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Towards a new stage in Tokyo’s culture

Local artists discuss the future of the city’s music scene

In association with Tokyo Music Odyssey

By Kentaro Takaoka

The nature of a city has a significant impact on what kind of culture emerges from it. Punk is forever associated with London, New York towers over hip hop, and techno is inseparable from Berlin. What, then, is the genre best associated with Tokyo?

Held from March 2 to 8 and organised by Space Shower TV, the country’s premier music channel, music and culture festival Tokyo Music Odyssey sought to answer this very question. Centred on Shibuya, it consisted of gigs, film screenings and a wide range of other events, including the inaugural Space Shower Music Awards, which highlighted the very best of Japanese music in 2016.

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Here, we focus on the festival’s three-part discussion series, held on March 4 and 5 and themed ‘the future of music and cities’. This ‘Talk Session & Creator’s Talk’ programme took over Shibuya’s Gallery X by Parco and featured a lineup of up-and-coming musicians and other creatives, including Daito Manabe of creative unit Rhizomatiks, choreographer Mikiko, hip hop artist Zeebra, Reiji Okamoto of the Okamoto’s band, and video artist Kento Yamada.

World-class technological spectacles

World-class technological spectacles

In an age in which anyone can watch top-level performances from all over the world in high-quality video form at any time, artists need to be prepared to have their work evaluated according to global standards. How to go about doing this while offering international audiences something essentially ‘Japanese’ was the theme of this first talk.

Both media artist Daito Manabe and choreographer Mikiko have won plaudits in Japan and beyond for their innovative work, which fuses technology with physical movement. Their discussion started with a look at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, as both Manabe and Mikiko had a hand in Japan’s show that took place as part of the flag handover ceremony that ended the 2016 Games. Looking ahead at Tokyo 2020, their contributions incorporated technology used in previous works while adding new themes as well.

 

’Something very Japanese that doesn’t draw on the traditional arts, something that truly represents Tokyo and can be displayed in an attractive way – these are the aspects I had in mind when planning the performance. My form of expression was pointed, but the show managed to win the approval of a diverse audience, from young people to the elderly. As audiences are becoming more demanding, I really tried to show off something challenging, something devoid of compromise.’ (Mikiko)

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‘Our show at the ceremony was allocated an eight-minute slot, so every second counts. Simulating the situation and finding out where the limits are was tough. Unbelievably, we couldn’t rehearse at the stadium at all. The dancers would only perform during the actual ceremony, and things like that – we really got a taste of the limitations associated with the Olympics. In Rio, we had issues with the language barrier and the shipping of materials, but similar problems won’t arise here in Japan, so we should be able to engage in creation without having to worry about too many limitations.’ (Daito Manabe)

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What, then, can be done to make Tokyo a more creative city? ‘There aren’t enough spaces for experimentation and development. In cities like Paris, there are publicly run studios for artists, so I think also opening places like that in Tokyo would help change things for the better. There are more opportunities for artists abroad than in Japan, so it’s important to increase the amount of spaces that can function as “bases” for activities and other things unique to Japan.’ (Mikiko)

‘Overseas, especially in New York, the crowds at various events are very diverse, so you get a lot of synergy. But in Tokyo, the fashion, geek, music and other communities are very distinct, with minimal overlap. It would be great if we had more places where people from all walks of life could get together.’ (Manabe)

‘Japanese media artists are increasingly moving abroad, as more funding is available there. But if Tokyo can become a true hub for Japan-born content, then both domestic and international artists will surely gather in the city. For example, simply having the name “Broadway” associated with a musical makes people pay attention. Having a Tokyo neighbourhood or area with a similar kind of impact would be great.’ (Manabe)

To wrap things up, Manabe was asked to give practical suggestions as to how the city could be improved. ‘For example, it would be interesting to have a special zone in Japan, with sensors and cameras on every corner, where gathering all kinds of data from people on the street would be allowed.’ This rather out-there suggestion from the ‘technologist’ made the audience laugh, but perhaps he has a point: maybe what Tokyo really needs now is outside-the-box policies that can shake up the status quo.

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Music that grows from an urban atmosphere

Music that grows from an urban atmosphere

Having compared Tokyo with other major cities, the focus next turned to the capital’s street life and its many musical subcultures. The discussion was headed by Zeebra, a hip hop artist and activist who represents the Tokyo scene, and Reiji Okamoto, a Tokyo native and the drummer for rock outfit Okamoto’s.

To start out, Zeebra recapped the changes undergone by the city itself and its music scene, viewed from the perspective of a hip hop artist. ‘When we were young, artists were expected to come to Tokyo if they wanted to make it big. The period spanning the dawn of Japanese hip hop in the 1990s all the way to the boom years of the noughties represented hip hop’s ‘bubble era’, and there was a generational shift every five years. This has all been building up to the present moment, and I mean this in a good sense.’ There’s no question that hip hop has become an integral part of Tokyo’s culture, with kids now freestyling in front of Shibuya Station.

‘Hip hop is rooted in one's place of origin – just think of how New York rappers nickname themselves after the district where they were born. We have also ended up dividing Tokyo into different areas, and now rappers say they represent their school districts, such as Jonan or Joto. One of my tracks is even called “Jonan Hustler”. Repping one's home town has taken hold in our culture, and maybe my track has helped things move in that direction. The way songs like mine become representative of specific areas is probably the biggest difference with how things were back in the '90s.’ (Zeebra)

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A significant part of Zeebra's recent activities involves behind-the-scenes work, including helping young artists with the practical and business side of things. On the other hand, he’s also an active participant in initiatives unrelated to his hip hop career, such as promoting an amendment of Japan’s ‘no dancing’ law. Here’s what he had to say about his motivation. ‘I’ve become aware of music as a revolutionary force, of the fact that music can change the world. With hip hop, you have groups like Public Enemy, who sparked social change with their message. It's easy to include the word "peace" in your lyrics. But what matters is how you put those words into action. It's not enough to just complain – I want my complaints to also be constructive and explanatory.’ (Zeebra)

Next, Reiji Okamoto shared his first-hand feelings on the state of urban music. ‘There are venues all around the city, so being a musician isn’t that rare any longer. But the number of venues is actually decreasing. There have been many changes – one of them being that the chasm between the big mainstream and the small indie scene is growing, with the middle ground disappearing.’

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Commenting on that point, Zeebra argued that ‘Korea’s K-pop is even more westernised than Japanese music. Japan's national market is big enough, but since Korea has only half the population of Japan, artists have to aim their music at international audiences. Similarly to how Berlin is known as the capital of techno, I’d like Tokyo to become the capital of hip hop. For that to be possible, there needs to be 24-hour train service like in New York, which would allow for gigs that end at 2am or so. I wish we had more diverse frameworks,’ he said.

Both rock and hip hop were born in the West but have evolved in relative isolation in Japan over subsequent decades, resulting in distinctly Japanese subgenres. But promoting these forms and making the world stand up and take notice still requires quite a lot of additional work – work that needs be done domestically before taking aim at overseas audiences.

Committing the spirit of Tokyo to film

Committing the spirit of Tokyo to film

The last speaker to take the podium was energetic 24-year-old filmmaker Kento Yamada (aka Dutch_Tokyo), who works on expressing Tokyo’s charm in video form. Introduced as a man who’s been hard to reach lately because of his busy schedule, Yamada is currently seeing his popularity skyrocket.

His music videos for the likes of Suchmos (‘Stay Tune’) and Hikaru Utada (‘Bokyaku feat. Kohh’) have earned him plenty of attention, making Yamada the filmmaker of choice for up-and-coming Japanese artists. He’s also making waves as the VJ for hot Tokyo indie band Yahyel. At the seminar, the Tokyo native spoke mainly about the sources of his creativity and how he goes about producing his works.

 

Born and raised in the capital, Yamada devoted himself to American football in high school. After moving on from the sport, he started his filmmaking career by producing the opening movie for the Aoni Festival, run by high school students in Setagaya. He had already met and made connections with members of bands like Suchmos, Yahyel and Sanabagun during his student years. While tasked with making music videos for these bands, Yamada developed his sensibilities and built up the artistry that has carried him through to this day. ‘I want [all my videos] to be made up entirely of cool scenes.’ A simple concept, sure, but this force has powered him to always create uncompromising pieces.

Above all, what Yamada emphasises in his work is the relationship with his collaborators. When he takes a commission to create something, he says he always thinks of what the work looks like when viewed from an outsider’s perspective. ‘The VJ work I do with Yahyel is completely me, I think. So when making music videos for other artists, I feel like I shouldn’t be putting my own artistry first. The songs belong to the musicians, so when you attach pictures to them, some form of meaning gets added. So the first thing I think about is how I should be shooting. Instead of thinking what I’d like to do, I respect the artist in question.’

As he moved on to discuss future plans, Yamada revealed that his music video production would henceforth be limited to pieces for trusted collaborators only. He is looking to work more in film, including making short movies. Yamada spoke in a detached tone throughout his talk, but his passion could be felt in every word. Take this quote: ‘All I can do is put the existing culture on my back and stride forward.’ Those in attendance were able to come into contact with the reality of a filmmaker raised deep inside the Tokyo music scene.

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Conclusion: Future-oriented city development

Tokyo boasts a rich music scene, both in domestic and international terms. This conviction of mine was only reinforced by the three Tokyo Music Odyssey talks. What’s currently emerging is a network of connections on the creative side of Tokyo, a network that may provide a platform for promoting the capital’s culture on a global scale. The next challenge will be to lay a foundation upon which even more valuable work can be done. Forging a creative environment that can give birth to outstanding culture and draw out the potential of local artists is what will be required in Tokyo from now on.

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