Why Jpop? Part Two: It Ain’t Because of Anime

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Let’s start off by dismissing a false causality: I did not become interested in Jpop through anime. Or to cut a finer line: I became aware of Japanese music through anime, but I didn’t appreciate Japanese music on its own terms because of anime. As a matter of fact, I deeply loathe the idea of somebody claiming to love Jpop but who only listens to it through anime. It’s like claiming you love rock music but only listening to the theme song from Friends.

I used to love anime and manga a great deal. However, my 2000 stint at a dotcom was as editor-in-chief of an online manga publisher – and that burned me out. I still enjoy anime and manga now, but in considerably smaller volume than before. That said, when I was deep in my anime otaku phase, I did pick up soundtrack CDs for such favorites as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yastura and Marmalade Boy. I wanted to hear my favorite opening and closing themes, as well as dozens of versions of “Fly Me to the Moon”… I never learned who were singing these songs, nor did I particularly care. The whole point was that the music tied into the anime – anything beyond that was useless to me.

So how did I become interested in Jpop?

I became aware of specific Japanese music artists through anime-related magazines like Animerica. There was Puffy, and Speed, and I’m pretty sure I heard of Morning Musume around that time. (And from my alt-rock days, I loved Shonen Knife and had a mild taste for Zeni Geva, but that was different.) I remember downloading some Puffy songs off Napster and finding them cute but ultimately unlistenable.

It was during my two visits to Hawaii that I found the Hello! Project Information Center on the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. A store devoted to Japanese pop idols – and only one group of them, at that! I remember looking at the photos and admiring all the goods up for sale but deciding not to buy anything – it was too expensive for cross-cultural kitsch I’d probably throw away in a few months’ time. Still, I was attracted to the place, visiting it every once in a while the way I’d visit the penguins at the Hilton Village, looking around and admiring the photos of the girls. (I remember Natsumi Abe catching my attention early on, though the name never stuck with me for long.) When I met my brother-in-law – it was the August 2003 visit to Hawaii, when I got married – I took him to the Alo-Hello store and asked if he liked Morning Musume. He was immediately dismissive and said none of them were cute. He didn’t see the charm of a whole store devoted to the group, though he knew of them better than I did. I remember taking other people to the store as well, and even giving in and buying a cheap plastic backpack for myself (it’s what I use now to store some of my H!P memorabilia).

After the wedding trip, I decided to look for Morning Musume on Kazaa and found some video clips. One involved a DDR competition (the one on Pa Pa Pa Puffy with Puffy and Speed, but I didn’t know that at the time). There was something called “Kago Goes On a Date with Gackt” and at the time I assumed Gackt was a boy band, since no individual would have a name as ridiculous as Gackt. (It sounded like Bill the Cat from Bloom County.) And there was a music video for a song called “Baby! Koi ni Knock Out”…

Except there were only three girls in the video, and I was under the impression that there were a lot more girls in Morning Musume than that. I watched the video a few times and thought it was a lot of fun and went looking for more information on Morning Musume online. I found photos of three girls, four girls, fifteen, nine – so many different line-ups, it seemed – and they sometimes dressed sexy, sometimes wore ridiculous outfits. Then I stumbled upon the Public MM torrent site and that was it for me. I was already downloading electronic versions of comics through Bit Torrent but now I could get what seemed to be an unending stream of Morning Musume videos and MP3s. This would’ve been in January 2004, just before Natsumi Abe’s graduation.

I began a crash course on Hello! Project 101. I began to figure out who was who, memorizing names and then the order in which they joined/left the group. What was once a mass of undifferentiated teenage girls slowly became individuals, though there were some tricky ones I couldn’t tell apart at first – Tsuji and Kago, all the gen six youngsters, Nacche and Rika and Miki. I also began to fall in love: my early favorite was Yuko, partly because she was the oldest but also because she had such a great smile. I distinctly remember being awed at how much the “Renai Revolution 21” video ripped off TLC’s “No Scrubs” and being grateful for color-coded outfits that helped make identifying members much easier…

And the more I immersed myself in the lore of Morning Musume and the larger Hello! Project collective, the more I appreciated the arcane complexities of its history. Auditions and graduations were only the start: there were subgroups and shuffle groups and their own TV show, Hello! Morning, as well as movies and musicals and commercials and photobooks.

And while I first thought I’d just be a Morning Musume fan and nothing more, that didn’t turn out to be the case. I first noticed Zone when they helped cover “Love Machine” on the Valentine Day 2004 special on Pop Jam and was delighted to find out they played their own instruments and rocked. Then I discovered SweetS, who initially creeped me out but quickly became a favorite. And then there were all the Morning Musume subgroups like Tanpopo and Minimoni and Petit Moni (who I later found out were the group behind “Baby! Koi ni Knock Out”). And then there was Halcali, a rap duo who surprised me with their mix of verbal skills and playfulness. (As well as videos that were remarkable and bizarre, from the “Thriller” homage of “Giri Giri Surfrider” to the Christmas shaving cream fight of “Strawberry Chips”.)

All of this was learned from downloading files off torrent sites, looking up fan sites in English and Japanese (thanks to a wife who could read that language), and ordering CDs and videos from YesAsia.

And as my love of Jpop developed with startling rapidity, my interest in anime dwindled instead of grew. Maybe I was tired of cartoons. Or maybe there just wasn’t enough hours in the day to make both work. Though there was always time for comic books and novels and sometimes enough time for video games and movies and television…

I still don’t know who sang my favorite anime theme songs and don’t particularly need to find out. I do know that most every major Jpop act has had at least a song or two used for an anime theme song, but I haven’t bothered finding out who did what. I enjoy Dream, but would rather listen to “Solve” or “Night of Fire” while watching the PV, not a one-minute snippet of some other song at the end of Inu Yasha. Zone’s “True Blue” may be used on the new Astro Boy, but the image I associate the song with is the girls exultant in a field of green.

I have no problem with anime, it’s just not all that interesting to me right now. Satoshi Kon? Hell yeah – I’ve got all of Paranoia Agent on DVD, waiting to be watched. Urusei Yatsura still has a place in my heart, as does Marmalade Boy… But otherwise, I have better uses for my time and money.

In my head, anime and Jpop inhabit different imaginative spaces, different kinds of pleasure, from one another.

One reason is that the culture of origin isn’t as important for me as the medium of the work: to me, Japanese music is music first, Japanese second. Which doesn’t mean that the Japanese aspect is unimportant, but I’ll tend to lump the Jpop together with other kinds of music before I lump them together with other media such as comics and animation and film, even if they all are Japanese.

On a broader scale of categorization, one specific to visual arts, anime doesn’t have real people on the screen while Jpop does. In that sense, comics and manga and anime all go on one side, the “drawn” side, while music and TV and film go on the other. Which doesn’t mean I’ll dismiss the “drawn arts” side – I spend as much on American comics as I do on Jpop, after all. It’s just a useful way to think of these media and to study their appeal to me. Drawn versus real creates different expectations, different kinds of involvement with the audience. Knowing that the person on the screen or page has a life outside of the screen or page creates a different imaginative space, makes you wonder what else is going on, who else they’re dealing with. In other words, it’s less contained than the drawn arts.

That should be kept in mind when I later explore why Jpop may start with music, but by no means does it end there.

Next: The Cute Japanese Girl Angle