Today’s post is dedicated to Caitlin, a friend of mine from graduate school who runs the blog Dark Room. After living in College Station for a couple of years, she and her husband are moving back to the Pacific Northwest. Caitlin taught me quite a few things as a friend and colleague. Perhaps her largest contribution is my appreciation of horror film, which I didn’t have when we first met. Going into our master’s program, I was strongly of the mind that horror is resistant, if not entirely antithetical, toward feminism. But Caitlin, who is both a feminist and horror aficionado, taught me the power of looking and interpreting the genre from a feminist perspective. Like me, she’s a huge music fan and champions the work of independent female musicians. Thus, it seems fitting that the last time we’ll see each other for the immediate future is at the Girls Rock Camp Austin showcase (tomorrow at the HighBall — doors open at noon). In tribute, I thought I’d do a brief write-up on The 18.104.22.168s’ cameo in Kill Bill, Volume One. Grrrl rock and Quentin Tarantino? I can’t think of a better pairing to honor her.
The story goes that director Tarantino was introduced to the band while frequenting a Japanese clothing store and had to track them down. Eventually, he put them in the first installment of his two-part revenge epic about a bride (Uma Thurman) wronged by her groom (David Carradine), with whom she used to work for as a member of his crime syndicate, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In order to seek justice, the bride must slaughter the entire organization. While the second volume is more meditative in its focus on the couple’s final showdown, the first half depicts her picking off her former work associates, employing a myriad of genres for each vignette. It culminates in a battle between the Bride and former DIVA O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who runs a criminal organization in Tokyo. But in order to battle O-Ren, the Bride must first take out her crew in a bar where The 22.214.171.124s are playing.
As you can tell from the band’s sound, cultural references, and performance of The Ikettes’ “I’m Blue,” the Japanese outfit is heavily influenced by 60s Americana, particularly girl groups and surf rock. As I’ve discussed in previous entries, similar interests are shared with Japanese characters in movies like Mystery Train and Linda Linda Linda. But I wonder about the feedback loop between Japan’s cultural fascination with American rock music and 20th century youth culture and Americans’ interest in some of their pop culture being appropriated and reinterpreted by members of an Eastern nation.
Obviously, this exchange can sometimes perpetuate Western assumptions of a cutesy, monolithic Japanese culture heavily rooted in American narcissism. So I feel a bit uneasy when interpreting the band’s appearance in the movie. It could easily be argued that they’re window-dressing, as well as means of authenticating an outsider’s conceptualization of what a “real” izakaya must be like. Yet I still feel that their sound is interpreting American rock music in a way analogous to Tarantino’s celebration of Japanese popular culture, particularly martial arts movies and anime. It may not be an easy pairing, but The 126.96.36.199s rock it out.
I finally got around to rewatching Linda Linda Linda last week, a Japanese movie released in 2005 I saw for the first time last summer after several people told me “you gotta check it out, you’ll love it, it’s totally your kind of movie.” And it really is. In fact, it might be your kind of movie too (especially if you’re my friend Caitlin, and I’ve been meaning to watch this movie with you for over a year). A touching, feel-good movie about a group of teenage girls putting a band together for a school festival? It’s pretty much a crowd-pleaser, especially for feminist music geeks who like movies.
The plot is as follows: guitarist Kei Tachibana (Yuu Kashii), drummer Kyoko Yamada (Aki Maeda), and bassist Nozomi Shirakawa (Shiori Sekine of Base Ball Bear) have a band and are playing Hiiragi-sai, their school’s annual festival. They’ve got a great set list of covers from The Blue Hearts, a popular Japanese rock band. Problem is, their singer-guitarist has quit the band, leaving them down a frontwoman days before their gig. They need a replacement and are adamant about it being a girl. They decide on Son (Bae Doona), a shy exchange student from South Korea whose Japanese is shaky and has never sung in front of an audience before. They rise to the occasion, with a little bit of struggle and growing along the way. Might sound like familiar territory, but it’s totally delightful.
One thing I really enjoy about this movie is how rehearsal is central to the girls’ interactions. For one, the time and effort they spend in practive, is critical in any band learning how to play together and key to their homosocial interactions. While some movies might document a band’s progression in one “rockin’” montage, this movie devotes several scenes to the band’s improvement, as well as the frustrations and tensions that result from feeling like they’re not getting their sound right. In their first rehearsal, they muddle their way through The Blue Heart’s hit “Linda Linda,” only to giggle at how horrible it was before trying again. Later, we find the girls forced to practice quietly at Kei’s ex-boyfriend’s studio space well into the night.
I also enjoy their commitment to the band. While the girls do have ex-boyfriends and crushes, they choose to balance boys with other issues their band usually comes first. In a key scene, Son is asked out by a male classmate named Mackey at school. The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.
Sometimes the band wears on the girls, and the movie reaches a climax when the girls have worked so hard that they collapse after an all-night practice that makes them late to their gig. Their ambitions sometimes eclipse reality, as is clearly evident with Kei dreams about opening for The Ramones while sleeping through much of the festival. Yet, their drive still gets them to the gig, with their talent ultimately ensuring a rousing success at the festival and the promise of this new band.
I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.
And, of course, we cannot ignore the obvious queerness of an all-girl band who work closely together to perform a song clearly written for a girl from a boy and maintaining the boy’s words and intent. It’s where the movie gets its name and the band gets its purpose, after all.
As there are queer dimensions to the girls’ fandom, they also have an interesting relationship with fashion, ethnic identity, and music history, perhaps in some ways analogous to Mitsuko’s relationship to Elvis Presley and rockabilly fashion in Mystery Train. Kyoko rocks a Joan Jett-style mullet and weave punk fashion into their school wardrobe. She also shorten the length of her skirts, sport funky sneakers, and plays with accessories. Son and Nozomi opt out of fashion-plate status, feeling more comfortable in frumpy attire, while Kei prefers a more athletic, clean-cut look. In short, while they’re all required to abide by standardized dress, like many girls, they figure out a way to create and play with looks that better reflect their personality, and some are clearly influenced by rock music in constructing their identity.
Just as Paran Maum are influenced by The Blue Hearts, The Blue Hearts are clearly influenced by The Ramones. I don’t want to suggest that the Japanese cherrypick through relics and artifacts of bygone western pop culture because they are uniformly obsessed with American culture. For one, The Blue Hearts were active and popular in Japan during the late 80s and early 90s, in large part because they were heavily informed by classic British and American punk.
For another, The Ramones themselves had a similar relationship with their own American past, turning to surf rock and girl groups from the 50s and 60s. For them, while most 70s rock bands were trying to set a record for the longest organ solo, rock music needed the return of the three-minute pop song.
In addition, it’s worth pointing out that the movie itself has an interesting relationship with Japanese and American music culture via the presence of former Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iha, who is Japanese American and composed the movie’s instrumental tracks.
As this movie depicts a band’s need to improvise, make quick decisions, and embrace makeshift situations, encouraging girls to be independent thinkers, so to does it showcase ingenuity. A tremendous example of this for me is Son’s ability to find surprising rehearsal spaces like empty karaoke rooms in order to become more comfortable with her voice and the microphone. In a lesser movie, Son’s scene in the karaoke bar would come off as oppressively quirky. Here, I find it touching. We see a girl negotiating with a male employee over the room and witness her becoming increasingly comfortable, if not still a bit awkward, with her voice, an unfamiliar language, and a developing stage presence. That she’s doing it on her own, in a space she’s found for herself, seems as good an example as any of how girls have to be creative and free-thinking for the assurance of their own maturity.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen too many Japanese movies and have nothing more than a cursory, Criterion-approved understanding of Asian cinema, along with its influence and heterogenity. One thing that struck me is how much like a Wes Anderson movie Linda Linda Linda felt in terms of its reliance on long tracking shots, wide angles, deadpan humor, panoramic framing, and meditative pacing. That said, I hasten to add that Anderson has stated an indebtedness to the French New Wave and American directors like Hal Ashby, I’m assuming Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu left an impression as well. Having never seen an Ozu movie at the writing of this post (though I do have Good Morning at home), I can’t help but wonder if Linda Linda Linda is actually continuing its nation’s film tradition and that the only folks who’d argue an Andersonian influence are just Western viewers with a shallow scene of cinephilia.
I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan or an indication of the country’s to education and their status as an economic superpower. So while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.
That said, despite my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and my clearly raced position as an American white woman, I felt the band’s ambition and spunk tremendously inspiring and universal for anyone wants to see girls tear it up. I rooted for them through their hard times and had a smile on my face when they plugged in and finally let it rip.
I don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m super-excited about The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch’s new film, which I’ll be seeing in an hour or so. Jarmusch gets a lot of credit for deliberate pacing, powerful visuals, sense of space and setting, spare and believeable dialogue, a humane sense of irony, getting deft and underplayed performances from actors, making silence crack with electricity, underplaying charged moments that sometimes burst.
Oh, and as an aside, he’s pretty dreamy. No hipster boy can mess with Jim.
Of course, one thing I think he does exceptionally well is use music. He’s woven in music from folks as disparate as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Holly Golightly, RZA, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Mulatu Astatke, and many others, in ways that seem so right as to be obvious when Jarmusch slid them in and made them essential. I uttered an audible “duh” when I heard that he’s using Boris, an ambient-noise outfit, for his new one.
But what about Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins? Personally, I’d go with Carl Perkins — a great guitar player, a classic songwriter (he wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”), and a class act of a Southern gentleman that didn’t get destroyed by Colonel Tom Parker. But young Japanese lovers Mitsuko and her boyfriend Jun (played by Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) constantly bicker about this in Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s 1989 movie that tells three stories about visitors, drifters, and locals who are loosely connected with one another. Mitsuko and her opinion will be the focus in this post.
Mitsuko loves Elvis. Way more than any of us can ever understand. Including her boyfriend, who is kind of a jerk about it. To Jun, Carl Perkins is clearly better, even though, ironically (or perhaps in response to his girlfriend’s obsession), he styles himself exactly like the King. He even tries to approximate Elvis’s mythic cool, attempting to be elliptical, impenetrable, and unapproachable, even at the risk of spoiling their trip and contradicting himself when arguing with Mitsuko, which he does often.
Embarrassingly for Jun, he tends to be wrong, perhaps Jarmusch’s attempt at critiquing the masculine masquerade inherent in much of hipster culture. Jun is wrong about what time their train is to arrive in Memphis (they are two days early). He is wrong about how to get to Graceland, but is quick to act like he knows where he’s going, only to be put out and annoyed with his girlfriend, who is chipper, personable, and ready to learn about the city that discovered Elvis.
I think it would be easy to crutch on staid notions of pan-Asian infantilized female sexuality and configure Mitsuko, with her quirky fashion sense, high voice, and girlish frame, as another example of this well-worn trope. But I think there’s more going on.
For one, unlike her partner, she is not afraid to be wrong or, perhaps more accurately, to learn. She’s open to what Memphis has to offer them, its geography, its history, its culture. She attempts to exchange in English with locals, handling the purchase of their hotel room. She is open and warm to other folks they encounter, including the African American gentleman at the train station (played by legendary R&B singer Rufus Thomas), who asks for a light for his cigarette in Japanese. And even when she doesn’t understand what everyone is telling her (a classic scene involving a motormouth Tennessean woman with a thick Southern accent showing a tour group around Sun Studio immediately comes to mind), she’s always willing to admit what she doesn’t know and learn.
She’s also able to create her own look. Mitsuko’s costumes are a bric-a-brac of blank American cool. She’s got her leather jacket, with the seemingly random but perhaps self-descriptive phrase “Mister Baby” scrawled across the back in red. She’s often applying lipstick, oscillating between mod white and rockabilly red (she puts some on Jun as well). She’s got a fuzzy leopard mini-backpack (perhaps setting the trend for Cher Horowitz and her friends six years later). She’s got a cherry-red suitcase she and Jun carry together with a stick. And she’s got a prized collection of t-shirts, each with a distinct graphic print (her favorite seems to be a white one with a black silk-screened image of big-eyed puppy). All of this tied together with a mop of hair messily gathered in a high ponytail, which she’s quick to defend when Jun makes a cruel and ironic comment about how some women care too much about how their hair looks during sex.
She’s also a bit of a media scholar, at one point peering at two photos and noticing that Madonna looks like Elvis. Jun rolls her eyes at the mere mention of the Material Girl and dismisses his astute girlfriend’s comments out of hand, deeming them ridiculous and perhaps assuming that, to his girlfriend, Elvis is everywhere (indeed, some may argue that he is).
While it may be easy to say that Jun represents the unfortunate stereotype of the stubborn, backward, ineffectual Asian male and his companion an impressionable, assimilable plaything, I think there’s more to it with this couple. With Jun, I think there’s a fear of being wrong. With Mitsuko, I think there’s a hunger for the unknown. Given that their relationship is new (Mitsuko mentions only having slept with Jun eleven times, suggesting that this is a young couple on their first vacation together), I think they’re still establishing their relationship.
Which brings us to their final scene, packing up and moving to the next destination. Jun steals a set of towels, trying to dupe Mitsuko into thinking that towels are included in the cost of the room. As the towels won’t fit in the suitcase, he suggests that she get rid of some of her t-shirts. Refusing, she defiantly puts on all five. The couple leave, with us not knowing where they’ll go next. I like to think it’s Graceland.