Wagakki Band deploy traditional Japanese instruments at dazzling speed to stay ahead of the future, says Clive Bell
“Wagakki” simply means Japanese instruments, and the eight members of Wagakki Band fill the stage with them: the chunky tsugaru shamisen, koto and shakuhachi are joined by a rig of taiko drums, boosted by rock guitar, bass and regular drum kit. Singer Yuko Suzuhana flails fans as she spins across the stage, but everyone involved is just as hyperactive. Daisuke Kaminaga, his face half covered in kanji tattoos, raises his shakuhachi to the heavens like an ecstatic trumpeter in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. When not being blown, the bamboo flute spins around his black-varnished fingernails as if morphing into a martial arts weapon. At one point he executes a trill by manically quivering his whole right hand, before shooting his arm skywards as the phrase climaxes. It’s a shock to see the shakuhachi, that tool of spiritual exploration and inner calm, employed in showboating heroics of the kind associated with V-shaped electric guitars.
Kaminaga is almost certainly the shakuhachi player who is currently reaching the widest audience. In September Wagakki undertook their first Japanese tour, playing ten sold-out dates in fairly large venues. But their online presence is also crucial. The video for “Ikusa” finds them in a field of tall grass, a location familiar from samurai films, where shadowy fighters hold severed heads aloft in tasteful silhouette. However, their recent piece “Akatsukino Ito” turbocharges the imagery up several levels: Wagakki are playing inside a huge wooden temple, suspended, Lord Of The Rings-style, in the clouds. As the tune lurches from metal epic ballad into sugar-rush prog, a colossal dragon swoops down upon the group. Whether friend or foe, dragons that size don’t come cheap, and the production budget surely leaves everyone else’s video cowering in fear. Wagakki’s dragon went online in July 2015, and by September it had been viewed well over a million times.
Yet even this level of attention may be disappointing for a group whose previous offering – a cover version of “Senbonzakura” (“One Thousand Cherry Blossoms”) – has been viewed some 26 million times since it went live in January 2014. Opening with a stirring blast of Tsugaru shamisen rhythm from Beni Ninagawa, the song writhes under a hail of pelting notes from Kiyoshi Ibukuro’s koto, while Kaminaga’s flute launches pentatonic hot licks like rockets. All of Wagakki’s work is overblown and flashy, but “Senbonzakura” (rather like Kabuki theatre) renders hectic showing off into an art form. In fact the song’s title is borrowed from a Kabuki drama about the warrior Yoshitsune, and it was written a few years ago as a vehicle for Hatsune Miku Vocaloid software. In effect, Hatsune Miku is a singing synthesizer application developed in 2007 by the Japanese company Crypton Future Media. When realised in 3D as a hologram star, Hatsune Miku has turquoise pigtails and long, long legs. In 2013 she sang with Japan’s premier noise group Hijokaidan, run by guitarist Jojo Hiroshige since the late 1970s, appearing first on their Hatsune Kaidan album. The point of Vocaloid songs is that they encourage fan art and remixes, and Wagakki’s cover of the extremely popular “Senbonzakura” is the latest in a long line.
Mention of Hatsune Miku underlines the link between Wagakki Band’s music and Japanese anime. One of their first concerts outside Japan was at Anime Expo in Los Angeles in July 2015, where the support act was the blond female Vocaloid anime named IA. If 18th century Japanese actors strove to imitate their more popular rivals, the puppets of Bunraku theatre, so groups like Wagakki conduct themselves as if living inside an animated cartoon or manga book. Anime culture is usually encountered outside Japan as Cosplay, where fans dress up in self-created costumes in homage to hundreds of favourite characters. This is now surely Japan’s biggest cultural export. In September 2015 the Japanese World Cup rugby team based themselves in Brighton on the UK’s south coast, and the party city responded with a five day Cosplay fest titled The Costume Games. Meanwhile, Wagakki Band attack on three fronts: they hit the stage as a troupe of whirling anime characters; they display virtuosity on instruments which are still highly exotic even to a Japanese audience; and, instead of the soul-sapping blandness of Vocaloid hologram singers, they offer a live vocalist and the adrenaline of racing, powerchordal rock.
Anime acts may be thick on the ground in Japan, but placing traditional instruments centre stage the way Wagakki do is still rare. An earlier example is a group called Crow x Class, with an almost identical line-up: Tsugaru shamisen, koto, taiko and a shakuhachi player called Mikage. Their song “Gekkocho” even features two shakuhachi players in close harmony. (As far as I can tell, their male singer Kurona is Wagakki’s taiko drummer.) The musical approach is again hell for leather, but Crow x Class feel slightly different: less J-pop, more old school progressive rock. In videos they opt for a hooded, shuffling look, scowling beneath their cowls – more Hobbit theatre than Wagakki’s superhero comic book.
Much Asian pop sounds to a Western ear as though something has gone wrong, or perhaps some restricting mechanism has bust: the pace is too frantic, and too many words are crammed into each line. So it’s an exhausting listen, but at the same time oddly reassuring that this music pursues its own path, rejecting the homogeneity of a Western template.
A final comparison with a Korean group helps put Wagakki in context. Jambinai are a trio of traditional instrumentalists formed in 2010. This year they played at London’s Rich Mix and are expected at WOMAD in 2016. Using Korean zither, fiddle and oboe, they build a gritty, atmospheric sound from repetitive phrases, sometimes looped with pedals and software. Later in the show they may add bass and drums to expand the music into a trance groove, always centred on the trad instruments. Jambinai are an intriguing and original project, combining a contemporary sound with the fascination of musicians playing unfamiliar instruments. The result is accessible and warmly received, but clearly artistic rather than hyper-commercial. Seated in T-shirts and jeans, Jambinai are not dazzling speed metal merchants, nor do they gyrate and pose like animated demigods.
Bringing Korean instruments into 21st century music is one thing, but there’s a bracing craziness about what Wagakki are attempting: launching fragile Japanese instruments into the white heat of the Asian commercial pop machine. Who will survive?