Kenka Bancho

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For the last four years or so, new trends have been hard to spot here in Japan, but one thing I keep running into is the ’80s yankii revival. First, the band Kishidan showed up with their pastiche of 1980s Japanese rock and ultra-furyo style, and then companies started using the once-belittled “Rollers” ’50s-style dancers to sell cigarettes.

Now, the revival has made it to the video game world with Kenka Bancho — a GTA-style game that blends fighting, strategy, and romance set to the backdrop of early ’80s yankii culture. One of the fighting techniques is the “menchi beam” — a blue electrical beam approximating the devastation of the bully’s “cold stare.” Bancho is the word for the head of the school gang, and at the time, they were considered to be a huge social problem.

As I wrote in a recent OK Fred article, Japan is on a serious nostalgia kick at the moment. This is a relatively new occurrence, which I suspect stems from an increase of cultural self-confidence in the ’90s. Should a “postmodern” culture be so late to self-reference or is this a sign that the old “BUY NEW” consumer market is starting to bend backwards?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
March 26, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

25 Responses

  1. porandojin Says:

    mr marxy

    – what is yankii? young people doing the 50s biker kind of style ?

    -how does ‘ultra-furyou’ look like ???

  2. r. Says:

    this is not a text description, but if you want to know what ‘yanki’ is visually, the i suggest you rent the seminal yanki-lifestyle-as-cultural pep-rally-esque movie titled ‘bebop high school’ made back in the 80s during the height of the ‘yanki’ craze. you’ll be able to find it at tsutaya, or if you are in america, at any decent speciality japanese video store (in LA there are a dozen of these places). just watch it, and you will know.
    or course, if you are in japan you could do the oral tradition thing. just to go places in yokohama and kanagawa (like ebina-city) and find the local group of bad boys and their leader, who will be about 30, will have been a ‘yanki’ ask him to tell you about the good old days.

  3. porandojin Says:

    thanks r. … i am in a place i can only try emule ;] maybe there’ll be ‘bebop high school’ …

  4. Momus Says:

    Well, this revival (and nostalgia itself) is not as “new” as you want to suggest. Back in 1996 Kahimi Karie asked me to make songs for a project which was to be called Bancho Girls and to feature her friends Xenia and (some fashion model). To ska backing tracks, she was going to project exactly that sort of tough-girl image. I made some demos, but nothing ever came of it. Kahimi as gang Bancho: who wants to be bullied by Mickey Mouse?

  5. marxy Says:

    Oh, Kahimi. Always one step ahead. I’m sure she gets credit for this Kishidan/Kenka Bancho thing even though they never even released her songs.

    Next time, I’ll send you my next inductive observations about Japan before posting, so that you can double-check them with Kahimi B-side/unreleased tracks. Rumor has it that the new Talby phone design was based on the guitar sound from a discarded Mashcat demo.

  6. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: the last couple of years has been a big nostalgia boom. Even the shukanshi have covered it. Actually it comes as no surprise to me that the video game industry is picking up on it as well since during the boom years of Bebop Highschool they put out a ton of licenced and derivative titles based on that theme along with many sequel games. Next I expect they well re-issue the old titles ported to modern platforms. Nintendo, Namco, Konami, Capcom and the minors are all doing it for their classics so why not this stuff as well?

    Have you seen all the gachapon and “candy and item” retro stuff in the last few years? Everything from DVDs of old anime to micro reprints of old magazines to miniature “room sets” and much more. I just saw that Dagostini is putting out a set of retro movie DVD mooks as well. I find it odd that the TV companies are not cashing in on this with low priced DVD box sets of old shows but there may be rights/licensing issues around that which I dont know about.

    momus: you are the past/retro/future king! Oh wait… I kind of recall that in the mid/late ninties there was a micro-trend about bancho girls or girl gangs in general. IIRC it was Shibuya centric rather than Kanagawa centric. Maybe it was just trendy then and not as retro as you claim. I’m not speaking authoritatively so this is worth what I’m charging for it.

  7. marxy Says:

    If you believe in the 20 year rule, this yankii stuff is right on time. And although nostalgia has been in recently, it certainly wasn’t a major force of Japanese culture for a long time.

    Sha Na Na played at Woodstock.

  8. Momus Says:

    Rumor has it that the new Talby phone design was based on the guitar sound from a discarded Mashcat demo.

    You do realise that the Talby is a Marc Newson design, don’t you? Like the Asahi Beerhall, it’s an example of Japanese companies giving advanced European designers chances other countries wouldn’t dare to. Marc Newson used to share his Paris studio with my brother’s ex-girlfriend Gillian, but I can’t claim to have had a hand in the Talby’s design, lovely though it is.

    Your attempts to delink the concept “nostalgia” from the concept “Japan” are doomed to failure, I’m afraid. I’m not quite sure why you even want to try. Is it because it’s inconsistent with the idea that “Japanese have poor historical perspective”? As I said the other day, availability of the past and disposability of the past are two sides of the same coin in postmodernism. You actually don’t need to throw away the “poor perspective” idea if you accept that Japanese culture is riddled with nostalgia. Look at a billboard advert for a flat-screen TV showing a woman in a kimono in a traditional Japanese room watching it. It’s a play on the idea of “flatness” and the idea of “screen”. It’s a play on the idea of past and future meeting up. It works with ideas of Japanese uniqueness. It contains a “false memory” (or a “creative reconstruction”) of the past, together with lots of nostalgia.

  9. marxy Says:

    Your attempts to delink the concept “nostalgia” from the concept “Japan” are doomed to failure, I’m afraid.

    I often say to Robert that your arguments would almost work if you actually could contextualize them within Japanese history. There’s constantly an attempt to bury my ideas on principle that it doesn’t follow the Momus “Japan is Postmodern” line. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a whole block of scholarship still trying to figure out if Japan is really postmodern or not. (Try Japanese Encounters with Postmodernity by Sugimoto and Arnason for starts).

    Does Japan have nostalgia for old, old Japan? Of course.

    Does Japanese culture contain much nostalgia for the furusato and other non-pop cultural concepts? Yes.

    Does Japanese culture spend much energy cataloging international pop culture from the past? Yes.

    Does Japanese culture highly value its own pop cultural past? Not until recently.

    On television, there’s no VH1 Classic or “Behind the Music” or “I Love the 80s.” Studio Voice’s retrospectives are about the closest you get, but that’s a very small, target audience. But you could never do a show like the Simpsons on Japanese TV that makes reference to past PopCult at every corner – Bachman Turner Overdrive, beatnicks, breakdancing robots, the Gong Show, crooked quiz shows. You do understand that Japan’s the one country in the entire world that doesn’t like the Simpsons? It’s because they don’t get irony, they don’t get the references. That’s not the end-all-be-all proof of anything, but it fits a generally pattern. If you’re walking down the street and bump into someone, he’s not listening to The Boom’s second album.

  10. Jean Says:

    David, I beg to differ on your last point. TV is chock full of shows that look back at the hits of the eighties and nineties, anime theme songs from the 70s-80s, etc. They also love to do “where are they now” type segments on idols and artists from the eighties, even nineties. I see these all the time, and that’s ever since I’ve been in Japan.

  11. Chris_B Says:

    marxy asserted Japan’s the one country in the entire world that doesn’t like the Simpsons

    Really? Of course The Simpsons is not a “hit” here, but the characters are used in advertising (JAL Ski, CC Lemon come to mind) and the show is available on satelite on at least two channels. Have you ever watched with the vocal track in Japanese? Sometimes they do an excelent job transmogrifying some of the humor that just wouldnt work in a way that it does yet doesnt break the pace or context of the episode. Also the voice actors are excelent. The guy who voices Homer is just perfect. He makes the character completely believable in Japanese. Indeed some of the irony or referencing is sometimes missed, but the only complaint I’ve ever heard from a Japanese person about the show is that it goes too fast (emphasis mine.

    momus: Your attempts to force your view of the “post modern condition” (whatever that may be) are played out by now. You hare really reaching with the flat screen TV bit. Do you really think the ad agency tried to intentionally play on the idea of “flatness”? Also do you realize that while the kimono is no longer daily clothing for women, it is in fact still an item of contemporary fashion. Next time you do a fly in, visit some department stores and see for yourself. I’d venture that a more rational explanation of that campaign (for Sharp’s LCD TVs IIRC) shows the simplicity and the elegance of the product rather than any pseudo-philosophical subtext. Also worth noting that since LCD TVs are priced much higher than “brown tube” TVs the campaign is probably targeting the higher income adult market who may perhaps relate more to the 和風 imagery.

  12. marxy Says:

    Jean, I agree with what you’re saying. They do have a lot of flashback type segments.

    I guess, what I’m trying to say is, more than nostalgia, is that there’s little specific idolization of past Japanese popular culture. There’s a lot of “Remember Pink Lady!?!” but not a lot of “The Candies were a poor man’s Pink Lady.”

    Also, those shows usually inform about old pop culture instead of requiring the knowledge for comprehension of a joke. Most American and British comedy requires a high level of historical/cultural understanding in a way that Sazae-san does not. There’s no character on Japanese TV based on Prime Minister Ikeda in the same way that Mayor Quimby is all Kennedy jokes.

    This deviates from my original point a bit, but with Kenka Bancho and Kishidan, there is definitely something new going on, whether you want to define it as “nostalgia” or not.

  13. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: I’d say thats a difference rather than a lack.

  14. Momus Says:

    Do you really think the ad agency tried to intentionally play on the idea of “flatness”?

    Yes I do. Takashi Murakami didn’t invent the idea of flatness, it runs throughout Japanese art, craft and popular culture as an aesthetic principle. It’s not a “high class” or “low class” value, just a positive Japanese value, like cuteness, smallness, politeness, nostalgia…

  15. Momus Says:

    There’s even a song called “Be Flat” (by Anonymass):

    http://www.333.ro/html/english/discs/009/sound/00903.mp3

    (From “Intellectual Training Picture Book” http://www.333.ro/html/english/discs/009/cd009.html)

  16. marxy Says:

    It’s not a “high class” or “low class” value, just a positive Japanese value, like cuteness, smallness, politeness, nostalgia…

    Hate to be a whiny Marxist about it, but your idea of “superflatness” works perfectly into attempts to hide income inequality, power imbalances, discrimination, and promote ideas of social uniformity. Murakami’s art is not “high art” but it now symbolizes Roppongi Hills – the super rich Mori’s ode to exclusionary nouveau riche values. But hey, Japanese people are all the same – SUPERFLAT!

  17. Chris_B Says:

    momus: if this flatness of yours is so rampant here, can you tell me what its called in Japanese and provide 3 citations in Japanese of it outside of music?

  18. marxy Says:

    Chris, I don’t think that’s a particularly tough challenge. I think the harder thing is actually proving that the Japanese socio-economic/power/status structure is actually uniform/equal enough to warrant a “superflat” aesthetic to describe it.

    I would find it equally dishonest to try to say American art is “superflat” as a description of society.

  19. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: society here aint superflat anymore than I have voting rights here. If it were there wouldnt be any need for keigo now would there?

  20. Momus Says:

    Forgive me if what I say here is obvious, but I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of keigo to say that it’s a sign of a hierarchical society, a society which isn’t flat. “Meritocratic” Western societies love vertical gaps, and love to think that people need “incentives” and “status”, and that distinction is a personal attribute of the people who achieve it, just as vast wealth is meant, in the protestant mindset, to be vindication of the personal worth of a Christian, a worldy sign that he’s “saved”. Western magazine articles are all about “elites”, “the excluded” etc… they might as well be about the saved and the damned.

    Asian societies are collectivist; they’re much more uneasy about the idea of difference, and they resist the idea that status is a personal attribute. Status in Japan is structural. It’s not a sign that you’ve been singled out to “prosper” at the expense of others, but rather a structural relationship that you have with those others by virtue of the social roles you both have.

    So sure, there are formalised ways of relating to people, and they take account of status. But status is something structural, not personal. If someone bows to me in Japan, I shouldn’t take it personally and try to lord it over that person. I shouldn’t get a swollen head and try to take advantage. I shouldn’t be an arrogant prick. I should bow back. I should be humble. This is nothing personal, and nothing permanent. It is not THE GREAT ME that is being bowed to — I am simply receiving due acknowledgement that I occupy, for the time being, a position that demands formalised respect. Value distributed fairly evenly across a horizontal plane. The system needs everyone, everyone is shown respect, everyone is equally necessary.

    Personally, I think this is a much more realistic view of how social systems work than our Western system, where we tend to assume that exceptional individuals (possibly “saved”) struggle against the odds, and against opponents, in a “rat race” where “the winner takes all”.

  21. Chris_B Says:

    momus: work at a japanese company for a few years and then tell me how flat the society is here.

  22. marxy Says:

    Thank you Momus for typing out the idealized form of Asian society. I think you’ll find it helpful to at least read up on the alternate viewpoint that sees these kinds of public explanations as a way to keep power centralized and people in their places. The governments in less democratic Asian countries would probably give you the same explanation on their social civility.

    Personally, I think this is a much more realistic view of how social systems work than our Western system, where we tend to assume that exceptional individuals (possibly “saved”) struggle against the odds, and against opponents, in a “rat race” where “the winner takes all”.

    Realistic in terms of management style, but I am skeptical of the existence of a deep, personal alignment in that Japanese people living and working in the US seem to quickly abandon their “collectivist” instincts whereas foreigners coming to Japan rarely find themselves happy to be paid lower and have no job options because they aren’t part of the natural order.

    Everyone everywhere works for their own self-interest, and in Japan for a long time, the greatest road of personal achievement was to stay within the dotted lines. Deviating meant total failure. Now the old system is crumbling, and young mavericks like Horie can make a lot of money by their own rules are showing that the explicitly self-interested can succeed greater than the old paths to stable prosperity.

  23. Chris_B Says:

    It occurred to me that a better example of US lowbrow TV which does not work in the Japanese market is South Park.

  24. nate Says:

    Come June, I’m buying that game.

    Just because we’re gliding into an era where what people are getting all natsukashii over was largely televised and is friendly to repackaging, doesn’t mean that post-war nostalgia’s a new thing… at least not any more than it is in the states. I love the 80’s in a new invention there too. It’s just that the twenty year rule happens to bring us now to a different era of pop culture.

    It strikes me that enka should be hard to miss as a permanent installation of post-war nostalgia. Mini-revivals in Japan aren’t so unusual, whether it’s yakuza movies, or koma, those tops that you hit with a stick.

    Though if you don’t insist on post-war, Japan is profoundly, unmistakably nostalgic. The whole of high culture is nostalgia…

  25. marxy Says:

    I’ll concede this nostalgia thing. I don’t know why I used that word. I think what I mean is “Pop Cultural Revivalism,” and there’s a deterministic element to its late arrival. If unique Japanese pop culture never got started until the late 70s, it’d be hard to really recreate the early stuff in face of US/UK pop culture. Would you rather be in a Hippie Revival or a Futen-zoku Revival?

    The yankii are an authentically unique subculture and presented an alternative to the dominant US/UK culture of that era. I don’t think the An-Non-Zoku or Pink Lady fans in the 70s really make enough of a subculture to pick up 20 years later.