PRINT September 2009


Masaya Nakahara

THE COOLHEADEDLY strange artistic course of Japanese critic, novelist, and musician Masaya Nakahara has been shaped by a long line of unexpected fits and starts, but few have been so disarming as his “Monthly Hair Stylistics,” a series of twelve albums, recorded and released over the course of a year, which landed on fans’ doorsteps with titles like Electric Success in the Ghetto, 30 Minute Panty People, and Wild Hair Style. (They were sold by subscription as well as in stores.) Each is a total Nakahara creation, an installment of head-scratching noise workouts built on densely scaffolded constructions of electronic sounds and packaged with entertainingly crude drawn, painted, or collaged cover art. Like the album titles, the song names abound with punning pop-music inside jokes (“Anal Collective,” “R.I.P. Old Dirty Bath Towel”) as well as the artist’s reliably bad-mannered turns of phrase (“Can’t Help Falling in Hate,” “GEFF [Golden Exciting Fuck Festival] ’87”). When the project was completed this spring, Nakahara opened “Painting Pending,” an exhibition of his visual art from the past three years, at On Sundays, the museum shop and café. of the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. On view was the original artwork for the twelve albums and a “pending painting”—a large, initially blank canvas Nakahara developed during the run of the exhibition as an orange, black, and brown abstraction, only to later invert the painting and render a vague scene in which a crane dangles a pair of decapitated heads, one of them vomiting blood.

How far Nakahara has come. Born in Tokyo in 1970, he emerged in the underground cassette-tape scene at the end of the 1980s. Before his musical projects began traveling under the name Hair Stylistics in 1997, his knack for fabricating monikers and fictions led to his first nom de plume, Violent Onsen Geisha. Rumored to have been a band whose other members had all died under mysterious circumstances, the “group” was veiled in purposeful confusion. Along with Merzbow, Hijokaidan, Masonna, and others, VOG gained international attention among extreme-music enthusiasts as the first major wave of Japanese noise broke globally in the early ’90s. What Nakahara shared with, say, Merzbow was the aspiration to enact lo-fi homemade imitations of the noise masterpieces produced by electronic sound artists like Iannis Xenakis, David Tudor, Pierre Henry, and Max Neuhaus in the ’60s and ’70s. But whereas Merzbow achieved unparalleled soaring, high-key self-abstraction, Violent Onsen Geisha preferred to wallow in the sonic mélange of the everyday commercial world. Inspired by Dada sound collage, Jamaican dub, Fluxus auto-destruction, No Wave squalor, the art-damaged high jinks of the Los Angeles Free Music Society, and the eccentrically crafted electroacoustic explorations of such text-sound pioneers as Henri Chopin and Åke Hodell, Nakahara’s early albums are prophetic in their samplings from myriad grades of cultural accrual. Their high/low appropriative mix presaged several generations of cultural mash-up and foreshadowed the strategies that would inform his criticism and his fiction.

Passing off haywire comedy collages as noise or, even more preposterously, as “pop,” VOG used up-to-the-minute sampling, kitsch retro-erotic album art, and irreverently deprecating song titles to sidestep noise music’s typically heroic pose, instead actively cultivating bafflement and even, at times, frustrated indifference through the dexterous mishandling of pop, musique-concréte, and power-electronics motifs. For those up for it, the rewards were often in the mishandling itself—cheap jokes, dead air, bad samples, and other odd choices that managed to both debase the original material and demonstrate the music’s own unreliability even as creation-through-destruction. Here the metaphor of “bad painting” might be of some use. A sample is either left hanging—sorely wearing out its welcome as it fails to integrate itself or go anywhere—or else is actively ridiculed by Nakahara’s partially effacing it with feedback or cutting it off midphrase, scorning any standards of good taste or formal clarity. But even within such a transgressive zone, the deliberation behind his decision making is apparent. These days, it’s difficult to recollect the radical absurdity of uniting badly looped hip-hop or techno beats, tacky keyboard melodies, snippets of TV commercials, guitar riffs from then-new songs by Lenny Kravitz or Sonic Youth, karaoke performances, and of course caustic electronic noise of all sorts, punctuated by long takes of domestic room sounds—field recordings from grade-Z suburbia. But at the time of, say, 1993’s Otis, the mix was visionary, a sonic junk sculpture whose ironically debonair manner, in hindsight, eclipses more intellectual yet pedestrian efforts in “mixology” (and does so without the cumbersome legitimating rhetoric) and extends an untold history of hybrid sonic experimentation known only to the most doggedly obsessive record collectors.

A similar recipe soon found crossover success with Beck’s 1994 debut, Mellow Gold—though in an inverted form that prioritized folk-pop songwriting and suburban appeal. Nakahara’s endeavor, conversely, was genuinely experimental, though it flirted with pop effects. As popular taste caught up to underground sensibilities, he found an odd subcultural celebrity in Japan: VOG was signed to a major label, Trattoria/Polystar, in the mid-’90s. But even under a brightening spotlight, Nakahara preferred the role of obsessive fan. His zero-effort stage presence and willfully oblique music went hand in hand with fanatic record collecting, intrepid cultural scavenging, and acerbic wit, making him a key arbiter of taste and the epitome of underground culture. He toured the US with Sonic Youth and Beck and began a long-standing if intermittent musical collaboration with kindred artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy—notably performing with the pair as part of their “Sod & Sodie Sock” exhibition at Secession in Vienna in 1998.

Meanwhile, as Violent Onsen Geisha got under way, Nakahara began writing film reviews in Japanese publications including Eiga Hiho, a sci-fi- and horror-oriented movie magazine revered by film buffs for its focus on the obscure and bizarre. He initially championed B and “mondo” cinema (John Waters, Russ Meyer, etc.) before expanding his critical purview to cover films of all stripes, and his encyclopedically informed musings were notably punctuated with personal anecdotes, filtering incisive analysis through a uniquely self-deprecating humor and a disarming sincerity. For the past several years, he has penned a popular movie column in Spa!, a mainstream weekly entertainment magazine, and he has been called by some the only serious and relevant film reviewer active in Japan. He also produced numerous short stories and novels beginning in the late ’90s and has received several prestigious literary awards (notably the Mishima Prize in 2001). Alongside Kazushige Abe and the slightly older Ko Machida, Nakahara has been called a “punk” writer as well as a practitioner of “J-literature”—the latter a marketing label cooked up around 2000, paralleling “J-pop.” He has vehemently resisted such pigeonholing, and critics have had little success coming up with a more convincing rubric under which to place his singular literary voice, though the French writer/musician/provocateur Boris Vian has been cited as a relevant comparison. A constellation of reference points might also include Flann O’Brien, Oulipo writers (particularly Georges Perec), Alain Robbe-Grillet and his nouveau roman fellow travelers, Thomas Bernhard, Charles Bukowski, and William Burroughs, plus such geniuses of so-called genre fiction as Jim Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and Patricia Highsmith.

Sadly, none of Nakahara’s writing, save the short story “Bloody Self-Portrait of a Beast,” has been published in English, largely because his prose is rendered virtually untranslatable by bizarre juxtapositions of colloquial and formal speech, eccentric stylistics and diction, and cold-blooded sarcasm. His stories tend to be violent, scary, and funny at the same time—nonsensically pop, thinly constructed, and blackly sardonic in their criticism of Japanese society. (He once tried to title a collection of his writings Pointers for Killing Ishihara Shintaro—Shintaro being the governor of Tokyo.) In one of the very few interviews with him translated into English thus far, published alongside the above-mentioned story in the journal A Public Space in 2006, he recalls watching a documentary on the making of the film Dogville and “how [Lars] von Trier simply enjoyed putting people in a box and poking them and abusing them. That’s pretty similar to what I do. I just want to harass people. If I did it in real life I’d get arrested, so I do it on paper.”

Such intransigence notwithstanding, at this point Nakahara’s notoriety as a film critic and fiction writer in his native country far exceeds his renown as a musician. As a “creator”—a culturally specific Japanese term for a multiplatform public artistic persona—his reputation is as a wild card, the most oddball, or hentai, of fringe-culture celebrities. (There is no real US corollary. Harmony Korine, maybe?) In 2005, he appeared opposite the movie star Tadanobu Asano in Shinji Aoyama’s feature film Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?, set in a near future in which a virus makes people want to kill themselves. His character, half of an infamous but reticent noise duo whose sonic maelstrom may somehow hold a cure, is as uncompromisingly antiauthoritarian as Nakahara himself—he ends up hanging himself rather than succumb to pressure to perform. It’s a role that sums up the weirdly contradictory nature of his fame. In his real life, Nakahara similarly bowed out in the face of unwelcome pressure when, in 2006, he abruptly declared that he would never write fiction again. As his notoriety had increased, so too had harsh criticism from unsympathetic literary factions. This censure was ironically echoed by Nakahara himself, who all along had expressed a disdain for writing, publicly undercutting his own work at every turn, always insisting that his literary output was “typical careless fare,” that he did it only for the money and put virtually no effort into it.

For the time being, Nakahara has kept his word and, with the moratorium on novels intact, has instead refocused intensely on music. Thus 2007’s double CD AM5:00+, his first record since 2004, followed by the recent monthly productions. His circuitous career logic entails a range of artistic coping devices—knowing when to step out, when to self-deflate, and, in the case of Hair Stylistics’ pileup of mystifying noise compositions, when to aim squarely for the twilight zone. His send-ups of popular forms, too, imply that at the fork in the road between intellectualism and bottom-of the- barrel tomfoolery, one may viably opt for the latter. And as a connoisseur above all, he’s strikingly honest in his appraisals of his own work as compared with the pantheon of his artistic heroes. His most recent book is a thick Work Diary (2004–2007), a four-hundred-plus-page account of his daily life. Primarily a compulsive listing of the copious books, movies, and CDs that he consumes, Work Diary finds Nakahara filtering a commercial landscape of esoterica through intimate feelings, grumblings, and everyday ups and downs. This symbiotic relationship stands in stark contrast to the one-liner apings of underground/avant-garde history that often pass for “engagement” among younger artists today. And while it would be tempting to end by putting Nakahara forward as an alluring model for a fugitive artistic course, such typecasting would tout his eccentric survival skills as mere cat-and-mouse gamesmanship. As the overt staging of artistic personae has come to feel like the plat du jour, it seems all the more important to differentiate between multivalent endeavors that arise as aberrant countertactics for weathering prevailing conditions, and practices that lay their bread-crumb trails of allusion as mere prescriptive fashion.

Jay Sanders is a curator and writer living in New York.