Monday, April 27, 2009

"What's wrong with being naked?"

Media Hypocrisy and the Crucifixion of Tsuyoshi Kusanagi

"Fancy a drink?"

1. Sloshed and Senseless

If anyone had told me two weeks ago that I'd soon be sympathizing with a member of SMAP - the terminally uncool darlings of Japan's mediocre light-entertainment scene - I'd have told them they could kiss my shiri.

But I must admit to feeling a twinge of commiseration for SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi. Following his recent display of drunken nudity in a Tokyo park he's been the victim of a predictable frenzy of media condemnation.

Come on, guys. Give the boy a break.

I mean, who hasn't at some time come staggering out of their luxury apartment at 3AM, sloshed and senseless, flashing their willy to all and sundry?

I know I have.

At any rate, this whole affair might encourage Japanese fans to question the darker side of their country's pop industry.

For Kusanagi's self-destructive binge can best be interpreted as a reaction against the creepy manipulation of showbiz bully Johnny Kitagawa and his insidious management empire Johnny's Jimusho.

Kitagawa has been churning out sub-par plastic pop since the sixties. And though females are the target audience for his stable of emasculated girlie-boys, Johnny has long boasted he prefers to work with lithesome lads because they are "easier to handle," if you know what I mean.

SMAP are the stars in Johnny's crown. The fact that they are as vocally gifted as five salary men in a karaoke box hasn't prevented them from achieving a depressing level of media saturation in their home country.

Their fame reflects the low expectations of the Japanese public as well as the fact that 'talento' and commodification go hand in hand in the land of the falling yen.

2. Purty Vacant

If there's one thing SMAP aren't about, it's music.

The band will whore themselves - at Johnny's insistence, I'm sure - for any company that will throw money at them.

Samsung, Toyota, Nintendo, Nike, Pocari Sweat, Sky Perfect TV, Canon, ECC, Proctor and Gamble, BOSS Coffee and Nudy cosmetics are just some of the advertisers who have forked out for their purty (vacant) visages.

The group have even released a soft drink called Drink! SMAP!, simultaneously installing themselves in the dual role of product and pusher as they creepily urge fans to swallow their celebrity juice.

If there's an upside to this corporate scam it may be that Kusanagi has unwittingly brought to light certain hypocritical attitudes in Japanese society.

During his arrest the star demanded, "What's wrong with being naked?"

And he might well ask, in this sex-obsessed country where pictures of nude girls are plastered over phone boxes and stuffed into the mailboxes of a million apartments.

Where nerdy TV hosts giggle cluelessly as they poke the breasts of pneumatic babelicious airheads.

Where grown men openly read comics celebrating rape fantasies and frequent porn sites promoting male sexual domination.

And Kusanagi is in good company if he enjoys getting juiced on a Saturday night. Over-indulgence in alcohol is not only acceptable, but practically a requirement in Japan. There's even a term for bosses who force their subordinates to get drunk: Alcoru-hara (alcohol harassment.)

3. Takes one to know one

Verily Kusanagi hath offended his country's vast political and marketing machine. Japan's institutions have come down hard on the poor guy in a torrent of fake outrage.

Displaying the tact and sensitivity we've come to expect from Japanese politicians, the internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama labelled Kusanagi "a bastard."

Well, it takes one to know one, I guess.

Because that's the same Hatoyama who suggested that execution of death row inmates didn't require him to sign the final execution order, a procedure demanded by Japanese law. Amnesty International Japan condemned his disregard for human rights.

And it's the same Hatoyama who signed into law the recent measure requiring all foreign visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed upon entry to Japan - as an anti-terrorism measure, dontcha know.

Never mind that the only terror acts visited upon Japan's citizens have been perpetrated by Japanese themselves.

Oh, and Hatoyama reportedly owns a chunk of shares in the company which is overseeing the government's campaign to promote Japan's switch from analogue to digital television broadcasting by 2011.

The same campaign whose public face was - until very recently - SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bluesy Abstractions

Live: Kelly Joe Phelps (Country Blues)
Taku Taku Club, Kyoto, Japan

A. Kelly Joe Phelps

These days too few world class singer-songwriters bother to step off the bullet train to ply their trade in Japan's cultural capital.

So last night a grateful crowd gathered to bear witness as Kelly Joe Phelps brought his impressionist-modernist-fantabulist country blues to Kyoto.

Phelps takes to the stage quietly and proceeds to play without a set list for ninety minutes. For the crowd - who knew there were this many Kelly Joe fans in Kyoto? - it's a spellbinding, almost ethereal experience.

Phelps has a famously physical playing style, dipping and weaving in his chair as he communes with the spheres. His eyes roll back as he mutters and whispers to himself, unleashing cascades of bluesy abstractions from his fretboard, vagrant semitones which shouldn't fit together but somehow make perfect sense.

His voice is hushed and deeply soulful, bizarrely connecting the dots between Fred McDowell, Pete Williams, Nick Drake and the recently-departed John Martyn.

We weren't treated to Kelly Joe's unique slide technique last night, and he didn't play my favorite composition Taylor John, but he performed fabulous versions of other Phelps classics including The Anvil and a truly spellbinding version of Woody Guthrie's Pastures Of Plenty.

We need more of this kind of alchemy in Kyoto. So Kelly Joe, and all you other bluesy dreamweavers... don't be strangers, alright?

B. Some Minor Beefs

It was a great performance last night which I thoroughly enjoyed.

But I have a couple of minor beefs.

Firstly, the show started at 7PM, which in my view is way too early, especially for a Saturday night. The Japanese - probably more than most nationalities - need a few drinks to loosen up a bit, and the atmosphere in the club was almost unbearably stiff before Kelly Joe took to the stage. The club was emptied by 9PM, no sense of occasion having been established.

This is a common occurrence at Japanese shows, but it's become no less irritating in the seven years I've been living here.

Indeed, things don't seem to have changed that much since the sixties. The Beatles enjoyed a successful 1966 tour of Japan, but were turned off by the obsessive punctuality and clinical over-organization.

I mean, it's rock 'n' roll, innit?

Most performers would, I'm sure, prefer to play for a crowd which has had an opportunity to settle in, enjoy a couple of drinks and unwind before the performance begins. I'm willing to bet Mr. Phelps rarely, if ever, plays so early on his travels.

My second gripe is the fact that there was no support act last night. Entrance was 6,000 yen on the door. At present exchange rates that's a hefty US$60.00 or UK£41.00 for a ninety-minute set.

My complaint isn't with the performer. Kelly Joe Phelps is a world-class musician who traveled a long way to play here, and Kyoto rarely sees such outstanding western talent. One expects to pay a bit more for top-notch live music in Japan.

But surely the club could have found a support act to warm up the crowd, create a sense of expectation for the headliner, stretch the night out and increase bar profits!

There are many talented local blues musicians who would, I'm sure, have jumped at the chance of such a high-profile slot for little or no financial reward.

On my recent visit to the UK, I saw the fantastic Martin Simpson. The support act was a local folkie whose twenty minute-warm-up really put the audience in the mood for the main attraction.

The show cost ten quid. A tenner, to watch one of the world's top folk acts.

So come on, club owners. Let's make a night of it.

There is a recession on, you know.