Remaining true to my philosophy of not cycling through anywhere that seems actively perilous, I decided to leave the mountains between Koriyama and Niigata well alone, disassembling my bicycle for what will hopefully be the last time on this trip and taking the slow, four-hour train journey snaking through the valleys and canyons, past Mount Bandai and down into the lowlands on the Sea of Japan coast once more.
Niigata is a large industrial port with a really rather nice old town situated on an island in the Shinano River delta. Like a lot of Japanese cities, its official size (pop. 800,000) is largely a fiction of municipal mergers and boundary drawing, but it is nonetheless the largest city by far in the prefecture.
Knowing nothing at all about the music culture of the city or prefecture as a whole, beyond the summer festivals like Fuji Rock and The Labyrinth, held in the mountains at the Naeba ski resort and having little-to-nothing to do with the local music scene, I made my first inroads via the tried-and-tested result of simultaneously sending out vague, panicked requests for info on social media and asking people in the next-door prefecture if they know anything.
Those mountains are a big barrier though, keeping both cyclists and culture from traversing their peaks. The guys in Koriyama struggled to give much of a picture of the scene there, but Arakawa from Redd Temple was able to point to indie rock band Midnight Parade, whose guitarist Hideaki Takahashi runs Ten-Twenty Distro and produces a free paper called Seene, covering music both in Niigata and around Japan. A quick phone call and Takahashi was able to pass on the tentative suggestion of a hardcore show the night I arrive.
The venue, Golden Pigs, is divided into three different venues, each on a different floor and each with a different speciality. Punk shows tend to be at Black, mainstream pop/rock happens at Red, and acoustic performances, club music and anything that doesn’t fully fit in elsewhere happens at Yellow. I was at Black and it was full of children.
A band from Australia called Vices was in town, and in order to make sure the room was packed out, the venue had given hefty discounts to students and booked a bunch of student bands in the early slots. It worked, and you could see from the reactions of some of the local bands that seeing a crowd like this on a Wednesday night was a rarity. To be honest, based on my experiencein Tohoku, the venue even being open on a Wednesday night was extraordinary.
After the wonderful and grotesque shapes the bands from Sendai, Tokyo and Aomori had contorted hardcore into at the Birdland show at the weekend, the teenage punks at Golden Pigs seemed earnest and hardworking, but didn’t radiate inspiration – and of course expecting a bunch of kids to emerge fully-formed as genre-defying, forward-thinking motherfuckers is selfish and stupid. One of the later bands at the show, Down the Line were pretty good though, the vocalist barking out his words like a small, angry dog rather than affecting a thrash metal death voice or some sort of chest-beating hardcore pastiche.
Down the Line
Also worthy of note was the nuber of cassettes on sale. I’ve noticed tapes in the indiepop scene and to a lesser extent in the post-rock scene, but it was new for me to see hardcore bands with them, although it makes sense given the DIY roots hardcore and indiepop share.
One thing you see a lot of in Japan these days is the growing crossover between punk and idol fan cultures, with idol groups adopting some of the superficial trappings of punk and metal (Babymetal are an obvious example, but BiS and more recently Necronomidol, as well as hipster idol groups like Oyasumi Hologram, Yurumerumo! (You’ll Melt More!) and Senosister also do to a certain extent. Birdland had a few idol posters up, in amongst the flyers for bands with names like Cunnilingus Vampire, and wherever I’ve gone on this tour, I’ve found bits of idol fandom clinging onto the edges of punk and alternative culture.
In punk especially, though, I don’t think there’s much or any irony required to bridge the gap between idol music and the vast majority of the punk scene – indeed, there has always been an uneasy coexistence between bubblegum pop and politically motivated rage in punk music. In any case, in Japan, punk and idol music are both types that by and large exist without any particular ideology, simply to express simple, uncomplicated fun and to provide something to mosh to (moshing at idol gigs is very much a Thing). Anything that seems subversive about them is a pose for theatrical effect, and any bands that do have any political or social agenda are very much in the minority.
Most of the bands at Golden Pigs would sit quite comfortably next to an idol group, and that has become quite a normal thing for me to feel when watching punk shows. Thus, when the singer from Vices announces to the crowd, “This is a song about a genocide that happened in a place called Cambodia. It’s called ‘Fields’,” there’s an obvious mismatch between the intended message being delivered from the stage and the way the music is being received by the crowd. It didn’t affect the audience (how many of them even understood, I don’t know) but that’s the point: he could have been singing Aitakatta by AKB48 and it would have been received in the same spirit.
None of this is to say that one way is any more worthy than the other, simply that part of the reason idol music is able to make such a comfortable home among punks is partly down to the shared bubblegum shallowness common to both forms. The subversiveness that’s often vaunted of certain idol groups is really just a function of them playing games with superficial genre signifiers, and a raw, direct statement about the something like the Khmer Rouge, no matter how facile, reveals the limitations in terms of the sorts of meanings such frivolous music can carry. That I’m having these thoughts at a hardcore show, where you ought to really expect people to be shouting about genocide and things, says a lot about how – for good or bad – I’ve grown used to the depoliticisation of punk.