(Recycling something originally posted here in 2009)
In 1967, Group Sounds superstars The Spiders recorded a song composed by their rhythm guitarist, Kamayatsu Hiroshi. Not much was expected of “Ban Ban Ban,” a crude three-chord rocker with throwaway lyrics and a riff supposedly lifted from a song by The Mindbenders. The tune was originally used as the B-side for a single and later included on the band’s fourth album. Here’s the original Spiders’ version, taken from one of their movies:
There was something about “Ban Ban Ban,” though, that made it stick in people’s minds: the rhythm, the catchy chorus, the sheer joy of it all. It’s become a J-rock classic now, one that every J-Rock band has to know, something akin to the status of “Wild Thing” or “Smoke on the Water” in the West.
Here are 1990s rockers Flying Kids performing the song on a drive through Tokyo. They get bonus points for digging up replicas of The Spiders’ old red doorman costumes:
And here are today’s fave-rave indie rockers Go!Go!7188 performing the song live.
Probably the most memorable cover of the song comes from “Monsieur” Kamayatsu himself. In early 1990, he was recording a new album in London. Word came down that all hell was breaking lose in Berlin, and so Kamayatsu headed over to Germany to see what was happening. The Wall had been breached, but not torn down yet, and there were still military patrols on both sides. Kamayatsu writes in his autobiography that he figured out that patrols walked by at two-minute intervals. Timing it carefully, he waited for one patrol to pass, then scrambled up to the top of the wall with acoustic guitar in hand. He dashed off an impromptu rendition of “Ban Ban Ban” for the assembled crowd, and luckily the moment was captured on video.
I think I’m the last human being on earth who actually cares about this. NHK yesterday announced the line-up for this year’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” its annual New Years Eve pop music spectacle. At first glance, the only thing that caught my eye was the fact that recently reunited J-Rock veterans Princess Princess were going to be making their debut appearance on the show. Beyond that, it was just a ho-hum list of the usual suspects. You can check out the whole roster here (Japanese-language).
But then press reports (e.g., here and here) started pointing out a conspicuous absence. In recent years, the bill has always included top K-Pop idols, but this year nary a single performer from across the Sea of Japan (or, depending on one’s geopolitical allegiances, the East Sea). NHK cites “public opinion” as the reason for this, referring obliquely to the flare-up earlier this year over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands (see this report from the NY Times on the increasingly bitter row).
This carries on a news thread from earlier this year: the odd fact that Japan was the one place on earth where PSY’s Internet sensation “Gangnam Style,” now the single most watched video in YouTube history, failed to become a hit. According to news reports, South Korea was “irked” about this indifference. Ian Martin, writing in the Japan Times last month, speculates that this may be entirely to Japan’s credit:
But it’s Psy who is the first Korean artist that the West gathers to its collective heart, while Japan stands by nonplussed, and I have to wonder if a lot of the reason for “Gangnam Style” ‘s Western popularity still boils down to, “Hey, look at the funny little Asian man dancing!” (This was essentially the gist of a sketch on comedy show Saturday Night Live that parodied “Gangnam Style” on Sept. 15. Psy also made an appearance in that sketch.)
It’s an awkward area to go into; no one likes to think of themselves as prejudiced. However, even if you’re not, mass media still wields influence on what society collectively considers cool. So think for a moment: How many genuinely “cool” Asian celebrities are there in the West? I don’t mean subcultural or art-house cool, so scrub Cornelius and Tony Leung off your list. I’m talking about Asian stars in the Western mainstream whose image is something people aspire toward and seek to imitate.
What’s struck me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon is its close resemblance to 1963 and Sakamoto Kyu’s accidental worldwide hit, “Sukiyaki.” As I argue in my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon, that incident has to be understood within its specific historical context, including the massive 1960 protests in Tokyo against renewal of AMPO–the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty–and the Cold War strain of Orientalism that transformed Japan into an object of fetishistic desire. Not to mention the escalating Vietnam War, for which Japan and Okinawa would serve as major staging areas.
The current tensions recall to mind something that Karatani Kojin wrote about a couple of decades ago. We have to always keep in mind that historians someday will write that we were living in the pre-war era.
Apologies for the lack of updates these last two months. Not only have I returned to teaching from my sabbatical, I’ve also become department chair. Life is busy, in other words–but it keeps me off the streets.
This has come up rather suddenly, but I’ll be giving a talk at UCLA next week (Friday, November 16) on “Tokyo Boogie Woogie in California: The 1950 Sacramento Recordings in Japanese and Japanese-American Cultural History” (details available here). In the presentation, I’ll introduce the collection of 1950 concert recordings of Japanese musicians (Misora Hibari, Kawada Haruhisa, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Watanabe Hamako, Kasagi Shizuko, among others) that I helped authenticate and that were in the news in Japan this past summer (see, for example, here and here). The man who discovered the recordings has now donated the entire collection to the UCLA library. While in Los Angeles, I’ll also be filming an interview for a television special about the recordings that will air later this year. I’ll post details about broadcast times when they become available.
I was also recently a guest on the NPR radio program “To the Best of our Knowledge,” talking about my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. You can listen to or download my segment here. And don’t forget about the online companion for the book that I’ve put together: I’ve heard from a few people who are teaching the book this all that the webpage was very useful.
In the meanwhile, I am moving on to other scholarly projects: co-editing a two-volume series of new scholarly essays and translations related to early postwar Japanese literary criticism, finishing up a translation of Karatani Kojin’s magnum opus The Structure of World History (Sekaishi no kozo), and returning to a longstanding project that involves rethinking Natsume Soseki in relation to the problems of modern property regimes and world literature.
I’ll try to blog here a little more regularly in the coming months, too. It keeps me off the streets–the wild, wild streets.