The essential principle of Japanese popular culture is kawaii, which is not exactly an arcane, untranslatable concept. It means “cute.” Cute as in Hello Kitty, cute as in jumbo-eyed animated heroines, cute as in the singing idoru (idols) featured on Japanese TV. Cute as in Shonen Knife and Cibo Matto.
The importance of kawaii in Japanese life reflects the unlikely significance of two groups: preschoolers and women in their 20s, who both tend to adorn themselves with T-shirts, backpacks, and stickers bearing the same imagery. That these two demographics have so much in common reflects Japan’s juvenilization of female sexuality, but also a form of indulgence. Just as preschoolers are supposed to enjoy themselves before they’re subjected to the severity of a Japanese education, so unmarried young women are expected to revel in a second childhood before committing to the rigors of a Japanese marriage.
Consuming kawaii is a very different thing from producing it, however—which is why Shonen Knife’s career is a bolder undertaking than it may seem on this side of the Pacific. In lofty American circles, it’s customary to prefer Cibo Matto to Shonen Knife, but the two groups started by doing much the same thing: writing and performing simple, singsongy tunes about food. Whereas Shonen Knife had the guts to do so in Osaka, however, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori took the easy way out and moved to New York, where their exotic brand of kawaii guaranteed them hipster forbearance.
Cibo Matto’s new Stereotype A is even trendier than its first long-player, 1996’s Viva! La Woman, but it finds the band—now a quartet with the addition of former Yoko Ono sidemen Sean Lennon and Timo Ellis—pulled in several directions. The album’s very title suggests the conflict. Honda and Hatori seem to be defying American stereotypes—of femaleness, of cuteness, of Japaneseness—while dropping a reference that will make sense only at home: In Japan, blood types are routinely used to determine the suitability of people for jobs, relationships, or public positions. (“What’s your blood type?” replaces “What’s your sign?” as the character-determining question.) Mused Japan: A Reinterpretation author Patrick Smith of this pseudoscientific augury, “It’s as if people will resort to any ruse to obscure the matter of public individuality.”
You might think individuality is not an issue for Cibo Matto, which opted out of Japan’s notorious conformity. Still, Stereotype A shows signs of a group mentality—just of a new group. If your peers are David Byrne, Beck, and whoever’s editing the Village Voice music section this week, then this album functions as a VIP-room membership card. Its menu of Brazilian, electronic, and hiphop styles could not be more chic. With “Blue Train,” Honda and Hatori even pay fashionable homage to an adolescent taste for heavy metal that they probably never had.
If Stereotype A sounds less Japanese than Viva! La Woman, it’s not because it’s denser, more accomplished, and less dependent on electronics—although it is all those things. It’s because it’s less innocent. In Tokyo, where Western musics are detached from their cultural signifiers, samba, baroque, and rap have equal moral value. Not so in New York, where the pressure for street cred forces Honda and Hatori into territory where they should have known they’d get lost. As a title, “Sci-Fi Wasabi” may sound like the perfect mix of junk Americana and sushi-bar Japanoiserie, but the track is a preposterously tough-talking funk stroll that finds Hatori vowing, “I got to get the shit straight.”
Not much chance of that. Cibo Matto’s compulsive rhyming recalls Fountains of Wayne more than Nas—or even Eminem. Hatori’s too chirpy to be the hard-pack Americanized chick she feigns on such tracks as “Sci-Fi Wasabi,” “Speechless,” and “Sunday,” but a deep voice isn’t all she lacks: She doesn’t have the sensibility, either. Playing their hiphop influences straight just emphasizes the fact that Honda and Hatori didn’t grow up ’round here, and simply piling up the rapid-fire verbiage—”Feeling stromboli, not ravioli…Not aioli, surely not Moby/Obi Wan Kenobi told me in the lobby”—actually makes the lyrics less expressive. Honda and Hatori know their foodstuffs, but their way with multisyllabic Latinate English fails them as badly as the central metaphor of “The Lint of Love.” Tellingly, Stereotype A’s most successful trope is that of “Spoon,” the funky love song (remodeled from the band’s Super Relax EP) that features the album’s simplest lyric.
What’s new that works is the band’s expanded musicality. Producer Honda has given the album a multilayered sound, but that’s less important than the band’s brighter melodies and richer harmonies, which probably owe something to Sean Lennon’s presence. (The pop-chorale second part of “Sunday,” for instance, recalls the sound of his Honda-produced album, Into the Sun.) Rendered in Portuguese, such songs as “Flowers,” “Moonchild,” “King of Silence,” and “Stone” could win Cibo Matto a piano-bar audience that would never think to listen to a track called “Sci-Fi Wasabi.”
Still, the group’s most revealing new ballad isn’t on the album. Although it was included on advance copies of the CD, “Backseat” was ultimately banished to the limited-edition vinyl release. Perhaps that’s because the song, portentous intro aside, features an East-apes-West sugar-water melody worthy of a mainstream Japanese or Cantopop hit—which it could easily become. (Such rudimentary love-song couplets as “If I turn to the right at a corner/I may find love within a short block” certainly wouldn’t challenge translators.) By relegating “Backseat” to curiosity status, Cibo Matto demonstrates that there’s some shit it would just as soon not keep straight. And at the top of the list is admitting just how Japanese Honda and Hatori’s Manhattanized taste really is. CP