One Singer, One Song: Enka and Japanese Psychedelic Music

David Keenan explores the hidden link between the most mainstream of Japanese music and the avant-garde underground heroics of Keiji Haino and Les Rallizes Dénudés

Dateline mid-1990s, the apex of the first wave of the new psychedelic music coming out of Japan. I’ve just thrown all of my savings, not to mention my mother’s credit card, behind the first ever UK tour for PSF recording artists Musica Transonic, Toho Sara, Mainliner, and Ohkami No Jikan. All three groups feature various permutations of the line-up of producer/bassist/vocalist Nanjo Asahito, guitarist and future Acid Mother Makoto Kawabata, and drummer Tatsuya Yoshida.

We’re in a bar somewhere in North London. There are all of ten people in the room. After a set of elegiac, strung-out blues from Ohkami No Jikan, Asahito returns to the stage alone, dressed entirely in black and wearing classic Ray-bans. His small frame, the curve of the tawdry red curtains, the peeling paint, and single spotlight combine to reconstruct the tune he played, now, in my mind, as a torch song addressed entirely to myself and my mania for new Japanese music. I recognised the song, knew it well, or thought I did. I had heard it before, certainly. Was it Keiji Haino perhaps? Fushitsusha? Shizuka?

Afterwards I asked Asahito about it. Enka, he said, and shrugged, like it was that simple. Enka, okay. Asahito had already turned me on to a group that he called Naked Rallies. And that turned out to be the legendary psych group Les Rallizes Denudes, still all-but unknown in the West back then, so I believed everything he said. Nanjo, mogura, he told me, and he pointed to his heart. I wrote it down, Enka, top of my wish list. It was the sound that haunted me, the heart of the new psychedelic music I had become so obsessed with. But what is enka, I asked him? Enka, he told me, is one song. One song, he said, and he nodded as if he had just handed me the keys to the kingdom.

Enka is in fact many songs, but the poetic truth of Asahito’s description is harder to dispute. Enka is a form of Japanese music that became popular during the ’60s, and was in turn mutated by the cultural explosion of the decade. It was a reactionary parallel to the waves of Group Sounds that had answered the siren call of The Beatles and a hybrid itself, caught in the flux of new music while offering more traditional readings of dark, sentimental ballads.

Misora Hibari - Kawa No Nagare No You Ni

And it was dark. Like the electric blues, enka caught the feeling of dislocation of the newly arrived rural workers in the modern urban centres, with soul searching lyrics that sang of homelessness, poverty, and despair in a kind of overwrought, existential style that at points comes over like Perry Como sings Skip James. The song structures are fairly generic and predictable, mostly based around dramatic minor key ascents and descents over vocals full of heavy vibrato. As soon as I heard it, through recordings by legends like Hibari Misora, Keiko Fuji, and Harumi Miyako, I recognised it as the secret DNA at the heart of the new Japanese music coming out via labels like Tokyo’s PSF and Osaka’s Alchemy Records.

Miyako Harumi - Anko Tsubakiwa Koino Hana

As much as I loved the new Japanese noise music, artists like Merzbow, Incapacitants, Masonna, and Violent Onsen Geisha, my heart was always with the new psychedelic rock, especially in its moments of deep enka, as exemplified by Ohkami No Jikan’s rare cassettes, the work of Kan Mikami and Kazuki Tomokawa, Shizuka’s Heavenly Persona album, or, more recently, Keiji Haino’s Koko or any of the recordings of his Aihiyo project. The new Japanese psychedelic music exaggerated enka’s minor keyed, death decadent appeal to the point of breakdown, and then bled all over it with endlessly violent electric guitar.

Fast forward to 2002. I’ve booked Keiji Haino and his group Fushitsusha for Le Weekend, a festival I’m curating in Stirling, central Scotland. For his solo set, Haino tells me he intends to play only cover versions. I fail to recognise any of them. Seated in the darkness, playing a Gibson SG, like Asahito dressed entirely in black and wearing sunglasses after dark, he sings that one song, that one heart-stopping enka song, again and again.

Afterwards, as he makes for the dressing room, I make a quick grab for the music book that he has left on stage. Sure enough, it is all cover versions, with hand-written lyrics and chords to things like “As Tears Go By” by The Rolling Stones and “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. I’m floored. Haino had enka-ised them, dropped them into a black hole of keening minor key drama, convulsive, frame-shaking vocals, and endlessly free guitar and then walked away with a leer on his face. Backstage he told me “As Tears Go By” was an anti-war song. I believed everything he said.

Kyu Sakamoto - Sukiyaki

Earlier this year, the French label An’archives released a beautifully produced 10-inch set entitled Enka Mood Collection where two major figures from the Japanese underground – Jojo Hiroshige of Hijokaidan and Tamio Shiraishi, ex of Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha – recorded new versions of their favourite enka tracks. Shiraishi’s torrential readings, recorded in a tiny bar with legendary itinerant guitarist Malenkov, re-frame enka as a form of gnostic blues, as strikingly present, and yet as undeniably gone, as the recordings of a revenant soul like Robert Johnson.

Hiroshige covers several classics of the genre, Sachiko Nishida’s 1960 recording “Akashia no ame ga yamu toki,” Kyû Sakamoto’s “Ue o muite arukō,” and, most strikingly, a reading of one of the all-time classic enka tracks, “Yume wa yoru hiraku,” AKA “Dreams Open the Night.” Recorded many times over the years, it is best known through Keiko Fuji’s 1970 version although Japanese psych fans are more likely to have encountered it through Kan Mikami’s 1971 recording.

Jim O'Rourke sings enka

“Yume wa yoru hiraku” is the recurrence of the one enka song that Asahito spoke of. The writer, translator, and Japanophile Alan Cummings claims that over twenty different lyrics to this one tune have been copyrighted in Japan, re-setting it as everything from a flirty adolescent female’s existential longing for boys through Mikami’s own vision of “low-rent rooms, cheap jobs and masturbation.”

Enka, then, is one song, endlessly read, a song that is by turns reactionary and revolutionary, endearingly camp and yet deadly serious, sentimental and profound. And as the Japanese psychedelic underground scavenged and re-thought the Western rock canon, enka became the vessel for its re-birth. Solve and coagula, the alchemical motto reads, break it down and bring it back together. Enka was the first matter, the prima materia, in the Japan underground’s alchemical re-working of modern rock & roll.

By David Keenan on November 10, 2014

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