Last week, some friends and I were enjoying a little post-meal vegetation in front of the television. Our channel surfing crested on MTV Japan. After laughing in disbelief at a J-Hip-Hop (or hipu-hopu) video involving mouse costumes and cheap blue-screen effects, Jed floated the question of what "real" Japanese music sounded like.
"What, like Japanese folk music?" I asked.
"No, just indigenous Japanese pop music, stuff that isn't just a version of Western music. Is that what J-Pop is like?"
I'm honestly not sure what J-Pop is, given that the term casts as wide a stylistic umbrella as the term "jazz". The answer to Jed's question is paradoxic: there exists no indigenous Japanese "pop music" that has escaped the influence of the West. Sure, there's plenty of non-Western music in Japan, but that's folk music, not pop music, innit?
Pop music, by Western standards, is as old in Japan as the term itself. During the postwar American occupation, soldiers arrived not only with guns but with slang, literature, and music. These cultural memes so penetrated the populace that, for the past fifty years, Japanese music has kept up lock-step with the Joneses - from rhythm 'n' blues in the '50s, to psychedelia in the '60s, to AM radio schlock in the '70s... and so on to this very day, when everyone from Evanescence to Amerie has their own far-Eastern doppleganger.
(I must confess utter bewilderment at the fact that the Japanese so embrace the culture of a country that massacred hundred of thousands of its people in a matter of miliseconds, but that's a conversation for another day.)
What's often forgotten is that Japan was arguably the world's first melting-pot. While the origins of its language are still a mystery, its alphabets were adopted and adapted from those of other countries. (Kanji is the confounding Chinese character system, while katakana evolved from Roman characters.) Most of its myriad of religions were imported from neighbouring nations, as were modes of dress, styles of government, and musical instruments, among other things.
The Japanese treat culture as a film director treats a novel: study the source material, but switch up the script. Instead of sporting customs and ideals like a rented suit, new threads are woven into the society's fabric. Whenever anything gets classified - and don't act as though this is unheard of - as "just... so Japanese", it's because of that uncanny quirk earned through adoption. Rock 'n' roll is as dully American as apple pie and preemptive warfare... so why does a no-frills, greasy-hair-and-guitars garage band like Guitar Wolf fascinate Western audiences? Because these three dudes are so obviously enamoured of rock 'n' roll but without a native context for the blues or Elvis Presley or Detroit Rock City. They're left to act out the most ludicrous caricature of rock musicians imagineable, unburdened by its history. When the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show the same swagger, they lack the objective distance afforded Japanese bands, so the JSBX are taking the piss out of an American institution. But for Guitar Wolf, it's less minstrelsy than a sincere tribute.
Of course, sponging up the sound and strut of the West means that bands in Japan, by and large, sound like bands from fucking everywhere else. It's a bit disappointing to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, home of the Boredoms, Otomo Yoshihide, and Melt Banana, only to realize that pop-punk poseurs and sparrow-voiced r'n'b songbirds are going to outnumber noisecore collectives and electronic improvisers.
The other week, I picked up a sampler CD by the band Cartonbox at the Design Festa Gallery. Surely any band sharing its wares via an art gallery must be on some heady, next-level shit, right? No. While I was rather taken with the crushed beat that opened "Suraido", it was obvious that the band is, more or less, a Radiohead tribute, mashing the guitar squall and operatic wail of The Bends with the warped beats of Kid A. As the song "Feedback" demonstrates, Cartonbox are able songwriters who can rock convincingly, but I can't listen without wondering when Thom Yorke is collecting his royalties.
A band like Custom Mummy is considerably more inventive in their osmosis of Western influences. The masked electropunk duo take any number of familiar elements - movie quotes, breakbeats, burbling synth basslines, and in this case, Black Sabbath's eponymous anthem - and stitch them together with distortion to create hulking B-movie monsters of songs. It's the sort of danceable doom music that fans of German techno terrorists Atari Teenage Riot will adore. And while the music isn't much more than the literal sum of its parts, it's the sort of sharp-toothed stylistic fusion that could breed a new rung in the evolutionary ladder.