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

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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…

90s anime and the joys of the ‘everyday episodic’

For a while now, I’ve had a real fervour for a very particular kind of anime content – episodic series. This kind of series is best typified by none other than Cowboy Bebop – namely, a show where each episode is mostly self-contained and resolves itself within the space of 20 minutes. Characters and wider-arching plotlines may exist on the periphery – but ultimately, all set-up and resolution is done within one television episode.

The skill at crafting such a lean piece of televisual entertainment speaks for itself. When we think back to the finest episodes of Cowboy Bebop, they remain distinctly vivid – a callmark of a ‘Oh, the one where… xxx… happened…’ – each episode revolving around a singular concept or plotline.

These days, series like this feel rare at best, and at worst – out of fashion. These days, most shows are distinctly serial in nature, each episode rolling seamlessly into the next in service to cliffhangers or wide-reaching story arcs that will take 12 episodes to resolve. The most notable ‘episodic’ series I can recall recently would be Osomatsu San, Space Dandy and the latest incarnation of Lupin III. Comedy invariably plays a role in many of these – although I’d place a caveat in delineating between ‘episodic’ series and ‘sitcom’ style comedies (which are common) where each episode will essentially be a series of skits which return to a status quo.

To really understand the essence of the very best kind of truly episodic show, we have to return to the 90s where these kinds of show were ten a penny. I’ve recently been watching Nightwalker, which recalls the similar Vampire Princess Miyu (the TV version, not the OVAs) – both of which, while never mastering the episodic art as well as the likes of Bebop, both show shades of the same self-contained stories.

The ultimate episodic content will invariably introduce ‘episode-only’ characters or side-characters who each get their ‘turn in the spotlight’ – shifting the focus away from core protagonists for an episode, and allowing us a deeper connection precisely because the episode has to work all that harder to establish our relationship with them for 20 minutes.

In this, we get a sense of the true novelty of episodic shows – that inherently, each episode will be vastly different. While with serial shows, it is usually evident after three or four episodes (the famous three episode test) whether we will enjoy the show as a whole, episodic shows always come with the distinction that they might suddenly drop a truly exceptional piece of storytelling one week that blows everything else out of the water. Space Dandy nailed this very particular joy – and you could watch it safe in the knowledge that even if you disliked one episode, odds are you might love the next.

Science fiction is Makoto Shinkai’s version of the ‘mystery box’

Tonight I was watching an interesting video on the notion of Hollywood director employing a rhetorical ‘mystery box’ as part of his work when it struck me that anime director Makoto Shinkai (yup, him of mega-hit Your Name fame) does something very similar in his incorporation of science fiction ‘elements’ within films that are for the most part not primarily science fiction movies.

The concept of the mystery box is that while the box stays unopened, its capacity to fascinate and allure remains intact – an irresistible draw that keeps the viewer ‘switched on’ and desperate for more information. The whole essence of the work becomes – for the viewer – an exercise in obtaining information. The TV series ‘Lost’ epitomised this mindset. For a literary example, I’d cite something like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.

How does this relate to Shinkai’s movies? Chiefly, I’d point in the direction of 5cm Per Second, The Place Promised In Our Early Days and Your Name – all films that employ science fiction ‘aspects’ as a smaller spot device within films that are arguably more located within the sphere of ‘drama’ or ‘romance’.

With these films, the science fiction element is never the overriding element of the film – for the most part, these films take place in worlds that are, aesthetically at least – identical or very similar to our own contemporary world. But by providing a ‘tease’ of a science fiction ‘otherness’, we are placed sufficiently on edge to require us to pay especial notice to the peripheral aspects of the film as well as its central elements.

In 5cm Per Second – what is the significance of the rocket launch? How far-along is humanity’s exploration of the solar system in this version of our reality?

In Place Promised In The Early Days – the ever-lingering presence of the tower on the horizon. Just how high is? How can it *be* that high? How was it constructed?

In Your Name – why is the asteroid on course to hit Earth? Would it really cause that much destruction? Did it not cause *enough* destruction?

With the addition of these elements, via the medium of science fiction, Shinkai conjures the allure of ‘fascination’ in much the same way Key visual novel adaptations like Clannad and Kanon do so via ‘magical realism’. Our human nature compels us to seek understanding in the face of the un-understandable.

As opposed to an out-and-out fantasy or science fiction setting, overloaded with the trappings of said genres, instead by utilising only slight elements in a largely realist world, Shinkai’s worlds are suffused with a tantalising nature of something half real, half unreal. A kind of unassuming, distinctly post-modern uncanniness.

LOGH + HxH – Mythologizing the ‘elitist’ anime fan

On seeing a post today about anime elitism, I was reminded of an train of thought suggested by YouTuber DigiBro about a so called ‘most boring taste in anime’. The essence of which gravitated around a beige kind of ‘elitist’ anime taste which would invariably contain a number of select shows: a Masaaki Yuasa show. A Yoshitoshi Abe show. A slice of life show (usually ARIA). And then the two most important ingredients – the Legend of Galactic Heroes, and Hunter x Hunter (specifically the Yorknew and Chimera Ant arcs).

Symbolised in this kind of elitist ‘God Tier List’ is a sense of shows that the more ‘cultured’ anime fan will outline as their favourites. Just as music fandom has its imagine of the bearded indie hipster, so too does anime has its mythologised image of an elitist anime fan who bypasses populist hits like Sword Art Online or Re: Zero to mine a rich jugular of shows that offer some thematic or artistic depth that goes beyond the norm.

In the Legend of the Galactic Heroes, this attitude is epitomised via a kind of ‘above the odds’ mentality – namely, that because the show is not legally available in the UK, those that have sought it out (through illegal means) and watched its 100+ episode duration are of a higher calibre of anime fan – through their dedication. Through services like MAL which consistently showcase a high user rating for LOGH – the show has achieved a kind of mythical ‘white-whale’ quality which will no doubt persist until Sentai Filmworks (who previously announced they had licensed the show) actually release the show to disc.

In Hunter x Hunter, we have the apotheosis of the ‘thinking man’s’ Shonen action series. No Naruto or Bleach dross here – oh no. Hunter x Hunter is offered up as a kind of thematic ‘deconstructionist’ masterpiece that belies the bright, optimistic ‘kid’s show’ aesthetic of its early arcs to deliver a war-torn story of deep religio-psychological resonance.

And then in material from ‘auteurs’ such as Yoshitoshi Abe or Masaaki Yuasa, we are given a kind of ‘indie chic’ aesthetic – shows that either ‘don’t look like normal anime’ (in the case of Yuasa), or shows that subvert an idealised anime ‘cuteness’ into works that are, again richly layered with thematic depth (Serial Elements Lain etc.) – this concept can be furthered in the appeal of shows like ARIA. The idea being that you make sit back in your comfy couch, light up a splif and drift away on a sea of ambient slice-of-life bliss.

The irony of all these ideas is that this fan doesn’t actually exist – or rather, they are an amorphous figment of imagination that combines genuine tastes in fandom with a perceived image. A kind of ‘uber-hipster’ boogieman to rival previous figures of conjured hilarity such as the body-pillow-loving mega-Otaku who watches School Days and Kodomo no Jikan on a daily basis.

Fandom needs these illusory boogiemen to remind us that our own taste will always remain more personal, or ‘better’. That ‘our’ shows are the ‘best’ shows – or at the very least, that the enjoyment we extracted from them is valid.

Why Eurovision is the most ‘anime’ thing on British telly

It’s that time of year again. May is nearly on us, and with it, the Eurovision song contest. Which calls to my mind something I’ve been musing on for a while, but that I’ve also heard expressed by the good folk at the UK Anime Network.

Namely, that Eurovision is – for one night only – the closest UK telly gets to ‘anime’.

Let me explain – obviously, Eurovision is distinctly ‘not’ anime. It isn’t animated. It isn’t Japanese. But what it does represent is a rare opportunity for two niches rarely catered two on British TV these days to get a brief, triumphant night of singular glory and spectacle. Those two niches are firstly, a product of non-Anglophone focus. And secondly, a pop-music show on prime-time TV (sadly a rarity these days).

Watching Eurovision always reminds me of one of my all time favourite scenes in anime – from Macross Plus – where digital idol Sharon Apple projects here holographic form over the city and we say a tour-de-force of lasers play out over the stadium of ecstatic music fans. Yoko Kanno’s euphoric music plays, and we are presented a kind of techno-utopia in which pop music commands a thrilling power to bring a mass of diverse humanity under its spell. That is the power of music. That, is Eurovision.

This aesthetic of surging, hi-energy pop tunes and a laser’n’light-studded night is one that I want to focus on – because for me, it’s always spoke of this kind of techno-utopia-futurism Eurovision seems to promise. From the little snapshot VTs that precede every song – to the lengthy, endlessly fascinating of seeing all of Europe ‘call in’ to the show, there’s a kind of majesty and spectacle to Eurovision that seems inherently tied in to the kind of ‘wired’ cyberism we saw in anime in the late 80s and early 90s.

From the extravagant costumes to the music itself – which, crucially brings us anglophone melodies and rhythms, watching Eurovision is like watching the worlds of cosplay and karaoke collide in a glorious festival of carnevalesque play. If we tout anime’s ‘otherness’ to traditional media as core to its appeal, then Eurovision plays to the same sensibilities – it offers a taste, for one night, of something so far beyond the rooted traditionalism of British aesthetic taste.

Some decry Eurovision as weird, tasteless or backward in its cheesy tunes or gaudiness. But in reality – these merely represent unfamiliarity of its disparate cultural origin points. And in its amorphous bringing together of all of Europe – it portrays a kind of futurist ‘Europe as superpower’ vision in which Europe is united via the medium of song.

Both message and visual allure – maybe I’m making a stretch here, but for me, these two aspects of Eurovision have always struck that same deep chord in me that watching anime does.

‘Let’s patrol the discos’ – In search of Robotech’s ultimate 80s aesthetic

Recently I’ve been delving into the seemingly endless vein that is Japanese ‘City Pop’ and all its associated paraphernalia, spurred on – I imagine like many – by its deft appropriation by the likes of current producers like Macross 82-99.

And of course, any discussion of Macross – musical or otherwise – invariably brings discussion round to the medium by which many English-speaking fans likely first encountered the ‘original’ 80s series in – that bastard child, Robotech.

A good couple of years ago, I acquired the complete DVD box-set of Robotech – when it was being sold on Amazon at a ludicrously cheap sub-£20 price. That said, it came at a point in my anime fandom where my shelves were rammed with back-log discs – and it wasn’t for quite some time that I eventually sat down to consume the show in its 85 episode entirety.

When I finally did – I fell in love with the rich, 80s aesthetic. While many hardcore Macross fans understandably decry Robotech for what it (and Harmony Gold) represent, I’ll always countenance that with the fact that at its heart remain three very solid shows – and as a piece of animated entertainment, whether in English or Japanese, it still ‘works’ a charm unique to whichever language you are viewing it in.

One moment that has always stuck in my mind epitomises the kind of ridiculous, dated humour present in the English dub. Namely, in episode 42 (aptly titled Danger Zone – 80s enough for you, eh?). To give a flavour, I refer to a great piece on said episode, which outlines the basic plot beats:

A newscast reports on what’s happening with the invading fleet. Weirdly, the broadcaster seems to be aware that the military commander of the Robotech Masters (Prince Charming) is called Zor, even though no one has been formally introduced. The standard of investigative journalism in the post-apocalyptic robot universe is surprisingly high.

The 15th Squadron have patrol duty in a city which is jam-packed with seedy recreation as portrayed by neon signs and hot ladies. The boys are all delighted at this turn of events and Dana is amused enough to let them have a little fun – all except Angelo, of course, who would rather have a proper patrol somewhere with no discos or strippers. Poor lad, all he wants is for everyone to take things seriously.

It’s here that the immortal line about ‘patrolling the discos’ comes from – and I have to confess when I first heard it, I burst out laughing. It was just so campy, so utterly cheesy, so utterly dated. But at the same time, so suffused with the very essence of what Robotech represents – this kind of ephemeral relic of a neon-dusted 80s where music and discos and hot girls seemed irrepressibly exciting.

When I listen to records from the era now – its this imaginary disco that I imagine. Somewhere they play 80s anime openings back to back with Flashdance and Simple Minds. An imaginary 80s that lives on, somewhere, forever.

 

Gao Gai Gar – The ‘ultimate’ anime OP theme?

Recently, when it comes to anime opening themes, there’s been one that trumps everything else. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll argue Evangelion’s OP as the most culturally ‘significant’ anime theme until the end of time. But as for raw, emotional essence of ‘feeling’, I feel like Gao Gai Gar’s bombastic musical intro might just edge it.

From the spacey, prog-rock synth lines of the intro as the title logo slams in, to the surge of 80s-esque gutiar riffs – everything about the OP is designed to get you pumped. The main ‘Gao Gai Gar’ chant is obviously crucial here, but personally, I’ve always felt the real core of the song is the actual ‘kiseki…’ chorus, which – like so many other exceptional songs – feels like it riffs off Pachebel’s canon chord change (see also the similarly anthemic ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys as to why this chord sequence is so important).

If that’s not already enough bombast for you, what about the ludicrously OTT shouts of ‘DIVIDING DRIVER!!!!’ and ‘GOLDION HAMMER!!!’? There’s something about these no-holds barred screams, or the emphatic, commanding ‘hashire!!!’ (run!!!) that kicks off the second verse that add a wonderfully participatory quality to the song. Whether it be a dingy karaoke den, or a cavernous stadium – this song commands to be sung at the top of your lungs, giving every ounce of your soul and being.

There’s a fluidity to the animation too that speaks of the absolute peak of 90s cel-anime technical aptitude – in the last days before the industry converted wholesale to digipaint. Sunrise were the absolute masters at these ridiculously sleek, over-produced OPs – see also Escaflowne for another outstanding example. In an age where sakuga analysis has risen to the fore, I feel like certain cuts of the Gao Gai Gar opening are simply breathtaking in what they detail – personal favourites include the train machine sliding into dock in the mech’s torso, or the the three-angle tilt as the space-shift flies past. There’s a three-dimensionality and depth of space that blows you away.

I’ve always been one to decry the ‘they don’t make ’em like this anymore’ mentality when it comes to anime – but I think, perhaps, when it comes to this song, it really does ring true.

The ‘original’ Scum’s Wish – early 00s classic Rumbling Hearts

Going through the few collections of DVD ‘singles’ I still own, one show stuck out to me – one I feel I’m unlikely to sell-off unless the UK ever gets a Blu-Ray release of it. That show is 2003’s adaptation of Rumbling Hearts (aka Kimi ga Nozomu Eien) – based off the 2001 visual novel of the same name.

I was reminded of this show again recently when watching last season’s Scum’s Wish – a show that arguably (and refreshingly) held nothing back when it came to the depiction of teenagers indulging their sexual appetites. In the medium of anime when we have so many times seen entire series go by with the very limit of romantic consummation being holding hands or a single kiss, Scum’s Wish was bracingly raw in its depiction of desire and the messy implications it can entail.

Rumbling Hearts was doing all this back in 2003. Whereas so many visual novel adaptations trim out the sexual content when converted to anime (Fate Stay Night, anyone…?) – Rumbling Hearts took unusual glee in showing us characters that, put simply, just wanted to fuck. To summarise the major plot beats – the show is primarily concerned with high schooler Takayuki and two female friends Haruka and Mitsuki – laying the groundwork for classic love triangle territory. Haruka is the shy, ‘innocent’ one whereas Mitsuki is depicted as confident, assured one.

Takayuki initially chooses Haruka – and after a lengthy ‘corrupting her innocence’ / performance anxiety scene, we see him go on to buy a ring for Haruka, causing him to be late for a later date with her. She gets hit by a car (Yes, Fuuka wasn’t the first to try this gimmick either…) and ends up in a coma. So what does Takayuki do next…?

He shags Mitsuki, that’s what. In the ultimate ‘girlfriend in a coma? Screw the next-best option’ scenario, the plot of Rumbling Hearts rapidly devolves into a guilt-wracked opera of Shakespearean proportions, further compounded when Haruka wakes from her coma and Takayuki must then pretend to not only still be dating her (but also that no time has passed, when in reality it’s a good few years down the line).

I love messy, screwy romance-dramas like this – a genre which sadly seems to have faded into the background of late; to be replaced by wistful ‘will they won’t they’ dramas so rote they’ve even started to parody themselves (My Love Story and Nozaki-kun spring to mind).

But no – more like Scum’s Wish and Rumbling Hearts please. Keep it messy – just like real life.