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The Arts

Destroy All Rock Stars

Surprise! Japanese Rock Goes Over the Top

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Anime-niacs: (from left) Dancer Hiroe Yoshinaga, singer Yoko Ishida, and dancer Yuriko Hayashi bring the Japanese Parapara craze to Baltimore.
(Clockwise from bottom) R. Dorothy Wainwright as Niko Chan, Mike Burgtorf as Auron, and Adam Smiley as Ryonga Hibito
Otakon-ventioneers cut an interactive electronic rug

By Josephine Yun | Posted 8/7/2002

It's a Saturday night in early July, and 19-year-old Ming is being told to lie on the bed and look sultry in a San Francisco hotel room. She is in the room with three strangers. One is wearing a floor-length dress and long black-vinyl gloves. One is wearing a T-shirt reading FALLEN ANGEL. One wields a camera.

This is not a porno shoot about to happen. It's a mini-convention of people from the United States and Asia who first met through an Internet message board. Ming flew in from Singapore. "Fallen Angel" Aki drove up from Los Angeles. Bunny, of the black vinyl, is from Kansas, and Kat, a Jersey girl, has the camera.

"Look sultry for Gackt!" Click. Ming grins and pats the covers by her side, saying something--namely, Gackt--is missing. Click.

Not to be confused with Gak, the neon green slime that Nickelodeon marketed in the 1990s, Gackt is an extremely effeminate and quirky Japanese musician. He is known for his painstaking attention to detail in composing his music, and for his eerie resemblance to various video-game characters (Final Fantasy's Squall Leonhart and Castlevania's Alucard among them). Asian mothers envy his perfect, sometimes dramatic makeup. And he is part of a music genre that has begun to catch the ears of alternative-music listeners as an alternative to the alternative.

It is called Japanese rock, or J-rock--a vinyl-bound, bright-wigged, cross-dressing world where focus is placed on performance, presentation, and entertainment along with musicianship. Other J-rock bands and artists include Dir en grey, Takui, Sex Machineguns, X-Japan, Pierrot, Malice Mizer, and Luna Sea.

J-rock's sound ranges from what might fairly be described as experimental to good old-fashioned rock. Takui smacks of Rob Zombie, Iron Maiden, and Guns 'n' Roses. Malice Mizer twists a classical thread through its music. And Gackt--well, he decided to use 120 different samples in his latest single, "Dooms day,"in addition to his normal setup of guitars, bass, and drums.

One-hundred and twenty samples for one song may sound excessive, but everything about J-rock is over the top. At first glance, it resembles a spin-off of British glam rock and heavily teased '80s American hard rock. But while the glam and hair-metal scenes were slightly sleazy celebrations of a testosterone-charged id tarted up, J-rock is highly imaginative and theatrical. The whole splendiferous package creates an ethereal aesthetic that appeals to girls and guys, gays and bis, young and old. (Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is a self-proclaimed fan of the band X-Japan.)

"The inventiveness and creativity [in J-rock] sets it apart from much of the English rock I listen to," Aki says. "Unlike newer English rock bands who all look and sound similar, it's easy to define these artists by their music and visual style."

For East Coast fans of East Asian culture, Baltimore hosted its own, slightly larger gathering July 26 to 28 at the Baltimore Convention Center. Otakon attracted nearly 13,000 fans buzzing/humming amid 28 acres of Japanese animation (anime), Hong Kong and Korean films, J-rock, J-pop, video gaming, role-playing, cosplay (costuming), and karaoke.

The swelling popularity of anime and cosplay in particular contributes to J-rock's appeal in North America. The three are inextricably linked. J-rock band L'Arc~en~Ciel's first Japanese hit, "Blurry Eyes," was the opening song to the anime series DNA^2. Another L'Arc~en~Ciel song, "Fourth Avenue Cafe," closed the Rurouni Kenshin series. Gackt, in one of his photo books, is outfitted in plain samurai garb--the perfect Kenshin. During his stint as the vocalist of the J-rock band Malice Mizer, Gackt wore enormous, black-feathered wings, looking like a character out of Angel Sanctuary. He even refers to Squall Leonhart as "Gackt No. 2."

The crossover between anime and J-rock starts before the former ever hits the screen. When an anime movie or series is slated for production in Japan, a music studio is often contracted separately to do the soundtrack. (In the United States, the production studio controls every aspect of an animated project.) Both the music and anime producers want a hit. If the anime is good, it sells. If the soundtrack is good, it sells. Fans of the soundtrack check out the anime and vice versa. "People have actually launched their [music] careers by doing anime soundtracks," says Gilles Poitras, author of The Anime Companion and guest speaker at Otakon. "So it works in both directions."

The other reason the J-rock scene is growing in the States is the consistent inventiveness of the product. Each artist has a unique style, but so does each band member. J-rockers constantly create new personae for themselves--the theatricality never ends. And J-rock fans are akin to anime fans in their love for dressing up in costumes that approximate those of their favorite characters/artists as closely as possible. "If you're an anime fan, you've got to get the best [costume]," Poitras says. "It's not a matter of wanting it--you've got to have it." Same for J-rock.

It all makes for a very colorful weekend. Morning rain plastered the cosplayers lined up on Pratt Street when Otakon opened Friday, July 26, but attendees were undaunted. The day was packed with events, performances, panels, and shopping. The Japanese music-video program began with videos from Ayumi Hamasaki (Japan's version of Madonna) and Morning Musume--a perpetually happy, 13-member girl group prancing in saris--and concluded with a Gackt tour video, which included dancing cats and tigers.

Saturday afternoon boasted the anime music-video contest, wherein fans reset their favorite animes to their favorite songs. This year's entries included Angelic Layer set to System of a Down, Dragonball Z to Scatman John, and Cowboy Bebop to Kylie Minogue, to name a few. But Saturday's highlight was the masquerade, a full-on fan production of dress up and performance. It was laced with shonen-ai (boy-love) nuances--skits with pretty young men showing affection for one another, a popular anime theme--and was a hit. It's not often that you get to see a golden, glittery, three-headed dragon (Mecha King Ghidra, from Godzilla) lip-synching Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" or a beauty pageant featuring the entire cast of the anime Sailor Moon.

On Sunday, anime-soundtrack fans and dancing fiends got a treat when singer Yoko Ishida performed with ParaPara dancers Yuriko Hayashi and Hiroe Yoshinaga. (ParaPara is a major dance/music craze in Japan--think the Macarena squished with the Electric Slide.) Among other songs, Ishida sang remixed themes to the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam Wing in her clear, sprightly voice.

In the hallways, Ishida--color-coordinated in teal nail polish, a rhinestone-spattered teal shirt with ruffled sleeves, and bell-bottomed jeans decorated with tiny bullet holes--was stopped regularly for autographs and photo ops. But you don't have to be a celebrity to get your photo taken at Otakon; cosplayers get stopped by conventiongoers too. A lot. There are people in nondescript suits or kimonos dressed as some minor character from some anime. There are ninjas and servbots. There are samurai, Goth angels, and cat-boys. Even Jesus was spotted on the third floor. Then there are the J-rock cosplayers, elaborate in their ruffles, bright red (or blue or purple) hair, chains, and vinyl platform boots. Between the decked out Final Fantasy costumes and J-rock outfits, sometimes it's hard to tell who's who. And they're all taking each other's picture.

"Sometimes [anime and J-rock characters] copy each other," Ming says. "No one actually knows for sure who is copying who anyway. The image and the physical looks of these characters or people seem to converge at some point. It's the feeling of being larger than life."

Otakon itself has become larger than life. Started in 1994 when about 350 anime fans met at Penn State University, it has grown to include a wide array of Asian pop life. "Anime's becoming the doorway for people to discover broader aspects of Japanese culture," Poitras says. "People get into it because it's fun--more than sufficient justification."

With karaoke bars, gaming conventions, Asian-film festivals, and anime conventions springing up all over the country, it would seem a J-rock convention is next in line. Only two of the girls from the San Francisco Gackt gathering made it to Otakon, but J-rock CDs moved quickly in the dealer's room. That's the thing about fans of Asian pop culture--they're proactive. If their needs aren't met, count on them to do something about it. J-rock fans are no exception. Posters to the Gackt online message board want to arrange a rendezvous in Japan next fall.

"J-rock is where I went when American music had let me down and even J-pop was getting to be too generic," Bunny says. "It's like my sanctuary."

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