The Borrower

Since this week is probably the best (and only) time to post anything I have about the Frank Chickens, another article from the vault, this time about Kazuko Hohki’s book Underfloor World (Rondon no Yukashita)

Kazuko Hohki is the driving force behind the Frank Chickens pop phenomenon, but also the author of a Japanese-language book about life in London. Hohki has taken her title, Underfloor World, from The Borrowers, the children’s book that drove her to come to England in the first place. It also influenced her album of the same name and my favourite Frank Chickens song, “Megalomaniacs”.

Underfloor World was first published in serial form, and has a helpful table of contents that facilitates ‘dip-into’ reading. Hohki’s own method of organising her material consists of subdividing the contents lists into seven extra categories: Life, Love, Work, Women, Japan, The World and ‘The Job’ (ie. her personal career). Within these seven areas, she covers an awful lot of ground, and with headings like ‘World Peace through Karaoke’ and ‘The Siberian Grandfather of Punk’, you know you’re going to be on a magic carpet ride to weirdoville.

The happiest readers will already be big fans of the Frank Chickens. You’ll get insider gossip on the band’s many line-up changes, and backstage goings-on as they perform around the world. Those readers who are not already Chickenised may find those sections tiresome, as it often takes it for granted that you will be interested in the band’s activities, or the solo acting career of Hohki herself. After reading a Tokyo Journal article about Hohki, I was under the mistaken impression that her book was a tourist guide to London’s less-known sites, whereas it is in fact a very personal emigrée diary. The title of her original column in Kachin magazine was “Kazuko’s Diary”, which should have been a hint, I suppose.

Hohki’s notes on English life are all the more interesting because they are a window on the way Japanese people view us, and her autobiographical asides are in keeping with a long-standing tradition in Japanese literature. I think I managed to inadvertently insult the author when I told her I’d be recommending her book to students of Japanese. She claims to have modelled her writing style on that of Yukio Mishima, and she certainly reproduces his deadpan, rather British, narrative structure. However, that’s where the resemblance ends.

For a start, Mishima was never this funny. It never ceases to amaze me how the Japanese sense of humour is so close to that of the British. If Douglas Adams ever had the chance to work with such a wonderful book designer, I’m sure that he, too, would include both an Afterword and an Afterafterword, a DIY secret society membership kit, and a fold-out activity section. Also, Hohki has binned Mishima’s pretty but tiresome practice of using hentaigana, extremely difficult characters where simpler ones will do. This makes it easier-going for a start, aided still further by the fact that her subject matter is often already familiar to English-speakers. So while you’ll be reading a book written by a Japanese for the Japanese, you may find that it’s much easier to relate to the material. Can you really resist a deadpan discussion of the British penchant for Irish jokes, or a Japanese view of what it’s like to live in East London? I know that I can’t, and if you’re one of the increasing number of readers who tell us they’re learning Japanese, Underfloor World would be a rewarding place to begin looking at the Real Thing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in Anime FX magazine, sometime in 1996, as part of a Japanese-language book round-up under the original title “The Real Thing”.

Advertisements

We Are Ninja (not Geisha)

In honour of Stewart Lee’s tirade against modern evils, and the possibility that the Frank Chickens might become comedy gods…

—-

The Frank Chickens are a trio, or a duo. Sometimes they’re more like an octo. But anyway, they’re all Japanese. Apart from the ones who aren’t. In fact, the Frank Chickens are a nebulous entity, born from the London Musicians’ Collective. They’ve had more members over the last ten years than Spinal Tap have had drummers, but the one unifying figure is the incomparable Kazuko Hohki. This one-woman entertainment conglomerate is a journalist, singer, dancer, puppeteer (don’t ask, but it involves Godzilla and Jack Kerouac) and educational psychology graduate. She also hosted Kazuko’s Karaoke Club for Channel 4 in 1987, whose quick demise brought sighs of relief from all over TV-land.

Hohki is a practised outsider, a professional gaijin if you will, whose concentrated weirdness has also received attention in her country of origin. She even wrote and starred in a Japanese sit-com called 90 Days Tottenham Pub, about the Frank Chickens’ ill-fated attempt to marry gay English aristocrats for a visa fiddle. There’s a lot of it about in Tottenham.

Hohki’s other claim to fame in her homeland is her concerted efforts to convince the Japanese that England isn’t all red buses and Harrods. Her book Underfloor World is a tourist guide for the Japanese non-tourist in the UK, presumably citing Tottenham as a major spot of perverse historical interest.

If you have ever seen the UK depicted on Japanese television, you will see something very different from ‘real life’. The Japanese media present a very idealised picture of our faraway land, selling Nescafé on the idea that it is drunk by tweeded Oxbridge undergraduates, with tourist programmes that concentrate on the more asinine elements of our national culture. Thus it is that Kazuko Hohki’s songs can really shock her  home audience, who are faced with tales about the wide boy ‘Johnny Reggae’, and the dreary everyday life of  ‘Living in Tottenham.’

Hohki lives in the no-man’s-land between her two ‘homes’, and she is equally uncompromising in her treatment of traditional Japanese stereotypes. ‘We are ninja’ is arguably their trademark, a poppy track that says while Westerners like to think of Japanese girls as demure geisha, these girls would rather be assassins: “You’re a ninja / I’m a ninja / Amidst the blinding sand / we disappear.” They also claim to feel up alligators on the train; not the kind of girls you’d like to meet among the cherry blossoms, that’s for sure. The real joy in ‘We are ninja’ comes when you find out the nonsensical chants in the background actually mean something in Japanese; this is another typically Frank Chickens touch, and it can lend a whole new level of appreciation to their music, not unlike discovering ‘Showaddywaddy’ means something obscene in Swahili. (It doesn’t, by the way).

There is similar in-yer-face bricolage in ‘Do the karaoke’, which begins like one more depressing Japanese ballad, but soon perks up when we hear “…I dumped my love in the Sumida river.” Some of the Frank Chickens’ best work is in a similar vein, not only because they can have a lot of fun mincing up the lyrics of traditional songs, but also because they can show off their musical ability. Some songs sound suspiciously like those 80s ‘electronic’ hits, where some muppet had just discovered what the green button did on his Casio, but there are also some marvellous tracks which incorporate traditional supporting instrumentals from the obscenely talented Clive Bell.

The Frank Chickens remain very much a live group, rather than studio performers. Occasionally the songs on their albums seem to be missing a certain something, and you can only find out exactly what when you see them live. Hohki makes no secret of her wish to be a permanent amateur, kicking her heels around the edges of  the Tokyo/London pop scene and doing her best never to become ‘too English’ or ‘too Japanese’. She told the Tokyo Journal that London is the best place for her to ‘be herself’, and her real vocation seems to be standing up in front of bemused foreigners and trying to get them to be as zany and free as she is. This is what you’ll see at a Frank Chickens concert, where you’re treated to their silly costumes, their insane dancing, and their nasty habit of dragging members of the audience up on stage to humiliate themselves. This is not a particularly ‘Japanese’ habit, unless you count karaoke bars as institutions of ritualised humiliation, but this is yet another thing that makes Hohki and friends so exciting. They are not exclusively Japanese or exclusively British, but they live in a strange world between both cultures, and that gives them an insight and appeal that calls out to the weird in us all.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in Anime UK magazine in 1995.