The sixty-seven-year-old poet, singer, actor, artist, and “screaming philosopher,” Tomokawa Kazuki, made his American debut on a Thursday in early November last year. Organized by Blank Forms and held in Greene Naftali Gallery, this was one of only two US shows for him, the other in LA. In this brief tour, Tomokawa paid homage to the fertile ground of his own early American influences, even as he pushed the folk tradition well beyond into the experimental, the guttural, and the raw.
Tomokawa was born in Akita, a northern prefecture in Japan’s Tohoku region. Tohoku’s lush, mountainous landscape has earned it a mystical, animist, and secretive reputation—qualities often mythologized by its artists. Widely regarded as the “soul” of the country, it has produced the inimitable Shūji Terayama, and inspired some of Matsuo Basho’s finest haiku poetry. In the seventies, the young Tomokawa left the deep North for Kawasaki, a seedy factory town just south of Tokyo. He still enjoys the area for its horse and bicycle race gambling and is well regarded as a published bike race commentator, tipster, and incurable bettor. Add to this his infamous alcoholism (coffee and shochu starts each day), a subsequently poor family life, and flagrant temper, and the folk singer strikes a dark silhouette—enigmatic if inexcusable.
Throughout the seventies and eighties, Tomokawa peddled his music in the small clubs of the underground Japanese scene. In 1993, he was picked up by P.S.F.—the esteemed record label made famous by psychedelic artists like Keiji Haino, High Rise, Ghost, and Acid Mothers Temple. He has released a new record every year since then, from Hanabana no kashitsu (Fault of Flowers) to last year’s Hikaru kureyon (Gleaming Crayon); nonetheless, he is still fairly obscure in Japan as well as internationally. Thanks to niche online communities, however, interest in the Japanese avant-garde scene has been flourishing in the States, largely championed by organizations such as Blank Forms and labels like Palto Flats and Light in the Attic. LA’s Black Editions is rereleasing the P.S.F. catalog itself—including this year’s release of Haino’s Watashi Dake?—introducing many of Tomokawa’s best albums to a new audience.
I was eager to see the large black eyes that this musician’s friends and admirers—among them the late filmmaker Oshima Nagisa—found mirrored the depth of his art. I only snatched sheepish glances from under a fedora, however, as he opened the show by relating his first impressions of New York: delight in finding an irate homeless man with the voice of Tom Waits; the startling “roughness” of Matisse’s Dance at MoMA. These vignettes seemed to frame the performance that followed—an undulating solo acoustic set of elegant and febrile, tender and bellicose songs.
He opened with “Pistol,” a characteristically volatile number full of glottal growling, Tomokawa’s signature singing style. A slight man, he physically leaps in his chair as he plays, stomping the floor, knocking the notes around inside a guitar he claims to have found in the garbage. He sang from a small bundle of handwritten lyrics that seemed just as animated, frequently slipping off his music stand. Sung completely in Japanese, his words stirred the packed room of New Yorkers—more than one of whom seemed tightly gripped under a sudden gravity.
Tomokawa’s hacking, coughing, phlegmy inflection often, in an Artaudian turn, replaces language altogether. It pulls on your ear viscerally—such sounds signal disease or death, but his illness seems to emanate from the soul, as much as his abused body. Tom Waits—an artist he deeply admires and “cannot drink enough alcohol” to properly emulate—likely inspired his gravel-grit, rotgut, vocal stylization. Yet Tomokawa does not quite carry the self-deprecating vaudeville, the crestfallen and winking blues of Waits; he possesses a more wide-eyed, lurid nihilism akin to Chūya Nakahara, the early Shōwa poet to whom he dedicated an entire album. Perhaps it’s a problem of cultural translation, but while the smoke may get in Waits’s eyes, one feels that Tomokawa is actually choking on it. His lyrics cycle through life and death, drink and another drink, with humorless regard. In the mono-no-aware laced “Waltz,” perhaps my favorite song of the evening, he sang of living and dying, meeting and parting—our stories “spiraling up from this world into the next,” tipsy and transcendent.
In other songs, Tomokawa’s cadence was astonishingly soft, even tender. The subjects reflected this tonal sea change, as in “Hitoribotchi wa ekaki ni naru”—a piece the translator roughly introduced as about “someone who is longing to be an artist or painter.” Playing in the heart of Chelsea, between the two giant Jacqueline Humphries paintings behind him, Tomokawa’s verses hopped from Cezanne to Schiele to Toshiyuki Hasegawa. He seemed almost vulnerable inside the quieted, more traditional chord structure of the song, revealing an apologetic desire any artist would understand. (The title of his new record, Gleaming Crayon, expresses a similar humility). For sale nearby was a small booklet of his paintings, Afterimage of Muddy Colors—a collection of dogs, boys, rabbits, and flowers that borrow the hard, modernist line he reveres. Each portrait, even the dog in 私の上司 (my boss), averts the same pair of eyes that seem as much Tomokawa’s as Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.
The high contrast of his vocal stylizations, body language, and guitar work left the crowd emotionally drained, yet electrified. In a seemingly reluctant encore, Tomokawa returned to end the set on a subject natural to the folk tradition—politics. He introduced “Runaway Lad,” a song written in his twenties but recently reworked in light of 2011’s nuclear disaster and released on 2014’s aptly titled Vengeance Bourbon. With that same youthful frustration, he bemoaned the silence of his country as it slowly returns to nuclear power. Radiation continues to be a taboo subject in Japan, nationalism is on the rise, free speech in the media has been blatantly curtailed, and the reality of contamination across the small island nation remains shrouded. If “poverty is violence,” he sings, “ignorance also is violence, it is a mortifying violence.” Singing to a largely American audience, these exact words may have been lost in translation, but their palpable fury was still intimately perceived—we share more than the folk tradition with Tomokawa.