Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive




The Way of Taiko

by Heidi Varian; Foreword by Seichi Tanaka
Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA USA,2005
128 pp., illus. 60 col. Paper, $18.95
ISBN: 1-880656-99-X.

JRock, Ink: A Concise Report on 40 of the Biggest Rock Acts in Japan

by Josephine Yun; Yana Moskaluk, illustrator
Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA USA, 2005
128 pp., illus. 40 col., Paper, $18.95
ISBN: 1-880656-95-7.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University, University Center MI 48710 USA


A Western stereotype of Japanese music is that of delicate plucked notes of a stringed koto, quiet and contemplative enough to accompany the ceremonial serving of tea. These two books engage other Japanese musics, one rooted in venerable, muscular tradition and the other the cream of their frothy, ephemeral, postmodernist Pop.

Taiko is drum music whose roots include Shinto's sacred kagura music and accompaniment to the gigaku drama of the royal court. It was invigorated in the late twentieth century when the Japanese government recognized and protected traditional arts. Taiko in the United States began in Northern California when Seiichi Tanaka founded Taiko Dojo troupe in San Francisco, California, a diverse city where community arts are celebrated and recognized. He began drumming at the Japantown neighborhood's 1968 Cherry Blossom Festival. This reviewer met Tanaka at an antiwar march in 1982 that included many Japanese-Americans troubled by the proliferation of nuclear missiles, and was impressed by his sincerity and commitment as an artist to the well being of the world.

An hour to the south, San José, California, had its own taiko troupe by 1973. First seen by this reviewer about a decade later in a televised appearance, it was hard to take one's eyes off of PJ Hirabayashi and the other women in the troupe, drumming fiercely. Author Heidi Varian is a drummer herself and has been a member of Taiko Dojo. Evidently some taiko drummers bemoan the encountering of non-Japanese influences that might "water down" the genre. They want to see committed drummers maintaining traditional discipline and moral purity. Yet the flexible and shifting edges of taiko are revealed when Varian writes how "[e]veryone in my family plays taiko. I am Icelandic, my husband Aztec, and we are often asked why we play Japanese drums."

The elegant, compact book covers the range of daiko (drums), various narimono percussion instruments, and even the flutes and stringed gakki that might appear alongside the assertive drums. There is a discussion of regalia and costume, an introduction to various philosophical aspects of the taiko drummer's art, and a glossary.

From the same publisher comes JRock, Ink, capsule biographies of Japanese rock musicians by Josephine Yun, an American devotee of Japanese rock music, and editor of www.jrockonline.com . Now, what's that jazz player's quote about how writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Giving us a chatty, serviceable history, Yun is both as informative and maddeningly subjective as the late Lester Bangs. She files journalistic constructs that pique the reader's curiosity, like how BUCK-TICK's "unhappy, dirty music" is "the musical equivalent of exploded soot and smoke." If not always illuminating, it makes for a fun, frisky read. Or perhaps the text is only an armature around the pictures. Yana Moskaluk, an illustrator in Atemy Lebedev's Moscow studio, gives us her visions, well-situated by designer Yelena Zhavornkova <www.untitled.ws>. In the manner of Alan Aldridge's Beatles Illustrated Lyrics or Frank Olinsky's What the Songs Look Like (1987), limning Talking Heads' lyrics, the pictures are delightfully imagined, sometimes irrelevant and noncommunicative but groovy. I would have liked to have glimpsed the Bic pen drawings covering Yana Moskaluk's notebooks in junior high school.

This reviewer very much likes the privileging of subjective drawings, the celebration of an artist's sensibility and freedom from expectations of photographic realism. Yet clearly not all Japanese rockers, especially those with long careers, look like teenyboppers; Puffy AmiYumi (not in the book) are playing in Detroit this month, and one sees from the photo on the advertisement they look like the Japanese women in their forties that they are. Moskaluk's pop stars are all enjoyably sexy and nubile, poutingly sensuous and swirly, fashionable and fey. One thinks of the highly decorative Diaghilev-era Russian artists like Nicholas Roerich, Leon Bakst and Erté (Roman de Tiroff).

Many J-Rock bands continue the Glam (or for them, Kabuki theater) tradition of young men in cosmetics and feminine garments. Whereas most often drag in the west consists of gay men embodying the tragic or perfomative sexuality of female show biz divas, what is normally noticeable in heterosexual Glam Rockers is the tension between their masculine aspects (shoulders, necks, five o' clock stubble) and feminine costume. This was obvious in Bob Gruen's DVD "All Dolled Up", documenting the New York Dolls of the 1970s. In JRock, Ink, Yana Moskaluk's illustrations leach the defiant masculinity from all these mascara'd music men, leaving their visages and lithe frames doll-like, glamorous and girly. However suspect, this is the illustrator's prerogative. It is as if Aubrey Beardsley had been commissioned to depict Notable Personages of 1896 for the London Illustrated News, or Paul Klee drew faculty portraits for the Bauhaus yearbook. Whether Moskaluk was provided CDs and magazine photos of the bands by author Yun or not, the drawings are exercises is style, not documentation. As someone with a cartoon-illustrated rock book of my own from a Japanese publisher (Shohakusha, 2005), I'm OK with that.

My only complaint about this confection, I mean, book JRock, Ink? On the last page of The Way of Taiko we learn that a DVD is available from Stone Bridge that shows Tanaka, his son and grandson playing Taiko with their troupes. It would be rewarding if a similar DVD could be prepared by Stone Bridge, based on JRock, Ink, with videos of all the bands discussed. If not, an audio CD would be very welcome. What author Yun has told us, and what she and illustrator Moskaluk have consciously left out, makes this reader anxious to hear and see more.



Updated 1st October 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST