Turning Japanese

Thunder rumbles in the distance, growing closer at an alarming rate. From my window, I watch as clouds of hot pink and powder-blue smoke fill the Seattle skyline. Suddenly, a series of seismic tremors rocks my apartment. I race out into the panic-filled streets. A giant with two heads, each sprouting a pair of frizzy pigtails, blots out the sun. Just before I’m blinded by twin Ultra-Brite smiles, I realize what’s causing the earthquake—the monster’s mechanical yet precisely executed dance steps. Sightless and terrified, I open my mouth to cry for help, but the chatter that emerges sounds alien. The words don’t even synch up with my lips, except for one . . .


I sit bolt upright in bed, my heart pounding. I frantically scan the books on my nightstand, reassured to find them still printed in English. Having conquered commonplace anxiety dreams like arriving at the office party stark naked, I now find my subconscious cowed into submission by recurring visions of something (seemingly) even more inane, yet far more unsettling: The world of Japanese pop music.

In a preemptive strike against the IRS, I recently accepted a lucrative but back-breaking assignment to create US promotional materials for half a dozen artists from the Land of the Rising Sun. For 10 days, I’ve done nothing but eat, sleep, and—most importantly—write about J-Pop. Friends call to check up on me, and all I do is babble about Love Love Straw, Supercar, and Puffy. Especially Puffy. I feel like Dracula’s henchman Renfield, running around cackling “The master is coming”—except that my “master” is a pair of near-identical, twentysomething singing sensations, and instead of insects I’m frantically popping Hello Kitty melon sours into my mouth.

I’ve never visited Japan. Based on descriptions from friends who’ve made the trek, Tokyo would fry my circuit board. They liken the city’s energy to playing simultaneous games of 3-D chess on crystal meth or watching Koyaanisqatsi while holding down the fast-forward button. But back in the dim days before digesting so many of this country’s best bands had pickled my brain like a plate of salty-sweet oshinko, the Japanese music scene already fascinated me on myriad levels.

First, there was the ardent devotion to Western gems that Americans had already discarded or passed over. Hip-hop maestro DJ Krush was collaborating with Mos Def and the Roots years before anyone in the US mainstream caught on to their skills. Believe it or not, there was a day before Pizzicato 5 inked their deal with Matador Records when you could still purchase “exotica” and “lounge” LPs for pennies at any Goodwill store. Looking for a CD by an obscure new wave icon—say Everything Could Be So Perfect . . ., the sole 1985 album by overwrought chanteuse Anne Pigalle? You’ll find it waiting at Tokyo HMV.

The Japanese also seem to excel at refining our exports. Sure, seminal punk act the Plastics sucked by the time they reached US shores—that’s because they’d rerecorded their zany originals with a British producer. Listen to the CD reissue of their 1980 Japanese album Origato, and you’ll discover the missing link between Devo and the B-52’s. Last summer, after I’d given up hope of ever hearing a big-name house DJ play with soul again, a stunning London set by Satoshi Tomiie (responsible for the 1989 classic “Tears”) turned my head around. Throwing eerie curveballs like “Darkness” into the mix, his forthcoming Full Lick (due in April on Columbia) provides a refreshing reminder that dance music doesn’t have to be hands-in-the-air crap at all times.

Practitioners of what they call “Nouvell Vintage Rock,” Tokyo girl group Puffy has torn one tiny corner off our musical history—classic ’50s and ’60s pop rock—and translated it into superstardom. They’re recycling sonic material that’s already been picked over by everyone from the Stray Cats to Jellyfish, but their singles sell in the millions, they host their own variety show, and they star in TV commercials for everything from beer to moisturizer. And that’s just at home. They’re also one of the biggest acts throughout Asia; mint-condition Puffy dolls sell for obscenely inflated prices on the Hong Kong black market.

Much as their records intoxicate me, I’ll admit that defending Puffy’s musical integrity is nigh impossible (that is, when I’m not on their payroll). But even though they’re completely prefabricated, something sounds way more sincere about these women than, say, that Cherry Poppin’ Daddies knock-off—or is it a knock-off?—promoting the February FOX lineup. Who cares that for all I know Puffy’s gleefully singing, “We will enslave your children and steal your money, stupid American bastards!” If I must witness a nation brought to its knees by a senseless monster named Puffy twice in my life, at least this time around I know the deed is being performed with demure charm, impeccable manners, and much better choreography.