Alys Turner, SHONEN KNIFE'S RAMEN ROCK
"It sounds like Naoko will begin to rage against a lover’s betrayal, or denounce the normative structures of society. Instead, the song begins, 'I wanna tell you about my favorite food/I wanna tell you about amazing food!' The chorus comes in strong, repeating, 'ramen noodles/taste of power/ramen noodles/tomorrow again/rock n’ roll do my best!'"
When the women of Shonen Knife sing over pounding power chords, they smile. Each of the three bandmembers headbangs along to the pop-punk drumbeat while outfitted in 1960s-inspired mod tent dresses. Leading the band is Naoko; Naru and Ritsuko both play bass, with Risa, or Naoko’s sister Atsuko, alternating on drums. Everyone sings—and they all use first names only. Naoko shreds the open chord progression with enough pep to make the audience bounce along, harnessing enough grit to bring fists into the air, pumping along with the tune.
It sounds like Naoko will begin to rage against a lover’s betrayal, or denounce the normative structures of society. Instead, the song begins, “I wanna tell you about my favorite food/I wanna tell you about amazing food!” The chorus comes in strong, repeating, “ramen noodles/taste of power/ramen noodles/tomorrow again/rock n’ roll do my best!”
Like Shonen Knife’s entire discography, the track “Ramen Rock” vibrates with the band’s principal goal: having fun. The group formed in the 1980s when frontwoman Naoko was bored with everyday life in Osaka, Japan. Inspired by bands like The Ramones, The Jam, and The Buzzcocks—whose musical styles still echo through Shonen Knife’s records—she started the group with Atsuko on drums, and friend Michie Nakatani on bass (Nakatani left the group in 1999).
When the band recorded “Ramen Rock” for the 2014 album Overdrive, health-obsessed and broadband-fuelled foodie culture had taken the world by storm. Instagram was replete with sun-kissed pictures of the chopped salads of clean eating, the original health-centric food bloggers all got cookbook contracts, and it had become normal to photograph and share every meal before digging in. Despite the trend towards obsessive eating in the digital public realm, Naoko is a woman with absolutely no time for food guilt: “If you feel guilty, or don’t feel guilty, the result is the same. I want to eat without stress. I’d like to enjoy eating. If I ate too much, I play tennis.”
Or, she plays a gig. In 2017, the members of Shonen Knife married their two great passions and embarked on a Ramen Tour of the United States. Encouraged by a successful nationwide tour following the 2016 release of Adventure, the band decided to take its appetite on the road. Just playing shows wasn’t enough—they wanted a concept, and what more obvious than food? They would indulge not only in the pleasures of performance, but in bowl after bowl of ramen noodles, tasting their way across America, through the manifold interpretations and adaptations of their hometown classic. (Atsuko insists that a salt-butter ramen with squeezed lemon, as well as a brussel sprout and tempura ramen, were the most delicious.)
On the road, Shonen Knife encountered different patterns of eating ramen. Naoko was surprised by the prices, but also how “gourmet people love it.” She meant foodies, poking fun at how people idolize food out of context. Ramen crawls—the consumption of three or four consecutive bowls of ramen at different restaurants in a row—are a nationwide tradition back in Japan, possibly because the noodles are rather cheap and handy to eat.
Drawing out the ramen crawl tradition over several months and many cities, Shonen Knife embraced the way food changes as it travels on its 2017 Ramen Tour. The West has embraced dishes like sushi and ramen, but not all fixtures of Japanese eating have become as ubiquitous. Itameshi—a fusion of Japanese and Italian food—remains a local obsession since it took off in the 1980s and 90s; Naoko would like to see curry and rice on more menus abroad.
Since the 1984 release of the band’s second album, Yama-no Attchan, every record includes an ode to food. In thirty years of songwriting, the band has written anthems to, among others, banana chips, sushi, cookies, and mushrooms. There are no songs about heartbreak or loneliness. “I don’t know why I started to write food songs,” Naoko disclosed in our email interview, “but I don’t want to write songs about love because I’m ashamed. I wrote lyrics about my favourite things. Delicious foods are my favourite.”
Indeed, Shonen Knife celebrates the simple pleasures of daily life: sunshine, bicycles, fat cats, freshly baked cookies. The pleasure of looking out over an audience relishing in the addictive embrace of silliness is what has kept the band on tour and producing records throughout an ever-changing landscape for popular music, and the group’s transitions in band members. The band’s enduring attitude stands out in Japan, where there is a proliferation of heavily produced and strictly image-controlled idol bands that churn out songs lacking in personality.
Shonen Knife’s familiar sound and effortless whimsy fostered a devoted international fanbase, whose tapes passed from hand to hand. In the early 1990s, word reached Kurt Cobain, who developed a sincere and immediate passion for the band. Naoko and her bandmates weren’t familiar with Cobain—she read Cobain’s admiration in an interview, in which he claimed, “Be careful about Shonen Knife or you’ll be cut into pieces.” Cobain invited them on tour, expanding their global reach. In 1991, Shonen Knife toured in the United Kingdom with Nirvana, and they followed with the stadium circuit in the United States only two years later.
Over the years, food has grown to occupy a more central place in the music Shonen Knife makes, and in how the band engages with its fans. Shonen Knife has always had a refreshingly punk attitude towards food and indulgence. In constant rebellion against the conventions of Japanese social norms, they sing about whatever they want, and eat whatever they like, and stay independent.
Naoko has always been passionate about food. She attributes that to her upbringing in Osaka. The city is particularly famous for its street foods, and its reputation as the birthplace of instant ramen. Takoyaki (battered and fried octopus) and Okonomiyaki (thick cabbage-based pancakes with fillings ranging from pork belly to pickled ginger) are standards in the Osaka diet. “People in my hometown, they like to eat. People in Kyoto love fashion, beautiful clothing, like Kimono. People in Osaka love delicious food, and I love food.” Locals refer to their food-worshipping ways as kuidaore (食い倒れ)—meaning, “to bring ruin upon oneself by overindulging in food and drink.” Or, put more simply, “eat till you pop.” From candy-coloured cereal, to fried cow brains (“It’s good!” Risa claimed), Shonen Knife’s enthusiasm for all things food is as contagious as their upbeat, catchy songs.