Japan The Beats: Kuusoku
"Hip-hop and R&B have penetrated Japanese society so thoroughly they've become important means of self-identification even for their marginal elements."

Thanks to a mix of language barriers and cultural stereotypes, most ‘heads think Japanese hip-hop is derivative, silly, or downright racist. But the emerging Japanese underground is pumping out excellent, innovative tracks that deserve to be heard around the world. Japan The Beats highlights the best of these releases and tells the stories behind them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Japanese culture in the 21st century, it’s that the good stuff is hard to find. If you just turn on the TV or radio, or walk among the competing commercials that occupy every 20-foot-high screen in Shibuya, all you’re likely to encounter are manufactured girl groups, sentimental romantic movies, and bland chain izakaya. In music specifically, because of hierarchical industry structures, lower internet penetration, and outright corruption infiltrating entities like the pop charts, Japan’s independent and underground scene is starkly sequestered from the mainstream, both in terms of direct visibility and more subtle matters of aesthetic influence. And if you think this is just the way it is the world over, I’d invite you to compare Japanese top-sellers AKB48 with current US chart ruler Lady Gaga and tell me which you’d rather have piped into your brain by the pop machine (leaving aside the never-in-Japan wonders of seeing Tyler, The Creator and Panda Bear on network television).

The recent dominance of the bland and watered-down in Japanese popular culture includes not just music, but also film. Japanese productions are now mostly split between nostalgia-fueled (and vaguely nationalistic) family dramas and big-budget, low-brow effects movies (including the explicitly nationalistic Space Battleship Yamato). While there are exceptions in the world of animation (Satoshi Kon and Hayao Miyazaki) and genre film (Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata), the industry’s lack of imagination has left Japanese film unable in recent years to garner international recognition on the level of even much smaller countries like Korea or Iran.

The half-dozen writers, directors, and producers that make up the collective Kuzoku (“Sky Tribe”) believe that what’s keeping Japanese movies from being great is an unwillingness to engage with difficult truths about Japanese society — and they’ve set out to do the work others won’t. Inspired by the New Hollywood of the 1970s and by the underworld documentaries of Mitsuo Yanagimachi (God Speed You! Black Emperor), they’ve spent the last 10 years shooting grimy, cinéma vérité films set in the economically depressed outlying prefecture of Yamanashi, as well as some in Southeast Asia. Their interlinked films depict a Japan even many Japanese never see, one of desperate working-class strivers, abused immigrant laborers, and international vice trade. Instead of the sensational theatricality that characterizes most Japanese crime films, Kuzoku movies such as Kokudou Nijuugou Sen [Off Highway 20] show the far less romantic reality: that crime, drugs, and prostitution are inevitable when a country treats huge numbers of its people as disposable.

Off Highway 20 is set in the world of Yankii and chinpira — literally “little pricks.” These are the small-time criminals who aspire to someday join the yakuza but they’re mostly too bumbling, uneducated, and impulsive to fit into that highly regimented and refined world. The antihero of Highway 20 dabbles in small-time larceny, but it mixes poorly with his addictions to pachinko and huffing spray paint. Before things dribble to a pathetic and grisly halt, we get to see the passions of today’s down-and-out Japanese losers in subtle detail, from an infatuation with R&B singer Namie Amuro to the rising tide of hip-hop-inspired “V.I.P.” style in car detailing and bling-bling dress.

(Yes, this is about hip-hop after all!) Hip-hop and R&B have penetrated Japanese society so thoroughly they’ve become important means of self-identification even for their marginal elements, with a powerful impact on how they interact with society as a whole. As explained to me by Kuzoku’s central figures, Katsuya Tomita and Toranosuke Aizawa, the central theme of Highway 20 is the decline of the anti-authoritarian, rock-inspired dropout culture of biker gangs and delinquents who dominated through the 1970s and 80s, and its slow replacement with a hip-hop ethos more nakedly aspirational, envious of wealth, and willing to get it by any means necessary. Aside from the Amuro reference, there’s the odd depiction of a Yakuza driver in full hip-hop gear — oversized jersey, sneakers, and ball cap — escorting his more traditional, black-suited boss. Their paint-huffing protagonist is too rock and not enough hip-hop, and with no hustler’s spirit, he falls by the wayside all too easily.

“Past giants like Kurosawa and Ozu could be brutal or subtle, literal, or metaphorical, but their work always grappled with the upheaval of society between the end of the war and the start of the ‘Bubble.’”

What underlies this theme — the gap between the haves and the have-nots that created Yankii subculture in the first place — is just what has kept Kuzoku out of the mainstream of Japanese cinema. According to Aizawa and Tomita, the topics that most interest them — poverty, ethnic subcultures, and the serious problems confronting such groups — are studiously avoided in Japanese public discussion. The more time I spend in Japan, the less credit I give to theories of ‘cultural difference’ between Japan and, for instance, America, but this is a clear contrast. America has a full-blown obsession with its own margins, particularly ethnic and sexual minorities, but also the mentally ill (see Hoarders, Celebrity Rehab) and to a lesser extent the economic bottom strata (Teen Mom, Dirty Jobs). The conversations we have are often dysfunctional — particularly the conversation about class — but they still seem much preferable to the situation in Japan, where debates over these issues rarely rise above a barely heard whisper.

Take immigration, which Kuuzoku tackle in their forthcoming film, Saudade, opening in Japan in October. The film, whose title is Portuguese for “longing,” explores the odd situation of the so-called Nikkei. The Nikkei are descendants of Japanese who emigrated to South America — primarily Brazil, but also Peru — over a century ago. During the late 80s and early 90s, Japan experienced serious labor shortages, and the government began aggressively recruiting South Americans of Japanese descent, in part due to the all-too-common perception that Japanese blood would make it easier for these people, raised in an entirely different culture and mostly speaking no Japanese, to integrate into Japanese society.

Saudade promises to illustrate just what a disaster that policy has been for almost everyone involved. The Nikkei mostly ended up in dirty, dangerous, and underpaying jobs, and partly because of the “Japanese blood” mythology, weren’t given any help integrating into Japanese society. Tomita estimates that when they were doing research for the film among Nikkei communities in Yamanashi prefecture, less than 40% of the Nikkei they met spoke Japanese.

But what’s most disturbing about the immigration issue is that… it’s hardly an issue at all. The Japanese right wing, like conservatives of all nations, opposes immigration and multiculturalism (and considers even Brazilians of Japanese descent to be foreigners), but their job is much easier here than in Europe or the US. Many Japanese may be entirely unaware of the Nikkei population, particularly because they tend to be far more isolated than, say, the Zainichi Japanese-Koreans and Chinese immigrant workers so frequently visible in Tokyo and other large cities. But Tomita said even those who are aware aren’t likely to really engage with the issue, preferring instead to turn a willful blind eye. It almost makes me nostalgic for the fierce American debates about border fences and the like from a few years back — at least Americans who oppose immigration go to the trouble of acknowledging it.

With Saudade, which seems likely to get American distribution by early 2012, Kuzoku hope to chip away at the conspiracy of silence surrounding immigration in Japan. The film will also hopefully convey how immigration is just one part of the larger issues of economic justice and personal freedom affecting all Japanese people. This will partly be through hip-hop’s large role in the film, represented by the Japanese group Stillichimiya and Nikkei rappers. Stillichimiya show the displacement and alienation of the Nikkei has its parallel for those born and raised in Japan. Their name is a tribute to the Ichimiya district in which they were born and raised, but which was erased from the map through a government-imposed restructuring. By declaring they are “Still Ichimiya,” they’re preserving the memory of something uniquely theirs that was taken away by those in power.

This makes them much like the Nikkei, many of whom are now financially trapped in a Japan that views them with increasing hostility. They work to preserve some memory of a Brazil, which they consider their true home, despite varying amounts of Japanese blood. In the process of doing background research for Saudade, Kuzoku recorded hours and hours of footage of interviews in Yamanashi, which they recently compiled into a loose-knit documentary called Furusato 2009. The documentary shows the network of Brazilian schools catering to Nikkei children, concerts featuring Brazilian music, and the difficult labor that keeps the Nikkei community alive, if barely.

” Instead of the sensational theatricality that characterizes most Japanese crime films, Kuzoku movies such as Off Highway 20 show the far less romantic reality: that crime, drugs, and prostitution are inevitable when a country treats huge numbers of its people as disposable.”

What’s great about Kuzoku’s work so far is that, while the filmmakers are explicit regarding their desire to start conversations and make people think, they’re first and foremost making good films. Off Highway 20 has a mounting sense of blasé dread that perfectly captures the texture of a dead-end loser’s life. The actors are amateurs, friends from Yamanashi whom have only appeared in Kuzoku films and still lead lives very close to the grim and grinding world they’re fictionalizing. The deadpan performances, with none of the patently false histrionics of Hollywood or Japanese productions, hit with sledgehammer bluntness; there are few things more shocking than seeing someone huff spray paint with as little flair as they would smoke a cigarette.

The film’s success lies in a contradictory maxim: there’s nothing more universal than specificity. Recent Japanese films (and more broadly, non-otaku pop culture) have had limited international appeal, not because they aren’t “international” enough, but because they can’t come to grips with the specific problems of Japan. As Aizawa and Tomita see it, Japanese society has simply lost the fortitude to confront its serious internal problems, whether in art or politics. This hasn’t always been the case: Past giants like Kurosawa and Ozu could be brutal or subtle, literal or metaphorical, but their work always grappled with the upheaval of society between the end of the war and the start of the “Bubble.” That was a time of tribulation, full of transformations to family and work relationships that people needed help understanding and coming to terms with.

The post-bubble period has been less tumultuous, characterized instead by a slow descent from hyperconfident hysteria to gloomy pessimism. Maybe the subtlety of the situation, and its shadowy, inconsistent impact on national consciousness, helps explain why the Japanese mainstream hasn’t been able to apply to it the interpretive lens of art. Kuzoku may be telling very specific stories about apparently small subcultures, but they’ve chanced upon a stunningly truthful mirror for the ailments of Japanese society as a whole — and moreover, for the mounting problems, and maybe the latent possibilities, of many of today’s so-called developed nations.

Off Highway 20 has screened at film festivals internationally. Saudade will enter general Japanese release in October of 2011, and will be touring the international festival circuit soon. News about domestic and international screenings is available, in Japanese and some English, at www.kuzoku.com. More information about Stillichimiya can be found at www.hoodtality.com. David Morris blogs about the Japanese culture industries and Japanese hip-hop at mindslikeknives.blogspot.com.