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【SPECIAL】'Japanese Invasion' sends one-of-a-kind J-sound overseas

アキバ発アイドル、ビジュアル系などディープなJ-POPが世界を席巻

By Hiroshi Matsubara, Asahi Weekly

 アニメの次はAkiba-keiアイドルにVisual-kei?インターネットで火がついた日本のポップカルチャーの世界的な人気は、Jアイドルやビジュアル系ロックなどのディープなJ-POPにも飛び火。昨年は人気グループAKB48がニューヨーク公演を行い、ビジュアル系シーンを代表するアーティスト、雅-MIYAVI-らが、大規模な海外ツアーで数万人を動員。2010年もこの人気は続くのだろうか?

 Almost 50 years after the Beatles led the way for British rock groups in America, a popular idol group from Japan launched a "Japanese Invasion" at historical Webster Hall in New York.

 On Sept. 27, hundreds of non-Japanese screamed in delight at the 16 young Japanese women on stage, aged between 15 and 21, clad in miniskirted school uniforms.

 Kicking off their concert debut in the United States, the idol group AKB48 sang in chorus and danced in sync to its trademark upbeat number "Aitakatta" (We've missed you).

 About 700 diehard J-culture fans, who won tickets in a drawing and lined up in front of the venue long before the show started, waved pink glow sticks and red scarves, just as fans do at AKB48's home theater in Tokyo's Akihabara.

 The enthusiastic reception for AKB48 in New York convinced Yasushi Akimoto, producer of the 42-member idol group, that the world is ready to embrace a Japanese Invasion.

 "The reason why AKB48 was accepted enthusiastically in New York is that nobody had seen a group of such amateurish singers and dancers. They are so strange to them like Japan's indigenous foods such as natto," Akimoto said in a recent interview with Asahi Weekly.

 Through the Internet, the world is falling in love with Japan's unique pop culture, including anime, manga, J-pop and kitschy fashions.

 It's not just Hello Kitty and Hayao Miyazaki's animations anymore, but foreigners are finding very peculiar subcultures -- such as Akihabara-style pop idols and the "Visual-kei" rock movement -- cool and cutting edge.

 "I believe that Japanese entertainers and creators should be more confident that the Western audiences now hold strong admiration for Japanese popular culture, just like we once admired American culture," said the versatile producer, songwriter and writer.

 Akimoto's AKB48 has already conquered the Japanese market, selling out all 250 tickets to its daily shows at its Akihabara theater.

 The New York concert is a part of Akimoto's effort to sell the "format" rights of AKB48, or the know-how to train and market young female idols in large groups, to the overseas entertainment industry.

 While the group has a predominantly male fan base in Japan, one audience member at Webster Hall, Scott VonSchilling, operator of the online magazine The Anime Almanac, said that about one-third of the audience was actually female.

 "I believe that the American female otaku who enjoy J-idols are also the ones who like to cosplay themselves. The female otaku admire the idol's fashion style and aspire to be like the idol," wrote VonSchilling.

「アキバ」を武器に単身渡米

 "J-idols are their role models. I believe this female attraction is unique to America."

 Such an unexpected reception may be what Akimoto sought in New York with AKB48's debut there and also a show in Paris in early October.

 "AKB48's school uniform, for instance, was admired as something very cool by hip girls in New York and Paris. I think this gives some hints to Japanese artists," he said.

 Akimoto's words may be especially encouraging to Reni Mimura, a self-produced "Akiba-kei" idol, who moved to New York in July 2008 after years of failed efforts to find stardom in Japan.

 In Japan, she crafted her style as a "sexy singer" like Madonna and Britney Spears, but upon moving to New York, she reinvented herself as "Akiba-kei" -- wearing a frilly pink maid's costume and bunny ears.

 Mimura's makeover struck the right chord. She has been invited to sing at large anime and cosplay-related events now held almost monthly, and her solo stage shows attract 100 fans each month.

 "For an unknown singer from Japan to sing in front of thousands of people here is like a dream, but it is possible if you associate your image with the anime/cosplay scene here that can mobilize thousands of people," Mimura said in a telephone interview from New York.

 "Many American men, in this era of economic slump, also seem tired of the pop stars with the image of a strong woman, modeled by Madonna," Mimura added.

 "I believe there is a need here for a Japanese-style idol who is innocent but erotic, and can make men feel strong about themselves."

歌舞伎由来(?)の超過激なロック

 While J-idols and their promoters are trying to steal the hearts of men worldwide, fly-by-night female rock fans have already discovered a unique rock subgenre that is performed almost exclusively by male Japanese musicians.

 While AKB48 was performing in New York and Paris last fall, rock guitarist/singer MIYAVI, one of the iconic figures of the Visual-kei music movement, was touring across Europe, including former Soviet bloc countries.

 Since its inception in the 1980s, Visual-kei Japanese rock, characterized by the use of shocking makeup, elaborate costumes and towering hairstyles, has developed a uniquely melodic and dark sound and aesthetics.

 "Visual-kei is a distinct culture here that has developed in a sakoku-like exclusive situation, and I was surprised to see audiences in countries, where the name of the currency I don't even know, lining up to see me," said MIYAVI, referring to Japan's policy of isolation during the Edo period (1603-1868).

 "The scene is young, but I believe it is rooted in such traditional Japanese culture as Kabuki, as seen in its colorful makeup, theatrical performance and androgynous aesthetics," said the former member of the Visual-kei super group "S.K.I.N.," headed by the scene's icon, Yoshiki, of X Japan.

 MIYAVI's world tour ended on Dec. 12 in Taipei, covering 25 major cities in Europe, the Americas and east Asia and drawing a total of 78,000 spectators.

初のビジュアル系フェスも大盛況

 To help expand the genre's global fan base, the first international music festival for domestic and foreign Visual-kei bands was held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba on Oct. 24 and 25.

 The event, V-Rock Festival 2009, featured shows by more than 50 bands, including U.S. gothic rock heavyweight Marilyn Manson and Visual-kei scene leaders La'cryma Christi and the GazettE. It attracted more than 30,000 festival-goers, including more than 1,000 foreigners from about 50 countries.

 Among the artists, Visual-kei rock duo LM.C drew some of the largest foreign crowds at the festival. The band also successfully toured 11 countries in Asia, Europe and South America last year, drawing a total of 10,000 spectators.

 "I never even dreamed of having devoted foreign fans, because I grew up listening only to Visual-kei bands, never admiring foreign music," said LM.C's vocalist Maya. "But that's maybe why we have become such a unique presence and appeal to cyber-age audiences, who can value unknown new culture without stereotypes."

 The festival was the brainchild of Keiji Sugimoto, the president of Backstage Project Inc., who has run major Visual-kei concerts since the 1980s.

 In response to increasing requests from foreign promoters, his company now sends about 20 Visual-kei artists on annual overseas tours to destinations throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.

 Asked if he thinks Visual-kei will be recognized as a major rock subgenre globally, like glam rock or punk rock, Sugimoto voiced his doubts, saying that it is both the strength and weakness of Visual-kei music that it is performable only by Japanese artists.

 "With its peculiar fashions and sound style influenced by kayokyoku (traditional Japanese popular music), only Japanese men can be true Visual-kei stars, making it virtually impossible for the scene to develop into a mainstream genre overseas," Sugimoto said.

 "But it creates lasting demand for Japanese bands from foreign fans. It makes Japanese artists a good export in a time when the domestic music market is shrinking," he added.

  • Webster Hall ウェブスター・ホール。マドンナなども公演したニューヨークの老舗(しにせ)ライブハウス
  • glow sticks ファン・グッズの光るプラスチックの棒
  • format フォーマット。テレビ番組などコンテンツの基本的な構成、様式で、権利の売買が一般化している
  • craft(ed) 〜をつくり上げる
  • reinvented...as 〜として再生した
  • struck...chord 人々の心に訴えることに成功した
  • fly-by-night 流行に敏感な、飽きっぽい
  • subgenre (ロックの)より限定されたジャンル
  • inception 発端、始まり
  • androgynous aesthetics 中性的な美意識

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