W. David Marx looks at the artistic distinction strategies of Japan’s most impish New Wave band in the 1970s.
This essay originally appeared in issue #4 of the French-language journal Audimat.
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
— The Graduate, 1967
By the mid-Seventies, Japan’s miraculous economic growth had moved the country beyond postwar poverty and unrest and into a new era of tranquility and prosperity. After the Marxist student movement went down in flames, youth put aside politics and took on a deeper interest in pop culture and consumer society. The emerging cultural vanguard would no longer be revolutionaries out in the streets with homemade weapons, but the graphic designers, cameramen, and magazine editors who congregated in a quiet residential area called Harajuku.
The first generation of Japanese creatives wore long hair and long beards in tribute to the late-stage Beatles, but the next generation coming of age in 1976 wanted a new aesthetic. The Vietnam War soured youth on the United States, so everyone looked to London as the center of global style. British music dominated the scene, with glam-rock “London boots” becoming the hippest footwear. In 1976, the masses started to crowd Harajuku to buy poodle skirts and rayon bowling shirts at Cream Soda, a store taking inspiration from Roxy Music’s Fifties revival and Malcolm McLaren’s rockabilly provocations. But when the provincial working class co-opted the retro greaser look, art school kids became hungry for even more avant-garde British styles.
One day in 1976, 20-year old aspiring illustrator Toshio “Toshi” Nakanishi gathered his friends at Harajuku’s most famous cafe, Leon, and decided they needed to form a band. They did not own any instruments, but music seemed an obvious means of expression. They certainly looked like a band. The 25-year-old graphic designer Hajime Tachibana, on guitar, had the face of a 1960s matinee idol, and the female vocalist Chica Satō brought an outré flare with styles plundered from her job at a fashion boutique. They recruited a bassist and drummer, and Satō gave the band a name — The Plastics.
The band made the rounds at fashion parties, playing sloppy covers of American Oldies — such as Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and Connie Francis’ “Vacation.” But when Satō brought up The Plastics with David Bowie during his 1977 visit, the British rock god told them they needed to write original material. Nakanishi and company agreed, but what kind of music would The Plastics make?
Punk was a clear direction. Earlier in the year, fashion designer Hiromichi Nakano came back from London brandishing his own copy of The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” single. That very night the Plastics put on an official listening party for the song, and in the next few days, Nakanishi bought his own 45 from the local punk rock fashion shop Akafuji in the Central Apartments basement. When photographer Toru Kogure flew to London to shoot pictures of the Pistols, he brought Nakanishi back a new wardrobe: a Vivienne Westwood-designed “Scum” T-shirt and Seditionaries tartan bondage pants.
Nakanishi once sang 1950s’ covers and screwed down his hair in the mold of a young Brian Ferry, but now The Plastics would take on wild spasms of punk. At the same time, however, the band loved the stark electronic Germanic sound of Kraftwerk. They figured out how to reconcile these two influences when Tachibana visited Los Angeles and met the members of Devo. This would be the new template: synthesizers and robotic rhythms mixed with punk’s jerky energy. The Plastics were already suffering through their drunken human drummer’s troubles staying in time, so they replaced him with two top-of-the-line Roland CR-78 drum machines. They then asked their friend’s boyfriend (and accomplished musician) Masahide “Ma-chang” Sakuma to play synthesizers. Nakanishi tapped another friend Takemi Shima, known for his prowess at Space Invaders, to operate the rhythm boxes.
The Plastics’ reliance on the latest Western musical trends was a common practice in the Tokyo music scene, but unlike their predecessors, the band was able to be in dialogue with their favorite Western artists in real time. Both Nakanishi and Tachibana spoke decent English and could afford to travel abroad, making the Plastics’ relationships with foreign artists organic and “spontaneous.” Nakanishi writes in his auto-biography, “YMO’s record label plotted to make them international, but we forged all of those developments ourselves and the label just followed up.” Tachibana, for example, provided art for the Talking Heads’ Japan tour and hosted Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo when he came to Tokyo. Nakanishi sought musical counsel from Chris Thomas — producer of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols — who was often in Japan on romantic rendezvous with Mika Fukui of the Sadistic Mika Band. The Plastics cavorted with Brian Ferry and Iggy Pop and jammed with Bob Marley and the Wailers. When it came time to put out their first single, they chose Rough Trade in London over a Japanese label.
Working inside this liminal space between the East and West, however, led to significant cognitive dissonance. As Tokyo’s answer to New Wave, the Plastics were Japanese ambassadors to the global creative class, but at the same time, they were desperate not to be associated with the rest of Japanese pop culture. This existential crisis would go on to inform their entire concept. The Plastics were never interested in being a “band” that played “songs” in contemporary styles. They would perform as “The Plastics” — a band openly copying from the West — that embodied the very idea of “plastics.”
“Plastics” worked as a powerful metaphor for the Japanese post-modern existence. As The Graduate made famous, the very word “plastics” came to represent the most extreme elements of the postwar manufacturing economy: High-tech know-how pumped out cheap and disposable products in space-age materials. Plastics are cheap, non-organic, made in mass, and artificially colored. The hippies went “back to nature” to rebel against the plastic 1950s, but now in the 1970s, in the post-hippie era, the Plastics decided the only way to properly mock plasticity was to embody it. The band would be plastic, act plastic, and sing about plastic — and in the process, offer a pointed critique about the plastic culture around them. In the book Style Deficit Disorder, David Byrne remembered meeting the band, “The very name Plastics was a tip off: an ironic take on the common Western perception of Japanese products being ‘plastic,’ and therefore inferior copies of better made Western items.”
On stage, Nakanishi and Satō took up the punk mantle and stripped themselves of any obvious gender markings. They wore their hair in Johnny Rotten spikes and wrapped themselves in neutered shambles of post-apocalyptic wasteland glamour. They moved like broken robotic mannequins with shoddily-programmed choreography. Behind them, Sakuma worked the synths in giant glasses like a scientist in his laboratory.
Their sound was also plastic. Drum machine technology was still limited, so the rhythm boxes produced the kind of cheap clicks and clacks reserved for a home organ recital. The guitar sound was all treble and jangle, with the bass far in the back to only provide the most rudimentary foundation. Sakuma used the little monosynths to squirt artificial noises that carried zero pretense of mimicking actual instruments.
If this was too subtle, the lyrics made their protest even more explicit. The band’s masterpiece “I Love You Oh No” complains about the technocratic society of “Big Money, Big System, Big Fame, Big Brother.” Chika sings, “No, no, no, I don’t need it, perfect system am falling.” “Robot” runs a ticker-tape of three-letter organizational abbreviations — IBM, NHK, TDK, FBI, EMI, RCA — all of which colored the Seventies cultural landscape but might as well be industrial codes on punch cards.
This was not an assault on modernity in general, however. Their debut album Welcome Plastics specifically ties the sins of plasticity to Japan. On “Digital Watch,” Nakanishi sings of the world’s great places and gives them each a stereotypical descriptor — new fashion Paris, New Wave London, cheap Hong Kong, Spaghetti Italy — only to end on “Plastic Tokyo.” This was not bragging about ownership of their hometown, as the next track “Copy” mixes Japanese and English lyrics to complain about “everything” being a “copy” in Tokyo, the “copy town” — a place with “no originality.” “Too Much Information” gets even more specific, not just complaining about too much information and imitation but by calling Japan’s most popular style magazines an•an, non•no, Popeye, and Men’s Club “bullshit” fashion books.
They also recorded an ironic cover version of “Welcome Beatles” — the Japanese song that played before the Fab Four took the stage at the Budokan in 1966. Composed by an earnest but perhaps not so hip Japanese superfan, the song sounded like pathetic kitsch, a failed attempt to write Western music in tribute to the superior craft of Western musicians. The Plastics decided to cover the song with a snarky satire — both celebrating and elevating this moment of painful distance between Western creativity and Eastern imitation.
The Plastics’ lyrical assaults may sound tame today compared to the Pistols’ “I am the anti-christ,” but they stand out in the history of Japanese pop for their willingness to directly attack Japanese consumer culture. Japan had experienced protest music before, with the left-wing psych rock and folk acts of the 1960s, but the Plastics replaced outright social rebellion with subversive play within consumer culture. The Plastics were not attempting to be “underground” but instead to use the plastic tools of a plastic society to sound plastic.
Welcome, Plastics today is celebrated as a major milestone in Japanese music history, but at the time, its monolithic thematics laid bare a long-held national anxiety about Japanese creation within Western art forms. They band worried that they could not create on the same level as their Western peers so they instead decided to make a statement about their country’s national failures.
This was a common feeling in the late 1970s — a time when Japan could know about, import, and buy nearly everything from the West — but had not yet produced artists who could truly compete on a global level. Welcome, Plastics landed in the years right before Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons or Yohji Yamamoto, and just as Yellow Magic Orchestra started to receive global veneration. Japanese youth culture may have been on fire, but most of the energy was around brands like Boat House making copies of East Coast preppy clothing, Big John making copies of blue jeans, and Cream Soda making copies of 1950s rocker style. The Plastics saw themselves as part of a global community, and they needed to quickly distance themselves from Japan’s cultural thievery. The embrace of plastic was an artistic strategy meant to create aesthetic distinction between themselves and the mainstream Japan.
Yet the Plastics also frequently plead guilty to the same crimes. Nakanishi told Trouser Press in the early 1980s, “We didn’t create anything. We took the music of the past, rearranged it, and that’s how we started. ‘It’s My Party,’ ‘Tracks of My Tears,’ ‘Matchbox’…. things like that.” But The Plastics thought the embrace of imitation could possibly lead to artistic innovation: “It’s like… you make a copy of something. Then you make a copy of a copy. Then you make a copy of that copy and so on. Eventually, since every copy you make causes some shift away from your original material, some distortion or fading, what you end up with is something other than you started with. You end up with something original… Eventually we hope we will come out with something completely new, a Japanese form of pop music.”
The quote reveals the mantra that “copying leads to innovation” common to Japanese traditional arts. But older forms like ikebana flower arrangement and karate martial arts demanded pupils study hard and master their copies before eventually making changes. The Plastics were gleefully amateur, terrible at their instruments, and disinterested in complex songcraft. They hoped, in spiritual sync with Dada, that mistakes would lead them to bend the copy far from the original. And for the most part, they were right. Welcome Plastics has traces of Devo and The B-52s but the overall effect is distinct from anything else in the era.
If trying to make Western art in Japan gave the band its first set of aesthetic parameters, their tour of the world after Welcome, Plastics gave them new resentments for later creation. The Plastics were paraded around overseas as an exotic discovery from the depths of Far East. Nakanishi told Hiroshi Egaitsu of Red Bull Music Academy, “As a Japanese person, a very accessible Orientalism is demanded of you. […] During the Plastics period, this kind of easy-to-digest Japanese Kabuki-style stereotype was required of us.”
And this clearly got on their nerves. By the time the band worked on their follow-up, Origato Plastico, (“origato” poked fun at Mark Mothersbaugh’s misspelling of arigato on a note left to Tachibana), Nakanishi’s lyrics took on a harsher edge. “Good” — later covered by Pizzicato Five — is a stream of passive-aggressive pleasantries in English and French. “Diamond Head” has Satō screaming, “Oh fuck off baby! Don’t be serious” to a pretentious villain, while “Cards” relies on the extreme hyperbole of comparing debt-fueled consumer society to the lewd violations of women with Mastercards.
By 1981 — and a failed English language debut on Island Records — the band broke up, and Nakanishi and Satō formed the self-Orientalizing New Wave band, Melon. Within just a few years, the Plastics’ initial critique of Uncool Japan would feel like an anachronism. The Japanese economy exploded in the early 1980s, and then went on a rocket to the moon after 1985 kicked off the “Bubble Economy.” Japanese designers won over Paris, and Japanese capitalists bought up the West’s great icons from Van Gogh paintings to Rockefeller Center to Pebble Beach golf course. Japanese teens felt a pride in their own culture. Copy anxiety evaporated.
And even when the economy collapsed in the 1990s, Japanese culture advanced on the world stage with a power it had never seen before. Japanese bands like Cornelius and Buffalo Daughter and Japanese clothing labels A Bathing Ape, Undercover, and Goodenough wowed tastemakers in New York and London. This commenced today’s contemporary global culture where Tokyo is part and parcel of every respectable cool-hunting, trend-spotting, street-snapping project.
Japanese culture still suffers “copying” but perhaps no worse than any other developed nation. (The Japanese curse has, perhaps, always been that the country’s artists copy more accurately than anyone else.) Ironically, Japan is now a bastion for authenticity across many fronts, such as avant-garde design, selvedge denim, and hip-hop drum machines. In 1979, The Plastics may have been heavy-handed in their approach, but by embracing their own nation’s superficial cheapness and making the nation confront its plastic ways, they set off a growth and maturity for Japanese artists that led to their triumph on a global stage in the 21st century. The path to the Japanese cultural powerhouse is paved with plastic.
Hiroshi Egaitsu. Interview: Toshio Nakanishi on Hip Hop, New Wave, and Punk. Red Bull Music Academy. October 13, 2014.
Tiffany Godoy. Style Deficit Disorder. Chronicle Books, 2007.
Toshio Nakanishi. The Rise and Fall of Plastics, Melon, and Major Force. K&B Publishers, 2013.