A few collages I made with images cut from (mostly) vintage magazines…
Sometimes you just find out about new music by chance. Such was the situation for me with the album “Satsujin Jiken” (Murder Case) by an underground idol group called Shoujo Kakka no International. (translates roughly to Girl Excellency International) I just happened to see their album cover come across my twitter feed, and the eye-catching retro Saul Bass inspired art grabbed my attention immediately. The album was released on a favorite indie label of mine, Trash-Up Records. Trash-Up is also the label for Avandoned, and have released some other great unconventional indie-idol stuff as well, including a low-budget film starring Bellring Girls Heart. They also publish a trash-culture magazine where their love for idols connect with quirky exploitation films and punk rock. In other words, it’s as if I have spirit animals in Japan reading my mind.
The surprising thing is that Trash-Up very quietly uploaded this album on iTunes outside of Japan and didn’t really say much about it aside from a single tweet. And you know, if I hadn’t seen this tweet, I doubt I would’ve known I could so easily purchase the album. Actually, I doubt I ever would’ve even listened to it at all. I clicked the link and listened to some lo-fi samples: It was brilliant. Utterly brilliant. Totally brilliant and absolutely impossible to describe in it’s genre-bending insanity. I needed no more prodding to buy it. I downloaded it to my devices and I’ve been obsessed with it for the last few weeks. But now here I am, listening to an album from a group I’m completely over-the-moon-with despite knowing next to nothing about the girls behind the music. And also, why isn’t anyone else (at least in the Western world) freaking out over this masterpiece like I am?
I looked up Shoujo Kakka no International on YouTube and found a channel listed for them. One thing was for sure, they were about as underground as it gets. Their performance videos reminded me of punk-rock bands playing basement shows for a handful of people. They were endearing amateurish and low budget, playing pre-taped music and singing along to it in a messy, but incredibly fun display of charming youthful enthusiasm. They even covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit”! The tiny little crowd of fans clearly adored them as well, running around the tiny room in circles only a few inches away from the group. But the videos were all a few months old, and again, there was nothing here promoting the recently released “Murder Case” album that I was so into.
Digging deeper into search engines, I finally happened upon an article that made everything clear, but sadly it wasn’t what I wanted to learn. Shoujo Kakka no International was no longer together, and “Murder Case” was a posthumous release of their final recordings. Their manager, Sokichi Nagata, wrote a couple of insightful and rather heartfelt essays of his experience and the lessons learned (Both personal and professional.) from taking on the challenge of managing an underground idol group. It’s some fascinating and highly recommended reading (Translated in English) that pulls back the curtain of the indie-idol business. You can read Part One Here and Part Two Here.
My feeling after reading their former manager’s essay, and then re-evaluating the album, is that “Murder Case“, with it’s Hitchcock-esque art-vibe and genre-be-damned musical experiments, is the last gasp of a crazy dream that decided to cram everything it had in that final breath. The music is all over the map, with jazzy film-noir flourishes, minimalist synth, weird audio collages and desperately emotional screaming. This is what happens when you have nothing to lose in the moment so you simply unleash it on the masses so there’s at least something to look back on and be proud of.
My hope is that Shoujo Kakka no International‘s final recorded output will one day reach enough ears that a sizable cult will worship this group’s post-career memory the way it has for rock bands like The Velvet Underground and the Detroit punk band Death, and though there will be no more music, people will know their name and speak of them with fondness. I’m going to try my best to advance that along.
Currently, two of the former members are active with ongoing activities. Risa Satosaki is a rising star, building up a ton of positive buzz as a singer/songwriter with some lovely tunes under her belt. Meanwhile, Mochi Fukumaru is now going by DJ OMOCHI and officially became the new DJ for the idol-hip hop unit Rhymeberry. Best wishes to them and all the former members!
Anyone who’s followed an idol group, even if they are fairly new to the genre, has most likely already experienced more than one “graduation”, a new member addition, or all too often, an entire group disbanding. One thing’s for certain in the idol world, and that’s that nothing is ever certain. I think one of the first lessons to this type of music is to accept that things change quickly, and quite often unexpectedly. We all get reminded of this practically weekly.
In March I had the wonderful pleasure of seeing Avandoned, (Old line-up photo above) a four-piece up-and-coming idol group, live. I knew going into the show that one member, Kononome, had announced her intention to step down from the group in the spring. At the same time, another member, Nayuta, had run afoul of her management for unspecified violations and was essentially being let go. I didn’t even know if she’d be appearing on the tour, but she was indeed there, and performed like a total pro. I received confirmation a few days later that the very show I attended was her final time singing as a member of Avandoned. Apparently she admitted to holding back tears as they finished their set that night and prepared to return to Japan, where she would take a brief hiatus from public life. (She just recently made a very quiet return to music.) Avandoned continues without Kononome and Nayuta, but brought in a terrific new member (Yay Kotao!) to fill that void. And while I’ll certainly miss that version of the group I enjoyed so much, the new line-up is full of promise that keeps them very much worth watching. (New PV with the current line-up below!)
Within that time and throughout the summer, we’ve seen other group’s lose beloved members (You’ll Melt More!, Billie Idle), amazing new members added to groups (Ayuni-D, welcome to BiSH and we all LOVE you!!) and sadly, some great groups decide to call it quits and ride off into idol history. (Goodbye Kuroneko no Yuutsu and ShoujoKakka no International, I feel like I never got to know you.) And yeah, this is all terribly sad, but like Hyman Roth said in “The Godfather Part II”, “This is the business we’ve chosen”. If you want to enjoy this crazy amazing music, you’ve got to learn to accept what you cannot change.
And this brings us to two well-regarded Japanese philosophies: “Wabi-sabi” and the related concept of impermanence,“Mono no aware”. Wabi-sabi is an appreciation for the beauty of imperfection. How that relates to idoldom is pretty self-explanatory, with idols generally being amateur girls, untrained and awkward, stepping into the light while the fans cheer them on and become endeared to their novice shortcomings. Mono no aware is an acceptance that all things can never last forever, much like the simple paper-walled rooms in ancient Japanese architecture. The philosophy is an understanding that the moment, even if the moment is sad, can still be beautiful, and that when things must change, it’s best to accept them and adapt to what’s to come with dignity and grace. It’s these roots that connect what’s old and new in Japan’s unique rich culture, and it an understated way, apply to modern pop as much as the deepest traditions.
We genuinely don’t know where the state of idol will be next month, next year, or in the next few years, (although it’s fun to speculate!) and that is inherently a big part of what makes this such a completely special genre to bring us lots of joy, and a little sadness as well.
A strong reoccurring theme that frequently appears in Japanese film, music, and art is sadness that’s wrapped in beauty. Once as I was watching a Japanese film about a group of men following out a suicide pact, I realized that every single one of the previous Japanese films that I watched earlier in the week had ended in loss, tragedy, or an ambiguous sense of melancholy.
But yet, not a single one of these films left me depressed and cold. The thing is, despite the longing and sadness on the screen, these films were absolutely beautiful, and the beauty of those films is what resonated strongest within me, and so I fell for the strange power of Japan’s most personal examples of film making.
From the early arts of the Edo-Period, and through the difficult post-war years, the Japanese mastered expressing what they call “mono no aware”, a transcendental understanding of our lives being impermanent and the world ever-changing.
This zen-like acceptance greets tragic events with a bittersweet awareness that they cannot be altered, much like the lazy flow of a river that occasionally floods over violently. I find this cultural philosophy fascinating and inspiring.
With this understanding, Japanese films which deal with heavy-hearted emotions often contain a positive undercurrent that helps the viewer see the ending in a affirmative way. I’ve found over the years that I simply adore a good sad Japanese film, and likewise I savior sitting in the dark listening to a wistful enka song.
To some people, the Japanese passion for the melancholy must seem somewhat odd. But you see, the yearning and the despair never bring me down, rather they help me embrace life and this gorgeous world we’re born to, and as weird as that may seem, that makes me very happy.
Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is considered by many to be his masterpiece, an amazing film about generational differences in post-war Japan.
Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa’s highly personal film about a man reflecting on his own mortality.
Negicco is a three member pop idol group that’s the pride of Niigata, Japan. Their current members are Nao☆, Megu, and Kaede. The original incarnation of the group (with four members) was formed as a promotional effort to bring attention to Niigata’s local agriculture, notably the prefecture’s special variety of green onions. (Negi) Their name quite literally translates to “The Green Onion Girls”.
The group has worked incredibly hard since 2003 with a die-hard determination and “Never Give Up” spirit that you can’t help but cheer on. Musically they’ve developed a critically acclaimed sound that’s considered a wonderful hybrid of idol pop and Shibuya-kei, working with artists such as Yasuharu Konishi of Pizzicato Five and indie-pop darlings Shiggy, Jr.
Over time they’ve cultivated a diverse and intensely loyal fan base that has slowly but surely extended around the globe. In September 2015, they will finally achieve one of their biggest dreams when they perform at the Nippon Budokan arena with their peers and friends, the electo-pop trio Perfume!
With Yamano sister Atsuko making a return appearance on bass while covering for Ritsuko (away on maternity leave) and Emi’s announcement that this would be her final SK tour, this became a critically important show not to miss! It turned out to be a fantastic set and one of the most fun Shonen Knife gigs I’ve ever attended.
Atsuko played like she never left, and her and Naoko were obviously having a great time sharing in the positive energy. All the while Emi gave it everything she had, pounding the drums with a furious vengeance while smiling the entire time. A personal highlight for me was what was probably the best performance of “Cobra vs. Mongoose” I’ve ever seen seen them do, with the guitar and bass wailing with Emi standing and walking around her drum kit, but yet never missing a beat. Utterly amazing!