Bands of the Rising Sun
A guide to the rock and jazz experimentalists set who post-war Japan alight.
by Cal Cashin
Image by Thomas WH Compton
The annals of Japanese music are some of the most singular and fascinating in the world. The country itself has a fascinating culture, a past of bold films, and a rich history of art. But during the past five decades, the musicians of Japan have thrived. From city pop to astral jazz, wild inventive minimalism to pummelling noise, the Land of the Rising Sun has a musical past every bit as great as anywhere in the West.
What that means of course, is that there is so much to listen to and no obvious starting point. For that reason, I’d like to present to you a potted history of one of my personal favourite eras in Japanese music. When it comes to looking at this country’s musical scenes, it is my first love: the weird and wonderful rock and jazz experimentalism of the 1970s. This article is by no means a definitive guide, more a snapshot of an era where Japan started to find its artistic voice post-war, after years of traditionalism and conservatism.
By the time I was 18, I’d already decided that my life’s work was to listen to and love as much new and strange music as possible. Following another weekday evening of scrolling through twitter endlessly, I stumbled across a picture of a t-shirt with Les Rallizes Denudes’ Heavier Than A Death In The Family album cover on. My eyes met the androgynous stare of Takashi Mizutani, the band’s singer, guitarist and leader. Mizutani’s peepers glared back from behind the spectacles. One righteous blast of their fuzzy ghost-rock and I was infatuated forevermore.
Les Rallizes Denudes formed in the late 70s, and were part of a wave of underground Japanese artists that would give their country its rightful place in the history of experimental music. Like many of their contemporaries—Lost Aaraaff, the Flower Travellin’ Band, the Taj Mahal Travellers to name a few—their paradigm of influences lay outside, or alongside, the traditional western canon.
After these fearsome trailblazers, further innovators would emerge. The Yellow Magic Orchestra would go on to define electronic music, Merzbow would become a byword for harsh noise, and Fushitsusha and High Rise would make some of the great rock records.
But for now, let’s immerse ourselves in a wildly inventive time for Japan. As was the case in Britain and America, the cultural landscape was heavily coloured by World War II between the 1940s and 60s in Japan. Conservatism and traditionalism flourished.
But as the next generation came of age, however, things began to change rapidly. The tail-end of the 60s was a time of student protests and drug experimentation, in which a rich musical underground began to stir.
A young band called The Jacks had already given Japan its own version of angsty Dutronc garage rock, with a debut album in 1968. Whilst it sounds pretty M.O.R by today’s standards, the hip, sunglasses donning group had proven to aspiring Japanese musicians that they too could be The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, or anything else at all.
Les Rallizes Denudes, a phantom starting point.
The music of Japan’s post-war underground started to kick its legs in the late sixties. In university cities, where students were getting heavily into LSD, they started to make the music to match. Whilst The Jacks’ 1968 efforts would hardly ignite fiery passions in audiences today, a wider wave of rock bands were starting to spring up. However, as I found in my own discovery of this music, the best place to start isn’t at the early rumblings, but at the fully fleshed out pinnacle.
Les Rallizes Denudes remain my favourite Japanese band. Les Raz’s sound is a phantom take on the Velvet Underground; pounding garage rock meets mystical, ethereal guitar fuzz and ghostly vocals. They were shoegazin’ while My Bloody Valentine were still in nappies, with a mythology to match anyone in music’s rich history.
Despite core status in the Japanese underground, Les Raz never actually released a ‘proper’ album; they were an entirely live prospect. The group are survived by a wealth of widely distributed bootlegs of live shows that now boast the same status as many ‘proper releases’, with different mutations of the same songs appearing on most records. Takashi Mizutani was such an asinine perfectionist that he believed a studio could never actually match the band’s live furore; there are recordings from aborted studio sessions out there, but they’re far from essential listening.
Whilst it’s important to avoid lazy western stereotypes when talking about Japanese music, Les Rallizes are mysterious and mystical. Very little is concrete; all that can be said for sure is that they started sometime in the late sixties, and stopped sometime in the mid-nineties, after recording a sum total of zero albums.
‘Heavier Than A Death in the Family’ is perhaps the archetypal Les Raz album. The songs stretch routinely beyond the 10-minute mark on a record that is equal parts smiling and snarling. Here, they are at their mid-70s peak, and Mizutani’s vocals are at their ghostly best. ‘The Night Collectors’ is some seriously noisy Stooges worship, a hazy take on Detroit scronk, whilst ‘Night of the Assassins’ is a melodically satisfying psychedelic cut that sees wailing guitars and cassette drop-outs carry the listener somewhere completely different.
For me, there are a number of reasons that Japanese rock from this time is so much more interesting than its western counterpart. Bands like Les Raz and their pals made music in the image of a very different canon. They cared not for the Beatles or The Stones, but had a collective love of the ultra-heavy garage of Blue Cheer and the scrambled jazz spirituality of Albert Ayler. These references are fully realised here, alongside constant homages to ‘Sister Ray’ by The Velvet Underground.
But if ‘Heavier Than A Death in the Family’ changed my life and broadened my horizons, ‘Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes’ blew my skull wide open.
The album, released a couple of years after ‘Heavier…’, and another live bootleg, consists of three 20 minute long rituals, with the title track being the most potent. Rarely has music sounded so evil. Atop a marching motorik drum/bass set up, Mizutani’s guitar reaches squealing crescendo after crescendo – it’s a ghostly rock that stomps and stomps until it reaches some kind of divine gnosis.
Les Rallizes Denudes, are howeverbest known by non-musos in their native land for something well beyond the realms of music.
In 1970, Moriaki Wakabayashi the band’s original bassist, was involved in one of the most notorious acts of terrorism in Japanese history. As part of the Japanese Red Army, a militant communist group aiming for global revolution, the bassist hijacked Japan Airlines Flight 351 armed with a samurai sword, and flew it to asylum in North Korea. This plane appears on the front cover of the hard-to-come-by ‘Yodo-go-a-go-go’ album, another essential record by the Japanese refuseniks.
Allegedly Les Raz’s frontman was also offered a role in the hijacking, but turned it down; probably for the best. Instead, after spending a few years keeping the lowest of profiles, he went on to spend the next three decades blazing a unique musical trail, while the rest of the cast in his band rotated.
After the plane hijacking scandal, though, Mizutani was at a bit of a loss. This was before the band had produced any of their best work, and record companies wouldn’t touch a man with links to the Japanese Red Army.
Keiji Haino’s Lost Aaraaff, a lot of evil and a tiny bit of genius.
In 1973, a fledgling Keiji Haino tried to coax Mizutani into forming a Blue Cheer covers band, but his advances were rebuffed. The young musician was scorned, but his time under the (black) sun would come.
Of course, after rebuffing Keiji Haino, Mizutani eventually found his feet and Les Rallizes Denudes came into their own. Haino, meanwhile, would go on to make a name for himself in his own right, firstly with his freakish noise outfit Lost Aaraaff, and then his seminal outfit Fushitsusha. He would always, however, view Mizutani as his nemesis, striving to equal him with every musical project.
Keiji Haino is a pivotal figure in the history of Japanese underground music in his own right. Entering his sixth decade of creating art, he’s a visionary poet, improviser, and guitarist, whose recent albums, particularly his collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, are fantastic. If you had to boil the experimental underground of post-war Japan to two figures, Haino and Mizutani would be a good apex.
Haino is a creature of darkness, a real nihilist. He always wears all black, and in the most infamous images of him he is shredding with sunglasses, waist-length black hair swishing in tow. He embodies every cliche imaginable of the nihilistic experimental musician, but his art is that of a true original. He stands as a colossus of experimental music worldwide, but it is his very early work in the Japanese underground that aligns most closely with the rest of the music featured here.
Haino’s music is an omnipotent channel of nihilism, something he achieves either with intimidating monolithic riffs and drones, or total frenzy. Today, Fushitsusha is the work best loved of Haino’s output, and for pretty good reason. The group, who formed in 1978 but wouldn’t release anything until 1989make some of the best heavy music ever consigned to disc. But that is a story for another day, a different chapter of Japan’s underground musical history.
Haino’s back catalogue is mammoth and so many releases are worthy of their own long reads, but to find my favourite you've got to go back to his first band Lost Aaraaff, the most depraved take on free jazz you’ll ever find.
Like Haino’s nemesis Mizutani, Lost Aaraaff weren’t really into recording studios; they too are survived by a selection of live recordings. Fantastic, howling, tortured live recordings of which there aren’t many at all.
The only album you can get your hands on digitally is a self released-titled album on P.S.F records, recorded in 1971, when Haino was still in his teens. It sounds unlike anything before or since, outlying any trends or fads. Haino, alongside drummer Hiroyuki Takahashi and pianist Akita Asano, were riveted by the free jazz of Albert Ayler’s trio. The record is a DIY attempt to recreate Ayler’s jazz crazies, with Haino’s blood-curdling whelps replacing the spiritually nourishing tenor saxophone.
No other music sounds like Lost Aaraaff: either there’s a reason for this, or it’s simply a kind of maverick genius at work.
Just as Ayler’s 1965 album ‘Spiritual Unity’ is beautiful and free, Lost Aaraaff’s self-titled is a horror show run wild. Three pieces over the course of an hour. Asano’s piano playing is clumsy, frequently slipping into vaudeville, whilst Haino is sometimes tuneful and melodic, at other times he is high pitched and terrifying. It’s such a fun listen, but perhaps only a crumb of the fully realised darkness that was to come in Haino’s later work.
Masahiko Satoh, jazz adventures in the cosmos
The influence of jazz was rife in experimental circles in the 1970s. It wasn’t just Haino and his misfit mates. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone around then could be exposed to the wild jazz of American dreamers like Ayler and Ornette Coleman without feeling a pang of intrigue. However, Japan’s own jazz scene has heralded some truly transportative and iconic music.
Perhaps the best known example is YouTube-algorithm-core favourite – Ryo Fukui’s 1976 debut ‘Scenery’ – if you’ve never heard it, you’ve probably seen it in the suggestions bar. A pleasant album by a virtuoso pianist, ‘Scenery’ has a striking and iconic album cover, but in truth is music more fitting for a Pixar short about sad pizza boxes than any kind of mind expansion.
But elsewhere in the 70s, Japanese jazzheads were pushing boundaries and making escapist masterpieces. For my money, the greatest of these is Masahiko Satoh, another virtuoso on the piano from Tokyo. A real prodigious talent, he’s spent the last half century reaching serious acclaim with some serious discs, collaborating with heavyweights like Anthony Braxton, Midori Takada and Peter Brötzmann.
Unlike Mizutani and Haino, Masahiko Satoh isn’t a maverick force. He’s a highly skilful composer, a man with a terrific ear and a divine vision.
For me though, he was at his most daring, bold, and brilliant fronting the cosmic freakout ensemble Masahiko Satoh and Sound Breakers.
The sole Sound Breakers release came at the dawn of the decade in which Japan brought the world so much. 1971’s ‘Amalgamation’ is a two part odyssey where cosmic Arkestra jazz clashes with far flung influences, with heavier rock, Latin music and a touch of prog at the fore. There are spacey vocals, righteous, long squeals of brass, and imaginative, thunderous drumming from both Coltrane collaborator Louis Haynes and Sabu Toyozumi. ‘Amalgamation’ is one hell of an album, transportative jazz mayhem, straight outta Satoh’s brilliant mind.
The very best bit comes at the end of the album. The frenzied Latin percussion and maltreated trumpetry that dominates part two are left isolated, and a dizzy voice starts to warble. As the Sound Breakers reach tipping point, in a final move, the unnamed vocalist blurts out an almighty kiai of “hiiiiii-yah!”
To this day, it is the best ending to a record I have ever heard.
Satoh’s other journeys into sound are also worthy of note. Two years after ‘Amalgamation’, he worked with Anthony Braxton on ‘Four Compositions’, a record that really legitimised the jazz scene in Japan to Western snobs. The same year, Satoh soundtracked the psychedelic animation ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ with similar melting sounds to match the soft visuals; on this, Satoh finds beauty far beyond his usual comfort zone. The pianist is still releasing music today, some of it divine, but it is his work in the 70s that remains the most cosmic of entry points.
From Happy End to beyond; Tokyo’s killer rock bands
Now, no primer on this era of Japanese music would be complete without delving into a couple of things. The first is Julian Cope’s seminal book ‘Japrocksampler’, which in spite of its name, is the most passionate, sensitively compiled and best researched book ever written on the subject. Cope writes with such passion, at a time when the music of Japan had been heard by virtually no one in the UK or the USA. It features several chapters on leading lights of the scene, including Les Rallizes Denudes, alongside a monolithic top 50 of his favourite releases – some editions even came with a selection of CD represses of albums by Flower Travellin’ Band and Speed, Glue and Shinki. Despite dismissing Keiji Haino as a ‘plastic nihilist’, it’s a magical book and an essential read if these artists so far have whetted your appetite.
The second thing is the rock ‘n’ roll. At the dawn of the 70s, it was really alive. Many notable and novel bands sprung up in this time, mainly in the county’s capital of Tokyo. These groups were as innovative and magical as anything in the UK or the US, and would be influential far beyond their native land.
The psych-kissed folk rock band Happy End are among the most influential Japanese artists of this time. With two albums, 1970’s self titled and 1971’s Kazemachi Roman, they were the first group to find success with Japanese language music, at a time when a weird stigma existed about music not sung in English.
Happy End’s music is notable not just for the immaculate songwriting, but because they were the first musical venture of Haruomi Hosono – one of Japanese music’s greatest figures. Hosono would go on to shape electronic music eternally, with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and with his solo career as an ambient and minimalist composer. As far as Hosono goes, Happy End are perhaps not the most essential listen, but they’re purveyors of fantastic pop songs a la mid-period Beatles nonetheless.
In Japrocksampler, Cope passionately swears by the wonderfully-named Speed, Glue and Shinki as the era’s greats. The band, named after their two favourite drugs and their talismanic guitarist, spanned only two years, but, boy, did they burn bright.
A real cult classic group, they had an unhinged, dangerous quality to them, something that persists through a lot of the music that would soon follow. The Tokyo band Speed, Glue and Shinki’s 1971 debut album, Eve, really bombed, but is utterly adored retrospectively. It’s a Cream fever dream, a drugged up take on the blues, guitar licks with unflinching precision. Speed, Glue and Shinki are, alongside a few artists like Magical Power Mako and Blues Creation, purveyors of a rugged and thrilling kind of rock music.
But the ultimate early 70s rock band? Doubtlessly the Flower Travellin’ Band. Probably the best known to the rest of the world of anyone mentioned in this article, the Tokyo combo’s modern day influence spreads to the likes of King Gizzard, Ty Segall and beyond, as well as whole dynasties of artists from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Yuya Uchida was the band’s visionary kingpin. After supporting The Beatles on their 1966 Japan tour, he befriended John Lennon, and spent the next couple of years exposing himself to the wealth of Western rock, blues and psychedelia under Lennon’s wing. Along with Hosono, he was part of a movement to normalise Japanese language songs amongst the country’s music industry, a real noble adventurer.
In 1969, with a band known as Yuya Uchida and the Flowers, Uchida released an album called ‘Challenge!’, littered with covers of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janet Joplin and Cream. It was okay. Fine. Even dandy, at a push. But what it did do, was that it stirred a revolution that would be fully realised in less than two years time.
With Uchida retreating to a producer/manager kinda role, “The Flowers” shed every single member, but drummer George Wada, and a cast of sharp cats were brought on board: guitarist Hideki Ishima, bassist Jun Kozuki and singer Joe Yamanaka. Gone were Yuya Uchida and the Flowers; enter The Flower Travellin’ Band. Their first album, ‘Anywhere’, followed in 1970. Another scrappy, mangy collection of covers, including solid versions of Black Sabbath and Muddy Waters numbers. It’s perhaps most notable, not for its music, but for its brilliant cover, the band in the nude, on starkers on motorbikes, buzzing on speed, powering through the Japanese countryside. Nothing could be a more apt summary of the country’s rock music at this time.
The band’s all conquering masterpiece landed in 1971; Satori. In five parts, Satori I-V, it’s a megalithic album by which all rock should be judged. Heavy, psychedelic, and a tad wanky, it’s a cathartic blast of iron guitar riffs and lupine howls. The opener (‘Satori I’, obviously) is one of the best ever album openers; Yamanaka shrieks singularly, maniacally, as the band come to life with an Earth-shattering riff. The musicianship is superb, and the vocalising is off-the-wall bonkers, it’s so far detached from their self-serious Western contemporaries, yet hits far more devastatingly.
‘Satori II’ is a psychedelic desert rock brawler that sounds like it could have come off of any King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard album. It has this Birthday Party bass line and these sweltering guitar licks. The militant phet march of ‘Satori IV’ and the Yamanaka cries on ‘Satori V’ are bone-chilling. This album would sound fresh had it come out yesterday, let alone 49 years ago.
From the revelatory and the revolutionary, the wacky and unhinged, to the just plain brilliant, Japan’s rock and experimental music undergrounds are one of the great historical hotbeds for great music. Nothing makes me giddier than sharing those Les Raz records with people for the first time, or finding someone with a shared affinity for Masahiko Satoh.
Luckily, no longer are the country’s musical exports completely overlooked. The majority of artists in this article have gone on to garner retrospective acclaim, and contemporary Japanese music has for a while been treated with the same critical respect as music from the UK and the US. But it’s worth saluting, always, the pioneering forces who helped to turn post-war Japan into one of the artistic capitals of the world.
Cal Cashin is a freelance writer from London, and the editor of See You Mate
Thomas WH Compton is an illustrator and artist based in Plymouth.