Ask any foreigner in Japan who operates a blog where he/she pretends to be a junior Japan sociologist (I do this!) about humor in Japan. I’m willing to wager a large chunk of them will note how slapstick and situational comedy in this country is opposed to the place they hail from where, for the most part, irony and awkwardness tend to be the major building block of laughs. In America, some of the most popular shows people turn to are things like The Office and Jersey Shore, programs exemplifying the awkward and (bizarrely) ironic styles respectively. In Japan, a lot of comedy shows involve either people in ridiculous situations or manzai, a traditional comedic style wherein a straight guy and a dumb guy make jokes and hit each other. Japan isn’t America so of course their style of comedy looks vastly different, but let’s also not forget this is a country that swims in American media. They just don’t seem to have taken to irony the same way they took to Prison Break (it’s popular here, unironically).
The Japanese can do irony, though, and might be more skillful at it then Westerners give them credit for. See this year’s film Big Tits Zombie which Popmatters already held up as an example of Japanese cinema becoming more self-aware. TV shows might fall back on the Abbot-Costello style often, but they also often take a mocking tone when it comes to many Japanese issues, ranging from politicians to entertainers (heck, even seemingly uncool SMAP indulge in this on their variety show). I’m convinced old-man singing group OJS48 is one big joke and…what post like this wouldn’t be complete without a personal anecdote…even students I know have torn about AKB48 and their creepy male fans by pretending to be just like them. Irony isn’t nearly as widespread here…but it certainly rears it’s trucker-hat-wearing head frequently.
J-Pop, though, seems pretty resilient to non-sincere gestures. Whereas American pop sometimes drowns in irony (Ke$ha, 3OH!3, LMFAO, so on), Japanese pop stars ooze nothing but honesty…or at least “honesty” as dictated by the record companies. Save for the occasional “silly” song coupled with “silly” music video, Japanese pop music rarely seems less than serious.
Enter Vanilla Beans. Their new single “100mankai no SMK,” (a cover of something called “Jack 10’s” ending theme, but I can’t find anything about whatever that is) off their new best-of album doesn’t sound like a piss-take, rather falling in line with the same type of retro-inspired J-Pop that comes off as extremely catchy. The track itself sounds like an above-average pop song. The video though…see for yourself.
To me anyway, it screams “ironic.” From the sub-Pillgrums kisses popping up to the awkward “kiss” sequence to Vanilla Bean’s themselves looking spaced out for the clip’s playtime. The “100mankai no SMK” video comes off as very self-aware…that or someone really should be called into the bosses’ office for the rainbow lips effect. Pointing out irony is never an easy task…recall Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic…” but this seems like a fairly safe situation of “callin’ it like I see it.”
Vanilla Bean’s past behavior and videos seem to hint at a heavy dose of irony being a part of at least their visual presentation. When they first debuted, the duo went around Tokyo in a bus making public appearances…something many J-Pop artists have relied on, including current sensation AKB48 who used a heavily-interactive marketing strategy to get to where they are today. Instead of performing songs, however, Vanilla Beans just sat inside the bus…which had a clear window allowing people on the street to see them…reading magazines and playing video games. Also check the double whammy of the “Nicola” and “U Heart Me” videos. The former finds the two dressed as airline attendants dancing in a field surrounded by what could be Katamari Damacy props, while the latter takes place in someone’s house and features all sorts of random crap popping up on screen. In both videos, Vanilla Beans dance around with deadpan expressions glued on their faces, like the “100mankai no SMK.” I think it’s a gag on how over-the-top most J-Pop stars act in videos, but you decide for yourself.
Two more examples, both of which I’ll post with no comment because I don’t think they need any explaining save for the fact the second clip is a send-up of 1970’s Japanese girl pop duos.
Vanilla Bean’s are one of the only musical acts in Japan I can think of…the other being maybe goofy twee-crunkers Love And Hates, and they just might be having fun…that make irony a big part of their act. It’s weird coming from America – where everyone seems totally sick of “ironic” gestures…to Japan where something as simple as being a little dishonest about what your doing in a music video seems like a revelation. Vanilla Beans are one of the more interesting pop duos going right now, and one of the few acts period trying something crazy different in Japan.
Unless, of course, they just can’t act and don’t spend much on their music videos. In which case…sorry you read all that!