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Japanamerica: Anime & Rock

By Roland Kelts.

On my way into Kyocera Osaka Dome in December, I passed a handful of young people of both sexes sporting dreadlocks, blousy shirts and kabuki-style white makeup. They were cosplaying as hyde, the coy lead singer of L’Arc~en~Ciel, the veteran Japanese rock icons who were about to go onstage.

I felt like I might have been at an anime convention in the United States – there were also a few women dressed as maids – but this was a rock concert first and a cosplay blowout second.

L’Arc~en~Ciel are now entering their 20th year of record-smashing CD sales and sold-out concerts. I watched them perform two shows, with 40,000 seats both nights going at 9,000 yen (about 74 pounds) a pop. The events were expertly paced and ludicrously high-tech – what you’d expect from a Japanese production that mixes carefully planned moments of seeming candor with expert efficiency.


“In the beginning, L’Arc’s music was associated with anime,” manager Masahiro Oishi told me backstage. “But through experiencing their music directly, fans in several countries gradually came to appreciate the band for its music alone. Now they have become genuine fans of L’Arc’s music, whether or not they care about anime.”

J-pop and J-rock’s connection to anime has long been both a burden and an opportunity. In the 1970s and 80s, anime soundtracks were heavily localized to attract American viewers, just as anime scripts were butchered to fit expectations shaped by Hollywood and television.

But in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Internet connected global fans to Japanese creators with an immediacy that transcended distance. An edited Pokemon or Naruto episode was no longer acceptable. And original songs, written and sung by Japanese artists, were prized as a sign of authenticity.

Western fans who knew no Japanese could still sing along with songs by Japanese bands like L’Arc – or at least they could fake it.

L’Arc saw an opportunity in 2004 and had themselves booked at Otakon, the largest anime convention on the US East Coast, for a live show at Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena. The venue’s 10,000 seats sold fast, suggesting that enthusiasm for the pairing of Japanese rock and anime could be infectious.

“Nobody had tried anything like this [in the United States] before, certainly not on that scale,” Otakon director Jim Vowles says. “But the announcement triggered a weeklong wave of Internet buzz, including buzz in Japan. And the show itself was fantastic and over-the-top, a real once-in-a-lifetime event. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. People are still talking about that gig, almost a decade later.”

Meanwhile, Japan’s pop culture industries have begun confronting an unpleasant but unavoidable truth: growth at home is no longer possible. A chronically low birthrate, aging population and unstable economy guarantee that. And competition from South Korea and China is making Japanese pop culture producers increasingly antsy about their futures.

“Even before the global media started picking up on the band,” Oishi noted, “the number of our visitors on YouTube went over several million, and the Facebook fansites of each region grew bigger. We are now receiving numerous requests for live concerts directly from foreign fans. There is no way for us to not do it now.”

L’Arc~en~Ciel backstage at Kyocera Osaka Dome, Dec. 4

L’Arc released two singles this past fall and winter, the hard-driving ‘Chase’ and the infectious ‘X X X (Kiss Kiss Kiss).’ Their latest studio album, Butterfly, was just made available worldwide via iTunes on February 8. And next month, they will embark on their first world tour, with shows at Madison Square Garden in New York, indig02 in London, and Le Zenith in Paris.

Their song ‘Good Luck My Way’ is featured on the soundtrack of the latest Fullmetal Alchemist anime film, The Sacred Star of Milos, which was screened in cinemas across North America in January.

“We don’t make any distinction between our otaku fans and our rock fans,” vocalist and frontman Hyde tells me. “We want them both, and we want to make them happy. I love (anime epic) Evangelion, but I also love Depeche Mode and Duran Duran.”

Other band members cite Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee as critical influences. In short, they offer a smorgasbord of Western sounds, served up Japanese-style, with spasms of prog-rock talent.


Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S..

But is that enough to tie together the West’s rock and anime fans in competitive markets like New York and London?

Bassist Tetsuya, a founding member, thinks the band has something unique to offer non-Japanese audiences. “We do the best show we can each time out, whether the venue is in Japan or elsewhere. We may not be able to do the same show with the same resources in the U.S. and Europe, but performance-wise, we’ll make every show special.”

And Otakon’s Vowles believes that Japanese bands can succeed overseas – especially if they honor the devoted anime fanbase. “Ever since that show in 2004, the bar has been raised considerably for fandom. While there have been some awesome moments since, it remains a high point in our history,” he says. “For Otakon, it made music a major element in our event going forward, and that had ripple effects throughout the entire anime convention universe.”

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 21st, 2012.