“Let’s see–is it that they’re good because they suck?” So said a friend when I mentioned how much I liked the band Shonen Knife, the Japanese trio who recently topped the U.S. college charts with their new album, Rock Animals. But it seems that for every person who welcomes the band as a much-needed breath of fresh air, there’s another who suspects that the whole phenomenon of their popularity is a joke, and that the joke is on Shonen Knife.

Despite considerable improvement in their technical skills (they now keep time, for instance) and their English pronunciation (“wachan garu” is now “watchin’ girl”) since their first recordings, made in 1984, Shonen Knife still walk a fine line between being really great and really bad. They tend to elicit either gleeful enthusiasm or snorting disdain. Anyone at their recent Metro show could see how some people love this band without reservation, calling out tunes, rushing the stage with outstretched hands. Others find the music cloying, if not babyish. I enjoy their music a lot, if in carefully measured doses–but at more than one point during the Metro show, watching three grown women chirping merrily about kitty cats and Barbie dolls, I felt a little embarrassed. “What in heck am I doing here?” I asked myself. It certainly didn’t help that the annoyingly trebly PA mix made them sound like a toy band.

Their first performance in Chicago, in December, also at Metro, hadn’t seemed this way at all. I’d expected a strange little garage band that might or might not be able to keep a steady beat. But what I found was a tight, raw rock outfit cranking out one incisive gem after another, all performed with unself-conscious showmanship. I’d been interested in the cheerfully strange music of Shonen Knife ever since the release of Shonen Knife on Gasatanka records in 1990. This album–a repackaging of early-80s releases from the Kyoto-based Zero Records–comprises 21 chunks of goofy noise that lodge in the brain and obstinately refuse to be pried out. Though it superficially resembles much other indie amateurishness of the time, here the obligatory bashing, stuttering guitars serve primarily as backdrop for some awkwardly catchy tunes sung mostly in Japanese, with occasional phrases in heavily accented high school English. It’s the singing that really makes these recordings happen; always pretty, never less than dignified, it sounds like the voices of supernaturally wise children in some remote mountain village forgotten by time. This dreamlike side comes into focus only after repeated listenings.

Over time the recording caught the attention of a growing circle of U.S. aficionados, including members of Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana, all of whom championed the band. Meanwhile, the three women–singer-guitarist Naoko Yamano, drummer Atsuko Yamano, and singer-bassist Michie Nakatani–plugged away at day jobs in Osaka, while living with their conservative parents, from whom they were keeping the existence of their band a secret. The band apparently remained unaware of what was brewing in the U.S. until 1989, when they traveled to Los Angeles for a vacation, booked a club gig there as an afterthought, and were reportedly shocked to find the club packed.

Once their growing popularity in the U.S. and the UK led to a deal with Virgin, the commercial necessity of recording in English gave Shonen Knife a chance to go back and remake the best of their earlier songs with the benefits of better studio conditions and their own improved singing and playing skills. Let’s Knife (1992) reached a young American audience apparently ready for something bouncy and joyful to go alongside their bitter and angry rock and rap. Both Let’s Knife and the new Rock Animals document the growth in Shonen Knife’s professional skills–and while this means the loss of some of their early naive strangeness, it also means the hooks are sharper and the beat socks harder. This is music you can play for the uninitiated that won’t make them look at you funny.

For Western listeners much of the interest lies in the words, skewed by the band members’ idiomatically flawed English. They could find someone to tidy up their lyrics; instead they obviously choose to present them unvarnished. Some of these efforts fall flat. But more often they result in an oddly engaging serendipitous poesy, as in “Bear Up Bison”:

We’re only making plans for da da dirty dirty bison

We don’t like him so much, ’cause he’s very ug-ug-ugly

We’re only making plans for da da dark brown bison

He has a right to live though he’s ill ill-shaped

Describing an infatuation, Yamano exclaims, “I’m so dizzy of him.” Another guy is described this way: “He’s the cleanest boy in town / He’s good at dominoes.” It almost calls to mind the exotic English phrases decoratively inserted into Japanese magazine ads (“Be more Scotch–drink more wine”; “Carve a ham as if you were shaving the face of friend”). This “bad” English isn’t just funny; once you get into it, it’s rather beautiful. One hears the English language through the ears of someone still coming to grips with such novel grammatical concepts as number, gender, and future tense–none of which exist in Japanese. It’s wonderful that these quirks haven’t been edited away; hearing them is as much fun as hearing the occasional wrong note played on a garage-band guitar.

Shonen Knife’s original Japanese recordings still have their advantages–not simply because Japanese is such a beautiful-sounding language, but because, like most singers, the members of Shonen Knife sing best in their native tongue. And for all the improvements in their instrumental work evident on the Virgin releases, one still misses the more supple and expressive (if not technically “better”) singing on the early Zero recordings. It’s just too bad that anglophone audiences don’t accept much pop music sung in a foreign lingo; audiences in other countries happily imbibe plenty of English-language rock ‘n’ roll without understanding a word.

While Shonen Knife’s music certainly owes much to the rowdiest noise of the punk era–the Ramones, the Buzzcocks–they’ve shown a wholly original ability to reconfigure the scream of alienation into something a lot more cheerful, recalling the “girl groups” of the early 60s like the Shirelles and the Chiffons. Which brings us again to the question of the band’s acceptance by an American “alternative” rock audience that seems to prefer its music laced with more cynicism. What’s going on here? Well, the days when a Western band can pull off an “innocent” stance are over. Trying to do so would mean denying certain realities of the social climate, namely the alienation that results from living in a civilization so confused about its goals and ideals. Any American band’s attempt to play Shonen Knife’s brand of joyful noise would come off as either bitter irony or the kind of escapist “happy pop” that sticks to the teeth like too much sugar–as in Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them, a 1989 Gasatanka compilation of well-intentioned but nearly unlistenable Shonen Knife covers by the likes of Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, and Christmas. It’s important to realize that so many Western musicians–guitar rockers as well as rappers–are making angry noise not just because it’s some obligatory act of coolness, but because it most honestly expresses what life in the West feels like. It would be pointless to ask these bands to start playing happier songs; they’d come out sounding phony.

Shonen Knife, however, come from rather different circumstances, having grown up in a relatively stable, optimistic, homogeneous, crime-free society that has not yet reached the decadent phase in its life cycle. If they were to play angry, bitter music in an attempt to be cool, it would probably sound callow and unconvincing. But their happy tunes are convincing–to Western ears, at least–and it’s this believability that the American modern-rock audience is responding to. Shonen Knife’s happy music is childlike, not childish, while still saying “no” to the plasticity of postindustrial civilization. This band is doing something most American bands can’t do, and one suspects that American artists’ admiration of their music is tinged with a bit of envy. Nonetheless, in the context of Japanese society and the incredible kitschy blandness of much Japanese pop music, Shonen Knife’s rock ‘n’ roll is pretty rebellious.

To appreciate Shonen Knife means tuning in on their wavelength: resilient, alert, keenly curious about the universe. They look at the world as if they’d never seen it before, finding inspiration in the most unlikely places. While they do sing about old rock ‘n’ roll themes like romance and rebellion, they’re better with everyday subjects like animals and trees, mushrooms and kitchen scrubbing pads. Which is a reminder that these commonplaces are, after all, what most of life is made of.

My favorite Shonen Knife song is “Insect Collector.” It’s about a woman who goes alone on a quiet train ride into the mountains, where she waits in the bushes “los[ing] track of time” while watching patiently for insects. Then she returns home to identify her specimens and arrange them in a display case. The singer (Yamano) comments that this hobby makes the woman happy even though it isolates her from other people. The song ends with a big, blasting chorus followed by backward tape-loop noises fading off into silence, as if to suggest that all the mystery and fascination of life can be found in something like collecting bugs in the country. It might not be going too far to suggest that this way of looking at things reflects how, under the influences of Shinto and Buddhism, the Japanese have for centuries been teaching their children to regard the world with a particularly clear vision. This is, after all, the same country that produced Zen, haiku, and the tea ceremony, a place where people throw moon-viewing parties and get a day off work when the cherries bloom in spring. To suggest that these attitudes surface in Shonen Knife songs is no more absurd than suggesting that the frontier spirit of the American west is reflected in a lot of country music.

So to call Shonen Knife’s music distinctively Japanese is to say it’s about being acutely aware of the moments of one’s life, even as they slip ungraspably through the consciousness like a dream, and about appreciating how truly incredible it is to be able to stand up, look around, pet a cat, or down a glass of tomato juice. Some might say that this is a bit much to make out of something as trivial as a Shonen Knife song. But to shrug this music off as “trivial” or “too happy”–as if these terms even had anything to do with each other–is to miss the point: Shonen Knife are interested not in escaping reality, but in gleefully diving straight into it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.