Buck-Tick: The First Movie
Review by Cayce
June 17th, 2013
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Here it is: the official Not Greatest Site review of Buck-Tick: The Movie, Part I! And we might add at this point that the official title of the film is Buck-Tick Phenomenon: The Theatrical Release I. But…come on.
Anyhow, as surely as the official title is very silly and does not do the band or the film the least bit of justice, and as surely as the enthusiasm built for Buck-Tick’s first official foray into the world of cinema, the haters start opening their bottles and preparing to drink the haterade, so let’s address the criticism first. “Buck-Tick should stick to music,” we heard them complain. “This is just some leftover footage they didn’t know what else to do with and think they can sell.” Or even just, “I don’t like having to sit still in a theater and watch a movie.”
Not being a particular fan of movies in general, I can sympathize with the last sentiment. Watching a rock concert is a lot more interactive than watching a movie. At the same time, I’d like to point out...seen on the big screen in the close-up shots, Toll’s mohawk is a meter tall, at least! (And standing ramrod straight at attention, at that!) That ought to be a sight to arouse even the most frigid of fans!
I can also understand that some fans may have been worried that this would turn out to be some sort of soaring, sentimental, touchy-feely tug-on-your-heartstrings rockumentary, complete with voiceovers and slow-motion montages of artificially sepia-toned live footage set to “Message.” I can also understand that some fangirls may have taken offense at the idea that any Hollywood actor, John Hamm included, could possibly do justice to the role of Atsushi Sakurai.
So to those of you who worried, I say, hakuna matata. Contrary to everything I said before, there are no Hollywood actors in this film. The Buck-Tick members all play themselves. And after watching the film in its entirety at a tender hour of Saturday noontime while well caffeinated and sober as a judge, I can say I had the vaguely regretful realization that it was made for one audience only: musos and audiophiles, flying high in the glamorous misty zone of candy, chocolate, and speed. I mean, surely that sort of high-flying is something Imai has never done, but through all of the long, slow shots of the band members in the studio, tootling on guitar, turning the delay up and down, polishing riffs and solos as the notes echo back and forth across the theater’s surround sound; through the extended sequence of Imai standing onstage in the middle of a downpour in Hibiya Park at the beginning of the first encore set at At the Night Side on June 9th, 2012, flower-accented horned helmet completely obscuring his face, his body enclosed in a spinning cone of green laser beams that have been refracted by the raindrops into a dazzling swarm of green fireflies that dance and flicker at Imai’s feet as he slowly picks note after delayed note on his Stabilizer, letting them resound in the spring dusk till they resolve into a slow, drawn-out, feedback-ridden guitar recitative of “Singin’ in the Rain,” I couldn’t help but think that the viewing experience would have been even better under augmented consciousness conditions. You know, the kind of augmented consciousness that you can grow in your garden and then bake up into some tasty gluten-free brownies to smuggle into the theater in lieu of popcorn. Remind me to put a few of those into my knapsack before I set off to see the second movie.
For those of you who didn’t catch that, I’ll say it more simply: this is not a rockumentary, it’s more of a stoner art film, and I have the distinct sense it would be really exciting to watch it while redacted by the JASRAC censorship board.
Though while we’re on the topic of rockumentaries, ironically, before the feature presentation started, the sold-out theaterful of fans were treated to a preview of “The One Direction Movie,” which I have no doubt will veer straight through the extra-sharp cheddar and into the Velveeta (read: cheesy like a cheese shop.) For those of you who don’t know who One Direction are, neither do I. They’re basically like a homo-erotic Harry Potter boyband, sprung fully formed out of the mind of a sexually frustrated 14-year-old girl, and this is just not a part of the world that I pay attention to. I understand that whoever did the marketing for this thought that advertising a band movie before a band movie was probably a good idea, but as I watched the preview, I found myself wondering if there is a single Buck-Tick fan out there who is also a fan of One Direction. If you happen to be one, please let me know. I’ll macro you a mashup of Sakurai and Harry Styles. I mean it.
Anyway, the beautiful thing about Buck-Tick’s film is the way it lets the music speak for itself. After the previews finished, the screen faded to black, and a pin-drop hush fell over the theater. A good thing, too, because unlike a concert, which calls for cheers, this film’s slow, quiet, tense opening calls for silence. Far from beginning with anything obvious, like a theme song playing while polaroid shots of the band members pop up on the screen one by one, or self-serious Englishman intoning, “This is the success story of a Japanese rock band called BUCK-TICK,” the film opened with the band members backstage at the Nippon Budoukan, each in his own world, getting into their respective Zones in preparation for The Day in Question 2011. Seated in cushy black swivel chairs around a conference table fit for Buck-Tick, Inc.’s annual Meeting of the Board of Directors, Hide strums aimlessly on his guitar while Imai sniffs, swivels, and sniffs again. Hide pauses his guitar playing. Imai sniffs. The enthusiastic clicking sounds of Yutaka’s metronome can be heard from somewhere offscreen. More than anything else, it’s the band members’ faces you want to be watching, because that’s where the action is going on.
This is the kind of pleasure this film offers: rather than interviews, or glimpses of the band members’ private personalities as they kid around at parties, we are given an impressively deft silent tour of their creative process, from recording through to performance. Artistic creation of any kind is an inherently internal, solitary phenomenon, notoriously difficult to portray on screen with any sort of authenticity, yet this film comes as close as anything I’ve seen to expressing what it is to actually make music, and the success of the film comes from the observational style in which it was shot. Beyond a few moments of Sakurai mugging and waving at strategically placed cameras, the band members don’t interact with the camera at all. It’s a kind of nature documentary, in a way. Like wild animals in the field, they conduct their affairs utterly without regard for the fact that they’re being recorded.
The stylistic choices made by the director are striking in their minimalism. The longer the film went on, the more I became convinced that the director has a deep respect for the artistic aesthetics of classical Japan. Everything these days is sound bytes, tweets, boom-kapow gee-whiz spectacle, especially in cinema—no room for silence or details. Even Buck-Tick’s live videos are guilty of this to a certain degree, in that they cut rapidly in between shots and camera angles, a style of cinematography that can be dizzying for unaccustomed viewers to watch. By contrast, in this film, just like an ink painting or haiku, rather than focusing on action, the camera lingers on the negative space. Filmed from below, we see Sakurai moving in between the vocal booth and the control room, humming, vocalizing nonsense, smoothing his shirt and adjusting his glasses. After a test recording, Toll turns his drumstick over in his hand and tries playing the same rhythm with the blunt end instead of the pointy end. On a plump black couch, Imai meticulously fine-tunes a guitar solo while the camera remains focused on him, showing us each iteration of his idea as he starts and stops and restarts the tape. We see them record the same passage again and again. We see them stop, talk, beg for clarity, start again, stop and talk again. They start out with steaming mugs of coffee, and end up slumped over sideways on the couch, glassy-eyed and half asleep. We never see a clock, but we can feel the hours passing. Those of us who are musicians already knew that music was hard work. Now the rest of you know it too.
Another pleasure of the film is witnessing first-hand how particular Imai is about his ideas. It would be easy to assume, looking at his spaced-out, give no shits attitude, that he’s the sort of composer who messes around in the studio and lets things fall into place willy-nilly, but this is far from the case. Imai’s a benign creative dictator who knows exactly what he wants, though as his conference with Yutaka about the bassline for “Adult Children” shows, he’s not necessarily able to easily express it in words. Recording vocals for “Elise,” he carefully explains to Sakurai not only the musical tone he’s aiming for, but also the exact distribution of lyrical syllables across a musical phrase.
“But the demo tape wasn’t like that,” Sakurai, also a stickler, points out.
“Now that you mention it, it wasn’t,” Imai admits with a self-deprecating smile. “That’s my mistake, I meant it to be the other way.”
The recording engineer giggles, and they retake the phrase, but the fans can all have the last laugh—it definitely sounded better Sakurai’s way, and by the time they got around to the final take, it’s more or less gone back to the way they did it the first time.
This is the film’s only direct scene of Sakurai and Imai’s creative interaction, but it’s easy to get the sense that Sakurai’s the kind of man who listens carefully, nods his head and then goes and does things the way he wants to. Sakurai has spoken in depth about his own early-stage contributions to the conceptual framework of the Yumemiru Uchuu album, but understandably, none of this was filmed. However, one of the most surprising moments early in the film comes with shots of Imai and Hide recording the guitar parts to an as-yet unfinished “Yasou” and “My Baby Japanese –type II–.” Sakurai hasn’t recorded the real vocals yet, so in the background, we hear the dummy vocals of the demo tapes. Despite the slightly forced, nasal quality of his voice, Hide does a very solid rendition of “My Baby Japanese,” explicit lyrics and all. Imai, for his part, appears to be singing a completely different set of lyrics for “Yasou” and “Adult Children,” most of which may or may not be nonsense, and when the camera passes over an early lyric sheet for “Elise,” we see that the working title of the song was “Rifflesia.” It’s natural that the songs don’t end up the way they start out, but I found myself wondering if Sakurai ever finds it difficult to wipe away whatever lyrical images Imai pastes on the demo tapes and replace them with his own ideas. Since it seems he’s got clear ideas of his own, maybe he doesn’t.
Even when Sakurai’s vocals come in, we hear him singing something that isn’t quite the “Yasou” we know. To avoid bothering him in his moments of concentration, they’ve filmed him through a glass window from outside the vocal booth, but though he gives a stupendously growly performance of “Elise” into the microphone’s pop filter, he doesn’t appear satisfied, and when the recording stops, he shakes his head, rolls his eyes, and sticks out his tongue at the camera, telling us exactly what he wants us to think of what he just sang.
The film isn’t meant to be a retrospective or a biopic, but in a few places, it made artful and very endearing use of flashbacks. As Sakurai stuck his tongue out at the camera, the footage abruptly cut back to black-and-white 1986, another studio, and a 20-year-old baby Atsushi with floppy blond hair and big kitten eyes belting out “To-Search,” clearly already working at the outer limits of his vocal ability, in tune but just barely, with no room to spare for analysis of his technique. In the background, baby Hide, dressed in a sloppy t-shirt, bends over his guitar with his hair hanging in his face, looking both charmingly childlike and shrinkingly shy. The cut from this shot to a shot of cocksure grown-up Hide in a plaid jacket, sitting jauntily in a chair like he owns the whole world, says more than anything else in the whole film about how far the band have come. Judging by the sounds the crowd was making during this sequence, if you hadn’t known better, you might have thought they were watching a digest of the Best YouTube Cat Videos of all time.
In the second half of the film, the band make the transition from studio to stage. We witness snippets of meetings, interspersed with shots of computer-generated images of the stage designs for At the Night Side, and shots of the band and their staff shuffling paper cutouts of song titles taped to the mirrored walls of the rehearsal studio until they agree on a finalized set list. Sakurai giggles in knowing amusement when he hears that Imai has made a new stage entrance song and therefore, they won’t be using “Theme of B-T” this time. And then, in evocative glimpses, we see Hibiya Park—closeups of raindrops on hydrangea leaves, venue staff sweeping lakes of water off the stage with squeegees, and a printout of an hour-by-hour forecast from Yahoo Weather. In the dressing room, Toll gets the sides of his head freshly shorn with a buzzer, and Imai stands still while the staff slip the crown of silk flowers over the horn of his suzumebachi helmet, like some kind of fertility festival rite. Then we get “Singin’ in the Rain.”
From here, the film moves directly into highlights from the Parade Tour 2012. I admit that in general, I found this part of the film less satisfying than the Rest Rooms documentary of 2007. The footage from the 2012 Parade tour focuses so tightly on Buck-Tick that we don’t get a strong sense of this being a tour in which lots of other bands also participated. While it’s exciting to see such high-quality live footage on such a big screen, I would have preferred to see more of the fans, of the concert atmosphere, and especially of Buck-Tick’s interactions with the other bands on the tour, both on and off the stage. Though there’s a moment of Imai watching The Lowbrows at Yokohama Blitz, a wonderful scene involving Kishidan, and a lovely then-vs.-now comparison of the trials and tribulations of dealing with violent fangirls (I won’t spoil it because I can’t spoil everything), we don’t catch even so much of a glimpse of Gara of Merry doing guest vocals on “Speed” in Nagoya, and we don’t see hide nor hair of Cousin Sakurai Ao. It’s possible that there may have been some legal issues preventing Buck-Tick from showing footage of the other performers, but if so, that’s a damn shame. Playing shows with other bands isn’t something Buck-Tick does very often, and it’s these precious and unusual moments that make for an interesting, dynamic film.
Even more disappointing, though we get some clips of Toll’s reactions to his own 50th birthday party, both before the show in the planning stages, and onstage at the end of the show after blowing out the candles on his cake, we don’t see any of the really juicy, memorable elements of that event—not a single snippet of The New Blue Sky playing covers of Carol songs, or Toll’s on-the-fly double drum-off with Tell of Auto-Mod, or Buck-Tick’s performance of “Revolver” with Madam Selia live in the flesh (he’s a diva, surely he wants to be in a movie!), or the infamous and unmentionable “Masquerade” (though I noticed in the shot of Toll’s birthday speech that they’d failed to wipe Der Zibet’s glitter off the floor.) Surely both the band members and the director of the film have some idea that this is the sort of thing the fans want to see the most, and who is this film for, if not for the fans? Also, I know that gig was filmed in its entirety, so the footage exists. If none of it shows up in Part II, I know I’m not the only one who will be deeply let down.
In general, the film loses focus a bit toward the end. It’s a little confusing when after another complete blackout, the jangly acoustic guitar chords of “Love Parade,” the first original theme song, start playing, and up come the credits. “Love Parade” is a song worth talking about, though. It’s such a quintessentially Hoshino Hidehiko-style two-chord acoustic rock ballad that it’s tempting to laugh and call it Buck-Tick imitating themselves, but if I’d heard this song without having personally followed the entire yearlong tour odyssey, and without knowing that the song was written for a film, I would have wondered whatever happened to them to inspire them to write it. Airy and relaxed, set in a major key, fresh as the smell of newly mown grass on a summer evening, it’s altogether lighter both in orchestration and in emotional tone than anything they’ve released since “Brilliant,” or maybe “Trans.” The guitar style and overall sound color is similar to “Pixy” and “Yumeji,” but less layered, and more stripped down, a good complement to the film’s overall minimalism.
By the same token, there’s a childlike innocence to the lyrics that paradoxically speaks to a much greater maturity on Sakurai’s part. It’s all about what he doesn’t say. Just as in the film, the camera lingered on the coffee cups, the guitar strings, the frowns of concentration and the wet leaves, the lyrics to “Love Parade” linger on the idyll of all those shows last summer. “Beneath our masks, we laugh and cry/Bathing in the sunshine, the parade goes onward.” I doubt it’s my imagination that hidden in the lyrics to this song are subtle nods to both Der Zibet’s “Masquerade” and La-Ppisch’s “Hameln”…songs by friends both current and dearly departed, and isn’t that poetic? There’s also something uniquely moving about the fact that this is a song Buck-Tick wrote not only for the fans, but about the fans, about a shared experience that we all had together—the joy of Buck-Tick’s 25th anniversary festivities on the shifting ground of this terrifying and uncertain world.
“The parade goes on, never to return,” Sakurai sings in the last line, and it seemed that by this point, at least half the theater was in tears. I found myself wishing that just once, they’d find it in themselves to end on a more positive note, but I guess that wouldn’t really be true to their artistic message, or what we love about them.
Here’s looking forward, with great anticipation, to part II.