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Breakdancing Through Japan

A few days in Japan at the Red Bull BC One Championship, the individual B-Boy equivalent of the World Cup.

by Jeff Weiss
Apr 10 2017, 6:34pm

I've been in Japan for the last 72 hours and no one has inasmuch raised a voice above a steady meditative keel until now. I've wandered the winding cobblestone lanes of Kyoto and the industrial labyrinths of Nagoya for hours and barely heard a honk. I stood amongst hundreds of near-silent pilgrims, tossing clouds of incense smoke and solemnly venerating the ancient fox god of sake. I watched dozens of people refuse to cross a red stop signal despite no cars being within blocks.

But for the last 15 minutes, I've carefully weighed the consequences of violent retaliation on the breakdancing fanatic sitting directly behind me. He's intermittently babbling like an auctioneer and unleashing bloodcurdling howls of "MURASAN!" into my left eardrum at 15-second intervals—save for the lone time he shrieks, "JAPANESE NINJA!!!"

We're at the Red Bull BC One championship final, the individual B-Boy equivalent of the World Cup, and for the first time in the nation's history, a Japanese dancer is on the verge of winning it all. Inside this Nagoya gymnasium, directly in the shadow of a 500-year old Tokugawa shogun's castle, 3,000 berserk, euphoric, nerve-wracked breakdancing devotees, some as young as six, cheer on 19-year-old Issei—the "Japanese Ninja" in question. Due to a grievous seating twist, the loudest golem from here to Hokkaido has opted to turn my superior canal to cinders.

The last 90 minutes have obliterated previous expectations of breakdancing, gravity, glow-in-the-dark costumes, and the slim nexus between archetype and stereotype. The festivities commenced with a pair of sumo-sized men in red silk kimonos furiously plucking shamisen stringed guitars. The house DJ is a roughly 40-year old Japanese B-Boy adorned in a cherry Kangol, gold dookie ropes, Adidas tracksuit, and Run-DMC glasses. It feels like an unfinished script that Quentin Tarantino wrote in 1984 after smoking six spliffs during a Bruce Lee and Wild Style double feature.

BC One's competitors comprise a United Nations culled from the USA, Japan, South Korea, The Netherlands, Brazil, Russia, Great Britain, France, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, and Portugal. The Polish B-Boy wields a towering Pam Grier Afro. The Portuguese combatant calls himself Bruce Almighty and prides himself on his mid-battle shenanigans, which include literally jumping out of his shoes.

Between rounds one and two, a Japanese rap crew spits frenetic double-time raps in Chicago Bulls jackets, dark beanies, and camo pants. The unstated goal seems to be: what if the Wu-Tang Clan actually came from the land of the Wu-Tang Clan? They're followed by "Electric Trouble + Glass Hopper + El Squad," a battalion of 20 costumed synchronized dancers. Think the skeletons from the Cobra Kai crossed with the tribal chaos of the "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See" video. There is a dubstep breakdown, the swinging of laser swords and crab walking.

Our evening's host, Rakaa of Dilated Peoples, shakes his head, blinks twice, and tells the crowd: "that was one of the craziest things I've ever seen." And he worked with Kanye.

Years of sweat, bruises, elimination competitions, and listening to unthinkable amounts of The Incredible Bongo Band have come down to this. It's the teenaged heartthrob Issei, the native hero hailing from Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan's four main islands, versus Seoul's Hong 10, a 32-year old two-time champion, the "king of the Halo freeze," and a fixture on the international B-Boy scene since 2001.

No one wants to go first. In the BC One competitions, there are no coin flips to decide order, it's just who's willing to acquiesce. So for an interminable 120 seconds, the rivals from historically antagonistic nations, turkey neck, whip their hair, clap, point, mug to the crowd, raise their fists to the sky, and try to intimidate each other as politely as possible. Finally, Issei cracks. Daps and pounds are exchanged. The recent graduate of the Daiichi Pharmaceutical High School starts to top rock step. The crowd bolts upright. Then with a piercing soul-snuffing scream, the lunatic behind me screeches once more: "MURESAN!!!!!!!!!!!"

* * *

Maybe you're wondering why I'm here. Beyond the desire to inhale enough sushi to court a Jeremy Piven-like case of mercury poisoning, I'm trying to understand how a largely outmoded American art form became a venerable Japanese rite. In its home country, breakdancing's relevance currently ranks somewhere near swing music—which experienced a third wind two decades ago when Generation X briefly became convinced that salvation lay in ironic bowling shirts, second-tier scotch, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

American B-Boying has long been consigned to the darkest rungs of Mario Lopez Dance Dance Revolution hours, NBA halftime shows, and the occasional cinematic battle between the ridiculously good looking. I've seen people Crip Walk, pin drop, jerk, milly rock, crank dat, shmoney dance, cat daddy, reject, krump, clown, yike, two-step, dab, nae nae, and hit the quan. I've been in a room full of 100 ostensibly sane adults performing a Mannequin challenge. But during this millennium, I've never been to a party, club, Quinceanera or Bar Mitzvah, where regular people breakdanced without a hint of ironic nostalgia.

This December night in Nagoya exists as a bizarro alternate future of the Bronx circa 1977. During that bombed out, blackout, Summer of Sam, no one could've predicted that teenaged B-Boy crews battling in the parks would eventually impact almost every culture, international or domestic—let alone still thrive 40 years later in the land of Naruto.

Here for the festivities is Crazy Legs—avatar of the Rocksteady Crew—who became one of Japan's first hip-hop missionaries in 1983, as part of the promotional tour following the global release of Wild Style. Until that point, a few stray singles ("Rapper's Delight," "The Breaks," "The Message,") earned occasional spins at Tokyo discos, but no one knew what hip-hop looked like. Most historians trace the dawn of Japanese hip-hop to that initial Rocksteady visit. The dancers performed in Japanese department stores and clubs, and left the most searing impression of hip-hop's original four elements.

"I couldn't tell what was what with the rap and the DJing... but with the breakdancing and graffiti art, you could understand it visually," said first generation rapper, Takagi Kan in Ian Condry's book, Hip-Hop Japan. "Or rather, it wasn't understanding so much as, 'Whoa, that's cool. With rap and deejaying, I couldn't imagine what could be cool about it."

A wave of American breaksploitation films soon followed (Beat Street, Breakin,' Flash Dance), which amplified Japanese interest in the phenomenon. But back home, Madison Avenue ruthlessly siphoned breakdancing's cool—using it to sell McDonald's and Mountain Dew, and even to present a B-Boy parade on a nationally televised Kennedy Center dance extravaganzas before Ronald "I Got It 4 Cheap" Reagan. The future Carlton Banks sold breakdancing "How To" books via television commercial.

While most of us can agree that great breakdancing is thrilling to watch (at least for a few minutes), its current influence currently extends little further than super niche communities and as a trite gag employed by unimaginative comedy writers. Survey the average 16-year old and odds are that their most significant interaction with breakdancing was this LeBron State Farm commercial. If Americans are brilliant inventors, they're mediocre preservationists. The country that conceived planned obsolescence only pledges allegiance to momentary trends and market tantrums. Vine incubated some of the biggest hip-hop dance crazes of the last decade, but Twitter promptly put it out to pasture as soon as marketing executives abandoned it.

Of course, the Japanese are equally famous for their love of a good fad. Coca-Cola manufactures 850 types of beverages for the Japanese market alone, including garlic and kimchi-flavored concoctions and something called Qoo, a "water-drop-shaped forest creature designed to appeal to Japan's cult of the cute." But by a wide margin, the most popular drink remains green tea, as traditional and ancient as it gets.

I spend two days amidst the abundant shrines of Kyoto. What's most surprising isn't the dedication to preserving their rich cultural heritage, but rather the massive throngs of religious pilgrims, solemnly paying tribute to the Shinto deities and esoteric Boddhisattva's of the distant past. There is no attempt to modernize or re-interpret them for modern society. A belief in their vitality seems secondary to the trust in the tradition.

This reflects the inherent paradox at the core of contemporary Japan: you're simultaneously thrust into a flamboyant neon future and a sacred reverent past. While that might seem schizophrenic in America, it feels perfectly natural over here. A contemporary Japanese rap scene thrives, including "Trap Queen" remixes and hits called "Dirt Boys" featuring a Japanese rhymer named Dutch Montana. But so does breakdancing, considered an irreplaceable component of the most authentic, Ur-form of hip-hop.

"The B-Boys in Japan know that they're true to the origins of hip-hop," says DJ Mar Ski, the official DJ for the BC One championship. "They care about the four elements and the relationship between MCs, DJs, and breakers. They're humble, tough, and their quality keeps improving."

It's the day before the competition and we're speaking through an interpreter in a makeshift media room inside the Nagoya Castle gymnasium. The venerable DJ looks as though he just stepped out the It's Tricky" video, sporting a black Run DMC hat, black glasses, Zulu Nation shirt, and Puma sweats. He speaks with the passion, sincerity, and sartorial flair of someone who has given the entirety of their life to a few immutable ideas.

Over the last quarter century, Mar Ski has become the go-to DJ and doyen of the Japanese breaking scene. Most give Ski and Crazy A (the leader of Rock Steady Japan), credit for ensuring the art form's sustained relevance. They've mentored and educated countless B-Boys on its foundational tenets, helping to grow it from a tiny cult centered in Tokyo to a thriving sub-culture regularly seen on national TV.

After Rocksteady's 1983 visit, the fledgling hip-hop community commandeered Tokyo's Yoyogi Park every Sunday. Acquiring the nickname B-Boy Park, dance, rap, and DJ battles became constant—a healthy competition that fostered DJ Honda and DJ Krush—two of the few Japanese hip-hop producers to cross over to American underground hip-hop audiences. (If you've never heard Honda and Mos Def's "Travellin Man, I'll pause for a moment before we proceed).

When Ski first came to Tokyo in the early 90s, he discovered a moribund B-Boy scene. New Jack Swing, house dancing, the jazz scene and punk reigned. Growing up in the south of Japan, long before the Internet, Ski's entire exposure to hip-hop came through second-hand Yo! MTV Raps VHS tapes dubbed so many times that they were often in black and white. With evangelic fervor, Ski and Crazy A kept breaking alive long enough for Japanese dancers to became notable figures in the B-Boy renaissance of the late 90s and early 00s. This was arguably the last time that the sport had a major cultural currency in its country of origin.

With the jiggy era came the attendant backlash and revanchist desire to return to the four elements. Rawkus Records reigned on the East Coast. Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, and The Beat Junkies held sway in the West. From the DMV, tapes began circulating of B-Boys battling house dancers. The revival soon spread to the Tri-State area. VHS cassettes were hawked in underground hip-hop and graffiti mags. Scribble Jam became a thing. If you were there, you remember it with bittersweet memories. If you weren't, you wonder how so many scraggly-bearded white bros deluded themselves into thinking Jansports, Fidel Caps, and cargo shorts looked "ill."

Due to its sheer size, raw talent, and history, America still churns out some of the world's top breakdancing talents. Out the 16 dancers assembled in Nagoya, two hail from the United States: Ben Stacks of Las Vegas and the defending champion, 22-year old Victor Montalvo, who was raised in Orlando and taught to dance by his father and uncle, both of whom were B-Boys in their native Mexico. At 33, Stacks is almost considered ancient by competitive breakdancing standards. After a hiatus from competitive dancing, he's returned as the the last man standing from the second wave of US B-Boying, here for one last attempt to snatch the BC One crown.

"In the US, everything changes so fast. Whether it's the dab or the milli rock, people do whatever the next hot thing is," Stacks tells me the afternoon before the competition. "You don't have to practice. There's not much technique. You can just see it and be like I wanna' be a part of that moment, and then you're doing the mannequin challenge. To me, B-Boying to me was the coolest thing I ever saw when I was young. Now I'm a father of two kids and they don't look at it the way I did. It's just not the cool thing to do."

We talk about how he got into breaking by watching Beat Street at age 12. It led to buying turntables, dancing at festivals in the park, and finally, he became one of the country's rising stars, eventually joining the Jabbawockeez. He's been returning to Japan regularly for the last 13 years and witnessed its B-Boy evolution firsthand. He tells me about the hundreds of young children who show up for dance workshops, eager to absorb the lessons—versus the more arrogant American kids that always think they know everything.

"Japan preserves the culture amazingly," Stacks says, pointing out that many B-Boy elders make a living by giving clinics in Asia. "The skill level has gotten ridiculous. Kids have gotten better than adults, and they've always stayed true to their culture—whether by incorporating house music dancing or Mortal Kombat video game style."

During the late 2000s, the Japanese B-Boys achieved a creative breakthrough. Until that point, they'd been praised for their agility, refined technique and teamwork in crew competitions, yet often deemed too derivative of their B-Boy forebears. The American insistence on originality and swagger at all costs didn't yet translate to a Japanese culture that valued collaboration and respect for the architects. To become the best, they needed to kill their idols.

Enter Taisuke Nonaka, 26, the most decorated breaker of 21st Century Japanese B-Boy history, famous enough to be only known by his first name. It's inherently ridiculous to compare anyone to Michael Jackson, but that might be the best way to understand his precocity, innovation, and influence upon the national breaking scene.

This BC One Tournament commemorates Taisuke's 20th year as a competitive dancer. Ever since he was a six-year old following his sister to her dance class, the West Japan native has been hailed as a phenom. For most of the last two decades, he's been a constant fixture on nationally televised dance shows and B-Boy competitions—both solo and with his crew, The Floorriorz.

"Japanese people really respect hip-hop culture," Taisuke says, when we speak the day before the competition. He's short but muscular, tough but kindly, wearing a black jacket, spiked hair, light goatee, and a glinting diamond stud in his left ear—looking pretty much identical to what you'd imagine you'd get in a casting call for people who look like "cool Japanese breakdancers."

"When we go our practice sessions, we talk about the culture," Taisuke continues. "This move came from this dancer and so on. We learn our history and try to mix that history with new technique."

A 2007 relocation to Tokyo sparked Taisuke's artistic leap. Once based in the capital, the dancer fell under the tutelage of Mar Ski, who schooled him in the four elements and B-Boy lore. It's not hard to detect his monkish devotion to hip-hop's godheads. I ask who his favorite rappers are and Taisuke answers, "Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan, Public Enemy, and the Wu-Tang Clan." His favorite though is James Brown. ("He gave us so much good music and helped shaped hip-hop culture. He's someone I really respect.")

It's instinctual for a breaker to venerate the Godfather of Soul, whose backing band, The JBs, delivered more iconic breakbeats than any other. But there's something deeper there, an innate understanding of being a torchbearer, the latest link in a chain extending back almost a half century. At every shrine I visit, there are innumerable sub-temple tributes to ancient abbots and gardeners, ruling class patrons and esoteric gods. This is no different.

If his direct predecessors merely mimicked the wild style, Taisuke embodied it. Watching this clip of him doing critical moves is like watching Tony Hawk land a 900, Young Thug's neon float on "With Them," or a Chun Li lightning kick. You're tempted to rewind it or diagram it via freeze frame, but it refuses to make sense in discrete components, only as one Mobius loop rejection of gravity.

With the advent of YouTube, many old school stalwarts currently lament the demise of regional styles. B-Boying has entered a new international phase, requiring equal fluency in all forms. Few have ever matched the virtuosity of Taisuke, quicksilver swift on the floor but boasting the strength and flexibility of a gold medal gymnast.

What separates the B-Boy's is individual style—their ability to translating acrobatic spins into a singular form of attitude. It's what Raymond Chandler said: style is a projection of personality. In Taisuke, the Japanese found a stylistic vanguard, the rare alchemy of distiller and originator. Not only did he boast the crossover velocity of Allen Iverson, but also had the brash cockiness and cool to step over Tyronn Lue.

Just like Iverson, Taisuke's all-world run has left him without a title. This is his seventh BC One competition, a run that stretches back over a decade and includes two runner-up finishes. He's already announced his retirement in individual battles after tonight—though he'll keep participating in group competitions.

"In sports, if people don't know the rules, you can't play," Taisuke says. "In Japanese breakdancing, we say the same thing, if you don't know B-Boy culture and B-Boy history, you can't dance."

It's hard not to root for him in the same way that everyone outside of Green Bay wanted John Elway to win that first Super Bowl at the end of his career. Except this time, there are no trophies or impromptu green tea Gatorade baths. He pulls out every stop: licking his lips, moonwalking like Michael Jackson in the "Smooth Criminal" video, spinning on his head like a Dreidel, and landing perfectly every time. But still, Taisuke falls to Hong 10 of South Korea, by a narrow 3-2 vote. And just like that, a generation ends.

* * *

Here we go again, one last time. Despite several side eyes and scowls cast towards him, the "MURASAN" banshee stays cackling in my ears, Meanwhile, Issei, the last remaining national hero starts with a lackluster round of lethargic spins and pivots. He seems exhausted—the 19-year old nicknamed "the prodigy" hitting the proverbial rookie wall, certain to collapse to the South Korean B-Boy legend.

The crowd's energy sputters to a listless hum. The screaming ceases. Where is the Issei of the opening rounds? Frenetically spinning, backflipping, and landing impossibly on one arm—frozen in mid-air, the sworn enemy of gravity. You would have thought that he was the illegitimate spawn of Jackie Chan and Simone Biles, adopted by the Rocksteady Crew—not a shy gentle kid who wore a suit and tie to high school, raised by a single mom in a far-flung province.

I spent 20 minutes with Issei yesterday. Maybe it was a language barrier, but he was so polite and self-effacing that I could never imagine him winning a B-Boy contest. He's as clean-cut and boyishly telegenic as Zac Efron circa High School High. You could see him leading a church youth group and teaching them how to do his patented "construction site" move if they answered the catechism correctly.

He stresses the importance of B-Boy history, his love for Kool Herc, and his desire to come to America and learn in the sport's cradle of civilization. I ask him why he thinks he's been so successful and he gives a total stock answer.

"Just luck," he says. That's usually a sign of false humility. Great athletes know they're great. It's not just luck. He obviously had maniacal perseverance, preposterous athleticism, and a sense of rhythm rivaling Damo Suzuki of Can. I know that he knows this, but he's so humble that I actually believe him.

"The people that I've met along the way have been really nice and helpful to me," he says through his translator. "But really, it's just good luck."

Inside the octagon, Issei transforms entirely. It's a stretch to call him a savage. He's too sweet not to politely smile, even as he's harpooning an opponent. But he has the laser focus of holy lunatics and high achievers. And just when it seems like Hong 10 has him on the ropes, he snaps back with furious adrenaline.

The fatigue has stripped him of his explosiveness, but the comeback prayers of the crowd revive him. He alights into a blitz of whirling kicks, headstands, statuesque elbow freezes, and more technical moves that would send you to a B-Boy glossary or medical encyclopedia.

As the fourth round ends, he detonates into a head spin so long that you could recite the entire Bushido Code, then he bounces off the floor as though his backbone was pure rubber, somehow landing completely upright, with just the slightest trace of shock on his face. It's not a Michael Jordan shrug but it's as close as we're going to get.

The crowd surges, sending an undulating belt of energy that could seem terrifying if they weren't mostly sober. Then once more, let it rip…"MURASAN!!!!" In that last round, Issei plays to the crowd, raising his arms, vogueing, unleashing a torrent of fancy footwork, pelvic thrusts, and hip sways. He's got them chanting "GO!" and moving like a young aerodynamic Elvis.

I could describe the minutiae for you, but this is 2017. You can just watch it here. One final hyperkinetic slur of flips, freezes, slides, and spins. The potential of the human form unlocked into esoteric positions and absurd funk. Somehow, after Hong 10 vainly tries to match him, they both end up shirtless, flexing before the hysterical crowd.

I don't know what's going on and I don't think anyone else in here does either. But when the final judge holds up Issei's name, giving him a harrowing 3-2 victory, making him the first-ever Japanese individual champion, the walls of the arena start to convulse and shudder. Issei collapses to the crowd, mobbed by friends and fans. As polite as pandemonium gets. Then two young girls in pink floral silken kimonos hand him a championship belt.

Back in the pressroom, a mob of local and foreign journalists batter Issei with mostly banal questions. He's beaming in slight disbelief, clutching his championship belt like a rosary. He answers with single sentence efficiency—mentioning the pressure he felt and attributing his victory to the roar of the fans.

"Too happy," he says, completely out of adjectives when someone asks how he feels. It's bizarre for an American to see a champion like this. We've been raised on Kobe and Kanye, 50 Cent and LeBron. A country that has spent a half century valuing narcissism as a supreme good, a necessary component to achieve. Issei seems to exist in a different era, one beholden to an atavistic set of values and codes of conduct.

As the publicists wave their arms and tell the media, "one more question," someone blurts out an obvious "What are you going to celebrate?"

Issei pauses for a second, carefully deliberates and answers, "The Onsen Hot Springs," he answers, referring to that most ancient and traditional mode of national relaxation. "I would like to go there with my family and friends."

Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles who likes to dance. Follow him on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Red Bull.