Live Review: A-Nation – Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo (26-27.08.17)

The annual A-Nation event has built to a familiar finale for some time now. Since starting in 2002, the showcase organized by J-pop heavyweight Avex Entertainment has almost always finished with Ayumi Hamasaki gracing the stage last. It has been a fitting conclusion, seeing as few Japanese artists have achieved as much success as her, long standing as Avex’s crown jewel act. A-Nation itself has changed frequently — from a nationwide tour, to an event stopping by major cities only, to this year’s edition simply being a two-day run at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium — but the closing performer has stayed mostly the same.

And so it went in 2017, with Hamsaki ending the weekend event on August 27 with the most extravagant set of A-Nation. She was joined by backup dancers dressed for service in the world’s most fanciful navy, while one costume-change found people performing gymnastics on stage. She strutted around stage for high-energy cuts such as “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” while she sat on an elevated platform to deliver ballads such as “Hanabi.” Eventually she found herself on top of a float, wearing classic Japanese summer garb and joined by dancers doing dances nodding to seasonal festivals.

 

It was a big, decadent closer to A-Nation, fitting for Hamasaki. It also was the one element of this year’s event that felt truly familiar. The familiar site of Hamasaki belting out songs to end the weekend was preceded by a wide variety of actc, ranging from young Japanese groups to buzzed-about Korean artists to viral comedians-turned-performers. Save for the final act, A-Nation 2017 felt fragmented, an event trying out a lot of different sounds.

This topsy-turvy vibe emerged right away on August 26. The first act of the weekend was Exile The Second, one of the many groups associated with Avex power outfit Exile. Coming out to a wave of flag bearers, the biggie-sized group zipped through a set of high-energy dance-pop cuts featuring big gooey hooks and a lot of exposed abs. The crowd popped nonstop. Next up? Pikotaro, the funnyman whose 2016 semi-song “PPAP” became one of the year’s biggest hits. He ran through a 15-minute set, busting jokes and performing a variety of minute-long songs during the weekend’s most surreal set. He capped it off with an EDM remix of his famous fruits-meet-pens number.

Pretty disorienting, right? So it went over two days, with rock bands (including young guns Swanky Dank), J-pop boy bands (Bullet Train, masters of making silly faces) and emo screamers (My First Story). Although not totally new — A-Nation hasn’t been shy about mixing up genres in the past — it felt more relevant this year, as Japanese mainstream music as a whole has fragmented greatly in recent years. Avex can still count on some heavyweights, such as Generations From Exile Tribe, whose Sunday afternoon set was met with some of the biggest cheers of the weekend (and who can get a whole stadium of people to do the Y.M.C.A), and TRF, an early ‘90s act who delighted the crowd Sunday with a high-energy dance-pop set, highlighted by a sudden rush of children on stage to dance to their hit “EZ Do Dance.”

Yet A-Nation 2017 also found Avex trying to find the next big Japanese act to bank on. These included a handful of “Shooting Acts,” from EDM-glazed pop unit FAKY (solid songs, but not a ton of audience response) to Beverly, an Ariana-Grande-like belter who managed to play both days of the event (wowing with her impressive vocal range on songs such as “Tell Me Baby”). New to new-ish groups tried their luck on the mainstage, too. Saturday saw trop-house-tinged unit lol come out early, delivering a solid electronic set working well as a summer chaser. The next day, the group Happiness explored similar terrain, alongside hip-hop-leaning pop cuts…while also calling out back-up dancers for a stage-length twerk line.

Maybe, though, the answer is to look elsewhere in Asia. A-Nation has welcomed Korean artists since its inception, but in recent years has gotten a lot of attention for just how many K-pop groups they’ve featured. The 2017 edition seemed especially full of big-time units, and that explained the high number of teenaged fans, often holding signs and special glow sticks, in attendance…and why so many darted for the exits after their favorites played.

Day one of A-Nation highlighted groups from S.M. Entertainment, kicking off with girl group Red Velvet. They brought a brief but high-energy set to Ajinomoto Stadium, barreling through dance-pop cuts such as “Russian Roulette” and “Red Flavor,” with some cute banter between numbers. They brought out huge cheers, but male units NCT 127 and EXO reached deafening levels. Both acts revolve around pop songs dunked in rap and EDM signifiers, loaded up with tag-team verses and gruff hooks. People flipped for every new song — and, in the case of the latter, every camera shot of individual members.

Day two, meanwhile, spotlighted YG Entertainment. The second-to-last act was D-LITE, the solo project of Big Bang’s Daesung, the day’s most packed moment. It was charming in a deeply goofy way — it’s him trying to be a J-pop star, gifted with all the good and bad that endeavor entails — but also felt closer to nostalgia for five years ago. The future popped up with the day’s first act, Blackpink, a fierce four-piece that rumbled out of the gate with the call-and-response of “Boombayah” before burning through the rest of their small but potent song catalog. And again, it was the company’s dude-centric group who upped it further. iKON went on shortly after 5 p.m., and electrified the audience with a hip-hop-heavy set, highlighted by songs such as “Bling Bling” and “Dumb & Dumber.”

iKON, and other K-pop groups, worked wonders, but still didn’t point towards one definite direction for A-Nation…or Avex…could go in. They tried out a lot of different sounds across two days leading up to the one thing everybody expected. Yet the biggest hit of the weekend showed what happens when an act finally gets a chance to take the spotlight. AAA, a six-member group active since 2005, have long been one of Avex’s biggest acts. Their genre blending style — rap collides with dance music, all delivered in sing-a-long-ready packages — has helped them become one of Japan’s biggest pop acts in 2017. Yet they’ve never headlined an A-Nation. Until this year, when they had the chance to close out Saturday.

And they made the most of it. Fears of fans leaving after EXO turned out to be unwarranted, as the stadium was packed and as loud as it would get all weekend for the group’s big moment. Maybe part of the draw lies in how they can’t be pinned down to a single sound either — they glided between string-accented ballads to frantic electro-pop numbers. A single song, such as recent single “No Way Back,” zig-zagged between rock, dance-pop and rap, punters equally wowed by each element. It helps that AAA are pure entertainers, the type of group that can get a stadium of people waving in time with their music and screaming lyrics back at them. By the time they circled the stadium on a pair of trucks, waving to all corners of Ajinomoto, they had delivered A-Nation’s highlight set. And showed that deviating from the expected can reap big rewards.

Photos courtesy of Avex