Seven Songs for Christmas: Shonen Knife, Space Christmas

Over the past week, I?ve covered Christmas songs from the traditional to the alternative, but Christmas songs are a surprisingly rich and diverse genre, with more than its share of the weird and wonderful. From Run-DMC?s rap Christmas in Hollis and Brenda Lee?s country I?m gonna lasso Santa Claus, to Sufjan Steven?s Christmas Unicorn. One of the whackiest, and best, comes from Japanese girl-punk group, Shonen Knife.

The celebration of Christmas in Japan waxed and waned for centuries, in tune with changing times. The first known Christmas masses were held by Jesuit missionaires in Japan in the mid-15th century. Although Christianity was officially banned in 1612, small enclaves of Christians worshipped in secret until the ban was lifted during the Meiji period, 250 years later. With the new interest in the West came a revival of Christmas ? until WWII. In the post-War boom, with its revived enthusiasm for all things Western, especially American, Karisumasu (in spoken Japanese, the word sounds almost exactly like ?Christmas?) was back in vogue, in a big way. Today, it?s a major celebration.

As they do, in adopting Christmas, the Japanese have put some unique twists on the event, including karisumasu keki, sponge cake iced with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries and chocolate. Perhaps the oddest tradition is kentaki: KFC. A 1970s KFC advertising campaign in Japan was wildly successful in persuading Japanese that a chicken dinner was a Christmas essential. Today, KFC restaurants in Japan take Christmas bookings months in advance, especially for couples: karisumasu is generally regarded as a romantic holiday akin to Valentine’s Day in the West. The traditionally-Christmas family get-together is more associated with the New Year.

Although Christmas is not an official holiday in Japan, it coincides with other holidays, such as the Emperor?s birthday on the 23rd of December, and New Year. Santa Claus ? Santakuro ? is also a familiar figure to Japanese, who have long celebrated Hotei, the ?laughing Buddha?: a fat, jolly man, often surrounded by children, who carries a large sack from which he dispenses an inexhaustible supply of gifts.

Given Japan?s somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation, it?s no surprise, then, that Shonen Knife?s Space Christmas is so delightfully weird. But then, that describes Shonen Knife?s entire output.

Shonen Knife is an all-girl group formed in Osaka in 1981, mixing the day-glo aesthetic of 1960s bubblegum pop and girl groups with the stripped-down punk sound of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks. But, while Shonen Knife operated within the raw, DIY space of punk, they eschewed punk nihilism in favour of the bright, relentlessly happy aesthetic of kawaii (Japan?s instantly-recognisable culture of cuteness). Typical Shonen Knife songs deal with subjects like animals, sweets, or cartoonish sci-fi.

Shonen Knife became a cult favourite in the international underground and grunge rock scene. Fans included Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain: ?When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert,? he said. In keeping with their cartoonish style, Shonen Knife songs have been featured on animated shows like Beavis and Butthead and Powerpuff Girls.

Space Christmas is typical Shonen Knife’s ?frosted garage fuzz?pop?: kicking off with a bouncing, three-chord Ramones riff, and the chirpy refrain, ?Merry Christmas, happy happy Christmas, merry merry Christmas and a happy New Year!?

Then the kawaii kookiness really begins, as the Supremes-like verse sings about ?waiting for Santa Claus, he?s riding on a bison sleigh?. Which I suppose makes as much sense as flying reindeer. Naoko Yamono?s Christmas gift wish-list naturally includes a space ship: naturally enough, when you ?wanna go to Pluto?.

The lyrics also encompass the other perennial Shonen Knife topics, puppy love and sweet foods: ?I wanna go with you. I bring space food: they are marshmellow and ice cream?.

From its origins in the Nativity tradition, and the first known Christmas celebrations in ancient Rome, Christmas has spread around the world. As one writer has noted, even as the West grows more secular, Christmas is still the one moment that unites a great part of the globe in a celebration of goodwill, charity and kindness. Karisumasu and Shonen Knife are the perfect examples of why ?cultural appropriation? should be celebrated: in adopting the Western festival and mingling it with their own traditions, the Japanese have created pure happiness.

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