As the perfect way to usher in the summer season of concerts and activities in one of the world’s greatest cultural hubs—New York City—the annual Japan Day @ Central Park festival celebrated its lucky 13th year by continuing the festivities into the evening with the inaugural year of Japan Night presented by Japan 2019. Japan Day has featured events such as a marathon run and various culinary, cultural and performance events for over a decade but Japan Night focused purely on bringing some of the hottest and brightest stars from Japan to eager otaku (mega fans) and music lovers alike in NYC. Japan Night is a collaboration between Japan 2019—organized by The Japan Foundation with aims to broaden understanding of and interest in Japanse culture in the U.S., particularly in the year ahead of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games—and Disk Garage, Gorgeous Entertainment, and Cool Japan Music as producers, with sponsorship by Kinoshita Group.

The performers chosen were four of the most successful artists in Japan today and could not have been more different (night and day once might say—pun intended!) which only further showcased the myriad array of diversity of sounds, styles, and expressions in Japanese rock (J-rock) right now. The stellar lineup featured: WagakkiBand, a viral video sensation who combine Shigin poetry and traditional Japanese instruments with modern rock; HYDE, a pioneer of J-rock who is also the lead singer of the group L’Arc-en-Ciel; and the soulful sounds of MISIA, winner of best vocal performance for the 60th annual Japan Record Award with special guest Puffy AmiYumi who are best known in the U.S. from the Cartoon Network show Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi.

Those who braved the pouring rain huddled under their umbrellas for the headliner and last act of Japan Day @ Central Park were able to enjoy an intimate concert with a bonafide Japanese legend and hero—Yoshihiro Kai. Yoshihiro Kai is a Japanese musician and the vocalist of Kai Band who was catapulted to fame in his home country with the group’s 1979 megahit Hero. His backing band in Central Park were all acoustic (violin, guitar, upright bass) and brought the distinctly Japanse folk-rock ballad sounds to life. A lot of Japanse musicians of a certain age and era explored this style—even those who went an entirely different direction later in their careers (Hironobu Kagayama of JAM Project comes to mind). In addition to Hero—which hit the top of the charts thanks to it being featured in a Seiko watch commercial—Kai and the band played Anna, a tender pre-J-Pop romantic ballad with overtones of bluegrass, country, and Americana, filled with haunting memories, sadness, and longing for a distant love, as well as a few other Kai Band classics beloved by the fans who sang along ardently.

As the sun set, Japan Day gave way to the premiere of Japan Night, a triple-and-half bill spread over two midtown venues: PlayStation Theater and Sony Hall starring the aforementioned contemporary J-rock and J-pop superstars MISIA featuring Puffy AmiYumi, HYDE, and WagakkiBand who rocked the city that never sleeps in a back-to-back, thrill-a-moment night of extraordinary artists from across the globe.

WagakkiBand set the tone for a fusion of old meets new, that began with a collaboration with the live painting and calligraphy artist Sisyu. The epic night at PlayStation Theater commenced with the ubiquitous kabuki yell: “Yoooo! Eeee! (bop)” that served as an invocation for the evening’s events. The shakuhachi flute evoked the samurai spirit as the band blended old eras—from Edo authentic to unequivocally modern. The wailing sounds of a 7-stringed electric guitar and 5-string electric bass were offset by acoustic shamisen strings and the shakuhachi player whose high tones acted as a second lead vocalist, while he bounced around the stage like the unfettered Son Goku (“Monkey”) from the TV series “Monkey”, based on Asian folklore “Journey to the West”. The lead singer, Yuko Suzuhana, donned a kimono with thigh-high spiked-heeled black boots and utilized props customary to geisha and maiko—fans and parasols, and even a noh theatre fox mask—to create striking imagery and an immaculate stage presence. Her vocal range and skills were as flexible and varied as her instrument-wielding cohorts, as demonstrated when she volleyed from high falsetto notes, speed-rapped lyrics, and enchanted chanteuse vocals during reflective ballads. The music of WagakkiBand celebrates traditions radically transformed and fuses ancient Japanese instruments with a hard rock sensibility, adding elements of heavy metal, EDM, and even video game style soundscapes. Theatricality is key in presentation, performance, and sound. The classic shamisen strings player, Beni Ninagawa, who was decked out in Lolita goth Harajuku steampunk, launched into a funky battle with Kurona, the traditional drummer; the kit drummer, Wasabi, who was adorned in torn-apart punk rock suit/vest played hardcore, metal-style with luminescent drumsticks; Asa, the bassist, wore a regal kabuki lion headpiece paired with Dr. Martens and played off the explosive energy of the shakuhachi player Daisuke Kaminaga garbed in the robes of a monk or samurai.

Vocalist Yuko Suzuhana of WagakkiBand. Photo by Shin Kurokawa

HYDE followed on the double-bill at PlayStation Theater, and painted an entirely different picture—though equally enthralling—visually and sonically. In contrast to WagakkiBand, who performed in Japanese, HYDE sung entirely in perfect English. He entered the fully altered stage along with his band—outfitted in black with masks that covered their faces and obscured their identities (not unlike Daft Punk), giving them the appearance of nameless robotic rock servants. When HYDE pulled down his face mask to sing, he revealed a smeared crimson-lipped twisted smile much like Heath Ledger’s Joker. A neo-futuristic dystopia was created through doomsday lighting with blacklights and acid green, red and yellow neon washes with a hazy smog looming across the stage, evoking the feel of delinquency and dark dealings in a back alley covered with graffiti. The music—mostly from HYDE’s recent 2019 album Anti—was aggressive and defiant with forays into mesmerizing and emotionally deep, moody melodies. It carried the same aesthetics as their visuals of apocalyptic arena rock, dystopian metal, elements of shoegaze and emo with gothic and post-punk overtones and New Wave influences. The crowd would sing back the lyrics like a dark gospel choir. The sound of sirens screamed with a foreboding cackle and low growl ushered in Inside of Me. HYDE’s soundscapes are richly diverse and full of contradictions while somehow remaining congruent and distinctive. An elegant piano instrumental modulated by curious audio effects—that immediately followed a hardcore, yet emotive song with rapid-fire metal-style guitar progressions and drum and bass—laid the ground for Zipzang (which features Yoshiki on the album) where HYDE sang the poetic, poignant lyrics solo on stage, as if alone in the world of his thoughts. The piece begins melodic and melancholy (like Tori Amos), then the band returns and it becomes a screaming rock cry of internal torment. HYDE’s New Wave inspirations were on display in full force for the finale—a gloriously gloomy and dynamic rendition of Duran Duran’s Ordinary World resplendent with shrieky, weeping guitar solos, melancholic piano, thunderous drumming and powerful, heart-wrenching vocals.

Those who wanted to catch all of the artists performing for the first Japan Night had to dash across Times Square a few blocks from PlayStation Theater to Sony Hall in order to see MISIA with special guest Puffy AmiYumi. Both shows were sold out but the Sony Hall was packed like a can of sardines, drinks and food whisking by the standing room only crowd for those lucky enough to have snagged the cabaret-style table seating on the left side of the house. MISIA’s powerful vocals and groovy style established her as a national star years ago with the song Everything in 2002 (her latest 2018 album Ainokatachi celebrated her 20th anniversary since her major debut). Her mesmerizing ability to enchant the audience has also garnered her the distinction of being the first female solo singer to sell-out the five major Japanese Stadiums on tour. After experiencing her live performance it’s easy to understand her national and universal appeal. Her backing band had a bit of an Earth, Wind, and Fire feel and featured super funky trumpets, incredible blasting brass, thick and juicy bass lines, hot jazz guitar, and roaring organ and piano sounds. All of that was in the service of MISIA’s smooth and sensual, smoky voice that envelops the listener like liquid caramel. With long, colorful dreadlocks atop her petite frame and attired like Erykah Badu, she sings and dances as if she’s possessed—by the spirit of Soul who worships at the church of Funk. One of her more recent and renowned tunes sums it up, Lady Funky. A trumpet and organ led tribute to House of the Rising Sun (sung in Japanese) had a sexy Parisian “hot jazz” style with chunky fat bass guitar and sultry singing. Honey-drenched vocals on an R&B style slower ballad showed off her astounding range that seems to combine numerous aspects from the best of American pop, soul, R&B stars including Mariah Carey style high-octave crescendos.

MISIA (center) with duo Puffy AmiYumi. Photo by Mayumi Nashida.

When the sardine-can packed crowd were whipped into a frenzy and most singers would have sung their final encore ages before, MISIA invited her special guests Puffy AmiYumi—for a few songs to complete the evening. The pair are notable stars in their own right and have successfully played in the U.S. numerous times before. Stirring J-pop icons and anime sensations (their hit Cartoon Network show has aired in over 110 countries) Puffy AmiYumi into the mix added a heavy, heady dose of candy store and bubblegum kawaii (cuteness) that blended delectably with the honey, caramel, and hot chocolate tones of MISIA. This delightful treat offered a decadent dessert for the concert goers, or—for those who enjoyed the preceding shows at Japan Day and Japan Night at PlayStation Theater—the final bite or cherry on top of a delicious multi-course Japanese musical feast.

More info:
Japan Night Official Website