He's the Only One Around:
Mikami Kan and the Language of the Japanese Blues
You don't have to speak Japanese to love the music of Mikami Kan. The music is the single digit (read 1) trigger finger--the impetus to the Universal Fucking Blast. Mikami is a guitarist/songwriter, loosely described as folk or in his own words, Japanese blues. Now a fixture in the Tokyo underground, Kan has been around for over three decades pummeling us with his soft hammer. In addition to playing his solo material in Tokyo live houses regularly, Mikami is an actor and a writer. He also plays in an improvisational trio called Vajra with Haino Keiji and Ishizuka Toshi.
by Kelly Burnette (March 2002)
His first thought on arriving in Tokyo in 1968 was violence. Thus, with that universal emotion, a whole new species of blues was born. The Japanese blues... the Mikami mojo. A pristine silver thread of those universals run through all of Mikami's recordings. It's a thread composed of brutality and tenderness, angst, empathy and all that is ineffable and, as a result, crosses linguistic barriers. It's a graceful sonic melee sung through Mikami's singular rasp turned tender. It's also a body of work which is instantly recognizable as Mikami, yet the subtle variations between records sets each directly beneath its own beam of light. So far, each record has defined its own personality. Kan always goes back to the same well, but the dirty water he draws is a little different every time. Perhaps the most striking of Mikami's muses is his use of anger. It's a crisp and muddy flavor- an acquired taste, a powerful homegrown tonic of rustic wisdom and urban cynicism. There are frequently violent episodes in his music and lyrics, whether it is overt or understated.
But let it be known that his take on anger is not at all sensationalistic. It's purity incarnate. Part of the joy of experiencing Mikami is his incisive criticism and avoidance of fascile social and musical trend. And that's a big deal in Japan today, with its oft hasty acceptance of even the most trite whims of Western pop culture. In any case, over the past 3 decades, Mikami has managed to flood a juggernaut of a body of work at us; it rushes over us, swallows us in its austere white intensity, freezes our blood in vein, and stops us cold in our tracks. He is genuinely engaging, oddly spiritual, but most of all he captures the essence of the blues, translates it into his language, then releases the dam back in our direction.
Mikami's songs have their ostensible roots in the folk movement of the '70's in Japan. Upon listening carefully, you can hear hints of the blues, rockabilly, traces of torn down Neil Young (Hibari Misora's Watch -Jo-You, track 4) or just forlorn jaggedness and the peculiar comic that is all Mikami. It s a feverish amalgam of things familiar and vague, alien and confrontational. On track 12 (Black Point Hirano) of his Live CD, Black Point Hirano (Archival Box-Set only release PSFD-122, Track 2 on I'm the Only One Around), Sun Studios beckons in the modalities of the playing and also in the vocal style. Likewise, Jo-You is filled with songs we might more readily associate with the Delta Blues or traditional American folk. Contrast this to any song on Live in Heisei Vol. I & II (with Haino and Yoshizawa PSF 5&6) which just sounds flat out Martian, utterly alone and freezing, and you have an idea of the complexity of Mikami. Between these two poles lies the breadth of work that only someone of Mikami's caliber and experience can deliver.
During the time of his solo output with the PSF label, Mikami has focused on one underlying theme. His goal was to explore his dark days and "strange experiences" of the '70's. He was barely getting by on his former fame as a folksinger- something that in the conventional sense he despises, sleeping where ever he could and generally paying his dues. It don't come easy. But this is where is gets fucking fascinating. To quote him, "I seemed to hear something that was like a sound that wasn't like a sound that was like a sound. It was the first time I'd ever heard anything like that. And then, and this I'm sure about, I got the slightest glimpse that beyond it there was an open door to a new world." And so the beauty that took some years to gestate has finally been bestowed on us.
This kind of inexplicable "glimpse" wasn't isolated in Mikami's life. Because his PSF output is abstract and irrational, I asked him if Dada or Surrealism had been and influence on him. He claims a special affinity for both, tracing it back to his childhood when a new elementary school teacher in his village arrived wearing Levis and sporting a mohawk. It was explained to him that that "was the form of life known as a poet." I smiled when I read this. I mean, how could ya' not? Somehow it's primal. Here you take this kid who claimed that until then he thought there was nothing outside of fishing for him. Then this man appears, strikes an extremely percussive chord, and changed a boy's life forever.
Mikami's songs transcend their cultural constraints while simultaneously remarking on the barren state of contemporary Japanese music (from his point of view) and the Enka 'tradition', all the while showing reverence to that which is venerable (Mishima, a non-musician), shredding that which isn't (just about everything else), and exacerbating the sores which lie between. I asked him how he felt his music fit in with 20th century Japanese music. He replied that "I have completely detached and divorced myself from it. I suppose it's like I got so wrapped up in making mud pies in the park that it got dark and when I looked around all the other kids had disappeared. I have absolutely no musical relatives in Japan. The only one I feel a comradely respect and friendship towards is the literatus Yukio Mishima."
And that kinship is probably as good a primer into his world as you can get. Conceptually this similarity with Mishima defines Mikami as a modern, an existentialist and from a traditional point of view, a nihilist. But I believe he is a nihilist only in a very limited sense: where there is destruction there is simultaneously creation. Mikami embodies this dialectical conflict and the resultant ultimate synthesis it implies. He deals with the big picture and all of those important little philosophical paradoxes that follow. Like I said, he is the Universal Fucking Blast & the big bang, and he candidly confronts conflict in all of its myriad guises.
What truly sets Mikami apart are the idiosyncrasies not only in his percussive style of playing, but in his lyrics as well. It distinguishes him not only in his homeland, but internationally. His willingness to transgress and embrace that which is taboo made him an outsider from the beginning. According to Alan Cummings, some of the noteworthy early material expressed sympathy for criminals- "schoolboy murderers of the time." As a result, copies of his first record were pulled from shelves- something Kan admits he knew would probably happen. It may be a stretch but it is not difficult to imagine a kinship with Georges Bataille. But I'd caution anyone making a strict cross-cultural comparison on those grounds alone. Suffice it to say that Mikami is not afraid to sing about things that were never sung about before in Japanese music, or at least sing about more traditional things from his singular point of view.
When Mikami debuted he was under contract to Columbia but don't let that fool you. As mentioned earlier, that record was pulled from the shelves due to scandalous lyrical content. Especially when you compare in your mind what was happening lyrically with the folk music of the West. Check out the rough translation of "Raven" off of that album:
When a raven crows in the morning
Someone's going to die by nightfall.
Today too some old sixty year old
Fucking a young girl, and dying on her belly.
In his mouth, gaping red
A gold tooth glitters under the mucus.
His shorts, thrown in a corner
A butterfly set free by the girl.
When your lace breaks in the morning
Someone's going to die by nightfall.
Today too some queer
Fighting over a man
Grabbing a knife, a military march
A black and hairy leg, the Adam's apple
Drenched in the blood that spurts
Flowers that bloom beside his mother's grave.
When a mouse cries at night
Someone's sure to die by morning.
Today too some butcher's wife
Killing herself with a young toy boy,
Her chipped manicure, dyed red again.
Forty chains until the morning
Until the morning starving bodies
Killing someone so they can live
The only destination, the chill of handcuffs.
This was years before we would be astonished by his PSF material. But in a very real sense, it paved the way for the man we are familiarizing ourselves with today. The American occupation certainly influenced Mikami's approach to music and writing. In the seventies there were violent anti-American demonstrations happening because of that occupation. Add to that the internal tumult of change that Japanese culture was experiencing and you have fertile ground for artistic iconoclasm. In his own words, the occupation [had] "a very great effect. Perhaps the only effect. One of those effects was my use of slang. The awareness that words used on the street can become songs just as they are came to me through Rayban shades, pinups of Monroe, Coca Cola, low-slung U.S. Army jeans, hooting at girls you see -the list is endless." But rather than simply imitate the 'artists' of the West, Mikami saw much greater dimensions for what he was about to do. That he had seen the inherent corruption and slovenliness of typical enka, that he had been exposed to and incorporated surrealism and dada, and finally that he was able to grab his own vision and animate it truly exemplifies the strength of character of this man. He was kicking against a world of pricks--and as we all know, there are more pricks than kicks.
As mentioned earlier, those dues, these pricks have spawned some godawfully beautiful musical derangement. And this is key. For Mikami, "A musician who hasn't been forsaken by god is no musician at all" (Chaos-The Origins of Sound-Mikami Kan). Likewise, "sound which hasn't been forsaken by god is not sound at all" because, "God rejects the birth of sound as it should be. It rejects it with a strength of will beyond belief. It rejects it with clear malice. It rejects it with all its strength. It rejects it completely with all its ability. Things forsaken by "god" (even if they are god) are temporarily music." It is clear that his music is an existential anomaly outside the realms of the conventionally sacred. And it implies that passivity in the face of social pressure breeds stupidity, complacency and bad art. In other words, you have to reject all ideas forced on you from the outside, violently if necessary to become nothing, or divinely forsaken. Only then can you make a sound that is meaningful... that is music.
Of course, that sound then may be alien to us as it has been taken in and nourished by Mikami's own potentially sacred nothingness. But familiarity with his lexicon and oeuvre will provide the ability to harvest plenty of meaning from his work. Just what that meaning is entirely up to you. Like a Schwitters or a Ball, Mikami's angular style of communiqué will not be vanquished in an interview for the sake of mundane understanding. I asked about his song "Black Hole Hirano" (mentioned and cited above), about whether or not it is sexually comic. It certainly reads that way. But his reply (a VERY clever and funny one) was thus: "An artist's expressiveness should always remain hidden. Doing so is absolutely indispensable if one is to continue to dodge questions and distract people's attention. In that sense, the English translation of Kurozaki Hirano is perfect." That pretty much sums it up for now. Mystery, violence and élan, the blues, jazz and other things comprise the vastly transcendent and indispensable work of Mikami Kan. It shouldn't be overlooked any longer--any more.
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