Friday, October 29, 2010

Digging the Japanese Scene: Live from Tokyo

Music is a tough profession everywhere, but particularly so in Tokyo. They even have a word that explains why: Noruma. It means the band pays to play the club, rather than vice versa. It is pretty much the norm for the Tokyo electronic-alternative-hardcore-experimental-ambient scene, but there is still a whole lot of gigging going on anyway, as Lewis Rapkin records in Live from Tokyo (trailer here), his documentary serenade to the Japanese indie music scene, which screens tonight at the Asia Society, presented in conjunction with New York-Tokyo.

Reflecting their hyperkinetic, compulsively connected environment, Japanese indie musicians across genre are constantly experimenting with innovative technology and processing new information. Like musicians in America, the digital revolution has been a double-edged sword. Many bands have built global fan-bases as a result, but they are not making money from their recordings due to illegal or low-cost downloading. Yet, due to the Noruma system, they still have to shell out to play the “live houses.” (It makes the standard American tip jar gig look downright profitably by comparison.) Arguably, the heroes of LFT are the passionate proprietors of a select number of houses, like Enban in the more out-of-the-way Koenji district, who do not charge the bands they book.

LFT should definitely be catnip for devotees of the Tokyo independent music scene. Yet, those walking a blank slate should still find it an evocative docu-tone poem of Tokyo by night. Pseudo-ambient bands like PARA seem to perfectly compliment the energy and scope of LFT’s cityscape scenes. Indeed, the film makes Tokyo look both exhilarating and overwhelming.

Though not intended to be exhaustive, LFT is rather informative when exploring the technical tinkering of artists like Makoto Ohiro. In fact, many groups, such as the strangely catchy Sexy Synthesizer, take explicit inspiration from video game music. However, most of the talking head commentary from American expats involved in the scene is hardly earthshaking material.

Many of LFT’s groups really are quite good, and even reflecting jazz influences. Nicely presenting the eclecticism of Tokyo’s live music scene, director-editor Rapkin and cinematographer Ian Sotzing also effectively convey the dazzling neon and lonely crowds of the city, making viewers want to visit, even if they do not love the ultra-now music driving the film. A good shot of hipster Tokyo love, LFT screens tonight (10/29) at the Asia Society (and Bay-Area residents can catch it November 12th at the Viz Cinema).