Happy End — More from Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

In the early 1970s, more Japanese rock bands started to sing in Japanese rather than English. One of the first groups to do this was the folk-rock group Happy End. Some might be familiar with the band from their song “Kaze Wo Atumete,” which was on the soundtrack for Lost in Translation. Below is a tribute video to the band, in which you can hear their song “Natsu Nandesu”:

In a discussion of the band from his book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical History of J-Pop, Michael Bourdaghs discusses Happy End in the context of the politics of 1960s Japan and Japan’s struggle with its past. In this passage Bourdaghs discusses the debates and meanings surrounding Happy End’s choice to sing in Japanese:

The assertion by Happy End that rock could be sung successfully in Japanese challenged this common sense and provoked a sharp and sometimes negative response. Skeptics pointed out that the rock-in-Japanese position was self-contradictory. As one noted, “If you’re going to say, sing it in Japanese because we’re Japanese, then why don’t you just go the whole way and come out in favor of enka sung in naniwabushi style and reject rock? Neither rock in Japanese nor folk in Japanese can lay claim to any traditional lineage.”But Happy End sang in Japanese not to lay claim to an authentic tradition: the band explicitly denied that any authentic tradition was available to them. Rather, they chose to sing in a form that no reference to the past could authenticate, precisely so as to create a new authenticity in the present.

Bourdaghs concludes his discussion by considering how Happy End’s music spoke to a Japan looking to escape its past:

Happy End marked a moment of optimism, a moment of belief in the present as a beginning, a beginning in which one could bring into existence a new Japanese body through the performance of a new kind of music. This new body would be that of not only children who did not know war but also children who had escaped the capitalist culture industry: the song “Happy End” contains direct swipes at those who define happiness in terms of material consumption….

Literary critic Katō Norihiro and others have recently looked at Japan’s postwar historical memory as a misshapen, literally “twisted” (nejire) form and sought ways by which the historical trauma of war, defeat, and loss of empire could be confronted and thereby worked through to restore psychic health to the Japanese nation. But it strikes me that Happy End was suspicious of the model of health that underwrites this vision. The band acknowledged the strong desires evoked through memories of loss, and yet it used irony and the materiality of language strategically to avoid the “social disease of nostalgia” in which “the present is denied and the past takes on an authenticity of being, an authenticity which, ironically, it can only achieve through narrative.” Happy End cast its lot, rather, with the “twisted” present as a source of possibility and undermined the very processes of historicization—be it via melodrama, nostalgia for empire, or furusato discourse—by mobilizing forms of ironic performance in the present. Inheriting the opposition between America and Japan, the band negated the opposition and thereby produced an entirely new space, one that eludes the possibility of easy mapping. As Hosono Haruomi would later reminisce: “The space that Happy End created was unique, even in global terms. It was warped in a fourth-dimensional kind of way and in conflict with the spaces around it. I’m still caught up in that double-helix structure. I catch on immediately to any music that produces this sort of space.”

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