It’s an interesting time to be in a Japanese punk or metal band — especially, but not only, if there are three women in your group, you’ve been championed by some of rock’s most revered bands and you’re known to sing really cute songs about chocolate. Alternately, there’s X Japan, the long-running and resilient metal unit whose new documentary We Are X was the talk of this year’s Sundance and SXSW film festivals. But finally, there are new albums from Shonen Knife and Babymetal that deserve attention.
Shonen Knife have been around, in varying evolving trio-lineups, for decades: They first got together in Osaka in 1981, put out their debut on cassette in 1982 and have released something like 15 full-lengths since.
Guitarist/vocalist Naoko Yamano has led the band since its inception, joyously applying riffs and hooks from ‘60s garage rock and girl groups, ‘70s hard rock, ‘80s New Wave to The Beatles and The Ramones. They write adorably wacky lyrics about animals (“Elephant Pao Pao,” “Parrot Polynesia,” “Bear Up Bison”), food (“I Wanna Eat Choco Bars,” “Cannibal Papaya,” “Flying Jelly Attack”), animals and food (“Banana Fish”), public baths (in a song also involving eating ice cream after bathing), washing dishes (“Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner’s Theme”), rocket rides, burning farms and devil houses.
In 1991, before Nevermind came out, the frequently Mondrian-attired band toured England with Nirvana, whose Kurt Cobain listed their mid-‘80s Burning Farm among his favorite albums; two years earlier, cool-kid troupes like Sonic Youth, Redd Kross and L7 paid tribute on a covers LP called Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.
Only Naoko Yamano remains from the early days — her sister, drummer Atsuko Yamano, left the band when she got married in 2008, although she still pitches in now and then when Shonen Knife play Southern California. But the new Adventure is a typically fun affair, with lots of grimy surf-garage fuzztones, some ska beats, and a Rubber Soul-ish sunshine trip called “Cotton Candy Clouds” that sounds just like its title. Plus, there’s a pile of punky, but pretty songs about hot wasabi, tiny green tangerines, Tasmanian devils, rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, fighting dogs (“bow wow wow…scary for me!”) and visiting Hawaii (“mahi-mahi tastes so good!”)
Babymetal: ‘Idols’ Steal the Spotlight
Still, when it comes to loud, but giddy female trios from Japan, Shonen Knife have arguably been upstaged by Babymetal. Unlike Shonen Knife, they don’t play their own instruments; when they materialized in 2010, they were the side project of an entertainment-company-fabricated junior-high “idol” group called Sakura Gakuin.
1!-2!-3!-4! — ichi!-ni!-san!-shi!
Though previously oblivious to the rituals of mosh pits and head-banging, the three girls took on individual character personas based on their first names (“Sumetal,” “Yuimetal” and “Moametal”) and made a video in 2014 for their song “Gimme Chocolate!,” which has been viewed more than 45 million times on YouTube. They took to regularly singing and performing intricate choreography on stage in pigtails and matching black-and-red ruffled gothic skirts, backed by professional metal musicians. Oh, and they toured with Lady Gaga.
But the metal world, more open to humor, novelty and kitsch than you might guess, didn’t reject them: thrashers in Anthrax, Metallica and Slayer have come out as fans. Babymetal even have their own sub-genre now, called “kawaii metal,” named after that singular Japanese aesthetic of cartoonish cuteness — high-decibel rock for the Pikachu-inclined.
Babymetal now has a new second album, which takes a good, smiling leap forward from the callow monster roaring and is mixed with chirpy-cheep chatter, gabba-to-crabcore-to-jumpstyle electro beats, deathcore drumming and the power drama of their self-titled debut.
Like Shonen Knife, the new Metal Resistance echoes the Ramones at times: the “1!-2!-3!-4!” (then “ichi!-ni!-san!-shi!”) count-offs in “Awadama Fever” (“awadama” evidently translating as “bubble”). But “Road to Resistance” opens the set with five minutes of shredding from two guitar heroes (including Hong Kong-born Herman Li) from the show-offy British power metal outfit DragonForce, “Meta Taro” is a sort of Celtic folk-metal move while “GJ!” and “Tales of the Destinies” are expert industrial metal, ricocheting all over the place. There’s dubstep, arcade blips and a power lullaby, too — plus a doom-riffed/schmaltz-chorused single about karate.
In the past, Babymetal have sung lyrics about tricking Dad into giving them more spending money and being an ally to friends who get picked on by bullies. If those sound like bizarre topics for a metal band, it probably helps to understand the wholesome Japanese idol culture they arose out of (and still seem tied to).
Pop Culture Evolution
Dating back to the ‘70s — when the distaff disco duo Pink Lady first sold millions of albums in Japan then momentarily crashed the U.S. Top 40 and got their own infamous NBC variety show for five weeks — Japan’s idol machine has always been sort of a more meticulously tooled, far more entrenched version of, say, American Bandstand, which churned out squeaky-clean adolescent idols in Philadelphia in the early ‘60s, or Disney’s Orlando of the late ‘90s. Talent agencies hold auditions, then painstakingly rehearse multitalented, but unthreatening teenage entertainers who kids at home can identify with — and imitate.
Lately, though, the idol machines have apparently been venturing out on more experimental limbs. So you get acts like Babymetal or the acrobatic, hugely popular, and sometimes musically over-the-top five-girl Momoiro Clover Z, who went so far as to release an irresistibly noisy dance-metal collaboration with the band KISS last year, called “Yumeno Ukiyoni Saitemena.”
That’s not as drastic a stretch as it sounds: Japanese rock had come in many shades since first developing in the ‘60s — the traditional, Eastern-melodied folk-rock of Tokyo’s Happy End and Okinawa’s Champloose, the psychedelia of Tokyo’s Flower Travellin’ Band — but the country has loved metal at least since Judas Priest recorded their live album Unleashed in the East there in 1979; even earlier, Japanese hard rockers Bow Wow had opened for Aerosmith and KISS.
Osaka’s durable glam-and-prog-metal institution Loudness put out their first album in 1981. In decades since, even as far kawaii-ier Japanese pop-rockers made Western inroads like Puffy AmiYumi’s mid-’00s show on the Cartoon Network, lots of music in the Land of the Rising Sun has grown only louder and crazier: noise rock, much of it droning and/or heavy, as out-there as any on earth (Boredoms, Boris, Zeni Geva, Acid Mothers Temple); garage punk retaining all the grease leaked onto the garage floor (Electric Eel Shock, Guitar Wolf, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant); digitally percussive robot-rap metal (Mad Capsule Markets); doom metal obsessed with mass murderers (Church of Misery); black metal sampling Italo disco and classical.
But a probably even more lucrative Japanese rock story has been the explosion and continued prominence of the strain known as “visual kei,” a sort of post-kabuki cross-dressing leathered-and-laced equivalent of glam metal and goth punk that ultimately spanned those genres and assorted others. As its name suggests, it’s more of a catchall for how bands look, rather than how they sound.
Alt-and-nü-metal-leaning Osakans, Dir En Grey, who placed albums at, or near the top, of the U.S. Heatseekers chart in 2008 and 2011, are likely the most internationally successful recent example. But the most universally credited originators of the style are undoubtedly X Japan, who formed in 1982 in the city of Chiba, about 25 miles southeast of Tokyo. Six years later, they put out their debut full-length, Vanishing Vision, sometimes called the Japanese equivalent of Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Subsequent albums followed in 1989, 1991 and 1996 — plus a 1993 “mini-album” comprising one 29-minute song backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But guitarist Matsumoto Hideto (known as Hide) died in 1998, and bassist Taiji Sawada (who played on the first three albums) in 2011 — each of their deaths was officially cited as suicide, though some insist the former death was accidental and the latter murder.
How much longer can Japanese rock stay under the radar — even when it’s not so cute?
“Although Hideto is deceased,” the Encyclopaedia Metallum website reports, “X Japan still considers him a member of the band and introduces him at every concert.” In 2014, despite most Western rock fans not even recognizing their name, the band played Madison Square Garden.
Later this year, the band plans to put out their first album in 20 years. And now their story, by turns tragic and triumphant, is being told to the world. Earlier this year, Passion Pictures premiered the film We Are X, produced by Jon Battsek, perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about the obscure-everywhere-but-South Africa Detroit musician Rodriguez. In January at the Sundance Film Festival, We Are X won a Best Editing award; at SXSW in March, social media hashtags associated with X [Japan] were eclipsed only by tags associated with President Obama. At this rate, how much longer can Japanese rock stay under the radar — even when it’s not so cute?