Japan: Instant Pictures

Japan - Instant PicturesSynopsis: A collection of music videos by the band Japan. Tracks include Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Cantonese Boy, Swing, Still Life in Mobile homes, Night Porter, Canton, Visions of China.  


Japan: Instant Pictures 7.5

eyelights: David Sylvian. the unusual quality of Japan’s music.
eyesores: the brevity and incompleteness of the set.

Japan is a band that I never would have stumbled across if I wasn’t curious and adventurous. Formed in 1974 and primarily active from 1977 to 1983, I was far too young to be familiar with them – especially given that they were only moderately successful (and mostly in the UK). I’ve also never known anyone else who knew about them, let alone listened to them. Like a few other of my favourites, I pretty much have an exclusive claim on this band.

I first stumbled upon them when I was first exploring music. In my area, there was a music store called Spinables that carried second-hand vinyl, cassettes and some CDs (the format was in its early stages). I loved to peruse the walls units full of cassettes, trying to find the next purchase. I would use my lunch money (a whopping 5$ per week!) to buy myself a new album, and I had to make a judicious choice – it would be my only one that week.

I kept looking at Japan’s ‘Assemblage’. I was extremely fond of the introspective, pensive pose of the man on this black and white cover. Emblazoned over him, in bright red, was the band’s name in a Asian-inspired font. I was intrigued but, as I had no idea what to expect (and despise taking risks when my finances are so limited), it took me quite a few visits before I decided to finally give them a shot. One rainy night, after school, I bought the tape.

I didn’t know then, but ‘Assemblage’ is a compilation of various singles and some outtakes from their early years. I’m no great fan of compilations, but it’s a good thing that I picked this one up: I would soon discover that Japan were a band whose musical style morphed dramatically over their short lifespan. Begun as an edgy glam rock band, they became an alternative disco band, then a contemplative New Wave act and then a World Beat-inspired outfit.

There’s no way that any single one of their albums would have portrayed them fully.

‘Assemblage’ was tremendous. I had never heard anything like it before and insisted on playing for friends, as it was the edgiest thing I had in my collection (along with The Sisters of Mercy and Jane’s Addiction). The opening salvo of “Adolescent Sex” was provocative, disturbing even (“Well, you’re out on the street with your lover’s infections”) leaving me slightly stunned and yet entranced: it was hooky, it was raw, it was wicked.

The first half of the compilation showed their alternative persona, with “Communist China” and “…Rhodesia” and “Suburban Berlin” while the flip-side was full of delicious ear candy: their Giorgio Moroder-produced single, “Life in Tokyo”, the dancy number “European Son” and the infectious “Quiet Life”. It was only marred by their covers of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I Second That Emotion”, which to this day I simply cannot bear.

In any case, I played the tape quite a bit and it began my love affair with Japan: I would end up buying the few tapes I could find, and eventually picked up all their albums on CD – notably the Japanese releases, which frequently held rare material. I love each phase of Japan’s transition and, in fact, cherish them for never serving up the same thing and yet remaining the same band. I would eventually explore their solo efforts, especially David Sylvian’s.

‘Instant Pictures’ is a 30-minute video compilation that was released in 1984. It’s an incomplete collection, composed mostly of clips from their later period, with Virgin Records. Their Hansa Records (the label they initially got signed to after beating The Cure in a competition!) videos wouldn’t be compiled until 2001, and only in Japan – and even then, some clips remained absent, finding their way on ‘The Very Best Of’ DVD. Some, not all.

Since Japan’s video releases are elusive at best (especially in North America), I had to find alternate means by which to procure them. It wasn’t easy, but spurred on by watching the No-Man DVDs and discovering that most of Japan’s members were intimately connected to the band, I dug up copies of many of their videos. Having never seen them before, I was extremely eager to get around to it. This would be my first exposure to the group’s video persona.

Instant Pictures

As was typical with home video releases at the time, ‘Instant Pictures’ begins with some spare credits before jumping right into the programming (I suppose that footage of the band could have complemented the piece, but they had disbanded by then. Virgin likely also wanted to keep the running time at 30 minutes to keep production costs low). In any case, each video is introduced in the form of a Polaroid, with its title scrawled on the white base.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Gentlemen Take Polaroids (single version): This is the first and only single that was released from Japan’s album of the same name – despite being their first with Virgin Records and their biggest hit thus far. I always thought that this was their response to “Girls on Film”, but it turns out that it was released a full eight months prior to Duran’s major hit. Comparatively, this is slower, backed by lovely atmospheric keys, and Mick Karn’s signature bass.

The video is a stage performance. Sylvian is seen from the back, walking down the aisle towards stage. He’s looking all cool, very much like Nick Rhodes eventually would, with blonde hair and a suit. They all look very New Wave/New Romantic. The set-up is simple, but they have fluorescent panels above and behind the band members; these flash to some of the rhythm, at select times. It’s cool-looking. The video ends with the rest of band walking down the aisle toward the stage. It’s a simple video, and yet it’s effective, well-conceived. 7.0/7.0

2. Cantonese Boy (live): The studio version was the fourth and last single from Japan’s final studio album, ‘Tin Drum’. This version is taken from their live album ‘Oil on Canvas’. I don’t know how to describe this song. It has a superb keyboard support it and the bass playing is rather unusual for pop music. I love Sylvian’s voice: it’s atypical but it’s smooth, deep.

The live video is taken from the film for ‘Oil on Canvas’ although this is apparently a different edit. The video is a bit murky, but Sylvian has an appealing presence. This is bolstered by archival footage filmed in China: marches, flags, army. It’s an impressive sight, these masses of people, tanks, …etc. The video is cheap, but it works. 7.0/7.0

3. Swing (short version): Also culled from ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, this was never actually released as a single, so I don’t know why there’s a video for it. Frankly, “Swing” was never a favourite of mine. It’s a horn and bass-driven, groovy number awash in atmospheric keys. That and “Ain’t That Peculiar” really hobbles the album for me.

The video sets the band on a dark soundstage with lights creating shadows of them on panels behind them. Sylvian is wearing aviator-style sunglasses, a leather jacket, and his hair is black with blonde bangs. He look like a Rock star, not a New Romantic one. The rest of the band are fairly nondescript, with sweaters, vests, dress shirts. Only Karn keeps up, looking unusual, like an alien (shaved eyebrows, a long-term stylistic choice of his, certainly adds to this impression). 4.5/6.5

4. Still Life in Mobile Homes (live): Originally from ‘Tin Drum’ this song has a very unusual rhythm, between the bass and drums. It adds Oriental-sounding keyboard textures, making it quite distinctive – there’s nothing like it then or now. Plus which it features Asian women chanting during, and some guitar noise at the end of, the bridge.

This is again culled from ‘Oil on Canvas’ and it’s spruced up by archival footage of Chinese homes, people, shops, boats. It ends with shots of the band at a tea house, by the water, looking miserable. Why there is a video for this song and performance, which wasn’t a single, is beyond me. 5.0/6.5

5. Nightporter (short version): I adore this song, although this single version is too brief. It’s mostly keys, some air instrument; it’s simple, atmospheric, gorgeous. Sylvian’s voice is breathtaking here – it’s so deep. He came into his own with this material. Who would have expected this metamorphosis even two years prior? While this was never a single, it very well should have been. The video consists mostly of Sylvian playing piano and singing, with some shots of Karn playing the oboe. 8.0/5.0

6. Canton (live): This instrumental number never would have been a single, so it’s intriguing that it’s featured in this collection. It has an amazing rhythm, and Asian-sounding keyboard plinks. It’s anthemic, nearly epic. Again, this is a live version from ‘Oil on Canvas’.

Aside from the concert footage, which shows Sylvian taking a back seat to the rest of the band, the video shows masses of Chinese walking about, tons of fireworks, a little nightlife and clips from Chinese musicals. Funny that a band called Japan would do such Chinese-themed music. 8.25/7.5

7. Visions of China: The second single from ‘Tin Drum’, “Visions of China” is rooted in the rhythm section of the band, with cool keyboard flourishes giving it an Asian flavour. The song picks up a bit during its chorus.

This is a proper video, as we’ve come to know them – albeit an ’80s one. Sylvian, in black and white, is watching martial artists and images of China on TV, while the rest of the band, in colour, play their instruments dressed in what appeared to me to be Red Army outfits. Again, very ’80s. 7.5/6.5

What surprised me the most in watching this was just how telegenic David Sylvian was. While the rest of the band are pretty average looking fellows (aside from Mick Karn, the odd man of the band), Sylvian’s stunning beauty makes an immediate impression. He also has an indescribable presence, something akin to a more reserved Bowie; he’s not especially showy and/or shiny. In the videos, it really felt as though Japan was Sylvian-centric. Then again, he was the frontman.

In any case, it was fascinating to watch these impressions of the band in their later years (during their last two of five studio albums). I can see how they would have been lost in the New Wave/New Romantic movement at the time, and yet they had a distinct style and flavour. Perhaps that’s why they never truly broke through to the masses and became more of a cult figure instead: the masses tend to like the familiar, what can effortlessly be digested. Japan were different.

The Very Best Of

To get a better sense of the band, I decided to track down a copy of ‘The Very Best Of’, which features videos not available on ‘Instant Pictures’. Again, no collection is complete, but ‘Instant Pictures’ is the first and only video compilation to cover a whole period, so I focused on that. ‘The Very Best Of’ pulls from different eras and consists of a set of videos and the live show ‘Oil On Canvas’ (which I will review separately, at a later date).

As ‘The Very Best Of’ has some overlapping material with ‘Instant Pictures’ (videos four through seven are repeats), I decided to watch only the ones that weren’t already viewed.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Life in Tokyo: This song is not featured on any studio album as it was a single that the band co-wrote with famed disco producer Giorgio Moroder and released separately. It’s pretty much an alternative disco track – it’s not typical dance floor material. I love it. It has an terrific bridge featuring sax and fascinating soundscapes layered behind it all. Interestingly, Sylvian’s voice is wedged somewhere between his early and late Japan modes; he’s clearly in transition here. Sadly, the song fades out abruptly in this version.

The video consists of a band performance (surprise, surprise). We’re taken to an empty, dark, smokey stage and are introduced to the band with a quick sweeping camera motion. They couldn’t possibly look more new wave. Um… aside for the three back-up singers. Anyway, seeing these freaky weirdos only cements the notion of this being alternative disco. 8.25/6.75

2. Quiet Life: This was one of the highlights of the ‘Assemblage’ compilation. Taken from the album of the same name, “Quiet Life” was the lead single but failed to hit the charts. Frankly, I don’t know why: synth-based with a bass groove, it’s super hooky, catchy and quick-paced. It may not be complex musically, but it’s mega-fun.

Again, we’re looking at an “on stage” performance for the video.  The band is all dressed in various suits, looking a bit New Romantic. David takes on a Bowie-esque quality here, which I found fascinating to see. But the video is bland, killing the impact of the song. 8.0/6.5

3. I Second That Emotion: Really? A Smokey Robinson track? Honestly? WTF. Nothing against the original, but I never liked this rendition: it has a good melody, but it’s lacking edge. Thankfully, it’s also a non-album single, so I only hear it on compilations.

The video is on a set that has a 1920s-30s theme; it looks artificial like the Dario Argento films of the late ’70s, early ’80s did. Sylvian is wearing a suit with a bow tie, while the rest are in their usual garb. Um… except for Karn, who is wearing a zebra jacket, and sporting pink hair. 6.0/6.5

Wow. I was fully aware of Japan’s edgier glam rock style in the early days, but I had obviously never seen them in action before. This was a revelation. They were raw, but they had a dangerous quality to them that would be totally diffused by the time that they hit their New Romantic/New Wave phase mere years later. The videos are crap (that’s to be expected given the era and the budget that this band worked with with Hansa), but it’s great to see anyway.

Video Hits

Naturally, I would have wanted to see all of their videos, but the remaining ones are only available on the Japanese-only DVD ‘Video Hits’, which includes six of their Hansa Records promotional videos. Since it is nearly impossible to get, I decided to seek them out on Youtube, in all its fabulous video and audio glory (it’s sad but telling that the average person can be contented with mp3s and low-resolution videos. Le sigh…).

As with ‘The Very Best Of’, ‘Video Hits’ has a couple of duplicate numbers at their tail end – in this case videos five and six. I sure wish someone would just compile all of them in one darned place, chronologically, without these pointless overlaps.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Don’t Rain On My Parade: The first ever single by Japan, culled from their debut album, ‘Adolescent Sex’, this is a far more guitar-based number than their other stuff. Also, for those unfamiliar with this part of their history, the vocals are raw, whiny, and slightly grating. And awesome. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the song, particularly the main lyric (which is clichéd), but it’s good.

The video is a stage performance (naturally, being their first and being on a small label in the ’70s). This is the early years, raw both in sound and image: Sylvian’s got long, bleached tousled hair, and an earring. He looks like trash, like a junkie (i.e. you shouldn’t trust him with your daughters). I love this image, though: he kind of looks risky. The others don a more traditional rock look of the era. 7.0/6.0

2. Adolescent Sex: This is the song that got me into the band, but I’m not sure if this is the album version, or the re-recorded single version I fell in love with on ‘Assemblage’ (hard to say from a Youtube video!). The song is bass-rooted with synth highlights and Sylvian’s vocals are raw, whiny, scratchy, slightly dissonant. I remember being knocked to the floor by this song. It felt nasty, inappropriate somehow. I liked it. Still do.

This is yet another band performance with cheap visuals repeating their image in the background. Their name is emblazoned above them, in a flashing effect. They look like an average glam band from the era, but Sylvian’s got a raw style that isn’t in keeping with everything that followed in his career. He’s even more questionable-looking than in the previous video. But he looks wicked: long, wavy blonde hair, bangles, black suit. I wish. 8.0/5.0

3. Communist China: This is another of the songs that I quite enjoyed from the get-go: faster beat, bass-driven and with layers of guitar. Then the chorus hits you like something from another world, detached from the song. Sylvian’s vocals are so scratchy here. I’m not surprised that he strayed from this style with time. I mean, who could keep it up? Not even Vince Neil could!

This is… guess what… yet another band performance, and may have been shot on the same set as “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. Except that Sylvian’s on rhythm guitar this time, playing it low and tumbling about a bit like Sid Vicious. Very nice. I wuvs it! 8.0/6.0

4. Sometimes I Feel So Low: This number from their second album, ‘Obscure Alternatives’, is a guitar-based mid-tempo piece with a piano backing. But with a title like that, you’d expect it to be a slow dirge. It’s a decent song, with back-ups from the others (including “Oohweeoohs”), but it’s hardly my favourite album cut. In fact, it may be my least favourite – which says a lot about how much I adore the album.

Frankly, I was surprised to find out that there’s a video for this, but I didn’t know at the time that it was a single (one of two, the other being “Deviation”). There’s not much to it: it’s just the band playing the song with some sort effect in the background. David’s on guitar again, but playing normally this time. He looks more manicured here, but these guys really are from the ’70s. There’s no mistaking it. 6.5/5.0

Overall, these were all super low budget, unsophisticated videos, but that’s par for the course in the late ’70s. Heck, even Michael Jackson’s videos were  shite at the time. I nonetheless enjoyed seeing the band’s early years, when they were a rock band that I’d dig watching live. They always had mystique, but back then they had an undercurrent of danger that I really enjoy. Again, same band, different flavours – all Japan.

I really can’t say it enough, though: Christ, Sylvian has fabulous features. Even today, looking a bit worn for his age, and a bit ghostly, that still shines through. How did he not become a poster boy? Did he purposely avoid the spotlight? It’s the impression I get, but I don’t know that for sure. If that’s the case, it’s commendable that he didn’t fall prey to vanity. Man, what I wouldn’t have done to look like that.

I really wish it was possible to find these videos elsewhere than overseas or online. And in disparate places, at that. Given that none of the sets runs at more than 30 minutes and that there are overlaps, it seems to me that it would be easy to put them together (oh, sure, there are rights issues, but that can be overcome). When I get all of these sets in DVD quality, I will do my own home-brewed version (as I did with Duran Duran, for instance).

There are also various television appearances that could be brought together to this set. Given the band’s cult appeal, I don’t understand why there isn’t a concerted effort to archive their output in one place – aside from the bootleg comps that are out there, that is. I know that I would dearly want to get my hands on all of them in one collection, even if I have some of it already. And I have no doubt that I am not alone. Japan were an awesome band.

If you don’t know them already, you really should acquaint yourself with them.

Post scriptum: A few thank yous are crucial in this acknowledging what went into making this entry. If not for nightporter.co.uk and SurfCityDVD, not only would I not have been able to put this together, but I wouldn’t have done it in such a timely fashion. Thanks so much.

Date of viewing: August 23, 2014

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