What was it about the early and mid-eighties that made the Western population so hungry for Eastern culture? Between TURNING JAPANESE by the Vapours (1980), VISIONS OF CHINA by Japan (1981), CHINA by Red Rockers (1983), CHINA GIRL by David Bowie (1983) and Murray Head’s ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK (1985), not to mention the countless other Asian-themed videos by the likes of Culture Club, INXS and Wham!, mid-eighties MTV was practically a love letter to the Orient.
One of the best Asian-influenced songs and videos to emerge from this trend was Alphaville’s BIG IN JAPAN, yet it might also be the most forgotten. You see, there is a serious risk involved when your pop group is new on the scene and you call your first video “BIG IN JAPAN.” This could be interpreted as an ominous prediction of your impending failure to follow up initial successes, leaving you forgotten in the US and the UK, but still a favorite with audiences in some other remote locale. Say… Japan, for instance. Yet those devil-may-care Teutons of Alphaville brazenly opted to seal their fate in just such a manner with their debut single “Big in Japan,” an uber-synthesized, melancholy nod to our neighbors in the Far East.
German trio Alphaville burst onto the scene with their 1984 album Forever Young, but soon succumbed to their self-prophesized Big in Japan Curse, failing to chart any more hits and quickly becoming a Top 40 footnote. Though the song actually has less to do with Japan than desperation and loneliness, the brilliant music video uses traditional Japanese images contrasted with bleak, somber-hued city scenes to create an outstanding piece of eighties art.
Director Dieter Meier (of the Swiss electronic group Yello) clearly had a gift for constructing experimental visual effects that captured the current zeitgeist, yet today seem refreshingly original when contrasted with many other music videos of the same time period. Opening with a brightly colored Japanese fish motif, the video quickly switches to darker images such as distressed abstractions projected over the faces of the band members and stop motion geisha make-up being applied to the face of a distinctly non-Asian brunette.
The concept of using blankly staring human faces as canvases for abstract expressionism somehow fits the lonely, mechanized music and chilly lyrics. The idea of humans standing in the dark, their bodies used as living movie screens for an unseen audience, effectively echoes one of the song’s themes of flash-in-the-pan fame and the hollow lifestyle that accompanies it. These moments contain the video’s most memorable icons, such as an animated film of a reel-to-reel tape player on the bare chest of singer Marian Gold.
Most of the scenes in BIG IN JAPAN are starkly simple reminders that often in music videos, less is more. Lead singer Gold either performs the vocals while standing in front of a rear-projected backdrop or surrounded by his mates on a barren, post-apocalyptic stage while their shadows loom large behind them. The images on the screens keep changing, a neverending parade of slightly varied visuals from lightning to red-hot sparks to flashing neon. Despite the video's simplicity, there's never a dull moment.
Gold then interacts with – yet never gets very close to – the icy brunette whose look alternates between typical 1980s party wear and full-fledged Japanese geisha attire. Is there an implied statement about the Westernization of Japan in these images? Or perhaps a comment on the Easternization of Europe and America during their '80s Asian culture obsession.
Although the BIG IN JAPAN clip holds up well enough to survive a nuclear holocaust, I wish the same could be said for the bulky, homemade-looking New Wave clothing worn by the band. The worst of these ensembles include a glorified Hefty bag jumpsuit cinched at the waist with an artichoke-inspired belt and a giraffe-spotted boat-neck tee with mid-length sleeves, worn snugly tucked into a pair of jeans so tight they rival those worn by the band Survivor. Even as a fan of ‘80s fashion I cannot condone the flagrant misuse of fabric in this video.
But I guess the off-the-wall fashions were just a piece of the overall puzzle that is the band Alphaville, a name they swiped from that master of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard. Clearly this is a band that embraced New Wave and all it stood for, from their name right down to their belts. Like so many other casualties of eighties pop culture, Alphaville’s artistic efforts can only be seen today on YouTube, or when VH1 Classic pulls them out of the vault. Although I’m sure they’re still big… elsewhere.