Grindcore ninja commando team (東京、大阪、京都).

Kiba, Tokyo, 2002. Harajuku, Tokyo, 2002. Kyoto, 2002. Harajuku, Tokyo, 2002. Minowa, Tokyo, 2002. Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo, 2002.
Kiba, Tokyo, 2002. Harajuku, Tokyo, 2002. Odaiba, Tokyo, 2002. Minowa, Tokyo, 2002. Ueno, Tokyo, 2002. Harajuku, Tokyo, 2002.
Shibuya, Tokyo, 2002. Ueno, Tokyo, 2002. Osaka, 2002. Tokyo, 2002. Minowa, Tokyo, 2002. Harajuku, Tokyo, 2002.
Asakusa, Tokyo, 2002. Ueno, Tokyo, 2002. Akihibara, Tokyo, 2002. Odaiba, Tokyo, 2002.    


I spent a substantial portion of my first visit to Tokyo in Shimokitazawa. I was exhilirated, frustrated, and invariably totally lost. Shimokitazawa is an urban residential neighborhood located at the crossing of the Inokashira and Odakyū commuter lines, and the two train stations cross at angles strange enough to make orienting yourself nearly impossible. I'd be trying to locate the Fewture Shop by following a breadcrumb trail of convenience stores and street intersections on the fragmentary map provided by Fewture Shop, and I'd think I'd finally found the correct Lawson's, only to discover that I'd gone downhill instead of uphill from the station, and I was now diametrically opposite where I wanted to be. I'd painstakingly retrace my steps back to the train station, inevitably passing by Shimokitazawa Shelter, one of Tokyo's best-known venues for punk and hardcore shows, and then strike out again, this time taking a wrong turn and ending up deep inside a sleepy block of residential housing, drawing curious glances from commuters as they walked home. Eventually I found Fewture Shop, only to discover that what I was trying to buy from them wasn't even being manufactured yet.

Tokyo is the very self-regarding / very modern capital of one of the world's most insular nations. Its people dress and eat like cosmopolitan Westerners, but they're the inheritors of one of the world's most elaborate and rarefied cultural traditions. Regardless of Japan's postmodern identity crisis, its inhabitants are still very much Japanese, as is their city. Its futuristic, brutalist architecture sits side by side next to shabby apartment blocks and an overwhelming plethora of neon, artlessly placed signage, and relentless advertising. Street-level Japan is a fascinating blend of fast-forward hipness, aggressively banal and bureaucratic mundanity, and the completely bizarre. I've been to a substantial number of the world's great cities (New York, London, Berlin, and Moscow), and I've never seen its equal.

Japan has a special appeal to people like me, predominantly men who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s on a cultural diet that included Godzilla , Ultraman, Transformers, Robotech, James Michener's Shōgun, and Blade Runner. Later this broadened to include Japanese noise music (Merzbow, Boredoms, Hijokaidan, Incapacitants), landmark underground movie Tetsuo: The Iron-Man, conceptually overreaching anime Neon Genesis: Evangelion, William Gibson and Haruki Murakami's elusive postmodern fiction, and the hypertrophic manga of Masamune Shirow. Taken together, these works paint a Japan that is a cyberpunk wonderland: a post-industrial bleakscape grinding its anonymized inhabitants down into a grimy paste, a brutally anonymous warren of streets and alleyways haunted by grimly efficient salarymen and speed-crazed gangs.

This is, in its way, as romantic a misconception of Japan as the glossy tourist vision of geisha in kimono on every street-corner, calmly beckoning you into an endless expanse of shrines and temples surrounded by carefully manicured Zen gardens. Neither vision represents a Japan recognizable by a resident of Tokyo. But it is an idea with a powerful persistence of vision, one which lasted for me long after I had given up on trying to find Time To Galaxy and had come to accept Shimokitazawa on its own well-worn, chaotic terms.

Occasionally I stumble across someone who's developed a vision of Japan similar to my own. One of those people is Jon Chang, who I know mostly through his role as vocalist and lyricist for Discordance Axis, a singular American heavy metal band. Discordance Axis has a special underground cachet that rests primarily on their final album, The Inalienable Dreamless, which slices twenty-three minutes of music into 17 pieces. It is as long as it could be without its delicate balance of aggression, high concept, and relentless intensity collapsing completely. To anyone except grindcore cognoscenti, it's likely to sound like raw noise, but it was painstakingly written, rehearsed, and recorded, and it rewards exhaustive listening for those who are on its wavelength.

Chang is rare among underground musicians in that he enthusiastically discusses the sources and influences of his work. This is probably because he puts a considerable amount of time into crafting lyrics which are completely indecipherable without the aid of a lyric sheet (as they're generally screeched, howled, or gutturally bellowed), and acting as a docent in Discordance Axis's soundworld is the only way he can ensure that his work gets the attention it deserves. I was reading some liner notes he wrote (for Discordance Axis's recently reissued second album, JouHou) when I was struck both by his band's popularity in Japan as well as his own connection to Japanese culture. More than that, I was struck by how similar a vocabulary he used to describe his experience of Japan to my own, and how much that was rooted in a similar process of growing up surrounded by Japanese culture.

Jon Chang's lyrical world is a desolate, alienated stage, peopled by half-glimpsed figures driven by pathological intensity to do things even they don't understand. It is a world of hidden threats and fear, information technology and surveillance, closed-circuit cameras and remote control. The skin of the world is defined by a mundanity so profound that most of its inhabitants are unaware that anything even lurks beneath the surface, while those who become aware of what lies behind the mask are terrified to death — sometimes literally. Most heavy metal is cartoonishly grotesque, but Chang's lyrics gain their power because they're couched in the language of real power: institutional, bureaucratic, chilly, removed. Characters die in the passive voice. Nobody kills them.

There is nothing explicitly Japanese about most of Discordance Axis's songwriting, besides Chang's affinity for Japanese pop culture and the continued popularity of grindcore in Japan. But there's enough there, and in Chang's various essays and liner notes on the band, for me to see a kinship between our sensibilities.

Both of us have a vision of Tokyo that is distinctly askew from the reality, but I think we both recognize that vision as what it is, a cultural product, and can live with it sitting side by side in our heads with the real, messy, cheerful reality of contemporary Japan. But that sensibility can't help but inform the way I look at Japan. When I was rereading the lyrics to Discordance Axis's albums recently, I was inspired to go back and sort through the pictures I took while I was in Japan and try to use them to tell a kind of story about Japan, or of how I perceived Japan.

This collection, then, is a highly subjective, retrospective portrait of a culture by somebody whose knowledge of it is very heavily mediated. These are not so much photographs or documents as sketches of frames of mind, or an attempt to capture an essence I'm not sure I could ever put into words. This is an attempt to stretch over the real surface of Japan a skin that makes it more closely resemble the dystopian Japan inside my head. It's not the real Japan, and it's not even the Japan I see most clearly, but it's a Japan that has a deep and abiding resonance for me.