Uhnellys CD Release Party: Avant-garde rap-rock duo presents Loopholic

uhnellys light

Avant-garde rap-rock duo Uhnellys welcomes special guest Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her for what looks to be one of the season’s best live music nights.

With guitarist, rapper and sampler-extraordinaire Kim at the mic and the lovely—and dead solid—Midi on the drums, Uhnellys is consistently one of Japan’s most energetic and imaginative rock outfits.

Aggressively philosophical, the band celebrates the release of its latest live outing, Loopholic, on December 22 in Daikanyama.

Dec 22, 7pm, ¥2,500 (adv)/ ¥3,000 (door). Daikanyama Unit. Nearest station:  Daikanyama. 


The Mornings: Post-hardcore trio explores new ideas


The Mornings are a band of ideas. It’s no coincidence they’ve named their brand-new album Idea Pattern.

But when Metropolis first speaks with them, it’s last winter and the trio is busy rehearsing at a friend’s Asagaya studio for a gig celebrating the band’s tenth anniversary.

“At first, we didn’t know what we were doing—we just did what we wanted. We were naive college students,” says singer/guitarist Junya Kishino. “We’d always wanted to do something original, but we didn’t have the ability to pull it off. I think our skills have finally reached the level where we can do what we want to.”

Emerging out of the post-hardcore scene, the band’s early material was intended to be cathartic. “On our first album, work stresses were a big theme,” Kishino continues. “I come from punk and hardcore, so there’s some of that influence in the first album. But on the second album, the ideas are more imagistic. I always think, if people listen to music with their eyes closed, what would come to mind? Then I write based on what that might be.”

The Mornings’ third album, Idea Pattern, builds on this impulse. The Tokyo band, which also includes keyboardist/vocalist Shimpei Watanabe and drummer “Kemono” (“beast”) Keika, was looking to create music that demands more of the listener.

“Compared to the last album, this one is not only catchier,” they say. “It’s also difficult to say exactly what kind of music it is.”

Listeners may recognize a bit of the thrashy blend of guitar rock and electronica that characterizes bands such as Japan’s Boom Boom Satellites. But The Mornings’ music has a headier quality—something akin to their heroes Radiohead—that makes it equally as suited to headphones as to the mosh pit.

“VSCOM,” for example, begins with Kraftwerk-era synth bloops before launching into Keika’s formidable drumming. Dub-ified vocals from Watanabe are chopped into fragments before Keika drops in with a singsongy, almost J-pop refrain. And then, without warning, it ends.

Idea Pattern by The Mornings

“From the first 11/8 meter sampler phrase, I aimed for something that sounds a bit like an electronic, kaleidoscopic version of the Matrixsoundtrack,” says main songwriter Watanabe. “The rhythm has abrupt changes and tricky drum and bass, but it’s not intended to sound tricky or make you feel uncomfortable. We put a lot of time into arranging this song. Especially in the last violent climax of the song, the previous parts all come together in an unexpected way.”

The Mornings turned to noted Japanese dubstep producer Goth-Trad to helm the production of Idea Pattern. “We had cosmic images in mind,” they say. “In order to bring out that atmosphere, we felt the only way to do it was to work with a cutting-edge electronic music producer.”

The band says it was the right choice. “It wasn’t only that Goth-Trad understood our intention and gave form to it, but also that he understood the potential of songs that even we ourselves didn’t have a sense of. He’s very detailed and makes good decisions; we got a sense of why he’s respected as a producer worldwide.”

With the band members holding down serious day jobs as copywriters, corporate planners and IT headhunters, The Mornings are a determined lot to stay together for ten years. What have they learned in a decade on Tokyo’s often soul-sucking “live house” scene?

“Most of the bands that started around the same time have broken up,” Watanabe says, laughing at the question. “I just turned 30, around the age when many give up. A lot of people make music for commercial success, and when that doesn’t happen they stop.

“For us now at 30—I have a kid and our drummer is also married—it will be harder for us to balance our lives, and there will be tradeoffs. If we’re going to sacrifice, then we want to make music that will go down in history in some way.

“You never know if you’re going to sell records, so you may as well do something special.”

Idea Pattern release party Nov 19, 7:30pm, ¥2,500. Shimokitazawa Shelter. Nearest station: Shimokitazawa.


Mr. Porter “A Saturday with…Zim of Black Shadow”

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Film by Mr Antony Crook (Text by Dan Grunebaum)

They are Tokyo icons. Visit Yoyogi Park or the waterfront of Odaiba on a Saturday or Sunday and they’ll be there, rain or shine. Swivelling in leather get-ups to vintage rock blasted through portable sound systems, they’re Japan’s self-styled rockabillies.

Zim is the leader of Black Shadow, a well-known gang who dress up like 1950s rock’n’rollers. During the week, Zim is Mr Kinya Ueno and he holds down a regular nine-to-five job. But he prefers not to talk about his life Monday to Friday, for he is a man who is truly working for the weekend.

Black Shadow’s heyday was in the 1980s, when Japan experienced a retro-rock boom and American and British pop culture offered an irresistible lure of freedom to rebellious Japanese youths, who railed against a conservative society ruled by the proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.

Zim left high school in the provinces as soon as he could and fled to Tokyo as a teenager, determined to become part of the scene. Like many who reject Japan’s corporate treadmill, his decision consigned him to a life on the margins.

But for a member of Black Shadow, being part of the gang was more than ample reward. Music and fashion provided more of a satisfying life than being one of Japan’s corporate salaryman drones ever could.

Heavily tattooed, clad in black leathers and with their “Regent” pompadour hairstyles blow-dried and styled to crazy heights, Black Shadows do what many Japanese can only dream of: express themselves. Extravagantly. Unabashedly.

Now these rock’n’rollers are growing old. Zim, now 45, has been in the gang for nearly 30 years. But teens today are into J-pop or electronic dance music. They have home-grown styles such as cosplay (dressing up in anime/ manga/ cartoon costumes) and don’t look to the West as much as Zim’s generation once did.

Still, as long as Zim can wax his Regent and shake his hips to the rock’n’roll beat, he’ll keep coming back each weekend to the place – and the people – that gave him his identity and set him apart from the mainstream; that made him and all the Black Shadows, in a word, different.

Rock in Opposition: European fest explores prog-rock’s potential in Japan


The original Rock in Opposition (RIO) took place on March 12, 1978 in London, England. It brought together European prog-rock bands united by their common unmarketability to major record labels, including such acts as England’s Henry Cow, Italy’s Stormy Six and Belgium’s Univers Zero.

Over 35 years later, the fest finally sets foot in Japan, chaired by Akiko Nagai. Head of Disk Union’s progressive rock section for seven years, Nagai also helms the Tutinoko label, on which some of the RIO musicians have released albums. Nagai sat with Metropolis to discuss how it all came about.

How did Rock in Opposition come to Japan?

It grew out of the first tour by RIO headliners Univers Zero. The core group of people behind the festival were involved in producing the tour. Then our release of the documentary DVD About Rock in Opposition sold well, showing there is a demand for this sort of event in Japan. We then negotiated with French RIO festival directors Michel Besset and Chris Cutler for the rights to the name. As it turned out, the name “Rock in Opposition” was already in the public domain. We then linked up with Smash West and the Tokyo Arts Council to put it together.

What are your hopes for Tokyo’s first Rock in Opposition?

We want to share the history of Rock in Opposition with many people—not only prog-rock fans but all people with open ears. We also want to bring together the worldwide rock scene with the Tokyo scene, in hopes that something new will emerge, and that it will provide a platform for avant-garde music in Japan. RIO is expensive to put on, and the tickets aren’t cheap, but we hope that if it’s successful one day we can put on a free concert.

What is the audience like for progressive rock in Japan?

Japan’s prog-rock market is large. Bands can fill large halls here. But there are a lot of young bands that borrow prog-rock’s forms, rhythm changes and instrumentation, but aren’t really progressive rock in the true sense of the term. We don’t want to host a nostalgia-fest. The artists on our lineup are forward-thinking—“progressive” in the true sense of the word. The music may be difficult, but we hope our audience will rise to the challenge.

Nov 15-16, 3pm, ¥14,000. Tsutaya O-East. Nearest station: Shibuya. Tel: 03-5458-4681.


Japan’s PR battle for U.S. hearts and minds

A Xinhua billboard in Times Square. Japanese companies are no longer as prominent as they used to be.

A Xinhua billboard in Times Square. Japanese companies are no longer as prominent as they used to be.

NEW YORK — It might not surprise anyone to learn that China’s state-owned broadcaster CCTV America more or less ignored Hong Kong’s democracy protestors, except to note police injuries by “aggressive” activists. Nor would Americans be shocked to read in China Daily — available for free in towns like Boston and Washington DC — that China has historical claims over the entire South China Sea.

But it’s more disappointing for we Americans with ties to Japan to learn that Japan’s theoretically independent NHK World has editorial guidelines forbidding any reference to the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial issue as a “dispute.”

Few Americans without links to Asia may be aware of it, but in the airwaves and on the ground, Japan, China and South Korea are engaged in a soft power scrum to get Americans to see territorial and historical issues their way.

So how do Japan’s efforts stack up in the court of public opinion in its key ally the U.S.?

When it comes to propagandizing by state media outlets, China’s media blitz blows Japan and Korea’s out of the water. The Xinhua news agency staked its claim in the Western media space with a 40 by 60 foot billboard in Times Square in 2011. CCTV has embarked on a hiring blitz that now sees its CCTV America channel fronted by onetime CBS anchor and USA Today correspondent Mike Walter.

But China and Japan’s strenuous English-language media efforts sometimes result in an own-goal.

For example, despite the slick packaging, China’s soft power spin may be having the opposite of its intended effect — helping to push Americans away. (A Harvard-educated friend in Boston scoffed about the China Daily he receives in his weekend Globe. “Does anyone read this propaganda?” he asked.)

NHK’s guidelines on the Senkakus have been given rough treatment in the Western press, and the broadcaster didn’t exactly endear itself to Americans when one of Prime Minister Abe’s new board picks reportedly termed the World War II Tokyo tribunal a “cover-up” of American atrocities.

Supplementing their media organs, northeast Asian countries also lavish support on cultural foundations.

China in recent years established numerous Confucius Institutes worldwide including some in the U.S. These have become the subject of controversy over accusations they are stifling free academic debate on subjects sensitive to the country.

Japan has the Japan Foundation for academic and cultural endeavors, and a new billion-dollar fund to support Cool Japan industries like anime and manga.

South Korea has the Northeast Asian History Foundation, which supports books and conferences in the U.S. on issues of history relevant to Korea, and has played a key role in telling the Korean side of the story on disputes with both Japan and China.

Asian and other countries also spend millions trying to influence policy by funding U.S. think tanks, such as Japan’s contributions to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This backing recently sparked congressional demands for a Justice Department investigation over worries about its potential to warp policy debate on the US approach to trade and security in Asia.

When it comes to pop culture and entertainment, China, Japan and Korea mostly have better luck in their campaigns to win friends and influence people.

At street level, Japan funds a wide range of well-attended events such as the Japan Day in New York’s Central Park, while young Japanese and Americans have rich exchanges in the pop culture sphere.

Chinese pop culture has had some noted successes in film and the performing arts, although in the fine arts the country’s best-known figure is the defiant Ai Weiwei.

Without the large markets of its northeastern Asian rivals, South Korea has to look abroad; the success of Psy and Korean soaps are the products of Korean global media savvy, and K-pop acts play to crowded houses in the U.S.

And CCTV, NHK and South Korea’s KBS all do a better job at broadcasting documentaries and cultural programming than they do at hard news.

So with all the state money and sweat being expended on soft power, are the Asian powers’ American friends being won over?

The evidence is murky. “No country does what any of these countries want them to do because they want to emulate Korea, Japan or China,” says Temple University’s Asian Studies Director Jeff Kingston. “Soft power Asian style is more about rebranding nations to be more appealing, undermining negative stereotypes and cultivating admirers.”

Kingston is blunt in his appraisal of the tide of Chinese cash being funneled into the media and Confucius Institutes. But Chinese soft power may have a subtler lure for some — the very success of its governance model.

“There is a widespread view around the world that the Chinese model ‘works’— somebody labeled it the ‘Beijing consensus,’” says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan. “While we chew our nails over the failings of our own democracy, people look at China as a place where decisions can be implemented and the economy can be kept on an even keel.”

Rather than the shared values and universal rights promoted by the West, Kingston believes Asian style soft power seems to be more about “getting countries to take your side in disputes and convincing them to do so by all means possible.”

This can make for uncomfortable situations, such as the current one U.S. President Barack Obama is facing in his ballyhooed “Asian Pivot.” “Korea is putting increasing pressure on the US to side with Korea against Japan on issues such as the World War II ‘comfort women,’” says Charles Armstrong, also from Columbia, “which can put the U.S. in an awkward position between its two main Asian allies.”

For the moment, China, Japan and Korea’s soft power campaigns seem likely to have about as much effect shaping US policy as, say, Qatar-owned Al Jazeera is having influencing Western public opinion.

It’s likely that the news of the day coming from Asia on CNN and in the New York Times et al has a far greater impact than any Asian soft power effort. And it’s here where China’s thrusts into waters near Southeast Asia and Japan have likely soured Americans on the country.

A recent survey by the Chicago Council On Global Affairs shows Americans ranking Japan at 62 on a 0-100 favorability scale, with China at 44. More Americans than in the last 2012 survey favored building relations with traditional allies like Japan and South Korea, even if that means diminishing relations China.

Disturbingly, despite a U.S. commitment to defend the Senkakus, it’s questionable how many Americans are even aware of the stakes. This, after all, is a country where each day thousands happily eat sushi without realizing the restaurants they’re seated at are owned and staffed by Chinese people.

Japan Today, Oct 31, 2014