3 documentaries to watch if you want to explore the music scene in Tokyo

Tokyo can be both incredibly mainstream and uniquely underground at the same time. While thousands of hysterical fans pour into sold out J-pop concerts, there are also thousands of little clubs hosting intimate and avant-garde performances every night. Dive into Tokyo nightlife with these three documentaries and learn more about the local underground scene.

Live from Tokyo by Lewis Rapkin (2010)

There’s a strong chance that Live From Tokyo will end up on the syllabus of an ethnomusicology course one day. Highlighting a diverse selection of musical groups and concert venues, this documentary by New York director Lews Rapkin feels like a moment frozen in time from the Tokyo music scene of the turn of the 21st century. “So many things come to Tokyo. Once here, everything gets mixed together. This mix becomes its own thing and this what defines Tokyo music style”, says one band at the beginning of the film. Pop (Tokyo Pinsalocks), rock (Nisennenmondai, Kuruucrew…), folk (Tenniscoats), experimental (Makoto Oshiro, Optrum…) are all featured: Tokyo musicians draw inspiration from every direction…and they never hesitate to add a big dose of eccentricity and personality, as can be seen in some of the favorite spots of the alternative scene, like the quirky Muryoku Muzenji club, or the record shop, Enban, with its concert calendar that can be described as eclectic to say the least. A must-see for any lover of Japanese culture and independent music.

Rock’n Tokyo by Pamela Valente (2006)

Rock music is part of the Japanese cultural heritage. In Tokyo, just check out the rockabilly dancers getting their groove on in Yoyogi park on Sundays, or the myriad rock bands shaking the walls of the clubs in Shinjuku, and you’ll be convinced. Rock’n Tokyo follows four bands and musicians hanging out in their messy apartments, playing shows, and going out with friends at night. The cast includes: Jet Boys and their eccentric, exhibitionist lead singer; The 5678s, a glam girl/rockabilly trio who gained notoriety thanks to a memorable scene in Tarantino’s Kill Bill; Guitar Wolf, a garage band with super powerful guitars who has signed to a big label; and Nine, a young band full of hope for the future. Behind the camera, Pamela Valente knows how to make herself scarce, which is where Rock’n Tokyo’s strength lies: capturing intimate moments and revealing the no-frills daily life behind the Tokyo rock scene.

We Don’t Care About Music Anyway by Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz (2015)

Sensitive ears, be warned… Pop music makes no appearance in this chapter of the musical panorama created by Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz. The two French directors have little interest in melodies or gimmicks, preferring to explore the most marginal, radical, and unusual aspects of the Japanese music scene. From beat-up vinyl to cellos played with a jigsaw: We Don’t Care About Music Anyway presents six musicians navigating the boundaries between avant-garde and experimental, noise and music, performance and composition. Intriguing and fascinating.

Discover Tokyo with our city guide Indie Guides Tokyo dedicated to cultural and alternative locations in the city.