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Friday, July 11, 2008
Sympathy for the Maries
Gays, devilish deals and rock 'n' roll
By SIMON BARTZ
All the boys are in their birthday suits and beautiful long-haired Ryohei Shima is mincing up toward me. Just think of a naked Mick Jagger — a 26-year-old one, that is — entering stage right on the set of a gay porn flick and you'll get the picture. Ryohei theatrically swivels his hips upon approach, and his smooth, perfectly formed buttocks fly inches past my face upon his landing in the hot tub beside me. He nestles up close, puts an arm around my shoulder, and with a twinkle in his eye, says: "Simon, this is good. Finally we can relax together." The yakuza gangster with full-body tattoos opposite doesn't bat an eyelid, while an octogenarian slowly eases himself down on the other side of me, quietly singing some traditional enka folk song.
"Look at the stars up in the sky; so beautiful right?" Ryohei says to me.
"You're the brightest star of the lot," I say, and we laugh.
Kita Ward in Kyoto is blessed with many excellent sento (public baths) — often with outside pools — as many of the old houses in this shitamachi (downtown) area don't have bathrooms. This is the third time I've bumped into the Kegawa no Maries singer and frontman down here, even though we both live in Tokyo. The band spend so much time touring, and every time I visit Kyoto for a week I seem to run into them.
Later, at a party at the nearby home of (Kyoto disco punks) Nokemono singer Baba, Ryohei puts a demo of his new 6-track minialbum "Faust" on the stereo. Despite knowing the band since their inception in 2003, I've hesitated to write about them because they were just too Rolling Stones, with every riff reeking of Keith Richards. But "Faust" is way different. It has a few mid-paced Stones-like rockers, but now they're armed with T-Rex hooks and Sex Pistols fury, and there are also exciting forays into vicious hardcore punk and a slow, beautiful, pastoral Gram Parsons- meets-Lou Reed track. At shows, Ryohei's effeminate swagger has been retained, but with the new songs, the Maries have swatted the Stones homunculus from their shoulder, found their own feet and recorded an extraordinarily brilliant album.
"We wanted to be the Stones five years back," admits Ryohei when I tell him what I think. He then adds with a triumphant smile, "Now we just want to be Kegawa no Maries."
So how did they come to their senses, realize that they could never be the Stones, rediscover themselves and release one of the best rock 'n' roll records you'll hear this year? With a little sympathy from the Devil, apparently.
Back in Tokyo, I meet up with the band (Ryohei, guitarist Kazuma Koshikawa, bassist Hiroko Kurimoto and drummer Fujio Fujiyama) backstage at shows at Daikanyama's Unit and Shinjuku's Loft within two days of each other — and these are not toilet venues, each holding about 500 punters. It's the first time I've heard the new songs live, and they whip the crowd into a moshing frenzy. The fans surge right and left to wherever Ryohei stands on stage, as he sways and bays blue bloody rock 'n' roll murder. And Koshikawa shows why he's often said to be one of the best guitarists in Japan, by shipping out a flamboyant bazaar of riffs and hooks.
"Faust is the story of a person who gained by making a pact with the Devil, and the themes of the Devil and music are frequently intertwined, such as bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads," says Ryohei, explaining the album's title. "And out of a very dark period our album 'Faust' was created."
Did the four of you sit in a circle on a hill, light some candles, chant an obscure Stones B-side in Latin and sacrifice a kitten?
"It's never quite like that, as you know, Simon."
But I've got to ask the question for the benefit of those few Japan Times readers who may not have done a deal with the Devil.
Ryohei laughs, and says, "Basically, I hate routine. Shows, shows, make a record, shows, shows, make a record, shows. I thought rock 'n' roll would destroy the routine in my life, but it didn't. So I decided to split up the band. This idea amused me, since then I'd have no idea what would happen the next day. How exciting!
"When I believed the end of the band was near, weird stuff started happening. I'd suffer from strange impulses, like I'd suddenly smash an instrument to pieces. It wasn't a healthy time, it wasn't a positive time, but I felt possessed to destroy stuff. And then, almost ridiculously, we decided to just make a record, and 'Faust' is the result of that. It's kind of a new beginning for us and it's a play on words — first and Faust."
Ryohei, Koshikawa and Hiroko all met at school in Wakayama City, but Ryohei decided that if he wanted to make it in rock 'n' roll, he'd have to live in Tokyo. He moved here in 2001. The other two followed and they all shared a house in Nerima Ward in the north of Tokyo, did part-time jobs and put all their energy into the band after hooking up with Fujio, who hails from Nagasaki.
I ask why the name, Kegawa no Maries, and Hiroko says: "It was Ryohei's idea. It's the name of a play by 1960s avant-garde writer/poet Shuji Terayama that starred Akihiro Miwa as a male prostitute with family problems. He loves both those artists."
"Faust" is their first minialbum, after two albums proper.
As for their initial inspirations, Ryohei says: "We loved The Stooges. They were crazy, loud and heavy — just what I wanted."
"And The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols," adds Koshikawa. "When I heard the Stones for the first time in high school I was shocked and overpowered by their f*ck-you attitude and way of playing."
"Parents and school rules would overbear us," says Ryohei. "So it was the rebel spirit I liked. The way of being against something. Fighting for individuality."
So let's get back to gay old Kyoto. Ryohei and I are drinking beer and toweling off after our long soak. I tell him he's the campest singer in Japanese rock 'n' roll — he makes even Kiyoshiro Imawano look like a bricklayer. I tell him he has the looks and star quality to be the No. 1 gay icon in Japan. And his campness is not even a stage act, he's like it in real life, too.
"My favorite actors, novelists and, of course, musicians who I was first interested in were mostly gay." he says. "I am not gay though, I am bisexual. That's a joke! You know I like girls. But, for example, Yukio Mishima was gay, Akihiro Miwa too, and also Rampo Edogawa had his liking for boys. And then in music you've got David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Marc Bolan and such. Well I am not so sure if Iggy is like that. Anyway, I don't know what is first, I mean if originally I liked men who look very glamorous, or it's just a pure coincidence that I like them through their artistic works.
"There is a manga in Japan titled 'Patariro,' and I often read it when I was aged 5 or 6. In it, all the characters are male, but I didn't realize that as I was young, and because they were all beautiful. There are some people who are disguised as women, and also some love stories were included. You know, I guess I got a little bit of knowledge about them (gays), because I was surrounded by them from when I was tiny."
"Mental confusion leads to something different, to great art," I say. "It's so bloody obvious, right?"
He laughs, slaps me on the back and says, "Let's go!"
We hand our hired towels to an old woman at the door of the sento, slip into our setta (sandals) and stride out into the quietude of a Kita Ward night.
"What are we going to do now?" Ryohei asks.
"God knows," I reply. "Let's just walk up the road and see what's at the end of it."
Kegawa no Maries play Shinjuku ACB, July 11; Osaka Shangri La, July 15; Shimokitazawa Club Que, July 24; Kobe Mersey Beat, Aug. 8; Osaka King Cobra, Aug. 12; and Shinjuku Red Cloth, Aug 24. www.kegawa-no-maries.com
Simon Bartz edits a Web site about Japanese music at badbee.net firstname.lastname@example.org