The Cinema Influence of J-Pop, J-Rock, and Jazz
A retrospect on the J-Pop, J-Rock, and Jazz fusion and other musical sub-genres featured in anime.
Since the introduction of Japanese animation to western audiences as early as the 1950s with Astroboy and more obscure introductions like Otogi Manga Calendar, animation in the Land of the Rising Sun has thrived exponentially, alongside console gaming since the early 1980s. Before engaging with the sheer volume of anime now available to western consumers since the new millennium, it’s apropos to consider where those programs came from and what made them inherently special in their heyday – their cultural and historical relevance. This is especially vital considering the massive enduring influence of Japanese performers and composers on the video game industry.
Founded in 1957, Fuji Television is one of the oldest television production companies in Japan. Its long and complicated history has produced television series around the world including Japanese and Korean dramas, cooking shows like Iron Chef, sports coverage, and around the clock news on multiple stations. Fuji TV also has a long history of broadcasting highly recognized anime series from Dragon Ball, Initial D, and Turn A Gundam to Inuyasha. While Fuji TV has an extensive record of broadcasting anime, this didn’t begin until the 1990s with anime flourishing continuously with western audiences. Many otaku (or anime and Japanese culture enthusiasts) will claim their exposure came from American television stations like The Sci-Fi Channel’s Ani-Mondays or Cartoon Network’s Toonami and Adult Swim blocs. While the gap between anime’s direct influence on Japanese audiences to that of western audiences is staggered, modern streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll have bridged that gap tenfold.
Regardless of cultural exposure and relative gaps, the soundtracks and original scores featured on such anime series, movies, and OVAs (Original Video Animation) have become synonymous with the multi-layered and polished sounds of Japanese infused pop, rock, jazz fusion, and even heavy metal reflective of popular music at the time of the anime’s release. The emergence of J-Rock in Japan during the 1970s would have a crucial role in shaping future anime to come. “Beside the traditional Enka music, Schlager ballades, popular since the late Meiji period (late 19th century), the modern Japanese music Kayōkyoku developed under the influence of western music groups. This term (J-Rock) serves as a symbol for today’s musical genres in Japan” [ 1 ].
The Digital Underground
How has Japanese rock music become such a sensation on western shores? Many were led to believe that the early days of the internet, word of mouth, and the music itself helped publicize the genre. “In the beginning, the Internet was the final destination for most Americans looking up J-rock. You could read about artists, download shared songs (hey, let’s be honest), or buy a used album off auctions like eBay. You could join on-line groups devoted to single artists, or forums that talked about J-rock overall. It was a weird time. For U.S. fans, J-rock’s presence was stronger on-line than in real life. Despite chatting with other fans on-line, most Americans felt solitary about J-rock. It didn’t relate to people in their life or real life in general. To the casual observer, J-rock was totally virtual.
“But then, the Internet changed from final destination to journey. Instead of connecting users with dated, intangible information and people, it now offers real deals. You can register for Japanese culture conventions on-line. You can RSVP for a J-rock/Japanese culture meetup (http://www.meetup.com). And on-line stores like CDJapan (http://cdjapan.co.jp) stock fresh CDs in real time, with albums available for pre-order” [ 2 ].
One may ask what this has to do with anime. Many of the popular anime of the early internet extending to today has prominently featured at least one J-pop or J-rock artist either within the series itself, or predominantly in the show’s lavish intro and outro sequences. One example of an artist featured in an anime intro can be found in the 2003’s Fooley Cooley or FLCL produced by the FLCL Production Committee. Indie J-pop band The Pillows covered FLCL’s intro with their song “Last Dinosaur,” which was originally released in 1999. The introduction of a standard anime series often follows this formula often hiring solo artist or band opposed to hired studio musicians.
Introductions are in Order
When the average anime viewer is asked about iconic tropes of all things encompassing anime, Japanese culture, giant robots, magic girls, or even enjoying a bit of slice-of-life drama, the introduction sequences almost instantaneously come to mind. Introductions, or intro credits scenes, are nothing new to the format of cinematic entertainment, as movies and television shows have adopted this method of cinematography since the 1950s. Referring to one of the earliest anime series to come from Japan, Astroboy by Mushi Production was also one to setup the show’s themes, motifs and character aesthetics solely through its introduction scene at the start of every episode. Based on the manga series of the same name, Astroboy’s first series was composed by Tatsuo Takai; The same composer that would go on to score the Astroboy: Hero of Space movie as well as Tales of the Street Corner in 1964. Takai’s work on Astroboy was jovial and upbeat, as the series was still aimed towards a younger demographic. Far from any adult themes so predominantly displayed in most modern anime series, the shows intro featured children’s choruses heralding the hero, Astroboy.
Moving forward to music modern produced animation, the song “‘Shiver’ was the first single released by the Gazette under new label Sony Music Records. The single was also selected as the opening theme song to the Sony anime series Kuroshitsuji II (Black Butler)” [ 3 ]. Modern anime series like that of Black Butler were certainly edgier, gothic, and mature and needed an introduction that fit the theme of anime based on the manga. J-rock bands like The Gazette are one of many Japanese rock bands inspired by dramatic imagery, theatrics, heavier music, and anime that fit such a unique series as Black Butler. An entire sub-genre known as Visual-Kei has become quite popular in the Japanese music scene since the 1980s. Popular J-rock bands like the Gazette, Versailles, Dir En Gray, or Luna Sea typically are associated with the Visual-Kei movement, but that’s a subject for entirely different series. As stated, an animated series or movie that consists of an iconic intro typically helps establish the themes, characters, and tonality of the feature.
Comparatively, the trope of magic idol girl mostly featured in the shōjo demographic, series and films with a more “pop” oriented direction. Iconic series Sailor Moon, first produced by Toei Animation in 1991, featured an intro theme by J-Pop artist MoonLips entitled “Moonlight Densetsu”, a light-hearted and appropriate scoring for the series tone. On the opposite side of the magical girl sub-genre are more modern and bloodier interpretations. 2018’s Zombie Land Saga, which featured characters in a pop-idol group, diverges from the stereotypes and sensationalizes them being zombies throughout the show. Zombie idol girls may be more unusual from a broader perspective, however for contemporary anime, it has become a niche standard in the endless sea of anime series in the present. Although Zombie Land Saga features a sugary-pop infused introduction sequence, in contrast to Sailor Moon, the zombie idols perform a purely adrenaline pumping, shredding heavy metal head bang in the first episode. Zombie Land Saga composer Yasuharu Takanashi, who is well known for his arrangements on videogames and anime like Naruto Shippuden, Fairy Tail, and Sailor Moon Crystal. “Sailor Moon Crystal is a 2014 original net animation adaptation of the shōjo manga series Sailor Moon written and illustrated by Naoko Takeuchi, produced in commemoration of the original series’ 20th anniversary” [ 4 ]. From a typical viewer’s perspective, composers like Takanashi have a unique and dynamic approach to arranging for modern animation as the second episode featured the zombie idols perform in the hip-hop genre. By choosing the right voicing, instrumentation, tonality and even lyricism help mold the sound and image of the show’s delivery, even if the music itself isn’t always the primary focus in the plot.
The Sound of Style
It’s unquestionable that anime often takes bold and stylistic choices not just with the type of animation, but the imagery and aesthetics as well. Many J-rock bands mold their whole image around the influence of anime such as Tokyo’s speed power metal band Animetal, formed in 1996 and at one time featuring guest virtuoso guitarist Marty Freidman, formerly of Megadeth and Cacophony. To truly encapsulate the style these artists seek to convey, one must look not merely through an animated series or movie, but through the medium of a music video. The music video, popularized and sensationalized by American conglomerate Music Television or MTV in the 1980s, would host and broadcast a dizzying variety of them before the era of instant access via the internet. Some J-rock bands were quick to jump on this trend of music videos, but others were bolder than just performing for a music video, they created an entire back story and theme for the song in the form of an animated music video, or AMV.
Among the most recognized J-rock bands to this day, X-Japan released the track Rusty Nail in 1994. X-Japan front man, songwriter, composer, and producer Yoshiki helped take creative control of his vision and
“two music videos were made for ‘Rusty Nail.’ The first is an anime version created in 1994 in collaboration with manga artists Clamp, that includes cartoon versions of the band members. It was included on VHS with the 1999 Perfect Best compilation album. In September 2014, the video was uploaded to Yoshiki’s YouTube account.” [ 5 ]
The song was also featured in the 1995 videogame X Japan Virtual Shock 001 for the Sega Saturn and was covered by Swedish power metal band Dragonland in 2004 on their Japanese release of Starfall. Although X Japan essentially found themselves amongst the elites of J-rock artists, the approach to using anime art styles with music videos was experimented with by other artists in the 1990s into today. Borrowing from anime’s stylistic imagery, a showcase of this influence can be discerned even in strictly audible form. Contemporary western music influenced by eastern music, which was in turn previously influenced by western music for eastern audiences. Confused yet, reader? Well, the inspiration for party-rock icon Andrew W.K.’s Gundam Rock in 2009 could help prove this cyclical movement of musical cross pollination. Gundam Rock consisted of Andrew W.K.’s arrangements and covers of songs featured in Gundam’s long running franchise and was only released in Japan to celebrate Gundam’s 30th anniversary. This cycle of cultural exchange once again circles to argument that the ease of access to J-rock in for western audiences was physically restricted until the internet era.
Space Boogie City Pop
While Japanese artists are almost always predominantly featured in the arrangements for animated series, shorts and movies, there are some musical artists that experiment with the creative medium of anime. Daft Punk, a French electronic music duo formed in Paris in 1993 by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, earned its international popularity in the late 1990s and gained recognition for such hits as “One More Time” and “Get Lucky.” Among Daft Punk’s extensive musical career came that of 2003’s Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem which is a
“Japanese-French animated musical science-fiction film and the visual realization of Discovery, the second studio album by Daft Punk. Interstella 5555 tells the story of the abduction and rescue of an interstellar pop band. The film was produced by Daft Punk, Cédric Hervet and Emmanuel de Buretel with Toei Animation under the supervision of Leiji Matsumoto. The film has no dialogue and uses minimal sound effects.” [ 6 ]
Interstella 5555 was not quite the fantastical fever dream to some audiences, who compared it to the highly acclaimed 1981 Canadian animated feature, Heavy Metal directed by Gerald Potterton. However, its fluid, crisp and colorful animation exuded a certain polish and charm synonymous with Daft Punk’s production quality and style. The movie wove the band’s love of the medium and audio production in perfect synergy, not unlike the premise of its 1981 predecessor. Interstella 5555’s unique approach to a future funk/electronic soundtrack perfectly timed with an animated feature is still evocative of the now contemporary niche sub-genre of city pop. While solo artists and bands still predominantly feature in anime and their intros, studios at times find it necessary to incorporate in-house musicians for composition and arrangements for the entire length of a series or feature. This production choice, while seeming exclusionary and certainly distancing from the live music scene and nascent artists, allows producers more artistic freedom for their vision. If music is a key element to the anime’s main theme, it’s essential.
Anime About Music
As previously mentioned, anime series like that of FLCL that took the indie and slice of life elements of pop and rock music, the show itself also was also keen on drawing influences directly from music and or specifically rock music. One of FLCL’s central characters, Haruko Haruhara, is an extraterrestrial investigator for the Galactic Space Police Brotherhood. Anime jargon aside, Haruko wields a weapon like many anime protagonists do, and an unconventional one at that. Haruko’s weapon is a bass guitar, more specifically a 1974 left-handed Azureglo Rickenbacker 4001c64. A bass that had become iconic for its looks and unique sound throughout the history of rock ’n’ roll, it is evocative of the show’s tonality, Haruko’s personality, and the show’s main theme by The Pillows. While the plot and premise of FLCL is quite outlandish with its crazy TV-headed aliens and space police, it remains grounded in down-to-earth scenarios found in so many of the aptly titled “slice of life” series. Comparatively, lesser-known shows like 2001’s Rave Master, based on the manga from Studio Kondasha, where outrageous settings and characters are incorporated into elements of music throughout the series were the norm. For example, one of the main characters of Rave Master, Hamiro Musica, is the leader of a band of thieves named Silver-Rhythm. Music theory and notation with play on words of character names and titles are littered throughout Rave Master in an far more blatant and nuanced musical showcase to that of FLCL. While outlandish plots and characters are an entire sub-series on what makes anime great, the “slice of life” or real-life scenario anime series also draw much of their influence from the creative expression of music and focus the viewer’s attention on it.
Right in the Feels
We’ve leaned on the cliché “Slice of life.” It’s a term that gets tossed around quite often, in anime and elsewhere. In this context, it often refers to series or features that remain grounded in our reality in contrast to the outlandish space traveling, shapeshifting, superpowered anime characters so many viewers are used to. Perhaps one of the most celebrated anime in this milieu comes from the manga of the same name, Beck. “Beck tells the story of a group of Japanese teenagers who form a rock band and their struggle to fame, focusing on 14-year-old Yukio ‘Koyuki’ Tanaka, who until meeting guitar prodigy Ryusuke Minami was an average teen with a boring life. It was adapted into a 26-episode anime television series, titled BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, by Madhouse and aired on TV Tokyo from October 2004 to March 2005” [ 7 ].
Mongolian Chop Squad not only centered around a group of teenagers trying to make it big as a rock band, but the manga would receive an accompanying soundtrack and tribute albums that featured performances from J-rock bands The Beat Crusaders and Meister. The Beat Crusaders, who performed the anime’s main theme “Hit in the USA,” served as a showcase played in the introduction but was also the song the titular band in the anime performed. The protagonists’ goal eventually did come to fruition as they realized their dreams of playing in America, performing in English. Perhaps MCS’s plot and characters emit a certain quality that strikes a chord with the struggling musician in all of us. Characters like Ryusuke, whose dark history with his bullet-hole covered Gibson Les Paul guitar named Prudence, is the kind of twisted myth some guitar players only ever dream of having tied to their instrument. As with any creative outlet of expression, the trope of the struggling musician often resonates with some audiences especially when the anime is focused on music itself.
Tears on the Ivory
As with any “slice of life” series, the main characters are relatable, and more importantly, flawed. Your Lie in April, known in Japan as Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Naoshi Arakawa. To summarize Your Lie in April,
“Piano prodigy Kōsei Arima dominates various music competitions and becomes famous among child musicians, but also controversial. When his mother Saki dies suddenly, he has a mental breakdown while performing at a piano recital which resulted in him no longer being able to hear the sound of his piano even though his hearing was perfectly fine. …Two years later, Kōsei has not touched the piano and views the world in monochrome, without any flair or color, resigning himself to living out his life with his good friends, Tsubaki Sawabe and Ryōta Watari, until, one day, a girl changes everything. Kaori Miyazono, an audacious, free-spirited, fourteen-year-old violinist whose playing style reflects her manic personality, helps Kōsei return to the music world and shows that it should be free and mold-breaking unlike the structured and rigid style Kōsei was used to, and as she continues to uplift him, he quickly realizes that he loves her, though she already likes Watari.” [ 8 ]
Your Lie in April takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster as main characters Kosei and Kaori dredge through the angst of being a teenager, bereavement, and terminal illness. It is the music itself, not the debilitating performances for Kosei that bring the two so close until Kaori’s untimely death. The pair perform various classical pieces throughout the series with their own creative liberties. Originally arranged by Masaru Yokoyama, some of the pieces performed in Your Lie in April were Beethoven’s “Violin Sonata No. 9,” Chopin’s “Etude Op. 25, No. 5,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty.” It’s no myth that Japanese education is fully supportive music and arts programs especially that of western classical music, as it is so predominantly heard in a multitude of anime, videogames, and movies.
From Classical to Castlevania
As previously stated, classical music and its evolution into neo-classical has found its way into countless outlets for entertainment in Japan. When one thinks of the Castlevania videogame series by Konami, one thinks of whip-cracking, monster slaying, Dracula hunting, gothic imagery-laden adventures. As we’ve touched on in past articles, most entries in the Castlevania series were by renowned videogame composer and pianist Michiru Yamane. Yamane’s work can be heard throughout the franchise’s long history and is exemplary in 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the PlayStation. Yamane is also responsible for writing the franchise’s hallmark theme, “Bloody Tears.” While Castlevania was never originally an anime, Yamane went to work on other projects with game director Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter-backed Bloodstained Ritual of the Night, a spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night and subsequent Igarashi-created Castlevania games. While the Castlevania universe may have gone in a different direction since Igarashi’s departure, franchises like Street Fighter II, Pokémon, and Devil May Cry were all originally videogames that have made their way into anime interpretations of their series. Castlevania became no exception in the 2017 Netflix animated adaptation.
“The first two seasons adapt the 1989 entry Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and follow Trevor Belmont, who defends the nation of Wallachia from Dracula and his minions. …The series was originally planned as a film, developed by producer Kevin Kolde and his company, Project 51. Kolde had a contract for a script with writer Warren Ellis in 2007; the project entered development hell until about 2015, when Adi Shankar boarded the project and it was picked up by streaming service Netflix. Powerhouse Animation Studios joined the team and production commenced. Its art style is heavily influenced by Japanese anime and Ayami Kojima’s artwork in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.” [ 9 ]
Not only did the Castlevania anime provide as a just vindication of the Castlevania IP, but also fleshed out much of the absent, plot-hold, broken timeline of the long-standing series. Canadian orchestral composer Trevor Morris was hired to score for the Castlevania anime and took creative liberties with the source material. One of which included rearrangements of Yamane’s compositions including the iconic “Bloody Tears” featured in season two. In an interview, show writer Warren Ellis said,
“We do have the magnificent Trevor Morris doing the music, thank god. It’s pretty violent, I think? Within the boundaries of the original material, of course, which I don’t think of as being super-violent. But I might be the wrong person to ask, since in the last issue of my comics series Injection I did three pages of some poor bastard having his guts torn out through his pelvis by ghosts. It’s all relative.” [ 10 ]
Ellis was right to put faith in Morris’s musical abilities as Netflix’s Castlevania features a soundtrack of arrangements that not only pay homage to the original games but take unique and experimental creative liberties with the layering and voicing indicative of an animated television series.
Space Jazz, The Real Folk Blues
As anime was still in the frontier days for western audiences throughout the 1990s many were quick to be drawn to ones that tackled more adult themes and content. As mentioned earlier in this exposition, programming blocs like Adult Swim, featured on cable channel Cartoon Network, were a late-night bloc of “mature” programming that often featured anime. Some of that content still resonates with audiences today for its brilliant storytelling, complex characters, and sheer presence of polish and quality. Three shows from the Adult Swim FLCL days are Trigun, Samurai Champloo, and Cowboy Bebop. Each of these series were not only recognized for their long-lasting appeal, but each featured unique and different soundtrack that were astray from the typical J-pop or J-rock quirks and tropes. Instead, shows like Samurai Champloo went with a more hip-hop feel and featured arrangements by DJ Nujabes. Nujabes became renown in the underground trip hop scenes for his incorporation of classic jazz and traditional Japanese instruments with modern hip hop beats in his music. Series like Trigun and Cowboy Bebop would set precedent for the quality of music presented throughout the series’ soundtracks. Trigun, which held a gunslinging old west/science fiction aesthetic featured the rustic acoustic and slick heavy metal solo arrangements of guitarist and composer Tsuneo Imahori.
Cowboy Bebop featured arrangements by composer Yoko Kanno and followed the adventures of four bounty hunters in space—still fitting the adult-themed and gritty narrative comparative to Trigun. Bebop, however, featured fusion jazz pieces with sultry saxophone, melancholy harmonica blues tracks, and even hard rocking heavy metal epics heard in episode 7, Heavy Metal Queen. “Kanno formed the blues and jazz band Seatbelts to perform the music of the series” [ 11 ]. Director “Shinichirō Watanabe noted that Kanno did not score the music exactly the way he told her to. He stated, ‘She gets inspired on her own, follows up on her own imagery and comes to me saying “this is the song we need for Cowboy Bebop,” and composes something completely on her own’” [ 12 ]. Like many anime series the precede and have followed by example from Cowboy Bebop, the show’s opening and closing sequences have become the most recognized. This is, thankfully, present in the Netflix live-action adaptation, with Kanno and the Seatbelts returning to score the show. The bombastic and jazzy intro theme, “Tank!,” gave viewers the sense that the show was going to be an action-packed gunslinging adventure in space. Bebop’s outro of a melancholic slow jazz ballad “The Real Folk Blues” resounding over the closing credits encapsulates its overall tonality and deep, robust themes. Viewers were also met with a black post-credit title card that gave closure until the next episode with the card’s bottom corner text reading the show’s iconic sendoff. While the live action series was not renewed, much like the original anime, it has left a significant mark on several cultural landscapes and genres. The relationship with J-Rock, Jazz and speculative fiction will continue, so we’ll conclude with that iconic phrase, “See you Space Cowboy…”
- “As the anime medium has evolved, soundtracks have been more thoughtfully chosen to reflect the tone and themes of their subject matter, such as Sony’s specific usage of their first branded Sony music track “Shiver” for Kuroshitsuji II, aka “Black Butler.” Source: Kuremo. “Photo Spot Depicting Ciel and Sebastien at Exit of Rich Black Exhibition Dedicated to Japanese Anime and Manga Black Butler or Kuroshitsuji.” Adobe Stock, 24 Aug. 2021, stock.adobe.com/images/tokyo-japan-august-24-2021-photo-spot-depicting-ciel-and-sebastien-at-exit-of-rich-black-exhibition-dedicated-to-japanese-anime-and-manga-black-butler-or-kuroshitsuji-held-in-matsuya-ginza-store/497965381
- “Many contemporary bands, especially in J-Rock have come up with elaborate fictional backstories, blending the real world with anime or other pop culture, and blurring the line between the two. X-Japan frontman Yoshiki is known for this, having developed two versions of their music video for the single ‘Rusty Nail’, one animated by CLAMP. The band’s live appearances also have a certain telltale ‘flare’.” Source: Imgur. “X Japan Band Members.” Imgur, 18 Sept. 2018, imgur.com/NMvSDBC
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
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