Before the esteemed University of Chicago critic Sianne Ngai published Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), there was Shonen Knife, the all-woman power punk trio from Osaka, Japan, who pioneered an earlier understanding of these terms as part of the 1990s indie rock scene. A personal favorite of Kurt Cobain and notably among the few bands to have toured as openers for Nirvana, Shonen Knife brought together the three-chord chops of the Ramones with the pop sensibility of bands like the Kinks. This beguiling combination and their unique Japanese pedigree garnered attention from labels like K Records and Sub Pop and a devoted fanbase. With song titles like “Twist Barbie” and “Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner”, plus choruses involving collective meow-meowing by the band, all of which are on their debut LP Burning Farm (1983), they immediately checked the boxes of zany and cute, in addition to being interesting.
Our Best Place is Shonen Knife’s latest release, the last being Sweet Candy Power (2019). With over 20 albums to their credit, this doesn’t mark the end of a dry spell. If anything, Shonen Knife have displayed a patent consistency over the past four decades, albeit with different shifts in personnel. Naoko Yamano, Shonen Knife’s guitarist and lead vocalist, is the only original member to have endured with the band since their inception in 1981. Her sister, Atsuko Yamano, joins her on bass and Risa Kawano on drums. With ten tracks and a length of around 35 minutes, Our Best Place conforms to their past work, which, depending on your taste, is a good or bad thing.
Speaking of taste, the dominant theme of the album regards food. “The Story of Baumkuchen” – Baumkuchen is a type of German cake – kicks off this topic with the lyrics explaining how it is “a popular sweet in Japan” and how it resembles “a stump of a tree”. With a mariachi influenced melody, the next track “Vamos Taquitos” celebrates taquitos, guacamole, horchata, and margaritas. Meanwhile, “Spicy Veggie Curry” talks about wanting to “eat something hot” and “I want to eat with you”. The bouncy “Afternoon Tea” has the same formula. You get the idea. Food is both a source of everyday enjoyment but also a source of connection with other people. Taken further, it’s a means of getting at the foundational theme of pop music – love in all its different forms – in a new way.
The other non-food tracks fare a bit better in my mind. The album opener, “MUJINTO Rock”, is a refreshing blast of power pop and describes a kind of utopia: “mujinto” is a Japanese word that translates as “an uninhabited island”. Naoko Y. sings about no borders, no disturbances, and how “There is no king, there is no queen / There is no president, there is no prime minister!” The songs “Girl_s Rock”, which is a new version of “Girl’s Rock” from 2003, and “Ocean Sunfish” inhabit a similar vein of straightforward noise pop. Reflecting a slight turn, the penultimate track, “Better”, has a 1970s country rock feel to it, while the closer, “Just a Smile”, a cover of a tune by the Edinburgh band Pilot, has a nostalgic edge. Both provide a welcome tonal variation to the album.
Returning to Ngai, one of her key arguments regards the inadequacy of pre-existing categories of taste and artistic judgment for assessing the cultural trends of late capitalism. As she proposes, a new critical vocabulary, including zaniness and cuteness, can get at innovative understandings of the power dynamics informing cultural commodification, aesthetic simplification, gender ambiguity, intellectual disempowerment, and other currents shaping the present.
Shonen Knife can be understood in relation to Ngai’s argument. As an all-female punk band from Osaka, they have too often been perceived outside their home country as an exemplar of “Weird Japan” – akin to capsule hotels, robot cafes, and Kit Kat candy flavors like edamame and miso soup. This take by foreigners is, of course, ethnocentric and deeply problematic.
In contrast, Shonen Knife recognize their perceived novelty to outsiders and utilize it to their advantage – cute and zany as a means of empowerment. Their sense of ironic amusement should not be underestimated. With a critical eye for cultural kitsch and reliable songcraft, Our Best Place is an excellent example of this established approach. It keeps the fun going. As their album title suggests, this embraced position of perceived marginality is generative of their unique status in the pop landscape.
What could be more punk rock than that?