It can be difficult to ascertain whether or not a particular strand of counterculture has kicked the bucket once and for all. Nothing, however, signals the end of something quite like when government and industry join hands, united in a woefully misguided effort to piggyback on cultural relevance. There's a reason why Brits look back on the twee patriotism of 1990s Cool Britannia with all the shame and self-loathing of stumbling across an early Deadmau5 single in your old CD collection.
It might not be as crass as the US Department of Health and Human Services' attempt to use doge to sell Obamacare, but Japan's government-led "Cool Japan" branding campaign in the early 2000s was just as guilty of missing the mark. Its specific offense involved a belated attempt to peddle empty husks of kawaii in the form of cosplay maids and Pokémon.
Unfortunately, the result of this lame branding campaign is that many foreigners think gothic Lolitas, robot restaurants, and cookie-cutter anime are the essence of Japanese subculture. In reality, those emblems are merely the lowest-hanging fruits.
To find out what's really going on in the Japanese underground, I decided to check out "Paint Your Teeth," a long-running party currently on its 24th edition that's put on by some of Tokyo's avant-garde musicians and performance artists. Founded by an American named David Hoenigman, who organizes the party when he's not writing novels or teaching English, "Paint Your Teeth" takes place in a subterranean venue in the notorious red-light district of Kabukicho.
When I arrived, the motley crowd had about a 60:40 ratio of foreigners to locals. While the majority of Japanese people had attempted to dress up in costumes, the expat contingent mostly sat around looking like bored English teachers. Then again, they probably were bored English teachers.
On one side of the stage stood a goateed Japanese gentleman sporting a Sailor Moon schoolgirl outfit and wig; a friendly yakuza-looking bloke stroked a Barbie doll on his lap at the other end.
Things began to get weird during the following performance. The lead singer of the band peeled off her shirt and approached someone in the audience—and then grabbed the onlooker's dick. If this had been a Japanese porno, the whole thing would have needed some serious mosaic treatment. Unfortunately, the whole act stank of nothing but sweat and depression—which is a shame, because certain musicians here, like the electropop band Trippple Nippples and the electronic/noise duo Group A use nudity in a genuinely provocative manner, whereas this was just plain awkward. The bloke in the Sailor Moon outfit whipped his genitalia out, waiting desperately for some sort of acknowledgement that never came. Meanwhile, the man with the Barbie continued to stroke the doll's hair, glassy-eyed.
Next up came Cara, an English teacher from Germany, and Veronika, an illustrator from New Mexico. In their tandem act, "Team Donut Lolita," the pair dressed as baby-faced Lolitas and ate donuts to a backing track that sounded like a FruityLoops preset. "There's always something disturbing that happens in our act," Cara told me later. "We [once] had someone giving birth to donuts and then we ate their babies."
On this occasion, their act involved scalping the head of an oversized teddy bear, then eating the donuts that were stuffed inside. After they finished, they were shot by a guy in clown makeup wielding fake guns and grenades. When I attempted to decipher the performance as an explosion of repressed female sexuality, culminating in fatal patriarchal violence, my friend Jane (who is a freelance semiotician) was quick to brush that nonsense off, labelling it instead as a "clusterfuck."
The evening continued in this vein: everyone doing their own thing, one after another, punctuated by polite applause by those who were waiting for their friends' acts to come on. There was little sense of community, and the artists were quick to leave after their performances.
It felt like everyone was there to be seen, but no one was particularly interested in looking. I've never been to an open-mic night, but I imagine the format is roughly the same: 90% tolerance and 10% self-gratification. Rather than on stage, far more entertaining things were happening in the audience.
The man who'd had his dick out and erect earlier went from borderline committing sex acts to kindly holding the toilet door shut for women after the lock broke. An elderly man who I assumed was homeless wandered in and proceeded to French kiss a Morticia Addams lookalike who sat at the bar feigning sleep in a bizarrely overblown manner.
Honestly, it was as if these donut-eating Lolitas, gun-wielding clowns, and Sailor Moon-costumed gentlemen were the ghosts of "Cool Japan" past, who had congregated in an attempt to convince themselves that there was still life in their clichéd characters. But as much as it came across as desperate and dated to me, maybe "Paint Your Teeth" is actually healthy. After all, somewhere in England, there might be someone dusting off a VHS of Spice World, wishing they didn't have to sing "Spice Up Your Life" alone.
Mike Sunda is a music writer who lives in Tokyo - @mikesunda