It’s no secret that Japan has long been a bit of a joke when it comes to modern music. The phrase “big in Japan” is often invoked to describe a band on the outs, one that has been put out to pasture, sent to play out its remaining days as an imported curiosity.
Until recently, Japan’s music scene was viewed as quaint and delightfully out of touch with more “mature” Western trends. The first image most people get when thinking of music in Japan is a group of Stray Cats wannabes with slick pompadours, or maybe some strange novelty act spouting broken Engrish phrases and wearing funny costumes.
But times have changed. Sure, there is still a limitless supply of the strange and the weird radiating out from the East, but lately their underground and indie rock scenes have exploded. Rap and hip-hop have grabbed hold, and you’d be hard pressed to find more intense hardcore and experimental bands anywhere in the world.
While America may be a melting pot for humanity, Japan is the witch’s brew of pop culture. Japan has a knack for assimilating new ideas and applying them into their own rich history. This is arguably best displayed in their music scene. On the surface, it may be easy to write them off as aping Western bands, with their artists settling for being the “Japanese Weezer,” the “Japanese Iron Maiden” or the “Japanese Kanye West.” Obviously there will always be those bands that latch on to a sound without any understanding of how it’s derived, but this is certainly not a phenomenon unique to Japan.
These days, it’s more common for a Western band to begin its career in Japan than end it there. The West often looks to Japan for the new and the now. Becoming big in Japan is now a mark of pride, proof that a band is ahead of the curve and much closer to the cutting edge.
The broad acceptance of Japanese culture, ushered in by anime and manga, has also lead to a growing number of Japanese bands playing American clubs. The huge industry festival SXSW hosts Japan Nite every year, showcasing many upcoming Japanese acts along with some road-weary veterans. American record labels (or at least distributors, which these days are essentially the same thing) are signing Japanese groups left and right. And anime conventions have always been a prime venue to see the bands whose songs bookend fan’s favorite shows.
With all of these factors in mind, here’s a look at 10 bands from Japan with a chance to make it big in America. Each band is listed along with a few points:
Experience – are they new to the scene or have they been building a fan base for years? Can they even play their instruments?
Exposure – do they have major label backing? TV-play via anime or videos? (Pro-tip: America doesn’t really care if you’re big in Japan. What have you done for us lately?)
Novelty – face it, people expect something “different” from Japan. Cute, bizarre or extreme, something has got to stand out.
On to the bands!
Abingdon Boys School
Experience – Medium – While full of veteran players, the band itself has only been together for a couple years.
Exposure – Medium – The band really worked the anime and videogame angle, appearing in many fan favorites.
Novelty – Medium – As their name would suggest, they dress in English schoolboy uniforms and goofy glasses that certainly attract attention.
While they may have a rather silly look, these guys can rock hard. Made up of some top players and producers, they write deceptively complex songs, presenting them in an easy-to-swallow pop package. Unfortunately, pop idol singer TM Revolution has said he’ll be focusing on his solo career for awhile, so the band remains in limbo.
Experience – High – These guys have been around for a long time, released a huge discography and worked with many big names.
Exposure – High – Through relentless touring, Boris has made a name for itself across America.
Novelty – Low – While the players themselves are about as low-profile as they come, it’s the band as a whole that makes a lasting impact.
It’s certainly debatable, but Boris could well be the heaviest guitar-fueled band in the world. Add the fact that their lead guitarist is a woman and just about everyone snaps to attention. Whether creating sonic hell-scapes with Merzbow or covering ’70s era folk tunes, Boris is the definition of heavy rock ‘n’ roll.
Experience – High – Before becoming Cornelius, Keigo Oyamada was a member of the highly influential band Flipper’s Guitar
Exposure – High – Of all the bands on this list, Cornelius is easily the most likely to be familiar to American ears.
Novelty – Medium – His style is a bit quirky and experimental, though in a quiet way.
After signing to Matador in 1999, Cornelius’ career took off around the world. With tours and heavy exposure in the American press, Cornelius is practically an honorary American citizen. In a way he has already made it big in America; it’s just that no one has told America yet.
Electric Eel Shock
Experience – High – They executed a self-funded tour of America and Europe, and just about every major rock magazine loves them.
Exposure – Medium – Distributed by American digital label JapanFiles.com, they have a very strong foundation to build upon, not to mention legions of fans.
Novelty – Low – These guys are a no-frills hard rock band.
This list would not be complete without the inclusion of Electric Eel Shock, a band that literally sold everything to tour America. They stick to down-and-dirty classic rock with nothing but leather, jeans and t-shirts holding it all together. They are constantly on the move, with a never-ending tour schedule around the world.
Experience – Low – It’s obvious that there isn’t a high degree of musicianship here, but that’s the point.
Exposure – Medium – They’ve played SXSW and several other art-house gigs, and the fringe press loves them.
Novelty – Astronomical – If Boris is the definition of heavy, Kiiiiiii is the definition of DIY novelty.
Made up of two women, Kiiiiiii combine toy keyboards, trashy drums and screaming vocals to produce some of the strangest and most playful music around. Many songs will find the girls writhing on the floor or performing puppet shows, perfect for the YouTube generation. Singing in heavily accented English, their songs reference a wide range of American pop culture, from Michael Jackson to Star Wars to the Olsen twins and Full House.
Maximum the Hormone
Experience – Medium – Only a few years with a solid lineup, they are just now hitting their stride.
Exposure – High – They were catapulted to fame when two of their songs were featured in the hugely popular anime series Death Note.
Novelty – Medium – They mix stompy nu-metal with humor and the occasional sugar-coated female vocal.
Much like their name, Maximum the Hormone are a blend of over-the-top, screamy nu-metal with a tongue-in-cheek pop sensibility. While new to America, they recently toured with the Dropkick Murphys and are still riding the Death Note wave as the show airs on American television. They also bring a much needed dose of talent and variety to the nu-metal scene, with their unique singing styles and constant genre change-ups.
Experience – High – These guys have spent a ton of time in America, playing sold-out clubs full of the most hardcore hardcore-fans anywhere.
Exposure – Medium – They’ve been together for over 15 years but have a largely underground following.
Novelty – Low – …unless you count the razor-sharp, speed-rapping/barking vocal style of frontwoman Yasuko Onuki as novel, then it’s pretty high.
Equal parts noise and speed punk, Melt Banana are not for everyone. While certainly challenging, they also offer up plenty to hold on to for those strong enough to take a closer listen, earning them a lot of well earned respect from the industry.
Experience – High – These guys have been together for twenty years, and have managed to produce consistently great albums.
Exposure – High – By far they are best known as “that band from the FLCL soundtrack,” one of the most popular anime series among American viewers.
Novelty – Nil – These guys are about as plain and unremarkable as they come.
The Pillows are the everymen of the Japanese rock scene. Their sound is straight-up rock – and a bit on the light side – but they can stir things up when they want to. Their biggest drawback is their lack of purely English lyrics, but what little English they use has become very iconic among the fans.
Experience – High – They just celebrated their 10-year anniversary in Japan, and their mastery of their instruments is impressive.
Exposure – High – One of the bands on the first MySpace music tour in America last year, they also released a compilation album on MySpace records. Their music has appeared in two anime shows, and front-man Hiro had his own TV show in Japan for a time.
Novelty – Extreme – Not only does the entire band wear matching brightly colored jump-suits, but their cyclopean sunglasses have become almost as iconic as Devo’s red flower-pot hats.
Polysics are a spastic new-wave band that, while loaded with geek appeal, easily cross genres and reach a wide range of music fans. They sing about 50/50 English vs. Japanese plus a “space language,” so everyone is on equal footing. It helps that they have the chops to back up their over-the-top live performances.
Experience – Nil – They’ve played only one show and have yet to release anything on CD, but each member is considered a master of their chosen instrument.
Exposure – High – Just about every J-pop fan in the world knows about S.K.I.N., as the band is made up of four of the most popular male Japanese pop-rock stars.
Novelty – Medium – The idea of a super-group is nothing new, but seeing these four superstars interact, and watching the fan-girls squeal, can be pretty amusing.
While it’s true that S.K.I.N. has played only one show, it was not only English-heavy but played in America. The fact that they could have sold hundreds of thousands of tickets in Japan, yet choose to play an anime convention as their debut, points to a very high chance of a strong push in America. Plus mastermind Yoshiki, also the drummer for mega-band X-Japan, lives in Los Angeles part time. You can’t get any more American than that.
Zac Bentz is a regular writer for Japanese culture site Japanator and runs his own Japanese music blog ZB’s A-Z of J-Music. He’s also the drummer and mastermind behind the band The Surfactants. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and pets.