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Chai live: the Japanese punks’ ‘neo kawaii’ revolution is a bubblegum riot of body positivity

Chai, Yes, Manchester, 20 May 2019

Chai are gloriously extra. The Nagoya disco-punks arrive onstage to their own theme tune (‘This is Chai’), sport matching candy floss-pink jumpsuits and perform charmingly ramshackle synchronised dance routines. They sound like Le Tigre meets Dance Dance Revolution and halfway through they even perform a Japanese language a capella cover of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, where they change the lyrics of ‘You can dance / You can jive’  to ‘We are Chai/You are Chai’. It’s all so fizzily sugary and punk, it’s akin to the Haribo bear suddenly discovering L7.

Opening with the frenetic, pinballing synths of ‘Choose Go!’, songs rattle along at breakneck pace – an eclecticism taking in rallying soundbites, chanted vocals and danceable rhythms.  At times the squad (singer-screamer Mana, her identical twin – and guitarist – Kana, drummer Yuna and bassist Yuki) recall the knowing campy ridiculous of ‘90s girlband Shampoo. A bonkers crowd-pleasing dance interlude sees them performing choreography while holding their last vinyl (this year’s album ‘Punk’) over their faces like dancing QVC presenters, to a Japanese lyric cover of ‘Great DJ’ by The Ting Tings. Their Abba tribute, meanwhile, is so cheerful that even dancefloor-Dementor Theresa May robot-bursting onstage couldn’t have ruined it.

But behind the bubblegum melodies and the CSS-shaped party atmosphere is sharp social commentary. Chai have a riot grrrl style manifesto dubbed ‘neo kawaii’, which rails against Japan’s patriarchal fetishization of everything cute, and they celebrate what they feel society views as  their ‘flaws’. In interviews, Kana has talked  about the ghoulish pressures to have surgery to make her eyes bigger, while the first song they ever wrote together was about body hair.

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It’s a credo highlighted when Mana addresses the sold-out crowd. “I have a question for everybody”, she asks. “Do you have a body complex? I have many body complexes. My eyes are very small. [But] they are lovely eyes. This is neo kawaii!  And my legs are very short. These are lovely legs. Neo kawaii!”. They then launch into ‘N.E.O’ – a punk-funk barnstormer from their 2018 debut ‘Pink’ – which erupts like LCD Soundsystem and sees Mana ricochet around the stage, barking out lyrics that translate as, ‘Small eyes / Flat nose / No shape / Fat legs!’. The breathless, clattering ‘Great Job’, meanwhile, sees her sarcastically barking, ‘Do you do housework? It’s a great job!’, before gleefully cackling.

Ending with the melodic ‘Future’ and an encore of the pop-rush of ‘I’m Me’, Chai effortlessly stake a claim as this year’s most joyous band to watch. As one baying crowd member asks after their hour-long set: “What’s the Japanese for ‘more’?.”

Chai played:

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‘Choose Go!’

‘Boyz Serco Men’

‘Fashionista’

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Dance interlude – ‘Great DJ’ (The Ting Tings cover), ‘Dancing Queen’ (Abba)

‘N.E.O’

‘Cool Cool Vision’

‘Great Job’

‘Curly Adventure’

‘Horechatta’

‘Walking Star’

‘Future’

‘I’m Me’

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