Archive for the ‘Printed’ Category

The Dangerous Fiction of Fake Breasts

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

OK Fred
Column: Fight This Generation
Vol. 4 – The Dangerous Fiction of Fake Breasts
(unpublished English original text)

I hate to ruin the fantasy, but Hoshino Aki’s breasts are not real. Back when the famed gravia idol was struggling to make a name for her self in 2001, her official bust line was a mere 82 cm. Suddenly and mysteriously, however, this critical metric expanded to an explosive 88 cm. Once in possession of enormous and perfectly-shaped mammaries, she quickly rose to the top of the bikini idol world and became a household name on TV. Her cleavage-exposing opening pitch for the Yokohama BayStars-Hanshin Tigers game in May of 2006 created one of the most sensational photographs of the year.

Her managers explain the discrepancy in the recorded breast size measurements as extraordinary and miraculous growth. She even underwent a “CAT Scan” on TV to prove the pair were not implants. This level of post-pubescent development, however, seems medically impossible. I do not think I am insane to suggest that she most likely had breast augmentation surgery.

Over in South Korea, plastic surgery is completely mainstream, and the practice has become an obvious part of celebrity culture. The same goes for Hollywood. In Japan, however, the rarity and general social disapproval makes plastic surgery the stuff of serious scandal. Direct mass media speculation on the topic is generally taboo, so most explorations are banished to spam-covered pages on the Internet.

Hoshino Aki’s handlers have used this ambivalent cloud of mystery surrounding plastic surgery to easily maintain their fantastical narrative that Hoshino has “perfect natural breasts.” If Hoshino Aki’s fame had come from some other skill, maybe I could ignore this bodily enhancement. But seeing that the two assets have become the entire foundation of her career, I can’t help but feel that her fame is based on a total lie. Like a singer using tuning technology to fix her voice on the CD and then going around and claiming to have perfect pitch. Or a famously tall 8 ft. basketball player who secretly wears two-and-a-half ft. tall shoes.

The myth of Hoshino Aki’s breasts takes advantage of the audience by creating a false “reality” in order to lower our expectations to the level of “non-fiction.” With these lower standards, we become very impressed with the fantastical phenomenon of her abundant chest in a way that we would not if they admitted the fakery. Our lower judgment standards make their job of entertaining and seducing much easier.

But this is not a good long-term strategy. We become angry once we discover that we’ve been tricked. Would we have gone to war knowing from the start that Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction were — like Hoshino Aki’s breasts — a fraud invented for to make us follow along? I do not want to equate the tragedy of the current war to fandom for a B-list celebrity, but if we do not get better at clarifying the line between non-fiction and fiction of entertainment and daily life and demanding an end to media trickery, we will never learn how to tell the difference when it really matters.

TV Told Me How to Be a Kid

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

OK Fred
Column: Fight This Generation
Vol. 3 – TV Told Me How to Be a Kid
(unpublished English original text)

I hate Brussels sprouts. And I hate liver and lima beans.

But I have never once eaten Brussels sprouts, nor liver and lima beans. Nor did my parents ever make these dishes for our family dinners or force me to eat them.

Yet I have a deep-seated, unflinching conviction that I despise these foods. Why do I hate a food I have never eaten or seen with my own eyes? I blame hours and hours of watching children’s television programming as a kid. On my favorite Nickelodeon show “You Can’t Do That on Television,” the young actors always discussed how much they thought Brussels sprouts were disgusting. For some reason, I readily agreed then, and I still agree now — even after twenty years of expanding my culinary palette and reclaiming many foods I used to despise, like broccoli and cauliflower.

This irrational dislike of vegetables is a small example of the way children-focused television and other media teaches us how to be “adolescents” – in a cultural, rather than a biological sense. Perhaps the scripts to these programs are written so that older adolescents can relate to their own problems, but young kids pick up on the message before they actually have first-hand knowledge of bad stuff like bullies, cliques, authoritarian teachers, and inedible cafeteria food. Looking back on my own youth, I find it hard to separate what I decided to dislike after a bad experience and what I learned to dislike from the media’s second-hand information.

So media teaches us how to be kids, but even weirder, the media teaches us how to create a larger dramatic narrative for our adolescence. I used to watch a show from the early 1990s called “The Wonder Years.” The show was a fictional retelling of an American junior high student in 1969 – right in the middle of the “Flower Power” era. I was a few years younger than protagonist Kevin Arnold, but I couldn’t help but project myself onto his character. The story is told in flashback with an unseen narrator who explains what Kevin thinks in his daily life and also inserts his own perspectives as a middle-aged man. From this, I not only learned how to be a teenager and the challenges that lie ahead of me, but I understood how I would look back on my own “wonder years” when I was older. I felt nostalgia for my own youth while I was living it. The show was clearly targeted towards Baby Boomers looking back on their own lives, but I got sucked into the media time warp. As a weird side-effect, I am now nostalgic for a 1960s past I never experienced myself.

Althought it seems paranoid, television also clearly influences us on a subconscious level. On one episode of “The Wonder Years,” Kevin gets two hamsters for a science experiment named Puffy and Weezer – too bands I grew to love in my teenage years. The seeds were planted early.

Jun Takahashi: Under the Covers

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Nylon Guys
Fall 2006

Twenty-five years ago, Japanese authorities considered street fashion a bona-fide social problem. The Takenoko-zoku rock & roll dancers congregating in Harajuku pranced and shimmied under constant police surveillance, and the slightest step out of line — casual lighting a small firecracker, or god forbid, a cigarette — often led to a brutal response from nearby local law enforcement officers. The concerted efforts of PTA moms and graying social critics, however, could not break the momentum of the Harajuku street fashion explosion.

Now that Japan happily and proudly exports designer clothing to the rest of the world, it is only fair that the heir apparent to the Japanese fashion dynasty has a foot in the teenage delinquency of the past. No profile, interview or article about Jun Takahashi of Under Cover has been able to avoid the words “punk” and “rebel” in his description. Certainly, Takahashi’s work takes dangerous chances, shoots middle fingers to convention, and worries the faint of heart, but it would be a crime to bury Under Cover’s creepy nocturnal beauty under the rigid dogma of punk rock. Jun Takahashi is conjuring up black magic and kicking up street grime to make his assault on the world, but the results never retread the slogans and postures of past rebellions.

Born in 1969, Takahashi spent a peaceful middle-class childhood in the rural town of Kiryu, Gunma. Somewhere in his teenage years, he discovered punk and fled to Tokyo on the weekends to scourge up artifacts from cheapo rock shops. The costumes accompanying his new favorite musical genre made him transfer his passion for drawing onto the fashion canvas. “I really liked the Sex Pistols’ visual presence and sound, and I looked things up and found that Vivienne Westwood had done their clothes.”

A family member suggested that if he wanted to study fashion he ought attend Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo — Japan’s most prestigious fashion design academy. Upon acceptance, he moved to the big city and busied himself with the rigorous technical training of school and the insane underground nightlife. His friends nicknamed him “Jonio” after he started romping around as the singer of the Tokyo Sex Pistols. Although etched in his legend, the band was never a serious endeavor, and when I bring it up, he mutters, “I totally want to forget about that…” His night-time partners in crime included a freshman named Tomoaki (later to become “Nigo” and give birth to A Bathing Ape) and an older friend named Hikaru (later to start brand Bounty Hunter), who introduced Takahashi to a DJ and trendsetter named Hiroshi Fujiwara.

During his time at Bunka, Takahashi decided to start his own label — Under Cover. His time at school and wandering the world’s largest fashion market had given him the skills and outlook to fulfill his punk fashion fantasies, but after graduation, he started to gravitate to a more sophisticated style. “A designer friend took me to the Comme des Garçons store one day, and I was just blown away. You can make clothes like this? They didn’t teach you how to make things like that at school.”

At first, Under Cover just sold small hand-made pieces to select shops, but in 1993, Nigo came to Takahashi with an interesting proposal: an investor wanted to give them money to start their own store in Harajuku. In April, the two 23 year-olds opened the legendary Nowhere shop in a empty section of Ura-Harajuku — with one side selling Under Cover and the other selling Nigo’s pre-Bape curated import goods. The two youngsters joined with Hiroshi Fujiwara to do a column for street fashion magazine Asayan called “Last Orgy 3,” suddenly making them media icons with a Midas touch. Fans lined up to buy every product they casually advocated each month. Things got so extreme that readers’ polls started listing Jun Takahashi in the #2 spot for “Coolest Male” — something that made the young designer decide to drop out of the limelight. “I really hated it. I’m not a celebrity, and it got in the way of actually making clothes.”

Instead, Takahashi concentrated on the Tokyo Collection and appeasing the ravenous hunger of his growing cult fan base. (He describes the average Under Cover customer as “Kind of weird.”) While most of his patrons are male, Takahashi prefers his ladies line and focuses almost exclusively on it for his formal collections: “The ideas of the men’s line are limited to what I would want to wear, real clothes. With the ladies’ line, I want to do something bigger than that. Ladies’ is where I can express my world view.”

The opening of an Under Cover Ladies shop in Aoyama in 1998 gave reason for Takahashi’s brand to escape from the makeshift partnership with Nigo and A Bathing Ape at Nowhere. Simply put, the two brands “had nothing to do with each other” — almost as if Stüssy and Issey Miyake had to share the small same retail outlet.

In 2002, Under Cover graduated from the Tokyo Collection and moved onto the international stage of Paris. Takahashi’s chief motivator was Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons — a longtime supporter of the brand and Takahashi’s hero. They first met at the Under Cover Aoyama store launch in 1999, but they had already been trading epistles for two years. “We had communicated by letter for a while. Someone from the CdG shop said that Ms. Kawakubo wanted a pair of our shoes, so I sent her the shoes, and I got a letter back. I sent out a reply, and then I would send her things I made that I liked for her to wear and I would get letters back.” There are many similarities between CdG and Under Cover, but unlike Kawakubo, Takahashi does not seem to be pushing in formal avant-garde directions. He simply uses fashion as a way to give life to his own unique internal universe, a world that breathes an atavistic fear of the dark, the dread of medieval Christianity, the ghastliness of 18th century medicine, barren Western deserts filled with animal skeletons. The brand’s name was meant to connote the conspiratorial and spy-like, but in reality, the clothing’s atmosphere suggests a young boy hiding his head under the covers, out of fear for what lurks in the shadows of midnight.

The Paris shows have well displayed Takahashi’s tender artistry of creating the perfect nightmare. His February show — “BBV (But Beautiful V)” for Autumn-Winter 2006-2007 — featured female models mummified within beautiful rococo arrangements, faces hidden under pinned fabric masks somewhere between Elizabethian female coiffure and Medieval protective headgear. October 2005’s “T.” took moody inspiration from 70s Krautrock: models appeared from a range of giant candles in billowing blouses created from old t-shirts while the soundtrack played Germanic analog synth squirts. One model boasted horns — like a female satyr or sculpted Moses — while others flashed corpse-like painted white breasts. March 2005’s “Arts & Crafts” transformed his girls into plastic old men with felt hair and fake eyebrows. The most shocking thing you would see at a Under Cover show, however, is Takahashi himself: he is too nervous and shy to come out for to receive his accolades. This fortunately plays well into his myth and the brand concept.

The Under Cover office in Harajuku is a bit of Rosetta Stone for understanding the central vision behind the often disparate yearly collections. The walls are cluttered with stuffed-animal trophy heads, Surrealist readymades à la Dali, Patti Smith portraits, a series of eerie fuzzy sculptures with doll hands and Cyclops flashlight faces, a collage of famous blondes, gnome puppets, a white phallus, and rocking horses with identities concealed by black bars. Naked John and Yoko peek at you from an open door. Takahashi works from his desk in the corner, no different from those of his employees. With such a modest and quiet demeanor, the first time visitor would surely be confused to which person is the King. His appearance certainly matches the Under Cover image — the jagged tattoos and long hair make him look like a Prince Charming of Darkness. But his careful speech never veers into self-aggrandizement. Talking over a table with Cluster LPs trapped under the glass, Takahashi says, “Everyone expects me to be dark and quiet, but I’m pretty normal, right? I mean, I’m dark. I like dark things, but…” He reconsiders, “Well, I’m not especially perky either.”

Takahashi is now sitting down to plan out his next Paris collection for fall and continue his steady global expansion. Besides the thirty-three stores (ten directly-managed) selling Under Cover in Japan, the brand now has sixty-six stores supplying fans in twenty-three countries. Under Cover has also come together with Hysteric Glamour to create the Zamiang gallery underneath the Ladies store and make a special T-shirt for Japanese pop group Kishidan — who have revived early 80s yankiiteenage delinquent fashion. Although Takahashi was never a yankii back in Gunma, he seems to fundamentally respect all forms of youth rebellion. This explains why in recent interviews he always seems a bit troubled by the sloth and hackneyed tastes of the Japanese Gen Y. The kids up in Harajuku these days just don’t have the passion and fire to piss off the complacent police force and push things in new directions. “The cops aren’t going to move unless something super crazy comes along. Whatever that would be, I’d even be scared of it.” Unclear if this new generation of dangerous fashion rebels will appear, but I bet you Jun Takahashi will be pleased.

Nigo: Gorillas in Our Midst

Sunday, April 2nd, 2006

Nylon Guys
Spring 2006

“Everyone thinks I’m a gangster, but I’m really normal.”

These words are spoken from a mouth thoroughly bejeweled from molars to incisors, from a man who just moments earlier drove his Mercedes Benz SLR Batmobile into the showroom garage of his five-story mansion in Tokyo. I can imagine Bruce Wayne making similar proclamations of normality with a knowing irony, but from the tone of his voice, Nigo sounds like he’s making an honest appeal.

Yes, the 35 year-old Japanese fashion mogul lives in a gargantuan house filled with fancy cars, vintage Louis Vuitton trunks, opulent chandeliers, a dozen or more original Warhol prints, and an Eames living room set, but his true personality comes out in what sits upon his priceless Prouvé shelves and tables: Star Trek memorabilia, an original “Good Guys” Chucky doll from Child’s Play, and a set of small action figures recreating the Jedi Council in vivid detail, to name just a few in his seemingly endless collection. One wall of his basement is decorated with 4″ x 6″ snapshots of Nigo posing next to various celebrities, including Andre 3000, Devon Aoki, Gwen Stefani, and David Beckham. Above the television are 121 copies ofInterview magazine with Nigo on the cover, arranged in an enormous 11 x 11 square. For anyone else, hanging one’s own face all over the walls would immediately raise accusations of megalomania, but with Nigo, these items and all the other accumulations of wealth are no more than souvenirs from his long personal journey from an “ordinary” Japanese kid with a penchant for collecting to a jet-setting personage of international repute.

Nigo was born Tomoaki Nagao on December 23, 1970 in rural Gunma prefecture. Despite being in the countryside, Nigo felt a gravitational pull towards the big city early on. “I was always fascinated with Tokyo and knew I wanted to move there,” he says in a voice still retaining a somewhat adolescent inflection. In his high school years, Nigo spent almost every weekend waking up in the wee hours of the morning to ride the deathly-slow local trains into Tokyo for a full day wandering around the youth fashion headquarters of Harajuku. He spent many years obsessed with rockabilly and Buddy Holly, but around 1986, young Nagao discovered a whole new cultural world of hip hop – namely, Run DMC and their ubiquitous fashion accessory, adidas.

After graduating from high school, the eighteen-year-old packed his bags and moved to Tokyo to study magazine editorial at the prestigious fashion school Bunka Fukuso Gakuin. There he quickly befriended one Jun Takahashi, aka Jonio – a wild and dreamy visionary soon to create his own punk-rock couture line, Under Cover. The two friends hit the town together, eventually rubbing shoulders with their two personal heroes of the Tokyo subcultural scene, Kan Takagi and Hiroshi Fujiwara. The store staff from Nagao’s favorite Harajuku boutique A Store Robot noticed that the young student shared a striking visual resemblance to Hiroshi Fujiwara and thus christened him, “Hiroshi Fujiwara #2” or in Japanese, “Hiroshi Fujiwara Nigo.” The nickname stuck, and not long afterwards, Fujiwara #2 became an assistant for Fujiwara #1, which launched “Nigo” into a world of DJing, styling, and writing columns for various street fashion magazines such as Popeye and Takarajima.

In Spring 1993, Nigo and Jonio found financial backing to open a small store called Nowhere in a quiet, desolate area of Harajuku. Jonio used his half of the store to sell Undercover whereas Nigo casually managed the other side as a relaxed select shop with imported goods like adidas Superstars. Feeling little love from customers, Nigo and his friend Skatething decided to start their own label later that year, which they named A Bathing Ape, creating a line of street wear with a simian motif they cribbed from a favorite film, 1968’s Planet of the Apes. Success was not immediate, but two years later, the “street snap” pages of fashion magazines would suddenly be brimming with young kids not only wearing Ape religiously but professing to “worship” the brand’s director Nigo. Half the kids in Harajuku had an Ape head on their back, and the other half were waiting in enormous lines outside of Nowhere to get their own. By age 26 or so, the one-time Harajuku Fan was the newly crowned Harajuku King.

While Nigo will not admit to having a specific business strategy, his playbook would read something like this: Rule #1: Give kids comfortable clothes that they want to wear but keep everything limited-edition, detail-oriented, and high-priced so that it feels like “fashion”; Rule #2: Don’t seem so desperate to use traditional advertising, but promote your brand endlessly through monthly magazine columns and public cavorting with musicians and celebrities. In a country where department stores hire multiple women to do nothing more than greet and bow to customers in unison, Ape took the opposite route: welcoming shoppers with silence and cold stares – and the kids ate it up. Despite the fact that Nigo’s stores were selling somewhere around $300 of merchandise a minute during the peak years and were always filled with dozens of teenagers literally fighting over t-shirts, the marketing techniques convinced everyone leaving the store that they had bought into something special, unique, and exclusive.

By 2002 or so, the Ape infestation of Japan was reaching the upper limits of possibility: a flagship store in “serious” fashion district Aoyama, directly-managed stores — called Busy Work Shops — in every major city across the archipelago, a successful shoe line, a hugely popular ladies brand called Baby, a cafe, a hair salon, a full toy line, a record label, huge annual Bape Heads concerts with international and local performers, a weekly television show, and at one point, Bape camouflage on every Pepsi can in the nation. And right when there seemed to be nowhere left to go, Nigo met Pharell. “I was going to New York a lot to get jewelry made by Jacob the Jeweler, and Jacob told Pharell about me.” When the charismatic Neptune came to Japan for the first time in 2002, Nigo lent him his Ape Sounds studio. Their friendship was automatic: “I had been a big fan of his, and we got along well right from the start. The day after we first met, we were already saying, ‘Let’s do a brand together.Õ” That brand became Billionaire Boys Club, and for the last two or so years, the two have worked side by side on various music and fashion-based projects, such as Ice Cream shoes for Reebok and “Millionaire” Louis Vuitton sunglasses.

Although Nigo currently seems right at home with the East Coast hip hop elite, he has had a more tenuous relationship with the United States in the past. “Originally, the reason I became interested in fashion was Run DMC – very American casual. But I guess I had personally become sick of American things for a bit and started doing things more ‘British,'” and like Nigo says, in the mid to late 90s, his sights were locked on London street culture and the increasingly world-class action at home. Despite Ape’s massive domestic success and Nigo’s cadre of big shot friends all around the world, the brand barely made its away out of the Japanese islands until the 21st century. For a long time, the only place to see Bape gear was on the back of Mo Wax founder James Lavelle. The short supply of A Bathing Ape in Western markets made the brand infuriatingly exclusive, and as magazine The Face would declare, “Truly underground.”

Flash forward to 2005, and there’s nary a hip hop video on MTV without that iconic gorilla face beaming back at you. “After I met Pharell, his friends would come to Japan, and everyone told me, you should open a store in America. So I felt like, I guess I should open a store,” Nigo laughs. He finally opened Busy Work Shop New York last December, but it’s not just the clothes and shoes sneaking their way to the mainstream: Nigo was sitting behind Jay-Z at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The Ape General visited New York 21 times last year and seemed to pop up at every red carpet event in the city.

Now Nigo is bringing back a bit of his latest foreign escapades to Japan with his new rap unit, Teriyaki Boyz. Rumored to be signed personally by Jay-Z for Def Jam Japan, Nigo and his cabal of Japanese rappers drop their debut album Beef or Chicken on November 16th, featuring a slew of ultra-famous celebrity producers from all around the world: the Neptunes, DJ Shadow, Adrock, DJ Premier, Daft Punk, Cornelius, and Just Blaze.

Although the rise of Ape reads like a beautiful choreographed tale of business and cultural success, Nigo does not come off as a conniving tycoon, but more like a kid collector who just made what he wanted and had everything magically turn out right. When asked, Nigo makes clear the lack of a master plan: “I never imagined this level of success would ever happen. I didn’t even think I would be making clothes. It’s all been very natural. So much that I don’t even think about what’s coming next.” But then, what drives the Bape CEO to push into new territory this late in the game? “I have a really strong feeling to create a distinction between myself and others. When I put out a book in Japan, for example, all the other fashion labels started putting out books, so I thought about what I could do that other people couldn’t imitate, and that was opening a big, legitimate store in New York.” Now with Japan maxed-out and American operations going better than expected, Nigo’s next projects are an expansion into Asia (Busy Work Shop in Taiwan open TK, and Hong Kong on the way) and a possible future store in Los Angeles.

As I interview Nigo, he drinks Starbucks coffee from a Starbucks machine in a Starbucks espresso cup, and as I look around the house, I come to notice that everything displayed is some manner of three-dimensional brand logo: vintage Coke and Pepsi machines, a giant Swiss Army Knife with rotating blades, three illuminated Spuds Mackenzies from Bud Light sitting on the floor. Nigo positions himself as a disciple of Warhol, living in a world where branding and celebrity are art. And that fundamental love of branded goods appears to be leading Nigo to one final, Herculean task: placing the Bape logo into the canon of classic trademarks. While the spoils of his success so far may have a narcissistic edge, the next step towards that ultimate goal ironically requires self-dissolution. “There’s an idea that Ape equals Nigo. And I’m not going to live for 100 years. So I’d like it if people came to know about Ape without knowing about me. I think that’d be interesting.”

Louder Than Bombs

Monday, January 31st, 2005

The Fader
April 2005
“Louder Than Bombs: Yura Yura Teikoku is Japan’s sensational, psychedelic, pop-noise explosion that Westerners have never heard.”

Japan completely missed the Psychedelic Era of the late ’60s. While American youth were sucking on Owsley-flavored electric sugar cubes and Brits were haplessly throwing droning tambouras into the backgrounds of their rock songs, the Japanese were too busy rebuilding their scorched economy to indulge in the multi-hued carnival of consciousness expansion. Even with the new freedoms of American-installed democracy, the authorities fought youth culture with the fervor of a strict father. Japan’s few manufactured rock bands like The Tigers or The Beavers were banned from national television in late ’67 after schools and local communities started to crack down on the noise and degeneration. The rioting student Leftists rejected rock & roll and embraced folk as the earnest soundtrack to their red hardhat revolution. In the end, a mass Japanese counterculture never blossomed in real time.

This may explain why Japan is now host to a whole mess of explosive psychedelic music — from the lysergic dirge of Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paradiso U.F.O. to the minimal psych-folk of Ghost. Most of these bands, unfortunately, have not found a wider audience outside the underground — except, however, for the psych garage three-piece Yura Yura Teikoku. Led by the severe-looking rock-alien Shintaro Sakamoto, the band moved gracefully out of the underground into the mainstream in the late ’90s and never looked back. The music is raw and tight — like the sound of keying someone’s hotrod — with the thematic backdrop of fantastical science fiction — well, like keying someone’s flying saucer. Attempts to take Kirlian photographs of Sakamoto’s overblown, otherworldly guitar sound would probably break the camera. The sheer amount of noise generated by these three mere men became stuff of legend in Japan: only Yura Yura Teikoku could pull together a sound this brutal, this large and make into something this meaningful, this unique.

Born directly after the Summer of Love in September 1967, singer/guitarist Sakamoto studied graphic design at Tokyo’s elite Tama Art School where he originally founded the band with a fellow student in 1989. Sakamoto, however, drew the line at being called an “art school” band. “When you say art in Japan, it has a very lofty image, and what we are doing is very much more for the common person.” Regardless, Yura Yura Teikoku’s fuzzed-out grooves boast a certain Can-like art-jam sensibility, and the ex-student’s designs have become large part of the band’s public image. All the band’s album art was done in Sakamoto’s signature groovy trippy San Francisco meets Sci-Fi style. The artwork for their Best of 1998-2004 album depicts the band’s staff members as Dr. Who-style hairy, ghost-faced aliens, posing nonchalantly in front of hotrod racecars.

In the early ’90s, the band gigged around Tokyo’s underground, dropping and adding members along the way. The line-up finally settled with Chiyo Kumekawa on bass and Ichiro Sabata on drums. The band took great influence from both Western progressives like Captain Beefheart and late ’60s sentimental Japanese folk rock like Jacks and Mikami Kan. Sakamoto’s goal was to create what those Japanese in the ’60s never could quite get together: a Western-sounding rock music with a distinct Japanese originality. From the beginning, Sakamoto shunned the purist predilection for English and wrote his lyrics in Japanese. The band name, as well, was a specific Japanese language joke. “Yura Yura Teikoku” translates as something like “softly swaying empire” — an underhanded attack on the stern coldness of the old WWII sense of Imperial government. “I meant it with the nuance of an empire lacking substance, light and fluffy, but now I think I made a mistake with the name. People outside of Japan will hear it and just focus of the ’empire’ part. I meant it as anti-empire.”

Their initial fans in the underground world also missed the satire of the band’s name and became religiously devoted to Sakamoto as if he were some kind of imperial presence. In the early days of the group, the long-haired Sakamoto shaved off his eyebrows, and soon a whole cadre of eyebrow-less girls would prostrate themselves at the front of the stage, recording the show apostolically with small cassette recorders. The band themselves greatly disliked this, but Sakamoto admits responsibility for the cult-like nature of their shows. “I don’t like when music becomes like religion, when there’s a feeling of oneness in the concert space. I’d rather people be hooting and hollering and smoking cigarettes and talking in the back.” After a couple of small-scale releases on the aptly named psych imprint Captain Trip Records, Yura Yura Teikoku signed to the large indies label MIDI in 1998. They were happy to escape the tunnel vision of the underground and get the music out to a larger variety of listeners.

Soon after their first releases on MIDI, Yura Yura Teikoku found mainstream success and a new legion of less zombie-like fans. The band’s massive three-piece assault stunned the citizens of the Japanese rock world who could not believe a pop sound this dangerous could be created in Japan. More than his penetrating visage, Sakamoto’s crazy leg movements became renowned, and soon fans were arriving early to shows to get seats close enough to watch the two jeans-clad sticks wiggle, bob, shake, and shimmy with the groove — only of course, when they weren’t flying through the air from some kind of rock-inspired psychic energy. Yura Yura Teikoku had achieved their aims of creating a uniquely Japanese experience and being the first Japanese band to accurately recreate the Western psych rock vibe. Sakamoto also became revered like a hero, described to me by one casual fan as “someone not from this planet — a man with his feet floating inches above the ground.” This overground success bewildered the band, but they just pressed on with the original blueprint without feeling any of the new demands of stardom.

Yura Yura’s albums are a mix of crispy, angular rock, freeform freakouts, groovy talkers, and sometimes, beautiful jangle pop with female backing vocals. Sakamoto doesn’t particularly see pop and rock as opposing forces, and his holistic lyrical vision ties the disparate parts into a unified vision. Tales of ghosts, cars, guitars, green liquids dripping from the head, and pants covered with lamé should be embraced symbolically, warns Sakamoto: “I want my lyrics to be interpreted in various ways. I don’t like it when there’s a definitive interpretation.” A line from the track “Grapefruit choudai (Grapefruit, Please)” sums up the Sakamoto lyrical mode:

I want a car like a horse
and a guitar like a car
and a girl like a guitar

More important than the content, however, is Sakamoto’s rhythmic delivery. The band often mixes the vocals super hot — uncomfortably close to the listener’s ear — and as a result, the singer’s punctuations and spasms can be just as piercing as the over-distorted guitars. The vocals rock as hard as the backing band.

If there is one theme to the band’s and Sakamoto’s existence, however, it’s the desire for freedom — no matter how much alienation that freedom entails. Yura Yura Teikoku may have played with other like-minded bands as Ghost and appeared on compilations with legends like Haino Keiji, but they do not see themselves as part of a community. “When we were underground, we were never really part of a scene, and even now, we aren’t friends with other bands. I don’t really understand the whole idea of everybody being happy just by being with each other.” This explains his distaste for rock cultism and audience zealotry that too often develops in the Japanese music scene. Sakamoto seems highly uncomfortable with unconditional praise. “The first time I saw a review of my band in a magazine, I was really excited to see us be praised by the writer. But, then the second or third time — when you realize they have to praise you — it just loses all meaning.” Sakamoto bemoans the glossy, advertorial of today’s institutionalized rock magazines and longs for the good old days of Japanese rock crit when elitist writers would freely slam records. He wants love the hard way — only when you know you can be hated does it feel good to be loved.

Since their inception, Yura Yura Teikoku have always recorded at the same small studio Peace Music in the suburbs of Tokyo, and they are back again now recording their new album. This new record aims to combine the loopy “head music” of their last effort Yura Yura Teikoku no Shibire (The Tingling of Yura Yura Teikoku) with their usual body-based visceral rock. In the chorus of their self-referential song “Yura Yura Teikoku de kangaechu” (roughly: Thinking in the Yura Yura Teikoku) from 2001’s Yura Yura Teikoku III, Sakamoto exclaims, “Crazy World, the world of manga is actually not easy at all.” Underneath the psychedelic text of the band’s high-speed, outer-space rock journey, there is the evidence that Yura Yura Teikoku have learned the sad lessons of the entire Psych Era far-out promises: You can’t escape alienation, no matter how far you wander from reality. The songs’ ideas and sounds may be cartoonish and crazy, but the underlying message is one of profoundly human pathos. Sakamoto is no longer a comic book fan, but he sees them as a perfect metaphor for his own music.

“When you’re a kid, you just see comics as cute pictures, but the truth is that there is an adult writing that story — with great loneliness and sadness. I think this is reflected in my lyrics. Picasso at the end of his career only did line-drawings, like manga, and I like that.”