Old and New: Tsugaru-jamisen Rock

I will never forget walking down the streets of Turin, Italy, with my husband, in search of classical Japanese koto and shakuhachi music. One Italian music seller, eager to help us, got so excited she offered to track down an actual shakuhachi instrument. We explained we only wanted recordings of the instruments, so we could experience the sound. Importing an actual shakuhachi to Italy was a bit beyond our budget.

Although traditional Japanese recordings were tough to find in Italy, every corner newsstand carried Japanese manga, in translation. Italy was an interesting place to become Japanophiles. But you know a better place to indulge our love of all things Japanese? Tokyo. We were so thrilled to have the chance to visit there this May.

We’ve had some of the most moving entertainment moments of our lives with Japanese pop culture: manga and anime, video games and video game soundtracks.

And there’s something about traditional Japanese culture that’s so deeply peaceful and beautiful. Celebrating cherry blossoms in the spring, our experience at Mt. Takao, where we hiked amid shrines and temples to a beautiful vista at the summit.

It’s impossible to spend any time, either in Japan or with Japanese media, without noticing the striking juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, in Japanese culture.

The Wagakki Band goes all out to celebrate this juxtaposition of old and new. They play classical Japanese instruments– but don’t expect classical music. This band rocks.

Wait, can the koto really rock? Check out the video to their song, Senbonzakura.

Two of the instruments played in Senbonzakura are the classical Japanese instruments whose music we longed to experience back in Italy. The shakuhachi is the instrument with the beautiful, breathy sound, that looks roughly like a recorder. The koto is the horizontal, harp-like instrument that comes in several sizes. There are also special Japanese drums, wadaiko, which you may have heard referred to more commonly as taiko drums.

The instrument I didn’t know is the tsugaru-jamisen. It looks like a squared off guitar with small body, long neck, and wide tuning pegs. It’s known for its percussive playing style. I’ve known the sound for years, as played by the Yoshida Brothers. But finally seeing the tsugaru-jamisen jamming to the beat brings a huge smile to my face.

The blend of modern bass, guitar, and drum set with these traditional instruments makes a compelling sound. The video to Senbonzakura shows that this musical blend is no accident. From the instruments to the composition, from the dancing to the outfits worn by the musicians, it’s clear that The Wagakki Band is having a blast playing with the juxtaposition of old and new.

Band photo:

Author Daiima

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

School Live Like Life

I subscribe to Crunchyroll, which includes an anime series called School Live. If you’ve never seen Episode 1 of School Live, be warned, this post is a major spoiler.

School Live appears to be an over the top moe anime series bursting with pink and purple sugary kawaii cuteness. Protagonist Yuki has pink wear and wears a cat-eared beanie.

Episode 1 starts with a classic anime opening: Girl Late for School. The joke is that Yuki manages to be late for school- even though she’s part of a special club of girls who have decided to live right on the school campus. Major feat of school girl laziness.

From the theme song to the wacky hijinks, everything about this anime seems cute. There are subtle hints that all was not as purple and pink as it seemed, but I missed them, perhaps too excited that I understood bits of the dialog with my meager Japanese.

At any rate, the ending of Episode 1 was a total shocker for me. We’d been seeing events through Yuki’s delusion. In reality Yuki is barely surviving in the midst of a gruesome zombie apocalypse. Her school is trashed and abandoned, Yuki and a band of girls are barricaded inside. Monsters scuffle across the soccer field and peer at them through barricades made of student desk chairs. These girls and their little dog are the only things left alive in a dead world. And it’s not even clear whether the girls and dog are even there, or if they, too, are part of Yuki’s imagination.

I barely slept the night we watched School Live. Yuki’s delusion is gut wrenching and disturbing. It freaked me out because we all live our daily lives under the spell of delusion. We see the homeless person camped out at the grocery store and say, that could never happen to me.  Our delusions shield us from failure, from fears, from the impending doom of mortality. Even in the happiest and luckiest of lives, friends and loved ones get sick, grow old, die. Each and every one of us will get sick and die, or slowly age, weaken and die.

Thinking about impending death all day is a perspective that’s incompatible with mental health and productivity. We all need to construct a more cheery story to get through our days. But that doesn’t mean the terrible, awful, unhappy fact of mortality is any less real.

That moment when we realize one of those those scary things we try not to think about  is actually happening? The stomach dropping terror is captured extremely well by the first episode of School Live.