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!
With her sister Atsuko on drums and Michie Nakatani on bass, Yamano formed Shonen Knife in 1981. To say they were heavily influenced by British and American Rock is an understatement. Yamano, who’s responsible for most of the lyrics, would even go so far as saying that English is the most suitable language for Rock “[there are intonations to] Nihonggo that don’t flow well over the music.” When asked what’s on repeat in her music player, the 49-year-old frontwoman names Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Motorhead. This should explain why even after fifteen full-length albums, the most recent of which are Super Group (2009) and Free Time (2010), they have maintained the 70s Pop-Rock sound of their first recordings.
The current lineup consists of bassist, Ritsuko Taneda, and drummer, Etsuko Nakanishi, who plans to take an indefinite break after the band’s last stop in Osaka at the end of March. These shifts in membership over the years have made it evident that the band is really Yamano’s vehicle to “be understood by everybody.” “We are not a snobbish band. We just want to make honest music.” Yet, to place universal appeal behind Shonen Knife’s longevity would contradict hesomagari, a term used by Yamano for what inspired their sound. Hesomagari loosely refers to a disruption of mainstream culture, and applies better to fellow Osaka based acts like Boredoms, a band notorious for elaborate noise experiments lasting as long as half-an-hour. Per section.
“They’re so cute, they’re like cartoons come to life!” gushed adoring weaboo fans that came to see them play at the SM Mall of Asia on the 27th of February. Even considering where they’re coming from—the punk and heavy metal influences, discourse on the repercussions of shojo, even the possibility of hidden layers in their bilingual lyrics—Shonen Knife continue to represent Japanese Pop culture as accurately as that show with the talking mochi ball: seemingly innocent, sugary-sweet, and mildly baffling in their appeal. After thirty years of history, they remain twee-voiced cartoons with guitars, making them a fitting choice for the lineup of this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. “We did a cover of ‘Do the Bartman!’ so he’s fan” says Yamano, “and we love cartoons!”
So much for going beyond the obvious, Shonen Knife are awesome!
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of UNO magazine with photographs by Ryan Vergara (cover: Annicka Dolonius).