Name any classic rock band — or maybe any band, period — and you can rest assured that their biggest, most obsessive fan lives in Japan. Though it possesses a native musical culture of its own, with a rich history and a distinctive set of aesthetic sensibilities, that country has also cultivated great enthusiasm for the music of other lands. Just as 21st-century Japan continues to produce masters of such traditional instruments as the stringed koto, the bamboo shakuhachi flute, and the taiko drum, it also continues to produce increasingly all-knowing, all-collecting followers of bands like AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Led Zeppelin.
Seldom have those currents of Japan’s music world had a venue to reliably meet — or at least it hadn’t before the advent of NHK Blends. Produced by NHK World, the international channel of Japanese national broadcaster NHK, the show offers performances of well-known Western songs, usually rock and pop hits, interpreted with traditional Japanese instruments played in traditional settings by musicians in traditional dress.
Here we’ve embedded NHK Blends’ renditions of “Back in Black,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” and on their videos page you can find many more: Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It,” Toto’s “Africa,” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
Those all rank among NHK Blends’ most popular videos, having racked up hundreds of thousands and even millions of views. This suggests that, no matter how many countless times we hear these songs on the car radio, at the gym, or while grocery-shopping, a sufficiently radical re-interpretation can still breathe new life into them. Some performances pull off extra dimensions of cultural transposition: the NHK Blends version of “Misirlou,” for instance, takes a traditional piece of music from the Eastern Mediterranean and interprets it for the kokyo, a stringed instrument that originally came to Japan from China. Or rather, it interprets French guitarist Jean-Pierre Danel’s interpretation of “surf guitar” king Dick Dale’s famous version from 1961. Close your eyes and you can very nearly imagine the samurai picture Quentin Tarantino somehow hasn’t yet made.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.