Even if one doesn’t speak or understand Japanese, listening to this song Sweet Soul Revue by Pizzicato Five, it is very easily established that it would not be what one would expect from a Japanese pop singer. In fact, it sounds closer to something put out in France in the 60’s or so.
Introducing a genre of Japanese pop known as Shibuya-kei, a branch that sounds decidedly so much more Western than its regular mainstream counterparts.
It also makes sense that this genre began and is named after the Shibuya district in Tokyo, a hyper-trendy neighbourhood famous for its scramble crossing, fashion, and shopping.
Just as French yé-yé focused on the innocent beauty of young girls as its selling point in the 60’s, Shibuya-kei is all about the young, the trendy and the beautiful. However, Shibuya-kei transcends merely its music, and its sensibilities have pervaded into a lifestyle and culture.
What is the Shibuya-kei aesthetic? Think clean and simple, minimal, with bold colours that are not afraid to be seen. The images above are screen shots from the movie, Detroit Metal City, which in itself pays homage to Shibuya-kei. Minimalism, portable, retro and futuristic elements all come together to create a sleek and airy feel. Designers such as marimekko would not feel out of place in such an environment.
Looking at the cover sleeves of four of the biggest names in Shibuya-kei, Kahimi Karie, Cornelius, Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five, all reflect the sensibilities of Shibuya-kei design; sleek, clean and very pop-art-ish.
If mainstream J-pop is about producing for a Japanese market, Shibuya-kei seems to eschew itself from that by being everything not typically Japanese. It is synthpop, bossa nova, French yé-yé, jazz, and so many other element put into one. Given the vast possibilities within Shibuya-kei, each artist tends to build a certain style and sound to establish their identity within this genre. Yukari Fresh, shown above with her mini album, Cook Some Dishes, tends toward the light and whimsical synthpop elements, while Pizzicato Five leans towards French-esque bossa pop.
Other interesting stylistic elements include Minekawa Takako with her retro-futuristic electronic sounds (above, Fantastic Cat), or Kahimi Karie (above, Good Morning World) with her whisper-like vocals as she sings in French, English, Japanese and, sometimes, Portuguese (below, Take It Easy My Brother Charlie).
If there can be one thing that can be said to be consistent in Shibuya-kei, it’s the incessant exploration, creation and expression of new ideas and old dreams.
Yoshinori Sunahara imagines the opening of an underground airport in Tokyo in his album, Take Off and Landing (track above, Hawaii 2300) and many of his works feature his obsession with aeroplanes and flight. Others, like Cornelius, a key figure in the genre, explores the relationships between harmony and dissonance, or the relationships natural musical elements can have with synthetic ones, such as in his song Drop (below).
Shibuya-kei is dead?
Shibuya-kei started in the late 80’s and took off in the early 90’s. However, its popularity waned rapidly in the 2000’s as other music, such as Korean pop, started getting a hold of the local music scene.
Interestingly, where Shibuya-kei has floundered in Japan, it has moved overseas and found its niche in Europe and the United States. Artists like Kahimi Karie and Pizzicato Five have definitely found more acclaim overseas than they do in their home countries these days.
What’s more fascinating is that the genre that began and has hit more or less a dead end in Japan is starting to see foreign artists with sounds that increasingly sound like Shibuya-kei. While not a new artist, Momus (above, I want you but I don’t need you) has been likened to Shibuya-kei, as have been other artists.
Momus writes about his thoughts on the genre,
We western pop-makers are like the Brothers Grimm. We scribbled a few fairy stories a long time ago. And now they’re there, transmuted, misunderstood and built in stone at Tokyo Disneyland, and we’re wandering around the theme park in our frock coats murmuring aloud in wonder ‘Did we really start this?’
from Momus’ webpage, imomus.com
The esoteric nature of Shibuya-kei of the 90’s has left Japan and taken residence overseas, where it is safe and carried on by foreign artists. Those left behind have transformed Shibuya-kei into something slightly different. While Cornelius and Minekawa Takako are still producing works with strong vibes of the Shibuya-kei of the yesteryear, other forefronts of the genre such as Fantastic Plastic Machine and capsule have turned their sights towards house, dance and electronic music. For example, Fantastic Plastic Machine that went from something like this (L’Aventure Fantastique, 1997):
To something like this (Daremoshiranai feat. 環ROY, 2013)
I am not lamenting the direction Shibuya-kei is headed these days; in fact they are all interesting directions. The perceptibly ‘Western’ flavour of Shibuya-kei of the past that was ironically ‘so Japanese’ has morphed into an international movement that artists around the world can participate in. Shibuya-kei is no longer only for and by the Japanese, and the scramble crossing of the district has transcended geographical borders.