shibuya-kei, but they do not have the protest attitude against the commercial scene in japan but even search for commercial success (hope my resumee is correct).

    To the last point: I fully agree, but I think it`s a world-wide phenomenon, that the kids mostly don`t have any problems to link protest or sub-culture with commercial success, well, to provocate a bit: think of the “march through the institutions” of the 68-generation.

    Some words to the second point: sounds a bit like the raise and fall sheme of Spengler, I prefer the view, that the new bands take the “tradition” on their way to build something new. But I think something other is interesting: You explained, that the old shibuya-artist used the european indie-scene to create something new and they had a protest-attitude against the majors in japan. Well, in the other direction: the sushi sampler from bungalow (and there is a shotclub-sampler from shibuya, that presents the younger Japanese generation of artists), did not bring the european influence on japan back to europe, but has been seen as a funny and exotic bonbon from an outer planet.

    On the other hand and to come back to the theory of knowledge and sub-culture or protest-movement from a global point of view: there is an increasing manga hype in germany, and parallel a raising popularity of the (awfull!!!) commercial scene with Hamasaki, Dir en grey and so on. The kids use some internet-forum to create a small and conspirating community to protest against the american influenced commercial scene in germany (commercial against commercial). So sub-culture and group identity as an “information-community” still functions in a world of information, just in a funny way.

    At least to the raise and fall with a view on the german techno- and electronic-scene: it also developed from a creative protest-movement to a commercial hype, but after its fall some years ago younger artists took the tradition, developed it to a new direction and brought it back to the small clubs and pubs.

    Sorry for that long answer, see it as a small view from outside.

  9. Momus Says:

    There’s a weird show on Berlin cable which is a bunch of German kids sitting around talking about Visual Kei and manga, with occasional visits from ‘real’ Japanese guests. For some reason I have the impression that these kids are all ‘East’ Germans, because there are youth scenes in formerly East German cities like Leipzig which have a Visual-kei meets Caligari meets Goth look. I think the cable show comes from Potsdam.

  10. Sebastian Says:

    Haha, well, I didn`t see the show up to know (it`s neither my age, nor my music or fashion style) , but I think it`s right, a lot of them are from eastern germany. But although it is originally a commercial scene in japan (i guess), they fell like a conspirative sub-culture, and in fact: in germany they are!

  11. Sebastian Says:

    To marxy: just read your article again, sorry, I think I refered more to the previous comments, so no critique of your essay…

  12. porandojin Says:

    i also witness this strange- commercial against american commercial- spirit in poland … kids who want to be ‘different’ choose between awful jpop, non-english euro-pop or habibi, bhangra etc …

  13. r. Says:

    sorry to be batting clean-up here, but i just wanted to interject something. i remember having a conversation with a friend of mine brad breeck
    in LA at calarts a few years ago, and he asked me if i thought that Cornelius was a kind of stockhausen of pop. (stockhausen is seen as THE quintessential modern music systematizer; cage would be THE assimilative composer; xenakis would be an example of THE systemic composer, but that is another story…) anyway, i think that cornelius falls more on the cageian side of things, but he still has some glaring obsessive tendancies ala stocky: encapsulation, exhaustion of materials, musical trophe, hyperextension, etc. anyway, as far as this can be seen as part of the irreducible ‘core’ of the shibuya-kei aesthetic at work in his past opus, the mere fact that a lot of other ‘assimilable’ musics have come out SINCE then points to the need for a post-post-shibuya-kei. the sheer newness of extant material to be quoted is justification for a resurrection of the genre in and of itself. perhaps that’s why the brittle frenzy of ‘plus t. squeeze’ is so alluring…and so RIGHT.