The appeal of ZONE isn't difficult to explain: girls with guitars. This simple, retardedly awesome premise lies behind much of the popularity of Shonen Knife, the 5 6 7 8's, and uh...in a different genre, Sleater-Kinney and L7. But the one thing uniting those fairly disparate bands is that they're all - to a greater or lesser extent - PUNK.*
ZONE weren't punks; they were girls-next-door types from Hokkaido who could still rock their instruments. The counterintuitive joy of watching them wield their axes while decked out in full summer kimonos in the 'Hanabi' video is entirely representative of their appeal: there's a sense of lightness and youth behind their music that's sometimes melancholy, sometimes just energetic. This can be summed up in a random comment I remember on one of their videos, the author of which I can't recall:
"If I hadn't been poisoned by cynicism and satire, I'd act like them too."
There's nothing cynical about ZONE - you don't have to navigate any currents in their music; it's just pure immediacy. They're never slutted out, never even ironically exploited: their videos are usually tasteful, beautiful, fun, or some combination thereof. I can believe in the members of ZONE in a way I can't believe SweetS or even Koda Kumi, because I know the latter are entering into a knowing dialogue with their audiences and there's some kind of controlling perspective mediating things with an eye to the pocketbook. But ZONE never winked, never pandered, and they didn't need to: their music was built on a solid core of emotion. And they played their own instruments. Is it J-pop or J-rock? Does it matter?
ZONE were created to be a 'bandoru' (band/idol mix) back in 1997. After a few lineup shuffles, their first album came out in 1999. Sadly, in 2005, the members broke up to pursue more pressing concerns like, uh, high school. Yeah. Given the choice between that and being an internationally famous musician, I know which one I'd choose, but then no one can discount the importance of locker combinations and basic trig for having a well-rounded life.
Anyway, ZONE continue to live on, due to them actually having memorable songs and albums. There's a great new B-sides collection of theirs out recently, fully the equal of their official albums. ZONE songs like 'Hanabi' and the immortal 'secret base (kimi ga kureta mono)' are unbelievably emotional, capable of withstanding constant listening for weeks.
secret base (kimi ga kureta mono) music video
'secret base' in particular is one of those songs I can listen to endlessly, deriving just as much joy as the first time I heard it. I usually don't make an effort to consciously learn the lyrics to j-pop, but by the time I attempted 'secret base' in karaoke, I was surprised to find that I knew the words perfectly; I didn't even need to glance at the kanji. It's a nice video, too.
* Amusingly, ZONE are categorized on Wikipedia under 'Hardcore Punk Bands'. I'd love to see the facial expressions of any Dead Kennedys/Bad Brains/Black Flag fans who downloaded their songs on a whim.