SxSW: Japan Nite and the Future of Japanese Music in America

Categories: Concert Review
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Jonathan McNamara
JinnyOops! performing at Japan Nite 2010. See more shots in our Japan Nite slide show.
The chances are fairly good that you have never heard of Japan Nite. Never mind the fact that this SxSW showcase has been going on for 15 years; the odds are you won't recognize any of the bands that have played those bills.

The fact of the matter is that a 20-something named Mage from Louisiana doesn't care whether you've heard about Japan Nite or not. What Mage does care about (so much so that he drove all the way to Austin from his home state and waited at the front of the Japan Nite line for hours) is seeing Chatmonchy, an all-girl trio from Tokushima, Japan, that has never had a hit single in America and whose import-only albums can be purchased for the hefty sum of $50 from Amazon.com.

He brought hundreds of friends.

We have bigger issues to discuss here, so I will go ahead and clear this up straight away: Japan Nite was fantastic. Not unlike Mage, this reporter sacrificed a great deal of time and money to go, and it was absolutely worth every ounce of effort. But it did leave me with lingering questions about whether or not an event like this can break down cultural and language barriers enough to allow any of Japan Nite's music to become more than a niche genre in the American musical mindset.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, Ayumi Hamasaki is not playing on my radio, so the answer is probably no. Why are things this way? It's easy to point to the language barrier (though many Japanese bands sing in English) but the real answer is how willing we are to slap Japanese music with a big, fat gimmick label.

A New Times colleague decided to check out JinnyOops!, the first band to hit the stage at Elysium for Japan Nite. When I asked him what he thought, he said they reminded him of Rocket From the Crypt, except -- well, you know -- Japanese. My colleague is absolutely right and his comparison a natural reaction for anyone steeped in English-speaking music to have. The problem is that this instantly designates any Japanese band as a gimmick.

They're like [insert English band here], only Japanese.

And it's not just English-speakers who make the comparison.

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Jonathan McNamara
Okamoto's
Take the Okamoto's, the third band to play at Japan Nite and arguably one of the best of the showcase. Their tagline is "the spirit of the '60s lives on in these 19-year-old Japanese rockers." I only wish I knew whose '60s they're referring to, because I'm fairly sure there was nothing that sounded like The Rolling Stones in Japan in the 1960s and that's precisely what the Okamoto's sound like.

When asked what he thought about Japanese bands comparing themselves to English bands in a recent New Times Q&A, Polysics lead singer Hiro said he thought it was okay so long as the band brought something to the table that is distinctly theirs. I want to say that the Okamoto's do that, but it's a tall order when their moves, their sounds and even the way they dress are clearly borrowed from Mick Jagger.

No, American audiences want something different just as much as they want something familiar -- and they must have both. This is why the Japan Nite acts I found the most interesting (and also the most distinctly Japanese) also aren't headlining SNL -- at least not yet.

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Jonathan McNamara
Omodaka shares his electronic toys with the crowd at Japan Nite.
There were two stand-outs for me: Omodaka (a one-man show of electronic goodness played on various portable gaming systems and other electronic toys) and Dolly (practitioners of visual kei -- a genre that for the most part doesn't exist in this country but owes a lot to hair metal).

Omodaka jumped on stage clad in some sort of priestly kimono get-up with a white, Vanilla Sky mask and a wig. He introduced his "bandmates" comprising two Nintendo DS Lites, a PSP, an Apple Mac Book, a sound board, a strange device with a touch screen that generated sounds not unlike a theremin, and a television screen on which his female vocalist who does not perform live with him occasionally showed up to sing along in video form. The result was a musical experience that walked a fine line between club beats and experimental, art house chip tunes.

Yet as much as I ate up his musical machinations, audience members about me who had seen Omodaka last year expressed a lack of interest in seeing his show again. "Oh no," I thought, "We have to sit through something millions of Americans don't so much know exists and won't understand even if we bother attempting to explain it to them again." The fact is we'll let a pair of Frenchmen wearing robot helmets into our CD players so long as their remixes remain in English, but a masked Japanese man with poor second-language skills gets filed under "gimmick."

The same is true for Dolly. These four rockers, costumed in gothic suits and hats with immaculate if unmistakably feminine hair cuts headlined Japan Nite with their accordion-laced ballads and smoldering guitar solos. And yet all the screaming Twilight fans in the audience can't get their beloved Japanese rockers an ounce of American airwave.

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Jonathan McNamara
Chatmonchy at Japan Nite.
If there's one band that has a shot though, it's Chatmonchy. Before SxSW, Spin Magazine had the decency to include these three, female rockers from Tokusima, Japan, in their list of the 50 must-see SxSW bands. Rightly so in my estimation, because these chicks had me bobbing along to their heartfelt, guitar-fronted tracks about love and make up despite myself.

The critic in me feels the need to tell you that all the Spin endorsements in the world won't flip a magic switch that makes all American music enthusiasts tolerant to Japanese, but the Japanese Music fan in me knows the uglier truth: I'm okay with them not making it here.

Look, I can't speak for all Japanese music fans, but I can tell you that as much as I want to see Chatmonchy on the cover of Rolling Stone, I fear that allowing them to stand toe-to-toe with the Beyonces and Lady GaGas of the American music scene would mutate them from the Japanese trio that I love to something with a lot more voice modulation and possible cameos from Kanye West. So though I will buy their albums and venture to see them should they come within 1,000 miles of me, I will secretly hope that they avoid mainstream success in America.

Besides, if every one loved Japanese music, how would Mage and I get to the front of the line?

Critic's Notebook:

Japan NIte 2010 at SXSW

Better Than: Seeing Peelander-Z, but I'm going to do that on Wednesday night just the same.

Personal Bias: a lot. Omodaka was my favorite act by far. If you haven't checked him out, do it now.

Random Detail: If you get the chance to see the Okamoto's, pay attention to the drummer. He makes this face like he's trying to bite his own ear off when he plays. I swear the kid is possessed.

Further Listening: A lot of bands have played Japan Nite in the last 15 years. My personal favorites from the entire line-up are The Mad Capsule Markets, Love Psychedelico, Petty Booka, Titan Go-Kings, The Pillows, Ellegarden and Gitogito Hustler.


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