When it comes to cultural diversity, Japan has always been a borrower. Their entire writing system, known as kanji, is made up of Chinese characters; the country’s most popular sport is baseball, America’s pastime; and South Korean television dramas get all the top ratings. Japan’s music scene is no different. In Live from Tokyo, American director Lewis Rapkin takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey through Tokyo’s bustling underground music scene. Set within the backdrop of the modern Japanese megalopolis, the film explores Tokyo’s eccentric music culture, and how a combination of global information, media-saturated urban areas, and cutting edge innovation has impacted it.
“Since the 2000s, when the Internet became widely used, the number of people listening to underground music has been growing,” explains Murata, lead singer of the band Kuruucrew, during one of the film’s many fascinating interviews. There are many facets to Japan’s underground music scene, and Rapkin captures them beautifully. Early on in the film we learn how MP3s and digital downloads have altered Japan’s musical landscape. TokyoGigGuide.com’s Craig Eaton describes how you can now “get albums online, whereas in the past you’d have to wait until it came to your country or order it, and wait for it to come in the mail.” With a simple click, you can now access Japanese underground artists such as Shugo Tokumaru, Sexy-Synthesizer, and Sajjanu.
When we’re not learning about the underground scene through band interviews, Rapkin gives us an all-access pass to the bands as they perform on stage. Juxtaposed with time lapses of Shibuya’s nightlife, first person views from train lines, and kaitenzushi conveyor belts, we hear punk rock, J-pop, heavy metal, traditional Japanese music, and various synthesizer-based experiments.
Although the underground scene has a ton of foreign influences, this film emphasizes Japan’s desire to create original sounds. One example of music cultivated by Tokyo’s underground scene comes from the use of synthesizers. All the music you hear on video games like Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda was produced by synthesizers, and bands like Sexy-Synthesizer continue the trend of popularizing this sound, known as chiptune, by synchronizing visuals with their music during live performances. We also get a chance to see a band called D.V.D. on stage using their instruments as controllers during a game of Arkanoid.
Another interesting facet of Tokyo’s underground music scene we learn about is the “Noruma System,” a scheme in which venues (a.k.a. live houses) force bands to pay to play on their stages. “Live houses in Tokyo are so expensive, so if you don’t have money, you can’t play,” Kage, a member of Suishou no Fune (Crystal Ship), explains in an interview. But we also learn about special venues located on the outskirts of Tokyo that don’t enforce Noruma. Places like Enban and Koenji allow performers to use their venues free of charge. Enban, for example, caters to all types of entertainment including kamishibai (picture story show), stand-up comedy, and Nepalese music.
If you love music and have an interest in Japan, then Live from Tokyo is a film not to be missed. Even if you don’t know that much about Japan, this documentary works as a crash course in Japanese culture. All the bands are very honest and proud of their innovations. Rapkin does a great job showing all the ins and outs of Tokyo’s underground music scene, but anybody could interview a bunch of artists and put together a documentary. What makes this film so unique is how the visuals compliment the subject matter. The music becomes more visceral when scenes from Tokyo’s fluorescent nightlife are flashing on the screen. Japan may borrow culture from other countries, but after watching this film I’m starting to think that when it comes to music, Japan is finding its niche.
For more on Live from Tokyo, visit www.goodcharamel.com.
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