Claris doing ska is this season’s best OP theme

Of the anime series I’ve kept up with this season and haven’t dropped, Claris’ gloriously upbeat Hitorigoto (the OP to icky, but irresistible Oreimo clone Eromanga sensei) is coming out a country mile ahead of any competition. While I’ve come to generally favour the darker, more ‘epic’ OP themes over the past few years (ie. last year’s majestic Kabaneri OP), there’s something about the strut and brass-laden pomp of Hitorigoto that has me looking forward to it weekly more than Eromanga-sensei as a show itself, to be quite honest.

Because, basically, it’s ska-pop through and through – a genre you’d be hard pressed to say was common when it comes to OP themes. On one hand, Claris’ typical bright-hearted melodies and uplifting choruses are all present and correct, but there’s something in the presentation that lifts it above and beyond – a weird mish-mash of manic Specials-esque carnivalia with a soaring spirit that pairs perfectly with the floaty visuals of the OP. Much like the Oreimo OPs – I love the way characters are given a sense of three-dimensionality as they float past. Others have already talked about how Eromanga sensei seems to have had an above-average level of animation polish lavished on it, and the OP is prime example of that – a lush throwback to 2013 when Attack on Titan was airing alongside season 2 of Oreimo. Some things never really change…

I have to confess, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Claris’ sound since ‘Alice’ left the band and ‘Karen’ joined – and Hitorigoto is still some way from the majesty of their Madoka Magica-era singles. And yet… It grows on you, and grows on you.

Maybe, much like Sagari in the OP theme itself – it’s that sense that it’s a song you might secretly dance away to in your bedroom. But only when you’re certain no-one’s looking…

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Dynasty Warriors is the ultimate ‘flow-state’ game

Recently, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of inducing ‘flow-state’ – a concept I’ve largely seen referred to in relation to video-games like No Man’s Sky, where a vast open-world environment and in-game processes work together to produce a kind of tactile player-game feedback system in which the systems of pressing buttons and creating feedback on screen eventually becomes so subliminal the brain in essence ‘switches’ off and the player begins to operate on auto-pilot, freeing up the higher brain functions to multi-task onto something else, whilst still being subject to the inherent feedback loop pleasures of the game itself. Or at least, that’s my experience of it, at any rate.

Think of walking to the tube while playing your favourite music on headphones. You’ve walked this same route every day of your life – so much so that you could do it blindfolded. Your body so in sync and so in time to the rhythms of both itself and the world that if you play the same album every morning, you can intuitively link up a particular chorus of a song x No. of songs into the album and your feet reaching a particular point of the pavement at a particular time. This, too, is flow-state. The feeling of reaching a place without realising how you reached it. Your mind has ‘moved on’ to a higher state – sublimating the rudimentary here and now away because it has become so routine it can be performed with almost 0% actual brain process.

Within flow-state, I’ve come to believe you can experience a very particular kind of meditative ‘pure’ happiness. A kind of ‘in the moment’ pure-pleasure which, whilst having little relation on wider life, has an inherent sense of ‘freeing’ which is almost fantastically cathartic and liberating in its capacity to offer relaxation.

And looking back at events of activities that have best triggered aspects of this flow-state, I’ve found the video-game Dynasty Warriors (alongside perhaps the Assassin’s Creed games) to be one of the best in providing this very particular sensation.

In essence, the game is set up on the easiest difficulty level and the audio muted, and you play through the almost mind-numbingly simple missions for an hour or two at any one time, whilst simultaneously listening to a podcast. This aspect of multi-tasking is vital, because to simply ‘play’ the game itself would put too much undue focus on the simplicity of the action of playing itself – it would become dull and utterly tedious.

But instead, the act of playing becomes largely secondary, a kind of soft, white-noise of tactile pleasure that is felt more through the fingertips and body than the mind. Meanwhile, the mind is occupied by the podcast – with spoken word as opposed to music providing a particular thrill of comprehension distinct from the activity of the game – your mind must alertly ‘follow’ the flow of conversation or narration, instead of perhaps ‘tuning out’ while music plays.

Particularly with headphones on, there is an immense sense of ‘enveloping’ when going through this procedure, with both mind and body occupied with respective – differentiated – tasks. Your thumbs intuitively know what to press – flipping between SQUARE and X with slipstreamed ease. And yet, the hours of ‘progression’ in game are matched with a ‘mental’ progression of learning about whatever you’re listening to – whether that by an audio drama or factual documentary.

There’s something very particular about the dumb viscerality of Dynasty Warriors – the mowing down of thousands of anonymous men by one, overpowered super-soldier. The concept is utterly ridiculous, and yet, in this – in its larger than life approximation of mass combat – it somehow allows the mind to process the game in a way quite distinct from say – the sharp focus of a strategy game. In Dynasty Warriors or Assassin’s Creed, it is almost as if you are no longer moving your character within the game world, but rather systematically mapping from Point A to Point B – ticking off and sweeping clean the game world and its objectives as you go – slowly reducing a crowded mini-map of objectives into an orderly, tidied completedness.

Midori Takada’s Through The Looking Glass – A sylvan fantasia reborn

Recently, spurred on by what I believe to be an utter homogenization of the Top 40 charts recently into an amorphous blend of tropical house, I’ve increasingly found myself seeking out increasingly outre, ‘alternative’ music of late. The kind of stuff five years ago I’d have dismissed out of hand as melody-less hipster music. I guess time changes us all…

Recently, with my interest in Japan, I’d found myself stumbling across a number of mentions in the Guardian – among other publications – of Midori Takada, a musician I knew nothing of. I filed the name away in the back of my mind and moved on.

And then, a few weeks ago, I saw that very same name resurface on YouTube via their scarily intuitive recommendation system. You see, I’d begun delving down the bottomless pit of Japanese City Pop music on YouTube, and with all its manifest links to the Vaporwave community and other electronic music fandoms, it wasn’t long before Midori Takada’s album Through The Looking Glass was shot right to the top of my recommendations list – something a number of articles on the album’s recent re-issue from ‘we release whatever the f*ck we we want’ records inform me isn’t an isolated case.

And what of the album itself? It all starts with the mystical, almost terrifying cover art. There’s something Dali-esque to the sheer surrealism of the painted, tropical landscape and bizarre alpaca/rabbit hybrid that lies at the centre of the composition; topped by a nude figure in a flowing white gown. I’ve always felt a certain draw towards these kind of richly coloured visions of exotique – spurred on by seeing the cover art of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger as a child – the same swirl of dreamlike wonder – though a touch less surrealistic than the Takada album cover.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 08.43.02

Back to the music – the swell of gamelan plonkiness. The nocturnal sweep of owl noises and the overal, overwhelming darkness of it all. Dark I say – in the sense of a long, thickly humid nightscape. But bright too – in a kind of optimistic, uptopian biosphere of communion. One in which mankind has returned utterly to its roots as merely one of many beasts. Takada’s album is one to be drunk up – both by the ears and by the body whole-sale. I recommend putting it on as you go to sleep, lying as the twilight flows to full dark – letting it flow over you in a caress of increasing slumber.

After listening to the album a number of times, I went away and delved more into the background and legacy of the record – turning up frequent references to the work of Steve Reich – before promptly going and listening to his Music for 18 Musicians (a favourite of David Bowie I hear). Once again, I was utterly won over.

Takada’s album is one that offers more and more with each listen – a familiarity that grows whilst at the same time offering eternal wonder; the possibility that you’ll never *really* uncover all its depths. Like some primordial Amazonian rainforest, it keeps its best secrets to itself – only offering hints to its full wonder when the right occasion presents itself.

I’ve increasingly come to think of the most perfect junctions between listeners and music as instilled when a very specific auditory environment is created. Whether that be listening at a certain time of day, or at a certain loudness, or within a certain acoustic environment – I’ve started to find a new kind of magic in the *condition* of music itself as it enters the ears, as opposed to specifically the music itself. And Takada’s album – like those famous stories of people testing out their hi-fis with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – feels like a passport into that world of possibility.

Why we shouldn’t panic about Shonen Jump’s falling sales… yet

I woke up this morning to see a headline from ANN about how Shonen Jump’s circulation has dropped below 2 million. Bad news for everyone, right?

The answer, I feel, is more complicated than that. Because at the heart of this is the simple truth is that manga magazine sales have been falling across the board for years. While WSJ’s fall is perhaps the most noticeable and pronounced, its competitor Weekly Shonen Magazine has also experienced a similar fall – now selling less than a million copies itself.

The reason why I remain hesitant to classify this as inherently bad is that it feels exactly the same as what we’ve seen here in the UK in regards to newspaper and magazine circulations. In the past few years we’ve seen the likes of Time Out become freebies handed out at tube stations, while only a few weeks ago came the news that once final bastion of music mag sales Kerrang was to go monthly.

So when manga fans comment that Shonen Jump must ‘do’ something to arrest the sales fall and ‘climb’ back to its former glory, it misses the point to a certain degree. The horse has bolted – so to speak. Nothing – arguably – will reverse this trend; only, potentially, slow it. When people attach certain significance to individual series, ie. (if only Hunter x Hunter was to return!) or (if only Shonen Jump had serialized Attack on Titan instead of Kodansha) – it sees only a short term picture instead of the long term downward trend.

What, I feel, is of more significance here is what WSJ is *actually* doing to try and halt the fall. I watched an excellent video from one of my favourite anime YouTubers right now – Super Eyepatch Wolf – where he talks about how what WSJ needs isn’t a selection of moderately successful series (eg. Black Clover, Nisekoi etc.) but one or two MEGA smashes like My Hero Academia or Assassination Classroom.

Of course, not every series can be the ‘next One Piece’ – but WSJ can at least function in the hope of that, whilst all the while facing the reality that one day, inevitably, One Piece *will* eventually end, just like Bleach and Naruto before it.

But in the mean time WSJ is fast undergoing efforts to do absolutely everything in its power to manufacture another MEGA hit of – at the very least – Ass Class style proportions. In many ways, Ass Class is kind of a model series – burning short and bright, lasting only four years, but being all kinds of hot during those years.

By axing middling series and replacing them with a constant stream of new titles (from which the mediocre ones will again be axed) WSJ has essentially created a rolling conveyor belt – a veritable production line in service of creating the next hit; all via process of elimination. What of it if ten average series have to die in the process – having released only two or three volumes worth of material? If even one big hit (say current flavour of the moment The Promised Neverland, or the promising Dr. Stone) is created in the process, then they’ve ‘won’.

How English language manga is shifting toward a ‘graphic novel’-style market

One thing I’ve been pondering recently is the shifting state of the English language market – which right now, seems very much in a state of flux.

There are a number of key factors at work here – 1) The number of series being translated into English, 2) The average price of a typical volume of manga, 3) The formats – both physical and digital – that it is being released in.

In many ways, we are in a golden age of English language manga distribution – we are getting more and more series, sooner than ever before. The Weekly Shonen Jump digital edition is a masterclass in how to get things right – with a ridiculously cheap subscription fee, allowing fans to keep up to date with series day-and-date with their Japanese release (and in the original magazine-style compendium format of the original too)

And elsewhere, while Crunchyroll’s manga offering seems to baffle in the fact that it continues to update its existing series but not license any new ones – it remains one of the best places to quickly read through a number of big-name titles and get up to date on them; including standouts like Attack on Titan or Fairy Tail.

But what I mainly want to focus on here are individual volumes of manga – the stuff we see everywhere these days, whether it be a Forbidden Planet, or via an iPad or Kindle e-reader. In returning to those key three questions outlined above, I want to briefly elude to what I mean by a ‘Graphic Novel’-style market for manga.

The number of series being translated into English

Over the era of manga’s ‘rise’ to its current state – largely driven by first TokyoPop and then Viz Media (and more recently Kodansha) – the emphasis was on long-running series like Naruto, or countless other popular shonen/shojo titles that fans would eagerly collect volume-by-volume. The emphasis here was on cheap, affordable titles that could be quickly ploughed through, consuming the story as key point of value. In a pre-kindle era, buying the volumes was the only way to keep up (short of piracy or reading a Wiki).

But with many of the long-running shonen series now either ‘complete’ or approaching synchronicity with the Japanese releases, publishers are now targeting nicher markets. See Seven Seas cornering the market in monster girl manga, or the likes of Yen Press and Vertical mining the vaults to release lush new collected editions of Fruits Basket and Blame respectively.

It’s reasonable to say that ‘every’ taste is now catered for – but more significantly, by broadening this taste, the inherent by-product is that the market shifts toward a more ‘high-brow’ feel on the whole. Walk into a manga store five years ago and you’d be greeted by a wall of garish shonen jump spines – a wall of endless numbered volumes. Walk into a store now and it’s a panoply of colour and variety.

I feel the crucial factor here is one of taste – more and more, whether via podcasts or websites or the simple proliferation of the volumes themselves in shopfronts, there is a notion that the manga market is diversifying its taste (and by association, a perceived notion of ‘quality’), which dovetails nicely with the next point.

The average price of a typical volume of manga

But more recently, and I’d really just target this to the last few years or so – I think we’ve seen is a shift toward a market (related to what we’re seeing with collector’s editions in anime) where the prestige and quality of the ‘value’ of the physical edition begins to attain a value in its own right beyond the simple ‘story’ contained within. Physical editions of manga are becoming plusher and plusher – with price tags to match.

If you look at the Japanese version of Amazon and convert the Yen price into pounds – you’re typically looking at around £3 – £4 per volume. Ridiculously cheap, right? And while it’s to be expected that prices would rise in the conversion to English editions, once you factor in translation costs, graphic work, marketing etc. the simple truth is that here and now – in 2017, most English manga now cost anywhere between £6.99 and £10. Basically, more than double the Japanese price.

What this means is that you’re no longer buying a ‘manga’ – that portable, disposable medium of printed paper – you’re buying a ‘book’. A graphic novel. A thing designed to be kept. And this is reflected in the digital prices too – which are a veritable minefield in their own right.

While Shonen Jump titles typically remain at a sub-£5 cost per volume on Amazon (for the kindle edition), Kodansha seem to typically charge over £7 per digital volume. That’s right, £7 for typically under 200 pages of content. Bonkers.

And while we could sit here and argue about the state of the economy and the rising price of goods across the board, the simple truth is that the price manga is sold at arguably changes the perception and way people interact with it. And it is to this degree that we turn to the last (and in my eyes, most important point)

The formats – both physical and digital – that it is being released in

For me, this is the single biggest sea change affecting English language manga right now – and if one were to be cynical, it is even part of why prices are rising across the board. We talked a little earlier about a notion of rising taste / quality in the manga market – and I think central to this is the increasing introduction of prestige editions. A cursory look at Amazon’s most pre-ordered manga titles highlights titles like Vertical’s Blame edition, VIZ’s glossy new hardback Jojo’s edition, as well as their collected editions of Goodnight Pun Pun.

I think these three titles are standard-bearers for where the manga market seems to be going – titles that one could arguably say perhaps even ‘transcend’ the manga ‘ghetto’ and fit neatly into a wider graphic novel taste sphere. If you looked purely at the bright, ‘designed’ covers of the PunPun volumes – much like with Assassination Classroom, you might not even think they ‘were’ manga.

We’ve seen something similar happen with Tokyo Ghoul – arguably the single hottest manga in the English market right now. In the old TokyoPop / VIZ days, there’s no doubt Tokyo Ghoul would have been released just like Naruto and all the rest in a cheap tankobon style edition – but now, it forms part of the larger format VIZ ‘SIG’ (signature) edition (alongside other titles like Terraformars).

This larger format – while looking magnificent in your hands and on your shelf, arguably allows VIZ to jack up the price for what in the old days would have been sold far more cheaply. By adjusting the physical size and materials the volume is constructed from, the item is taken away from the petite, jacketed Japanese editions. This in itself doesn’t bother me – the English market has different tastes and norms after all. But more of question here is *what* exactly that change achieves in terms of long term market perception and trends. eg. In the future will *every* VIZ title become a VIZ ‘sig’ prestige edition because, hey, just because they can?

In Goodnight PunPun, Kuroko’s Basketball, Prison School and many other titles, we also now see an increasing trend of the ‘first’ English edition automatically being a bundled 2-in-1 edition. While this ostensibly saves money for the fan and allows the publishers to more quickly catch up on long-running / completed series, it again shifts the format toward a more ‘book’ like / graphic novel item – a hefty tome if ever you saw one.

It remains to be seen where exactly all this will head, and whether prices will continue to rise – but what I would like to at least suggest here is that the physical entity of manga itself (in English translation) has a profound effect on the market itself and the kind of perception and taste it entails. We saw this in the past as the market shifted from ‘flipped’ floppy singles to the accepted tankobon ports we all know and love.

Are we on the cusp of another long-term shift? One where a comic book store manga section will start to look more and more like its Western counterpart – choc full of collected ‘trade’ editions; weighty, hyper-glossy tomes far removed from the cheap, disposable volumes of old?

The best pieces on Japanese City Pop

If I were to sum up City Pop in a sentence, it would be as a kind of neon-dusted sound of sleek, luxurious metropolitan living in a Japan of the late 70s and early 80s. A world confined to classic anime series and fantastically rare vinyl records. A world of dazzlingly designed record sleeves which promised a tropical, Pop Art aesthetic that remains to this day impossibly cool in its chic-ness.

The closest English equivalent would be what’s classified as Post-Disco or ’80 Soul’ / ’80s Groove’ – but while the production styles are often similar (blending funky synthesized bass with a sweet mix of disco-esque strings n’ guitar riffs) I’ve found it’s never had quite the same resonance with English lyrics as it does in Japanese.

Most City Pop records remain frustratingly hard to acquire or even listen to legally in the UK – Spotify is practically barren when it comes to most of the most regularly cited artists.

In terms of recommendations, I’d definitely point people first in the direction of Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You and Taeko Ohnuki’s Sunshower as the most quintessentially ‘essential’ representative records of the City Pop sound.

So, for those looking to take their first steps into the hazy neon nights of City Pop, I’ve compiled below a list of some of the best English language pieces written on the sound:

City pop revival is literally a trend in name only | The Japan Times

City Pop: A Guide To Japan’s Overlooked ’80s Disco – Electronic Beats

City Pop (aka Japanese City Pop, City Pops, シティーポップ)

The Musical Almanac: Japan’s City-Pop | zZounds Music Blog

Light In The Attic dig up Japanese folk, city pop and new age rarities

Stream Loads of “City Pop,”

Don’t call it a comeback: Japanese City Pop

The Newfound Heian Period in Japanese City Pop ‹ ArtMag Blog

Yoshida Yohei Group Puts a Spin on Japanese City Pop Revival | KCET

See also…

Discogs

Wax Poetics

J-MELO – singlehandedly leading the charge for Japanese music coverage in English?

This post is very much designed as a follow-up to my earlier post on the coverage of Japanese music in English, as well as generally being born out of admiration for what J-MELO is attempting to do.

After attending a screening event last month in which NHK World aired two documentaries back-to-back, I’ve been watching the channel a great deal on my iPad – and finally managed to find a time when their music show (a kind of Japanese Top of the Pops, if you like…) was airing. You see – while most of NHK World’s shows are available ‘on-demand’ after they have been broadcast and can be viewed again, I-Player style, J-MELO remains suspiciously absent. While this is no doubt due to restrictions surrounding licensing and music rights, it adds an element of frustration – essentially, if you aren’t watching the channel when the show happens to air live, it can be difficult to catch it.

And really, it is worth catching. Cramming an impressive variety of music into its 30 minute duration via a compilation of current music video snippets as well as longer showcase segments, J-MELO comes across as one of the most slickly produced shows airing on NHK World – aided immensely by presenter May J, who conveys an immediate professionalism and ease at what she’s doing. This is no doubt due to the fact she’s a singer herself – you’re most likely to know her from the Japanese version of Frozen’s Let It Go, or her opening theme for Gundam Reconguista In G. But essentially, she knows what she’s talking about, and has the casual friendliness (as well as fluency in both English and Japanese) to ensure the artist interviews on the show feel breezy and pleasant to watch.

Not everything is quite up to the same calibre – the sections which include video footage from viewers singing in Japanese, while an admirable attempt at audience participation – don’t make for the easiest of viewing. It must be said though that J-MELO’s attempts at bridging the gap between Japanese music and Western fans go above-and-beyond – in addition to the channel itself, they have attended events such as the UK’s Hyper Japan, while earlier this year the show’s producer Nobuyuki Harada gave a talk about the show at my university (which, frustratingly, I couldn’t attend due to a clash with another lecture of mine).

While it would be foolish to pretend that J-MELO alone could singlehandedly introduce Western fans wholesale to Japanese music, what I think is more important is the willingness and appetite to engage – in essence, a specified desire to push Japanese music to other, overseas markets. As I discussed in my previous post on Japanese music – previous hurdles such as availability (both physical and digital) are slowly beginning to dissolve, and with the current generation of Western fans of Japanese Music more digitally savvy and engaged than ever before – they are already actively seeking this material out regardless.

Ideally, the kind of role I envision J-MELO playing is that of a kind of official mediator. With NHK clearly motivated to push their English channel language further in the UK, I see J-MELO as a kind of locus which will hopefully, at some point or other, invite a degree of coverage in the mainstream media – ie. a feature piece in the likes of the Guardian or a dedicated music magazine. Essentially – acting as a gateway to further mass-market coverage of Japanese music.

With acts like One OK Rock and Babymetal standing as the face of a new ‘internationalised’ push of Japanese music abroad, there’s never been a better time than now.

Why are there hardly any books on Japanese Music in English?

Availability

Recently, I’ve been researching into Japanese music, and what’s immediately struck me is the almost complete lack of in-depth books on the subject. When even fellow medium anime is reasonably well-served (especially in the last few years) with a number of accessible, yet scholarly, tomes on the field – it all starts to feel a little suspicious.

What, exactly, is at work here?

Back in 1999, there was a CD release of ‘The Rough Guide‘ to the music of Japan. Even now, this result is one of the first that is returned when searching for ‘Japanese Music’ on the UK Amazon store. That’s right, a CD compilation from nearly 20 years ago.

When you filter the results to books only, the results are little better. The top result is an Out of Print item from 1990, while other results are mostly confined to pricey academic tomes coming in at between £20 – £90 in price. Amongst these, a single title (again, scholarly) professing to cover the popular music scene in any significant detail.

I looked elsewhere – and quickly stumbled across an article on the Japan Times recommending a number of books. Perfect! I thought. This was exactly what I was after. I emerged with a list of four key items:
Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground
by Ian F. Martin

 

Japrocksampler
by Julian Cope

 

Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Sign, Storage, Transmission)
by David Novak

Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop (Asia Perspectives: History, Society and Culture)
by Michael Bourdaghs

While all of these certainly looked more attractive and populist in approach going by their cover designs and a number of reviews from respected publications like The Quietus, the Amazon customer reviews again highlighted a lack of ‘general’ popularity. To be expected, perhaps, for a niche subject like Japanese music. But perhaps also belying each of the books more specialist approaches to an already specialist subject?

Where, in essence, was the modern equivalent to this ‘Rough Guide’ to Japanese Music? The kind of volume that you could see a layman picking up from the shelves of a WH Smith? I should at this point also point out 2014’s Made in Japan: Studies in Popular Music (Routledge Global Popular Music Series) – but again, its high price makes it relatively inaccessible to those that cannot rent it out from a University library, for example.

Further searches unveiled a recent publication (April 2017) from none other than Harvard University Press – Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents. With its attractive cover art, this appeared like another strong candidate for what I was looking for. But an Amazon Reviewer warned otherwise – neatly summing up the kind of ‘state-of-play’ I’d been posturing about:

“Like most of the writing on Japanese music that has appeared in English (Yano, Atkins, etc.) this book suffers from a serious lack of depth of knowledge of the big wide subject that is Japanese pop music. Yes, this book covers some of the songs that were the most popular, but there is really no consideration of the vast majority of pop music that is not well remembered today, so it can hardly be called a history. Assembly line song construction, by its very nature and regardless of its intended market, concentrates on what the professionals believe the public wants to hear and buy. For this reason, it is necessary to look at a broad swath of less popular music in order to make any conclusions about the society or music culture as a whole. Choosing only the exceptional hits is obviously different to studying the music culture. Of course, that would require a different type of study. This book is written from an academic standpoint, where printed texts are prioritized and where even the songs themselves are treated as texts and not musical experiences. So many major artists are completely ignored in favor of social critics, whose actual influence is dubious to say the least. If you’d like to know more about the music culture and its trends, this is not the best place to look. We’re still waiting for a basic history of Japanese pop music in English.”

Moving Forwards – The state of Japanese music in the UK in 2017

This post was partly motivated by a prevailing attitude I’ve had for some years now surrounding the general awareness and availability around Japanese music in the UK. A couple of years ago I toyed with the idea of starting a blog focusing precisely on this topic, but due to various time constraints, never really kept up with it.

In one sense – we’re in a better situation than ever before. The likes of JPU Records are doing absolutely stalwart work bringing over some fantastic, hip-as-you-like acts from Japan and giving them proper UK releases. Until this year, this was also paired up with the immensely enjoyable gigs at the Pipeline near Liverpool Street Station – which I hear has now sadly closed. These shows gave a real flavour of a ‘Japanese indie scene’, quite at odds with the visual flash and glam-allure of the acts brought over as the part of events like Hyper Japan.

And speaking of Hyper Japan – they too represent a continuing bastion for the exposure of Japanese music in the UK. Though I feel they perhaps peaked a couple of years ago, when benefitting from the proximity of France’s Japan  Expo, they brought over A-list talent like Eir Aoi (singer of tracks from Sword Art Online, Kill La Kill etc.) – fitting neatly into the purpose built venue space available at the O2 Arena. Since Hyper Japan has moved to Tobacco Dock, while the line-up of musical acts has remained impressively varied, I feel it has yet to match the O2 year in terms of fame/calibre.

Availability of Japanese music on pay-to-own services like iTunes has definitely improved over the past few years – though parity on streaming services like Spotify remains frustratingly poor. With the majority of UK music listening shifting to services like Spotify – I believe this lack of availability here remains a major hurdle that needs to be overcome. Play-counts of Japanese music on YouTube (including comments from Western fans) indicates there is a massive appetite here – and while the announcement earlier this year of streaming service AniUta goes some way toward alleviating these issues, I still believe full availability of these tracks on Spotify is the ‘holy grail’ that must, inevitably, at some point be worked toward.

Beyond availability – shifting times

Of course, availability is only half the issue. Last year we saw Babymetal score one of the first significant Japanese language entries on the UK album charts in years. Just seeing the news coverage on the Official Charts website around this was a kind of victory in its own right.

But with this, I started to ponder the further state of popular music media awareness around Japanese music in the UK. A couple of years ago, When Hatsune Miku fever was at its peak and she made her much touted appearance on Letterman, I entertained (admittedly rather hopeful) dreams that this might be a kind of ‘gateway’ to mass coverage of Japanese music. A kind of ‘Gangnam Style-effect’ for Japanese Music that might, even if only for a month or two, ensure at least a few hefty features in key publications giving exposure to genuinely popular, current Japanese acts.

But ‘peak’ Miku fever passed – leaving the Laurel Halo Barbican event earlier this year featuring Miku a kind of strange outlier; pushing her in an avant-garde art-house sense, very much after the fact. A cool event, without a doubt, but one that felt like it approached the Miku phenomenon in a highly post-modern sense, and not as the potentially populist force she can represent. Sat behind me in the audience was a young girl – maybe not even in her teens – who had turned up with her Mum; it was evident she had turned up very much for a ‘pop’ show, and the event was resolutely *not* that.

The shifting zeitgeist around phenomena like Miku got me thinking about what Western fandom for Japanese music represented in the here and now. Perhaps – I thought – the appetite for anime-style acts and their periphera (including Miku) was moving on. Maybe, the ‘core appetite’ resided elsewhere.

Recent trends indicated something quite separate – and one that, really, I should have expected. Japanese acts, singing in English.

Enter One OK Rock – leading a charge that also includes fellow pop-rockers Man With A Mission. These acts are fantastic – creating catchy, energetic tunes at a frenetic pace which has already seen them both reside in the Kerrang playlist in the UK. This, in itself, is a feat in its own right – following on from the ‘harder’ brand of Japanese metal acts singing in English like Crossfaith and Coldrain. Via the medium of rock channels like Kerrang – which have always offered a kind of openness beyond the tightly regulated commercialism of the likes of Radio 1 etc, Japanese Rock has carved out its own route into the sub-mainstream.

And alongside this – something else; ironically, on the very platform scorned by so many Japanese acts – Spotify. Centered around acts like Wednesday Campanella (who I first heard a good few years ago via the excellent podcast It Came From Japan) as well as similarly ‘trendy’ dance-pop hybrid acts like Kero Kero Bonito and Yasutaka Nakata, a new niche of what I like to call ‘hipster’ pop – Japanese acts that specifically cater to and slip effortlessly into the wider trend of Spotify indie-dance playlists.

Whether it be via Kerrang’s new cadre of Japanese acts singing in English, or a slick medley of impossibly hip dance acts packing out Spotify playlists, Japanese music in the UK is arguably in more robust health than it has ever been. But mainstream (or even ‘sub’ mainstream) coverage remains frustratingly elusive.

Which brings me back to the original question – Why are there hardly any books on Japanese Music in English?

Maybe the problem here lies not so much with availability – but more with a kind of ‘breaking the ice’ mindset. Look at other (albeit arguably far more mainstream) culture icebreaker phenomenons like the current Danish Hygge or Japanese minimalist publishing trends. An initial book that generates word of mouth – followed by a deluge of imitators and band-wagoning.

Maybe Japanese music needs this moment. Maybe not even as a book. But somewhere. Something. To light the spark…