In a smoky corner away from Namba’s brightest streets, several figures studded in leather gather by a stairwell under a blue signage: ‘BEARS - 1986’. Animated conversations brim with the effervescence of Osaka, but our ears instead begin to boom with a death-rattling commotion of occurrences happening just underneath. Stepping down into Namba Bears - the city’s legendary punk venue delivering sounds to nocturnal punters for over a few decades - we witness noisenik legends and notorious hardcore heroes, crasher crust veterans and all other local outsiders who gather to relish in a realm of loudest extremes.
Lair of Noise
Photos courtesy of Namba Bears
Step inside Osaka’s legendary punk venue Namba Bears.
Through a narrow corridor and into its dim lit expanse, the venue itself can be experienced like a solid block of sound. Deviant punk, crust-metal, hardcore, experimental noises and industrial analogue are bashed out in volume levels that would easily make British sound system veterans jump. Bodies mosh and collide against resonances, flashing up pitch-black silhouettes and big droplets of sweat. Ripples are created in each can of asahi, tea or shochu as figures on stage deliver immaculate tempo-changes, turbo-speed drumming and abrasive guitar. Posters on the walls reveal the habitual appearances of bands considered to be jaw-dropping legends: Shonen Knife, Acid Mothers Temple, Merzbow and Otoboke Beaver. Night after night, smiles gleam across several sets of broken teeth as the punters of Namba Bears are sent into an ecstatic frenzy.
The sounds staged here carry a distinctly Japanese voice in the history of punk. Complicated riffs, laced heavily in feedback, are delivered with astonishing militant precision, while eruptive, fleshly soundscapes deliver contrasts from the stifling society above ground. Guitar-based genres are highlighted particularly alongside their mutant electronic cousins, with circuits of instruments and re-purposed electronics bent and distorted into sonic weapons against Japan’s dense technological framework. Punters proudly wear Sex Pistols or Black Flag t-shirts, torn trousers, and chains jumbled amongst thrifted Osakan streetwear, amplifying insurgent histories in distant geolocations. Their looks exceed imitation, manifesting diehard pledges made as outsiders - a claim with severe repercussions in Japan’s conformist context.
But amidst head-splitting seances, Namba Bears proves itself as a space where any sound or character not fitting into describable categories can easily coalesce. A restless open-ended mix of genres - with experimental sessions of psych, folk, or any exploratory niche - embraces all invitees in an open-minded bohemian spirit. A bona fide vitality emanates from its people, a far cry from the stoicism of Tokyo music circles. In spite of deafening mayhem, one feels far from alienated here.
The venue’s almost supernatural airs are unsurprising if one were to realise its program is overseen by none other than Seiichi Yamamoto, who amongst a staggering cult-discography, is a member of arguably the country’s most enigmatic noise-rock band, Boredoms. Entrenched to the utmost in a local history of punk, jazz and noise, Boredoms champion new expressions amidst ear-splitting volumes in ways that easily transcended limits. They delve deeper and deeper into the unknown, imbuing pop psychedelia, spacey electronics and tribal drumming into guitar fuzz, and pointing towards euphoric realms beyond loudness or darkness. As if to embrace the noise of all walks of life, their members - producing a slew of adjacent projects as DJs or fine artists meanwhile - explored almost religious potentials of extreme volumes and saw something new in music altogether.
With Boredom’s guitarist Yamamoto as the venue’s chief proprietor, Namba Bears continues to lure curious punters in a domain in which one could never tell what could happen next. Its location is perceived as a magnet for otherworldly energies (even ghost stories), causing the venue’s 30-year history to become entwined with several urban myths related to its mysterious performers. Yamamoto explains little has changed in this regard since the venue’s initial years, since they continue to feature acts that cannot be wrapped up into a single category, always promoting an expansion of musical possibilities. “The ethos still remains the same,” he says. “It doesn’t even have to be music. Even if we don’t know what it is, it’s fine as long as it’s interesting”.
What separates Namba Bears from surrounding venues, even at the peak of punk or industrial, is its widely open-ended program allowing attendees to feel freely involved in experimental proceedings. All members of staff are active tastemakers, releasing their own compilations of experimental sounds, and allowing members of the community to come and curate events themselves. Amongst spontaneous freak-gatherings, eccentric band names and several noise complaints, the venue staged occasions with baffling themes - “UFO symposiums”, “rock-music tea-parties”, or “stand-up comedy blood baths”.
Visiting performers are at home amongst a room of personnel all active as artists themselves, and are aided by a sense of intimacy afforded in its relatively compact space. Over the course of the venue’s history, its crowd have gradually invited more to its space, creating a communal habit of gathering to a realm where anything goes. This changed little on nights where only a few attended, with some watching entire performances lying on the floor. For this, Namba Bears enjoys prevailed status amongst musical communities as a ‘den of fools’, yet - with no bar, only a cooler box of Asahi lying somewhere - music is always at the foreground.
At Namba Bears, we encounter sounds at their greatest limits. Their articulations permeate punk with science-fiction, Western influences with an Eastern ethos, and anarchy with unbridled joy. These sounds breathe with the wide-eyed curiosity that has made Japanese music so unique on a global stage, yet not without easily transcending the expectations involved. Amongst cliches imposed by Western onlookers and an ongoing standardisation of Japan’s modern culture, here we have a place where the most subversive expressions continue to flourish under an experimental setting that has been nurtured carefully over decades. Heavy feedback, especially from Japan, has long enjoyed its transatlantic appeal. But at Namba Bears, its very essence is maintained, amongst the kinship of its people, and hidden amongst the rugged spectacular charm of Osaka.