Friday, February 29, 2008

Little Lounge Little Twinkle At 8 Bit Cafe

Up a flight of stairs in a bland Shinjuku building is a Shrine to nerdy teenage living in the 80's, a Temple of Famicom, manga and anime figurines. It is called 8 Bit Cafe.

Well, actually, it's just a cafe, but a remarkable one. 8 Bit Cafe's website says its concept is “recreating that after-school hangout” you had when you were a kid—and the kid they have in mind is the 80's Japanese boy who spent too much time battling friends on Nintendo, or, on Mondays, lying around flipping through the latest issue of Shonen Jump. But this hangout is more stylish than any playroom ever was—the walls are painted white in the trendy Tokyo cafe fashion, and on the wall are artsy, framed portraits of cartoon characters. Scattered everywhere are old Famicom consoles and cartridges, manga books and toys and figurines.

What blows my mind is that there was someone for whom those teenage days of game-playing and manga-reading at home were so important that the person decided to open up a business to glorify them. I played the Nintendo too—but was there really that much there? Is this a hangout for people who don't want to grow up (and if so, why don't they want to)? The cafe weirded me out a bit (the same way a lot of the Akiba places and the whole Cult of Famicom—a big thing among some of the piko piko groups—weird me out). But the concept is novel, and I suppose that's a necessary thing for a cafe...

Anyway, I was there to see Little Lounge Little Twinkle, who put on a brilliant solo show. They fit in well at the 8 Bit Cafe: many of their songs have a playful, kid's music feel (one song uses a strawberry-shaped music sampler toy, for example), which shares something with the cafe's concept. But, still, behind all their fun little songs are solid arrangements by classically-trained musicians (I wrote more about them here), and their kiddy songs aren't very Famicom-like and more like handmade, wooden European toys, if that makes any sense at all...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ore Wa Konna Mon Janai!

Ore wa konna mon janai could enter a weird Japanese band names competition and go pretty far. It means “you ain't seen nothing of me yet”, something a guy might say after messing up royally at work, being yelled at by the boss in front of all his co-workers, and shedding some hot, frustrated tears in a bathroom stall. Why this prog/psychedelia/rock quintet named themselves this is anyone's guess.

In any case, OWKMJ was my one fresh discovery at disk union event in Shinjuku on Saturday night. The event was held at the Marz and Motion, two live houses on the same block in Kabuki-cho, and you could go back and forth between the two, and, if you so desired, grab a meal outside or make a convenience store stop while doing so (actually, since the event went from 2PM to past midnight, there would be nothing stopping you from catching a movie or involving yourself in other Shinjuku activities and when you return, the event would still likely be going on...). The Motion is on the 5th floor, so after a show if there was a good band coming up at the Marz, a big line formed at the elevator to get out of there.

I was at the event to see 4 Bonjour's Parties (photo above) and henrytennis (photo below OWKMJ), and OWKMJ's set was between theirs. It started out like some sort of new religion gathering, the sax/snare drum guy spreading out his arms to welcome the converts while moaning and smiling. It developed into an exhilarating blend of prog, psychedelic rock and jazz, and the band especially had good moments when the sax guy pounded on his snare drum, creating complex beats along with the main drummer.

Ore Wa Konna Mon Janai

Here's a good description of OWKMJ's sound:

Mixing psychedelic rock with mysterious ambient spaces lends a timeless flavour to their music, while at the same time remaining immediate and captivating. Each song is a journey in itself, with a host of influences giving you a backpacker's view of the road less-hitched. From Moroccan desert themes and solemn pastural melodies to bastard noise-punk from the inner-city, OWKMJ covers every inch of the musical terrain with intensity and originality. by cal lyall(soundispatch)


The more shows I go to like this one where you can go in and out of the venue as you wish, the more I grow to dislike the Tokyo live house convention of not allowing re-entry into the club once you leave. The Marz even had a sign saying, 'please try to watch all the bands and not just the group you're a fan of, because all those bands have something they want to communicate to you'. Which is no doubt true, but really, to quote from Boogie Nights, that's YP, not MP: if I can help it I'd rather not waste hours listening to bands I don't like, and I appreciate musicians that subvert the Tokyo live house convention by letting fans know beforehand what time they will be playing. (And, of course, there's hypocrisy involved on the live house's part—maybe they want you to see all the bands, sure, but they no doubt don't mind the added drink revenue that comes from keeping the audience in their clubs for as long as they can).

I admire the Shibuya O-Nest in this regard: partly because they have their own bar on a separate floor from the live space, they let people go out and come back by showing the ticket stubs. Other Tokyo live houses! You can do it too! Open up your doors!


As an LA guy, I couldn't help but crack up seeing this Engrish street sign...

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hola, Swinging Popsicle!

I've just found out that Tokyo pop group Swinging Popsicle will be playing in Monterrey, Mexico (!!!) in early March! I'm tempted to hop on a plane across the Pacific to witness what will surely be a musical fiesta extraordinaire, but I don't think I can afford to... Here's the press release by

February 13, 2008 - Japanese pop pioneers Swinging Popsicle have been invited as the first-ever musical guest for the 32nd Convencion de Juegos de Mesa y Comics in Monterrey, Mexico. The event will be held March 7-9, 2008, at Monterrey's Cintermex Center, hosting thousands of Mexican fans of Japanese entertainment.

Swinging Popsicle was requested by the event's coordinators based on their 10-year history and their status as one of's all-time best-selling artists. The band is currently nominated for Best Japanese Pop Band by Shojo Beat magazine.

Swinging Popsicle has appeared previously at Fanime Con (San Jose, CA) and Anime Mid Atlantic (Richmond, VA). In February 2008 they played a special concert in Seoul, Korea for their Korean partner-label, Pastel Music.

Swinging Popsicle appears at Convencion de Juegos de Mesa y Comics by special arrangement with and Entretenimiento Creativo.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ainu Rebels

Flipping through the TV channels the other day I stumbled upon a great documentary on, of all places, the NHK education channel (usually home to shogi and go match broadcasts, foreign language lessons, physics lectures, etc. etc.—hmm, come to think of it those are probably an improvement on usual Japanese TV fare...). It was about a group of Ainu kids who put on a dance and music show in Tokyo to introduce people to their culture. They called themselves the Ainu Rebels.

The Ainu (pronounced 'aye, noo') are an ethnic group living in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, different in appearance from the ethnic Japanese, and possessing their own culture and language. In the Jomon period, that is around 14,000-400BC, they lived in the main islands of Japan but after the Yayoi people came to Japan from what is now China and Korea, they were gradually driven north and south. The northerners are now known as the Ainu, and the southerners are Okinawans.

The Ainu's recent history is a tragedy of oblivion: they were made to be forgotten by the Japanese. In the Meiji period (1868-1912) the Japanese government tried to assimilate them into a unified Japanese race, banning their language and restricting their work to farming and fishing. It largely succeeded: now, many people of Ainu descent aren't even aware of their ancestry, often because their elders hid it from them.

However, there's been a movement since the end of WWII to revive the Ainu culture, to learn again their almost-forgotten language, and to take pride in their heritage. The Ainu Rebels are part of that.

Watching the NHK documentary about the Ainu Rebels holding a musical event in Tokyo, what struck me was how different Ainu culture is from mainstream Japan's even though they live in the same islands. Their art and design, for example, look nothing like their Japanese equivalent; the thick, curved lined designs you often see on their traditional clothing resemble Celtic art more than Japanese art (though there's no connection to the former). The Ainu also look different from the ethnic Japanese, to a much bigger degree than I expected before watching the documentary. I think that an Ainu person's appearance would often fall outside of that spectrum of looks that a Japanese person would recognize as one of their own.

The interesting thing about Japan, though, is that in spite of what you hear about the homogeneity of its people, even the main Japanese group is a blend of ethnicities: the native Japanese Jomon-jin appearance mixes with the Chinese/Korean look of the Yayoi-jin look, and, if you look carefully, some people have much more Jomon characteristics than Yayoi, and vice versa. (Some of us got a kick out of the museum exhibition posters that popped up all over Tokyo a couple of years ago showing a representative Jomon girl—on the left in the photo below—and a typical Yayoi girl, to the right.) But all that hasn't stopped the mainstream Japanese from often being racist towards the Ainu anyway.

Which is what one of the Ainu guys featured in the NHK documentary rapped about during the Ainu Rebels' performance: he did a rap about growing up looking different, being called out by the other kids on that, trying to hide and forget that difference. But he has a sister who's much more into her Ainu identity, and one day he finally understands where she's coming from, that his ancestral heritage is a rich and deep one, and it's worth embracing and even letting other people know about it through performances.

It was a moving rap. What would be even greater now is if they go further, beyond telling people about themselves and their culture, and create new art that incorporates Ainu elements. The documentary showed that they're already doing that with their dances, combining modern and Ainu dance styles. In their music and rap it would be very cool if they brought in some Ainu words, traditions, points of view, and so on, and made something that speaks to us. I think that would really be NEW, and something I'd certainly want to listen to.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Howling At The Buddha: Mona Rock Caravan

Do Buddhism and rock music mix?

I pondered this question while watching bands rocking out under the serene gaze of a wooden Buddha statue on Sunday. The setting was Ikegami Honmonji, a grand, Nichiren-sect temple in southern Tokyo. Mona Records had chosen the temple as the site of its annual Mona Rock Caravan music festival, and bands performed on a stage set up in the Grand Hall, right under a sculptural line-up of a seated, meditating Sakyamuni and four standing Boddhisatvas. The scent of incents filled the hall.

Anyhow, my conclusion was, 'probably not'. Rock/pop is all about desires (for sex, fame, money...), and action, passions, excesses. Buddhism is about extinguishing desires, and serenity, stillness and enlightenment. They make an odd couple.

Still, it was a fun event. The female vocalist of the first act, a jazzy pop band called Mopsy Flopsy, said before starting one of their songs: “Even though we're in a place like this, we're going to do an intense song. I'm going to howl in front of the Buddha.” In my imagination the Buddha wouldn't have minded, and I think would have smiled peacefully.

The hall


Quinka With a Yawn was one of the performers, and their set actually matched the atmosphere of the venue well. They'd just returned from recording an album outdoors in the wilderness of Nagano, and the new songs had a country music feel. In one song one of the guys blew a bird whistle while another shook a rattle, recreating the feel of the woods in the candle-lit darkness of the temple hall.


Why a music festival at a Buddhist temple? For the organizers, Mona Records, I think it was an opportunity to have an event at a more interesting place than the usual live house or club. I've written before about Tokyo musicians who want to try new things with music shows, who want to hold events at unusual venues, and this was in line with that movement.

For the temple, it was a chance to get young people interested in Buddhism, and it's been hosting a lot of events like this. Around the midpoint of the festival, the temple's number-two priest, a man named Nishuu Hayami, came on stage for a talk about Buddhism, which he describes as being like a drop of water in a dry world. “If not for a live show like this, you might never have an opportunity to listen to a talk by a priest,” he said. “If even one of you begin to believe in the Buddha's thoughts, that's enough.”

Did this event convert any of the hundreds of youth in the audience? Hard to say. These days typical Japanese people have a passive, undevoted relationship to Buddhism: if they're in a temple, they might go through the motions of praying, and funerals are usually still conducted by a Buddhist priest, but it doesn't seem to be a big part of people's lives for the most part.


After the event I moved on to the town of Koenji (also originally a name of a Buddhist temple) to see Yuyake Lamp at the tiny club Roots. The building housing Roots is all-Okinawa-themed, including an Okinawan restaurant, and is well worth a visit. Yuyake Lamp's shows are so full of life, I never tire of them, and instead they always give me new energy...


I just learned that the Kitchen Gorilla, a great rock trio, is going to be 'taking time off', in other words, they're quitting. Sad news, they were one of my favorites.