Tokyo Dark Castle
Halloween Special 2008
by Cayce

Ah, Tokyo. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new and wonderful pops up and catches you off guard. Not that I pretend to have seen it all, and Tokyo Dark Castle isn’t all that new, either—it’s been running for five years now. But it sure is fantastic—a delicious all-night Goth-gasm sure to turn your darkest dreams darker than darkness. And what better time of the year for Goth celebrations than Halloween? After all, Halloween is when the rest of the world, however briefly, takes some time out to appreciate the beauty in life’s black holes. Halloween has no connection to or roots in Japanese tradition, but nonetheless, at Halloween, Japan (or at least Tokyo) continues to live up to the standard it set in the worlds of cars, computers, robots, comics, rock music, and spongecake. Maybe the Japanese didn’t invent all that stuff in the first place, but they try their hardest to do it as well as the West does it, and maybe even better.

Tokyo Dark Castle is a club event that runs a number of times a year at MARZ, a live house and club in Tokyo. It’s the brainchild of Genet, frontman of AUTO-MOD, Japanese deathrock/batcave/darkwave band extraordinaire, and it features a fairly steady though slowly evolving group of performers, most of whom are regular fixtures in the Tokyo underground music and club scene. What’s particularly striking about the event, however, is the way it blurs cultural and subcultural barriers.

In many ways, visual kei is Japan’s answer to Europe’s goth movement, and in part, this means that there is comparatively little Western-style goth culture in Japan. What Western-style goth culture that does exist is the province of the original generation of batcavers who all went on extended holidays in London back in the 80's at the height of the Bubble economy. Most younger Japanese people I’ve met have never heard of Bauhaus or the Banshees and the only Banshees songs available at Japanese karaoke are "Hong Kong Garden," "Spellbound" and "Dear Prudence"...which isn't even a Banshees song (maybe I’ll talk about how disappointing I find this in another article.) However, there are a good number of Westerners in Tokyo who may have been drawn there by the lure of visual rock but nonetheless hold in their hearts a fondness for Pete, Sioux, Bob, Ian, Andy, Nick, and the rest of the crew.

This Tokyo Dark Castle event in particular featured a performance by Kozi, formerly of Malice Mizer, so naturally the place was packed with homegrown Tokyo visual kids. But there were also all those uprooted gaijin gravers, and plenty of people somewhere in the middle. The end result was a room full of people of all different nationalities, ages, and backgrounds, using all different languages to speak about a surprisingly wide breadth of musical taste. For all that, though, they had one thing in common, besides being at the same event: they were all dressed to kill.
After all, what is Halloween without costumes? Of course, the street fashions are terrific at any time of year in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, but Halloween is still special. What happens when those people who dress to the nines every day pull out all the stops and dress to the elevens, twelves, and fifteens? It means that the innocent bystanders in east Shinjuku on Saturday night are in for a sartorial spectacle the like of which, to my knowledge, cannot be seen in any other city on earth.

This being Halloween, the event proper was preceded by a costume parade, which began at 10:30 in the center of Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s ebulliently decadent red-light district. The parade was free for anyone to attend so long as they adhered to the strict goth dress code; however, I was at a loss to see how the dress code could have been enforced. Once about a hundred people had gathered, everyone set off into the crowded Shinjuku streets and it was impossible to tell who was marching and who was just enjoying the show. Genet himself led the way in his full corpse makeup and skeleton-patterned leather jacket. He was accompanied by a man in similarly stupendous attire holding a boombox on one shoulder, blasting industrial into the night and urging everyone to dance as they marched. As the parade swept down the street, the passersby stopped, stared, and gaped in open admiration of the costumes.

The costumes! No one was dressed up “as” anyone in particular—they were just expressing their own individual styles to the utmost. Standing on towering heeled boots laced up to the knee, they danced past with trailing petticoats, waists tightened in elaborately boned corsets, wearing jackets covered with lace and metal accents. They wore veiled hats topped with gardens of black-silk roses, or had simply augmented their hair with sausage-curled wigs or extensions made of foam, tubing, and neon fiber in every possible color. Their faces were powdered to a ghostly white, their foreheads and cheeks adorned with tiny jewels or sigils done in black eyeliner, their eyes framed with spangled false lashes and tinted to unnatural hues with colored contacts.

Most of the people in the particularly spectacular getups revealed themselves on closer inspection to be some of the night’s performers—DJ SiSen with his huge head of green and purple foam dreadlocks made a particularly lasting impression as he and Genet led the way up the steps to the altar of the Hanazono Jinja, a large Shinto shrine right in the middle of Kabukicho. At this point, some of the revelers stopped to pray while the rest just smoked, socialized, and danced to the techno. Once the gods had been properly thanked and appeased, the parade moved on, stopping for another dance session in an open square a few streets over before solidifying itself into an excited queue outside the doors of Marz.

The doors were set to open at midnight, but by my reckoning, they opened late. Also, it took a long time for the staff to admit everyone into the venue—they carefully checked ID’s to make sure everyone was over 18 and out of high school and then stamped everyone with a UV sensitive mark that glowed brightly under the blacklights within. By the time I had gotten into the venue and made my way down into the smoky pit, I found I’d already missed the first band of the evening: horror-pop ensemble 13th Moon. Still, DJ Chihiro was spinning a deliciously mournful mélange of death rock and AUTO-MOD was up next, so it was hard to feel too blue (or black, as the case may be.)

AUTO-MOD consists of Masa on bass, Yukino on guitar, Tell on drums, Selia on backing vocals, and Genet on lead vocals. Genet credits himself with coining the term "positive punk" (the Japanese term for "post punk") and was described by his friend Issay (vocalist of Der Zibet) as belonging to the same almost-extinct breed of “aesthetic fools” to which Issay and the infamous Mr. Sakurai of BUCK-TICK belong. Anyone who doubts Issay’s declaration need only attend an AUTO-MOD live performance. On stage, AUTO-MOD are at least as visual as any visual band I’ve yet seen, and their visual impact is augmented by the fact that they often appear onstage supported by a rotating circus macabre of Butoh dancers, snake charmers, and other various and sundry freaks and wild things. Tonight, each of the members looked a perfect picture of death with white faces and black lips, their bodies encased in tight black leather, fishnet, and dangling bondage jewelry. The exception was Selia, who wore his usual anachronistic gown and furs. He played the woman’s part, erotically touching Genet’s body while Genet crooned, screamed and spat his twisted, venomous lyrics. The rest of the band didn’t just stand there and play their instruments, though—they danced and writhed their way around the stage in invocations of Satanic ritual.

Sound-wise, AUTO-MOD has gone through a lot of changes.  Originally founded in 1980 by a loose collective of musicians including Buck-Tick's Yokoyama Kazutoshi, Personz's Mitsugu, and Boowy's Hotei Tomoyasu (who was the main songwriter for much of the band's originally activities), the original AUTO-MOD probably most closely resemble a Japanese version of the Sex Gang Children, Alien Sex Fiend or the Virgin Prunes - think raw, spare, and screechy.  AUTO-MOD originally broke up in 1985, performing their last live for a wild, sold-out crowd at Korakuen Hall, but got together again in the late 1990's supported by guitarist/songwriter Yukino (formerly of visual kei pioneer band EX-ANS) and merciless musical mercenaries Masa and Tell.  Genet is the only original member of AUTO-MOD to still be involved with the project, and his vocals haven't changed much over all these years, though while AUTO-MOD still regularly perform their greatest hits from the 80's, since their re-formation they've released a whole new body of material that verges less toward the post-punk and more toward metal-tinged melodic rock and gleeful devil-worship. 

Still, they’ve got relentlessly propulsive beats and tonight they made sure to play all the crowd favorites, old and new, beginning with “Devil Dance,” which appears on the Tokyo Dark Castle compilation CD. The intimacy of the live space added an immediacy and fullness to their sound, and Selia’s beautiful, ethereal vocalizations added wonderful depth to Genet’s guttural ones. The band danced around and around on the stage, working the audience into a frenzy of excitement. At the culmination of the set, during "Death of the 20th Century," Genet pulled out his history book, opened it, raised it up and out towards the crowd, and in an instant, dramatically set it on fire. He then proceeded to dance and sing while holding the still-flaming book in his hands.  Everyone mistakes this book for a bible, but it was originally intended to be a history book, the burning of which symbolizes the literal death of the 20th century.  However, so many fans mistake it for a bible that the official word is, it has now become a bible.

Plenty of people wanted AUTO-MOD’s set to go on and on, but of course they had to yield the stage to the other guest performers. Next up was Dalle, the most anticipated group of the evening, featuring Kozi (formerly of Eve of Destiny and Malice Mizer) on guitar. More than cheap synth strings, fractured French and truly superb wings, Malice Mizer’s unique gift to the visual kei consciousness was a romantic Rococo ideal and oodles and oodles of melodrama. While Kami’s noble spirit may have aspired the clouds that so untimely did scorn the earth, Gackt’s nose may have mutated beyond all recognition, and Yu~ki may have mysteriously vanished from the music scene, in some of Malice Mizer’s fans the soul still burns. With Kozi still alive and making music, how could they despair? The crowd swelled considerably and fans pressed closer and closer to the stage, trembling with excitement. However, it looked like Dalle wasn’t going to be quite what they bargained for.
The four-piece band came out on stage clad in simple gothic black, vocalist Satoshi’s eyes adorned with a fetching fishnet mask. Kozi himself looked nearly unrecognizable from his Malice days. Gone are the days of red satin motley. Tonight, Kozi sported an artfully styled mop of black hair and just a little bit of black makeup. Still, his fans knew him instantly, and screamed and cheered his name almost constantly throughout the set. However, the music was nothing like Malice Mizer, either; nor was it even original. Dalle appear to have started activities very recently, so perhaps they haven’t had time to perfect their original compositions yet. Or perhaps they were just playing a special set in honor of Halloween and Tokyo Dark Castle.

In any case, their set was entirely composed of covers of classic goth numbers, including the ever-popular “Tainted Love,” Bauhaus's "Dark Entries," and Christian Death’s “Romeo’s Distress.” Vocalist Satoshi proved to have perfect English pronunciation, so from the first moment he opened his mouth to sing “Sometimes I feel like I could run away…” I and the other English speakers in the audience knew exactly what was coming next. Afterwards, I heard some complaints about the band’s performance, but I have to disagree. They were a very tight unit with a London-inspired sound that made me think longingly of late nights in Islington. Also, there’s a special pleasure in hearing a good band cover old favorites, as well as the amusing novelty of hearing visual rockers go goth (or rather, go back to their goth roots). As I said, Tokyo Dark Castle blurs the lines.

When the set was done, I asked a few of the ex-Malice fans how they felt about their idol playing English-language cover songs. “Wait what? Those were covers? Satoshi was singing in English?” was the response I kept getting. Ah well, I’ve got a cultural advantage when it comes to spotting this sort of thing.

Even with the main act done, the night’s aural pleasures weren’t over. Next up was Seileen, the collaboration project of Selia and DJ SiSen. Very few people I spoke to at the event seemed to know much about Selia, and many seemed to think he was a woman, so I’ll give a little background info on him before I continue. Selia is a highly talented, classically trained counter-tenor who started as a solo performer at events like Tokyo Decadance, where he sang classical music wearing splendid gothic drag (a counter-tenor is a man who sings in a woman’s register.) Selia has doubtless been mistaken for a woman due to his soprano vocals, delicate beauty, and penchant for wearing androgynous clothing, but as soon as he opens his mouth to speak rather than sing, his voice betrays him as a man. Of course now, he also performs with AUTO-MOD as a backup vocalist. He gained a bit of notice in the West when he joined the Tokyo Decadance European tour and was featured as a guest vocalist on Buck-Tick’s album Tenshi no Revolver.

The other half of Seileen is DJ SiSen, another Tokyo Decadance veteran and former Harajuku bridge cosplay kid who can nearly always be seen modeling the most outré looks of Takuya Angel, Harajuku’s most extreme cyberpunk designer and a DJ in his own right. In addition to a mountain of dreadlocks, SiSen usually favors colored contacts and furry lime-green boot and glove accessories that make him look like he’s half human, half mutant Dr. Seuss creature. What could come of this most unlikely marriage of musical and fashion styles? As it turned out, something wonderful and genre-defying.

Though SiSen and Selia were onstage together, they seemed to be operating in separate universes. SiSen danced around his console, creating dark, pulsing, synthetic beats that continually warped and changed. Selia, on the other hand, swept back and forth down the front of the stage, singing an eerie, wordless siren song that seemed to emanate from his whole body, rather than just his mouth. He was accompanied by two equally lusciously, androgynously costumed dancers who undulated over the stage and reminded me irresistibly of Dinah and Hiropon, the dancers for the now-disbanded performance-art-turned-visual band Guniw Tools. Musically, Seileen had both industrial and tribal elements, but what made them unique was their otherworldliness. Selia’s voice barely sounds human, and Sisen’s sounds are entirely electronic. In their costumes, neither of them looked human, either—I felt that I had been transported to another planet presided over by marvelous alien musicians. Seileen have not released a CD yet, but I ardently hope that one will be released in the near future, so I can listen to it on repeat and urge you to do the same. [Update: Seileen's debut album Kinjirareta Asobi is now available from the infamously bitchtastic Darkest Labyrinth Records.]

The night’s set concluded with Aural Vampire, who seem to have become fairly well known in the Western hemisphere thanks to extensive European touring. The band is another contrasting duo—EXO-CHIKA, the vocalist, styles herself like a vampire princess, with long blond hair, lace-adorned black clothes, and a very low décolletage. But RAVEMAN, the programmer, keeps his true identity entirely hidden under a creepy black helmet that distorts his voice. Together, the pair make an enjoyably danceable sort of dark club music. To complement their music, they projected a constant string of images on the large screen at the back of the stage, taking full advantage of their 4-AM time slot to mesmerize the tired, drunken fans into an endless state of zombie dancing. Even before their set ended, however, many fans had already left, presumably to get a very early bite to eat before awaiting the first train home. Too bad for them, because even when Aural Vampire had finished, the fun wasn’t quite over—there was still the costume contest.

The costume contest turned out to be a very long and protracted affair. With so many wonderful outfits to choose from, I suppose it seemed unfair to give prizes to just a very few people. So one by one, the major performers of the night came forward onstage and picked two or three people whose outfits they liked the best. The lucky winners were then invited up onstage to receive their truly fabulous prizes. The best dressed in the house that night walked away with beautiful designer clothes from Osaka label Dangerous Nude, free tickets to future Tokyo Dark Castle events, and many other treasures. Selia presented one of his picks with a real katana. And in keeping with the spirit of the night, both Japanese and foreign fans were chosen. In addition to the personal picks of the performers, there were fan prizes for fans of particular bands. The most amusing of these had to be the “Buck-Tick prize” given out by Genet, acting as a proxy for his notorious friend Mr. Yagami Toll.

“Anii gave me all this tour crap!” Genet yelled out. “Who here wants it? Raise your hands high!” About twenty fans raised their hands and soon, a woman in tall boots and gauze bandages was led up onto the stage and awarded with a shining silver bag of all the Tenshi no Revolver tour goods ever made. 

And everyone who didn’t win amazing crap this time can try again next year—if they still have enough money to afford it after they’ve put together a winning outfit, that is.

Nursing their aching feet and budding hangovers, the remaining fans slowly made their way out of the venue, blinking and squinting in the blue dawn light. In twos and threes, they joined the ranks of sleepwalkers whose heels echoed through a blissfully empty Shinjuku station and onto the 6AM trains back out into the suburbs for some shampoo, makeup remover, and sleep (or maybe just some hair-of-the-dog booze to keep the hangover at bay...sing like Peter Murphy guys, "Hair of the dog! Hair of the dog!") But no need to feel too let-down. Halloween season isn’t over yet! And after all, isn’t that the beauty of the gothic sensibility—if you like, you can make it Halloween all year long.

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