Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hifana & Maharo

I adore Japanese kids’ TV. While I’ve ostensibly watched it for the benefit of my daughter Cocoa, she’s definitely less charmed by the whole telly experience than me.
I’d put my own fascination down to some madcap antics and a glaring culture crevasse between myself and the people who script these shows: Animated programs like Zenmai Zamurai and the Ryoji Arai offshoot A Country Between the Worlds, along with comedy duo Itsumo Kokokara’s exercise program, Algorithm Taisou, and the puppets in Pitagora Switch.

These programs pan-out on the national broadcaster, NHK, as does Chikaland - which sets its sights on educating slightly older kids (and couch potatoes like myself) by giving them hands-on experience in all manner of professions, aided and abetted by local pros. Some of these guest virtuosos have been J-pop talent like the members of Morning Musume, as well as rock bands (Shonen Knife appeared), chefs, and national team soccer players.

Back in July '09, quite by chance, I switched on the show and tripped out to my favorite musical duo here in Japan, who go by the name of Hifana.

“To tell the truth, we haven't really thought the subject through so deeply,” the two members admitted via e-mail when I quizzed them about their appearance on the show.

One thing that’s hallmarked the career of Keizo Fukuda (KEIZOmachine!) and Jun Miyata (Juicy) since they formed Hifana in 1998 has been a passion for music, along with an apparent wish to share the goods round, which came across in the genial, encouraging way they worked with the kids involved on this show.

Taking into account this outing on the airwaves and their own recorded musical output, the zany samples they employ, and their enigmatic live performances - and the manner in which they’ve won over some of my more seasoned, cynical peers here in Japan - these guys obviously have a disarming sense of humor, yet in interviews like this it’s one they tend to underplay.

“Personally I like humor,” hedges Fukuda, “but it’s not always necessary in my music.”
Miyata shrugs. “I wish audiences would dance and have fun rather than being serious and dark,” he suggests.

In my case I jumped on the Hifana ship quite late. I first stumbled across them in 2006, when I picked up Hifana Presents Nampooh Cable at the HMV megastore in Yokohama.

It was the cover that snagged me - designed by Juicy Mama’s brother.

“The major influences on my art have been manga and ukiyo-e,” reports the Osaka-born, Tokyo-dwelling Maharo (real name undisclosed) three years on. To my mind he’s developing into one of Japan’s most recognizable young visual artists, having designed some superb event fliers and artwork for CDs, DVDs and vinyl, as well as murals and for shoji (paper panel doors).

“For printing, usually I draw with a pencil, scan it, then complete the image with a PC,” Maharo says of his output. “For murals, I use color gesso.”

He also does some hilarious character designs for video, with the stand-outs being the Hifana clips.

Soundwise, Hifana Presents Nampooh Cable was a compilation that included a wide range of musically adept Japanese peers such as DJ/performance artist Tucker, Professor Chinnen, R&B vocalist Keyco, dub guru Zura, Incredible Beatbox Band, and 2002 DMC World DJ Final champion (and Ninja Tune regular), DJ Kentaro.

Maharo’s yellow/red/black/white artwork may have been the hook, but the music that awaited therein - co-produced by people calling themselves Nampooh Office and the Groundriddim Crew - was nothing short of devastating shill. Hifana Presents Nampooh Cable drift-netted my senses and won me over in an instant; I’ve been a Hifana fan ever since.

As it ends up, that 2006 treasure-trove discovery relates to Hifana’s upcoming body of work.

“We’re currently supervising the compilation Nampooh Cable 2, which will be coming out soon,” the boys reported late last year, and there's now a vinyl promo teaser that you can get hold of.

“We’re also in production for our upcoming third album - as well as planning to release scratch vinyl for DJs. We’re also doing session jams, producing music for various other projects, and pursuing our individual DJ activities.”

Hifana has been nothing short of frenetic over the past few years, especially in the live performance domain - an area in which they’re particularly admired and strikingly innovative.

A decade ago Coldcut and Hexstatic king hit me with live gigs in which they entangled visuals with audio; Hifana have taken those inroads a step higher, folding in an intuitive understanding of their machines (turntables, samplers, effects units and DVJ decks) that’s somewhat scary. Their live show, which they dub Fresh Push Breakin’ (actually the name of their first album in 2003), is as much an eye-opening haymaker as it is aurally insane.

Their only disclaimer? “We enjoy creating freely by not being prepossessed.”

Essential parts of that freestyle creativity are Hifana’s found-sound samples, one of the joys of the duo’s live and recorded work - whether or not you speak their tongue. “Japanese narration on vintage vinyl is so funny,” they both espouse. These Hifana then layer above and beneath hip hop beats, bleeps, train announcements, and some glorious pop-culture schlock. “Out of these recordings you can create some fresh tunes, we just have to pay close attention till they combine well.”

The second Hifana album, Channel H (2005), came with 15 music tracks - and 13 music videos created by a collaboration of Juicy, +cruz (Eric Cruz), the VJ Gec group, and Maharo.

One of these videos, for the track ‘Wamono’ (which has Maharo-designed caricatures of KEIZOmachine! and Juicy riding out a Katsushika Hokusai-style animated giant wave, giant fish, and chance encounters with singing mermaids), won an Excellence Award in the Entertainment/Interactive Art category at the 2005 Japan Media Arts Festival.

“We don't really wish our visual images to best explain our music,” Fukuda and Miyata assert. “We're just enjoying the collaboration with our visual team. Hifana wants to show audiences something we think is a fresh live performance, along with the improvements in DJ equipment.”

Which relates back to the music.

“I love music,” Fukuda says with disarming simplicity. “And as for making club music, it seemed so much faster for me to create it, even before I began to dig it. In the process of creating this music, I mostly enjoy the rough sketch of the idea as it starts to become music.”

The man known as Juicy Mama sees things in a shade more practical. “I think I enjoy making music because I’ve been playing in bands since my school days. But as a part of creation, I also enjoy drafting the ideas themselves into finished sounds.”

Esteemed Japanese film directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu take a backseat - “I like Hitoshi Matsumoto,” Miyata says, “and I recommend his on-line short film Zassa [see below], which I saw on YouTube. His Big Man Japan is my recent favorite kaiju movie” - and, as for nominating the best ever Japanese musician, both opt for a rock muso: Lyricist and composer Kiyoshiro Imawano, who died in May 2009.

“He was the master of beautiful melodies, he had messages in his lyrics, he was rebel-minded, and had a sense of humor.”

Images © by Maharo & W+K Tokyo Lab

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