How to collect Japanese pop music, part six: the otaku course

How to Collect Japanese Pop MusicI’m sure this isn’t only the case in the Philippines, but I’ll speak from experience here: many kids get an early start in Japanese pop culture – and it’s in anime. Perhaps this is more relevant for those of us who grew up in the 1990s, when we came home from school every afternoon to watch whichever anime series was being aired at the time – I was particularly fond of Yu Yu Hakusho, but I was similarly devoted to Mojacko, and later to its older brother (of sorts), Doraemon. And I sort of sang along to the songs – well, except for Mojacko‘s.

The 90s was also when video game consoles as we know it now exploded. Gone are the cartridges and the dinky music, although those tracks were fascinating in their own way – I finished up many batteries just listening to scores on a borrowed Game Boy. I was never a gamer, though, but while compiling this week’s look at music from Japanese anime and video games, I got a reminder of how Shalla was one – memories of Ragnarok Online and watching her brother play early Final Fantasy games. So, yes, we all have our feet in Japanese music without knowing it, and this week we look at the people responsible for that unwitting first lesson in J-pop.


If you scratch a little bit, you’ll find out a bit more about the musical trends surrounding a particular anime series. Yu Yu Hakusho‘s theme, for example, was performed by Matsuko Mawatari, a popular artist back in the early 1990s – the tail-end of the heyday of power J-pop, influenced by the new wave acts coming out of the west at the time. Another example is Hironobu Kageyama, who started his career as the frontman for the 1970s band Lazy, packaged by its minders as a boy group but with the heart of hard rockers beating in it. When the band parted ways in 1981, he pursued a solo career, and found himself performing anime theme songs, or anison, as well as themes for tokusatsu series (think of those live action shows with robots – like Chōjin Sentai Jetman, which I followed religiously back when Jack TV was just the Solar channel).

Hironobu is best known for perhaps one of the most iconic anime themes of all time, “Cha-La Head-Cha-La” from Dragon Ball Z. He did a lot of other songs for the series – he performed “We Gotta Power”, the show’s second theme – but the first one endures in part because of its popularity worldwide. He would become known as the Prince of Anime Songs, a junior to Mistuko Horie (who sang the Voltes V theme song) and Ichirou Mizuki (who sang, among others, the Mazinger Z theme song – sense a theme?). He’s since parlayed that status as one of the members of the JAM Project, a supergroup comprised of anime music performers, founded by Ichirou in 2000 and which also included Rica Matsumoto (who sang the theme to the first Pokemon series, and also voiced who we know as Ash) and Hiroshi Kadatani (who did the theme to One Piece).


It’s not unusual for voice actors to try their hand at singing. (Once again, Rica Matsumoto.) Well, it’s a given that you have people who trade on their voice for a living attempt to diversify. And then there are image songs – songs sung by anime characters, often performed by the voice actors themselves. That’s how Nana Mizuki began: she got her start as a voice actress (for the Noël video game series, for which she also recorded an image song) before releasing her first single, “Omoi”, in 2001. (That was also an image song.) While establishing a name for herself as a voice actress – often playing gentle female leads, like Hinata from Naruto – she steadily worked as a singer. Her 2004 single “Innocent Starter” was the first to break the Oricon top ten; “Eternal Blaze”, from her 2006 album Hybrid Universe, peaked at number two.

Nana would make chart records in 2009, when her album Ultimate Diamond became the first by a voice actress to top the Oricon charts. The album shows off her many sides: apart from her usual pop, there are also a couple of jazzy songs, lending to her training as an enka singer. Two years later, she would make yet another chart record, when her single “Phantom Minds” became the first single by a voice actress to top Oricon. She’s still doing voice acting, though, busy in anime series, OVAs and even video games. And she’s got a new album coming out in a couple of weeks.


Shalla and I have been toying with the idea of a week of Vocaloid songs on the blog, and I’ll admit to having a hard time initially grasping the whole thing. So. Vocaloid is a voice synthesizer, whose early development was backed by Yamaha, which allows anybody to take a sampled voice and make it sing whatever lyrics and chords it is fed – essentially, a singer off a shelf. (“Which singer do I buy?”) Often used by professional musicians, a whole scene has emerged around it, with conventions and promotional events held around the world. While Japanese musicians have embraced it the most, artists such as Mike Oldfield have also used Vocaloids as back-up singers.

The most popular Vocaloid performer is, without a doubt, Hatsune Miku. The first release from developers Crypton Future Media, her success is down in part to marketing: while previous Vocaloid releases were sold as straightforward software, Miku was given a face to go with the voice, illustrated by manga artist Kei Garō. This all dovetailed nicely with the rise of modern otaku culture (I mean, you know what the Internet does), which led to a couple of anime series with her as the lead, and later, Miku becoming an outright virtual idol, a hologram image of her performing live, like this time when she performed for David Letterman. As for the actual voice behind her: that’s voice actress Saki Fujita, recently of Attack on Titan and Assassination Classroom, and singer of the end theme to Tokimeki Memorial Only Love, where she also voices a role.


It would be amiss of me to not even mention Studio Ghibli in this series, but I will have to admit that I have not seen any of their films – and that, despite Shalla’s love for Hayao Miyazaki. She suggested I put in Joe Hisaishi, a composer who is best associated with Miyazaki’s films – the only exception is The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s directorial debut and part of the Lupin III series. He also collaborated with director Takeshi Kitano, from 1991 to 2002: his 1999 film Kikujiro is home to one of Joe’s most recognized compositions (and the one we’re posting here), “Summer”.

Born Mamoru Fujisawa, he adopted his professional name as a homage to Quincy Jones. He immersed in the minimalist movement as he took inspiration from the rise of electronic music (from acts like Yellow Magic Orchestra) in the 1970s. While he scored for many anime series, he was best known for his collaborations with Miyazaki, beginning with 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, his music becoming as much a trademark of Studio Ghibli as Miyazaki’s distinct storytelling. (He also worked on the sparsely-drawn The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a Ghibli release directed by Isao Takahata.) Joe’s music carries a distinctly whimsical signature, but pulls from a broad range of influences, swinging from the fantastic settings of Miyazaki (see his work on Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke) to the gritty yet romantic themes of Kitano’s work (see their first collaboration, A Scene at the Sea).


In 1985, Nobuo Uematsu decided to take a side job composing music for game developer Square. The games weren’t doing well, but he thought he needed the extra money. He often collaborated with game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was also having difficulty getting a breakout and was in fact planning his last game for that company. That game, released in 1987, is Final Fantasy. That, of course, became a massive success: while the fifteen games in the series (the latest released just last week) are not connected by plot, Uematsu’s musical language – evolving in complexity; “Eyes on Me”, featured here, is the first to have a vocal, for Final Fantasy VIII – alongside common gameplay themes, helped bind the whole thing together. That quality continues to ensure despite him not working on every Final Fantasy game – he left what is now Square Enix in 2004 to work as a freelancer; the FFXV score is composed by Yoko Shimomura.

With Japan being a center of video game development, it being a center of video game music followed. Despite the technical limitations of the time – which meant those adorable eight bits – Koichi Sugiyama’s work on the first Dragon Quest game in 1986 proved to be a breakthrough for the genre. Koji Kondo is another recognized name: he composed the themes for The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. while working as sound manager for Nintendo. Game music has become quite an essential part of J-pop that established artists get out to perform songs for it, like, well, Nana Mizuki. We mentioned that earlier, yes? [NB]


[Next week: we wrap up the series with the alternative side of J-pop.]


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