And musings on art, party tricks, volleyball, trains, rivers and nothingness in Japan
Korin Lyrics by Takashi Ueno. Translation by Peter Joseph Head
I, I wanna give it all up
Let’s, let’s go home together
If if we get on the last train
Then no-nothing will be the same
The dirty river
Sparkles in the night
Hey, hey let’s stay stay this way
Hey, hey no matter how times change
I’m sure, I’m sure that we can say
There’s no-nothing that matters anyway
The Party Tricks of Takashi Ueno
My children talk about Takashi Ueno, Halo songwriter, as the guy that breaks chopsticks in half and shoves them up his nose. Levered between his mouth and his nostrils, and combined with a too-much-biiru flushed red face, he makes a convincing demon.
Here’s a few of the party tricks that I’ve seen Ueno do.
- Peeling back his eyelids and flaring his nostrils to make a goblin face.
- Flicking a ten yen coin with the index finger to set it impossibly spinning.
- Magically “bumping” said coin from one fist to the other.
- Twisting a waribashi chopsticks in fists so that it goes from the top of the hands to the bottom without ever being released.
He’s got more than that, but that’s what I noted down in my Japan-travel diaries playing shows with Tenniscoats over the last few years.
Art ＆ Stunts
These party tricks are called “Gei” 芸 in Japanese. You already know the word gei. It’s the first half of the word “geisha”. I first looked up gei in the metal-coloured, electronic dictionary brickette I carried proudly with me everywhere as a student, and Japan-newb, at the Kyoto City University of the Arts in the early 2000s. I got something like this:
- 芸 【ゲイ】 art, craft, accomplishment, artistic skill, technique, performance
But don’t be fooled like I was.
The Art of Volleyball
The Kyoto City University of the Arts Volleyball Club I had joined was organising it’s bi-yearly camp. I had been informed that I should prepare a gei for performance to the rest of the group.
I knew how to play and sing a few things on the guitar. I had written some stuff. The logical thing seemed to be to play them one of my original, predominantly introspective, plaintive folk numbers. I tentatively pitched this to a couple of my club mates. They were upbeat, but suggested a couple of small tweaks to my act to make it more impactful and fit for purpose. The song would be better, apparently, if I performed it dressed in a Japanese school-girl uniform. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, but deferred to their native advice.
My actual performance at the event has mercifully almost entirely been expunged from my memory. I do remember the penny-drop that I had completely misjudged the request that had been made of me for a display of “art”. I should have read on to the second listed dictionary meaning of gei, namely, trick or stunt.
Image: Josh Berglund from Richardson
My volleyball gei performance was part of the unique situation that is the Enkai. Enkai means party, but once again, beware the dictionary translation. An enkai has its own unique rhythms and mores. Most representatively, you’re in a large, spartanly furnished tatami mat room with several lines of shin-high tables stretching down it’s length, like raised lacquer runways.
The pristine clean lines of the tatami edge brocade and the tables are punctuated by bubbling hot pots on propane gas burners, a boggling quantity of small plates, soup bowls, bottles of booze – the universal social lubricant. The group is soon busily engaged in a warmly ritualised dance of angled glass holding and “I’ll pour you, no, no let me you, no, no I’ll pour you”.
There is only so long a group of people can be in such close proximity, exhibiting such politeness on their knees, in such minimal environs before entertainment becomes a necessity.
In the hallowed tea houses of high society Japan, I picture the geisha with her, shamisen, refined dance moves, or wistful season-referencing poetry. But that’s not what I’ve seen cross-legging it with the hoi polloi. The enkai-gei of my experience is more in the realm of the sung burp than the recited haiku.
In my university volley-ball club camp context, I remember a group of students painted white, in singlets and underpants, with beer cans stuck to their crotches. The cans were hotted-up with tubes so that they could be squirted out like piss. They chose members of the audience to get on their knees and drink the quasi-urine. Delicate gaijin-flower me was shocked.
Other than forced wee drinking, there were people with various oddball abilities, double jointed limbs and the like, cultivated who-knows-when, and offered up as fun-fodder for the group. This was not the realm of the reflective singer songwriter. Art ain’t Art. If you’re going to sing a song, it better be upbeat, zainy, a humorous spoof on a song people already know. Failing that, you are going to have to be a genuinely Edith Piaf-level singer to make the gei-grade. By any honest assessment, I met none of the requisite criteria.
Tenniscoats Takashi Ueno would, however, have been in his element. Not in his capacity as an astute observer of the human condition, keenly expressed in plaintive ballads such as Korin, but as a master of the bawdy, an enkai gei blackbelt. His moves utilise all the relevant props of the wafu beer hall; the toothpick and the chopstick, the napkin and the warm shibori hand wipe, the togarashi spice shaker, the 1000 yen note and the 10 yen piece.
It’s hard to reconcile this side of Ueno with his artistic side. There’s the grandstanding, disheveled, mop-haired, folk strumming, guitar hero, half of Tenniscoats, alt-art-folk Ueno, and the light-your-fart Ueno. But, aw shucks, it’s a loveable duality.
Contrast the above catalogue of skills with Halo. Halo is, I think, a plaintive, melancholy reminiscence on being, blending the achingly mundane & the human with the grandly, terrifyingly existential. It juxtaposes the everyday and the numinous. It contrasts an abject state of mind, and a flare of the heart, in an intensely personal, possibly romantic, moment of reaching out to another human. It’s about looking for mutual solace in a physical world. That’s not something you hear sung so often. I find it totally recognisable, real.
Notes on the lyrics
Here’s my line-by-line take on the song.
I want to give it all up
That’s a heavy dump of a way to start. Right at the moment you’re trying to get the audience in. It’s unapologetically bleak.
Saya has said in an interview that she still doesn’t really understand the song that she sings. She suggests that maybe it’s easier to sing a song that way. No need to be embarrassed by your own personal revealings. Each phrase is its own artefact. It’s karaoke, where people skim over the heartbreak, the existential howl, and the unbreakable rock of humans sadness, as easily as they might skip a pebble across a lake.
“I wanna give it all up” starts the listener at rock bottom.
But it immediately gives a sliver of hope and a little drama in the next line;
Let’s go home together
Well, now that’s something a little more saucy to go with the existential angst. Where are we going with this?
If we get on the last train, then nothing will be the same
Isn’t that beautiful? Aren’t those decisions in life something? The ones where there’s no going back. The finality and fatalism of choice is often symbolised by rail in songs. Think Tom Waits’ “It’s a train took may away from here, but a train can’t bring me home”.
The last train looms large in Japanese culture, especially in the mega-cities of Tokyo and Osaka. Many people’s lives run to the tight schedule of the metropolitan train line. I once went to the opening ceremony for my son’s Japanese saturday-school in Melbourne, a hemisphere away from Japan. A Japanese consular official came to do a speech. Unexpectedly jovial, he related how as a school boy in Japan his teacher had made his class memorise every stop on the Yamanote line, the central circular loop of the inner tokyo area. 50 years later, he was able to stand before a crowd of children and parents on the other side of the earth, hold a picture of the rail network map above his head and recite every station with eyes closed.
Image: Brancacube [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
The train timetable likewise governs the rhythms of musical events, partying and nightlife. If I had a 100 yen coin for every sprint I have taken through an underground train station complex, running through kilometres of corridors that feel like they are growing longer with each desperate stride in your effort to make it through the staut plastic hands of the entrance gate, down the steps, and through the sliding metal door of the unstoppable Last Train. This train will be around midnight, sometimes later, sometimes earlier, so the majority of Japanese merry-making happens pre the Cinderella hour.
As a standard gig start time will be about 7pm, and usually a fairly punctual 7 as opposed to the loping, skulking, must-we-really-start-the-show of, say, a Melbourne pub. You may not have long to make that decision about whether you’re going to go home alone or with a companion. Maybe you will have to make the decision in a split second on a train platform, with the sound of the hissing air, the rumbling engine and the beeping door signalling time’s up. Ah, the mechanised, hurtling deadline of the city has no mercy.
“If we get on the last train” hints at the small moments and decisions we make that have huge effects on our lives. I think here also of the Billy Bragg line, “The most important decisions in life are made by two people in bed”. Sometimes, the most important decisions in life happen between two people on the subway platform.
“The dirty river sparkles in the night”
There’s a dirty river flowing through your central business district. It could be the magnificent historic Kamo river in Kyoto, or the Yodo in Osaka, perhaps Sumida in Tokyo. But it’s there somewhere.
Sumida translates as Black Ink Rice Field. It doesn’t get much more murky than that.
Like the train lines of the modern age, the importance of the river in an earlier time can be seen in the pre-modern name of Japan’s capital, “Edo”, which means “River Door”. The modern name “Tokyo” reflects a more pragmatic sensibility meaning “Eastern capital”. But it could be any modern river in any modern city. As Paul Kelly says “Every fucking city feels the same”.The rivers are all dirty these days. And they all still shine in the night. Perhaps you’ve noticed your own city’s polluted tributaries twinkling in the city lights? There’s hope for us mucky sinners yet. It’s a message from above.
ねぇ このままずっと ねぇ時間がきても
“Hey, let’s stay this way. No matter how times change”
The word “Hey” doesn’t quite capture the familiar, softly feminine inflection of “Ne” in the Japanese original, especially as delivered by Tenniscoats’ Saya. “Ne” is more endearing, like a gentle hand touching your arm, beseeching.
Who hasn’t felt the desire to hold on to a beautiful moment? To cast it in stone so that it can’t get worn away by time, the elements, the shifting ground and the changing of the seasons. This is a heartbreaking and universal. It is also an enduring mainstay, to the point of cliche, of Japanese aesthetics.
The most famous symbol of the transitory is the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossom. The blossom season is the target of millions of tourists to Japan from around the world. The irony of this is that the flower of any fruiting tree anywhere in the world is no less or more beautiful than the cherry blossoms of Japan. In a way, the real source of this tourist phenomenon is the Japanese appreciation of the Cherry blossom, rather than the blossom itself. Did you know they announce the percentage of flowers in blossom in different locations across the Japanese archipelago as part of the weather segment on the news?
“Hey let’s stay this way” is also made more poignant, I think, by the context of when & where the song was made. Halo first appears in recorded form on disk one of Tenniscoats’ 5 disk magnum opus “Music Exists”, track two. This set of music was recorded in the years after the 20th anniversary of the existence of Tenniscoats as a duo. Around this time, they were also involved in intensively collaborating with different artists from around the world to make albums such as Yaki-Laki (2013) with Estonian folk artist Pastacas, and far left of centre albums with Maquiladora 2015 and Jad-Fair & Norman Blake (2017). With “Music Exists” It seems as if they went to the opposite extreme; going inwards instead of playing with people from around the globe, tackling the extremes of genres from Eastern European trad music to Glaswegian power pop, improvising, responding to foreign inputs, giving, looking outwards. The Music Exists albums were recorded mostly just the two of Saya and Ueno in their home in the suburbs of Tokyo. The press release for the album plays up the at-home-ness of the recording style, highlighting the 10 tatami mat size of the room that it was recorded in, how Saya did the mixing herself, how they used analogue equipment, kept it simple. Music Exists is deeply personal, its Tenniscoats as a unit, partners in music, partners in life.
I visited Tenniscoats house around the time they were making the Music Exists albums to record a song I had written with Saya on one of my annual Japan tours. The house certainly wasn’t glamorous, but it seemed homely, if fairly remote from downtown Tokyo city. I picture the two of them hunkering down and getting creative during this period, out in the burbs, amidst the little market garden plots and dirty concrete primary schools. It must have been intense. Did they get cabin fever amidst the tatami and the XLR cables?
A year or so later, I was confused when Saya told me at a gig we played together at Kyoto’s Urbanguild, that she had gotten married since I had seen her last. But not to Ueno from Tenniscoats. Instead, to a young artist I hadn’t yet met from Osaka.
I wonder if the creation of the five album music Exists contributed to the breakdown in Ueno and Saya’s non-musical relationship? This is speculation on my part, but it does add perhaps a certain poignancy to the lyrics of Halo.
But the kicker in the “Halo” comes at the end, and compared to what has come before, it is existential and totally impersonal, and presents no evidence for our perception of a wistful universe:
“I’m sure that we can say, there’s nothing of value anyway”
Not relationships, not love, not running for the last train, not nature’s beauty, not pollution, not the sparkling reflections of city lights.
This is a real downer of a song to sing live. I can attest to that. I’ve sung this song, usually as a duet, many times with several different people. It works as a duet, I think, because I see it as essentially a love song with existential intentions. Two of the people I have sung this song with have felt the need to negate the last line of the song by saying something like “well, there could be value too”.
I can understand this need. I also feel the last line doesn’t necessarily have to be taken as nihilistic. If nothing has value, then everything has value. Existence is a glass half full, half empty. There is something of a buddhist/hindu world view of meaningful/meaninglessness. Yin & Yang, Ah and Un, Alpha & Omega, they’re all false dualisms. Outline and silhouette. Inseparable. Just vocab. Bill Callahan sings it best, “God is a word and argument ends there”. Some strains of buddhism also describe six levels of existence: God, Demon, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost, Hell, as being representative of six states of mind. I definitely feel like I’ve felt a fair selection of them. On the more simple system of the judo-Christian heaven/hell duopoly, I wonder whether this is just another way of describing a half full half empty mindset. People often interpret an atheistic universe as an inescapable abyss of existential terror. Which it is. As well as an unending paradise of substance and wonder. Only a mind can choose between these two worlds at any given moment. Over and over again. For ever and ever. We live on an eternal life’s edge.
It also tells us that chance plays a role, along with the mind. Indeed, perhaps the mind is only a result of chance. Heaven and Hell can be the difference between one minute before and after the last train departs.
Here’s Tenniscoats and I playing Korin 2018 at Iyoyaka Onsen:
This song was translated as part of the Songs In Translation project. There are some other videos of translated songs here on Youtube here:
If you like Tenniscoats, check out other classic Japanese women vocalists from the left-of-center we have written about, such as Jun Togawa’s classic suki suki daisuki.