Burn Your Flags
From Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags (Liminal Ink, 2021)
In 1989 the streets of Koenji were paved with vomit. Or at least the street outside the club was, some of it mine. I was fifteen and had been in Tokyo for about two months but stillhadn’t learned to keep the drink and the pills and the powder in my stomach. Everyone has to learn to drink somewhere, and I learned there. I was living with Takeshi and the rest of the band in a tiny apartment in Shin-Okubo, Koreatown, but we really lived in the live houses of the city, dirty, dingy, dark music venues, shithole dives with sticky carpets and graffitied walls. A gig every night. Takeshi played guitar in three bands, bass in a fourth and sometimes sang with a fifth.
That night, the night I met Manako, was a single release party, a split seven-inch, one song apiece from Takeshi’s band NZF and Burn Your Flags. There were four bands on the bill, Burn Your Flags on third, NZF headlining. It was during the second band’s set – I forget the name – that I redecorated the pavement. Burn Your Flags were outside, drinking cheap shōchū from the convenience store and passing a joint back and forth. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and reached a hand for the bottle, washed my mouth out and spat.
Burn Your Flags, a four-piece, had only been together a few months but were already making waves. NZF’s drummer, Shogo, played with them, the bass player, Sachi, I recognised from the scene, but the other two I didn’t know. The guitarist, I’d soon find out, was a foreigner, a Chilean called Kat Higueros, black hair with blonde roots, streaks of red and blue through it, tattoos, a pierced tongue. The other was the singer, Manako. Small, her hair cut short and spiked, dyed electric blue, eyebrow and nose rings, dark around her eyes. In the light I couldn’t tell if it was make-up or natural. This sneer, which I came to realise was a permanent expression, her default setting. Resting fuck you face, she called it. She took a drag on her joint. Kat took the whisky from me and swigged. ‘Sit down.’ She spoke Japanese with an accent, the syllables rolling and swelling in a way I liked instantly. I crouched down, my back against the wall and took the joint from Manako. Her arm was red and there was liquid on the floor. I looked closer, squinting in the light from the street. Her left arm was slashed, blood running from it like a tap had been left on. She saw me looking, angled her arm so I could read.
燃える. Burn, like garbage.
She waited for my reaction. I refused to give her the satisfaction, it was just what she wanted, her type, she’d do anything to disturb, to get attention.
‘You’re the groupie?’
‘Yeah, you’re Takeshi’s groupie. I heard about you. What are you, fourteen?’
I looked to Shogo, the drummer, for support, but he shrugged, You’re on your own.
‘So what if I am? What’s it fucking matter to you? And I’m fucking fifteen.’
‘Ooooh! Do you play?’
‘Play. An instrument. You know, fucking music?’ She jabbed a thumb at the live house.
‘What do you do, then?’
‘What do you mean, do?’
‘The purpose of your existence. What is it?’
‘The purpose of my existence?’ This bitch was getting on my tits. I pointed at the puddle of vomit. ‘I puke.’
Kat laughed, handed me the bottle again. ‘I like this one.
We’re on in a minute. Sachi, give her the camera.’
Manako took the bottle from me. Sachi pulled a video camera from her backpack and pushed it at me.
‘If you’ve finished puking, you can film our set,’ said Manako.
‘Film this,’ I said, giving her the finger. But I took the camera, and her joint.
I filmed their set that night, and every night, filmed other bands as well. Filmmaking took me over: I stole a camera from one of the big appliance shops, pocketed tapes that I used and reused until they wore out. Smuggled out books on filmmaking and sneaked into cinemas to watch foreign films, weird Korean things with subtitles, French classics from the fifties and sixties, black-and-white Japanese films about duty and honour. But it was Masashi Yamamoto’s Carnival in the Night that hit me hardest. Not the most sophisticated of movies but it spoke to fifteen-year-old Eri. It’s about a woman who casts aside her role as a single mother and transforms into a punk singer. The film seeps anger and violence. Molten with bile. We were all full of bile then, in our scene, anger and bile and violence, and I wanted to make a film just like that, but truer, more honest. About us. I wanted to make a film about the people around me, about Manako and her band, about the side of Tokyo, of Japan, nobody was looking at. The bubble had yet to burst and we made our way through that city like infected cells through an artery – they’d have erased us from their shiny, wealthy world if they ever noticed us for more than a second. We were shadows in the corner of their eyes. I wanted to drive my camera right through their eyeballs and smash their skulls.
Lofty ideas for a fifteen-year-old runaway with a bag full of drugs and stolen film equipment, surviving by running out on restaurant checks and giving salarymen hand-jobs. But then I’d run away to escape being told how to live my life. To get a life. To explore and endure and develop. To become, somehow, free. Lofty ideas were all I had to keep me going between meals.
Outside the club that first night I gave her the finger but when they got on-stage and the opening chords of “Red Lipstick” ground their way from Manako’s amp, I was hooked. She sang about the men who had fucked up her life, men she hated, men she wanted to kill, she sang about her father, the you in all her songs that she’d never talk about offstage. It connected. Ripped into me. I started filming, the lens focussing this fire I felt in me, this fire that had made me leave home for all the reasons Manako was singing about, this fire that had been burning out of control until that music and that moment and that camera all came together.
That was when it felt good, when the future didn’t seem so bad. When the present was all that mattered, when the past was the thing to escape.
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