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Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

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Life in plastic, it's fantastic: Plastics perform at Rising Sun's Moon Circus in Hokkaido on Aug. 14. DANIEL ROBSON PHOTO

Hokkaido festival Rising Sun keeps its cool all night

Special to The Japan Times

Could this be the most chilled music festival on Earth? At Rising Sun Rock Festival in Otaru, Hokkaido, no one seems to mind about the mud, the result of typhoon rains that drenched the festival site just hours before kickoff. The staff look like they're having a ball, beaming warmly as they stand for hours on end at the mid-site wristband check, pleading jokingly with the revelers to show their passes; at a nearby "tension check," their colleagues ask the crowd to display their level of excitement with a holler or whoop. A cool breeze sweeps the vast, flat fields, lending a refreshing edge to the 29-degree heat. Anxiety is nowhere to be felt.

Now in its 12th year, Rising Sun Rock Festival (Aug. 13-14) draws together the very best elements of Japan's other major festivals — the all-night action of Fuji Rock, the family-friendly fields of Rock In Japan, Summer Sonic's youthful energy — with some neat ideas of its own, including mercifully downplayed sponsorship, a smattering of free-to-use hammocks, stages visible from the campsites and incredible food. And it presents a strong bill of Japanese bands, from superstars to rising stars.

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Let's start with the latter. Pulling a sizable crowd made up almost exclusively of young women, clean-cut three-piece andymori plied their indie pop trade for an early-afternoon set on Friday's Green Oasis stage, their bassist Hiroshi Fujiwara literally wearing his influences on his "Meat Is Murder" Smiths T-shirt. Equally as popular with the opposite sex were four-woman whirlwind Kinoco Hotel, who raised the temperature in the Crystal Palace with a set of 1960s throwback psych-rock so seductive it seemed in danger of melting the venue's stained-glass windows. Tobaccojuice, meanwhile, tickled fans with a playful, energetic selection of genre-straddling guitar pop in the tree-filled Bohemian Garden.

Perhaps the most anticipated shows of the weekend took place in the Earth Tent, the festival's second-largest space. The marquee structure was surrounded by treacherous mud, but that didn't stop fans from turning up in droves for the triumphant return of Maximum The Hormone. Back with their first Hokkaido show since drummy mummy Nao Kawakita fell pregnant last year, the hugely popular hardcore metallers put on a fierce performance that fans will no doubt talk about for years to come. Just as well the band were recording it for a live CD, then.

The other big Earth Tent crush came for Soutaiseiriron, whose strict policy of never doing interviews and rarely appearing in photos has created a compelling air of mystery. In fact, they've already achieved a sort of mythical status, drawing thousands of fans and newcomers for their Saturday night performance of sumptuous, eerily sparse, jazz-infused pop. If the band were happy about this, they didn't let on — vocalist Etsuko Yakushimaru stood statue still throughout. Soutaiseiriron's music is so fragile, so intimate, it seemed as though it might crack under such high volume; to see crowd surfers at a show like this was, to say the least, unexpected.

It wasn't all about the kids, mind you. Late on Friday night, long after the last shuttle buses to nearby Sapporo had departed (a major problem for anyone who wanted to see the last few bands but not camp), a fond reception greeted Tamio Okuda in the Earth Tent. The veteran solo champ and mega-producer (whose one-time protegees Puffy played a fun set earlier in the evening) mixed songs from new album "OTRL" with plenty of classics, and he was in fine voice: rich, warm and homey. The whooshes from his mic-stand-mounted homemade theremin enhanced the psychedelic appeal of his blues-rock sound.

Sixty-year-old rock 'n' roll icon Eikichi Yazawa opened the festival's largest arena, the Sun Stage, with a (loud) bang at lunchtime Saturday. Backed by an 11-strong band of Japanese and Western musicians, this consummate entertainer strutted around the stage in his cream slacks and white shirt, shook hands with fans in the front row and — as is tradition at an Ei-chan show — had the crowd throwing their Yazawa-branded towels in the air for his classic hit "Tomaranai Ha-Ha."

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View from the back: Maximum The Hormone perform at Rising Sun's Earth Tent on Aug. 13. PHOTO BY H. AND A.

Over on the small Moon Circus stage, recently re-formed '70s new-wave group Plastics put on a spectacle for a small but fervent audience. Clad in a sparkly silver jacket that he later traded for a robot suit with functioning keyboard on its sleeve, bandleader Toshio Nakanishi nonetheless abdicated the spotlight to his artfully dressed vocalist daughter Karin. It's hard to tell whether Karin really believes the anticonformist lyrics she's inherited from her mother, and original Plastics singer, Chica Sato; it's hard to tell whether even Sato did. But the ramshackle mix of wiry guitars, cheap synths, live electronic drums and yelped vocals sounded every bit as cool as it ever did.

Speaking of cool, Theatre Brook opened their midnight Red Star Field show with a dramatic rendition of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" — popularly known as the theme music from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Fronted by charismatic Afroed guitar virtuoso Taiji Sato, they played a mostly instrumental set of pyrotechnic Hendrix-esque jams.

Coming on stage to thunderclaps and lightning (thankfully from the PA and lighting rig, not the sky), Tha Blue Herb set a different tone altogether. These Sapporo boys drew a staunchly devoted crowd — their fans literally roared when Boss The MC and DJ Dye took the stage to deliver their hard-edged hip-hop, with a street-level view of life in Sapporo that put the lightweight party tunes of Friday's goofy Sun Stage headliners Scha Dara Parr to shame.

As the festival's name suggests, the real headliner of Saturday's late-night/early- morning merrymaking is not a band but the rising sun itself. Unfortunately a special-guest appearance from a dense mist rather dampened the effect, not to mention that it was soundtracked by a Sun Stage set from the achingly average Asian Kung-Fu Generation. Also, a mollycoddling rule banning stalls from selling alcohol after 2:30 a.m. (three hours before the end of the festival) made for something of an anticlimax.

Nonetheless, the stage lights looked pretty against the dusky haze in this live-music Utopia. As revelers gazed on from their tents, huddling around their barbecues and savoring the last moments of bliss before the arduous trek back to real life, there was a palpable sense of calm — something very few music festivals can hope to achieve.

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