Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hi From LA; Giant Robot 50

I’m in LA—and reading the 50th issue of Giant Robot magazine here, I made a realization—

Which is this: When I was growing up in LA, Japan, and Asia, weren’t that cool. The Walkman was cool, Bruce Lee was cool, Space Invaders and Pac-Man were cool…but the rest of it, not so much, and you grew up wanting to hide your Asian-ness.

Now, a few decades later, it’s a different world—Japan/Asia is cool, and it’s everywhere. One of the biggest surprises I had in recent years was when I went with Swinging Popsicle to the Fanime convention in San Jose and saw hundreds of kids, including whites, dressed up as their favorite Japanese anime characters. How did that happen?

Giant Robot helped explain, in a great article looking at all the Asian-American pop culture trends since the 1950’s, how we went from Asia as uncool to, well, non-Asian kids cosplaying as anime heroes and heroines.

Reading their history line, you see that the Asian pop conquest of the U.S. was a multi-pronged, multi-national effort. Japan contributes with anime, games, horror movies, China/Hong Kong with kung fu flicks and other movies, India with Bollywood, etc. At a certain point, there was a critical mass of good Asian pop culture in the U.S. so that the scale tipped, and Asia was cool. Food is an important ingredient too—in these last few decades Americans really discovered Asian food, and that process went hand in hand with the elevation of America’s view of Asia. One of the commenters in the article, Jonathan Gold, makes this observation about sushi:

When the sushi boom started in Los Angeles, it was extremely important. This was the first time Americans had ever taken to any Asian food, tried to understand the ritual and the context of the food, and engaged the chef in his own language even if the only Japanese they knew were the names of six kinds of sushi. The fact that they would try to learn those six kinds of fish was really important. Once people mastered sushi and mastered the ritual, they mastered the fact that you had to have a relationship with the chef and have personal communication in order to eat in the way you wanted to eat. This opened them up to other experiences from other Asian cuisines and, frankly, also non-Asian cuisines.

So, Akira, Kikaider, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Kyu Sakamoto, Pizzicato Five, Street Fighter II, Hideo Nomo, Aishwarya Rai, Akihabara, sushi, top ramen, pho, and all the rest of it combined to make Asia so cool in the U.S. that, ironically, Americans no longer thought things were radical just because they were Asian:

Articles touting Asian culture being the hot new thing are obsolete because the culture has been absorbed into the mainstream.

Living in Tokyo, or anywhere else in Asia, there’s always the risk of becoming snobbish about local things that make a splash in the U.S., saying this or that is already old news, or the Americans are interpreting it all wrong, and so on, but in being a snob that way, you lose sight of a key point, which reading the Giant Robot article brought out for me: becoming big in the U.S. is a cool thing in itself. The U.S. has an unparalleled ability to suck foreign things into the mainstream, and it’s a huge, influential market. Whereas, in Japan for example, there are fans of Bollywood, Korean cinema, pho, etc., and sometimes one of those shoots into the nation’s awareness, but it’s usually just a fad and is therefore fleeting. The local culture stays the way it is, changing at its own pace—and I think that’s the situation in most countries. The U.S. is different; probably it’s the young-nation, multi-ethnic, immigrant-based, entrepreneurial thing. And Giant Robot is one great gauge for what from Asia is hot or not in the U.S.


The GR folks are also holding a 50th Issue exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA, right next door to the packed Takashi Murakami exhibit at the MOCA (as I was saying on Asian cool…). One happy discovery at the Giant Robot exhibit was the brilliant cartoons of Adrian Tomine, which were on display. His stories are funny and really ring true—I’m ordering his books on Amazon as soon as I get home…

Friday, November 16, 2007

On Teeny Frahoop

A few years ago I wrote a post that asked what ever happened to Teeny Frahoop, a brilliant girl rock band that disappeared after releasing only two albums.

Now I know part of the answer...and the knowledge crushes.

I found their new website, and in a section titled 'biography' was this note about Noriko, their original guitarist and vocalist:

She died of stomach cancer on January 24, 3 years ago.
Though she had splendid talent, she died young, only 27 years old.
The time that we spent with her was not long, but she gave us many things.
She lives in our heart all the time and Rides the Rockin Rocket in Teeny Frahoop! young. I had no idea.

Did they already know something was wrong when they made their second and last album, 2nd Hospital?

It's a classic that represents a stark departure from their first album, Wee Wee Pop, which is whimsical, happy, but rocking. 2nd Hospital is darker and more serious—were pain and depression what gave it its feel?

I hadn't listened to Teeny Frahoop much recently, but after reading about Noriko I began to spend all my time playing their second album on my iPod.

Now the intro of the first song felt even more sad: “I get up early morning, and/ I regret I was born, so that/ I go to bed late night/ I fear a nightmare everynight”.

And the second song is called "Where is cancer?" and ends with the words "Hello, the darkness of night/ Hello, you know my rainy day/ However hard I try,/ I can’t reach it/ I can’t shine."

What did it feel like, being a Japanese girl, in her 20's, in a rock band, but faced with such gloom? The lyrics give you a sense.

Or...maybe not. I might reading too much into the album. It came out in 1999, and under circumstances that I'm not completely aware of, the band disbanded in 2000. I'd like to find out more.

2nd Hospital, in any case, is a great album that you owe yourself a listen if you like Japanese rock. It contains two of the best rock tunes I've listened to in Japan, or anywhere—“Inside Of Theater” and “Ride The Rockin' Rocket”, the song by which the remaining TeenyFras remember Noriko.

Of my many little regrets in life, one is that I was in Japan during the years when Teeny Frahoop were active, but I never found out about them then. The guys at Badbee knew them and saw them live—I wish I could have too.

Happily, they are back now, with a new guitarist named 'Tacco'. That's why I found their website, and the note on Noriko.

They were playing at a show at the Shimokitazawa Shelter on November 4 that featured a bunch of other girl bands from the K.O.G.A. Records compilation Good Girls Don't! Neo. I couldn't wait for the show—the compilation opened my eyes to a lot of bands I'd never heard of before and are great, but most of all, I wanted to see Teeny Frahoop, a group whose music I've loved for years. (They contributed a touching new song called 'Tiny Filled Hope' to the K.O.G.A. omnibus album.)

But then, life intervened.

Something serious came up that made me, heart full of regrets, unable to go to the Shelter show at all.

At least I've heard that Teeny Frahoop will play again sometime in the middle of the year, and I have my heart set on going to that show.

In the meantime, I have two great albums of theirs plus a new song to keep me happy. How sad it is that Noriko passed away so young... but what she left behind is precious, it adds color to life, and I want to thank her, so much, for what she was and what she did.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Indie Event "Closer Vol. 2" In Shinjuku

A tearful Tokyo evening: at Shibuya station a high school girl was consoling her weeping friend; further down a bawling tot was tugging at her mom's hand; at the platform was a poster of a TV drama featuring two girls and a guy, all moist-eyed; flashing on the Yamanote line's in-train TV was a commercial showing a woman shedding tears at a bar, and a chivalrous man sliding a chocolate across the bar to her, to help lift her spirits.

In the background to all this was an unending, chilly autumn drizzle: was that getting everyone down?

But in spite of the miserable weather, or maybe to escape it, indie music fans flocked to Shinjuku Marz and Motion to an event called Closer Vol. 2 that featured eleven bands. The performances were split up between the two live houses, and you could go back and forth between them, stopping off outside to get a bite to eat or buy cheaper drinks at nearby convenience stores if you desired. That's an improvement on the Tokyo live house convention whereby you can't re-enter the club once you leave, meaning you are stuck there until you see the act you came to see.

I ended up watching the uhnellys and henrytennis at the Marz, and Yucca at Motion.

Unnellys was a girl on drums and a long curly-haired guy on bass and mini-trumpet, both of which he looped with a pedal to create dense dub phrases, over which he rapped in rapid-fired Japanese. He had a lot of stage presence, and the two really got the crowd going with their funky jazz-rock-hip hop—a wool-capped girl in front of me began swinging her head up and down like a charmed cobra at one point.


Henrytennis, after them, kept up the momentum. The septet call themselves a tribal, new wave prog ensemble, and to me a lot of their music sounds like free jazz, except composed and with pre-planned structure (is that paradoxical...?). Once they started they didn't stop until the end, going from quiet to over-the-top, and in one climactic fermata the female keyboardist sustained a jarring, dissonant chord for a long moment that never seemed to end, as the others jammed like the world was coming to a close, and the crazed audience members all got naked and spun around a bonfire lit up in the middle of the live house...

Well, not quite, but that's what it felt like.


Yucca played at the Motion, and between songs explained what the event Closer was all about: there's a lot of great indie music in Tokyo, but too few events where all these groups are showcased, in an atmosphere of freedom; they therefore got together and organized this event, and hoped more like this would follow. Remarkably, considering the usual quietness of Tokyo audiences, the fans cheered and yelled out encouragements as Yucca spoke. It was moving to be at an event where everyone was indie, and proud to be so.

A congrats to Shinada-san, Yucca's drummer, who played for the first time in eleven months after fracturing her back and going through rehabilitation. She led the band (who call themselves children of Sonic Youth and Stereolab) in a rocking performance, and the packed house loved them. During one song break, she told everyone that this was her comeback gig after her injury and thanked everyone for watching, but on this tearful Tokyo evening, she was dry-eyed, with dignity, as she said this.