With over 50 albums, Asai Kenichi is perhaps Japan’s most original and prolific artist, and leader of bands Sherbets, JUDE, Ajico, Asai Kenichi solo, and 1990s legends Blankey Jet City. Combined with his artwork on album covers, books, posters and clothing, his contribution to modern Japanese creative culture is comparable with that of film director Akira Kurosawa, anime master Hayao Miyazaki, and novelist Haruki Murakami. Yet at the same time he has retained his indie-rock ethic and iconic status as an underground rebel hero for two generations of Japanese rockers.
The son of a Nagoya rice merchant, Asai’s formation as an artist began after a motorcycle crash forced him to miss a year of high school. Spending several months with broken limbs in a Nagoya hospital, he learned to paint, play the guitar and imagine the stories and characters that would later color his work. Asai and Toshiyuki Terui met at a Nagoya disco, and nicknamed each other Benji and Teru-chan. They were later joined by drummer Tatsuya Nakamura, and in 1990, while working on construction sites to survive, formed a band they called Blankey Jet City.
The year 1990 was the biggest turning point in Japanese history since the war. The economic bubble burst. The stock market fell in half and then more, and tumbling land values blew out the savings of thousands of ordinary Japanese. The Lost Decade was about to begin, and many young Japanese saw a dark future. The smiling, pre-fab bands of talent agencies, which ruled Japan’s Orwellian media, did little to inspire them. To many observers, Japanese music seemed stiff and fake, lacking in juice and fire.
This is Blankey’s first appearance on the Ikaten TV show, or search Blankey Ikaten.
Then three young guys appeared that August on an amateur talent contest on TBS-TV, called Ikaten. While Asai’s songwriting dealt with delinquent teens known as “yankis”, the band’s passion was pure rebellion. They signed with Toshiba EMI and recorded Red Guitar and the Truth in London, and then unleashed a storm when “Rain Dog” led off the second album, Bang, on January 22nd, 1992.
I first heard of them in 1994 through a student, who directed me to Club 24 in Yokohama. Packed with sweat and hellfire, their outburst of maniac energy seemed the only thing in Japanese music to match Japan’s neurotic urban tempo and pent-up rage. I was hooked, and went to gigs at Waseda University and clubs in Saitama, before introducing them to foreign audiences with an article in the Asahi headlined “the Peter Pan Gangsters of Japanese Rock.”
Watch the madness at Yoyogi Koen in Sept. 1995 during No. 3104 district Dance Hall and Punky Bad Hip.
At last, this was a fearless Japanese band with something to say. “Going to Disneyland”, about “cold people” on what should have been a fun trip, captured the spirit of a dehumanized society. The 1993 album C.B. Jim, about a troubled fictional character, featured reckless compositions like “D.I.J. Pistol” and “Ice Candy” transcending jazz, punk, and psychobilly. Like the great bands of other countries, Blankey Jet City was beyond any category, and would survive the rising and passing of fads.
While many Japanese regarded them as icons akin to Nirvana or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they looked and played like nobody else. Known for their tattoos, scars and slicked hair, they often performed half-naked; the album cover for The Very Best of Blankey Jet City in 1998, featured a drawing of them naked under sombreros (a portrait that had been covered up for the album Skunk three years earlier).
They weren’t a disposable media creation like dozens of Japanese visual-kei idols. The Blankeys were truly out of control. They whizzed around Japan in cars and motorcycles and drank people under the table. Despite Asai’s pitching prowess, our baseball team “The Deadballs,” dressed in black with skulls and crossbones, lost by lopsided scores to serious teams of salarymen, as Tatsuya threw balls into the stands as if they were drumsticks.
Teru-chan scream during D.I.J no pistol.
Japanese rock culture was breaking free as well. In July 1997, almost 20 years after Woodstock, Japan finally hosted its first major international rock festival, Fuji Rock. Held at the Tenjinyama Ski Resort near the 3776-meter volcano, it was a disaster. The Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played through a typhoon, which threatened to blow the whole event off the mountainside. Unaccustomed to outdoor events, many Japanese nearly froze to death in the cold mud, and organizers had to cancel the second-day, which turned out to be sunny (See classic footage from FRF 1997: Foo Fighters – Wind Up, Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Rage Against The Machine – Vietnow.). The next year, the event moved to a sea-side venue, Toyosu, where Blankey Jet City played to an ocean of humanity, before settling on a permanent location at the Naeba ski resort in Niigata. (Romeo: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwsOhTx8QBo, Skunk: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Om1KdczWZB0, Shaking Gasoline: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSvtI-6LEHg, Punky Bad Hip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=frP9oiSMVa4)
Blankey’s last show at Fuji Rock Festival live 2000: farewell DIJ.
After 15 albums in 9 years, the roller-coaster ride for BJC finally ended in 2000 with their last tour “Love is Die, Die is a Change.” Having worked and partied together almost non-stop for over a decade, they simply wanted to explore new directions. For their diehard fans, their last lives at Yokohama Arena July 8 and 9, and main stage at the Fuji Rock Festival on July 28, 2000, brought tears but not many regrets, because BJC had given everything they had. (Pepin: www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1jcNg9_MC4, Sweet Sweet Days: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pllsbIN_H8) For more info on Blankey Jet City and related bands, go to: http://bjc.wilddisk.com.
Instead of retiring or rusting, Blankey members became even more relentless. Teru-chan founded clothing company Celt and Cobra and his own acts Jim Spider and Joe Brownn, and also formed Rosso with Michelle Gun Elephant singer Yusuke Chiba. Liberated from the cages of the music industry, Tatsuya exploded with animal insanity on his avant-instrumental projects with Losalios, featuring Tokyo Ska Para guitarist Kato and bass goddess Tokie, and sessions with King Crimson’s legendary bizarrist-guitarist Adrian Belew (see www.losalios.com).
Asai, meanwhile, formed his own label, Sexystones, based just west of Shibuya. The next decade would see Asai founding bands Sherbets, JUDE, Ajico (featuring sultry Osaka vocalist UA) and Asai Kenichi solo, with more than a dozen musicians from Tokyo’s fertile underground. While groups such as JUDE would “hibernate,” other groups would tour Japan, allowing Asai to pump out double or triple the output of other artists.
Following the three-piece format of BJC, JUDE delved into Asai’s roots, supported by the solid-rock backing of Heatwave members Keiichi Watanabe on bass and the venerable drummer Junzi Ikehata, who powered D.D. Fever and Kyushu legends Rock n Roll Gypsies and Roosters. JUDE (“yu-da”) was saucy and aggressive on albums such as Dirty Animal and Electric Rainbow, and on popular songs “Devil” and “Silvet.” The band sometimes also included Kyoichi Shiino on drums and Qumico Fucci on keyboards.
Qumico, who began writing musical scores at age 4 in Hokkaido, would become Asai’s alter-ego. Introduced by friends in the mid-90s, Asai wanted Qumico, who was fronting her own band and composing for other artists, to teach him about computerized music programming. Asai found that he didn’t like programming. “Instead, we should form a band,” he told her. Qumico then introduced members of GrimGrim, including drummer Kimitoshi Sotomura and bassist Kenichi Nakata (hear Qumico’s music at www.myspace.com/qumicofucci, and see her studio in Shibuya, Tokyo at www.hippo-com.com).
The Sherbets liberated Asai into a futuristic otherworld of dreamy colors (Grape Juice, Strawberry Dream, Red Sports Car) and arctic nights (Iceland Boy, Frozen Cold Love). Inspired by Qumico’s cosmic keyboards and angelic voice, Asai’s guitar playing and vocals became the musical expression of his storybook illustrations and paintings, including the snow-capped car on the album cover of Aurora. While Nakata fingered lush sounds on an ancient bass, Sotomura drummed up mountains and rivers of sound that evoked the natural imagery of the CD cover art by Ryoji Ohya, best exemplified on albums Natural and Miracle (see Ohya’s artwork at www.zandz-inc.com).
Asai’s imagination was in full bloom, revealing heroes in Future Machine and Captain Free; nightmarish visions in Merry Lou and Vietnam 1964; mad energy in High School, Joan Jett’s Dog and Kamisori Song; and the euphoric sensations of Travel Center, Rainbow Surfer, Firebird, and Sweet Angel. While the collection album Siberian Madness gathers some of their most popular songs, each album contains works of art, from the dramatic build-up of Touch Your Shoulder on the live album Siberia Gig to the alien vibe of Charm Point on Aurora and the romantic bliss of Fukurou (Owl) and Juice Story on Natural.
From their first gig at Paradise Lounge in San Francisco in 1999 to their 10th anniversary show on May 10, 2008 at Tokyo’s JCB Hall, The Sherbets have drawn comparisons with Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and Sigur Ros. Whether fronting the Sherbets or other projects, the uncompromising artistic spirit of Asai will continue to lead Japanese rock music into uncharted territory.
by Christopher Johnson (www.sexystones.com/english/profile.html)
Sexystones Records: www.sexystones.com
20TH CENTURY BOY
This profile was published in it’s entirety with the written consent of the author: Christopher Johnson. I would like to thank CJ for giving me the opportunity to publish his work. Originally this was the official English Asai Kenichi profile located on the sexystones website and I urged you to read the article in its original context: www.sexystones.com/english/profile.html The page is now gone, and all that remains is this authorized publication.
Originally published on: Apr 1, 2010; updated Aug 15, 2012.