|Photo by Kikuna Mishima
“When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical 9-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.”—Kurt Cobain on Shonen Knife
What turned suicidal heroin addict Kurt Cobain into a gibbering goofball when he first experienced the storied Japanese rock trio live? This, in essence, is the question we asked a cast of writers, to help us compile our roster of Japanese Rock Babes*.
|Phew: Courtesy of P-Vine Records; Shonen Knife: Courtesy of P-Vine Records
Aiha Higurashi: Courtesy of Chance! Dance! Records;
Buffalo Daughter: Courtesy of V2: Super Junky Monkey; Courtesy of Smash
Yuki Isoya: ©Epic Records Japan Inc; Melt-Banana: Courtesy of Melt-Banana
Lolita No.18: Courtesy of Benten Records; Majo, Red Bacteria Vacuum: Photos by Kevin Mcgue
01 Akiko Wada
Even if her name doesn’t ring any bells, you’ll no doubt recognize the formidable Akiko Wada from many a TV “wide show.” Although “Acco” might remind you of any number of Japanese TV celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, she first came to attention as a singer—something her busy celebrity lifestyle, ironically, leaves little time for today. But when Wada does sing, she removes any doubt that she can still belt them out like she did when she shook up the Japanese music scene in the ’60s. Inspired by R&B and soul, she began singing in the jazz coffee shops of her native Osaka, dropping out of school to pursue a career in entertainment. Wada’s first big hit was 1969’s “Do Shaburi no Ame no Naka De” (In the Pouring Rain), which came just a year after the release of her debut single “Hoshizora no Kodoku” (Alone Under a Starry Sky). “In the Pouring Rain” and a selection of hits from the ’60s through to today have been compiled on Free Soul, which serves as a good general introduction, comprising as it does Wada’s ballads and pop with her gutsy R&B numbers. Last September, Acco celebrated her 40th year in showbiz with an emotional performance at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, treading the same boards as many of the black musicians that inspired her and making new fans across the water.
Jeff Michael Hammond has run a record label, written on and produced music, and DJed and consumed too much alcohol at various Tokyo nightspots
02 Yoko Ono
Opinions on Yoko Ono usually fall into two categories: antipathy or aggressive defense. What many music critics miss is the fact that, unlike most musicians who use songs to convey their emotions, Ono is a conceptual artist who began using the medium as a mere canvas for her imagination. Her music, then, simply doesn’t make sense to those listening for emotive melodies or an angelic voice. For me, 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe opened up a whole new world of what music could be. Here were the undiluted, myriad thoughts of the creator: antagonistic, challenging and tempting, yet honest, transparent and deep-hearted. While topics like abortion, free love and revolution may have eluded my young mind, I felt instant admiration for her audacity, and a keen desire to understand where she was actually coming from. Ono’s recordings evolved from wacky experimentalism with John Lennon into a vessel for her life experiences, notably of an infamously turbulent relationship and, eventually, her grief and emotional convalescence. Yet the more intense her voice became, the more essential her ingenuous contributions to the art of music became too.
Robert Poole is director of Something Drastic Artist Management
03 Naomi Chiaki
On December 31, 1977, Naomi Chiaki appeared on NHK’s famed New Year’s music program Kohaku Uta Gassen and sang one of the eeriest, most emotional songs: “Yoru e Isogu Hito” (The Person who Rushes Into the Night). Dressed in black from head to toe, with her hair flying everywhere, Chiaki beckoned to the audience, mimicking a voice she heard coming “from the deep darkness within me.” Not surprisingly, the song sold very few copies, but reruns of the show aired in recent years have generated a new appreciation among younger music fans looking beyond the standard repertoire of pop music. After 30 years, Chiaki’s two-minute set is still one of the most talked-about moments of the famous TV program. When her husband passed away in 1992, Chiaki stopped singing, and she’s not appeared in public since, despite a great number of fans who await her return to the stage. It’s quite rare to come across such a popular singer with technique, vision and the power to draw an audience into a world of her own.
Isaku Kageyama is a member of taiko group Amanojaku
Hiromi Moritani wields the most complete Rolodex in Japanese alternative rock. Since taking the stage name Phew and forming the short-lived Aunt Sally in 1978—not only one of Japan’s first all-female No Wave bands, but one of the first No Wave bands, period—she has worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto, krautrockers Can, and the godfather of Kansai noise-rock himself, Seiichi Yamamoto. It’s for Aunt Sally’s eponymous 1978 debut and her first solo album, 1981’s Phew, that Moritani is most revered. Imagine the Patti Smith Group fronted by Nico—if she’d been born in Kobe, not Cologne. Moritani’s abstract, nihilistic poetry, delivered deadpan over an uncompromising art-punk backing, was too dark, too industrial, for mainstream consumption. Phew, after all, is so intense it makes Nico’s The Marble Index sound like Herman’s Hermits. But over the years, Moritani’s influence has far outstripped her sales: a younger female alternative icon, Jun Togawa, cites Phew as an inspiration, and the likes of Yamamoto queue up to perform with her (she appears intermittently with punk band Most). Another belated stamp of approval came earlier this year when Phew was voted the third-best alternative Japanese album of all time in the counterculture bible Studio Voice. Should’ve been higher.
David Hickey has written on Japanese music for The Japan Times, Time Out, The Wire and USA Today
I was always going to be a sucker for Tokyo-based group Melt-Banana. In a country famous for smacking you around with its noise music, Melt-Banana has—over the past 15 years, nine albums, and two-dozen EPs—taken that aural mayhem and infused it with hyperventilatingly paced punk rock and a swag of electronic styles, in often desperately brilliant ways. Cell-Scape (2003) remains my favorite album for that year. And what can I say? John Zorn and Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle) are equally avid fans. The standout for me in showmanship, attitude, and (surprise) aptitude has always been Yasuko Onuki, a.k.a. Yako—the group’s founder vocalist and writer. On one tour of the US, Melt-Banana’s van famously hit a deer with Onuki behind the wheel. Instead of moping about the tragedy, the incident inspired Bambi’s Dilemma, the moniker for last year’s opus—which also happens to be the singer’s first pick for best Melt-Banana album. “It’s what we’re doing right now,” she assessed in clinical fashion. After that, she wavered. “But I’d also like to pick Charlie , because it was the first self-produced album we did on our own label, A-Zap Records—and Mr. John Peel chose it as one of his favorites.”
Journalist Andrez Bergen is a Japanese music groupie, from noise and taiko through its more dulcet J-pop moments
06 Shonen Knife
Shonen Knife is one of the most important bands on the planet. Founded in 1981 in Osaka (and still going strong), the group found themselves hailed as international indie ambassadors, touring Britain with Nirvana, covered in the US by Sonic Youth, and becoming one of the few Japanese bands to enjoy sustained success in the West. But none of this is the reason they are important. In recent years, the band has forsaken its early pop experimentalism to settle into a Ramones-esque three-chord groove, but Shonen Knife has always been first and foremost about the lyrics. No topic is too sugary for front lass Naoko Yamano (and onetime bassist and co-vocalist Michie Nakatani). Ice cream, cookies, choco bars, and non-edible topics such as space travel and cycling—it’s all there in the Shonen Knife canon. But again, this is not exactly what makes them such a crucial band. Naoko has said that she never wants to sing about politics, yet her lyrics send out the message that we should focus on things that touch our lives. The silver linings. If everyone listened carefully to Shonen Knife’s lyrics—political leaders, terrorists, traffic wardens—there would be no more war; no more misery; no more famine. And perhaps no more dental hygiene. But that’s a small price to pay for a world of caramel stripes, neon zebras and Shonen Knife.
Daniel Robson is music editor at The Japan Times, and will always be Of The Knife
07 Miki Ohno
She came out with a guitar slung around her neck, took a swig from a bottle, threw her head back, and created a perfect fountain of spray about three meters high. Miki Ohno of the group Passengers spent much of her career using stunts like this to live down her gorgeous appearance—no mean feat. The band was a Japanese Pretenders: solid blues-based pop with a forceful feminine vocal presence, fantastic songs, ultra-talented musicians and a singer whose mother took her to rock gigs at the Budokan when she was 2 years old. Two children interrupted Ohno’s bid for stardom after just four albums between 1987 and 1990, but still looking divine and singing wonderfully, she’s got the itch to do it again. It’s time for Japan’s lost queen of rock ’n’ roll to reclaim her throne.
Fred Varcoe is a journalist with short hair who still thinks he has long hair
08 Aiha Higurashi
Japan’s cookie-cutter idols desperately need a role model. One comes to mind: Aiha Higurashi. Although she’s mellowed, Higurashi still sings with the voice of a self-confident woman who can stand toe-to-toe with a guy and deliver a knee to the crotch when circumstances warrant. As frontwoman for Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her—one of Japan’s best rock bands ever—Higurashi flew in under the radar back in the late ’80s. A female-led trio with a punk spirit and a fondness for English lyrics, the Seagulls were equally at ease playing acoustic ballads and borderline hardcore punk. Higurashi’s in-your-face sexuality and buzzsaw guitar brought to mind a multidimensional Joan Jett or a saner Courtney Love. Her onstage swagger and boozing helped cement the bad-girl image. To her credit, Higurashi has moved on, and the more reflective songs of her new band Loves hint at the possibility of a calm after the storm. “The way I write songs is always by humming,” she says. “I’ve always liked soft sounds, too. I’m a big fan of Elliott Smith and other acoustic music.” Don’t expect to hear Higurashi’s old stuff live, though. She has a “never say never” attitude to a Seagulls reunion, as her priorities are elsewhere. Dying for Seagulls, a best-of compilation released by Polystar in 2002, is a wonderful introduction to her first band. Easily accessible even for J-rock neophytes, it reveals what happens when cute meets cutting-edge.
Former Asahi music writer Wayne Gabel now gets his J-rock fix in New York City
09 Buffalo Daughter
Formed in 1993 by guitarist Sugar Yoshinaga, bassist Yumiko Ohno, and (male) turntablist MoOog Yamamoto, Buffalo Daughter is one of Japan’s most innovative and internationally recognized rock bands. On its first two albums, Captain Vapour Athletes (1996) and New Rock (1998), the group offered a deeply bizarre yet stylish sonic template: long jams of acid-house TB-303 bass-synth freakouts sprinkled with purring Minimoog, vocoders, short-wave radio, live drums, and strange vinyl scratch squirts. The signature mechanical drum patterns and analog bursts may have been influenced by krautrock bands such as Neu! or Kraftwerk, but BD found its own voice with the addition of deconstructed sampling, angelic vocal harmonies, and a surprisingly good sense of pop melody. Signed to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label in ’96, the group became one of Japan’s ambassadors to the global indie rock world, alongside friends like Cornelius. Recently, Sugar formed the Slayer-meets-breakbeats outfit Metalchicks with ex-DMBQ drummer Yuka Yoshimura. Buffalo Daughter, however, continues to push musical boundaries with its albums, retreating from the polished pop of I (2001) to settle back into a more experimental sound in Pshychic (2003) and Euphorica (2006).
W. David Marx is Chief Editor of Neojaponisme
10 Super Junky Monkey
While the tragic suicide of singer Mutsumi “623” Fukuhara in 1999 at age 28 (leaving behind a 1-year-old son) cemented Super Junky Monkey’s mythology, it was their febrile mashup of punk, alt-rock, metal, noise and funk that guaranteed their place in the Pantheon. Debuting with the live outing Cabbage in 1994, SJM quickly built an international following with two albums for Sony: 1994’s Screw Up and 1996’s Parasitic People. The band soon found itself on the cover of Billboard and touring the US as the invited front act for Nine Inch Nails. Along with eX-Girl (which guitarist “Keiko” later joined), they formed the core of a coterie of rockers who in the ’90s showed that not only could Japanese women look good fronting a band, they could also match the boys note for note on guitar, bass and drums. A posthumous best-of collection, Songs are Our Universe, offers a good overview of the group’s career. For the truly curious, the album title also provides the name for a one-off comeback commemorating ten years since Fukuhara’s passing.
Super Junky Monkey’s surviving three members return to the stage June 20 at Liquid Room. DG
11 Yuki Isoya
Bestselling vocalist Yuki Isoya—these days known simply as “Yuki”—has racked up an impressive and varied resume. She spent ten years as lead singer and main lyricist of seminal ’90s band Judy and Mary before embarking on a solo career, and even briefly teamed up with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s to form supergroup NiNa. Despite undergoing throat surgery in 1997, Isoya possesses a distinctively catchy voice, frequently compared to that of Icelandic singer Björk. Throughout her career, she’s combined a freewheeling fashion sense with an energetic and—in the case of JAM—often noisy blend of pop and punk, drawing inspiration from the Sex Pistols and ’80s punk group Rebecca. Classic JAM tracks like “Music Fighter” and “Sobakasu” captivated fans with their manic energy. Even though the group called it quits in 2001, the 2006 best-of album Fresh still sold over 200,000 copies. Tragedy struck in March 2005 when Isoya’s infant son died of SIDS. Despite this, her solo efforts have been characterized by an upbeat pop sound that retains the whimsicality of her earlier work. Of Isoya’s five solo albums, the last three—Joy, Wave and Five Star—have topped the charts, suggesting that she’ll be a musical power-player for some time to come.
Sarah Cortina is an editorial assistant at Metropolis and a recovering J-pop addict
Tokyo’s eX-Girl arrived perfectly formed from “Planet Kero” in 1997, and quickly set about upending the image of Japanese girl bands as mere novelty acts. Yes, they had the cute outfits and frogs-from-outer-space shtick. But unlike many, these girls could play the shit out of their instruments. With singer and bassist Kirilo wailing operatically and guitarist Chihiro and drummer Fuzuki backing her with dead-heavy riffs and Space Invaders sound effects, eX-Girl caused many an unsuspecting jaw to drop. Their over-the-top plastic minidresses and frog-head masks (now undoubtedly part of a museum collection) defined a performance-art-meets-punk approach that seems positively prescient. Over several albums produced by underground legend Hoppy Kamiyama, running from their debut Heppoco Pou through Kero! Kero! Kero! and Back to the Mono Kero (“kero” is Japanese for the sound a frog makes), they gained a cult following on both sides of the Pacific. If nothing else, lines like this one from “Cucumber Surrender” guarantee their inclusion in the Pantheon: “Before you slice him up and make him a meal/Stroke your cucumber—let him know how you feel.” DG
13 Cibo Matto
Multi-instrumentalist Yuka Honda and vocalist Miho Hatori burst onto the New York music scene in the early ’90s with a vivacious blend of hardcore, funk, rap and disco-esque sampling. They picked up a rabid following playing gigs at clubs like CBGB, a sound which is reflected in their 1996 debut album Viva! La Woman. Catchy, off-kilter and often food-themed songs like “Know Your Chicken” and “Sugar Water” caught the attention of the MTV Generation, leading to TV appearances on trendsetting shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cibo Matto’s second album, Stereotype A, hit fans with a new pop-heavy sound plus new members Sean Lennon and Timo Ellis. After several years of heavy touring, both Honda and Hatori became involved in more collaborative efforts with other artists. Cibo Matto officially called it quits in 2001, but on the band’s homepage, their motto lives on: “May the wasabi be with you.” SC
14 Shiina Ringo
Shiina Ringo is perhaps the bestselling and most beloved female Japanese rock singer of the last decade. Unlike most J-pop stars, however, Ringo was never a puppet of her managers and handlers, but instead a revolutionary figure who used her success to push new ideas into the mainstream music scene. After a childhood of piano lessons and obsession with local rock bands, she broke into the major leagues with her Alanis Morisette-esque 1999 debut album Muzai Moratorium. Big sales led to unprecedented creative control, allowing two of the most intellectually challenging, compositionally complex and immaculately produced J-pop albums of all time: 2000’s Shouso Strip and 2003’s Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana. (The latter title lists three items that smell like semen.) Both albums are heavy on electronic audio tricks, disconcerting walls of noise, dozens of unusual instruments, and some of the strangest vocabulary ever used in Japanese pop lyrics. Moreover, all the song titles are perfectly symmetrical, and one track even uses nonsense lyrics based on backwards semi-palindromic interpretations from previous tracks. In 2004, Ringo abandoned prog-pop experimentalism for straight-up jazz-rock with band Tokyo Jihen. Her recent work does not warrant much critical response, but her place in music history is already secure. WDM
Catch Japanese rock babes live at Rock Chick, presented by Metropolis. Sat Apr 18, at SuperDeluxe in Roppongi. See listings for details.
*The definition of “rock babe” is a subjective one: Metropolis takes no responsibility for the inclusion or exclusion of your favorite artist from the Pantheon
15 Lolita No.18
Japan’s only group to be produced by none other than punk legend Joey Ramone, Lolita No.18 is perhaps the definitive Japanese female punk rock band. Formed in 1989 by formidable frontwoman Masayo Ishizaka, the band continues to hone a razor-sharp punk attack and remains one of the hardest-working groups in the biz.
Audrey Kimura runs Benten Label and the Japan Nite US tours
“I always wanted to be one,” says guitarist Tomo, explaining the origin of the name Majo, which means “witch” in Japanese. Offstage, Tomo and bandmates Luna and U-Can come across as shy but polite. Onstage, they transform into a dark, rhythmically tight three-headed monster. Now in its eighth year, Majo is a guiding light in the Tokyo live-house scene, giving up-and-coming girl bands a chance to play at their regular “Triple X” events at Heaven’s Door in Sangenjaya.
Kevin Mcgue bought his first 18.104.22.168’s album in 1993, and his life hasn’t been the same since
17 Red Bacteria Vacuum
Demonstrating the connections the trio had made since moving from their native Osaka six years ago, Red Bacteria Vacuum played a recent comeback concert that drew a virtual who’s who of the Tokyo underground rock world. They do not have fans—only friends. Original member Akeming left the group to start a family, but with Ranran and Ikum! serving up double doses of energy at every show, they remain one of the most popular “girl bands” on the Tokyo scene. KM
Cute, barmy and frequently naked, Osaka duo Afrirampo sent ripples of pleasure through the underground rock scene when they emerged in 2002. Former art school students Oni (guitar, vocals) and Pika (drums, vocals) channel the schizoid energy of noise punks Boredoms into recognizable pop structures, unleashing it in wild, unashamedly theatrical shows. It’s an appealing mix, winning them slots on overseas tours with Sonic Youth and a brief stint on Sony, which released 2005’s Urusa in Japan. This is one live act you really don’t want to miss.
James Hadfield is the editor of Metropolis
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