Winter wonderland adventures
With the winter months closing in, the appeal of a long weekend of Japanese pop culture is always difficult to dismiss. London’s Olympia paid host to Hyper Japan’s annual festivities once again (albeit in a slightly smaller arrangement than the summer outing) and J-Pop Go was on hand to explore the event’s attractions.
As ever, our chief focus was on the musical elements of Hyper Japan. Although the event has established itself for presenting a wide range of genres, including both traditional Japanese music as well as contemporary acts, Hyper Japan has also showcased a variety of idol acts in recent years. In fact, outside of the Japanese cultural event, you’d be hard-pressed to find the same level of idol performances that the likes of Europe have to offer (this is something that’s thankfully changing however).
For the 2018 event, Hyper Japan had idol outfit BANZAI JAPAN. Boasting 17 members, with 7 making the UK trip, this was a step up from the smaller units that had graced the Hyper Japan stage for more recent events. As a group, BANZAI JAPAN have also embraced the idea of promoting Japan itself as a concept. Their long-term goal is to assemble 47 members, each representing one of Japan’s many prefectures. This goal is captured in their mission statement: “Share the world the appeal and power of Japan”.
BANZAI JAPAN had previously performed at Japan Expo (where they won the Tokyo Candoll 2018 event). It was also clear that they were keen to meet people and promote their performances, with members walking the floor of Olympia to hand out flyers for the stage show. All of this was intriguing but having a bold PR campaign and a friendly face to go with it doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is going to match that glitzy touch.
On that basis, there was perhaps an air of scepticism before the 7-strong outfit stepped out onto Hyper Japan’s main stage for their first performance on Friday. But once things kicked off, it was clear that BANZAI JAPAN offered up both an energetic stage performance and some pretty sharp tunes to boot. Much of BANZAI JAPAN’s material features a generous variety in rotating the vocals among the various members. But there’s also plenty of tight melodies and euphoric lifts reflected by the sharp choreography on stage.
The outfit were promoting copies of their 2017 album Ichi Fuji Ni Taka San Banzai, which also heavily influenced the songs performed on stage. Compositions such as ‘Coordinate To Future’ and ‘Nanairo Parasoru’ have a dynamic quality, while also tossing in some traditional Japanese instrumentation into the mix. At times, BANZAI JAPAN’s material throws a nod to the underground idol scene (there’s hints of outfits such as You’ll Melt More! In some tunes). After all, there’s only so far you can get on the synth horn sounds that many idol groups use!
Many of the songs had a call and response element, which the audience were only too happy to accommodate (some native fans had flown over for BANZAI JAPAN’s UK jaunt). A dedicated European fan had also taken the time and trouble to assemble a BANZAI JAPAN Fan Call Book to help attendees brush up on their wotagei skills. Some of these idol pop call-backs are astoundingly complicated – and the BANZAI JAPAN ones were not for beginners!
Post-performance, J-Pop Go was lucky enough to be able to interview BANZAI JAPAN (thanks in part to the sterling efforts of our new friend Nao). What was striking about this session was the openness of the members, all of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Their manager also seemed to be one of the most laid-back staff that we’ve ever encountered – a refreshing change from some occasions where managers would disapprovingly hover over their charges during interviews (and in one notorious incident, ordered all of the attendant writers out of Hyper Japan’s press pit!).
The other musical act that drew a lot of interest was punk trio MUTANT MONSTER, making a return visit since their previous Hyper Japan appearance back in 2017 (see our MM interview from that event). With a new album out, the power punk outfit wasted little time in waking up the halls of Olympia with their charged tunes.
The trio’s outfits have always been an intriguing combination of uniform and anarchic styling, something that’s deliberately referencing the punk clothing of the 1970s. In keeping with some Japanese band traditions, however, Meana, Be and Chad all sport their own unique colours which are reflected in their outfits (In this case, Meana has red highlights, Be has yellow while Chad opts for green).
MUTANT MONSTER’s set combined elements from their earlier UK album Abnormal, along with latest release Nekoburi. There’s something instantly gratifying about the driving rhythms of ‘Abnormal’, which also makes it the perfect opening number for the punk trio’s set. But the newer tracks, including ‘Nekoburi’ and a rousing ‘Babababaru’, are no slouches in MUTANT MONSTER’s musical arsenal either.
Hyper Japan’s musical guests have, in recent times, drawn in a dedicated gang of enthusiasts who declare their dedication to MUTANT MONSTER in particular with an unfurled banner at the front of the crowd. They waste little time in singing along to the songs that allow non-native speakers to join in (of which ‘Babababaru’ is a particular favourite).
Be strikes her familiar power stances as she drives her powerful bass. Meanwhile, Chad declares huge grin on her face as she gives the drum kit a serious workout. As ever, the show closes with Meana echoing her traditional sign-off of “Thank you very fucking much!!” which probably came as a surprise to the parents in the audience!
On the surface, Saturday appeared to be a much quieter day, particularly as the BANZAI JAPAN team were taking the day off. Instead, the idol outfit had opted to take up a lengthy river walk by the Thames (and invited everyone to join them!).
There were still plenty of activities for the Saturday crowds to occupy their time with, particularly an opportunity to catch the England/Japan rugby match being screened on the main stage. Meanwhile, our attention was drawn to the Hyper Live performance spot – the regular venue for amateur singers and performers to strut their stuff.
Among the performances, the main draw was Chekiss, a duo that’s become a regular feature of the UK’s performance scene. Originally formed in 2018, Chekiss features Cherry (formerly of Oishii!Ichigo) from London and KiTTZ from Bangkok.
The pair entertained audiences with a combination of singing and dance routines across a broad catalogue of tunes, including selections from the likes of Momoiro Clover Z, AKB48 (which included a lively rendition of ‘Aitakatta’) and choices from popular idol anime outings such as Love!Live and The iDolm@ster. Other performers to grace the fabled pink mat included Vikki and also CrystalNeko (making her performance debut), who delivered a generous number of Miku numbers.
Meanwhile, the main stage was playing host to a combination of talents with Hibiki Ichikawa (The only professional player of Tsugaru Shamisen in the UK) and DJ Takaki. Although the combination of these two distinct disciplines sounds unlikely, live it presented an intriguing sound in which Hibiki’s energetic shamisen playing competed against Takaki’s bassy beats. Some frenetic drum ‘n’ bass also featured in the mix, presenting a curious alchemy that attracted a capacity crowd.
Nao Masaoka, former star of the world famous Takarazuka Revue, made a return visit to Hyper Japan. In 2016, she performed a selection of Takarazuka songs from famous shows such as The Rose of Versailles and Elisabeth. For 2018, she continued that tradition, adding a more stylish flourish to the Hyper Japan stage.
MUTANT MONSTER also managed to keep the energy flowing during their second performance of the weekend. The punk trio had loosened up since Friday’s show with both Meana and Be making more use of the stage. In particular, the pair took turns to step up onto a handily-positioned gear case to elevate themselves over the crowd.
“Are you ready to rock?!” Announces Meana, challenging the sizeable crowd in front of her. Once again, it’s popular tunes such as ‘Abnormal’ working their magic, although ‘Summer Ticket’ offers an opportunity for the audience to enthusiastically join in on the “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” moments.
The guitar-fuelled performance closes out with the raw energy of ‘Babababaru’, also bringing MUTANT MONSTER’s Hyper Japan adventure to a close for this weekend.
A chilly Sunday morning the next day also set the scene for Hyper Japan’s final day of fun. Sunday morning is also, of course, the traditional spot for Hyper Japan to whack on the idol group at an ungodly hour. So it was that BANZAI JAPAN (safe from their river walk adventures) took to the stage clad in fetching colourful outfits.
Quite where the idol outfit get their energy from is unclear (they had all been on site present and correct at opening to help spread the word of this morning’s performance), but even this early in the morning BANZAI JAPAN command the stage with a pop power that would leave other idols struggling.
The likes of ‘Negaiboshi’ retain a particular fast-paced appeal, but it’s their theme song ‘Banzai Japan!’ That stands out from the set as a combo of charm and pop sensibility.
Following on from the musical adventures, the main stage also played host to a fashion show coordinated by clothing outlet Victoria maiden. Separate from the other stage shows, there was a particular grace to many of the models taking their place stage centre. As ever, the Gothic Lolita outfits gave the most visually striking impression, including a turn from J-Pop Go’s own Finny (Marshmallow Llama Time).
The final main stage performance comes care of the curiously monikered Xmas Eileen. The masked rock outfit (who each answer to the title of “no name”) have a similar sound profile to MAN WITH A MISSION. It’s all fast beats, rapid vocals and an attitude you could carve pieces out of.
Despite this being their debut UK performance, Xmas Eileen waste little time in winning over the audience (for which, there are clearly a few die-hard fans lurking near the front). It’s a surprisingly effective performance with the vocalists taking turns to battle it out. Meanwhile, guitar and bass keep things chugging along while their resident DJ keeps the beats flowing.
It’s a suitably dynamic way to bring Hyper Japan’s winter wonderland to an end. Overall, although the event is a much more stripped-down affair compared to their summer venture (where, arguably, they were even over-extended in terms of floor space), it’s been a fun three days.
From a music point of view, although all the performers put on superb sets, the weekend was owned by BANZAI JAPAN from J-Pop Go’s perspective. There’s a vibrant quality at work there matched with an engaging approach that puts them on a par with far larger idol outfits.
And so ends Hyper Japan’s 2018 outings. But already anticipation is high for what 2019 will bring for Japanese pop culture enthusiasts 🙂
Hyper Japan Winter will return to Olympia on 12th-14th July 2019.
Photos by Paul Browne.