Interview: Kou Machida on Punk and Samurais

The acclaimed novelist looks back on his career in music and writing.

Kiyoaki Sasahara

There are many musicians from the punk or post-punk scene that have gone on to become poets and writers, but very few that went on to be a celebrated novelist. Kou Machida is one of them. In 1981 he appeared on the scene in Osaka as Machizo Machida, front man for INU with a debut album called Meshi Kuuna! (Don’t Eat Food!). Although the album is considered an important work for the genre in Japan, it didn’t lead to much financial success. Since then, he has been the creator (and destroyer) of many other bands.

Machida’s charisma led to him appearing in several films, but he does not consider himself an actor. He’s found more success in writing. His word play and spontaneity led to a book of poems in 1992, and four years later he published his first novel, Kussun Daikoku. In 2000, his short story Kiregire was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award.

This year, Machida’s first historic novel Punk Samurai Slash Down (2004) was released in English. It’s a story about a freelance samurai caught between a clan which greatly resembles Japanese “salary man” society and a strange cult called the Koshifuri Toh (Hip Shaker Party). Machida throws the reader into a world of chaos, ignoring national boundaries and era specifics – one moment characters are discussing John Lennon and Bob Marley, the next talking monkeys and supernatural beings appear.

Due to this pleasantly destructive and nonsensical environment, many critics label him a “punk writer.” However, in a world where some would argue that the punk spirit is dead, is it somehow still alive in Japanese literature? Or has punk been eviscerated by the sword of the samurai? With a work which is already a decade old in front of him, novelist and musician Kou Machida, age 52, speaks.

Kiyoaki Sasahara

Mr. Machida, which came first for you, music or literature?

It wasn’t like I grew up learning to play the piano. I only began to take interest in music when I started doing it myself, so you could say literature was there before anything else. I did read and enjoy many children’s stories and biographies of historically and culturally significant people as a child.

The band which was the predecessor to INU, Kusare Omeko (Rotten Cunt), started when you were in high school, correct?

At the time there were very few people that were into rock & roll, so being interested in it was to be strange in the eyes of “normal” people. It was hard to get information back then, but there were several TV programs and radio stations which would play that music in Osaka. Yuzuru Agi [a music critic who started Rock Magazine] had a TV program called Pops in Picture which played rock & roll, so I would listen and learn from programs like this.

If rock & roll was a way to differentiate yourself from your classmates, I imagine the emergence of punk rock was a shock.

Yeah, before punk it was Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but as soon as I heard punk, it became the reason why we put the band together back then. To put a band together you need to have a certain amount of skill, but the appearance of punk set the bar far lower in a good way. Also, records made by relatively unknown bands overseas began to be available at import record stores in West Shinjyuku. These were big changes.

So, with the influence of people like Chuck Berry and rock & roll in general, Kusare Omeko would change its name to INU two years later, as well as its style.

Yeah, we were doing something that was a bad resemblance of rock at the time. We were so natural at performing badly that college students and audiophiles would misunderstand and say, “Hey, you sound like Captain Beefheart!” [laughs] We were like “Huh? Who’s that?” They’d make tapes from records for us. It was chance meetings like this where we were able learn and progress musically.

When you were 19 INU released its first album. 1981’s Meshi Kuuna! sounded like German rock or PiL, a post punk type album.

Punk is really simple music so you get bored quickly, playing it and listening to it. [laughs] I’m sure there were people back then who did punk music because they felt very purely about it, but I was surrounded by strange people, so we all kinda thought, “Is this all we are ever going to be doing?”

Looking back at an interview back when your first album was released, you spoke of underground folk music, like Kan Mikami and Masato Tomobe. Did folk music influence your lyrics?

I started listening to that type of folk music after the album was released. At the time I didn’t think that my lyrics really meant anything, but I felt that folk music and rock music lyrics in Japan at the time seemed to follow a pattern or they were translations of their English counterparts, so I felt uneasy towards it. I tried to write lyrics my own way. Then, after the album came out I was told that my lyrics were interesting and that I should listen to some underground folk musicians. So it was after the release of the album when I really began to dig Kan Mikami, Masato Tomobe and the underground folk scene.

After that you experimented with writing lyrics in English.

Yes, to bring in foreign culture... The ways to do it and the distance you keep from it is a very deep problem for Japanese people. I began music by copying rock & roll before we were able to add our own interpretations. Japanese poetry and haikus are similarly interpretations of Chinese influences, and after the Meiji restoration literary culture in Japan begin to absorb Western influences like Baudelaire and – to an extent – began to forcefully assimilate ideologically and emotionally. To say that was wrong would be to deny the breakthroughs in science, production, and the economy but swallowing foreign influence whole I think creates uneasiness in any aspect of society.

Music is the same way. Kids nowadays can accept foreign culture as being less strange when compared to our generation. There was the Japanese rock & roll debate at the beginning of the ‘70s on whether songs should be sung in Japanese or English, so there is always a cultural divide between people as well as within ourselves. This doesn’t mean that you have to first “be Japanese,” but there are parts of poems from a thousand years ago which can be understood, and there are parts of rakugo (a method of storytelling, usually comedic) which are still alive today, so rather than saying, “I’m doing rock n’ roll, this doesn’t fit,” I try to blend all of my influences together to create something new and original.

After INU, you played in different bands throughout the ’80s until the release of your first novel Kussun Daikoku in ’97. In addition to this, you also made appearances in movies like Bakuretsu Toshi Burst City and Endless Waltz and released a collection of poems, Kuge.

Yes, back then sometimes I felt like I lacked energy, so I would feel like listening to music which would give me energy but music wasn’t available in ways that it is today. There probably would have been ways where I could make a living as a musician but to me it was simply a way to express my thoughts and feelings through song and lyrics to make myself feel better, nothing more.

Acting and poetry were not things which I sought out, they just fell in my lap I guess. [laughs] Acting didn’t amount to being called up for a blockbuster by a famous director, so it really wasn’t an occupation. And as far as poetry goes, most poets in Japan are usually teachers or have some other occupation, so it’s hard to see poetry as being work as well. Luckily I was able to make it as a novelist, but it takes time to write novels. At best you can only write two or three short novels in a year, so it’s not easy to make a living. But it turns out that I really liked writing novels. Unlike bands and movies you don’t need to coordinate with a bunch of people, and as long as you can eat, you’re not under any time constraints. It’s also an occupation where if you want to do something and you work hard at it, you have total creative control.

Kiyoaki Sasahara

After many books, including your Akutagawa prize-winning Kirregirre in 2000, you released Punk Samurai Slash Down in 2004. This was your first historic novel, and the English version was published in April of this year. What were your thoughts behind writing the book?

First and foremost, I wanted to do a historic novel. Another thing was the concept of “truth and untruth.” These days it’s hard to differentiate between what is real and what is fiction. There is and isn’t a boundary, if you can understand that; fiction and reality are always in a sporadic cycle of attraction and repulsion and human beings are pulled apart or become confused or clash as a result. It was this phenomena in the current world that I was thinking about when I wrote the novel.

There are laws and morals to keep things in check, but laws can become outdated or aren’t enforced properly and what one believes is moral is immoral to the next. Even before you start to think of things like that, people will probably just say, “That’s the way it is.” But I really couldn’t understand that, so I would listen to professors who study society like Kinya Abe or I would think about things myself, and as I was doing that there were things which became clear and things which remained a mystery. These thoughts were what produced that novel. I just started writing it without really deciding much else.

What was the reason for making the story a historical novel before you began writing it?

I enjoy historical dramas, and there was about a four year period where that was all I watched on TV. If you were to make those dramas historically accurate then it wouldn’t hold up as modern entertainment, so even though many of the plots are based in actual historic events, there are untruths mixed in amongst the facts. So I felt that it was a fitting genre or backdrop to write a story about “truths and unthruths.”

You have a tendency to mix your musical work into your literary work. The Koshifuri Toh cult in the story is derived from the album you did in 1992 called Koshifuri, and a lot of the philosophy of the cult seems to come from songs in that album like “Jyoudo.” [Translator note: A word that loosely translates to “paradise.”]

I did a book of short stories called Jyoudo a year after Punk Samurai. By incorporating the same word in both music and writing, I can diversify what the word means, and that comes from having done both. I also used methods of speech which were very modern or time specific or even predating the general timeframe of the story. Taking down the boundaries and using what I feel is best for the moment is a technique which I use frequently.

On top of that, the reader is thrown into the Edo period, with people making John Lennon and Bob Marley references. There is a disregard for national borders and time.

Yeah, I was imagining a rock festival when the Koshifuri Toh would hold its meetings. [laughs]

I personally imagined a rave or perhaps a dancehall reggae event.

Yeah, I have fun by taking bits and pieces from here and there and putting them in places where they might not belong. Historical novels usually consist of “hey, look at how much about history you didn’t know” or “you thought it was like this, but it was actually like this” or “modern society is so complex and stressful, here have some ‘back in the day.’” [laughs] But I didn’t do any of that in my book. If you wanted to sell a lot of books, I guess those formulas work pretty well. I couldn’t write that way even if I tried, so I don’t. I guess that’s why I have a lot of young readers, because their imagination can still handle it. As they get older they seem to not be able to keep up. [laughs] But excuses like that amount to nothing, so I go hard regardless. That said, I am also getting to an age where I’m starting to get tired. I’ve always been fighting to move against the current and stayed away from the mainstream. Not that they would let me in! [laughs]

I think that stance is what carries the punk spirit throughout your writing. The “truths and untruths” in Punk Samurai as well as your other work. It seems you repeatedly smoke out stereotypes and prejudice in order to tear it down.

That’s true. As soon as something becomes the next big thing, I reflexively become suspicious, and I always think the majority is wrong. However, the type of things I used to do reflexively back then have become no joke. After the post-war economic surge, living standards improved and the Japan of today is getting older and weaker economically and politically, and there are many problems globally. I’m getting older and weaker and it’s harder to be a cultural minority. So, the short and the long of it is “punk needs to die!” There is nothing more sorry than punk which has attained longevity.

Back in the day, Japanese people used to believe what the broadcasters and major newspapers used to say. But with the advent of the internet and the ability to access vast amounts of information, people have become more weary of media in general. Not to say that the internet is the cure-all, as some of the information there is also hard to pin down. With conspiracy theories and such being thrown into the mix, it is increasingly harder to know what is true and untrue.

The world is definitely going the way of Punk Samurai. [laughs]

In times like these, it seems hard to substantiate fiction in the form of novels. What are your feelings on the possibilities of fiction in the future?

It used to be people had a clear understanding of what was good and bad. Now, people are beginning to understand that things aren’t so clear cut. Depending on the time and situation, bad may be good. Or it might be good, bad, and six or seven other things. In this context, things written under the auspices of obvious decision-making become uninteresting. However because things are so confusing, I think it becomes more interesting to write about people and their lives, feelings, and thoughts. The important factor then becomes the power of words and language. Not the ability to easily understand what some copywriter wrote, but the true strength of language. Isn’t the true strength of words and the sentences which it comprises the most important element?

Kiyoaki Sasahara

Having heard that, this might seem like a no-brainer, but how do you feel about the power of music and rock n’ roll as a musician?

Put simply, if the society becomes unable to determine what is good and bad, rock & roll will cease to exist. Rock & roll requires good and bad to remain relevant. The rock & roll of today is merely the title of a play. If there are still people who are obsessed with old values, they are simply acting the part or are trapped within the old understandings or simply can’t think for themselves. If you are able to arrive at a good idea without having to think for yourself, then that would be very easy. But it seems young people today want to make music that feels comfortable without paying attention to the counterpoints.

It’s been almost 40 years since you began INU in 1977. Is it accurate to say that Kou Machida is a punk samurai and punk novelist?

There was an event in Harajuku at the end of the ‘80s that was aimed at resurrecting New Wave called New Wave Renaissance. The boss of Rough Trade at the time, Geoff Travis, was there to see the INU performance. “The only places still doing punk are New York and Tokyo.” I remember how he spat those words out. [laughs] I would just say the same thing right back at him. I was doing something that was honest… rather what I understood to be honest, but if my opposition to the general understanding that a novelist is one who shows skill to compete within certain parameters, then that makes me a punk novelist. I have no problems with that. However, in my own mind, I’m just a regular novelist. Sadly, I think to do that is novel.

Photos: Kiyoaki Sasahara

By Yu Onoda on November 26, 2014

On a different note