From Shonen Knife to Guitar Wolf, these 10 bands define Japan’s punk scene
The Star Club, G.I.S.M., Teengenerate and many others created brutal, catchy, punk rock in Japan.May 12, 2022
The screen fades in from black to a grainy, high-speed chase through an urban landscape, all jerky camerawork and streaky lights, flickering between night and day. The lens finally settles on a water plant or oil refinery rushing by, cutting to details of a speeding motorcycle carrying a pair of riders who resemble Mad Max extras. Then comes a quick cut to a vintage black Camaro, accelerating at a similar clip. Another quick cut inside finds three Yakuza members discussing how the streets are now quiet, driven by a rocker type in head-to-toe leather. The motorcycle and its sidecar nearly force the Camaro off the road as it rounds a corner, coming to a halt before a map bears the legend “Special Protected Waterway District — 304.” The Mad Max sorts glare at it, before it bursts into flames.
Jumpcut to handheld cameras walking through a stylized punk neighborhood, all burning oil barrels, filthy corrugated metal and puddling concrete. It dissolves into a montage of Japanese punks preparing for a night out — applying makeup and hairspray, swallowing pills, tuning guitars and adjusting accessories.
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Quick cut to heavy leather boots walking on a vintage Beatles poster. The camera reveals leather-clad rockers walking to a stage, a bass player smashing a bare electric light bulb with his instrument’s headstock. After a brief credits sequence, the musicians are onstage, counting in a frantic approximation of the overdriven rhythm and blues that was the specialty of mid-’60s British bands such as the Yardbirds. The guttural Japanese lyrics translate to phrases like “Oh, it’s impossible to forget the taste of the syringe, see?/It makes me feel like this world is just savage in nature.” The camera work approximates and heightens the chaotic energy of the musicians and audience alike.
This is the first 10 minutes of Burst City, a 1982 dystopian proto-cyberpunk fantasy directed by Gakuryū Ishii. A striking, action-packed film, it provides a compressed snapshot of Japan’s punk scene up to that point. The many Battle of the Bands sequences feature a fictional group called the Battle Rockers, composed of real-life members of the Rockers and the Roosters, plus the classic lineup of the Stalin, chaotic legends who bridged the 1977 sound and hardcore.
Japan had its own punk scene akin to New York and London. Though NYC bands held significant sway, Britain held primary dominion over Japanese punk both musically and fashion-wise. Though the Japanese appreciated punk’s liberation of music from the hands of the traditionally talented, the late ‘70s bands favored the tunefulness of the Clash while rendering it in an excessively gruff manner. Just picture the Clash with the aggression knob cranked to 12, then broken off, as Joe Strummer screams Japanese lyrics through vocal cords that were fed through a Mixmaster. Except the song titles are generally in English. Once hardcore arrived in the early ‘80s, the nation’s HC outfits were the speediest and most guttural on the planet.
Japan even enjoyed a protopunk scene in the early ‘70s. Kyoto’s Murahachibu served as a homegrown combination of New York Dolls/Stooges, playing a Stones-damaged hard glam. Zuno Keisatsu (Brain Police), from the Kanto region, played politically charged boogie a la early ‘70s U.K. radicals Third World War and the Edgar Broughton Band. Aligned with the student protest movement that worried the Japanese establishment, Zuno Keisatsu’s radicalism frequently attracted the wrong kind of attention from the government.
The Star Club
The Star Club formed in Nagoya in April 1977, moving their base to Tokyo 10 years later. Which makes them Japan’s longest-lived punk band, if not the nation’s first. The one constant through seemingly endless lineup changes is singer Hikage, a Japanese punk icon. (Guitarist ToruXXX, however, has served two tours of duty, initially from 1990-1993, then returning in 2012 to the present.) They possibly pioneered the guttural yet tuneful 1978 Clash/Pistols musical style with rawer vocals/Japanese lyrics/English titles that characterize most classic Japanese punk. Their many studio albums are uniformly well produced, full of good tight songwriting, strong musicianship and anthemic U.K. 1977 power. They are geared to release new studio work soon, followed by spending much of the year on the road, celebrating their 45th anniversary.
Anarchy were reportedly teenage bōsōzoku (“bikers,” in English) turned punk rockers, part of the Tokyo Rockers movement. Formed in 1978 to compete in a Yamaha-sponsored battle of the bands competition, their debut album アナーキー sold millions of copies, propelling them to the forefront of Japanese punk. Anarchy have been active on and off over the years, seemingly reforming in 2020. A two-night anniversary celebration that year shows their raw power undiminished.
Formed in 1980 by charismatic vocalist Michirō Endō, the Stalin became one of Japan’s most influential punk bands. To truly tap into the group’s core nature, it’s important to understand Endō’s reasoning behind their moniker: “The name Stalin is very hated by most people in Japan, so it is very good for our image.” A Vietnam vet and committed socialist, he immersed himself into the idea of total chaos as performance — provoking fights with random audience members, hurling severed pig heads and human feces from the stage, etc. Their Burst City appearance and classic 1982 album Stop Jap bridged the haywire rock ‘n’ roll energy of early punk outfits such as Dead Boys with new hardcore sounds. After leading several iterations of the Stalin, Endō died April 25, 2019, aged 68, from pancreatic cancer.
In a nation noted for the brutality of both its punk and hardcore scenes, Tokyo’s G.I.S.M. were the most barbaric and lo-fi hardcore Japan had to offer. They’re primarily known in the West for the track “Endless Blockades for the Pussyfooter,” featured on M.D.C.’s 1984 P.E.A.C.E. compilation. 1983’s Detestation album, which also featured “Endless Blockades,” is wall-to-wall, nonstop fuzz, widdly heavy-metal guitar solos and lead vocals that sound as if they were recorded by tuberculosis patients. Breaking up in 2001, G.I.S.M. reformed in 2016 to play Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands, and stayed active until this year.
Sweet, childlike and rockin’ in a Jonathan Richman-esque manner, Osaka’s Shonen Knife have been charming the international pop underground since 1981. Still centered around founders Naoko Yamano on vocals and guitar and her sister Atsuko Yamano on drums and backing vocals, they are exactly what you might imagine a kindergarten edition of Buzzcocks might sound like, with lyrics in English and Japanese about food and pop culture. Thanks to a deadly cult following that features such luminaries as the entire memberships of huge alternative bands such as Sonic Youth and Redd Kross, Shonen Knife might be the best-known Japanese punk export worldwide.
The Blue Hearts
Best known for “Linda Linda,” the heartbreakingly infectious tune that gave modern-day riot grrrls the Linda Lindas their name, the Blue Hearts were all that many people in the U.S. knew of Japanese punk rock in the early ‘90s. Active for 10 years, beginning in 1985, the quartet were driving ‘77 revivalists strongly rooted in 1950s doo-wop melodies. Imagine Generation X playing live on the floor of Arnold’s malt shop on Happy Days. Sadly, their numerous releases are absent from most streaming services, though a three-hour-plus playlist is available on YouTube.
Then came Teengenerate, the Tokyo-based garage-punk phoenix rising in 1993 from the ashes of ‘80s Stooge-niks American Soul Spiders. The whole of Japanese punk was transformed, going international in ways it never had before. Centered around singing/guitar-playing brothers Fifi and Fink, Teengenerate took late ‘80s/early ‘90s New Yorkers the Devil Dogs’ habit of intensifying the Heartbreakers/Dictators/Killed By Death blueprint and making it more intense. Louder, faster, harder but still highly melodic — this is the Japanese punk way. They became worldwide garage-punk heroes on the back of their insanely energetic performances and their ultra-lo-fi recordings. However, they were only active for four years, counting a brief 2005 reactivation. 1995’s Get Action! remains a living, breathing raunch classic.
Tokyo trio Guitar Wolf predate Teengenerate by several years, their 1987 origination making them contemporaries of American Soul Spiders. Their continued service means they have outlived Teengenerate by several years. They mixed several similar influences — Link Wray’s ultra-distorted instrumental ‘50s rockabilly, Stooges/MC5-style Detroit protopunk, Ramones/Thunders-style ‘70s punk — and added Joan Jett’s basic black-leather glam-punk. Guitar Wolf managed to be even more crude, aggressive and lo-fi than everybody else. And they continue to do so to the present.
They may be best-known for the live performance preceding modern cinema’s most notorious bloodbath in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1. But the 126.96.36.199’s have managed the neat hat-trick of being even more popular and charming international Japanese punk ambassadors than Shonen Knife. Yet the 188.8.131.52’s are nowhere near as demure as Shonen Knife. As guitarist/frontwoman Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama indicated to The Japan Times in an article commemorating their Beijing shoot with Tarantino’s crew in 2003, “I like Chuck Berry and we wanted that sound, but we wanted to deconstruct rock ‘n’ roll into punk music by using distortion and noise and screaming.” Sounds like as good a description of Japanese punk as any.
Thee Michelle Gun Elephant
Thee Michelle Gun Elephant benefitted from the early ‘00s commercial garage explosion. Named for a mispronunciation of the title of the Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette album, TMGE’s R&B-flavored punk assault felt like Dr. Feelgood being mugged by Motörhead. Tighter, more skilled and better recorded than most of their contemporaries, albums such as 1998’s exemplary Gear Blues made them stars in their homeland, beloved everywhere else. Performing their farewell show in 2003, guitarist Futoshi Abe’s tragic 2009 death of an acute hematoma has ensured they will not soon reform.