BROOKE MCCORKLE OKAZAKI, AUTHOR OF SHONEN KNIFE’S HAPPY HOUR, ON THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF RAMEN AND ITS DEPICTION IN MUSIC.
Why does Shonen Knife have so many songs about food? In my 33 ⅓ Japan book, Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll, I explore some explanations to this question. In this series of blog posts, I investigate more deeply the relevance of food and Japanese culture to the Osaka-based band. Building off my book’s argument that Shonen Knife concocts a delicious combination of cute and cool in their music about food, I examine the different ways food plays a pivotal part of Japanese culture and suggest that this laid the foundation for Shonen’s Knife’s culinary-inspired songs. I hope you enjoy and warning, you might want to have some snacks on hand!
“Human beings are noodle beings.”– Ando Momofuku, inventor of Cup Noodles
The Nissin Company, founded by Ando Momofuku in the early 1950s, rose to prominence with the invention of Cup Noodles instant ramen in 1971. Since then, instant ramen has become a prominent staple around the world and poor college students have spent weeks living off the savory soup-y meal. Indeed, Ando envisioned that Cup Noodles could help alleviate world hunger and bring about world peace. It should come as no surprise that Ando’s company is based in Ikeda, right next to Shonen Knife’s hometown, Osaka and now there is even a museum honoring Cup Noodles there. In Ikeda, the Osaka spirit of kuidaore or “eat til you drop” is strong. And like Ando, in Shonen Knife’s musical vision the optimistic belief that food can bring human beings together shines through.
In my book Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll I analyzed a wide variety of songs about food, but there was one song I didn’t get to address, yet really wanted to: “Ramen Rock” from the 2014 album Overdrive. Overall, the album features a classic hard rock sound that I really enjoy (“Robots from Hell” is wicked heavy!) and includes multiple songs about foods like green tea, fortune cookies, and ramen. Having discovered the epicurean joys of the Japanese ramen boom, how could I not fall in love with the song? Ramen is hip, cool, and it most certainly is not a dish for the delicate—one slurps loudly and usually quickly while eating. The music and lyrics of “Ramen Rock,” like the dish, capture Shonen Knife’s kakkoii (cool) attitude.
The song was inspired by former bassist Taneda Ritsuko who reportedly regularly eats ramen after shows (and also sings the song on the album). Heavy, overdriven guitar and bass in unison along with powerful, splashy drums open the track. The density and darkness of the sound renders an intensely rich ramen in sound, and the main ingredients (noodles, broth, pork slices, and egg) find their acoustic corollaries in the instrumental combination of bass, drums, guitar, and vocals. The bass and guitar echo and the high-hat drum taps as the vocals declare in the first verse “I’m gonna tell you my favorite food.” As the music transitions to the chorus,the vocals intone “Ramen noodles charge the power;” thumping eighth notes in the bass and the guitar musically suggest an accumulation of energy. Finally, the chorus explodes into being: “Rock and roll, do my best. Rock and roll, hot and sweat, standing at the top with my hair dance.” The lyrics perfectly capture the aura of a Shonen Knife live show and their approach to life in general. Sweating, like eating ramen, is not a particularly feminine activity, but, in Shonen Knife Land that is alright. Just do your best and let your hair dance.
In fact, as Satomi Fukutomo points out in her essay “Ramen Connoisseurs: Class, Gender, and Internet,” although there are several female ramen aficionados out there, the atmosphere of most ramen shops conveys a kind of masculine territory (see Japanese Foodways, Past and Present, p. 207). Going to a ramen shop alone as a lady takes a little bit of courage. Likewise, Shonen Knife, since their beginnings in 1981 when they decided to form a rock band, embodies a certain kind of fearlessness. Being loud and audible, whether eating noodles or playing rock music in public, is, according to traditional gender stereotypes, not something women do. Shonen Knife, who has been rocking for forty years and ate at ramen joints throughout their 2017 Ramen Adventure Tour, is cool enough to not give a damn.
Brooke McCorkle Okazaki is an Assistant Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. USA. She specializes in opera of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, film music, and the music of modern Japan. In addition to numerous articles and Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll (2020), McCorkle Okazaki is the co-author of Japan’s Green Monsters: Environmental Commentary in Kaiju Cinema (2018). In the 2019-2020 academic year, she received a Japan Foundation Fellowship to complete her monograph Searching for Wagner in Japan.