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The Pizzicato Five Discography: Canon 1991-1993


W. David Marx listened to every single major release from legendary Shibuya-kei band, Pizzicato Five, so you don’t have to. This is part three of a five-part series, covering the band’s first releases with singer Nomiya Maki.

This Year’s Model e.p. (June 1991)
thisyearsmodel “The Third” and near-final version of Pizzicato Five starts here with the addition of Portable Rock singer Nomiya Maki. In the band’s rebirth, P5 planned an ambitious schedule: releasing three EPs and an album over four months. This first EP is a slight let down in terms of musical content: it’s more a Maki manifesto. We get an overly long burst of spoken Japanese at a live show introducing the new version of the band, and then on “This Year’s Girl #1” a protracted interview with a scripted, infantilized Nomiya over hip-hop beats talking about her love of Betty Boop, Betsy Johnson, and school uniforms. (Also, who in the world asks the question, “What is the first thing you put in your mouth when you wake up?”) As for the actual songs: the fast jazz swing “Bridget Bardot TNT” feels a lot like old muddy-mix P5 with a new singer. There is an “Amen, My Brother” drum break hidden in there, however, and “Let’s Be Adult” has enough synth bass wobble, film samples, and club beats to give a clear sense of P5’s new direction. And yes, Nomiya is holding a Little Red Book on the cover (think Godard, not Mao).
(B-) — The introduction of a concept, without following through on proof

London Paris Tokyo e.p (July 1991)
londonparistokyo Another small step towards the Pizzicato Five we know and love. The EP starts with the band’s favorite “a new stereophonic sound spectacular” sample and subsequently descends into a sound collage complete with stereo-panned airplane noise. But then a small step backwards? “London-Paris” is punk-speed Public Image Limited with a vicious heavy metal guitar solo. And then “Tokyo’s Coolest Sound” actually is not Tokyo’s coolest sound at all — it’s generic dub reggae with delayed pianica (which they thankfully improve on the full-length version). “Past, Present, Future” is also guitar-based, and then we get the first long version of club pop “Thank You.”
(C+) — A new band with a new energy, but the wrong new direction

Readymade Recordings e.p. (August 1991)
readymadepizzicatofive Of all the pre-album 1991 EPs, this pleasant live recording of the band may be the most “interesting” and least repetitive to later work. Lots of güiro in the laid-back jazz ensemble but also shockingly minimal in parts. “Lament No. 5” is the stand-out, with the hook stolen from “Comin’ Home Baby.” On the filler side: a poetry reading.
(B-) — Non-essential, but at least, different

This Year’s Girl (September 1991)
thisyearsgirl This is the first true Pizzicato Five album — the classic sound, canonical songs — and a big step up in quality thanks to Nomiya Maki’s enormous presence. “I” (私のすべて) cleans out all instrumental sounds at the mid-range so that her voice floats to the very top. Both “Sankyu” and “Baby Love Child” start a successful formula of matching sweet melodies to club beats (in the latter case, the “Funky Drummer” break.) And then “Twiggy Twiggy” is the quintessential loungecore sound that almost no one ever did as well as Pizzicato Five: looped jazz drum samples and daintiness galore. In case you were not plenty entertained already, Konishi and co. also pull off one of the best ever Hosono Haruomi covers with the amped-up “Party.”
(A) — The album that truly marks the start of Pizzicatomania

Sweet Pizzicato Five (September 1992)
sweetpizzicatofive Rule #1 in the P5 playbook is “always change,” so after a vocal-driven melodic pop album, Pizzicato Five needed to do something completely different. And the answer was, an album of house tracks. With “Flower Drum Song” and “Catchy,” these are not pop songs stretched out over TR-909 beats but abstracted musical passages made for the dance floor. The pace can be repetitive in parts, but there are a variety of emotions: “Telepathy” is sweet, “Shock Treatment” is sexy. “Kdd” is, however, unlistenable due to the sound of a ringing phone throughout. With every song going six to seven minutes, this is not the most pleasant Pizzicato Five effort, but it did expand their production palette for successes further down the line. Trivia: “Cosmic Blues” has a melodic reference to the Hosono song “Hurricane Dorothy” while “Catchy” seems to sample the soundtrack to Twin Peaks.
(B) — P5 goes New York house

Instant Replay (March 1993)
instantreplay In 1993, Pizzicato Five had a unique sound, a permanent singer, and a body of popular tunes — so it was time for a live album. For most of the songs, Nomiya sings over a cinematic parody of a hotel jazz band, which works well for “Twiggy Twiggy” and pre-canon “The Audrey Hepburn Complex.” They are also able to do some of the house songs with backtracks. Results are mixed. “Action Painting” oddly sounds less Pizzicato-like than in its Hosono-incarnation.
(B-) — A respectable lounge band with strong vocals and pleasant fans

Bossa Nova 2001 (June 1993)
bossanova2001 This is the moment when Pizzicato Five became a Japanese social phenomenon. With production from Oyamada Keigo, fresh out of his band Flipper’s Guitar, we have a strong set of 1960s, French, bossa nova influenced club pop songs with the perfect mix of live musicians, samples, and dance beats. Thanks to placement in a cosmetics ad, “Sweet Soul Revue” made the band into megastars. The song itself owes a lot to Sly & the Family Stone but adds a giant pop melody that sounds nothing like “Dance to the Music.” “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Peace Music” are perfect Beatles pastiches with a club beat. From a discographical standpoint, the main innovation here is a much stronger sequencing of non-overly long songs. There is filler towards the end, but the first 15 minutes of the album are nearly perfect. And “Hare Krishna” and “Playback 2001” are very good songs for the fact that they have been left out of the canon.
(A+) — The quintessential P5 sound, perfectly executed

Expo 2001 (November 1993)
expo2001 Remix albums are about taking (timeless) pop songs and making them fit the (timely) dance floor. They age poorly. This album has aged poorly.
(D) — House remixes and worse, unnecessary for the 21st century

Part Three: The Nomiya Maki Years 1994-1997

W. David MARX
November 30, 2016

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

The Pizzicato Five Discography: Pre-Canon 1985-1991


W. David Marx listened to every single major release from legendary Shibuya-kei band, Pizzicato Five, so you don’t have to. This is part two of a five-part series, covering the band’s first eight releases.

“Audrey Hepburn Complex” (August 1985)
audreyhepburncomplex Pizzicato V debuted as one of many “YMO children” on the Non STANDARD label. And as such, producer Hosono Haruomi (of Happy End and Yellow Magic Orchestra) roughed up P5’s dainty vocals, dainty melodies, and references to dainty 1950s cinema icon Audrey Hepburn with clackety drum machines, dissonant piano chords, and proggy structural complications. (No organic instruments were harmed in the production of this record.) The title song would function well as background music in a B-grade American 1980s film where the protagonist is walking town feeling tortured. On the brighter side, Hosono also brought us the delightfully wispy synth lines that carry both the Simon & Garfunkel cover “The 59th Street Bridge Song” and the vaguely-Hawaiian “Let’s Go Away for a While.” But no matter how solid the songs, the production never emerges from the gray fog of early 1980s New Wave.
(B+) — A dated Eighties sound, but an auspicious start

“From Party to Party” (October 1985)
frompartytoparty A Christmas-themed dance song relying on high-speed drum machine hi-hats, 1960s surf guitar, and James Bond ambience. In case you worried about commitment to the holiday theme, there is a vibraphone solo that morphs into “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Not a particularly important track in the band’s history, but musicologists will be able to dredge up elements of “Twiggy Twiggy” in the primordial swamp.
(B) — A demented Christmas song

“In Action” (January 1986)
inaction Although Hosono is still listed as producer, Konishi and co. managed to escape YMO’s exclusively electronic cell. “Action Painting” gets one step closer to the classic Pizzicato Five — bouncy piano-driven Motown-inspired vocal pop. But the sound is still buried under grey ‘80s reverb and fake synth horn stabs. “Boy Meets Girl” meanwhile is full out moody New Wave: primitive drum machines lacking any nuance, slap bass samples, fairy synths, and digital replicas of steel pan sequenced into rococo solos. A relatively robotic extreme for P5.
(B+) — Exactly as if 1990s P5 were transported back to the 1980s

Couples (April 1987)
couples Whether it was their new record label Sony or an old obsession with Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends, Pizzicato Five decided on a collection of soft vocal pop for their first full-length album. They evidently sought out a cozy studio with no synthesizers and very comfortable couches. The result is a Bubble economy version of easy listening, equivalent to one of the song titles on the album: “Two Sleepy People.” There are occasional flashes of energy from Tom Jones pastiche, but otherwise, many flute flourishes and whispers for bedtime. Surely it was strange for a Japanese band in 1987 to make a 1960s muzak album with nods to Walter Wanderley and Sergio Mendes, but they had yet realized there could be danger in mining for forgotten lounge sounds.
(B-) — Whispery sweet nothings for your nap date at the trendy café

Bellissima! (September 1988)
bellissma At Sony’s request, P5 fired singer Sasaki Mamiko, so Konishi went out to request the services of Tajima Takao, male vocalist of J-blue-eyed-soul band Original Love. Pizzicato Five, Attempt Two bares little resemblance to the previous incarnation. No more manic pixie girls: Tajima belts out smooth invitations straight to the bedroom over upbeat, funky, and organic sounds from real life musicians. By the second track “Temptation Talk,” it is unclear this album has anything to do with the indie music of Hosono and Non STANDARD. At its worst, this is Terence Trent D’Arby, but even at its best: Tony Bennett? Trivia: You will recognize the song “Couples” from its melody’s re-use in “Baby Love Child.”
(C) — Maybe the least canonical true album: dated, cheesy, unrelated

On Her Majesty’s Request (July 1989)
onhermajestysrequest Konishi felt that Bellissima! was “too serious,” so on the second album with Tajima, the mission was to keep the male singer but bring back the levity of their past songs. The opening instrumental track “Holiday for Audrey H.” achieves this through trumpet solos and hyper-speed harpsichord, foreshadowing their later work. There still may be too much vibraphone, but synthesized beats replace the jazz drumming to reintroduce a sense of speed. “Bellissima ‘90” and “T V A G” are both solid J-pop songs with rock footing, and the latter brings back a few New Wave elements plus a Buffalo Springfield melody reference. Konishi and co. offer a fun suite of songs under fake film soundtrack “Except from the music for film ‘EROTICA Operation,” and then “Satellite Hour” makes club pop from Fairlight vocal samples — thanks to a guest duet with future singer Maki Nomiya. Lowlights are the Tajima-penned funk-lite.
(B-) — Music gravitates back to Konishi’s strengths, but scattered

Soft Landing On the Moon (May 1990)
softlandingonthemoon With this compilation of reworked old songs and outtakes, the band inched towards the peak Pizzicato Five sound. But progress is a slog. The new version of “Party Joke” adds a more sophisticated loungecore to their list of capabilities, but then why do we need a hard rock cover of “Bellissima” or a Soul II Soul-esque remix of “Temptation Talk”? Maybe we don’t. A funny moment is the guest voice-over appearance from Sasaki Mamiko to imply that she’s cool with being kicked out of the group. Overall, there are more pronounced club beats and drum loops, and hey, there’s even a Ohtaki Eiichi cover for good measure. But any album where we have to hear Tajima sing a song called “Sex Machine” just doesn’t hold up in the long-run.
(C) — All the worst parts of the Tajima years, but even less essential

Hi, guys! Let me teach you(May 1991)
higuysletmeteachyou A throwaway collection of cheesy instrumentals for use in an educational TV show. Tajima is gone, but the muddily-mixed live band sound lives on. The entire CD sounds like hack musicians at a TV station trying to rip off Pizzicato Five’s 1960s retro but coming up with the worst genres of the past: flute muzak, Ventures instrumentals, and dentist office bossa nova. By the time a harmonica steps in to play the melody lines, you want this root canal to end. A small charm: The song “Matt Dillon ni naritai” (I want to be Matt Dillon) gets the absurd English title “I’ll see ya guys on saturday night, right?” Otherwise, avoid.
(F) — A cheesy take on the most boring side of P5

Part Two: The Nomiya Maki Years 1991-1993

W. David MARX
November 29, 2016

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

The Pizzicato Five Discography: Introduction


W. David Marx listened to every single major release from legendary Shibuya-kei band, Pizzicato Five, so you don’t have to. Here are his thoughts over a five-part series.

I always took Pizzicato Five for granted. When I started listening to Japanese music in the late 1990s, there was almost nothing available in the U.S. — except Pizzicato Five. When I started hunting for rare Shibuya-kei vinyl in 2000 across Japanese RECOfans and disk unions, there was rarely what I was looking for but there was always a giant stash of Pizzicato Five. Whether it was their long tenure, ubiquity, or the comically long discography, Pizzicato Five records felt like a commodity. One of the last P5 things I ever bought was called “In the Bag,” and it was literally a bag of Pizzicato Five records.

But now with some distance, I cannot think of a Japanese band who achieved more memorable and innovative songs than Pizzicato Five. We can argue on quality, but P5 wins quantity hands down: There are more great P5 songs than there are Happy End or Flipper’s Guitar songs total.

And yet the band’s legacy is not a settled issue. They were not a “serious” group in terms of content or timbre, they released too much material, and the quality went off a cliff at the very end. On the other hand, they were the most consistent and driving force of the Shibuya-kei movement and pioneered a sound that no one outside of Japan ever replicated with the same skill. Pizzicato Five invented a new methodology that yielded incredible results: laying bright new melodies on top of devalued and forgotten 1960s junk — Bacharach, film soundtracks, French Yé-Yé, Donovan — with drum samples and dance floor beats.

And this brings us back to the main barrier for Pizzicato Five fandom, whether new or old: the band’s prolificacy. There are way too many albums and EPs. Fortunately I have been in a mood for what I call “systematic listening” (close listening to music catalogs of certain artists or genres in chronological order), and so I decided to listen to (basically) the entire Pizzicato Five discography and report back on my findings.

Rules and Resources

I listened to every album that was not a greatest hits album rehashing old music, and I listened to every EP that was not just a single with a nearly identical remix. I skipped “promo releases.” If there is something major I overlooked, feel free to pester me until I add it.

I use English names of albums.

A few web pages were vital to my effort:

And thank you to Jean Snow who delivered some hard-to-find EPs and provided spiritual guidance through the long process. I also may have ripped off both the American school system and Robert Christgau for the scoring system.

Four parts

Cheat Sheet: Pizzicato Five’s Best Five Albums

  1. Bossa Nova 2001 (1993)
  2. Happy End of the World (1998)
  3. This Year’s Girl (1991)
  4. Overdose (1994)
  5. Playboy Playgirl (1999)

W. David MARX
November 28, 2016

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

The Plastics and Copy Anxiety


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.

W. David MARX
March 1, 2016

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

The Year 2015 in Japan


2015: Living Through Inexorable Change / W. David MARX

Ever since the Japanese economic miracle came to an end in the 1990s, Western analysts and critics have spewed forth lists and lists of all the structural changes Japan needed for national revival. And for two decades, leaders of Japanese government and business have mostly ignored this free advice. Honestly, why change the status quo with so little short-term cost to doing nothing? Anyone who lives in Tokyo can tell you that Japan’s slow decline can feel pretty comfortable compared to the disorder, gun violence, and crypto-fascist politics of more prosperous nations.

Yet, despite the elite’s best efforts, Japan is changing. And in 2015, those changes felt more palpable than ever. Contentious political opinions are no longer a taboo in polite society: during the debate on constitutional changes, anti-Abe slogans dangled from women’s purses on the subway. The LDP has tried to keep women in their places for decades, but Abe did a “Nixon in China” on bringing more women into the workforce (although with meager results so far). For a country once proclaimed to “hate the iPhone” and an electronics industry oriented towards gala-kei, everyone non-elderly lives on their smartphones. And even TV stations are making their shows available for digital consumption on those devices. There may be no plans for large-scale immigration, but the mass influx of tourists has internationalized Tokyo like never before. There are romanized menus and signs everywhere, and English, French, and Chinese spill out of tiny Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho bars each night.

With the Olympics looming in five years, desperation will likely drive more rapid changes. But where there is no initiative from the top, popular movements and market forces will just step in to move things along.


Abenomics / Noah SMITH

Like in previous years, 2015 saw an approximately equal number of media stories declaring Abenomics a dismal failure and a runaway success. Given Japan’s low rate of population growth, even a good economic performance is never going to look very impressive in headline terms. So the optimistic pieces tend to show per capita numbers, while the pessimistic ones tend to use headline. Also, optimists and pessimists tend to choose different evaluation periods — if the most recent quarter looks bad but the last six quarters have looked solid, pessimists will emphasize the latest numbers while optimists will look at the big picture.

In the end, many of the Abenomics-related op-ed pieces you read in the news say more about the prejudices of the writers than the actual Japanese economy. If you really want to know what’s going on, look for the most neutral presentation you can find — I recommend Eleanor Warnock and Mitsuru Obe of the Wall Street Journal — and make your own judgments. But always remember that Japanese economic statistics are extremely noisy, and revisions are usually very large, so recently released quarterly numbers almost never give any useful information.

Overall, Abenomics is facing a huge headwind — the slowdown in China. China is experiencing the aftermath of a stock market crash and a slow unwinding of its real estate bubble, and its economy is therefore going to have a couple years of slower growth. Japan exports quite a bit of stuff to China, so this is exerting a big drag on the Japanese economy. In fact, most of what happens to Japan these days is probably more about China than it is about Abe’s policies.

There is one area, interestingly, in which Abenomics is showing glimmers of success: the budget deficit. Increased revenues from the higher consumption tax and from higher corporate profits are putting a big dent in the primary deficit, even as zero interest rates push down interest payments. Though there may be some number-fudging going on, Japan is looking fiscally healthier than it has in some time. Of course, much more progress here is needed: taxes are going to have to go up, and payments to the elderly are going to have to be cut. But that is what happens to a country when nobody has any kids.

The Rhetoric of Abenomics / “Mr. A”

Since taking office in late 2012, Mr. Abe has touted a conceptually simple “three arrow” plan for Abenomics — work with the Bank of Japan to end deflation, enact fiscal reforms to set Japan on a path to sustainable growth, and implement structural reforms needed to enhance productivity. These dovetailed nicely with Western economic prescriptions for Japan and were therefore easy to explain to the world. The message got out to policymakers that Japan had a plan.

In September, however, after Abe’s national security legislation push sent approval ratings tumbling, the government became eager to redirect domestic attention back to the economic program. So the administration replaced these three arrows with “new three arrows”: (1) Achieve 600 trillion yen GDP in 2020, (2) Raise Japan’s birth rate to an average of 1.8 children per family, and (3) Ensure no one has to quit their job to take care of an elderly relative.

Even supporters of the administration’s aims should be outraged at the shameless inconsistency of the “arrow” naming convention. The first arrow is a sweeping and ambitious policy target, while the other two are essentially subsets of the old third arrow. The arrow analogy breaks down completely.

Since the announcement, government spokespeople have emphasized that these new three arrows “supplement” the previous ones. Even so, reworking the “three arrows” took what was once a clever and effective message for the global audience and made it confusing and forgettable.


Sony’s Tentative Comeback / “Mr. A”

Sony had one of its most successful years in recent memory, with both revenue and profits growing. Under CEO Kaz Hirai, the company has focused on three main businesses: Sony Pictures, game consoles (the PlayStation 4 and a yet-to-be-released VR headset), and camera components (the company is famously the source of camera technology in the iPhone). This has meant significant downsizing for other businesses: the Vaio PC line was sold off in 2014, and before that, the company spun off TV operations. Thousands of jobs have been cut, and as a result, Sony is becoming a much more focused company less beholden to legacy businesses. (In a particularly insane example, Sony only announced the end of manufacturing Betamax cassettes this year!)

Sony’s success — tentative as it remains — suggests it could join Hitachi as a formerly great Japanese electronics company that was able to return to viability after painful reforms. By comparison, Toshiba is facing a massive scandal over falsified earnings and Sharp is posting continued losses. But even with this edge over its rivals, Sony may never regain the brand strength it enjoyed in the ‘80s and ‘90s — the products currently most successful do not necessarily connect back to Sony, the company.


Yamaguchi-gumi Split / Brett BULL

Since its founding in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi has risen to become Japan’s top organized crime group. Boasting a membership of more than 23,000 at the end of 2014, the Kobe-based gang has its hand in all forms of crime, from prostitution to gambling to extortion.

But things hit a snag this year: 13 affiliate gangs left from underneath its umbrella at the end of the summer. The reason for the split is not exactly clear (after all, yakuza do not issue press releases), but leaks coming via investigative sources and journalists who cover the gang indicate that internal troubles about its direction and policies spurred the exodus. Adding to its problems was the formation of a rival gang, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, which absorbed the renegade sects.

This has lead to worries about a gang war much like that which unfolded in the 1980s under similar circumstances that led to more than 500 arrests and dozens of deaths. This time around, police have already attributed a number of dust-ups and killings to the split, and law enforcement will spend 2016 ensuring that it does not escalate into dangerous territory.


The Tokyo Olympic Logo Debacle / Ian LYNAM

After the Olympic Committee recalled Sano Kenjiro’s logo design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics under multiple allegations of plagiarism, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games organized a public logo design competition for its 2020 design.

This is a clear example of speculative labor — and as an extension, the promotion of free labor and the devaluation of design as a sector of cultural production. The Olympics, a for-profit entity flush with finances and gigantic sponsors, is asking for handouts. The whole thing is based on a wildly unprofessional relationship, and the fee for the winning design is wildly under professional standards in terms of payment. But we should expect that hundreds to thousands of individuals — from laypeople to trained graphic designers — will submit logo designs to this competition.

The Tokyo Olympic logo design competition represents the further collapse of labor structures in the Neoliberal Era. It is probably just a bit of social media entertainment for many, but it is representative of something larger  —  graphic design, a relatively new sector of cultural production the name of which was only coined in 1938 —  is threatened not only by the ubiquitous accessibility of “creative” software and by contemporary notions that “anyone can be a designer.” But these notions are now being given further form by powerful global events.

Design should express the richness of our era. I mean this in terms of the visual qualities and the semantic expression with which we should imbue symbols of culture. What the upcoming Tokyo Olympic logo represents is definitely that, but not in the way that many think. This competition is a retreat from past greatness and toward a dystopian future — not just for design (and designers), but for the public as well. And worst of all, we in Tokyo are going to be stuck with this symbol for the next five years — a symbol of a crowdsourced future.

(Read more over at Medium)


NPB Takes a Gamble / Brett BULL

Besides the move of a pitcher like Darvish Yu to the U.S., Nippon Professional Baseball rarely makes international news. This year was an exception. Near the end of the season, the Yomiuri Giants revealed that pitcher Fukuda Satoshi had placed bets on high school tournaments, as well as NPB and MLB games. An investigative panel for NPB later found that two more pitchers, Kasahara Shoki and Matsumoto Ryuya, had also wagered on games.

As Pete Rose will tell you, players are not simply accused of gambling on baseball; they are also questioned about fixed games. No member of this trio, however, played a large enough of a role on the team for such a deed. Commissioner Kumazaki Katsuhiko quashed early speculation about a yakuza connection — affirmation of which would fuel game-fixing speculation. Perhaps most interesting was the response of the police: Over the next few months, they busted numerous baseball gambling operations, most backed by crime syndicates and one involving Darvish’s younger brother.


Dancing ban / Noah SMITH

One interesting political development was Japan’s repeal of its ban on after-midnight dancing, which dated back to the U.S. occupation. For most of the postwar, law enforcement never gave the ban much serious attention, but in recent years, police started enforcing it vigorously in many cities, probably spurred by the belated realization that people often do recreational drugs when they dance. (Who knew, right?)

After a long fight, the ban was repealed this year. A provision was left in to regulate the kind of lighting dance clubs can use, which is probably just a loophole to allow cops to continue to shake down club owners. But overall, this is a rare victory for civil liberties in Japan. It might point to a slowly liberalizing culture, or to a libertarian streak in this country that often goes ignored by foreign observers. At any rate, it also shows that even a small amount of political mobilization can pay real dividends in Japanese politics.


Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD

The 2015 Kanji of the Year was announced on December 15th: 安 (an, yasu[i]). Although the relevant meaning here is “peace” or “safety,” virtually everyone who voted for 安 apparently did so ironically because they felt uneasy or unsafe. So why vote for 安 instead of 危 (danger) or 怖 (fear)? Probably because the biggest news in Japan this year was “Prime Minister Abe (倍) Shinzō’s … security (全保障, anzen hoshō) bills.”

More to the point, who are these people still voting for 変 “change” and 偽 “deceit,” Kanji of the Year for 2008 and 2007, respectively? Do they not realize that the only Kanji of the Year allowed to repeat is 金 “gold” and that only in Olympic years? (I feel pretty confident already about my prediction for Kanji of the Year 2020.)


Kojima’s Departure from Konami / Brett FUJIOKA

Not even the video game industry is immune to the era’s focus on economies of scale. 2015 was complicated for flagship corporations like Konami. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain came out to almost universal critical acclaim but the tensions between the series’ creator, Kojima Hideo, and the corporation eclipsed the installment’s success. The drama started to unfurl when Konami restricted e-mail and phone access to Kojima Productions’ senior staff. Then Kojima’s Twitter account went cryptically silent. Finally, Konami expunged its website and promotional material of any references to Kojima Productions or even Kojima himself.

Amidst this, the planned installment to the troubled Silent Hill video game franchise was cancelled. This came in spite of an enthusiastic reception from critics and fans for the P.T. (“playable teaser”). The prospective videogame would have featured Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro as co-directors with The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus playing the main protagonist. Del Toro confirmed that famed horror manga writer, Ito Junji, would’ve been involved in the project.

Of course, some of this occurred because of changes in the video game industry. Blockbuster “AAA” videogames are delivering lower returns. Smaller scale, more subsidized properties in mobile gaming are relatively more profitable. As ridiculous as it sounds, Konami’s most lucrative intellectual properties are in pachinko.

But it was more than that: A report from Nikkei illustrated a toxic work environment in Konami’s corporate offices. Forbes seemingly credited this to the dynastic management of the Kozuki family. Things grew uglier when journalist Geoff Keighley voiced that Konami barred Kojima from accepting an award for MGSV:TPP at the VGA awards. Amusingly, Kojima passive aggressively retweeted criticisms of Konami during the ceremony.

Once his contract with Konami expired, Kojima Productions was reborn under the patronage of Sony Computer Entertainment. And now that he’s signed a non-disclosure agreement with Konami, we may never know what specifically happened between him and Konami. Kojima’s remark that his next project will be “a complete game” seems to affirm the suspicion that the development of MGSV:TPP was rushed in the past year with content left out.


The New J-pop Upper Middle Class / Patrick ST. MICHEL

A lot changed in Japanese music over the course of 2015. The idol boom of recent years ended, replaced by a newfound commercial interest in bands. Meanwhile younger listeners turned upstart rock outfits such as Gesu No Kiwami Otome and Sekai No Owari into success stories. The gulf between mainstream Japanese music and the country’s independent scene, however, remained vast in 2015; the cramped live houses of Tokyo feel light years away from the major-label homes a train ride away.

Yet a new space bloomed in 2015, one where artists incorporating sounds rarely seen in the J-pop sphere could reap the benefits of being on a major label without sacrificing their experimental spirit. Artists such as the wonky Tofubeats, laid-back band Cero, and the sonic whirlwind of Suiyoubi No Campanella all released well-received albums and took part in activities signifying musical success — commercials, magazine cover appearances and performances on music shows. None put up huge physical sales, but each project did well on platforms more reflective of how people actually listen to music in 2015 (YouTube). And they were able to escape the vast blah-ness of J-pop’s middle class en route to prominent real estate at Tower Records and columns in fashion magazines. This new upper middle class of J-pop — left-field pop made by extremely charismatic people who clearly want to be stars — helped smuggle new ideas into the Japanese mainstream.


All The Pretty Festivals Go To The City / Patrick ST. MICHEL

This year’s edition of the venerable Fuji Rock Festival featured a noticeable rise in baby strollers. Whereas four years ago one of my clearest memories of the Niigata gathering was an acid-ed-out Englishman running face-first into a food stall, the 2015 edition mostly left me wondering when the fest’s crowd got so relaxed and middle-aged (others noticed as well). It was a great event, but one that felt a little… older than other music festivals held across the country. Especially the ones right next to a major city.

Festivals remain the go-to way of experiencing live music in Japan, but 2015 highlighted that for these gatherings to be successful they needed to be close to a city. Not necessarily close to a sprawling metropolis — though that certainly helped, as the number of regional fests in far-off prefectures attest to — but your music gathering probably should not count on punters spending the night. The Rock In Japan festival, the nation’s largest by attendance, is a trek from Tokyo, but still possible to experience in one day. Festivals closer to cities, such as Summer Sonic and the EDM-centric Ultra Japan event, skewed younger.

The thing is, Fuji Rock wanted to pull in a younger set too. Despite the much-lamented decision to have perpetually angry dad Noel Gallagher headline the last day of the event, Fuji Rock loaded up the bill with domestic rock bands and EDM-leaning producers to attract a new Japanese generation. The problem is simple numbers — to go to Fuji Rock for all three days, most people in Tokyo or Osaka have to spend at least ¥100,000, and most likely take off two days of work to get out there. Given how glum the economic forecast looks for younger people right now, opting to wait for something a bit closer to home makes sense.

From Their Windows / Audrey FONDECAVE

If you think of a Japanese woman artist who is famous abroad, chances are Yoko Ono is the first one to come to mind. But even if she is most famous for being John Lennon’s widow, her retrospective “From My Window” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo helped show that she has amassed a legitimate body of work.

One of the most touching pieces was footage of a performance called “Cut Piece” where a young and fragile Ono has the clothes she is wearing being cut off with scissors by strangers. During the talk she gave at the opening even for the exhibition, Ono discussed more about her life than her art, sharing some of her childhood memories. She said that the Japanese would often say she was baataa kusai (“stinks of butter,” i.e. too Western).

She also talked about the influence of her aunt, Anna Bubnova Ono, a Russian violinist who married Ono’s uncle and entomologist Ono Shunichi. They met in Russia, fled the country during the revolution, and settled in Tokyo. Surprised to discover that music was taught to children only from their teen years, Anna Ono opened a music school for young children and reformed forever the Japanese musical education. Hundreds of pupils joined the school, many prestigious violinists studied there, such as the first Japanese child prodigy player Suwa Nejiko.

But this is not what Ono mentioned about Anna. She recalled the melancholy felt by her aunt in the garden of their summer house in Karuizawa while looking at the shirakaba, the Japanese white birch also known as the Siberian silver birch.


Three or Four Interesting Japanese Books Published in 2015 / Matt TREYVAUD

My fellow amateur enthusiasts of illegible old land deeds rejoiced in 2015 at the publication of Karikome Hitoshi’s Nihonshi o manabu tame no komonjo/kokiroku kundokuhō 『日本史を学ぶための古文書・古記録訓読法』 (“Reading old documents and old records [written in Chinese] for people learning Japanese history”). Practical guides to Japanese-style classical Chinese (hentai kanbun 変体漢文) are thin on the ground, and Karikome’s book is a most welcome addition to the field. (Runner-up in the premodern Japanese category goes to the absolutely indefatigable Konno Shinji’s Sengoku no Nihongo: Gohyaku nen mae no yomu/kaku/hanasu 『戦国の日本語: 五百年前の読む・書く・話す』 (“Sengoku Japanese: Reading, writing, and speaking five hundred years ago”.)

It would not be a list of Japanese books without a lightly edited transcript of two guys rapping about their respective specialities, and in that slot this year we have Takano Hideyuki and Shimizu Katsuyuki’s Sekai no henkyō to haadoboirudo Muromachi jidai 『世界の辺境とハードボイルド室町時代』 (“Hard-boiled Muromachi period and the edge of the world”). The premise: Muromachi-period Japan (1336-1573) was kind of like modern-day Somaliland.

Finally, consider Urata Kenji’s Mikan no Heisei bungakushi: Bungeikisha ga mita bundan 30 nen 『未完の平成文学史: 文芸記者が見た文壇30年』 (“An incomplete history of Heisei literature: 30 years of literature as seen by a book reviewer/reporter”). Almost six hundred pages drawn from twenty-eight years of notes and interviews. Sample section title: “The age of Haruki and Banana.” I bet a lot of other publishers wish they’d thought of the “incomplete” thing too.

The Last Copyright Day? / Matt TREYVAUD

The draft agreement of the TPP released in November requires parties to have copyright terms of “life of the author + 70 years.” Japan’s current rule is “life of the author + 50 years,” so if this change were made to Japanese law in the next couple of years and applied going forward, no new works would enter the public domain until the mid-2030s. Actually, the most likely outcome would be that no new works enter the public domain unless and until the entire idea of copyright is overhauled or abandoned — 20 years is plenty of time for major IP holders to organize the next extension. There is a real chance that one of the next few New Year’s Days will be the last one on which Japanese works ever enter the public domain.

The question, as raised on the Aozora Bunko Blog, is whether this will be applied retroactively. Works by authors who died more than 50 but less than 70 years ago are currently in the public domain: Will they stay there? This is an idea that tends to be dismissed as ridiculous and impractical fear-mongering, but, well, Golan v. Holder, right? I suppose all we can do is hope that enough big Japanese publishers have enough big investments to protect that they agree to lobby for non-restoration as a bloc.

Some Great Manga in 2015 / Matthew PENNEY

One-Punch Man 『ワンパンマン』 looks to be on the cusp of enjoying Titan level success outside Japan thanks to a spirited anime adaptation. The manga is among the handful of series I find myself most looking forward to: a parody of fighting manga that might just be the best fighting manga in decades.

Mainstream hits aside, 2015 was a fantastic year for alternative and experimental manga. Yamazaki Mari, whose Thermae Romae had moments of brilliance before its one gag pattern revolving around a time-shifting Roman bath master went lukewarm, is now collaborating with Tori Miki on Plinius 『プリニウス』, one of the best manga of 2015. Yamazaki’s eye for historical minutiae and capricious storytelling give life to one of history’s great eccentrics, title character Pliny the Elder, while Tori’s contribution to the art brings a realist edge to the backgrounds which range from Vesuvius to Rome. Not just great manga, Plinius is great historical fiction.

The half-revealed horrors and alien geometries of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction have always proven difficult to bring to visual media. Recent attempts seem to have done little to distract from Cthulhu’s transition from mind-blasting aberration to plush toy and cheesy meme. A pair of works by Tanabe Gou – Maken (The Hound and Other Stories) 『魔犬』<ラヴクラフト傑作集> (ビームコミックス) and this year’s Isekai no Shikisai (The Colour Out of Space and Other Stories) 『異世界の色彩』 — exploit stunning manga black and white to bring back the creeping terror of Lovecraft’s originals. A relative rookie, Tanabe is already an expert at using light sources in the narrative — a flashlight, a lantern, a fireplace — to play with the darkness, toying with the fears of reader as well.


The Fall of Language in the Age of English / Morgan GILES

The best book I didn’t review this year was Mizumura Minae’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English 『日本語が亡びるとき―英語の世紀の中で』, translated by Yoshihara Mari and Juliet Winters Carpenter. The Fall of Language narrates the birth of Japanese as a national language and language of literary expression, while also providing the fascinating theoretical background to the choices she made in writing A True Novel 『本格小説』, also translated by Carpenter, a retelling of Wuthering Heights which trades the moors for Karuizawa.

If you know anything about linguistics, you are not her audience. Mizumura is more concerned with the broad strokes, and to hell with the details and anyone who cares about them. If you are willing to ignore her inexactitudes and unchallenged biases, The Fall of Language is an impassioned plea for educational and societal reform to make Japanese literature vital and globally relevant again. Her description of the conditions that led to the conceptualization of Japanese literature as a national literature made me want to go back to the modern beginning, to Higuchi and Soseki, and her alternate history of the American occupation as a linguistically catastrophic event is so necessary for Anglophone readers. But in the end I couldn’t review this book because I got lost in the blinding rage that envelops me whenever someone slips into Nihongoron, and everything I wrote sounded petty and bizarrely reactionary.

I cannot recommend The Fall of Language in the Age of English to you. But I cannot stop thinking about it either. Mizumura is infuriating, but god, it is a pleasure to argue passionately about Japanese literature. And as long as that is true, Japanese will never fall.

The Inexplicable Rise of Yuzu in the U.K. / Morgan GILES

It kind of started, I think, with chef Tim Anderson’s collaboration with Pressure Drop Brewing to create a Japanese-influenced beer for his restaurant, Nanban. The resulting Nanban Kanpai was a wheat IPA with yuzu, orange, and grapefruit, and it is delicious. I was thrilled to see Nanban Kanpai on shelves — I adore yuzu, and I have always said I would bathe in it if this were not an absurdly expensive proposition in the West. And sure, for a few years there had been stories in broadsheet newspapers about “yuzu, the new superfood,” but whatever. You still could not find the stuff for love or money, even in London. But in 2015, I felt like I was bathing in it, and it turns out I am a yuzu hipster: I was into it first, before it became cool, dammit.

Now even the fast food chain Wasabi, which usually specializes in selling Japanese curry to drunk people near commuter stations, is hawking a yuzu-flavored aloe drink. You can find yuzu juice at Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. All the body wash manufacturers, from Molton Brown to Lush, are now covering Middle England in a permanent citrus funk, and nobody has a clue what to do about it or with it. Gipsy Hill’s Yuzu Japanese Pale Ale is, I’m sorry to say, a waste of good fruit. I no longer even react when an acquaintance asks if I know anything about “yuhz-ooh?”

But I am tired, and I am ready for the backlash. Bring on the inexplicable rise of sudachi in 2016.


Mizuki Shigeru, R.I.P. / Matt ALT

Renowned manga artist Mizuki Shigeru passed away at the age of 93 on November 30th. Though he had been in fine health given his age, the loss still came as a shock. For many Japanese, Mizuki has always been there. His illustrated and animated series Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, which centers on the adventures of spooks from Japanese folklore called yokai, has run intermittently for more than fifty years. Surprisingly for one of Japanese pop culture’s most enduring and influential creators, little of his oeuvre has ever made it into the English language until quite recently, thanks to the efforts of Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly publishing. Perhaps wisely, they began not with his children’s fare but rather his World War II work; their 2011 translation of Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths earned Mizuki a prestigious Eisner Award the following year.

Even still, Mizuki remains one of a handful of hugely popular manga artists who is barely known abroad, even among many self-proclaimed manga fans. This makes the foreign treatment of his passing all the more interesting. Obituaries appeared in a wide variety of mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, BBC News, NPR, and the online editions of the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.

The coverage was a testament to how far the appreciation of Japanese pop culture in the West has come, both in that the mass-media gatekeepers okayed these stories in the first place, and that the coverage was largely on point (with the exception of an unfortunate tendency for foreign journalists to render yokai as “ghosts,” which they are not.)

Although he played a role as Japan’s “every-granddad,” a laid-back sage teleported straight out of the early Showa era, Mizuki carefully crafted and curated this persona over years of autobiography. Much of it was in a “magical realism” vein that would be tempting to peg as Haruki Murakami-esque, if in fact Murakami was not taking a big page from Mizuki in the first place. For example, Mizuki’s monolithic multi-volume Showa illustrated history series, which includes much of his life story, is narrated by Kitaro’s mercurial yokai pal, Rat Man. Long before Mizuki’s passing, the facts of his World War II service and sacrifice, his decades as a starving artist, and his long-deserved success thanks to the yokai had become as much a part of the fabric of his manga as the characters he created. (Many readers are surprised to hear Kitaro was not one of them; though Mizuki indeed transformed the series into a mainstream success, he actually inherited it from a pre-war kamishibai “paper theater” illustrator.)

One thing left out of the accolades was any mention of the actual size of Mizuki’s fortune. Though the words “be lazy” are inscribed on his statue in his hometown of Sakaiminato, he was in fact a disciplined worker who was savvy enough of a businessman to know how to leverage Kitaro into one of Japan’s most beloved manga and anime series. Even after its success, he played his cards close. Whereas rival manga-ka trumpeted their success stories in units of tankobon manga compilation sold, Mizuki never released any sales figures for his combined works, making it difficult to rank him among his contemporaries. Television ratings and box office receipts give hints of his popularity. In 1987, the Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro anime enjoyed a 28.5 share, beating the current industry leader Doraemon and falling just a point short of the massively successful Dragonball. Meanwhile, a 2008 live-action film earned ¥2.3 billion at the Japanese box office. But perhaps due to the series’ essential “Japanese-ness,” focusing as it does on folklore, Kitaro has remained largely a domestic phenomenon while Doraemon and Dragonball have exploded into massive regional and global franchises.

In an era where military themes increasingly dominate the conversation both politically and pop culturally, Mizuki’s voice of experience and reason will be greatly missed. He was the last of Japan’s manga artists to have seen actual combat, and he always fought its glamorization by emphasizing the tedious, dirty, humiliating, and almost entirely tragic aspects of his own personal experience right up until the very end. It is a miracle he survived, but also a miracle of the modern era that so much of his work has been preserved for us to enjoy — and learn from.


R.I.P. Nosaka Akiyuki / W. David MARX

When Nosaka Akiyuki died in December at the age of 85, most of the English obituaries focused on his 1967 Naoki Prize-winning short story about the aftermath of World War II, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Its adaptation into a Ghibli film (that reduces even the most hardened adults to floods of tears) gave Nosaka’s work a global footprint and long legacy.

But Nosaka was much more than just a memoirist on the horrors of war. He was an institution of the postwar media, with a legacy spanning across literature and pop culture, prestige and infamy.

After spending his 20s writing lyrics for commercial jingles — including the classic children’s song “Omocha no Cha Cha Cha” — he debuted as an author in 1963 with the bawdy novel The Pornographers. From there, his sunglass-marked visage could be found pontificating about contemporary society throughout the decade in youth culture journals like Hanashi no Tokushū and Heibon Punch.

So it is not “Fireflies” but perhaps his ribald short story “American Hijiki” that best represents his career. The story follows a Japanese man Toshio who hopes to impress his wife’s American host father with a sex show. In the piece, Nosaka uses sexual hijinks to connect the emasculation of Japanese men during the Occupation to his country’s slavish devotion to the United States in the postwar.

Beyond his literary fame, Nosaka also sang minor-key chanson under the name Claude Nosaka (“Marilyn Monroe No Return”), defended a dirty Nagai Kafu story in an obscenity suit (he lost), and served in the House of Councillors as part of the Dainiin Club party.The last decade, however, had been quiet. In 2003, Nosaka suffered a stroke, and while he was not completely silenced, his output suffered.

December 29, 2015

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.