Matsuri

My formative years were troubled.  I have many horrible memories, of which I refuse to go into here – they’re personal, and it’s not appropriate.  But the memories were not all bad.

Every year we had a religious festival – we called it the Festival of Tabernacles, or the “feast” for short.  It was in some ways a rather staid affair – but it was a festival, and it was a celebration.  Some people treated it as an excuse to get wasted for seven days, but for the most part, it was intended to be a reflection of how the world was to be after Christ returned.  And, to be quite honest, it succeeded at that far more than I would care to admit.

What I remember the most about it was a sense of anticipation beforehand – and then the feast happened, and it was truly a seven day celebration.  People were happy – or as happy as they could be.  There is a certain spirit in the air when ten thousand people are in the same area for even marginally wholesome purposes.  It permeates the whole city, and I think even people who have no idea it’s happening can feel a change in the city for that short period of time.

I am so conflicted about Japan and its culture, but I can’t deny that I have a visceral emotional reaction to things Japanese, and I can’t figure out what or why.  I think it is because, while the dark is very dark, there is a spirit of celebration to the things that they do for entertainment.  The performers are not performers, it’s almost literally like they’re cheerleaders.  I don’t think there really is an analogue in western culture.  In our concerts, we’ll either politely and quietly stare at the performers (as in classical music), or we’ll mosh around in the audience as the performers do their thing, but in Japanese culture, it’s as if the audience is invited to celebrate with them.

I’m not even sure what they’re celebrating.  Maybe it’s the music.  Maybe it’s a sense of gratefulness for being able to do what they do.  Maybe it’s just how they’re trained.  But at the end of the day, they sing, and they dance, and we’re pulled into their little happy world for just a little while.

And I think that’s why people go otaku.  It really is infectious.  I don’t consider myself otaku, and certainly not weeaboo, but when seeing cute young girls or women dancing around on stage and singing their little hearts out, it’s really hard to not get pulled into their world, and just forget everything for a few minutes or an hour.  It’s just so happy.

I think maybe this is the spirit of Ganbatte.  We translate that in English as “try your best”, but it’s more than that, so much more.  It’s putting everything you have into what you’re doing.  And it really does show.  Japanese entertainers put everything into what they do, they don’t phone it in.  And it draws you into their happy world, and just for a little while, you forget everything sad and bad, because their energy just washes it all away.

It reminds me very much of the festivals I grew up in.

It’s all manufactured.  I get that.  And I know that the darkness of Japanese culture sometimes shows through, in unfortunate and even tragic ways.  But at the end of the day, it’s the gift they give us, and it would be rude to not accept and treasure it for what it is.

J-Pop vs K-Pop

I will not say that I am a huge fan of K-Pop, nor am I a huge fan of J-Pop, but I am more familiar with J-Pop than K-Pop.  But I find myself very impressed with the K-Pop groups I have seen.  The other day I saw a “Girls’ Generation” cover of “Dancing Queen” – they did it in English, and without a discernable accent.  It was extremely high quality.  Frankly, it was much higher quality than I would expect out of a J-Pop group.  More frankly, any J-Pop group save, perhaps, Babymetal.

There seems to be a cultural difference between Korean and Japanese pop, and I have remarked on it before.  The Japanese seem to value cuteness and approachability, and talent doesn’t seem to matter.  The Koreans seem to deliberately cultivate unapproachability and perfection.  Their idols truly seem to be meant to be idols, meaning, objects of worship.  But the Japanese groups don’t really need talent – hardly at all – as long as they can gain a following of people who will buy their albums and “support” them (meaning, voting in senbatsu competitions and buying their products).

Now I’ll admit I don’t know a whole lot about K-Pop, but I know what I saw the other night, and that was quality.  Some groups are a little more fun than others, like Crayon Pop seems to have more of a J-Pop sensibility to it.  The Japanese seem to think “ganbatte”, or “try my best”.  They’ll prepare as much as necessary and get it done.  The Koreans seem to think “If I have to try, I’m not good enough.  I’m going to nail this.”  And holy cow, do they.

Which do I like better?  I don’t know.  If I’m looking for cute and poppy, J-Pop pretty much fits the bill.  If I’m looking for actual quality, it’s K-Pop all the way.  The poor J-Pop groups – particularly the really popular ones like AKB48 – really don’t stand a chance.  They’re cute, they’re funny, they’re silly, they’re adorable, and Korean singers and dancers wipe the floor with them.

But then, they know this.  They know exactly what they are, what they do, and why they’re there.  Maybe it will translate to success in the future for them – I know aces like Takahashi Minami and Sashihara Rino have gone on to decent careers.  But not all.  I don’t think that would be tolerated in Korea.  The standards are far, far, far, more exacting.*

* There are exceptions, on both sides.  So stop typing.  🙂

Karate – Babymetal

I’m not going to review this song.  We’ll just say I rather like it and leave it at that.  But I do want to point out something interesting about it.

One of the central musical themes of this song is a contrast between staccato and lyrical.  The part of the chorus that starts “hikasura seiya soiya” are very sharp, cut off, and aggressive, while the part that is “wow” is very lyrical.  These two things contrast off of each other to make the music more effective than it might otherwise be.  I think it actually represents the tension and release of the fight that is being described in the lyrics, and on the video.

But one of the things that makes this possible is the rapid fire nature of the Japanese syllabic structure itself.  I saw a video where a girl tried to do an English translation, and it was lacking.  Not because the words were bad, and she wasn’t even a particularly bad singer, but the rapid fire staccato didn’t translate well and she didn’t seem to understand why it was necessary to try to keep that character.  So, instead, she did it lyrically, and didn’t attack it hard enough, so her voice was wavering.  It didn’t work well.

When translating Japanese, things can be lost in translation, even when all the words are correct.

That’s the worst trap to fall into.  Japanese are people like me, yes, but theirs is a very different culture, and a very different way of looking at the world.  If one doesn’t see and accept that for what it is, one runs the very real risk of losing something important in translation.

5 Reasons J-Pop sucks

AKB48 CafeI’ve posted previously about what I like about J-Pop, but I don’t like everything about it!  As with everything, it has its good sides and bad sides.  Here, in my opinion, are the bad sides.

The Music Can Be Uninteresting

I’ve posted previously about how I think that J-Pop is far more interesting than western pop – but that doesn’t really mean it’s interesting.  At the end of the day, it’s still pop, with all of the insipidity and appealing to the lowest common denominator that that entails.  I love how poetic J-Pop can be, but how many songs can one group write about sakura?

There is Little Focus on Talent

J-Pop performers are selected, basically, for cuteness and relatability first, and they seem to take the attitude that growing as a performer will come in time.  And, that being their criteria, they choose well.  But all told, they aren’t really all that talented.  Those who have the acumen or opportunity to parlay their cuteness into success are very successful.  Those that don’t fade into obscurity.  And that seems to have little to do with their actual potential as a performer.

Honestly, though, this is not a reason J-Pop sucks.  The reason is that it almost seems as if the lack of talent is seen as a positive, rather than a negative.  What, then, of the girls who actually want to make something of themselves as an actual performer?  There is room for that, but, frankly, many don’t.  And as seen on Produce48, many don’t even know it until reality smacks them in the face.  Is this doing them a service?  Maybe.  I’m not so sure.

What You See is Not What You Get

When I was younger, I remember a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.  As the storm left, the sky turned a lurid pink.  It turned out that the anvil was still over us and the setting sun was shining underneath it.  But since the clouds were somewhat transparent, you couldn’t see the clouds – it just looked as if the sky turned pink.

J-Pop feels a little like that.  You are given the opportunity to “get to know” the girls – but it’s all scripted and carefully controlled.  So what you see is what you think you get, but you don’t.  It’s a character.  Perhaps it’s a form of the Japanese tatemae, but the people you think you’re getting to know, well, you’re not.

If they were up front about that it wouldn’t really bother me so much, but I think many people think that the performers are the same as their stage personality, and this leads to much misunderstanding.  And that leads me to

The Fans

This is, frankly, the part of the J-Pop scene I detest the most.  I mean, you could kind of class me as a fan in some ways – I know a lot of their music, a lot of the performers, I even have my favorites if you want to get picky.  But at the end of the day, I know they’re just a bunch of girls doing a job, and I keep it in perspective.

But many fans don’t seem to.  I’ve heard of fans buying thousands of CDs just to get the little tickets to vote in the senbatsu and then throwing them all away, I’ve seen people go absolutely nuts when they meet their favorite idol, and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing all around.  Yes, it’s kind of interesting in its own way, but in the same way you only mostly cover your eyes when you see an inevitable train wreck.  I really hate being a fan because of who it is I end up lumped in with by association.

The Costumes

Oh holy mother of dog, the costumes.  Some are okay, but some of them look like the designer took ate crayons and threw up on fabric.  They’re so loud it’s amazing to see.  It’s like they took a Japanese school uniform and turned it to 11, blowing out the amp.  I’m no fashion critic, and I suppose maybe their target audience thinks differently, but this just helps to cement my opinions about the Japanese taking existing things and taking them in directions no reasonable person would ever even consider.  Sometimes it’s strange and wonderful.  Sometimes it’s J-Pop costumes.

The Sparkle! It Burns!

These are the reasons I think J-Pop sucks.  Of course, there are also plenty of reasons it doesn’t.  What do you think?

(I am trying a new format for blog posts.  Like it?  Hate it?  Let me know!)

Photo Credits:

AKB48 cafe by User: (WT-shared) 耕太郎 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Costume By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why J-Pop?

I was actually trained as a classical pianist.

Yes, it’s true.  I went to college and everything.  I learned how to either play or appreciate much of the repertoire – in point of fact, if I put my mind to it, there are piano concertos that are not out of my reach.  I am very, very familiar with many very complex pieces, even if I can’t play them yet, and I find composers such as Rachmaninoff to be quite sublime – even if the lay person might hear it as just a jumble of noise.

Why, then, have I grown to like J-Pop?

If I were to put, say, “Ponytail Shushu” up against Rachmaninoff’s second or third piano concertos, “shoujiki”, it would be like trying to compare fine art to the drawing of a five year old.  There is utterly no comparison.  Rachmaninoff’s music has a very definite structure, with every note thought out, all meshing together into a cohesive whole that is not even obvious without careful and educated listening.  J-Pop seems to be kind of what you’d expect from seeing two young teenage girls chatting with each other over a milkshake or boba drink.  You’d lose several IQ points just by hearing the conversation, and yet…

And yet.

Do you know what a conversation between two young teenage girls has that classical music does not?

It’s the same reason I like J-Pop.

Classical music is not alive, not really.  Most of the composers are long dead.  Most people listen to classical music quietly, and when you attend a concert, you usually dress up, sit there, and watch a conductor waves his arms, and out emanates some lovely music that you can only consume.  But J-Pop is like being included in a youthful conversation between several teenage girls – it’s stupid and mindless and immature – but there is also love and friendship and parting and angst and all of the things that make life life.  They capture the life and energy of youth in a way that classical music does not and cannot.

Is it beautiful like classical music?  Absolutely not!  But is it beautiful in its own way, expressing things that we as adults forget and only seem to get back when confronted by youth in all of its hormone-ridden, angsty, immature glory?

Yes.

It is a reminder of a long-past part of my life that I, thirty years later, had forgotten.  It hearkens back to a time when I didn’t have to worry about pleasing bosses, or the next performance review, or paying the rent, or what happens if and/or when I get sick, or all of the worries that adults like me destroy ourselves with.  It hearkens back to a time when young love overpowers all, when friendships were made and broken, when living on one’s own is nothing but something that may happen in the distant future, and one has their whole life yet ahead of them.  It’s a celebration of youth.

And sometimes, it is nice to forget how much the ravages of age have destroyed all of that optimism.

That is why I like J-Pop.  It is not always happy, but it is a reminder of how things once were.

Wotagei

If you ever see an idol concert, don’t only pay attention to the performers – if you do, you’ll be missing out on what is perhaps the most unique aspect of Japanese concerts.  That is wotagei.

It seems that wota, or people who are devoted fans of a particular idol group, coordinate very advanced dances for particular songs, using glowsticks, and then perform them in the audience while the performers are dancing on stage.  Let me repeat this:  there is an entirely different performance, synced to the stage performers, happening in the audience.

These performances are called wotagei.  And some of them are particularly complex, using vocalizations, etc.

I am not aware of this phenomenon occurring, ever, in western concerts.  In fact, in western concerts, there is an area near the stage called a “mosh pit” which, near as I can tell, seems to be a place where people just do whatever the heck they want.  As near as I can tell (and I’ll stand corrected if I’m wrong, because the only concerts I’ve ever been to involved sitting quietly while the conductor waves his or her arms).

Still, this is a fascinating thing. I am sure there is a cultural reason for this, probably involving ritual, conformity, and community, but I can’t pretend to truly understand it.  Still, it is a very interesting thing that, once you know to look for it, adds an entirely new dimension to watching J-pop concerts.