BROOKE MCCORKLE OKAZAKI: ON CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF SHONEN KNIFE
Forty years of Shonen Knife—it’s an astonishing testament to the band, their music, and their fans. Other bands they’ve been connected with or compared to including the Beatles (ten years), Ramones (twenty-two years), and Nirvana (seven years) don’t even come close to Shonen Knife’s staying power in terms of touring and making music. I have never lived in a world without Shonen Knife (though I didn’t actually encounter their music until I was twenty); it’s a privilege and joy to be in a world that has their music in it. This feeling of gratitude is made all the more acute after the last year and a half; in addition to the devastating global pandemic, racial turmoil in my home country, and an existential climate crisis, I lost loved ones, gave birth to my first child, and turned forty myself. In other words, the last eighteen months have been a hell of a time, and for me and many others, the music of Shonen Knife has been a beacon in dark times.
In celebration of forty years of rocking out, Shonen Knife gave a series of 712 live shows across their home country, Japan, stopping in Fukuoka, Oita, Kochi, Okayama, Nagoya, and Tokyo before finishing the tour in their hometown, Osaka on July 17, 2021. The 712 shows grew out of a joke explained in my book Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll. The first syllables of the numbers 7-1-2 (nana, ichi, and futa) can be combined to spell naifu, the Japanese version of the English word “knife.” The band even has a 1991 album called 712. As a result, around July 12th (known as Shonen Knife Day), the band often gives a series of performances. This year’s final show at Osaka was especially poignant. Taking place at Live House Clapper in Amerikamura, not too far from Osaka’s main strip, Midosuji, the show was a sold out celebration not only of four decades of Shonen Knife, but of life, resilience, and musical community.
This was my first live show since I attended an all-day, multi-band gig they played in Kobe back at the beginning of 2020 before the first lockdown. I got the sense I was not the only audience member for whom the July 17 show was a pivotal experience. Most everyone quietly lined up, waiting to descend into the basement venue. We were asked to register for COVID city tracking via a QR code, bringing to mind the infamous speed the virus spread through Osaka’s live house community last year. It was a somber start to the evening and the spectre of the pandemic lingered once we had entered. Everyone stood on small red footprint stickers in order to social distance; of course we all had masks on and some audience members had even doubled up. There were a few restrained cheers as Atsuko, Risa, and Naoko took to the stage but most of us simply clapped. Yet, the applause grew into a synchronized beat while the band readied themselves. This simple act of tapping a beat in unison with others coupled with the anticipation of live music brought tears to my eyes. It’s true what they say: you don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone.
The band kicked off the show with a crowd-pleasing opener, “Konnichiwa,” from Happy Hour. They jumped into an extended one-band performance with a double encore, filling the hall with old favorites and some special rarities (you can check out the full set list here on the Facebook fan page). The accumulated gloom of 2020 started to slough off the audience. Some began dancing (in true 1990s form, I bounced up and down in place) and cheers erupted more and more frequently between tunes. Soon I caught myself and many others singing along with Naoko. By the time they played “My Favorite Town,” (Osaka) I had to do some serious soul searching about my Tokyo loyalties.
I was especially happy to hear so many songs from Happy Hour; in addition to “Konnichiwa,” the band also played “Hot Chocolate” and “Cookie Day” from the album as part of a mini “food” set along with “Popcorn” from Fun! Fun! Fun! (2010). Later we were treated to “Banana Chips,” the single from Happy Hour as well as other food songs like “Wasabi,” “Brown Mushroom,” and “Sweet Candy Power.” For me it was the first time I had heard some of these tunes live. By the final encore, a cover of the Carpenters “Top of the World,” I too felt like I was on top of the world. No one could see it, but I was smiling beneath my mask so strongly my face started to hurt.
After the show, audience members from all over the country chatted while waiting to purchase goods and greet the band. Other fans I’ve met online or greeted at shows years earlier welcomed me like an old friend. The same affability is characteristic of the fabulous online community of Shonen Knife fans around the world. Fans like George Ojisan Handlon, founder of The Shonen Knife Nexus, and Mamiko of K- Collectors are mainstays in preserving Shonen Knife’s legacy and creating a positive fan community in both Japan and abroad. Shonen Knife is bigger than a three-piece rock band; it is an international family. As for myself, I am excited to share Shonen Knife and celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in 2031 with my new son. As Naoko declared in the 2020 single “Better” :
Daybreak is coming
Let’s eat delicious ice cream
Dreaming on a beach
There’s no rain that doesn’t stop
Sing and dance
Jump and hop
The weather is getting better
Right away, getting better
Everything is getting better, better, better, better, better
Brooke McCorkle Okazaki specializes in opera of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, film music, and the music of modern Japan. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, she is the co-author of Japan’s Green Monsters: Environmental Commentary in Kaijū Cinema (2018)and the author of Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll (2021). In the 2019-20 academic year, McCorkle Okazaki received a Japan Foundation Fellowship to complete her monograph Searching for Wagner in Japan. She currently splits her time between Osaka, Japan and Northfield, Minnesota, where she serves as an Assistant Professor of Music at Carleton College.