Buck-Tick Fest 2012 "On Parade" Day One
The Lowbrows
Acid Android
September 22nd at Chiba Port Park
Live Report by Cayce

Back in 2007, when Buck-Tick launched their original festival, “Buck-Tick Fest 2007 On Parade,” reporters commented that for Buck-Tick, famed for their closed-mouthed, aloof, untouchable image, organizing a rock festival seemed out of character.  What did they mean by this?  Well, in the years following their major-label debut, Sakurai, Imai, and Hoshino, the front three band members, rarely spoke more than two words at once during television interviews, leaving it up to the rhythm section, the gregarious Higuchi Brothers, to be the chatty and sociable ones.  Buck-Tick’s unusual and ever-changing stage image, defined by their flashy clothes and gravity-defying hair, clearly marked them as different from more “approachable” musicians who adopted a more everyday appearance.  Furthermore, the deeper Buck-Tick dove into the dark and experimental side of music, the more they separated from the mainstream music scene at large, carving themselves out a cult-like fringe following of fanatically devoted admirers who loved them precisely for their weirdness.  By the time their 20th anniversary rolled around, Buck-Tick had just about lost touch with the Japanese music scene at large, and on the streets, few people under the age of 30 seemed to know their name.  Whether due to their waning popularity or their extreme unwillingness to reveal anything about their private lives, the Buck-Tick members eschewed popular methods of staying in the spotlight—though back in 1990, Sakurai Atsushi was reportedly voted as the “male idol” who Japanese youth most wanted to see starring in a TV drama, none of the Buck-Tick members has ever pursued a parallel publicity-generating career as an actor, designer or model, and unlike many other Japanese celebrities, none of them has ever become a fixture on grab-bag TV talk shows.  Though in the years directly following their major label debut, Buck-Tick were compelled by their label to perform exhausting multi-hour meet-and-greet and autograph sessions with fans on a regular basis, ever since then, they have strenuously avoided direct contact with fans in all capacities.  These guys love to put on a good show, but do they want fans all up in their business?  Absolutely not.  More like the opposite.

Thus, the rock festival seemed out of character.  What had convinced Buck-Tick it was a good idea to suddenly let their hair down and celebrate?  The festival may have been the brainchild of their record label, but after such a prolific, influential 20-year career, Buck-Tick had amassed a lot of musical connections, some obvious, some less so.  Private they may be, but these guys are also friends with everybody.  It seemed like a great opportunity to party, and party they did.  When asked about the festival after the fact, Imai Hisashi said, “Oh…I don’t really remember the festival much at all, I was so drunk.  All I remember is the after party.  But…I think…it was a success, wasn’t it?”

This disarming statement reveals the attractive flipside of Buck-Tick’s perceived standoffishness: despite the fact that they’re now living legends with 20 studio albums and 32 singles under their belts, they remain unfailingly modest about their success and the impact they’ve had on the music scene.  After two decades, and now a quarter-century, they’ve undeniably earned the right to celebrate, but rather than soaking up as much glory as possible, instead, they’ve preferred to create a forum where other bands can shine—thus, a festival featuring many different performers, rather than a big one-man show.

It’s smart marketing.  At the last festival, young fans of bands like GLAY (whose vocalist Teru and guitarist Hisashi performed as members of the session band Rally), who had never heard of Buck-Tick before, came to the festival to see bands other than Buck-Tick, realized Buck-Tick was cool, became Buck-Tick fans and joined Fish Tank (Cayce has spoken to a number of fans for whom this was true.)  This time around, the festival lineup focused almost exclusively on younger bands who looked up to and were influenced by Buck-Tick.  It seemed the perfect opportunity to give younger fans some musical education—rope in young fans of bands like Merry, Mucc, and Breakerz, and maybe Buck-Tick can expand their fanbase again.

Buck-Tick’s choice to celebrate with friends rather than alone also draws a sharp contrast with some other, much less productive bands who are more or less of an age with Buck-Tickbands like X Japan, who prefer to celebrate their anniversaries by playing solo shows at the Tokyo Dome, even though they still have yet to release a new album despite their much-touted comeback.  X Japan may be more of a household name than Buck-Tick, but rain or shine, I’ll take Chiba Port Park over the cramped quarters and crap acoustics of the Tokyo Dome any day of the week.

In 2007, Buck-Tick held their first festival in Minato Mirai, overlooking Yokohama harbor.  Minato Mirai had the advantages of being easily accessible and being located directly on the water, with a view of Yokohama’s famous skyline in the background, and the unique opportunity to have “backstage” be a boat anchored in the harbor next to the makeshift arena.  However, it also had its disadvantages—the ground was all paved in asphalt, off which the late summer sun reflected, merciless and punishing.  The day of the 2007 festival was unbearably hot, and there was nowhere fans could go to get a break.  In 2012, the located shifted to Chiba Port Park in Chiba City, more than an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo and far from any major train stations.  To reach this year’s venue, fans had to take the Chiba Urban monorail to Chiba Port station—an adventure in itself, since the monorail hangs suspended from elevated tracks many meters above street level.  Disembarking from the monorail, fans headed to the festival still had a 12-minute walk down the wide, empty, tree-lined roads of Chiba City’s waterfront district.

However, shortly before the show was set to begin, the steady stream of fans headed to the venue truly resembled a parade.  Anyone who was worried about directions could relax immediately.  Not only did the fans continue in a more-or-less unbroken line all the way from the monorail station to the venue, but also, friendly event staff had been dispatched to perform what was either the world’s easiest or most tedious job: standing on street corners holding signs pointing the way to the venue, and every so often reciting scripted lines warning fans not to cross the streets until the lights turned green.  Despite the earnest work ethic of the staff members, a number of festival attendees, Cayce included, ignored the warning.  There were no cars on the road, anyway.

Saturday, September 22nd, the first day of the festival, dawned warm and cloudy, but soon the cloud cover broke, revealing blue skies and intense sunlight that threatened to give the festival-goers a nice tan, or sunburn as the case may be.  Most fans were dressed in appropriate gear for the weather and the occasion, in tour t-shirts, hats, sunglasses, practical flat shoes, and pants rather than skirts.  Tour towels draped around their necks to keep off the sun, they carried sling bags and water bottles in Zepp bottle holders, looking thoroughly prepared to jump in and swallow the day whole.  There were a few exceptions, though—not least of which girls in Lolita dresses paired with white stockings (read: MUD!), patent-leather Mary Jane heels (read: stupid shoes like that on an uneven grassy field means you’re likely to trip and break your ankle, jeune fille!), and carrying parasols (read: PARASOLS BANNED INSIDE THE VENUE.)  Other under-prepared fans had simply forgotten to bring sunblock.  They cursed at the sun hanging hot overhead and speculated about what shape of sunglasses-burn they would end up with, while waiting in the slowly moving queue to exchange their tickets for color-coded wristbands signifying which days and blocks their tickets were valid for.  Fans with two-day passes got durable shower-proof plastic wristbands, while fans with single-day tickets got paper bands instead.  Instead of using line numbers, the venue was divided into four blocks, A1 and A2 in the front, and B1 and B2 behind.  Fans were only allowed to enter the block specified on their tickets, so fans with two-day passes to the A blocks got lucky.

Once fans had their wristbands, they were allowed to enter the venue, passing beneath the large archway hung with banners advertising the festival, and through a barricade of tents where venue staff checked their bags halfheartedly for cameras.  The venue itself consisted of a large circular swath of grass fenced in by trees.  The stage had been set up at one end, surmounted by a gigantic scaffolding rig that supported the stage lights, and above that, a massive projection screen where the details of the action on the stage were broadcast via a system of live-feed cameras, some mounted on cranes, some handheld by videographers who wended their way through the crowd, filming unsuspecting fans at random.  The various blocks had been delineated by temporary plastic barricades well manned by security guards, with a generous aisle of grass serving as a buffer space in between the A and B blocks, and even more buffer space around the edges, to make sure no one could get in who wasn’t authorized.  At the back of the arena, another large scaffolding rig supported the lighting booth and more cameras.  However, the arena itself only took up half the venue.  The rest of the grass circle was given over to a tent city, offering all kinds of tour goods, food and alcohol, as well as a lounge area where fans could sit on benches beneath a tent canopy and escape the sun.

Beyond the stage, the rooftops of a parallel tent city could be seen poking up through the trees—this is where the performers and their guests spent the day, with a private tent for each band well-stocked with bar counters, couches and other temporary facilities.  However, given the nature of the venue, band members who wanted to watch the show had to do so either from the wings or from an auxiliary, unused stage far over on the right side, which was part of Chiba Port Park’s existing facilities but apparently had been deemed unsuitable for use as the festival mainstage.  Imai had already given up the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hair he sported at Toll’s birthday gig in favor of a more streamlined, two-toned look, long-ish and black on the top, short and neon magenta on both sides, and his bright hair that made him clearly visible, standing atop the auxiliary stage to witness the opening of the festival, though from up near the stage, he was too far away to wave at.

Close to 1:30 PM, the start of the show was announced by the music that came up over the speakers—an orchestral arrangement of “National Media Boys.”  Excited fans pricked up their ears and made their way closer to the stage.  When the music finished, all of a sudden, bright lights came up beside the stage, and at least a dozen giant firecrackers exploded with a deafening BANG, showering the crowd with fragrant smoke, as a recording of Sakurai Atsushi’s voice filled the grassy arena, growling, “BUCK-TICK FEST 2012…ON PARADE!”

The show had begun!

Merry were the first band of the day.  Playing outside at high noon under the blazing sun is a challenge for any band, but it’s especially difficult for dark rock bands like Merry, and the acts that followed them, Mucc and Cali-Gari.  However, each band rose magnificently to the challenge.  Merry had decorated the festival stage just as they had decorated the Zepp Nagoya stage during their stop on the Parade Tour, complete with rug, school desk, and clown mask hanging on the drum set.  They came out onstage wearing very similar costumes to what they’d worn in Nagoya, and despite the clear sky and sweltering heat, they launched immediately into “Makka na Yoru,” a song about nighttime and rain.  But of course, this was a perfect ploy to start the festival—hearing a Buck-Tick song being performed, many fans who had initially been hesitant to enter the arena now rushed over.  Merry did a very credible job on “Makka na Yoru,” and continued their set with their cover of “Aku no Hana,” in the exact same swingy arrangement as they’d recorded for the Parade II tribute album, rather than the more orthodox arrangement they’d performed at Zepp Nagoya on the Parade tour.  Some fans may have wondered if Merry’s entire set would consist of Buck-Tick covers, but following “Aku no Hana,” Merry played nothing but their own work, mostly old favorites, including “Violet Harenchi” and the eternal “Japanese Modernist,” while a small but dedicated core of devoted fans cheered and shouted from the front row.

As usual, Nero gave the MC, speaking briefly about what big Buck-Tick fanboys the Merry members are, and thanking Buck-Tick once again for giving them the wonderful opportunity to perform at this festival.  Though Gara evidently decided it was just too hot to attempt drenching himself in ink, he did indulge the fans in a shortened version of his calligraphy corner.  Halfway through the set, a staff member ran out onstage bearing ink and paper, and the cameramen zoomed in on Gara’s hastily scrawled kanji so they were broadcast on the projection screen:“Barefoot on this stage is HOT!”

The crowd burst out laughing.  Hot it was!  Hooded towels embellished with cat ears or devil horns had sold apace via mail-order in advance of the festival, and many fans now cowered under them, drenched in sweat.  It was entirely too hot for the end of September.  When Merry’s set had finished, the booths selling water and chilled cocktails called out invitingly.

In the name of capitalist monopolies, bringing your own food, water, or booze into the venue was officially banned (though naturally, this was a ban that a lot of fans flouted.)  However, the items for sale in the tent city held a special novelty appeal.  The water booth was doing a brisk business selling bottled water shrinkwrapped with Buck-Tick Parade labels that had been specially printed for the occasion.  Beyond the water booth, the food booths stretched out in a line, like an elegant adult carnival.

Though the Buck-Tick members surely had little to do with deciding the mundane details of the festival amenities, I like to think they issued an edict to the event planning staff—“Whatever you do, make it classy.”  A far cry from the kinds of junk food usually seen at festivals, the Buck-Tick festival was catered by a number of different food outlets that served a wide variety of cuisines ranging from Okinawan to Chinese to Mexican.  At the line of stalls, you could get anything from pork cutlet donburi to a loco-moco to tacos made with organic brown rice.  Healthy food and vegetarian options at a rock festival?  I never thought I’d see the day.  The upscale, for-adults feel extended to the drink offerings.  A number of general bar booths sold the standard drinks du jour—Kirin beer, Hyouketsu vodka soda, and Smirnoff Ice, but the Official Parade Bar sold a total of 25 original cocktails, one for each of the colors of the official t-shirt.  What made these cocktails especially special was the fact that they were actually, literally the same colors as the t-shirts, with the stranger color effects like black and navy blue being achieved through use of ingredients like Blue Curacao and Black Death Vodka.  Of the colors, we’re sorry to say that Not Greatest Site and friends only sampled the Italian Red, which consisted of blood orange juice mixed with vodka.  However, we can state that it was more than satisfactory, both in taste and alcohol content (disclaimer: Not Greatest Site does not endorse irresponsible drinking! Therefore, if you’re drinking illegally, be sure to be un-irresponsible enough to not get caught!)

Unfortunately, the Parade website had been a bit misleading and cagey about those colored tour t-shirts.  Though there were 25 colors supposedly for sale, upon arrival at the venue it became apparent that the 25 colors had been available through mail-order only, and there would be only five colors sold that day, including the weird green and yellow ones, most unflattering to drunken fan complexions.  So much for fans who wanted to relive Mr. Sakurai’s shocking pink t-shirt experience from the last festival!  This time, there were absolutely no shocking pink shirts to be found.  Also, stocks of tour goods were in short supply.  The hooded towel with the devil horns sold out quickly, no doubt because, since the horns themselves were affixed to the hood by Velcro, you could adjust them so they curved upward or downward (Imai later sported the towel with the horns in the downward-curving position, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.)  Though cleverly, the festival pamphlet was spiral-bound and pocket sized, and contained all the information about the venue facilities and food vendors, so as to be easily transportable and usable by fans on-site.

On closer inspection of this pamphlet, it became apparent that the real tour goods were for sale at another booth around in the back.  They included a number of attractive, unusual items—a folding fan “produced by Hide,” a set of temporary tattoos in the image of the B-T scribble Imai always writes on his face (ripe for the pasting on tushies, titties, or whatever other part of your body you think would be improved for having the letters B-T written on it), and two gigantic bath towels—a single-sided black-and-white towel featuring a parade of characters drawn in silhouette, marching beneath the official festival logo (which is a clear homage to the cover of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”) and a double-sided towel in pink and red, featuring a Parade of Pussycats.  I can’t be sure, but I have this feeling that since their departure from Ariola, the band members have gained a lot more control over the appearance of their tour goods.

In addition, there were five different t-shirts that were only on sale for a single day, including a striped sailor t-shirt printed with an anchor motif (a la “Mermaid”) and a vaguely boring graphic t-shirt designed by Hoshino Hidehiko (sorry, Hide, but your songwriting skills are superior to your design abilities.) However, the best t-shirt by far featured the words “CLIMAX TOGETHER” prominently across the chest, white on black in Buck-Tick’s newly-adopted Art Deco font.  This phrase never fails to give English speakers the chuckles, though it appears that the full extent of the joke was lost on some of the Japanese fans.  For maximum efficacy, wear this t-shirt in an English-speaking country.

In the tent city, between sets, fans waited in line for tour goods and milled around, drinking and carousing, until the words “Next Artist Is” appeared on the screen, and once again, Sakurai’s greatly amplified voice announced, “MUCC!”  For some reason, some fans didn’t seem to realize it was Sakurai talking.  It was obviously Sakurai, folks.  He did the announcements at the last festival, too.

Mucc have never made any secret of the fact that they’re flaming Buck-Tick fanboys.  Tatsurou, Mucc’s vocalist, is the biggest fanboy of the bunch, and it seems likely to me that his signature petulant scowl and long, black, eye-obscuring hair owe at least a nod in Sakurai’s direction for inspiration, though Mucc’s aesthetic leans much more towards the grotesque than the sensual.  When the band got their start in the late 90’s, Tatsurou and the other members got a lot of mileage out of their white contacts and smeared black lipstick, and after a brief bloom of beauty around the year 2008, they’ve gone back to the Nagoya-kei-inspired nastyface.  Comparisons are often drawn between Mucc and Merry, but all in all, Mucc’s sound leans much more towards screamo and metal than Merry’s does, and unlike Merry, whose fans mostly jump and shout, Mucc have been known to encourage violence and crowd-surfing at their shows, which can get intense to the point of being scary (read: kicked-in-the-face by crowd surfers level scary.  Kicked in the face=NOT FUN.)

On the other hand, Mucc also have an unexpected talent for sappy ballads, which they brought to bear in full force with their slavish copy of “Jupiter.”  Forgive me, Mucc fans, but it’s hard to call this song a cover.  The word “cover” implies that the song has somehow been re-arranged or re-interpreted to suit the needs, style, or creative motivation of the artist producing the cover…but Mucc’s “Jupiter” is a 3D-printed photocopy that any Buck-Tick-cosplaying Buck-Tick copyband of Buck-Tick fanboys would be proud of.  However, attempting to copy Buck-Tick really doesn’t show Mucc in the best light.  “Jupiter” is one of Buck-Tick’s most famous, powerful songs, in part, I think, because the simplicity of the instrumental arrangement draws extra attention to Sakurai’s extraordinary vocal timbre and expressiveness.  Tatsurou has an interesting, powerful voice, but he isn’t Sakurai, and he won’t become Sakurai, no matter how hard he tries.  In Mucc’s cover of “Jupiter,” Tatsurou’s attempts to imitate Sakurai end up sounding nasal and forced.  I think Mucc would have done a much better job if they’d chosen to cover a Buck-Tick song closer to their own sound, or at the very least chosen to imbue their cover with their own unique flavor, rather than make a half-assed copy of something that’s already been done perfectly.  Read: Sakurai vocalist-fanboys, you can’t compete, so don’t even try.

Oh wait, I forgot…any attempts you make at telling a Sakurai fanboy to cool down will only end in failure!  During the promotion of the Parade II album, tour and festival, Tatsurou was given multiple opportunities to confess his love for Sakurai to the national media, and he took full advantage of all of them to an almost unsettling degree.  Therefore, I wondered if perhaps Sakurai would feel moved enough to return the love, at least a little bit, in the form of a guest appearance, as he did for Kiyoharu and Nishikawa Takanori.  The Buck-Tick members had threatened to make guest appearances throughout the festival, so the possibility of Sakurai jumping in as a guest vocalist during Mucc’s set couldn’t be ruled out, but it was not to be.  Mucc opened with “Jupiter,” and though a lot of young fans had entered the arena blocks to watch, most of the older Buck-Tick fans were hanging back, unmoved, and Sakurai did not enter and exert his magnet powers to pull the Buck-Tick fans closer to the stage.  However, “Jupiter” was definitely the low point of Mucc’s set.  As the set progressed, the band loosened up and showed their skills a bit better, playing a number of up-tempo hits including the fantastic “Fuzz,” which seems to me to be a bit musically inspired by Buck-Tick and features bassist Yukke on the acoustic bass.  This, rather than a slow ballad, is the kind of song I want to hear in the middle of the day at an outdoor festival.

During the MC, after waxing poetic about his fandom for Buck-Tick, Tatsurou declared that he was going to challenge Buck-Tick to a popularity contest.

“Okay everyone, let’s show them how popular Mucc is,” he told the crowd.  “I want everyone to see this on TV!  So if you could all crouch down for me…I know it’s hot, but, let’s all crouch down on the ground, like this…”

Slowly, the fans did as they were bid, until miraculously, nearly the whole of both the A and B blocks were crouched down on the hot grass.

“Now, when I say so, everyone jump up at once!  Get ready….YEAH!”

On Tatsurou’s shout, the quietly crouching crowd jumped up as once, shrieking and cheering, while the old-school Buck-Tickers watching from the back looked on, nonplussed.

Luckily, the organizers of the festival did fans a great service by making sure the facilities in the tent city were extensive enough to keep fans occupied even if they weren’t watching the bands much at all (losers!)  By the time Mucc’s set was over, the tent city had come to resemble a crowded Saturday-night pub, with scads of drunken fans stumbling every which way, getting rowdy and shrieking for no reason.  The only thing that put a damper on the festivities was the severe lack of women’s toilets.  Though the toilets that were available represented the bleeding edge of portapottyloo technology (flushable portapottyloos?  Surely you jest), the festival organizers hadn’t taken into account the fact that while there are undoubtedly a large number of male Buck-Tick fans, the majority of the fans are still female.  Also, Buck-Tick is a rock band.  This was a rock festival.  These female fans are rock chicks, and unlike the strangely bland tee-totaling office ladies and housewives who seem to make up the mainstream Japanese female population, female Buck-Tick fans love booze.  They LOVE booze.  They love their booze with almost as much love as  Acchan loves his booze!  But too much booze and not enough toilets resulted in a line more than half an hour long.  Girls lost out on bands’ entire sets waiting in line for the bathroom, while the men didn’t have to wait at all.  That, my friends, is sexism, plain and simple.  I would have liked to have seen some fans pissing on the ground in protest, but until Acchan comes onstage they’re far too dignified for that.

Following Mucc’s performance, all the fans not queued up to use the Comfort CastlesTM had the option of watching Cali≠Gari.  Most people thought Cali≠Gari were gone for good, and their reunion two years ago came as a big surprise.  Though over the years, Sakurai Ao has transformed from a slim, androgynous young thing into a heavyset, bearded manly-man who is nonetheless just as gay (this is not a slur, Mr. Sakurai is very much out of the closet), vocalist Ishii Shuji recaptured Cali≠Gari’s original early-90’s visual kei spirit by appearing onstage wearing an elaborate fringed costume and really, really big hair.  Cali≠Gari may have been defunct for a number of years, but as soon as they started playing, they easily showed they’ve lost none of their skill or theatrical flair.  Unlike Merry and Mucc, rather than opening with a Buck-Tick cover, they opened with one of their own songs and continued from there.  A number of Cali≠Gari’s hardcore fans had been dancing up a storm at the front of the A blocks by the time Shuji announced that it was time to welcome the first special guest of the day…Buck-Tick’s own Imai Hisashi!

Wild cheers erupted and blasé Buck-Tick fans who’d been watching from outside the arena rushed closer to the stage as Imai ran out, dressed in his purple-and-pink Peter Pan suit from At the Night Side 2012, crowned in his horned helmet, which was still decorated with the fake flowers left over from the Memento Mori tour.  Though the helmet obscured Imai’s entire face, there was no mistaking those kicks, spins, and whammies.  Cali≠Gari started straight into their cover of “Misty Zone” and Imai joined in with his signature loose, atonal guitar style.  Cali≠Gari’s “Misty Zone” is just a shade too close to a copy for my liking, but the sheer strength and color of the Cali≠Gari members’ personalities lends it vim and verve enough to keep it from falling into the uncanny valley.  Still, it would have been even more interesting to hear this song performed with full-on Cali≠Gari weirdness, and the missed opportunity is a little disappointing.  NGS readers who aren’t familiar with Cali≠Gari: I highly recommend you give them a listen…they represent the best of the sick and twisted rough and risqué second-wave visual kei.  A lot of Buck-Tick fans like Cali≠Gari and vice versa, so they’re high up on my “if you like Buck-Tick you might also like” list.

Cali≠Gari formed in 1992, and by this point they’ve earned their titles as visual kei pioneers.  Mucc and Merry more or less followed in Cali≠Gari’s footsteps, and though they’re still comparatively young bands, they both preserve the sharp, rough, challenging spirit that was an integral component of the original visual kei movement.  Recently, though, it seems that the term “visual kei” has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, used as a gimmick to market near-identical bands of nubile boys in glittery suits and colored contacts, all image and no substance.  Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but as recently as the late 90’s, when Mucc was just getting their start, visual kei still had something to say.  Each band had a different style and concept; a different artistic message to express.  These days, the message is gone and the style has been reduced to a formula: operatic vocals, generic lyrics of lament and suffering, thrash-metal guitar riffs to which the fans can headbang, all performed by impossibly soft, cuddly, perky young men who just seem—and I really never thought I’d say this about a genre that defined itself in part by subverting those good old heteronormative hegemonic constructions of gender—unmanly.  Toshiya, the bassist of Dir en grey, donned a perky pair of fake breasts for the Dir en grey’s Macabre tour in 2000, but would he ever have been caught dead sticking out his tongue and winking at the camera wearing pink contact lenses and a pair of cat ears?  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the answer is “hell, no!”  

Somewhere in there, visual kei lost its diginity, and with the dignity went the radicalism.  Somewhere in there, visual kei was no longer challenging the establishment, it had become part of the establishment—commodified and marketed as something “underground” even though it has, in fact, become incredibly mainstream.  These days the Japanese music industry is dominated by idol groups, and though young visual kei bands can claim some superiority for at least being able to write music and play instruments, in a way, young visual kei bands are little more than a special kind of idol—they're comforting, pre-scripted, non-threatening fantasy objects for teenage girls, rather than serious, transgressive artists.

Breakerz, the fourth band on the bill, are more or less the epitome of this recent visual kei phenomenon.  I don’t know if they “officially” identify as visual kei or not, but they appear in magazines alongside self-avowed visual kei bands, and they’ve got all the right elements: flashy costumes, makeup, utterly forgettable rock-ish songs, and, of course, smooth-skinned, babyfaced band members dressed up and packaged as fastidiously as designer dildos from Akihabara.  They seem to be doing well by it.  Vocalist Daigo had already gained some success as solo act Daigo Stardust (wait I think there was a star mark in there somewhere...fuck it it's too hard to type), but Breakerz may be even more popular than Daigo’s solo project…suddenly all over the city, I’m seeing Breakerz, Breakerz, Breakerz, on record store displays, ad trucks and billboards, and it makes me wonder if I’ve accidentally stepped into the pages of a second-rate yaoi doujinshi.

Daigo, in his MC section, confirmed my suspicions.  “We’re such big Buck-Tick fans,” he gushed.  “We’ve all been listening to Buck-Tick since we were in middle school!  In fact, we love Buck-Tick so much that, in special honor of this festival, we all decided to write initials on our bodies, just like Mr. Imai!”  The cameras zoomed in on the various band members in turn, putting the close-ups up on the projection screen, so the crowd at large could witness how they’d each written the initials B-Z on the silky-smooth boy-flesh of their faces, chests, or arms.  “Mr. Imai writes B-T for ‘Buck-Tick,’ but we wrote ‘B-Z’ for Breakerz,” Daigo continued.  “And then, we ran into Mr. Sakurai backstage, and when he saw our initials, he called us kawaii!”  Daigo grinned a shameless fanboy grin.  “We couldn’t believe it!  We were so happy Mr. Sakurai himself called us kawaii!  He called us cute!  Sakurai-san CALLED US CUTE!  So, with his permission, we’d like to continue to be cute…cute, cute, kawaii boys forevermore!”

Until, that is, they become cute, cute, kawaii shriveled old men.

Here’s the thing: let’s not take it the wrong way when Mr. Sakurai makes a statement about the objective truth.  Sakurai's a giggly, bubbly, effusive character, and yes, Breakerz are undeniably kawaii.  But should they be?  That’s a question for another day.  Breakerz then launched into their cover of “Just One More Kiss,” but, I can’t tell you anything about it, because I wasn’t listening.  If you’re thirteen years old and you really enjoyed it, well, I’m glad you had a good time.

Following Breakerz, as the shadows began to lengthen and the air began to cool, Acid Android took the stage, joined by Kent, the vocalist of Lillies and Remains, a relatively young band that Imai has publicly endorsed on his blog.  Acid Android is the brainchild of Awaji Yukihiro, who gained fame as the second (and current) drummer of the smashingly successful visual kei/pop-rock crossover L’arc-en-Ciel.  While L’arc-en-Ciel’s shiny pop melodies and androgynous cutesy-man vocalist Hyde have more in common with bands like Breakerz than bands like Buck-Tick, Acid Android is proof of what we all knew already: when you let drummers do their own thing, they inevitably do something completely different.

No pop for Acid Android!  Though their cover of “Sexual XXXXX!” on the Parade II album may have lead Buck-Tick fans unfamiliar with the group to believe that they’re some kind of ironic lounge-jazz, in fact, Acid Android takes their strongest influences from 80’s German industrial and British techno-pop.  Beat-driven, stripped down, dark and layered, it’s hard to believe that Acid Android was created by any human being who was also willing to be associated with the likes of L’arc.  And unlike the other vocalist-centric bands who had performed at the festival so far, Acid Android’s vocals are just another instrument, used more for texture and color than narrative voice.  Kent's low monotone vocal style blends perfectly.  Though it wasn’t quite dark enough yet for the stage lighting effects to show up fully, the twilight shadows amplified the hypnotic power of the electronic beats, effectively changing the musical scenery.  Acid Android aren’t headbanging music, they’re dance music, and they were the first band of the day who chose not to perform their Buck-Tick cover song live.  No doubt they thought the sleazy piano would have broken their dark, edgy atmosphere.  Too bad they didn’t play it, though, because this cover one of the most interesting and inventive covers on the Parade II album, and it persuasively re-imagines the song in a mood and emotional tone entirely different from the original version.

By the time Acid Android had finished playing, night had almost fallen, and now, the anticipation was growing for Buck-Tick’s set.  At the previous Parade festival, electro DJ Ken Ishii was scheduled to perform right before Buck-Tick, to get the crowd riled up and dancing, and this time around, The Lowbrows filled a similar function.  The Lowbrows’ fully electronic sound followed seamlessly from Acid Android’s blend of electronics and live instruments.  As during their show on the Parade Tour in July, The Lowbrows members DJ Chaki and DJ Emi took the stage shrouded in black hoods, and stood silently behind their console-covered table, mixing up dance beats to get the crowd moving.  More and more fans crowded closer and closer to the front of their respective blocks in anticipation of Buck-Tick’s set, as The Lowbrows began performing their remix for “Elise no Tame ni.”  But then, just as everyone was getting excited, the sound system abruptly failed, and the music stopped.

DJ Chaki raised his arms in exasperation, as the crowd cheered.  Chaki gestured for the fans to wait a moment, while staff members scrambled to pinpoint and fix the problem.  A minute or two later, the music was back online, but the problem had not been fixed.  The sound cut out two or three more times as The Lowbrows finished their remix of “Elise no Tame ni” and moved on to the next song.  The third time the sound went down, it was down for long minutes.  Luckily, the crowd was being supportive, cheering, whistling, and shouting encouraging words.  DJ Emi came out from behind the consoles to keep the crowd going, while DJ Chaki consulted with the staff about the sound system.  Evidently, they decided that the fun and games were over, and it was time to bring out their secret weapon…

…Imai Hisashi!  Imai rushed out onstage with his silver Stabilizer guitar, dressed in a yellow festival t-shirt, jeans, and the black hooded towel with the red devil horns, pointed downward.  His mere presence seemed to give the sound system a boost of confidence.  There were no more delays or miss takes as The Lowbrows began remixing “Speed” while Imai ran back and forth across the stage and all the way out to the end of each side ramp, kicking up his leg and playing random noise on his guitar, to wild cheers from the fans.  But when the song had finished, it appeared that The Lowbrows’ time was up.  Bidding the crowd a parting wave, they headed offstage, followed by their table of consoles, as more and more fans packed into the arena for the main event.

It was fully dark now, which made it easier to see the projection screen over the stage, and good thing, too.  As the staff frantically set up for Buck-Tick’s set, a short video segment in honor of the band’s 25th anniversary began playing on the screen, alternating text detailing the band’s history with clips from music videos.  The fans cheered, whooped, and cried, as shots of the young band members came up on the screen, followed by shots of the older, more mature band, including clips from “Kodou,” “Heroin,” “Romance,” and “Elise no Tame ni.”  But the most telling moment came at the end of the video segment, when the screen broadcast a clip from the previous Parade festival, featuring Sakurai dressed in his infamous fringed tan pleather shoulder armor and leopard-print babushka.  As soon as this image of Sakurai appeared on the screen, the entire arena burst out laughing.

You know you made a costume epic fail when!

But since Sakurai himself described this costume as “a pain in the ass” while being interviewed live on NicoVideo, let’s be charitable and assume that he didn’t design it himself.

Then at last, Sakurai’s amplified voice announced, “Buck-Tick!” in an extended growl.  The band’s name came up on the screen in white letters, and a few moments later, the band themselves were out onstage.

Anyone who’d worried that Sakurai would make another fashion faux pas this time around needn’t have gotten their frilly knickers in a twist.  Setting up their own record label has done nothing but continuously improve Buck-Tick’s morale, and tonight, as befitted their 25th anniversary, they all looked their finest from the tips of their raptors to the razzles of their dazzles.  Yutaka glittered and sparkled in shiny silver pants under a white shirt with a black ruffle on the yoke, while Toll made a play at dressing sexy in a sheer, flowing red tunic worn over a red wifebeater in lieu of his usual military jacket.  Hoshino’s unusual square-shouldered black coat sported a stripe of metal chain fringe across the chest and upper arms.

Imai, on the other hand, outdid himself in multi-colored weirdness, wearing a tight spandex shirt and matching leggings printed with photographs of outer space.  Over this, he wore a net shirt in day-glo green that fluoresced under the lights and exactly matched the day-glo green extensions adorning his magenta hair, which clashed beautifully with the bright scarlet of his long velvet ostrich-feather-trimmed jacket.  On his feet, he wore black gaiters trimmed in silver over giant sneakers with big red tongues.

As usual, Sakurai was the last band member to appear.  As if determined to use this perfect opportunity to assert his rightful place in the gothic canon and put everyone from sparklevamps to Abraham Lincoln (vampire hunter) to Tatsurou to shame, Sakurai strode out onstage in high-heeled boots, resplendent in a long, shiny black coat and silk tophat, wearing extensions that rendered his hair even longer than Tatsurou’s hair (is Sakurai trying to make a statement about younger fanboys copying his famous Aku no Hana era haircut?)  Under the coat, he wore a high-necked sleeveless black lace blouse with distressed dimensional roses in black and burgundy cascading down the front, with a ragged-edged black kilt layered over sheer, loose-fitting black pants with black tights underneath.  Couldn’t be looking better if you tried, Mr. Sakurai.  It seems he’s learned his lesson: less is more, and black is the new black.

As the band members stepped out onstage, the fans shrieked and cheered, and the band launched into an unusual but welcome opening number: “Shippuu no Blade Runner.”  Though they’d intimated that they were planning on doing completely different performances on each night of the festival, in general, their song selection wasn’t terribly surprising, though they brought out a number of welcome old favorites such as “Galaxy” and “Love Me” in addition to recent staple live hits like “Hamushi no You ni,” “Alice in Wonder Underground,” along with their two newest singles, “Elise no Tame ni” and “Miss Take.”  The outdoor festival setting and the sailor-inspired design of one of the limited edition t-shirts had left some fans hoping that Buck-Tick would perform “Mermaid,” but it seemed they were keeping the songs from their new album close to the vest until the start of the album tour.

Despite the outdoor venue and temporary nature of the sound system, the sound quality was flawless, and it was clear from the level of musicianship shown by the band members that they weren’t nearly so drunk this time as they were at the last festival.  They were warmed up and ready to go from the moment they stepped out onstage, and Imai and Hoshino in particular made numerous visits to the side ramps, switching sides of the stage and making faces at the fans.  However, all the band members seemed more focused on playing well than they often have on previous tours.  They remained fully in control of the music at all times, and no one more so than Sakurai, who has either been taking voice lessons again or is simply taking better care of himself.  He’s consistently on pitch, and has developed much more vocal power and better breath control, and he knows it—he took every opportunity to show off how long he can hold out those notes.  Whatever problems he was having during the Memento Mori tours three years earlier, he has fully corrected now, and so much the better.

When the band came back for an encore, Sakurai announced something that didn’t happen at the last festival: they would be performing with some special guests.

“Thanks to all the wonderful bands who played today,” Sakurai said, listing off the bands one by one.  “Now, we’d like to welcome some guests to sing the next song with us…please welcome Gara from Merry, and Ao from Cali≠Gari!”

The crowd roared.  Surely this was the moment the fans had all been waiting for: to see the Sakurai cousins together on the same stage!  (FYI Ao Sakurai and Atsushi Sakurai are not really cousins.  Wait, I mean yes, they totally are cousins.  My bad.)  While Gara took the stage in his usual white shirt, black pants and black hat, Ao had decided it was time to accessorize, running out onto the stage in a fluffy white “kigurumi” rabbit costume.  This costume might have looked extra-supercalifragilistically kawaii on someone like Daigo from Breakerz, but on heavyset Ao with his raccoon eyeliner, it looked half menacing, half ridiculous.  Ao grinned at the crowd, taking his place on the opposite side of Sakurai from Gara.

The song to be performed by this augmented version of Buck-Tick was nothing other than the legendary “Iconoclasm.”  Sakurai started the vocals, and Gara and Ao followed his lead, though Ao spent a good deal of time over on the right side of the stage, attempting to physically entangle himself with Imai, before returning to center stage for the chorus.  Sakurai, as always, did a good job of drawing the other vocalists into the performance and making it easy for them to blend with the rest of the band, but he remained indisputably in control, and sometimes the other vocalists couldn’t follow his lead fast enough—for example, when he abruptly decided to ditch the Japanese babies line and shout “5 for Everybody!” instead.  This is a change he makes in the lyrics only very occasionally, so it was no surprise that Gara and Ao were still shouting about Japanese babies.  Well, most of the crowd were Japanese, anyhow.

When the song was over, Gara and Ao decorously left the stage to wild cheers and catcalls, and Buck-Tick finished up the encore set with their usual five members.

“The Parade will continue!” Sakurai called, grinning at the crowd.  By this point, he’d removed his coat, hat and sheer trousers and looked prepared to continue performing in his kilt and tights all night, but the festival was scheduled to end at 8PM, so the fans knew the night must be winding down.  “The Parade will continue…till we die!”  Sakurai called, and the fans screamed.  “No…even if we die!”  Sakurai gave a black giggle and the fans laughed and cheered.  “Now, sing it with me:  We love all!  Dakishimetai!  Hey baby, are you ready, ano sora no shita!  Aimashou!”

The fans joined in as Sakurai repeated the lyrics to the chorus of “Climax Together” slowly, so that everyone would be sure to be able to sing along.  And then the band ripped into this newest of their crowd favorites.  Imai penned specifically for the festival, and the “ano sora” line was surely a direct reference to performing outdoors, so to finally hear this song out under the sky was thrilling.  It’s also lucky that the band has been performing this since their summer tour, because it just gets better every time they perform it—right down to the jazz-club coda, at which point Sakurai turned his back on the audience and entertained them with the old self-makeout trick before waving “Ciao.”

But of course, there was still one more song left: “Yumemiru Uchuu.”  This might have been a sad song with which to end the first day of the festival, but the warm evening and the party atmosphere kept the mood light.  This song, too, has improved drastically through repeated live performances, and while they band didn’t add anything special or unusual to the performance, they didn’t need to: they played the song flawlessly, and the music speaks for itself.  When the song was over, the lights stayed fairly dim as the band members left the stage one by one, until Imai was left onstage all alone, standing in a circle of light, playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” slowly on his guitar.  But he was only halfway done when a deafening roar from the left side of the arena distracted the fans—fireworks!   They all came shooting up at once, in rainbow colors, stars and circles and chrysanthemums, and then, at last, big blooming cascades of white light, that glittered and flickered in the air as they fell slowly to earth, reflecting in the black glass obelisk of Chiba Port Tower.  And then, as Imai left the stage, the first day of the festival ended as it had begun: with a salvo of firecrackers as white and bright as canon fire, exploding as one from the front of the stage, showering the front of the audience in a rain of fine dust smelling of gunpowder.

Though the festival was now over for the night, there were so many fans, it would have been impossible for them all to leave the venue at once, so the venue staff allowed the fans to leave block by block, which unfortunately led to some scuffles between ill-trained, insensitive young security guards and drunk girls who really, really needed to use the portapottyloo (note to NGS readers: if some security guard pulls this bullshit on you at a show, just up and piss on him.  That ought to teach him a lesson.)  But all in all, the mood was dreamy as the fans drifted out into the night, pausing to photograph the line of congratulatory bouquets sent by Buck-Tick’s friends and business associates, situated beneath the illuminated banner advertising tomorrow’s bands.  Some fans didn’t even bother to go home, instead choosing to rent hotel rooms in Chiba and drink the night away, before getting up bright and early to see what Day Two of the festival would bring.

Buck-Tick Set List

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