It might seem to most that Asian pop and rock are just now gaining worldwide exposure. But even before Korean sensation PSY smashed the YouTube charts with Gangnam style, Japanese rock had already taken over London’s alternative scene. Famous Japanese singers like Miyavi and Gackt have rocked venues around the city and have an established fanbase. However, Japan Underground (Japanese pop culture event organisers) had a different approach at their latest gig – Girl Rock Night at The Pipeline bar. They presented a line-up of 3 indie artists and one band. It explored the rather ignored female rock and pop scene of Japan.
Entering a smoky downstairs room of the busy venue, there was a small crowd gathered around the stage. Silent, the audience listened to first performer Jun Okada. The only lights in the room fell on her. In this almost spell-binding atmosphere, the Hokkaido-born artist demonstrated her mastery of the acoustic guitar. Sweet and gentle, Okada’s repertoire mostly consisted of ballads from both her first and second albums. And even though, from a look at the audience, one might think they were fans of ‘hardcore’ music, they seemed enthralled by her vocals. Unsure of whether to clap during subtle pauses, no one wanted to interrupt. She admitted to being nervous about her accent when she sang in English but was received incredibly well. However, her style was somewhat more typical for a female Japanese pop performer.
Unlike the next artist – Yuki Kawana. Appearing on stage with her guitar and her beer, she managed to instantly grab the attention of those scattered at the bar, waiting for the next singer’s performance. Casually-dressed and relaxed, her songs had a distinct grunge feeling to them. The crowd gathered closer and closer to the stage and at first shyly, started moving to the rhythm. Her care-free attitude was noticeable, as she engaged with the audience and took sips of her beer between songs. The element of cuteness, usually a must in some Japanese female singers’ works and outfit, was missing here. Nevertheless, that only made her songs more emotional and honest. Yuki Kawana’s stage presence, combined with her strong voice, were somewhat reminiscent of another Japanese female rocker – Anna Tsuchiya.
The gig continued with a sharp juxtaposition of genres. Miette-One, Sayuri Hashimoto’s solo project was next to entertain the audience. Her style could be easily described as experimental to those new to Shibuya-kei. This genre comes from Tokyo’s trendiest district and sounds a lot like electropop. However, what was most interesting about Miette-One’s performance was that one of her instruments was a keyboard… on an iPhone; the other – an iPad. Yuki Kawana joined her on stage to play the keyboard. The sound was surreal and the crowd – stunned. The sweet, dreamy beats and singing were charming.
Last on stage were 33 Insanity’s Vertebrae – a female fronted band with strong punk/rock sound. Formed only a couple of months ago, the band from Nagoya very much looked and acted like established rock stars. Frontwoman Nozomi walked out with realistic-looking ram horns on her head, dressed in black from head to toe. However, the rebellious looks were not the only striking thing about 33 Insanity’s Vertebrae. The band shook the venue with hard-hitting guitar riffs and breath-taking punk vocals. The crowd was excited – screaming and jumping. Songs like Brainwashing were exhilarating and definitely proved the band’s potential. Many of the gig-goers should probably be happy to be one of the first to listen to them live. The band just might be the next big thing in Japanese rock, as Nozomi and crew’s first album comes out on 25th November.
Overall, Japan Underground’s event presented a new, different look at Japanese music. Ranging from soft singing to screaming, from electro to grunge and punk, it proved the potential of these indie artists, as well as the potential of a new fandom focused on the female Japanese alternative scene.
By Suzana Dalul
Photos by Marvin Gaisey