The history of Japanese rock music is essentially a history of ambivalence toward American cultural imperialism, of restive acceptance of its entrance into the Japanese collective consciousness. At the one end, the majority of beloved genres in Japan (J-rock, Japanoise, onkyokei, hardcore) have their roots in Western templates, in commodified forms that were imported into the country in much the same way that (Anglo-Saxon) democracy was forcibly imported into the country as part of the post-war Occupation (1945-52). At the other, this seemingly unproblematic adoption is tempered by a constant hint of resistance and antipathy, of making sure that even with an all-but compulsory accedence to American/Western frameworks of modernity there still remains something recognizably Japanese about their mass conformity. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, and both before and beyond then, notable cultural and political figures have embodied this latter friction in their outputs, with authors like Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe, and Yukio Mishima; politicians like Shinzo Abe and Shintaro Ishihara; and artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshinori Kobayashi, expressing in florid and impassioned terms the often flattening inroads of Americanization and in turn the need to preserve a distinct national identity.
And it’s into this tradition of conflicted reverence for Western models that we can slot Gezan, another crazed Tokyo outfit that reconfigures the stylings of Anglo-American rock subgenres into their own delirious negation. The four-piece have been cultivating a homebound notoriety for a bonkers live set since their inception in 2009, garnering plaudits from some of the acts (Melt-Banana, Ruins, Acid Mothers Temple) whose faithful desecration of rock trademarks they’ve taken it upon themselves to extend into the second decade of the 21st century. More importantly, their accolades are fully justified by the pulverizing, anything-goes caprice of It Was Said to Be A Song, a debut LP that found a domestic release in 2012 and that begins its flight into barely contained insanity with the Babel of “Full Claw Lunar Surface.” Here, scathing guitar fireworks are pockmarked by non-sequiturs into feral tape manipulation and industrial rap, the high-pitched braying and fluid pendulations from 7/8 into 8/8 exuding a volatility that’s mouth-watering precisely to the extent that, like with so many great Japanese bands, it refuses to swear wholesale fealty to externally-imposed conventions and dictates of taste.
In other words, It Was Said to Be A Song can be read as another demented sweep of how Japan has managed to assimilate itself to the enforced American outlines of a post-war world order (including the consumer culture represented here by the quaint Sunday sport known as “rock”) while simultaneously assuaging itself that this assimilation and its confines actually allow a little space for them to reconstruct a vestige of Japanese individuality, autonomy, and exceptionalism. Maybe that’s taking things too far, but this kind of capitulation that includes its own contradictory nugget of self-assertion has a history stemming at least as far back as Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech of August 15, 1945, when his concession of inferiority before the brutal power of two atomic bombs included an apology to other Asian nations for Japan’s failure to liberate them from the incursions of Western expansionism1. But if the album bears the historically- and culturally-stamped imprint of this submission-cum-passive defiance, profane shitstorms like the scatty punk of “Mishima Lipstick” and the mish-mashed psychedelic post-rock of “Beetle Tongue” demonstrate how Gezan have come to “own” their non-negotiable inheritance, in that they wield its hallmarks to a much greater, more frenzied effect than many of the Western bands from whom they can be alleged to have taken stock.
As a consequence of this rabid energy, Gezan display how the various musical forms and mythologies that have been shipped into their country are simply frameworks that don’t necessarily “belong” to any one nation and that can be expropriated to work at least as much to their advantage as to anyone else’s (and anyway, the notion that rock is Anglo-American becomes nonsensical when reminded of the fact that rock derives from the blues, and that the blues ultimately has its source in Africa). This is analogous to how the Western economic model and its implantation into Japan eventually resulted in the nation becoming a genuine threat to American capitalistic predominance during the 1980s2, and while it would be an exaggeration to claim that It Was Said to Be A Song is ever going to conquer the world, it’s hard not to listen to “Full Reconciliation Beetle,” with its skulking bass, fits of discordance, and final breach into muscular psychobilly, without thinking that control and discipline in rock are just a teeny bit overrated.
Hearing an eccentric ruckus like “Full Reconciliation Beetle,” it might be tempting for the uninitiated to simply laugh or even scoff at Gezan, as if the band neither have any idea of how to play music “properly” or of how comical they almost uniformally sound. But this is to miss one of the central thrusts to both It Was Said to Be A Song and Japanese music of its ilk, which is that, aside from the political ramifications already introduced, it manically provides what can be considered a doting parody of how ridiculous the earnestness of so many insanely self-involved Western bands already seems to their Eastern ears. Which is why we have the wildly histrionic screams of the hardcore “Man,” tonsil-grazing expulsions that alternate with the childlike lullabies of the digitally fractured verse, this counterpoint potentially suggesting the laughable juvenility of all musical piety and catharsis, as well as furnishing a testament to how ridicule of American intrusions is one way to evade the despair of having to indulge them on a daily basis in order to earn your bread.
Given the singular loopiness of such an orgy, or of the caffeinated techno-grind of “Doddoril Blues,” it may not come as much of a surprise to learn that the album sheds some of its personality and power during the couple of tracks that appear to lavish too much fidelity on familiar Western structures and approaches. “Resonance” is a doomy lurch that, even in its buried, regionally non-specific vocals, does little to screw around with its foreign blueprint; and closer “Knee In The Spring” is a maudlin, indie power ballad of sorts that, while endearingly pretty, throws few if any curveballs. But aside from these two minor lulls, It Was Said to Be A Song is every part the one-finger salute to its own points of departure, an album that ripples with the tension of more than half a century of the complex relationship between Japan and its not-quite-entirely former American occupiers, and that tirelessly continues the maintenance of a unique idenity that so much of the Asian nation’s ambiguous culture, art, and politics had begun forging very long ago. And above all, it’s just freaking nuts.
1. Roy Starrs, Modernism and Japanese Culture, (2011; London, Palgrave Macmillan), p. 184.
2. America was concerned enough by Japan’s ascendence for Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel to publish Japan as Number One: Lessons for America in 1979, and Japan itself was flattered enough by this apparent turning of the tables to make the book the all-time best-selling non-fiction book by a Western author.
Additional Note: Gezan’s second album is already available on import from Japan.