Buck-Tick 2: Can't Stop the Phenomenon
Review by Cayce
June 25th, 2013

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

This is how things happen in Buck-Tick’s world: you get several months of quiet, then everything comes down all at once.  And thus it was that a mere week after Buck-Tick: The First Movie opened in (a smattering of) theaters nationwide, it was followed by the sequel, Buck-Tick 2: Can’t Stop the Phenomenon.  In general, with movies, the rule is that the sequel isn’t as good as the first movie.  In this case, by contrast, I was kind of assuming that the second movie would be better than the first movie.  After all, for the second movie, it seemed that they had meatier material to work with: the great big long hall tour, the two-day festival, and Toll’s birthday.  Oh wait, I lied!  There is no more footage of Toll’s birthday in the second movie.  Go cry your hearts out, fangirls.  It isn’t happening.  Can’t Stop the Phenomenon cuts straight over Toll’s strawberry-topped cake and into the Parade Festival 2012.

And we might add at this point that the official title of the second film is Buck-Tick Phenomenon: The Theatrical Release II.  But…come on.

Anyway, it’s hard to make an ultimate judgment about which film is “better”—since really, though it’s billed as two films, it’s one film split into two halves, and probably both films work the best when viewed consecutively, as they were screened for the premier in Fujioka.  In a number of places, the second film picks up on threads dropped by the first film, and I’m sure this comes across better when you see both films in a row.  Still, I found the tone of the second film to be qualitatively different from the tone of the first film.  If the first film was the story of the creative process implicitly starring Imai, the second film is a kind of hero’s journey, implicitly starring Sakurai.  The first film opens with silence.  The second film, on the other hand, opens with the martial drumbeat of the Parade Festival stage entrance music, and here we see the literal parade—outside of the festival grounds, a long, long line of fans wait to get in, while back behind the stage, a caravan of tents and trailers surround a greensward across which businesslike event staff and subdued band members run to and fro.

There are clips of various bands who performed at the festival, though not all of them, and a few cute moments of the Buck-Tick members reacting to the younger bands’ performances of their own songs, most notably N’Shukugawa Boys’ rendition of “Empty Girl” (it makes them laugh.)  There are shots of entrances and exits, jokes about the rain, and last-minute meetings, but it all feels a bit disjointed, and basically, what ties it together are the shots of Sakurai.

As in the first film, the camera focuses on the in-between space.  We see Sakurai sipping coffee, then moving between the communal café pavilion and the Buck-Tick trailer, and between the Buck-Tick trailer and the entrance to the stage.  He opens and then closes a cheap plastic umbrella…but if that bit shatters your Byronic Anti-Hero illusions of him, have no fear—there are shots in plenty of him sitting alone, silent and brooding, watching the show on a backstage monitor (though remember kids, cameras lie!  He might have been giggling maniacally the whole time he wasn’t being filmed.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising, but far from the out-of-control Bacchanal of the 2007 festival, it seems that there was a temperance accord in effect at the 2012 festival, though whether by mutual consent or management decree it’s impossible to say.  All the band members are stone-cold sober, and consequently mellow and extremely laconic, which is no doubt why they put on such a good performance, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make for very entertaining backstage footage, except for the shot of Imai drinking an ice-cold can of non-alcoholic beer.

There’s a lot more uninterrupted live footage in this film than the first film, and most of it hasn’t been released anywhere else, but the exception is the Parade Festival, for which “My Eyes and Your Eyes” was included in its entirety.  Those of you who own the live DVD may feel slightly cheated, but it’s understanding that the director thought a full song from the festival should be included, and it may be that the camera angles in the movie are different from the version on the live DVD, but having seen the movie only once, I’m not in a position to check at this point.

Sakurai’s speech to the crowd before the beginning of the song is touching, but the film narrative hinges more on the shot of him just off the stage after the end of the show, watching the fireworks go off while one of those long-suffering staff members helps him towel the water off his head and divest himself of his microphone, etc.  She (the staff member) seems to be anxious to bundle him into the transport van as quickly as possible (which begs the question, where is he going?  Are they driving him around backstage in a van?  It wasn’t that big.  That’s what she said!  Oh, whoops), but Sakurai pauses to look pensively up at the sky as the fireworks go off overheard.  This, too, is a good silent visual representation of what it is to live the life of a performer—oftentimes, you’re so busy putting on the show that you don’t get to actually enjoy it, at least not in the way the audience gets to enjoy it.  When your brain is consumed with making sure everything goes off as planned, you often don’t have the luxury to just sit back, watch, and sniffle nostalgic tears.

After a brief glimpse of the opening toast at the party following the festival’s conclusion, we move on to the Yumemiru Uchuu hall tour.

“We’ve got a long, long, long tour ahead of us, but I hope we can all get through it without any illnesses or injuries,” says Sakurai to the assembled band members, staff members, and tour crew at the final rehearsal before the tour begins, which appears to have taken place at the Yokosuka Arts Theater.

After all, big show requires a rehearsal just as big.  The band has to have some practice interacting with all those sets and graphics, which means they have to rehearse on the stage, with the sets, before the tour starts.  We spend a lot of time with them as they stand onstage in their street clothes, checking the sound and running through the songs.  Once again: art is work, and it’s sometimes tedious.  Next, we get the build-up to the first day of the tour, and then the tour goes on the road.

The camera continues to use Sakurai as an anchor point through all these segments of the narrative.  Particularly charming is the scene where we get to witness the rehearsal from his perspective.  In fact, Sakurai filmed most of this section himself, traversing the stage with a handheld camera, focusing on each band member in turn as they play “Alice in Wonder Underground,” sans lead vocals.  The band members all put on silly stunts for Sakurai’s benefit, but I’m not going to spoil it because I can’t spoil everything.

The camera also recreates the spatial transitions in the venue in a beautiful way, from the long, straight hallway down which Sakurai walks to approach his dressing room, to the convoluted maze between backstage and onstage, and there’s a bit of a voyeuristic quality to the shots of Sakurai’s final pre-performance preparations that fangirls will likely relish.  In the dressing room, he spends a long time straightening his jacket, pulling on his gloves, and settling that sinfully flattering hat on his head, to the point that you may have to stifle the urge to shout at the screen, “yes, you look terrible, so just give up already!”  Out in the hallway, he hums and hoots and growls, stretching his vocal muscles while the other band members stretch their arm and leg and back muscles.  Perhaps some fans think these pre-show vocalizations are cute and funny, but as someone with vocal training I’m here to tell you: this isn’t some cute quirk to fangirl over, this is the proper way of warming up for a vocal performance so that you don’t damage your voice.  Any singer who doesn’t do this before a performance is probably doing it wrong.

The thrill we feel watching the footage of the band coming onstage in Yokosuka for Day One of the hall tour is more or less the same thrill as those of us who actually attended the tour actually felt when we were at the live show (though of course a movie is never quite as good as the real thing.)  But as the tour continues, we’re dragged back to the mentality of the band—traveling, more or less constantly, to remote locales.  I particularly loved the sequence of the tour crew taking down the set, loading it into the tour truck with the giant graphics of the band members splashed across the side, and getting straight out onto the night highway to cart the set to its new location ahead of the band.  It serves as a nice reminder that the band may be the stars of the show, but there’s also a small army of other people out there who did a lot of literal heavy lifting in order to make the whole thing happen.

Rather than trying to cover every tour stop, which would have been impossible, or focusing on bloopers, like the At The Night Side documentary did, the tour document portion of this film focuses on the most unusual locations to which the band traveled: Shiga (in which Imai celebrates his birthday), Kurashiki, Tokushima, Saga, and Kanazawa.  This is the quest part of the story.  We see the waiting, the exhaustion, the band on the road, and the scenery rolling by.  Imai promised readers of his blog that there would be lots of sexy scenes of nighttime factories, and unfortunately, the film delivers no such thing.  However, we do get glorious views of the Great Seto Bridge, which connects Honshu to Shikoku, and takes a full twenty minutes to cross, by either car or train.

In these relatively sparsely populated reaches of Japan, the fans greet Buck-Tick with such enthusiasm that the line of security staff guarding the stage are hard pressed to keep the fans back from the band members.  We see them crouched down, sweating as they hold barricade ropes with all their might.  At one point, a monitor near Sakurai topples over and another security guard rushes frantically over to right it.  It’s no wonder the fans are so excited—I didn’t attend these shows personally, but they sure look fun in the live clips, and I appreciate the song choices, which include not only “Tango Swanka” and “Lady Skeleton” but also “Yasou,” bringing us full circle from the recording footage in the first film.

And speaking of full circle, unlike the first film, the second film contains no flashback footage.  However, it achieves a flashback effect in another way, by talking to the band members a bit about their memories.  This is the only part of either film that remotely resembles a traditional documentary, but the director cleverly avoided talking heads syndrome by intruding a little bit on the band members’ privacy and having them talk to us during their pre-show rituals.  It seems that each member has a private dressing room, and though we never see anything that goes on in Imai’s, Hide’s, or Yutaka’s, we get a glimpse of Toll’s as he practices intently on a set of plastic drum pads.

“How difficult is it to set up the sound for the tour?” the camera-voice enquires.

“Well, our staff have been with us for more than twenty years now, so they have a good idea of how things work and usually they know what to do more or less right away,” Toll says, and I had to wonder if perhaps, by “staff,” he specifically meant Azami Shigeo, who was a high school classmate and has served as Buck-Tick’s drum tech since the very, very beginning.

But it’s really the soliloquy Sakurai delivers from his dressing room before the show in Takasaki, Gunma, that finally pulls the meandering tour sequences back into shape.  First of all, it’s Gunma—here they are, back to their roots!  In a scrupulous effort to avoid cheese, the film merely glances on this point, rather than hammering it home, but the tiny letters saying “Gunma” only appear on the screen for a few seconds, and it’s so hard to tell one concert venue from another that it took me a minute to get it, that this was the Back to the Roots Dramatic Moment.  The camera-person knocks ever so lightly on Sakurai’s private door before entering to fangirlishly check and see whether or not he’s wearing clothes.  Within, Mr. Sakurai, (who may or may not be wearing clothes I’m not gonna spoil it I’m just going to leave you in suspense) preparing for the show in his own way, which involves a gothic ambient soundtrack, a black floor mat, and other stuff (I’m not gonna spoil it I’m just going to leave you in suspense.)

“I remember my mother sitting here,” Sakurai says, pointing to the small chair next to him.  “One of our first tours, she came to see us play here, and she came backstage to see me, and she sat here.  That’s how little this place has changed, even through all this time.  So for me, it’s full of a lot of memories.”

It’s nice that while he talks, he seems neither sad nor resentful of the camera.  From here, we cut to the show itself, a blackout, and Imai’s moaning guitar, and then another live clip, only this time, it’s “Adult Children,” in its entirety.

This is one of the best moments of the second film, because it brings home the full power of the song, on both a musical and personal level, carrying much more weight than a live video taken out of context.  In the first film, we saw the band meticulously recording this song in the studio.  Now, in the second film, we get to see the song fully realized and translated into a stage performance.  This is the end of the tour, too, so the band are very comfortable with playing it at this point, and Imai really makes that solo sing.  But beyond that, we get the emotional story behind the song—Sakurai returns to this town where he suffered as a child, as an adult with confidence and poise.  A local hero now, he sings about that same suffering because he’s been freed from it—freed by his very ability to sing (“Come on sing with me/You should know that you are free”).  Here’s the end of our hero’s journey, and it’s very meta.

Of course, you have to have a lot of background knowledge about the band and the song to really get the film at this level, and that’s the classical Japanese aesthetic coming out again, I guess.  There’s an old translator’s joke, that in classical Japanese, when you want to say, “I love you,” what you actually say is, “the moon is beautiful tonight.”  The real heavy shit can’t be spoken of directly!  Personally, I’m a fan of subtlety so I think it’s best this way, but I still would kind of enjoy seeing a sepia slow-mo live montage set to “Message,” so please let me know if you decide to make one.  Bonus points if you include that shot from the Rest Rooms documentary of Imai chugging a pint of beer.  As it is, in the actual film, the cheesiest thing we get to see is the live clip of “Yumemiru Uchuu” that follows “Adult Children,” and if you’ve been living Japan since the earthquake happened, this is probably more likely to make you cry tears than cry cheese.

Buck-Tick 2: Can’t Stop the Phenomenon concludes with a second original theme song, this one written by Imai, with lyrics by Sakurai.  True to the second film’s focus on the festival and live tour, “Steppers –Parade–” is a rousing singalong up-tempo number that sounds like the chain-smoking older brother of “Climax Together”—it’s just as feel-good classic retro, but a little rougher around the edges.  If “Love Parade” was the daytime song, “Steppers” is the nighttime song, and though it probably won’t make you teary like “Love Parade” did, but I’ll have you know that Sakurai does sing the word “sexy,” multiple times.  Together, the two songs would make a great single, and I sure hope they get released soon, because I’m sick of them playing over and over again in my head without being able to actually listen to them.

So what’s Cayce’s verdict on both films overall?

Well, I certainly enjoyed them a lot, and they certainly get points for style.  If you like your movies slow, oblique, and intellectual (with devastatingly handsome amateur actors!) then these are the movies for you.  They tell the story of the creative process and the story of life on the road as a performer, in a candid, un-pretentious, cinematographically beautiful way.

Still, their very intellectualism is what keeps the Buck-Tick Movies from being the fanservicey climax together that they could have been, and despite my generally high level of critical snobbery and elitism, a part of me is still a little disappointed.  If Buck-Tick weren’t so dignified, professional, modest and private, I’m sure I wouldn’t respect them as much as I do.  And yet…the sorts of scenes that appeared in previous Buck-Tick films—Hide falling off the stage and the roadies crowing with laughter, Imai struggling to remember anything he did at the 2007 Parade festival besides get shamefully drunk—in short, the band members doing really stupid shit—these are just so much fun to watch.  It’s easy to understand why the band might not feel the need to make yet another “Buck-Tick does dumb shit” video, but even without an excess of bloopers, it seems to me that the Buck-Tick movies would have benefitted from having slightly fewer long silences and slightly more scenes of dynamic action.  I would have enjoyed seeing more of the rehearsals, the design process for the sets, the album covers, the costumes, makeup and hair, the scenery around the venues, the fans in their crazy outfits, and especially, Buck-Tick’s performances with members of other bands, both in the studio and on stage (where, pray tell, are Soil and ‘Pimp’ Sessions?  I wanted to see me some big fat horn section.)  Maybe it’s just me and my personal preferences, but fact that all these collaborations were left out almost feels like a deliberate slight, like they just don’t want to show us what we want to see.  I respect them for not wanting to let obligations of fanservice cramp their style, but…they might have thrown us a few more bones.

Also, having a tighter concept would probably have worked to their advantage.  As it was, with the sole concept of the films being “this is what we did guys,” it ends up being a bit like an extended video livejournal entry—juicy in places, vague in others, excitingly personal in a way but perhaps a teeny bit rambly.  On the other hand, after the credits roll, the second film ends where the first begins: right at the beginning of the Day in Question, only now it’s 2012, not 2011.  So if watching the whole film just left you wanting more and more Buck-Tick, you could pop the Yumemiru Uchuu live DVD into your player and keep going from there.