“God Bless Baseball”: Playwright Toshiki Okada probes international relations through baseball

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Prizewinning playwright Toshiki Okada’s God Bless Baseball examines Japan and South Korea’s complicated ties with the United States through the lens of sport, also offering a new way of looking at the two countries’ own troubled history. Over a century since America’s national pastime arrived in both nations, Metropolis heard from Okada about the motivations behind his new piece and the differing Japanese and Korean approaches to the sport ahead of the work’s staging as part of this year’s Festival/Tokyo.

Why did you choose baseball as a subject for this Japan-Korea project?

Director Toshiki Okada

I’d wanted to create a work about baseball for a long time, but I didn’t know when I would be able to do it. When this year’s Asian Arts Theatre festival in Gwangju invited me to participate, I thought to create a joint production bringing together Japanese and Korean actors. It may have been intuitive to choose baseball because of the popularity of the sport in both countries. And as baseball implies a strong American influence, it made sense to include [the U.S.] too. The influence of America is an essential question for both countries, and both are trying to figure out how to think about the U.S., so it made [for] an ideal theme.

Tell us about your personal experience of baseball.

I played as a kid—but only because my father strongly wanted me to, and it wasn’t much fun. One coach would beat us for no reason. So for me, baseball was a traumatic experience; it’s actually the worst memory of my life. For that reason, I’d long wanted to write a play about baseball.

How does baseball differ in Japan and Korea?

Korea seems to lack the connection with spirituality, the earnestness, the sometimes coercive nature of Japanese baseball. The fans I saw in Seoul come for the excitement. Fans are invited to hold drinking competitions or propose marriage on big screens in the stadium.

How can baseball provide a new way for Japan and Korea to approach America?

I hope the play can help us think about what America means to the people of both countries. One way to consider the U.S. is through the popular sport of baseball, as America looms large for both countries. But this means I was lumping together Japan and South Korea, which created various challenges. When you think about both countries, historical problems come to mind. Approaching historical issues that divide us through the lens of America helps to offer a new way of looking at our differences. Baseball provides the ideal means to attempt this.

Differences between American and Japanese baseball have been explored in books like You Gotta Have Wa and films such as Mr. Baseball. How does God Bless Baseball add to this work?

Unlike these, I’m not considering the differences between Japanese and American baseball. Rather, the comparison is between Japan and Korea at one level, with America standing above us. For example, the fact that Japanese and Korean players now go to the major leagues is a way to judge how much both countries have improved. We compete over how many players we have in the major leagues. I’m interested in these kinds of relations between the countries.

Who are the South Korean members of the team, and how did you come to work with them?

Yoonjae Lee is an energetic and effective actor. Actress Sung Hee Wi is a veteran of physical theater, and also a choreographer. I auditioned them both last summer in Seoul.

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The Songs of Jim O’Rourke: The producer and multi-instrumentalist keeps it simple

Photo by Taikou Kuniyoshi

Photo by Taikou Kuniyoshi

By the time Jim O’Rourke moved to Tokyo in 2001, he’d amassed a body of work—his own music, as part of Sonic Youth, and as producer—that made him a sought-after figure. A mercurial musician whose music ranges from the melodic to the experimental, O’Rourke now prefers a more uncomplicated life than the one in the commercial record industry. Metropolis reached him in Hokkaido ahead of the debut concert for his new album, Simple Songs.

Where are you and what are you doing?

O’Rourke

I’m on tour with [sax player] Akira Sakata in Yakumo for a gig put on by [the] city. People aren’t going to come to see a free jazz show in a place like this. It’s more doing tunes, which is good practice.

Why a solo singer-songwriter album now?

It sounds ridiculous, but if I’d done it by myself I probably never would have put it out. I took about six years to make it and there were three other people who played on recordings we made again and again. The fact I put it out is because I wanted to pay them. But I don’t even know if that will be possible. The last time I put out a record like this was 13 years ago, and the world has really changed—people don’t buy records anymore. So at this point, I still don’t know if I’ll be able to give them any money.

Tickets sales have been good, right?

The concerts sold out in a day or two, which surprised me. It sounds disingenuous, but I don’t care if they sell out or not. I care because I want to pay my musicians, but personally, the only thing that matters is it being better than whatever I’ve done before. This one is really involved because it’s four sets of new stuff. I’m still in the middle of writing it all, so there are going to be a lot of rehearsals. I don’t just want to play the songs on the record—it’s got to be more than that. I don’t want to just do the same show again, which is why I don’t tour as myself. It’s not just the band. If it were just that, it would be fine; but one set’s a jazz band, another a string quartet … so it’s going to be a lot of work. But my way of working is hard for people here to understand.

In what sense?

I’m very particular about things … not that the rhythm is correct, but the sense of rhythm. The hardest thing to get across to musicians here is that tempo does not rule music. The metronome is not tempo; your heartbeat and the air around us are the tempo. Getting them off the metronome is really hard.

Regarding the album title, tell us your thoughts on simplicity in music.

I don’t necessarily have an affection for simplicity in music. I like patience in music, which, in a way, I think of as simple, allowing the material to be itself, as opposed to pushing the sounds around. If I was to think of simplicity in music, it’s just allowing the music to be itself, pared down to the necessities.

Tell us about the creation of the song “Hotel Blue”.

That song was originally written for a Koji Wakamatsu film. He insisted on there being an end roll song for the soundtrack I did. That stuck around as something I thought was worth working on. There were so many songs, and the question was, which made the arc of the record work? And that was probably the last thing we did. In the end, all the sections that weren’t part of the original, I wrote in 20 minutes while everyone was downstairs having a cigarette break. At that point, Wakamatsu had passed away, so I wanted it on the record. He’s a big reason I moved here and finally learned Japanese. The record is dedicated to him.

Do the best songs arrive in epiphanies?

Either that or six to seven years. There’s no “in between” with me; it’s either immediate or takes years of sitting on it. “Last Year” was written eight years ago. Even the basic track is from six years ago. I must have rerecorded it 20 times, and the first was the best. I’m happy to work on things for years and years, because I don’t feel the need to put anything out. It’s got to be right, or there’s no point.

Are they written traditionally on acoustic guitar?

I only write when I have to. I never sit down and say I’m going to write now. I have no interest. It’s only when I’ve got to write something, that’s the only way I’m going to do it. When I have a deadline, or a show. If I’m working with someone else, no problem; but as soon as it’s my music, I’m ten thousand times harder on myself. I don’t think I should bother people’s ears with everything I do, so it’s got to be worth it.

There’s a sense of humor to the songs.

I think all of them! But it depends on your sense of humor. It’s not that humor doesn’t have a place—I think there should be more—but it depends on your sense of humor. And many don’t have the same sense of humor as me. I have a fairly black sense of humor … it’s all just death and sex. That’s all the lyrics are about: dying while having sex, or having sex after they’re dead. Half of this record is sung from the viewpoint of a dead person. Whether you find that funny or not depends on the person.

What brought you to Japan?

I started coming to Japan in ’92, and from ’94 onwards, I came two to four times every year—about 50 times before I actually moved. I had tried moving in my 20s, but was too young and didn’t speak the language. But from that failure, I became determined. Over time, I would come home and felt like I didn’t want to leave Japan; it didn’t feel like I was going home. What finally pushed me to move was Wakamatsu. He asked me to do music for his Red Army film, but said if I wanted to work on the film, I’d have to learn Japanese. Of course, he was teasing me a bit, but that was the kick in the ass I needed. I quit everything I was doing in the States, sold everything, and moved.

What took the most to get used to about the Japanese music scene?

I decided not to get used to it and quit producing. I just decided I didn’t want to participate. The first few years here, I had to work to get my visa, and I was obligated to do stuff because I’d take on the work. But then I decided I didn’t want to be part of it, so I’ve slowly removed myself to the point where I do my stuff off-the-map.

At the same time, you have to make a living.

For me, I’m going to play this tour with Sakata, which is something I enjoy doing. But you wouldn’t usually find someone who’s done the sort of work I have: being content doing a countryside tour for two weeks. But I have no problem with that. And I’ll do that, and be able to pay the bills for a couple months. I don’t want making a living to have anything to do with my own work. Which is why I learned how to engineer—that was my work. I didn’t want the things I wanted to make to have anything to do with making a living.

Are you here from the duration?

Oh yeah, until I fall over.

See Pics of Beatles, Stones, U2 and More From Japan’s Top Rock Photographer

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When Koh Hasebe became a rock photographer in the 1960s, the word “rock” didn’t even exist in Japan. “It never even came to mind to try to become a rock photographer,” the 85-year-old lensman tells Rolling Stone in Tokyo. “I was at a dead end as a film photographer — the arrival of rock in Japan gave my career new life.”

Born and bred in Tokyo, Hasebe had gone to Paris to recharge and happened to meet the head of one of Japan’s biggest music publishers. “He offered me the job of shooting the Beatles in London,” Hasebe recalls. “After the Beatles, all my offers came from rock photography. It was just as Western artists began to visit Japan, and I somehow became the go-to guy to document tours.”

The quiet, unobtrusive Hasebe jokes that when he went to his high-school reunion and told his friends he was a rock photographer, they replied, “So, you take pictures of rocks?” It’s an indication of just how alien rock culture was to a Japan that had only just emerged from the ruins of World War II, a time of hardship etched on Hasebe’s memory.

“Rock wasn’t something that decent people listened to,” Hasebe notes. “But for anti-establishment youth, it was a beacon. I was already a bit older, so I was able to view rock a bit more coolly. But it wasn’t as if rock changed Japan overnight. It’s only now that we can look back and see that rock did in fact gradually — but, in the end, greatly — impact Japanese society.”

Over time, rock provided a powerful spur to individuality in a highly conformist society. “Japanese musicians didn’t write songs for themselves at the time, like, for example, Bob Dylan,” Hasebe observes. “Artists weren’t really able to express themselves freely. It was in the Sixties and Seventies that self-expression was born.”

Click below for the full Rolling Stone gallery:

Koh Hasebe recalls documenting legendary artists in Tokyo, London and beyond

Klein Dytham: Expat architects make Tokyo their own

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Shonan T-Site (Photo courtesy of Nacása & Partners Inc. – Klein Dytham architecture)

When Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham alighted at Narita, little could the budding architects have imagined that, in two decades, they would have left their imprint on Tokyo in the form of some of the city’s most recognizable buildings.

“Visas weren’t easy,” recalls Dytham about their early years of struggle after launching their own firm in 1991. British-born Dytham and Italian-born Klein had arrived in Tokyo in 1988 with scholarships and hopes of interning for one of Japan’s leading architects.

Mark Dytham (left) and Astrid Klein (right)

“We pushed for it, and the authorities were extremely lenient—and if we were a different color, it wouldn’t have happened, I think,” he believes. “There were heartstopping moments when we were flying back into Japan with an office, wondering if they’d let us back.”

The pair were drawn by Japan’s freewheeling architectural spirit and booming bubble economy, and worked in the office of renowned architect Toyo Ito before creating Klein Dytham architecture.

“We feel less pressure as architects here in Japan, because you know a building is only going to be here for 30 years, whereas in London you’re building for 400 years,” Dytham observes. “In London, there’s a whole public debate by people who really don’t know anything about architecture, and that was one of the reasons we came here. We felt restricted coming out of college in London.”

Fast-forward two decades, and the modern-yet-playful Klein Dytham look can be seen across Tokyo in buildings like the Harajuku Q Plaza and Daikanyama T-SITE, the latter of which we sit in, enjoying a lunch in the cozy complex of cafés and shops anchored by a Tsutaya bookstore. And architecture is just the beginning of KDa’s activities.

There is also PechaKucha, a TED-like presentation night whose signature “20 images x 20 seconds” format now takes place in 800 cities worldwide, as well as cutting-edge Roppongi performance space SuperDeluxe, where PechaKucha was born a decade ago.

Harajuku Q Plaza

Unlike many starry-eyed artists and architects who come to Japan seeking Zen and bamboo, Dytham says it’s Tokyo’s protean energy that provides their inspiration. “Our aesthetics don’t come from traditional architecture, but from a humanistic point of view,” he offers. “We’re Tokyo architects. Sure, we see the temples—but we get inspired by Harajuku, Shibuya … contemporary currents in the city. We try to draw people in and lift their spirits.”

Being foreign works both for and against Klein and Dytham. “We see Japan in a very different way than Japanese,” Dytham says. “We see things they can’t see. For example, a standard taxi in Japan … you’ve got lace and gloves, automatic doors—but a Japanese person sees nothing. Although we’re all building in Japan, the same influences come out different.”

“Some say our work is easily read,” Dytham laughs. “When we show a model, we can’t explain it with fancy Japanese architectural speak, it has to speak for itself. Here at Tsutaya too, it has to speak for itself. There’s a massive T. We drew the T in the first three to four minutes of the briefing. Everyone understands a T. It’s storytelling through architecture in simple form. It’s fun and easily read, even by kids. [The] Japanese seem a very serious race, but they actually have a very good sense of humor.”

The love for constant renewal gives Dytham mixed feelings about the last vestiges of postwar Tokyo now being modernized—some say robbed of its essential spirit—with wide boulevards and quake-strengthened structures.

Home for All in Soma City

“People say it’s slash and burn,” he says, “but they’re making the city safer and more efficient. In an earthquake-prone country like Japan, this renewal of the buildings is useful, and could be seen to save the city in the future. It’s tough about places like Shimokitazawa and the Okura, but Japan’s always been like that. You make things of wood, they burn down, and they just rebuild, like Ise Shrine. And in Tokyo, there is no historical context anyway.”

With a building in the works at Ginza’s main crossing and several T-SITES in various states of planning and completion, times are good for Klein Dytham following a brutal patch after the financial crisis and disaster.

“What’s happened is the Olympics,” Dytham says. “It was an amazing thing to do because the country collapsed in on itself after the disaster, and the Olympics has spurred a huge amount of works for us. We’ve even now got an Olympic mondai—construction costs are thirty to fifty percent more because everything is in short supply.”

Which leads to the inevitable question as to Dytham’s thoughts on the Olympic stadium fiasco.

“It was a bad brief,” he answers diplomatically. “The architect [Zaha Hadid] built to the brief, which was over-spec’d to the site. It got out of control—they could have learned lessons from London where they made so it can be downsized after the Olympics. But they were obviously looking for a showcase project. It was convenient they chose an overseas architect so there wouldn’t be any backbiting over the job, which was a shame because there are many brilliant Japanese architects. It was a political decision.”

Räfven: The Swedish klezmer band’s Martin Nurmi on bringing back the dinos

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One of the joys of Japan’s biggest rock festival is visiting the small stages that dot Naeba Ski Resort, between the mammoth lawns where the headliners perform, and happening upon unknown bands.

So how did an obscure Swedish klezmer collective come to be a star of the festival?

Martin Nurmi

“It started when we met Jason at Glastonbury in 2008,” saxophonist Martin Nurmi says from on the road in Sweden. Nurmi is speaking of impresario Jason Mayall, who boasts a long connection with England’s Glastonbury festival as well as its Japanese sister event Fuji Rock.

“Jason invited us to play his after-party. He said, ‘If you play for me now, I’ll bring you to Japan.’ We trusted him and he followed through, and that’s how we ended up at Fuji Rock in 2009.”

Eight-member outfit Räfven (pronounced “raven”) bowled audiences over that year with their combustible blend of East-European Jewish klezmer and Gypsy music, juiced with the spirit of punk and ska. The group played eight sets and have been back to Japan four times, including an encore at Fuji Rock 2015.

The life of a hardworking Swedish klezmer band isn’t a simple one—wedding gigs and day jobs come with the territory—but Räfven have managed to keep it together since 2003.

“We started out as a street band and didn’t have deep thoughts about which songs we chose,” Nurmi recalls in gently accented English. “We just found we liked the klezmer and Romany traditions, and everyone in the band was composing with inspiration from all these traditions.

“We’ve been together 12 years,” he adds. “It’s pretty impressive and crazy for an eight-person band. We are mostly freelance musicians doing other kind of work, but there’s a lot of time spent together and a lot of love in this band. It’s like a marriage—but with eight people.”

Tonight’s concert is a sedate sit-down event for a classical music audience, but gigs have bordered on the bizarre: one promoter asked them to perform from up a tree. “It was a restaurant opening party, and they wanted us to climb the tree outside the restaurant and play,” Nurmi laughs. “I think it was a better picture in their head than the reality, but we tried—and I’m scared of heights.”

Räfven’s forthcoming Japan tour sees them promoting their new album Bring Back the Dinos. “We stretched out with longer songs and melodies this time, and changed the instrumentation a bit too,” explains Nurmi. “Sometimes, we just had this feeling the dinosaurs will run the world better than humans, and also we are kind of old and now dinosaurs in the band ourselves, so you can look at it from different perspectives.”

For Nurmi, in its own small but determined way, Räfven has meant an opportunity to use music as a springboard to connect with people around the planet—many of whom he can’t even communicate with verbally.

“Music makes people happy, but this specific music—folk music—belongs to all of us,” he believes. “You can feel the connections between the different folk traditions—for example between Irish and American folk, and I think it’s also true with our style of music, it’s easy to connect to in one or another way. It may seem weird, but I think there are even connections with folk music in Japan. 

“Music is the best kind of language,” he concludes. “I’m not so good at any other language. It’s a language for the mind, body, and soul—everything. And it’s so important to connect with each other through music. For me it’s a dream.”

Nisennenmondai: Japan’s hippest instrumental rock exports go electronic

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They don’t sing anime songs or wear uniforms, and they aren’t part of the “kawaii” boom. But instrumental rock trio Nisennenmondai—Japanese for “the Y2K bug”—are one of Japan’s hippest musical exports. Metropolis caught up with guitarist Masako Takada and drummer Sayaka Himeno in Tokyo to hear about collaborating with U.K. electronica engineering wizard Adrian Sherwood on their hypnotic new album #N/A.

Where are you at present, and what do we find you doing?

Sayaka Himeno: In Tokyo.
Masako Takada: At home; just woke up.

What brought the three of you together, and what keeps you together?

SH: We met each other in band club at our university.
MT: Probably the fact that we are not too musician-like helps us stay together. All of us are very honest and serious, and share responsibilities without thinking too much about it.

Your music has a repetitive techno quality. Why use live instruments, instead of computers?

MT: We want to pursue the possibilities that only live instruments have rather than using predictable sounds. Making repetitive music by humans creates a sense of instability and uniqueness that you wouldn’t achieve if you used computers.

What was your first impression of Adrian Sherwood?

MT: I thought he seemed gentlemanlike and kind.

Tell us about the experience of having him mix you live in Tokyo.

SH: During the performance, we couldn’t hear the mixed sound from the monitors onstage, so didn’t really know how it sounded. It looked like the audience was reacting to parts that I wasn’t expecting, which made me nervous. But I listened to the recorded audio and found that he was able to maximize our songs and lay on just the right amount of effects.

Why did you decide to record together?

SH: To be honest I only knew his name but [label] Beatink brought up the idea and I thought, why don’t we give it a try?

MT: I knew Adrian, and even though I had no idea how it would work, I thought he was the right match for our music.

How was the experience different than producing yourselves?

SH: We just released our album earlier this year and this idea came to us on short notice, so we didn’t have any new songs. They were like, “Just do a session and give it a try.” So we did, but I had no idea how this would result in an album.
MT: It was completely different from producing ourselves. We normally write music in advance, but for #N/A, almost everything was session-based. Adrian had some ideas for parts, so some were improvised on the spot.

How does #N/A evolve from your previous albums? Tell us about the making of one song on #N/A.

MT: I forgot which song it was, but Adrian asked me to play like I’d gone crazy and I tried to do so. He seemed very happy with it so I remember feeling relieved.

Tell us about working with New York rock band Battles.

SH: It was 2003 when we first played together in Shimokitazawa. Since then, we’ve opened their shows in Japan, and they also come to our shows in NYC. In 2011, they took us on their U.S. tour and we also played together at Shibuya AX, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and London Forum. Thanks to Battles, we’ve had chances to play to bigger audiences, so we’re really grateful for that.

TV On the Radio: A member down, the Brooklyn band is wiser if not wearier

It’s been almost a decade since Metropolis last talked with TV On the Radio. In 2006, the quintet were the latest darlings of the exploding Brooklyn indie rock scene—part of it, but with a lush sound distinct from the disco-punk leanings of many Williamsburg bands of the era.

Nine years later, TVOTR are, if not wizened, then wiser and more reflective in the wake of the death of bassist Gerard Smith, who died of lung cancer in 2011. Their new album, Seeds, is the first recorded without his presence.

Tunde Adebimpe

“You do a certain amount of creative work with someone who’s basically a family member, and it shifts the notion of what can be accomplished in the band that had five members,” singer Tunde Adebimpe says from their tour stop in Oakland. “For me, when someone passes away I almost think about them more than when they were alive. That’s how your heart is connected to friends. But in terms of music, he was not somebody who liked to make bullshit; so we’re conscious of that now.”

Adebimpe plays down the direct effect of Smith’s death on the album, but considerations of love and loss are central to the urgency of Seeds. On the elegiac, synth-driven “Careful You,” for example, Adebimpe sings “I know it’s best to say goodbye, but I can’t seem to move away.” It’s a sentiment that could be applied as equally to a disintegrating love affair as to the death of a friend.

Having absorbed Smith’s passing and elected to continue on, the four remaining members of TVOTR—Adebimpe, producer/guitarist Dave Sitek, guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone, and drummer Jaleel Bunton—are currently in a sweet spot. Seeds has been nicely received as a return to form, and Adebimpe says they’re having a blast touring for the first time in several years.

“We’re in a place now where we realize the value of having been able to pursue the band for as long as we have, and the good fortune to have an audience to sustain us,” he says. “We recognize how special that is—because we don’t make the most accessible music. Bands that are willing to explore as much as we do are not always rewarded with a career, and we realize it’s a super lucky thing.”

TVOTR’s music is unconventional, but on a song such as, for example, “Happy Idiot,” it’s close enough to mainstream at times that one can imagine a record exec pushing them in an out-and-out-pop direction. That’s exactly what happened, says Adebimpe. “We’ve been advised a lot to tone things down to find a wider audience, mostly by people in the music industry,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘If you would only do this and that …’ You have to look at them and tell them it’s like teaching a fish to breathe air. We just don’t do that.”

Despite the gloss of Sitek’s production work, when you look at TVOTR, you see three aging black guys and one geeky white one—not exactly the recipe for mainstream marketing success. Yet, they’re not really part of the black rock movement pioneered by outfits like Bad Brains, either.

“Thinking about Bad Brains or Living Colour, anytime you have an example of someone who looks like you, it’s helpful to a young person,” Adebimpe recalls about his entry into the rock world. “But I’ve never considered us strictly a rock band, because, if we were, we’d probably have a few more awards by now. There are a lot of rock bands with people of color in them now, but with genres melding, it’s become diffuse.”

Adebimpe says TVOTR are looking forward to their first visit to Japan since a quick solo tour and appearance at Summer Sonic those many years ago. He says these days crowds are asking for “Staring at the Sun” off Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, and “Wolf Like Me” off Return to Cookie Mountain.

“We didn’t know what we were doing with those songs,” he laughs. “They just showed up at a time when a lot people connected with them. It was a fresh sound even though we didn’t realize it—we just knew we liked it.

“The best songs come as epiphanies. It’s like seeing a painting that might look dashed off, but it seems more alive than something that’s been labored over for years. I think it’s because you’re getting a message and you jot it down as quickly as you can. You capture the message, and the immediacy of how it’s put down carries through to the song. Especially with new wave and punk—it’s so earnest and barebones, it’s the only thing they possibly could have done, and the energy of that music is still palpable.”