Getting Wild with Punk Guitars in the Early 2000s

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“Distorted electric guitar sounds not only sounded cool, but were radical…They proclaimed rebellion not only against the aesthetic codes that defined beauty in music but also against the social order and morality. Advocates of the new rock ideology celebrated the link between aggressively distorted guitar noise and political radicalism, both inside and outside Japan: to them, guitar feedback sounded authentic, artistic, and revolutionary.”

Michael K. Bourdaghs, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop (130)

One lazy January day, I lay flat on my stomach on the floor of my college dorm room and watched a punk rock Japanese film in ten-minute increments. It was called Kemonogare, Oira No Saru To (Getting Wild With Our Monkey)[1] and was out of print, except that some kind or devious soul had uploaded it to Nico Nico, the Japanese alternative to YouTube. It was shot in filmic reds and greens and reminded me of the artsy, cynical films of Terry Gilliam, and between the close-up shots of cockroaches and performances from satirical comedians, I was too tired to understand much of what was going on in the plot. But one thing was clear:

This was one of the best soundtracks I had ever heard.

Crunching guitar distorting into static, refrains of 1960s folk pop, tinny recorded drums that thundered into something beyond straight rock and roll – it was all chaos and glory at once

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Kemonogare is a 2001 adaptation of Kou Machida’s short story (which was shortlisted for the Akutagawa Prize), directed by the music video director Hideaki Sunaga (he’s done MVs for alt rock quartet Asian Kung-Fu Generation and the infamous 100-plus member idol group AKB48).

The incidental music is done by Aida Shigekazu, one of the guitarists for instrumental rock supergroup Losalios and a studio musician and producer for countless bands, including pop singer-songwriter Kimura Kaela, Nirvana tourmates Shounen Knife, bloodthirsty butchers (who are also featured on this soundtrack), multilingual composer-singer Bonnie Pink, and more.

Listening to the album that accompanies the story, you find a close-knit community of rock musicians – different bands who share members or who have worked together, all manipulating punk as a genre and culture as it moves into a new millennium.

Aida Shigekazu – Nepo ~ Music for the Scum of the People

The shittiest recording, the most marching guitar riff played by Aida opens the movie; it suddenly cleans up into quiet higher notes while metallic lullaby and whistling sounds play over it, and then the riff comes back. It’s punk rock filtered through 1990s grunge and spat out at the other end in 2001. The guitar is filtered through a distortion box that tastes like metal. All the noise is turned up as loud as possible at the end, halted, and then returns in the same kind of angry, snotnosed, middle finger in the face of the listener – did you expect a proper ending, a proper song? We wouldn’t give you such a thing.

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Image courtesy of Naver Matome.

RomanPorsche. – Henshitsu-sha + Jinkaku-sha  Anata (Pervert + Person of Character ≤ You)

(Song plays around the 26:17 mark to 29:36)

RomanPorsche. (yes, the period is a part of their name, like the idol group MorningMusume.) is extreme, minimalistic, techno-based, and humorous. They perform a hyper-masculinity that’s played slightly tongue in cheek over a kitsch love of 1980’s synths.

The song itself is video game rhythms dancing and bleeping over each other in relentless throbs, while vocalist Okite Porsche (who is credited on RomanPorsche.’s website as performing “all instruments” and “being in charge of preaching”) yells on top of it, “Whatever you do, you’re wrong. Look at me and talk! Explain yourself!” The crunchy synths and smooth keyboards interweave a faux chorus that suggests radio-friendly pop music while subverting it with not-exactly pop-friendly lyrics (“You are shit,” yells Porsche in between verses. “Goddammit!”). When the synths spin out of control so does the song, ending after three minutes with a few unresolved chords.

It’s collected on their best of 2008 album, Mou Sukoshi Majime Ni Yatte Oku Beki Datta (Had To Do It a Little More Seriously).

Aida Shigekazu – Push His Button

Clacking percussion and moaning vocals are overlaid with psychedelic guitar harmonics in another one of Aida’s incidental tracks. The rise and fall of distorted, tinny sounds is interspersed with low voices yelling every so often to the sound of a tape being wound down, until the next track hits a real groove.

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54-71. Image courtesy of JpopAsia.

54-71 – b.b.c.

54-71 is hip-hop in organic terms. Vocalist Bingo yelps (not unlike Number Girl frontman Mukai Shutoku) over a murmuring bassline, a vibrato-ridden guitar, and drumbeat driven by a closed hi-hat that all seem to be following different patterns but interlock in a massive puzzle. Bingo breaks off his English recitation to scat quietly; his delivery is detached while measured, every once in a while sliding into a low vibrato and then humming that “ba-tss-too-ba” line again. The whole song feels too cool, too smooth.

The song is from their 2000 LP untitled. 54-71.The band members consist of Bingo (vocals), Leader (bass), Bobo (drums), and Sniper (guitar), although they also used to have a guitarist called Scum Grinder. According to Sputnik Music, the band, which has been around since 1995, has been on a “mysterious hiatus” since 2011. Their wiki says that as of 2016, they are “practically inactive.” However, in recent years, drummer Horikawa “Bobo” Hiroyuki can often be seen performing with superstar slap guitarist Miyavi.

Aida Shigekazu – abdominal muscles

The psychedelic drumbeats and distortedly smooth guitars of “Push His Button” continue in new form here, complete with a more electronic tone and instead of vocals, the skittering of strings appearing every once in a while like a strange creature in the distance. The electronic beat is pushed harder, louder, crunching in the static, thumping until it disappears into the ether and is replaced with relentless guitar in the form of Yura Yura Teikoku.

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Yura Yura Teikoku. Image courtesy of Music 163.

Yura Yura Teikoku – Tsukinuketa (Pierced Through)

Michael K. Bourdaghs writes, “The new rock ideology that began emerging around 1968 located authenticity in the intense expression of emotion…in rock, the guitar is perceived to be almost a vocal instrument” (128).

That fusion of multiple decades of guitar culture is present in Yura Yura Teikoku. This three-piece formed in Koenji in 1989 and broke up in 2010. Vocalist Sakamoto Shintaro has released three solo albums since then. Bassist Kamekawa Chiyo now plays for the chill-groove of MANNERS, the solo project of Mishio Mai, former frontwoman of psychedelic rock trio Uzumibi. Two years after the disbandment of Yura Yura, drummer Shibata Ichirou released an electronic album titled Fly Electric under the name Ichirou. But before all that was the psychedelic rock of Yura Yura, grounded in the introduction of the fuzz box to rock music in the 1960s with a new punk sensibility from the 1980s.

“Tsukinuketa” starts with a relentless bulletfire of a noise-heavy guitar riff is faster than any classic blues track, with even more distorted vocals barely audible above it. An abrupt breakdown stops the song before it even hits two minutes. Over and out.

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Kikuchi Naruyoshi. Image courtesy of Dommune.

Kikuchi Naruyoshi – Zou Sakana (Elephant Fish)

This is the only short bit of score not written by Aida; instead, this piece is helmed by the jazz musician Kikuchi Naruyoshi. This track, which underlaid a scene of a surreal march Kemonogare, opens with harsh high-pitched horns, which continue, slightly off-beat, behind a thumping muffled bass drum off-set by noisy cymbals. As the song continues, more of the musicians make more mistakes, adding to the noise and uncertainty of the chaos. The sound is soon replaced with the steady riff of Aida, in the form of his band Foe.

Foe – Tokkuri

Foe is led by Aida, formed with with bassist Sato Kenji and drummer Komatsu Masahiru (from bloodthirsty butchers). “Tokkuri” originally appeared on Foe’s 2002 self-titled album. The song name refers to a sake bottle, the ceramic container with a bell-shaped bottom and a thin mouth from which sake is poured into guests’ cups.

The track itself is a grunge march, bass and guitar thudding along and picking up the beat with the percussion before heavily reverberated vocals, approximating notes. The chorus thumps in succession with comedic sound effects. The guitars distort into slinky metallic strings and feedback, and then that marching riff comes back and Aida keeps singing, steady into the future.

Aida Shigekazu – Truth Comes Dream

In another Aida track, old-fashioned surf rock riff is played through a filter, while piano and a steady cymbal move in and out of the right and left speakers, a throwback to an earlier time: a nostalgia for the 1950s and the introduction of the electric guitar. Kemonogare might have been released at the beginning of a new millennia, but it owes it’s rock and roll to an older history.

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Tokedashita Garasubako. Image courtesy of Natalie.

Tokedashita Garasubako – Kimi Wa Dare Nan Da (Who Are You)

This track came out in 1971 on a self-titled album, and was the only release by Tokedashita Garasubako. The band name means “Dissolved Glass Box.” The band was developed as a studio project by multi-instrumentalist Kida Tadasuke with folk singer Nishioka Takashi and singer-songwriter Saitou Tetsuo.

The 1960s and 1970s combine in many layers in this track. Acoustic guitars matched with electric, doubled harmonies, a steady bass moving up and down, static-y cymbals, and an insertion of horns. However, bizarrely, one minute in the song abruptly stops, then comes back in with slowed-down instrumentals, as though someone had lifted the record needle, then held their finger on the vinyl itself before finally letting the song come back.

Aida Shigekazu – The Prime of Manhood

Of course, modernity is essential, as this two-minute track throws together a bass guitar, hand claps, and saxophone with those yelling vocals from “Push His Button.” Hip-hop and jazz meet a funky electric guitar solo. And who could be more aware of the fusion of rock with other genres than the so-influential Number Girl?

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Number Girl. Image courtesy of Hatena Fotolife.

Number Girl – Zazenbeats Kemono Style

The song starts with Nakao Kentarou’s intimidating bassline, intercut with Mukai Shutoku’s vocal interjections, finally adding vibrating guitar by Mutoku and Tabuchi Hisako and some chimes in addition to the jittery stutters of Inazawa Ahito’s drums. The result, like much of this soundtrack, is a steady, distorted rock track based around a riff or five, never urgent, always attentive to the mood, and maintaining energy over a long stretch.

Nakao’s bassline is really the centerpiece of this track, but the disorienting layers of Mukai’s voice, calling out “Nai! Nai!” (the negative form of the word “to be”: the fact that something is not present) in quiet echoes as guitar chords ripple throughout the track, create a dim world.

This track appears to have been written for the movie, which came out (depending on who you ask) in 2001 or 2002, one year before Number Girl broke up and two years before Mukai formed Zazen Boys. In this song title, zazen refers to the seated position of zen mediation, while kemono means beast, brute, or animal.

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Asano Tadanobu. Image courtesy of HIFF.

PEACE PILL – SNAKEFIRE (HYPER POPULATION)

Asano Tadanobu is one of Japan’s most famous actors. He did not appear in Kemonogare, but he is known for Ichi the Killer, numerous Ishii Katsuhito films, and is part of the Asgardian ensemble in Marvel’s Thor movies. He also plays in a number of bands, including MACH-1.67 (with film director Ishii Gakuryuu, who presented another take on punk culture with 1982’s Burst City), Safari, Soda, and Peace Pill, in which he sings and plays lead guitar.

The track “Snakefire (Hyper Population)” appears only to be present on the Kemonogare soundtrack, although Peace Pill has released a number of albums. The song itself is relentlessly loud and uneasy, the guitar following a path of its own, sticking and not getting every note out, before distorted noise builds with the drums that thunder into oblivion. The drone of the bass feels violent, unavoidable. It feels uncomfortable and claustrophobic, perfect for a movie soundtrack.

Aida Shigekazu – a memento

At this point in the film, and the soundtrack, a move towards the experimental and ethereal and electronic is more apparent. Sparse synth notes extend over indistinct rustling, hinting at the distorted percussion that is yet to come to close out this album. Spacey, stark notes dances over the top.

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bloodthirsty butchers. Image courtesy of Sync Music Japan.

bloodthirsty butchers – Moeru Omoi (Burning Thoughts)

At seven minutes long, the song is a dense, echoing delve into the deep-set. Tabuchi Hisako’s guitar, not unlike how she plays with Number Girl, buzzes and trembles long after vocalist Yoshimura Hideki’s voice fades, muffled into the gentle crashing of Komatsu Masahiru’s cymbals and the warm vibrations of Imoriya Takeshi’s bass, heating the fire that burns through the song.

Formed in 1986, bloodthirsty butchers is named after a 1970 cult film about Sweeney Todd. The band has also released music with Tadanobu Asano. In 2011, a documentary about the band, named after their album 1996 Kocorono, was released.

Frontman Yoshimura passed away suddenly in 2013 of acute heart failure. In 2015, a film titled Sore Dake (That’s It) featuring Bloodthirsty Butchers’ music, including the song of the same name, was released on the two-year anniversary of Yoshimura’s death in tribute to him.

Aida Shigekazu – ME AND MY Candle

The bom-bam of low drums accents a flute humming over guitar and bells, all tuned through a distortion filter that becomes denser as the song continues. Not unlike Kemonogare itself, filtered through the grain of film, Aida takes pleasure in the way that imperfections can add something to art’s meaning. Even chopping up a voice can make a piece more evocative.

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Asa-Chang & Junray. Image courtesy of JaME World.

Asa-Chang & Junray – Hana (Flower)

The band’s name, Asa-Chang & Junray, refers to the founding member, Asa-Chang, and the portable soundsystem the group uses in concerts: Jun-Ray Tronics. However, the band is actually a trio, made up of Chang, who was originally the percussionist for and one of the founding members of the prolific Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, as well as programmer and guitarist Urayama Hidehiko and tabla player U-Zhaan.

The song itself is surreal, nearing seven minutes and opening with soft strings. “Hana ga saita yo” (“Flowers have bloomed”) say a man and a woman simultaneously, their voices hesitant and edited, choppy on top of the violins. Then tabla enters, tripling the vocals, creating a third language and incomprehensible rhythm. The result is a musical and atonal world created by the trippy combination of percussion and vocals, which speed up as the song continues. The words lose their distinction and meaning as they are diced on top of chopped drumbeats. The distortion ends the album and Kemonogare, moving from the chaos of punk rock to something entirely new: a new millennium, a new genre, a new way of approaching “rebellion…against the aesthetic codes that defined beauty in music,” as Bourdaghs wrote. Authentic. Artistic. Revolutionary.

[1] The more common pronunciation would be orera instead of oira, but the Japanese Wikipedia entry says “oira.”

Gifs were made by author with the Giphy app using this video.

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Getting Wild with Punk Guitars in the Early 2000s

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