remove_red_eye Japan, or: Melt-Banana is the God-Best Band of All Time

by Richard Weems

Published in Issue No. 21 ~ February, 1999

Japan is a cruel culture. A tradition in Japanese Zen is kyosaku, the meditation beating-stick. This tradition isn’t even so kind as to be thrust upon the unsuspecting or the merely deserving, unlike our Catholic penguins dealing out ruler-shots with God-given authority. No, the Zen student must ask the carrying junkei to strike him upon the shoulders. These strikes, when dealt correctly, are supposed to offer only awakening, not pain, but there is the occasional exception, and there is definitely blood – oh yes, there has been blood.

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism tells us, “There is suffering.” Because of Japan, we are not allowed to forget it. The nightmarish images of Butoh dance. The accounts of the Japanese occupation of the ancient city of Nanking, and the photos taken of the rows of severed Chinese heads. Japanese sex clubs where men in suits watch bound women hang uncomfortably from the ceiling. A comic book hero named RapeMan. Japan excels in beauty, for she knows how to show us the ugliest side of what is possible in the human imagination.

Watch sometime the elegance and barbarity of Ondekoza, `Demon Drummers.’ Chiseled Japanese men in loincloths beating on huge drums. The theaters rumble with their efforts, an awesome display of the violence of percussion: these animal skins have no chance against the femur-sized pounding sticks they are beaten with. The men of Ondekoza are buff and powerful and pound on their drums with complete reverence and a lust to beat out of them everything they can.

Our disdain for Japan, fueled by our endless fascination with it, manifests not just in endless competition, but in how Japan seems able to best our best efforts. We think world domination starts with the fission reaction; to prove it, we bomb the bejeezers out of the little slant-eyes. Not only does Japan show us where real world domination lies (in economics and technology and education), but the Japanese even go and build a McDonald’s on the very spot the Hiroshima bomb exploded. We turn our pop music into fluffy, DJ-driven drivel, and Japanese bands like Pizzicato Five, Takako Minekawa and Shonen Knife show us our pop is not nearly fluffy enough. We drive ourselves to early graves with our type-A business practices and other ritualistic forms of self-abuse (drinking, smoking, fast food, etc.), and the Japanese manage to drop more of themselves like flies than we could ever hope to write off.

Hell, we take centuries to legitimize the hatred and violence of most of our organized religions, and the Japanese go and nearly topple the world by making Buddhism the rationale behind the invasion of China and the awe-inspiring saga of kamikaze pilots, all within this century.

The Meiji era of Japan, in 1868, began the path to `Imperial-way Zen’ with the reinstatement of Shinto as the only true Japanese tradition. The Emperor was equated with the Dharma, and to obey one was to be following the other. Bushido, the way of the sword, originally a metaphor of training samurai in intense meditation to `cut through’ the clouded mind into clear action, became a literal sword. Zen teacher Sawaki Kodo advocated that killing done in a state of no-mind (as in, without thought) was an expression of no-self and therefore an expression of enlightenment. Zen Master D.T. Suzuki himself said that Japan’s soldiers “regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers.” This was the basis for indoctrinating the kamikaze, soldiers who gave up their lives for the killing of their enemies and for the benefit of the Emperor.

Evidently, we have much to learn from Japan. Only though such horror can we finally learn to be happy with ourselves. Only through such cruelty can we reach full enlightenment. We preach love for our fellow man, and underneath it all we demand submission from all that are unlike us. Only through honest, bare exposure of our worst traits can we ever realize a full respect for the universe.

There is a band I am dedicated to, devoted to, would give my life in service of. Yes, this band is Japanese: Melt-Banana.

No-wave-gonzo-thrashcore-hyperspeed-earbleeding shit. Last October they were back in America on tour. I went to see them in Philadelphia, in a little club on the top floor of an abandoned apartment house in a bad part of town. Melt-Banana was set up in a corner, most of the under-drinking-age crowd more interested in the video games lining the walls. The games were old-school – Ms. Pac Man, Dig `Em, Atari Basketball – but there was also a German softcore porn game. One had to outline blocks, avoiding a cheaply rendered cannon bent on destruction, to reveal a photo of a large-breasted, hairy German woman. This one had a line of young punks waiting to slip their quarters in.

But I was there for Melt-Banana. Their songs are fast and scorching. The playing is some of the fastest I have ever seen, the songs quick bursts of audio brutality, melodic in a chaos-theory way – quick changes, incomprehensible lyrics. The lead singer sounds like Mickey Mouse being sodomized. The guitarist throws his head about in no time with the music. The bassist looks barely twelve. The drummer has a tired night ahead of him. The combination is exquisite.

I have tapped in to their Web site. I have sent them e-mail, and they have sent back. I am Official Banana-Head #1,000,006. I am the second to become an Official Banana-Head. My friend Nelson is the first. He is #01. He may be the first Official Bananahead, but he has bagged out and is not here tonight. I have a T-shirt boasting my accomplishment in crude magic marker.

Yusoko, the singer for Melt-Banana, thanks us in her broken English and appears between songs to be a soft-spoken, polite, submissive little Japanese girl. The rest of the band looks almost embarrassed to be on stage when they’re not playing. But during songs, they could rip you in half if you got in their way. The attentive listeners are too mesmerized to mosh. We huddle close; proximity makes us burn cigarettes into each other’s arms. Sometimes we bob our heads, but if we do it too much, our ears will drop right the fuck off. This is punk music for the next century. American punk must bow in shame and reverence and humility. Our Green Day, our Rancid, our Bad Religion. We think we play fast and we think flipping the bird at the audience and throwing ourselves into each other in the pit make us rebels.

For shame, for shame… Rebellion to a higher form of consciousness isn’t the raised fist and the disdain for all. Rebellion is revealing the hardest, loudest noise in the world and then thanking us humbly for the opportunity to bring it on. Maybe we as Americans have come some way to the first part, but only our addicts yield themselves to a higher power, a power that could thrust our efforts to nirvana or smear us like blood-filled gnats. We need to be willing to die for our Emperors, whoever they are.

The show is over, and I am speaking with the man in charge of John Madden’s ass. He works for Fox Television, and his sole responsibility is the special chair Madden uses for all the football broadcasts. He always has the phone number to reach directly into whatever booth is being used. Sometimes he flies out himself to make sure the thing has been put together properly. In the off-season, he sees that it is properly stored away. Perhaps he is inclined to sing to it at night, to keep it from getting too lonely.

But he is willing to give it all up now. “Shit, man,” he tells me, impressed as hell about this Melt-Banana show, “I’m willing to give up my job and just follow these guys around the country.”

Funny…I had the same reaction myself the first time I saw them. Yusoko, the lead singer, is standing by the table where the CD’s and T-shirts are being sold. I see her trying to read my shirt I have desecrated in Melt-Banana’s glory. I turn toward her so she can see my large black lettering: OFFICIAL BANANAHEAD #1,000,0006.

Yusoko smiles and makes a peace sign at me. “Where is numbah oh-one?” she asks in her exquisitely imperfect English.

I have indeed laid my life in the right hands.

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Richard K. Weems ( is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Award and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and The Need for Character. His short story publications include North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Crescent Review, The Florida Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. He will be teaching once again this MLK weekend at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.