Suga Shikao, looking fiiiiiiiiiine in a red top and waistcoat, reads slowly from the pages of the day’s Metro – Japanese… Jpop… Superstar!! – and everyone at the ICA cheers. I say everyone. It is possible that I squealed at a pitch audible only to small dogs. Small Japanese dogs, at that. Suga Shikao is big business in Japan, and tonight he’s at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I know two things about him before the show at the ICA: 19sai (19yrs old) (the theme tune from an anime xxxHOLic, though is that relevant? I have never seen it, considering most anime to be king of suck), and, er, his co-authorship of crunchy mega-boyband KAT-TUN’s best seller ‘Real Face’. WHAT OF IT.

suga shikao

suga shikao, making jam, yesterday

Overheard some comments that ‘Japanese fans have a lot riding on Suga Shikao’ … ‘ambassador of Jpop’… never mind, ‘broke all the rules of pop’. What, precisely, would Japanese fans have riding on Suga Shikao? A domestic artist conquering abroad, being showered in laurels and then a victorious Moomin Saver flight back to Narita having glorified Jpop and saved the industry? First of all – this was a gig, this wasn’t representation and record releasing for the UK Christmas No1, and wasn’t a track hastily recorded in English to please a prolific songwriter (thank goodness)! A serious market break… doesn’t sound like it?

And as for being ‘the ambassador of Jpop’ whilst at the same time ‘breaking all the rules of pop’ (hurrah!), this is a ridiculous critic perceived cliché that goes back to the fetishisation of shibuya-kei – loved for deliberately sounding ‘alien’, for ‘futurist retro lounge living’ and all that nerdist hipster jazz – that Japanese Pop holds a secret key to enlighten Western Pop… Pizzicato 5 were going to save indiepop, right? Some sense that there’s still the exotic East/West relationship even in our – ahem – global markets of 2009.

But heck why should that be bad? Perhaps not even exoticism. A quirk! Like Japanese pop is the sexy robot twin to boring old Western Pop. That for Jpop to be unique in the Western market, it has to sound ‘strangely like nothing [one has] heard before’. It’s not a call for originality, it’s kind of cynical and a little patronising – like Jpop, in familiar genres, can’t stand the heat on the international market. And leads to this strange skewing of what Jpop means, or can ever mean to a Western audience, of quirky hipster cult, nerdy anime cult or serious arty cult (you see where I am going)…

So, of course, Suga Shikao comes out and plays 19sai *first*. From here on in we are in unknown territory. 19sai shows off a gloriously husky voice (someone might have whimpered and it might have been ME) and a strangely country sound! My minimal Japanese language skills go as far as translating the lyrics to the chorus: dai kirai kao na boku juukyuusai – aka – i really hate MY FACE at 19yrs old? Do correct me if I’m wrong. It is likely and plausible*. I personally wonder whether it’s a song of triumph rather than emo salad – Suga Shikao is 40odd and looks to me, to be about 19. When he was actually 19 he must have looked about 8. WHERE ARE THE PICTURES IN THE ATTIC?

So, from this kind of country rock, I had assumed that SS wouldn’t really diverge much from this – ahem – musical model. I’m wrong! It was impossible for me to note the title of the songs so I’m afraid I have to talk in terms like ‘the funky one’ — I have a note which reads “is calling this ‘brown-eyed funk’ equivalent to ‘blue-eyed soul’, or just getting things wrong”? Musically, a lot of the time it’s like Sly & the Family Stone knocking on the door and offering to see to your plumbing (we wonder, later, what soundtracks Japanese porn – but gravure idols pop careers are a question for another day; BANANA MANGO HIGH SCHOOL ANYONE??), at other times its electropop as catchy as Robyn and Kleerup.

ONE song in particular, which I am VERY KEEN on finding, is the song that started off sounding like Scooter, then switched to the Feeling, then back to Scooter, then the Feeling, and, and, what WAS that! A pet love of the shibuya-kei music big for indie geekz0r like me was rapid switching between genres in the same songs and cut-ups. Initially great, later… kind of cynical and really irritating? The closing song, and god forbid I describe it as a “funk-out”, BUT, seems to have the refrain ‘Sexy Bonfire’, but can research find me this song? NO. Sexy Bonfire!

(My companion dares me to yell for ‘Real Face’. My face goes bright red, because… I TOTALLY COULD, but given the mostly Japanese audience, people would ALSO have understood what I meant, and I’m not quite sure if I am ready to show my shameful Jboyband addiction with the world right now? Oh, you guys? You’re FINE.)

But ‘breaking the rules’? Hardly! Instead, SS plays the game perfectly – he looks and acts every inch like a pop star. His bird poses have me squealing each time he extends his arms (er, when he’s not playing the guitar obviously) – last time this happened to me I THINK it was with TIM WHEELER from ASH, please draw your own conclusions here, damaging as they may be. What you wonder is, in a venue like this, who was going to come and see him? Even though the ICA has a large series of Japanese events (much loved! Keep at it! Show “BANDAGE” please!) they’ve always been more on the indie/arthouse side of things.

It’s kind of incongruous to see Suga Shikao pop up here. For context, I believe the last person I saw perform at the ICA was MC Pitman. So in terms of ‘breaking the UK market’, this is… a pretty poor stage to do so! However, that live DVD for the Japanese market (Suga Shikao on the newly revived Routemaster! Suga Shikao for Mayor in a ropey blonde wigg!) might do pretty well, and I hope it does! His show is fantastic, his band are extremely crushworthy in terms of FINGERS OF FUNKY FLAME, and even if there is a little too much wow-chikky-wow for my tastes, the energy of it all made enough for a great show. We dance about, I rejoice in the height of a mostly-Japanese audience levelling the gig-going playing field (I CAN SEE!) and all have a GRATE TIME. I even learn how to wave my arms in the right direction at the same time as everyone else – a trick everybody else apart from myself, my companion, and the tipsy girl in a fedora hat seems to know. YEAH!

*(I wonder if not understanding the lyrics is actually a bonus – going by 19sai (the one lyric that perhaps I understand! if I do not have them wrong!), the rest of the lyrics could be “culture alienation boredom and despair” for all I know. But taking this further will give me a 2987452897 page ramble about ‘do lyrics even matter’ which I cannot do right now. Mostly because I fear the answers that I will get, as someone who has listened to pop in various non-comprehensible languages since 16sai… freak!)

(Thanks to Natalie from Muso’s Guide for getting us tix to this!)