Now that Cornelius (Oyamada Keigo) is finally releasing his new album Sensuous after five years of quiet laboratory work and being the Japanese Music World’s Greatest Dad1, everyone is suddenly interested in taking another look at Shibuya-kei as background to how Oyamada can release an album of aimless electro-acoustic tinkerings and automatically make the media world go into a frenzy.
Subsequently, I was invited to write a piece in today’s Japan Times about the movement to go along with their Cornelius interview (most likely because Momus turned it down.) If you have read my “Legacy of Shibuya-kei” pieces, the content of today’s article should be very familiar to you.
Recruit’s free-paper R25 had the same idea as the Times, and their new issue — which can be picked up off the floors of rush-hour subways starting today — has a “long interview” with Oyamada. Oddly, they spend the entire interview talking about his original activity with his first band Flipper’s Guitar rather than the new album. But since the magazine is about “stimulating” men in the business world, the article is most interested in Oyamada’s anomalous success as somebody who never cared about success. A very ’90s idea, indeed.
Things I learned from the R25 interview:
• Oyamada used to be in a Jesus and Mary Chain and Cramps cover band in high school, and none of his fellow students had any idea what was going on.
• Oyamada was in the hospital recovering from a traffic accident when he first heard about the success of the first Flipper’s album Three Cheers for Our Side.
• After FG broke up, the first thing Oyamada did was music for hair care product TV commercials (I knew he did print ads for Uno.)
• He never really took his business seriously until signing to Matador in the U.S. and going abroad.
The article also emphasizes the wide effect of Oyamada’s aesthetic sense (審美眼) on Japanese youth culture, and the context makes it clear that Flipper’s Guitar was one of the first popular musical acts in Japan to explicitly reference obscure Western bands that were not even big in their home countries. Oyamada gives the impression that he himself was very surprised that the music industry would care about what they as total music nerds were doing in their spare time:
I was influenced by really small English indie labels, and I was active in a tiny scene that probably didn’t even make up 100 listeners all across the country. So I never thought that the music I was doing could become a job. I was pretty sure we were all otaku and that itself was fun. So even if the record companies started to talk to us, I didn’t think more of it than “Oh, they have some weird people over there too.” We just thought about putting out one album for posterity’s sake. (記念に一枚)
This historical picture paints pre-Flipper’s Japan (circa 1988) as something completely different than what exists now. Did Flipper’s Guitar single-handedly bring the widespread love of obscure foreign indie and underground culture to the Japanese pop economy, or was it just the soundtrack for a coeval broad consumer movement? Seeing that Flipper’s did a large part in introducing so much to their legions of fans, I find it hard to remove them completely from the cause-and-effect. Surely the media environment was right for a diversification in aesthetic sense from the monolithic (and boring) Bubble tastes, but Oyamada was the guy who jump-started the whole phenomenon.
Yet there is something dangerous about using this narrative in a recruitment-related magazine in 2006. On one hand, the Oyamada story is great for illustrating that Japan’s true heroes are those who are more interested in pleasing their own fickle tastes than doing everything in the least-common-denominator mode to reach eventual business success. I hope, however, that the kid who plays bass in his Green Day-tribute band doesn’t get the wrong idea about employment being an natural extension of indie nerdism. Cornelius succeeded because Japan had the world’s most vibrant, wealthy consumer culture and was primed for someone with superior taste to lead them to the world standards for cool. But the country already completed that march to the extremes a decade ago, and now the powers-that-be are trying to shepherd everyone back to more easily-understandable local phenomena (which conveniently keep money and power in their hands). No one ever again will succeed like Cornelius — at least for a very long time.
I am pleased to see Shibuya-kei being treated as an important historical era. And as much as I do not think his latest album is as inspiring as his earlier output, I think Cornelius’ success in the ’90s gives him the legitimate right to live out the rest of his years as a venerable war hero.
1 When I lived in Sangenjaya, I would frequently pass the King Ape playing with his son Milo.