Rock On Their Own Terms: Japanese Women Making Music Beyond J-Pop

Posted by Kells, March 25, 2013 06:06pm | Post a Comment

"Rock You in a Tatami Room" by artist Yumiko Kayukawa

It's Women's History Month and, as time would have it, I am missing the Underground Japanese Rock section that I used to upkeep at Amoeba Music's San Francisco location. Having dedicated not a small amount of my life to the study of Japanese language and culture over the last thirteen years, caring for and discovering Japanese music at Amoeba in tandem with my academic duties has been and continues to be a pleasure, though the enjoyment of filing them neatly into their own cozy little vicinity is, sadly, a notion of the past. We do keep a J-Pop section up and running, but I digress.
With this post I seek to celebrate Japanese women in music, specifically the musicians performing on the (alternative/avant-garde/experimental or whatever you want to call it) flip-side of the produced-for-mass-consumption J-Pop norm, and, even more specifically, my favorite artists in the cut. Whenever possible I have included live footage of these artists because, frankly, I find the fact that some of these performances are available at all is incredible. Case in point:



I first came to know multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, sound artist Haco (also known for her 1981-1991 ensemble After Dinner, featured in the above video, and Hoahio, among others) when a friend recommended her 1999 release Happiness Proof. That same year I picked up Ohayo! Hoahio! by Hoahio, not knowing it was a Haco thing, and became so entranced by her view master melding of acoustic with electronic compositions and her clarion clear vocals that I went whole hog into her back catalog and have been an avid follower ever since (an experience I reckon many fans of Björk's music can relate to). I fell in love with Haco, it was just that easy.

For those interested in checking into Haco's world I suggest you start near the beginning and pick up the 2001 reissue of After Dinner's 1987 masterpiece Paradise of the Replica (included with the reish is a bonus remix EP, Paradise of Remixes).  Her best song ever is probably "Less Than Lovers, More Than Friends" from the Ohayo! Hoahio! album released via John Zorn's New Japan imprint on his Tzadik recording label.

Hoahio - "Less Than Lovers, More Than Friends"

p.s. If you're already waaay into Haco, like me, I recommend keeping a vinyl digger's eye out for a record circa 1987 called La Debutante by Sonoko -- it's pretty much the equivalent of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette if David Lynch had made it in the late '80s.

?????  Nikaidoh Kazumi

I learned about singer/songwriter Nika, as she is often called, via my interest in K Records flag-bearer artists like Phil Elverum and Karl Blau, both of whom have not only toured and recorded with her but have also covered some of her work. She has an enchanting, often arresting vocal style that sometimes veers startlingly into lowslung growl-like warbles not dissimilar to those attributed to Louis Armstrong -- a power that embellishes her borderline experimental acoustic folk melodies, when it doesn't override it completely. Her work under the alias Nika Soup, with  Saya "Source" Ueno of Tenniscoats and Maher Shalal Hash Baz, is some of the most stunning improvisational avant garde music she has ever made (check out the trailer for the 2008 Nika Soup and Saya Source documentary Harmonies here).

For Nika's solo works I recommend beginning with her 2003 album Mata Otoshimashitayo. For her more esoteric jams look into Ipiya by Nika Soup and Saya Source, released in 2005.

Watch Miss Nika silence a rowdy crowd of SF hipsters with her power chords in the video below.


When Buffalo Daughter guitarist Sugar Yoshinaga got together with former OOIOO and DMBQ drummer Yuka Yoshimura in the mid-aughts to form supergroup duo Metalchicks it was like a dream I didn't even know I had coming true. Buffalo Daughter has long been a favorite of mine, especially their 2001 to 2003 releases I, the A Long Life Story of Miss Cro-Magnon EP (containing their best effort to date, the nearly ten minute electro space odyssey "Son of Altair"), and Pshychic. As for OOIOO -- see below. In any case, hearing Sugar's applied shred-ability and TB-303 skill set paired with percussive powerhouse "Yoshico" in a quasi-metal mash-up act is, in a word, tits. Their debut album rules.

There's not a lot of footage of Metalchicks out there, but this video here doesn't suck.

What can I say about this band that hasn't been already said? I mean, just the fact they allegedly started out in the mid-'90s as a hastily thrown together fake band for a magazine photo shoot so that Yoshimi P-We (Boredoms drummer and member of indie supergroup Free Kitten, among others) wouldn't have to brave the exposure alone is enough to kiiind of make me love them even if they couldn't really "play anything" at the time. Six albums later and their sound has come to be described as something that is both structured yet improvised, a cyclic and untethered polyrhythmic wizardry that evokes infinite primal wonders and a definite tribal urge. While Yoshimi herself claims that her compositions are inspired by "weather," an atmospheric state of complex simplicity. The group seems to garner a great deal of focus on their being an "all-girl" ensemble, but the recordings are anything but a prohibitive, "females only" space. Begin with Gold & Green.

Late last summer OOIOO played live with (are you kidding me?!) a gamelan orchestra, see below!

?????? / Afrirampo
Oh, Afrirampo -- I feel another case of "what more can be said" coming on. For starters, though only active for eight years, duo Oni (guitar, vocals) and Pikachu (drums, vocals) managed to produce eleven releases and rode their raw and raucous African-influenced call and response rock around the world, including a stay with pygmy tribes in Cameroon (as can be heard on their 2006 record Baka ga kita!!!). They've collaborated with Acid Mothers Temple and toured with Sonic Youth and Lightning Bolt and while they've cast their trademark Afrirampo-red raiments aside, both Oni and Pika continue to make music these days (thank heavens). Oni's more recent acoustic folk efforts, apparent on her solo release Sunwave Heart comes as a somewhat jarring 180 degree departure from her Afrirampo roots, but for all its hippy-dippy love vibes her sound is no less unchained. As for Pika, she 's maintained the A.M.T. connection, touring recently with Kawabata Makoto.

Still, there's nothing that can beat the frenzied, anything goes energy of an Afrirampo live show. Check out their 2CD/DVD final release Never Ending Afrirampo to reminisce or catch a glimpse at what you missed. Otherwise I suggest starting with Kore Ga Mayaku Da as it will probably be the easiest to find. Uchu no Ko is my personal favorite. And if you're jonesing for something similar I urge you to check out Kiiiiiii.
Watch Afrirampo perform "Akan Konomama Kaesanai" circa 2009 below:

???? Takako Minekawa
Because Takako Minekawa's music is associated with that of Cornelius and Kahimi Karie, not to mention the whole Shibuya Kei scene, this will be by far the most J-Pop inclusion in the cut. Though she is probably most quasi-famous for being the voice of "Playstation" commercials et al, Takako's child-like electropop compositions for and about cats, specific colors, and other cutesy bits seem to be the thing that draws admirers to her music. Judging by the broad scope of synthesized sounds steeped into all nine of her records I'd wager a guess that she's been a nerdy keyboard collector for as long as she can remember. For me, I discovered her music via her 2000 release Maxi On and moved back through her catalog, even scouring the dusty depths of Book Off to find her Christmas CD. Sadly, she hasn't put out any new recordings since then, a fact that I'm prone to bemoan at length at any given moment. Her website hasn't been updated since 2004 so I suggest that anyone interested in her music start at the end, work towards the beginning, just don't expect anything new. [*sniffle*]

Here is a video for "Fantastic Cat" from Roomic Cube (1996)

???? Tujiko Noriko

Around the same time I was getting into experimental folk singer/songwriter Aiko Shimada I picked up From Tokyo To Naiagara by Tujiko Noriko and fell hard for her at first listen. Already primed by Shimada's melancholic compositions that combined classical instruments and toy piano with dabbling electronic elements, Tujiko Noriko's layered vocals singing in both English and Japanese, drowned in heavy blankets of electronica, conjuring cinematic scenes of unrequited love, necessary separation, stylish trappings, and the romance of a repeatedly bruised ego continue to fascinate me. The perfect soundtrack for an haute couture fashion presentation.

It's difficult to choose just one starting point from her many offerings, but I recommend Make Me Hard, From Tokyo To Naiagara (the opening track, "Narita Made," being Ms. Tujiko operating at the top of her game check out the track below), and her collaboration with Aoki Takamasa, 28 -- a recording that is still, in my opinion, too beautiful for this world.

First things first: Syzygys actually have a new album currently in the works, coming out soon! This odd duo featuring violin paired with the discordant 43-tone organ of one Harry Partch and cute, if somewhat atonal, vocals and twisted lyrics that'd make Shonen Knife eat their bonnets for brunch possess a strange magic for making music that sounds so wrong yet so right. Listening to their mystic, Middle Eastern influenced microtonal meanderings makes me feel like a child following the pied piper, somehow I can't help but want more and more and more. Of all the artists I love that seem to have packed it in, Syzygys would be one of the very last I'd expect to still be active after all these years. You can find their complete studio recordings (spanning from mid-'80s to early '90s) on Zorn's New Japan imprint, but I suggest beginning with their live in '85 CD, Eyes On Green -- it's just so weird and so, so wonderful.
Here's a little bit if Syzygys live performing their instrumental "Fauna Grotesque" circa 1987:


Hailing from Okinawa, trio Kanna (guitar/vocals), Suke (bass/vocals) and Sayuri (drums) continue to challenge the way people perceive a band's image versus sound. The first time I saw Bleach03 (then known as just plain ol' Bleach) at a Japan Nite event in New York City in 2001 was also the first time I had ever seen anyone literally bloody themselves playing bass. Suke's berserker approach carries over into her mic-swallowing vocals as well, but it's just another detail in Bleach03's overall anything-but-cute powerful punch.

My favorite album of theirs, Kibaku-Zai ("Triggering Device"), features a rash of their patent incendiary shred-a-thons with such titles as "Santa Claus" and "Town of Good Children." Bleach03 even played live at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, they completely ruled! Check out the video below:

When a band's bio begins with what planet they hail from, in this case the planet Kero Kero, you know you're in for a ride. Making a live show of their homespun extraterrestrial fetish wear and affinity for frogs eX-Girl make music like an electropop, prog-punk trainwreck of three-part operatic acapella acrobatics, psychedelic space rock, jazz fusion, and heavily SciFi influenced lyrics, one song at a time. Having toured with the likes of Fantômas and Siouxsie and The Banshees, eX-Girl have secured many avid fans, including Jello Biafra and Mike Patton, and endured many line-up changes. The sole original member, Kirilola, has also stretched out her compositions in a number of side projects, her spiritual cleansing music under the name Asakau being a favorite. eX-Girl also starred in the film Legend of the Waterbreakers by Japanese comedienne and Ass Baboons of Venus member Naoko Nozawa. A good place to start with eX-Girl is their fourth album Back to the Mono Kero which features a fantastic cover of M's "Pop Muzik," otherwise I suggest checking out Endangered Species (2004) as it is eX-Girl at their furthest out and fully-realized.
See them perform "Hettakorii no Ottokotou" from Endangered Species in a sketchy video below:

Angel'in Heavy Syrup
In conclusion, I offer this bonus helpful hint for all you diggers out there: if you ever happen to come across any Angel'in Heavy Syrup CD while flipping through the rock bins just do yourself a favor and pick it up. Chances are it's overlooked and under-priced and way worth your time. Formed in 1990, these ladies were making far out krautrock-influenced progressive psychedelic rock during the height of the Japanese noise rock scene which kind of seems like a ballsy move, no? But it's this kind of puzzling trajectory that made for such satisfying take-a-chance-on-it discoveries through the Underground Japanese Rock section (R.I.P.)

Aside from the aforementioned "anything you can find" tip, I recommend Angel'in Heavy Syrup's III album and/or IV (you know, titles like Zeppelin). A very lovely, very underrated band.

Someone loved them enough to construct an appropriately trippy video for their song "First Love" --
check it out:

Relevant Tags

Haco (1), Hoahio (1), After Diner (1), Takako Minekawa (4), Sonoko (1), Ex-girl (1), Angel'in Heavy Syrup (1), Nikaidoh Kazumi (1), Ooioo (5), Saya Source (1), Tujiko Noriko (2), Yumiko Kayukawa (1), Syzygys (1)