Funny how stereotypes can be so stubbornly self-sustaining. A few years ago, I showed some friends in Baltimore my favourite Japanese TV show, Gaki No Tsukai. Though most found it hysterical (if mildly disturbing), one friend was actually angry with me. "Y'know," she started, "whenever I say 'my friend lives in Japan,' I spend all this time telling people it's not like you live on Mars, it's not completely batshit insane, not a real-life Blade Runner, the Japanese are just normal cats with some slightly different cultural conditioning - and then you show me this. What the hell am I supposed to think now?"
Similarly, six years ago, almost all I knew of Japan was the lunatic notoriety of the Osaka noise scene. Tokyo was forest of steel & neon, Kyoto was all bamboo & raked pebble gardens, and Osaka was an open-air asylum packed with certifiable nutters who'd swapped bushido for bulldozers & fuzzboxes. Of course, after moving here, I saw how coarse & ignorant this assessment was. Tokyo is an omnivorous hyperreality, Kyoto is more than a historical diorama, and any perceived derangement on the part of Osaka-jin was likely more middle-child contrarianism than a hysteria innate to the city.
But after last weekend's Bakuto festival, I take that last bit back. There really is something in the Kansai water, and Osaka people are off the fuckin' hook. Okay, that's a little unfair: any festival will draw a self-selecting (and thus unrepresentative) multitude. Bakuto is equal parts skate show, dub-head soundclash, tattoo convention, and experimental rock extravaganza - none of which screams "mainstream appeal." But if I threw a loudly-'n'-proudly "countercultural" festival in Tokyo, I'd likely draw as many reactionary nationalists ("Death to post-modern demographics!") as anyone. I certainly couldn't expect the diverse congregation of J-dreads, mori gyaru, baggie skaters, gangsta pseuds, techno-hippies, hardcore punks, fashionistas, greasers, tweakers, pushers, enforcers, Vice mag devotees, expat Williamsburg/Brighton wannabes, aloof chin-strokers, awkward tag-alongs, and unhinged musos that populated Bakuto.
Immediately striking is the festival's setting: a disused shipyard, backdropped by the post-industrial rust & grime of the Suminoeku waterfront. Strolling the docks, it's hard to see whether or not the outside world has indeed crumbled into the yawn of the apocalypse. This dilapidation at once encourages avant-gardistes to bring their convention-smashing A-game, yet makes whatever Neubauten-esque mayhem ensues seem merely appropriate to the environs.
My band was playing the outside stage (next to the skate park) in the mid-afternoon. I spent most of the morning people-watching and wandering wantonly. The earliest bands were all the kind of willfully-amateur, pseudo-tribal dance-punk acts that made Wham City famous, despite how dull & gimmicky they are. Watching a band with the exquisitely dull & gimmicky name Ultrafuckers (ウルトラファッカーズ), a Jared Swilley lookalike was trying way too hard to be really into it while simultaneously stonewalling me, as I depressed his currency as "in-the-know" white guy. Tokenism will only get you laid for so long, dude.
Lunch was a Kafkaesque experience that bordered on sensory breakdown - which had nothing to do with the quality of food. I'd slunk indoors to avoid sunstroke, but the second-floor concourse was sandwiched between competing bass frequencies of obscene volume. From above came the indolent throb of house DJs soundtracking the tattoo convention, while below bands on the Gareki stage vied for sonic supremacy with the incessant thrum of the "Black Chamber" drum-n-bass room. The whole building - windows, walls, ventilation ducts - groaned as several streams of sub swam in and out of phase, coalescing into the same ear-canal-clenching whomp as the Inception score. It sounded... no, it felt like a war zone. Seasick and half-deaf, I stumbled back outside.
Happily, Bakuto delivered that epiphany you always hope for at festivals: when you discover the kind of music you knew someone had to be making but had yet to hear. Kyojin Yueni Dekai (巨人ゆえにデカイ) more-or-less translates as "Because I'm a Giant, I'm Big," which explains why frontman Mizuuchi Yoshihito plays atop stilts, exaggerating his already wiry & mantis-like frame. His guitar has the tinny, equivocal tone of a shamisen or wounded banjo, except for the bass string substituted in the instrument's lower register. The bass string is so roughly detuned that it doesn't so much articulate notes as belch concussively; an atonal gut-punch. Skinsman Wada Shinji alternates between the most minimal of percussive accents and blastbeat freakouts, mirroring Mizuuchi's vocals as he leaps from stony blankness to hoarse bellow. But catharsis is always deferred in favour of suffering the anticipation of the next note; restraint and painfully drawn-out pauses become more tensely theatrical than any punk shitfit abreaction. The effect is like mid-'80s Swans if Gira had been a kabuki student instead of a construction worker.
Unfortunately, two acts that I was especially looking forward to - オシリペンペンズ and オニジャガデルカ - were both playing at the same time as my band. Still, we had a healthy turnout considering we were competing for attention with two giants of the Osaka underground. Hell, I wouldn't even blame someone for skipping our set to go watch the Battle Robots.* Don't get me wrong, I think we're pretty good, but not a lot can compete with remote-controlled scrap-heaps going at it hammer-and-tongs-and-flamethrower.
Some acts were less willing to sacrifice their audience share to automated warriors, and fought fire with fire - literally. Following our set was D.D.S., who performed as a kind of checklist for "subversive" noise rock. Bondage masks? Check. Samples of Hitler? Check. Theremin, circuit bending, turntable abuse? Yep. Gratuitous immolation of old televisions? Of course - but these brainiacs had set the TVs atop a stack of old tires. They deliberately started a tire fire. As plumes of noxious yellow smoke rose into the sky, an ambulance came screaming onto the festival grounds. I suppose the authorities reasonably assumed the sudden expulsion of fumes meant some bad shit was going down.
D.D.S.'s vocalist responded to this incursion by clambering atop the fence and hollering at the EMTs, "Dees eez LOCK AND LOLL!" Couldn't really argue with that, eh?
(*) - That's actually my band in the background of this video clip.