The first stage of this trip, from Sapporo through eastern Japan and back to Tokyo, took a little over six weeks. By the end, I felt a mixture of eagerness to return to Tokyo and this conflicting desire to just keep on going, never staying in one place long enough to feel alienated by it. As I made the journey from Okayama back to Osaka, I’ve been on this western leg of the trip for just over two months, and it’s starting to feel too long. I genuinely want to be home.
The reason I’m stopping in Osaka rather than heading straight back to reunite with my bicycle in Kyoto is twofold: firstly to catch up on some record stores I missed first time round, and secondly because of a show that evening. Summer is starting to show its teeth as well, with daytime temperatures around the Kansai area creeping upwards and the quiet, vaguely run-down streets I walk through shimmering faintly with a post-apocalyptic stillness.
My first stop is Forever Records in Shinsaibashi, where owner Satoru Higashiseto instantly demands that I read the book Dokkiri: Japan Indies Music 1976-1989 by longtime Japanese music aficianado/zinester Kato David Hopkins before I even begin to try to understand the Osaka underground music scene. My bags are already overloaded with far more new acquisitions than I can safely carry on my bicycle, but I make a note of it for future purchase.
Forever Records has been around in various locations since 1979, with Satoru joining the store in 1987 after working a few years at a different record shop. What I’m starting to recognise as a typically Kansai-esque jumble of cardboard boxes greets me when I enter, along with a handful of prominently displayed krautrock t-shirts. Forever Records boasts an extensive supply of different vinyl editions of Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine, which were adopted as promotional props for anarchic avant-punk trio Oshiripenpenz.
Looking through its shelves and stacks, it’s interesting that the way Japanese record shops usually segregate foreign and domestic artists doesn’t apply here to experimental and avant-garde music. Satoru says language is a key factor, with the division in language that exists in pop and rock obliterated by the distortion, noise and just plain nonsense of much avant-garde music.
Partly this lack of division seems also to be down to the fluid, international nature of a lot of collaborations, for example in the way German musicians like the late Klaus Dinger worked with Japanese musicians on his final band Japandorf. Artists like Forever Records favourites acoustic effects maestro Akio Suzuki and avant-garde composer Miki Yui exist in a pan-national limbo, at home in their art and among other artists, but no longer identifiably tied to a specific place.
Nevertheless, Satoru also brings up artists such as Coa (a heavier precursor band to Himeji’s Eddie Marcon) and Kun Youri (who previously played with ‘70s underground legends Zuno Keisatsu and Les Rallizes Dénudés), as well as noise artists Solmania (whose Masahiko Ohno designed all of legendary noise label Alchemy Records’ record sleeves) and Masonna, all of whom have closer ties to the Kansai area. In particular, he recommends Oshiro Hino, a key figure in the bands Goat and Bonanzas as well as a solo artist under the name YPY, as a leading light in the current Osaka underground scene.
Functioning both in the international arts sphere and yet also very much a creature of Osaka is the city’s adopted son Momus, the Scottish indie legend who at the time of my visit is gallavanting around the fashionable capitals of Europe, but whose music since moving to Japan in the 1990s has nonetheless eagerly absorbed aspects of his new surroundings. The album Glyptothek draws from and heavily samples old Japanese folk records, as well as the sounds, music and atmosphere of the particular time and place he was making the music. There’s a difference, though, between music that consciously mines its environment and musc that grows unconsciously from it. As an alien, you are inevitably drawn towards the former approach, made more conscious of what makes it unique. This is perhaps why so many of the most enthusiastic promoters and documenters of Japan’s local music scenes are immigrants or prodigal sons.
A few minutes walk away in the Americamura area, the diverse, ramshackle King Kong Records sits around the corner from punk specialist Time Bomb Records. One of the staff at the latter, Hiroyoshi, takes time out to give me a brief tour and drops a few recommendations. He picks up on Framtid as a local band with an international profile, the long-running Nightmare, Himeji’s Sekien, as well as EX-C, Five No Risk, Corrupted and his own personal top recommendation, the heavy doom of Fucho.
Like Forever Records, Time Bomb also has its own label, which has put out Kyoto hardcore band Blow One’s Cool, the ‘70s-style punk of First Alert, Kyoto art-punks Liquid Screen, and Osaka’s SYAS.
Helpful as both Hiroyoshi and Satoru are, the feeling of terror still grips me when I apologetically mention that I also have a record label. Yes, I have listened to you talk with passion about your city’s music, but here is my ulterior motive. I hand over cards from my dwindling supply and shrink away in shame. You’d probably hate everything I put out, please forget I exist. Please, someone, help bring me back into my comfort zone.
The live venue Hokage is much more like my comfort zone, not only because half of the bands playing there are people I know from the Tokyo scene. I’ve now been in and around Osaka for long enough that local gig nuts like Hamaji from KK Manga recognise me, while Kev from Boys of Hong Kong shows up once more and I’m able to meet in person another British immigrant, Matthew from Capuchin, with whom I’ve been in online contact for some time.
Hokage is also a venue that just instantly feels like home. The dark, dirty stairwells, tiny, grotto-like rooms and bar areas, the stage spread out on a carpet on the floor, the twisted pipes and wires – it’s everything an underground live venue should be.
I only catch the end of the suitably energetic and somehow definitively Osaka-esque Mofo, but catch the full set of the first Tokyo band on the bill, self-described “gothic punk/dark hardcore” band Klonns. I get the gothic-hardcore thing, although for me all that just seems like another way of saying “postpunk”, which they are certainly as well – the main defining point seems to be the vocals, which have more of the gutteral melodrama you associate with goth than the reserved sarcasm or bleak alienation I tend to associate with postpunk pure and proper. They’re pretty good anyway.
The official organiser of the event is Mogikojin, a solo drummer with a headset mic and some insane heavy metal guitar noodling on a backing track. What he does is more of a rock’n’roll theatrical performance than what you’d call “creating music”, which is an approach I always associated with Osaka. He’s part of the Tokyo contingent though, and there’s a kind of polish to what he does that distinguishes it as a product of the capital rather than its Kansai rival. Matthew takes up this point later, explaining that, “Osaka loves an underdog,” and that this can manifest itself in a sort of sloppiness and a general withering away of interest if a band gets too slick. It’s no coincidence that the naive, chaotic psuedo-genre known as “scum” is closely associated with the Osaka area. Tokyo bands, on the other hand, often seem to be polished to the point that the life gets sucked out of the music, their polyrhythms and stop-starts refined to such mathy, hair-trigger precision that the sponteneity and energy dies. Iguz in Kagoshima had remarked on something similar when she had asked, “What’s that music all the bands in Tokyo do? The stuff that goes, ‘Duduh-duh… duduh-duh-duh-duduh… duh’?” I get so used to hearing mathy post-hardcore in Tokyo that it’s easy to forget it’s not normal at all.
That said, Osaka certainly does have musicians who would count as technical virtuosos under anyone’s definition. They just make sure they play with a looseness and abandon that ensures it never becomes oppressive. Bogulta are anarchic and explosive, but it’s underscored with a level of musical ability that clearly operates on a far higher level than the merely slapdash. It’s junk, but it’s not scum.
Bogulta’s drummer Nani was one of the leading lights of the “Zero Generation” that made Osaka such hot stuff in the early 2000s, thanks to his role in the marvellous Zuinosin. After that, he did his time in Acid Mothers Temple like all drummers in Japan have to by law as a sort of National Service, while Bogulta remains as an outlet for his own music.
Following them are Saitama’s In The Sun, who despite containing elements of post-rock, blast it at you in the form of an unrelenting spacerock beam of white light/white heat. If there’s a unifying theme of this event, it’s that of taking artists who represent Osaka at its most core self (perhaps even to the point of being a Tokyo outsider’s stereotype of the city) and pitting them alongside artists who represent a response from the capital and its surrounding areas. The Tokyo/Saitama contingent at this event is characterised by a tension between the clinical refinement that characterises much of the area’s music scene and an energy that draws parallels with the Kansai scene, while the Osaka contingent is a somewhat idealised vision of town coloured by memories of the anarchic virtuosity of 10-15 years ago.
Oshiripenpenz are definitely a creature of that early 2000s Osaka weird avant-garde rock boom, their spindly guitar parts and complex rhythms offset by the vocalist’s often confrontational, frequently dangerous performance antics. Kev points out that the pipes and wall fittings that line the live area of Hokage are an invitation to any band to get climbing. Oshiripenpenz rarely need an invitation to start scaling the walls and rafters of a venue, and it doesn’t take long before vocalist Motako is hanging upside down. He appropriates one of the tables as props too, first as a a plinth, then as a weightlifting aid, and then finally as a majorette’s baton, cracking one girl across the jaw painfully with its spinning base – his subsequent breakdown into profuse apologies the only time in ten years of watching the band that I’ve ever seen his manic stage persona crack.
Ricocheting back to Tokyo again, junk-noise band Halbach are what Matthew describes as, “The kind of thing Osaka bands nowadays should be doing.” They have the wildness, the explosive bursts of noise, the relentless energy, the playful sense of fun, but they also have a sort of togetherness, a sense of what they do having been thought out and developed a little more. The collision of Stooges-style raw power, almost psychedelic, feedback-drenched dance music and grinding, Teutonic EBM with shrieking bubblegum-noise vocals is intoxicating.
Final act Bashauma, meanwhile, rush by in a blur of psychedelic garage-punk distortion and roar. They put the event together on the Osaka end of things, and while the music itself often feels like a tool of fleeting necessity that they deploy for the primary purpose of wrecking the venue, they can’t be faulted for their intensity and sticktoitiveness. They tear the entire place apart and then come back for an encore using equipment that surely should no longer be functioning.
It’s a heartening farewell to Osaka, leaving me with a feeling that I might finally be coming to grips with the fringes of what’s happening there. It’s tempered though by my increasing anxiety about Tokyo and what, if anything, is waiting for me when I return. Seeing bands like Halbach and In The Sun here in Osaka leaves a mixture of comfort and disorientation – familiar elements uprooted from their “natural” environment and delivered in a new context. The idea of home that has been a recurring fixture of these travels is a multilayered one, encompassing one’s place of birth, place of residence, and several overlapping layers of social and creative sphere. Tokyo is a notoriously difficult place to call home, and its ever-shifting yet somehow never-changing music scene is a shallow topsoil above inconsistently moving plates. It actively resists the setting down of roots. I’m tired, exhausted, eager to return, but scared what I find when I get back will be equally alien.