It’s undeniable that David Bowie had a huge influence on culture of all kinds throughout his life. But people may be less familiar with the influence of Japanese culture that led to Bowie’s early style and success, and how Bowie ended up influencing Japanese pop culture, as well as American pop culture. The Manly Battleships, a team made up of hosts Streak, Rockstar, and Panda hosted “David Bowie: Like Some Cat From Japan” at Connecticon XVII in order to illuminate more of this give and take of influences.
The panel was primarily hosted by Streak, and he kicked things off with the hit that kicked David Bowie’s career off: “Space Oddity.” However, he was quick to point out that it wasn’t the hit we think of it today. In 1969, when it premiered, it was popular, but Bowie was still considered a one-hit-wonder until it received a music video in 1972 and reintroduced Bowie–and his already stylized look–to the general public.
This stylized look had been developing since 1967, thanks to the influence of Lindsay Kemp, a multi-talented man who was considered controversial for his time because of his sexuality. Kemp introduced Bowie to Kabuki theatre.
Streak then pulled up a clip of Bowie being interviewed many years later. Bowie said he was fascinated by the “ritual of it all,” and talked about researching Kabuki extensively. Streak also mentioned that the androgyny of Kabuki fascinated him, as women are traditionally not allowed to have roles in Kabuki theatre. The Japanese author Yukio Mishima was also a major influence. Apparently, at this point, David Bowie was even considering giving up rock to become a Buddhist monk in a Scottish monastery.
At the same time, Bowie was still struggling with his musical endeavors. Both a band called The Hype and one called Arnold Corns floundered, and Bowie began to think that maybe the music wasn’t the problem. Maybe it was the look, and Bowie turned to Kabuki theater for a new one. Arnold Corns’s other members hated dressing up–until they immediately began pulling fans in.
Then, in 1971, Kansai Yamamoto debuted during British Fashion Week. Bowie loved the look that was also influenced on traditional Japanese designs and androgyny, and later in New York City, the two actually meet. Bowie dropped his old fashion designer for Yamamoto. In 1973, the band got to Japan, where Bowie met Bandō Tamasaburō V. Tamasaburō was a Kabuki actor who played women exclusively, and he taught Bowie more about makeup. So finally the full-fledged Ziggy Stardust persona and look emerge.
Streak paused here to mention that Bowie’s family had a history of mental illness, with a half-brother who was actually institutionalized due to schizophrenia at this time. So Bowie’s announcement at the very last show of the Ziggy Stardust tour that the band would never perform again should not be a surprise: Bowie was worried about falling too much into the persona he had created.
The next few personas were summarized quickly, including Aladdin Sane and Halloween Jack. Then Streak went onto Plastic Soul, the look and sound that gave us the Young Americans albums and allowed Bowie to break into the American market, which led to a severe toning down of Bowie’s style, but also eventually led to The Thin White Duke, a “hopelessly romantic fascist” designed to shock people, fueled by cocaine.
The next few decades were summarized quickly, stopping for a moment longer to talk about Pierrot, or “the Boy George” look that faded quickly and the “popularity period” of Bowie’s life (1981-1985), where Bowie was “making music for fans,” and not just himself. Of course, this part of the panel ended in 2016, with Bowie’s death.
Streak then moved into media that was influenced by Bowie, such as the Japanese film Wild Zero (1999) and, of course, everything that Hideo Kojima ever did in the Metal Gear Solid series. Bowie also actually starred in the Japanese film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), which is set in a World War II Japanese internment camp.
Bowie also dabbled in videogames. Omikron: The Nomad Soul was a survival horror game developed by Eidos Interactive and Square Enix for Windows and the Sega Dreamcast. He had been asked to record music for it, and supposedly his son Duncan (who you may know as the director of Warcraft ) badgered him to ask if he could be in it. Bowie ended up playing a character called Boz.
Then we had mostly quick clips of some of Bowie’s other lesser-known roles, such as the hitman in John Landis’s Into the Night (1985), as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, and his last film role ever, in a teen music movie Band Slam (2009). Streak assured us Band Slam was actually a good movie, but it was overlooked because of the popularity of the subgenre in movies at that time.
Of course, Bowie exerted influence on animation as well. Although he didn’t actually work on The Venture Brothers show, he is a major character and is referenced often. Although Streak picked a couple of specific clips, you really can pick one at random from the first few seasons and get something. Steven Universe had a similar situation, citing Pearl’s design and the theme song.
Finally, Streak talked about the “Goodbye Moonman” song from Ricky and Morty. Bowie was unable to do it, as his health was pretty much taking its final downturn at that point, but Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) stepped in and gave a very Bowie-esque performance. Following that was a bit of one of Bowie’s last music videos before his death in 2016, “Lazarus.”
Rather than leave us on a somber note, Streak ended things totally with Labyrinth, showing “Magic Dance,” and discussing Tokyopop’s manga sequel Return to Labyrinth. The cover art for the volumes look amazing, but Streak warned us not to be taken in by that–the art inside is a sort of generic look and the story is only alright as well.
In the final few minutes, Streak took some questions from the audience and mentioned that this panel changes whenever they put it on based on other clips he has and based on the more things he discovers or watches. He invited attendees to attend it again at other conventions to see what changes. To see if you might be able to catch this or their other panels any time soon, you can check out their Twitter and Facebook pages.
Connecticon XVII ran from July 12 through July 14 in Hartford, Connecticut. For more coverage of the event, continue checking N3rdabl3 throughout the week!