This is a dictionary of theatrical, rock-opera-ish Japanese bands
This page is a collaboration between myself, and my good friend (and walking encyclopedia of Japanese underground culture) MOCHIJIKI MASARU. (AKA 餅 AKA WEAKMINDEDCHILD). He is currently the drummer for FOXPILL CULT. You can follow him here.
Since coming to Japan I done seen a lot of “genre” shows: punk shows, metal shows, even shows with punk and metal on the same bill! But every once in a while, some wacky bands will sneak on the bill, bands that defy categorization. bands that are RAD. But all these bands have some things in common:
They use some combination of props, costumes, choreography, physical performance (anything from “acting” and pantomime to breaking things which have been set on fire), audience-participation, and narration.
Why did they seem to not know each other,but have similar outlooks on performance?
What intrigues me about this gekiteki/theatrical rock business is, it’s not a scene.
it’s not a subculture.
Almost none of the bands sound the same as any other band.
Some dress like shrimp. Others like dolls.
Some look like normal rockers but have really deep lyrics about Japanese surreal horror novels.
Others dress up like characters from those same novels, but their lyrics are about some other shit entirely!
It seems like there are a thousand kids, in a dozen different cities, playing all different types of music in all different decades, who just ALL HAPPENED TO HAVE THE SAME IDEA: “LET’S EXPRESS OURSELVES IN THE FORM OF A ROCK OPERA.”
In America, by contrast, we have GWAR and. . .. well, that’s it. For the last 30 years, all we have had is GWAR .
For years these questions buzzed in the back of my mind, and finally I got fed up and decided to do a GEKITEKI ROCK PROJECT
“The gekiteki rock project?” you say. “What on earth is that?”
THE GEKITEKI ROCK PROJECT is an attempt to catalog all the bands, in order to answer these questions:
IS THIS A REAL PHENOMENON OR AM I JUST FUCKING IMAGINING IT?
WHY IS ROCK OPERA SUCH A BIG THING OVER HERE?
WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT JAPAN AS A COUNTRY?
WHAT ARE THE INVISIBLE INFLUENCES THAT LINK THESE BANDS TOGETHER?
DEFINING WHAT I MEAN BY GEKI-TEKI, ALREADY.
Gekiteki rock is a phrase I made up to describe these many diverse bands that have different themes, different images, different sounds, but all share something in common, something not found in other countries. Since Japanese people themselves don’t realize that this is A Thing, they never came up with a name or category for it.
When I say gekiteki rock, I don’t just mean some fake KISS band with makeup and a wacky costume. While I’m sure those bands are (*sigh*) just fine, there are too many of those to even count.
Gekiteki rock is a combination of three elements;
First element: THEATRE
Not just costumes but also:
The band members portray characters who have a backstory and are ‘in character’ on stage
songs that are part of a larger plot
stage decoration or props
narration or acting between songs
second element : WAYOUMIX
Wayou (和洋, pronounced wah-yo!) is a word made from the characters for Japan (和= wa) and the West (洋= You), and it means mixing eastern and western styles together. In this case, mixing western rock music with . .
Japanese costume (for example, kimono, samurai garb, Buddhist monk clothes, modern working-man’s clothing)
Japanese melody ( for example, melodies from minyoukyoku or enka),
Japanese scales (called onkei)
Japanese singing style (kobushi, a mixture of vibrato and kind of scratchy voice)
Japanese instruments (usually shamisen or shakuhachi)
Japanese deep culture lyrics (for example, old folk-tales, religious themes, historical or literary references, or old ghost stories (kaidan, noroi, or yuurei))
Third element : ANGURA influence
(angura is a contraction of the word ‘Underground’ . . . but it does not refer to punk or hardcore bands. Instead it refers to a ‘canon’ of ‘classical’ dark, literary Japanese avant-garde artists from the ‘30s to the ‘70s). Gekiteki bands usually have band-names, lyrics or costumes or cover-art inspired by ANGURA.
Artists : tadanori yokou, hirano kouga.
Playwrights : (Terayama Shuuji, and his theatre group Joukyou Gekijo, butoh dance)
authors (Edogawa Ranpo, Dazai Osamu, Yumeno Kyuusaku, and Yokomizo Seishi,)
These bands’ music is usually (but not always) just a pretext for people to do performance art or theatre under the name of “rock”.
Heavy metal bands excepted, of course.
(you could reply that pop music in ANY country the music is just kind of an afterthought . .. but the main point of pop is to get a Pepsi endorsement and a line of designer pants. In gekiteki rock, the music is sidelined to make room for actual CONCEPTS: the back-story, the characters’ individual personalities, audience interaction, and so forth).
SUB GENRES OF GEKITEKI
Not every band has those 3 influences in equal amounts, of course. Some bands are more theatrical , others are more wayou, and still others are more angura. So I started grouping them by sub-categories. However, bands in the same category aren’t necessarily copying each other or even friends. More often than not they came up with the same idea totally independently.
But, with so many bands (over 60 as of right now!), it’s easier to start by comparing bands that have similar themes, so I broke the ‘geki-teki world’ down into 9 sub-categories:
GENERAL THEATRICAL ROCK – the catch-all category for rock operas or character-based bands
SHIRONURIKEI – (literally ‘painted-white face’) the more art-studenty, retro-’20s, Japanese-traditional-melody-having older sister of Visual Kei. Shironurikei combines wayou and theatrical rock in almost equal amounts.
LITERARY – combining western music (usually heavy metal) with lyrics inspired by Japanese surrealist and horror novels
PAGAN – combining rock with Shinto, Buddhist, or even older shamanistic Japanese traditions.
MILITARIST – doing Nazi or Imperial Japanese Army drag. Just for shock or . . . .?
NOISE/PERFORMANCE ART – because terrorizing the audience is a form of theater.
RETRO SHOWA/TAISHO POP – combines rock with retro-1910’s / 1920`s nostalgia and old-timey pop music.
CABARET / BURLESQUE – because burlesque has always been theatrical, based on teasing and interacting with the audience
AKIHABARA STYLE – based as it is on anime, the performers are always “characters” and have a backstory, lines, etc. Also the audience gets so into the ritualized gestures and call-and-response that they do more work than the “performers.”
Just in case that is not complicated enough, here is a sort of “family tree” of Japanese gekiteki rock styles:
SO, TO RETURN TO THE MAIN QUESTION : Exactly what is it about japan that makes “rock opera” popular?
To find the answer is a three-step process; a process that I’m begging you guys to help out with.
ONE : I’ll make a list of all the bands that have something GEKI-TEKI going on. I’ll post this in a fuckin’ minute.
TWO: now that the bands are lined up side-by-side for comparison, let’s look at their music, imagery, lyrics, and try to find common themes : symbols, clothing, lyrical phrases, etc. Are 2 or more bands imitating the same artist, playwright, movie, or something?
THREE: Each time we find a common theme, symbol, or fashion, we can start asking our Japanese friends, “What is the historical origin of this particular theme? Is it a custom from Edo times or is is based on a particular artist or pop culture thing?”
In other words, it’s about connecting the invisible lines of influence that link these bands, and figuring out what it is that makes up the “invisible something” that makes them seem similar.
So I need your help . . .
if you know bands that should be on here, please let me know!
If you have pictures of the band, cover art, or lyrics from them, please send it.
If you think you found a common point or repeating pattern among bands, let me know! And let me know what you think is the source or roots of the pattern.
A PERFUNCTORY HISTORY OF JAPANESE AVANT-GARDE ROCK
This is to help me (and you? if you’re still reading) understand the cultural background and influences from which gekiteki bands sprang.
Let’s start with traditional music: (or at least, those parts of traditional music that lot of these bands seem to wind up using)
太鼓 : taiko drums
民謡曲 : Minyoukyokufolk music. Shrill!
童謡douyou – traditional childrens’ songs
声明 Shomyo – Buddhist sutras
雅楽 : gagaku – Shinto music
歌舞伎 – kabuki theater
音階 ：Onkai – Japanese scale
こぶし : kobushi – Japanese style vibrato
呪い noroi – trad. Ghost stories (lit. curses)
神話 - Shinwa – myths or mythology
怪談 - kaidan – ghost stories
下ネタ： shimoneta (crude material) : junior high kids’ or elementary kids’ immature playground songs.
And now, from the samurai times, let’s skip right to the ‘60s, when TERAYAMA SHUJI dropped the bomb. This guy singlehandedly started the avant-garde (by which I mean, weird semi-illegal shit that wasn’t just a copy of Euro avant-garde) . He cultivated a crew around him that did shit in all formats: music, theatre, literature, whatever.
Also in the ‘60s there were a bunch of hippy/psyche bands that some people consider “avant garde” but fuck them. There’s a website that lets you download all the albums in the famous “japrock sampler” of Japanese psyche. I DLed most of them and they were just wretched. I deleted them. You heard me? I wouldn’t listen to that shit for free.
In the ‘70s, the avant-garde shifted to prog rock! Most of this was just copies of foreign prog bands like Yes or ELP. . . there’s even a Japanese knockoff of BOSTON (they even got the same cover artist!).
But some bands like PEOPLE, AFTER DINNER, GEINOU YAMASHIROGUMI and EAST BIONIC SYMPHONY Infused the prog trend with traditional Japanese influences: mostly gagaku (a Shinto holy musical drone), and shoumyou (Buddhist sutra chanting). The results were not usually that good, but at least they were trying and they had moogs.
Around the same time as the prog guys were underground folk singers. Where prog was big and complex, folk went the opposite way: intimate and quiet.
I am frankly not sure why my Japanese friends insist that these folk singers are avant-garde or influential on gekiteki rock, but they insisted. I guess the folk-ers mixed up bob Dylan style with minyoukyoku (traditional Japanese folk) and had dark spooky or deep spiritual lyrical themes? I mean who cares, it’s just a douche with a guitar and no distortion. But anyway: the main people were
Inoue Yousi – his fans liked the band kinnikushoujotai
Morita douji – her fans liked the bands kinnikushoujotai and uchouten
Tomokawa kazuki – his fans liked uchouten
Mikami Kan – his fans like uchouten.
Both Asakawa, Tomokawa, and Mikami came out of Terayama Shuuji’s crew.
あがた森魚 (agata morio)
Fairly major folk singer. But conceptual (and therefore theatrical?)
Had elaborate stage sets. His catchphrase was “Taisho Roman” (taisho meaning the pre-war period of Japan, and roman meaning romance, meaning nostalgia Got all that???) . His lyrics and stage sets invoked the pre-war days of modernism, optimism and freedom of thought. But also kind of making his own world a la Tori Amos or whoever. Like he was invoking nostalgia for a parallel universe Taisho.
Then late 70s: new wave! Rebelling against both prog and folk with sounds that were simple yet futuristic and new. And sideways haircuts for everyone!
the big 3 wavers were P-MODEL, PLASTICS, AND HIKASHUU
Leader of Hikashuu was Makigami Koichi, originally a theatre guy, also a writer/ critic : he brought an avant garde, theatrical, kabuki influence to new wave.
But still they all –together with the avant- prog- and folk bands carried a lot of traditional Edo or Taisho imagery with them, and a sense of theatrical fun. Of which I am startlingly short of specifics. Any wavers want to give me a hand here?
Also can’t forget Togawa Jun and her band YAPOOS. Somehow they got a major label contract to make a rock opera about a sex android that fucks and kills its maker before going on a reverse-rape-and-hatchet spree. Unfortunately the music is just awful. YAPOOS were pals with p-model. And Togawa Jun remains to this day the template for every “wacky” female vocalist.
Then the ‘80s came and mainstream culture got taken over by anti-arty-farty machismo: visual kei, bosozoku, guitar solos and big hair, etc.
The shironurikei trend was also started in the ‘80s, although it didn’t have the nerdy, gothy, anti-jock connotations it was later to aquire. It hadn’t really “jumped ship” from the regular rock and roll of the time.
Then the big 2 shironurikei bands of the ‘80s: UCHOUTEN and KINNIKU JOSEITAI.
Kinniku Joseitai’s fans were people that had grown up with folk singers like Inoue Yousu and Morita douko
Uchouten’s fans tended to more like the folk singers Tomokawa kazuki and Mikami Kan.
SO there’s some “lines of influence” for ya.
Like the leader of Hikashuu, Uchoten’s vocalist also ran a theatre company on the side. I have no fucking idea what they did. Any theater goons want to help me out on this one?
Around, oh, let’s say 1989 or so, there was an influential TV program called : いかす バンド天国. (SET-BANDS-IN-MOTION BAND HEAVEN )
This program was in large part responsible for the so-called “band boom” of the late ‘80s. Bubble economy didn’t hurt either. SET-BANDS-IN-MOTION BAND HEAVEN was a battle of the bands, where the winner would get a major label contract.. but in the process it gave a lot of exposure to indie bands who also tried out, even if they didn’t win. Of course indie (underground) bands had fans since the ‘60s, but now regular kids were getting into them and starting their own indie bands.
Also in the mid- ’90s was the bunkei boom. 文系 ブーム. This was a sort of nerdy, literary rock trend, led by metallers Ningen Isu. It was a counter-reaction to the more jock-ish, yankii-ish metal and visual bands that had dominated the ‘80s.
In the late ‘90s, the shironurikei scene was big enough to split in twain: techno bands and rock bands. The techno bands were led by SHINJUKU GEWALT and the rock bands by KARIGARI. Neither of them were particularly good, but they influenced a lot of smaller bands that were, so please make a note of them in your ipad or whatever the fuck you kids use nowadays.
And after that, nothing happened.
OK. Now I explained what the fuck this GEKITEKI BAND PROJECT is about, this introduction is over. I’m gonna give you a few days to let this sink into your heads and then start posting about specific bands.