29 Years of Shonen Knife, Pao! Pao!
As if to reassert pre-war claims to being the “master race of Asia,” the Japanese have repeatedly proven that when god gives you lemons, you paint that shit gold. Postwar Japan after all was a land laid to waste not only by bombs, but by the humiliation of surrender, deflating what was once a comically large ego into the role of a child defended by Western forces. The result: generational trauma and trademark infantilism mirrored in the society’s pop culture artifacts.
Emblematic of this period was the shojo, literally translating to “young girl”: the model for the wide-eyed kawaii culture that originated in the 70s. Other byproducts include Hello Kitty and her posse of short-limbed, childlike critters (and one smiling bullet train); as well as Mobile Suit Gundam, a catalyst in the creation of otaku subculture, which provided a safe and fictional haven from the militant left-wing doctrine of previous decades.
By the 80s, Japanese pop culture was characterized by innocence and escapism. Out of this context, three Osaka women—bound by their love for The Ramones and waxing lyrical about public baths and flying cats—formed Shonen Knife. They are best known for a song called “Banana Chips”, a sincere tribute to eating banana chips that serves as further proof of how shojo charm has made institutions out of the seemingly childlike and inconsequential.
Again about painting that shit gold: the Japanese are awesome! When asked how the band has stayed relevant after twenty-nine years Naoko Yamano (guitars, vocals, and the only member of the original lineup) credits “a gaze of innocence”, evident in lyrics like “Bang, bang, bang/Twist barbie/Oh sexy girl!” Shonen Knife after all is not known for blowing minds, but for spreading happiness. “I sing songs about food and animals. Anyone can listen and enjoy our music!”
Through this formula they continue to effortlessly reach fans of both J-Pop and the D.I.Y. sound that created a zealous cult following, which included bands like L7, Redd Kross, and Sonic Youth, who all appeared on the 1989 tribute record, Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them. Yet, their debut on foreign shores was marked with the words, “To this vast wasteland/We will set aflame/This is the beginning/Of our burning farm”; words that testified to an awareness beyond silly Engrish rhymes, and went as far back as the post-war imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That, or they could really just be singing about a burning farm, because fire is awesome!