(Written by Daniel Robson)
If it’s spectacle you want from a live show, look no further than WagakkiBand. On stage, their outrageous blend of traditional Japanese instrumentation and fierce guitar rock is enhanced by a flair for camp showmanship that turns cultural folklore up to 11.
In fact, WagakkiBand’s reputation as one of Japan’s most exciting live acts is the key to their international success. Right after the band left the stage at Tokyo venue Zepp DiverCity for the first of two sold-out headline shows (part of their national tour titled Kenran Wasou Enbukai, which translates roughly as Splendrous Japanese Performing Arts Association), a video announced that they will once again be lugging their koto and taiko drums to the US for three California dates in July.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rewind just a little bit and we can savor the buzz in the room at Zepp DiverCity, where WagakkiBand indulged 2,500 ardent fans on May 12, 2016.
For one thing, WagakkiBand were armed with new tunes: They started their set with “Strong Fate”, a torch song with a discordant heart, and began their encore with “Valkyrie -Ikusa Otome-”, the crushing metal-influenced theme tune to TV anime “Sousei no Onmyouji” (Twin Star Exorcists). Due for release in Japan as a split single on June 24, “Valkyrie” is a tale of bravery on the battlefield, defiance in the face of fear, its brutal beat underpinning a wash of guitar and Tsugaru-jamisen.
And there were classics too. With a staggering 40 million views on Youtube, “Senbonzakura” is a fan favorite – and brilliantly fusing Japanese folk and rock styles, it is WagakkiBand’s ultimate calling card. During this song, the band members played to the crowd, with Beni Ninagawa, Daisuke Kaminaga and Machiya striking immaculate poses and busting out attention-grabbing solos on three-stringed Tsugaru-jamisen, shakuhachi flute and guitar respectively.
From start to finish, the vocals of Yuko Suzuhana exerted power and beauty in equal measure. Wielding the centuries-old singing style of shigin with the control of a master, she lent a subtle sense of nostalgic longing to “Tsuioku” and “Yoshiwara Lament”, and an elemental force to “Hagane” and “Shiromadara”.
Her bandmates rocked out hard. On “Ikusa”, a bed of harplike koto and howling shakuhachi helped push the growling guitar front and center, and an energetic crowd responded by moshing via proxy with their purple glow sticks. The electrified histrionics of “Hanabi” and “Valkyrie -Ikusa Otome-” brought fire and thunder, while “Hangeki no Yaiba” conveyed the drama and violence of the live-action “Attack on Titan” series on dTV for which it was the theme song.
There were also moments of incredible grace: The heartbreaking bittersweet vocal melody to “Fuurin no Utautai” fluttered like falling cherry blossom on a breeze of Tsugaru-jamisen and shakuhachi.
The interplay between WagakkiBand’s eight members is what makes them so damn cool. At Zepp DiverCity, they each had multiple chances to show off their exceptional technical chops, from a solo performance by koto player Kiyoshi Ibukuro to a tight power-trio metal workout between Machiya, bassist Asa and drummer Wasabi on “Touno Monogatari: Kyuushi.”
Elsewhere, Machiya offered deep and emotive vocals on the mournful “Kyoushuu no Sora” and rapid-fire raps on the rock-out number “Perfect Blue”.
The most exciting set-piece was a drums and wadaiko “battle”, in which ripped drummer Wasabi and charismatic taiko-smasher Kurona playfully tossed an imaginary object back and forth across the stage between each other’s cymbals, before working into a choreographed section of rhythmic exchange, rising tempos and call-and-response audience participation. Part concert, part theater, it was a thrilling and thoroughly entertaining display.
It was clear to see throughout that the members of WagakkiBand relish the opportunity to engage with their fans. During an on-stage spot quiz, Yuko was forced to answer rapid-fire questions or perform forfeits set by her wicked bandmates: pulling off a Michael Jackson impression on demand, panting the words “Chupa Chups” with feigned eroticism, and visibly squirming with embarrassment when asked, “What secret do you keep from your mother?”
“But… I don’t keep any secrets from my mother!” Yuko insisted. “Stop it, she’s here tonight you know!”
Later, a huge birthday cake was wheeled on stage for Kurona, as Yuko led the crowd in an uproarious rendition of Happy Birthday. As she watched her bandmates tuck cheekily into the cake, Beni remarked, “Hey, what is this, a wedding party or something?”
And if you still need a reason to experience WagakkiBand live, well, it doesn’t hurt that all eight members are sexy as hell. Each member was clad in handmade outfits that riffed on traditional kimono or yukata styles. Wasabi’s rippling torso was smothered as usual in painted tattoos, with calligraphy on his back spelling out “Gundam” in tribute to the giant mech statue that towers over the venue; the split skirt of Beni’s suggestive off-the-shoulder dress allowed flashes of her booted leg; Daisuke twirled his shakuhachi with a flourish; and Machiya span in circles with his guitar, his ankle-length skirt billowing as he went.
Yuko, for her part, was dressed in the fulsome red and black kimono of an oiran, her hair held firm with kanzashi pins; she looked refined yet sultry, moving gracefully, brandishing a red umbrella as she sang “Yoshiwara Lament”.
WagakkiBand closed the main set in a burst of energy with the brilliantly catchy “Hoshizukiyo” and the rock bluster of “Perfect Blue”.
And then the fans took over, with 2,500 voices chanting the chorus “Akatsuki no Ito” while waiting for the encore. From the minors in the raised kids’ area at the back of the venue to the smattering of silver-haired older fans to the youthful majority of young music lovers, not to mention visitors that night from France, Britain, Turkey and Korea, the band truly have a surprisingly wide-ranging appeal.
Or is it really so surprising? Rock, metal and Japanese folk may seem strange bedfellows, but actually it’s a marriage that makes sense. All of these genres are renowned for histrionics, powerful melodies, dramatic expression and epic scale, and WagakkiBand fuse them in an irresistible way.
So, yeah: spectacle. WagakkiBand have it in spades, and that’s what makes them a live experience like no other.
WagakkiBand 1st US Tour Shougeki–DEEP IMPACT takes place on July 12 at Club Bahia, Los Angeles; July 14 at House of Blues, San Diego; and July 16 at The Fillmore, San Francisco.
WagakkiBand 1st US Tour 衝撃 -DEEP IMPACT-
7/12/2016 Club Bahia, Los Angeles, CA
7/14/2016 House of Blues, San Diego, CA
7/16/2016 The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA
Read More Tour Info Here
Tickets Are Available For Purchase Here