CHAI may not sound punk, but they’re probably more punk than anyone who identifies themselves as such. Born into a society that praised “kawaii”, or cuteness, above all else, this Tokyo four-piece have swapped tartan for pink and set out to dismantle the authoritarian beauty standards, in Japan and beyond, putting undue pressure on women.
They aim to help people realise that everyone is “kawaii” in their own way, no matter what anyone else says. Their website even has a section devoted to what they’ve coined “neo kawaii”: “You should be who you are. We all have our worries, but that's fine. Our insecurities make us who we are. The insecurities become art.”
CHAI’s blistering debut, ‘PINK’, was all about outward expression, of embracing any physical imperfections and not giving a damn what anyone else thought about you, particularly men. Now, with their follow-up, ‘PUNK’, the view turns inwards.
Right from the off, with a bassline that makes their Devo influences obvious, ‘CHOOSE GO!’ sees the quartet attempt to wrestle back control. After years of being told they’re not good enough, they’re here to clear the negativity, the frenetic guitars tumbling over one another, in search of freedom.
Already, CHAI sound brighter, less rough around the edges, than on tracks like ‘Boyz Seco Men. ’PUNK’ in general, despite its title, is a much less angry record than ‘PINK’. Even ‘Fashionista’, the spiritual sequel to the electrifyingly jagged ‘NEO’, is a more indirect attack on beauty standards. Where ‘NEO’ stabbed at the heart of it, ‘Fashionista’ is rebellion through expressing yourself how you want. It might lose some of the edge that made ‘PINK’ so instantly impactful, but it’s such a joyous record that it’s hard not to fall for it.
“I’m me”, which has that same carefree vibe that Hinds capture so well, is an ode to the band’s love of food. In a world of Instagram models trying to shift diet pills, where indulgence is considered taboo, ‘I’m me’ is “treat yourself” in its purest form. From slathering butter on steak to listing “everything yummy foods”, why be miserable just to be accepted, when you could just do whatever you want and be happy?
Friendship plays a huge part in ‘PUNK’ too. Having met at school and university, and now living together in Tokyo, it’s clear that the foursome are good friends and an essential lifeline for each other. Between ‘Wintime’, a sweet little indie pop number, and the joyous sing-along of ‘FAMILY MEMBER’, friendship becomes a light when the world gets you down. Like the rest of the album, it’s sincere without being sentimental, guided by an ambition to create a better world.
The joy of ‘PUNK’, outside of its efforts to find the positive in everything, is how much it defies genre. Inspired by the likes of Tom Tom Club and Basement Jaxx, one moment it bounces off the walls with a kinetic guitar-driven energy of bands, the next it’s throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the recording booth to see what sounds they can make. All this comes to a head in ‘THIS IS CHAI’.
Like tour mates Superorganism’s ‘SPRGNSM’, it seems they too have made their best song just about their name. Horns clammer, synthy bass rumbles, all while CHAI simply shout their name over and over again. It’s chaotic, it’s noisy, it’s brilliant. It’s CHAI. Punks in pink ready to bring “neo kawaii” to the world.