Make Believe Mailer 45: Party People's Pathos
"Ya Boy Kongming!" And A Vanishing Shibuya
Note: Spoilers Ahead
Ya Boy Kongming! or Paripi Koumei in Japanese, captures a specific moment in Shibuya and Japanese music at large better than any other media I’ve ever seen. Specifically, it offers a surprisingly familiar snapshot of the capital between 2014 and 2019.
That it does so via a story centered around a Three Kingdoms-era war strategist resurrected as a music manager is all the more impressive.
Like any good anime, Ya Boy balances the mundane with the absurd. Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang Kongming dies on the battlefield, and wishes to be resurrected in more peaceful times. Lucky you, Kongming, because he awakes in a bustling 21st century Shibuya on Halloween. Disoriented, he stumbles about until he finds himself in a Dogenzaka club, where he watches singer / establishment employee Eiko perform. He decides to become her “strategist,” and thus begins a 12-episode season about how to promote live music in modern Japan.
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Purely as entertainment, Ya Boy got my attention. It’s a charming underdog story heightened by a truly huh-inducing premise…that works! As a show about music, it most closely reminds me of Carole & Tuesday1, which offers the lightest criticism of the music industry and pop music, but is ultimately about being true to yourself. Same here — yeah, Eiko plays acoustic guitar and helps the wayward leader of pop outfit Azalea find herself after being swallowed up by the idol industry, but everyone involved sings over EDM. It’s a sweet tribute to the emotional power of art (see also: K-On! and D4DJ) also up for poking fun at the silliness of navigating the industry side via a Chinese military genius.
Yet it also took me back…
I imagine some people were taken back by the show’s theme song (above), which is somehow someway a cover of Hungarian artist JOLLY’s 2013 hit of the same (beneath it). I truly don’t know, but whoever made that decision at Avex should be given a corner office (if they haven’t sold off all the floors of their office yet). Anyway, JOLLY is now somehow part of the Avex universe and released a “party remix” this past May.
Ya Boy exists in the accidental genre of “pre-pandemic Tokyo nostalgia.” These are pieces of media set in the Japanese capital loaded up with tourist-baiting ephemera from the last decade. People Just Do Nothing: Big In Japan and Detective Chinatown 3 (note the fake Mario Karts near the end of the trailer) are non-Japanese examples, falling into this category simply due to the timing of when they were filmed and released.
I’m not so sure with Ya Boy. To me, it was made too late to be an accident. Instead, I think it’s offering an animated time capsule of Tokyo in the 2010s, especially of the culture that blossomed up around Shibuya during that period. That’s most obvious minutes into the first episode — Kongming awakes in the neighborhood on Halloween, a day that morphed into a biggie-sized excuse to congregate and get drunk in the area while dressed up2. That excuses his robes and allows him to freely explore the streets, but also sets the time clearly.
Few shows…and heck, little media anywhere…captures the Shibuya of the 2010s like this3. Halloween, sure, but it also touches on the nascent days of EDM, when you could walk into Womb and see aspiring Aviciis drop the bass (eventually, the real Skrillex would show up at the club too), and the freestyle rap craze during the middle of the decade, when shows like Freestyle Dungeon among others…not to mention actual live events…flourished. Characters are based off Steve Aoki. Internet promotion plays a heavy part in this arc’s endgame, but TikTok (or a TikTok stand-in) doesn’t exist…we get “likes” and a YouTuber promoting Eiko’s rival for cash (one of the more biting critiques!).
And there are clubs. So many clubs, big and small, packed and empty.
Shot from the show, in a club directly made to look like the first floor of Club Asia.
I’ll be honest…Ya Boy had me feeling melancholy. Through pure accident, the series captures a vanishing Shibuya. Halloween was already becoming tightly controlled after the 2018 edition got crazy, but life during a pandemic means it will be harder for scenes both ugly and beautiful to happen when people can’t get together like that. While Ya Boy is pretty updated when it comes to what department stores and hulking structures currently make up the area, it also lacks the constant site of construction cranes towering above, as the neighborhood remains in a state of constant redevelopment. I’m not sure the last time I’ve seen anyone busking on the streets near the station in years.
And the clubs…oh the clubs. Tokyo’s nightlife has changed drastically as a result of COVID-19 and the aforementioned constant construction. Just in Shibuya, Vision and Contact are set to close later this year and, while they can potentially come back in new forms, that leaves a big gap immediately. Smaller spaces have shuttered…including a cluster of clubs part of the Club Asia family that closed a couple years back during the pandemic…all of which feel like the inspiration for Ya Boy’s primary hangout of BB Lounge.
Including Vuenos, the most obvious reference point, as highlighted in Tweet form.
Nightlife or clubbing isn’t dead in Shibuya, and it won’t go away…but it has changed, with familiar names to folks of a certain age closing and newer spots dotting the map. So it goes. Yet Ya Boy offers an image and somewhat accidental celebration of a vanishing Shibuya. If someone clicks this series on their Amazon Prime Video Metaheadset in 15 years time, they’ll be transported to a place unlike anything they’ll probably recognize in their reality.
Hopefully, the energy party people bring to these spaces will still be the same. But the landscape Ya Boy thrives in will be a bass-heavy memory.
Written by Patrick St. Michel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Twitter — @mbmelodies
A show that goes completely haywire in its final stretch, as it goes from “watch these young women find themselves through art!” to “democracy dies without celebrity telethons.” Though really, that just Sharpies the whole “magic of music” message throughout.
I went in 2013, dressed as Skrillex (pro tip: buy a black wig from Donki, and cut off half the hair). Most people didn’t get it, but those that did believed it to be “fucking awesome.” I retired from Halloween after that triumph.
This series also offers a rejoinder to a popular Twitter cry inspired by the weebie-jeebies…turns out anime can offer a pretty realistic look at Japan (at least what happens in the country, not how people act).