Blur / Damon Albarn
Britpop legends Blur had, for whatever reason, a stronger relationship with Japan than their contemporaries. The band’s first and only official live album was recorded at the legendary Budokan Arena in Tokyo, and their sole remix album Bustin’ + Dronin’ was released exclusively to the Japanese market. All that attention was reciprocated at the very end of the 1995 album The Great Escape, where frontman and songwriter Damon Albarn allows two Japanese coworkers, Yuko and Hiro, to escape, if only momentarily, the numbing mediocrity of modern life that traps all the album’s other characters. The song (and the album) end with a Japanese vocalist reiterating “Yuko and Hiro’s” first verse in her own language.
After Blur called it quits, frontman Damon Albarn dove much further into the idea of mixing Western and Japanese ideas. His Gorillaz project is heavily indebted to Japanese culture, from the inclusion of a Japanese “band member,” Noodle (voiced by Japanese musician and Cibo Matto member Miho Hatori) to the band’s anime-inspired art style. Especially during the band’s early days, Japanese text and images played a huge part in defining the Gorillaz aesthetic. Even the band’s holographic stage presence feels like an extension of a very Japanese pop music lineage.
Rivers Cuomo’s Japanophile leanings are ages old and well documented. A love letter he received from a Japanese fan helped inspire his magnum opus Pinkerton, and the Japanese-set opera Madame Butterfly served as a huge influence on the album. The Weezer frontman would go on to marry a Japanese woman, Kyoko Ito, in 2006.
Outside all that, the band make frequent stops in Japan during their tours. Additionally, in 2002, the band played a series of 9 shows in the country under the banner of the “Japan World Cup Tour”. Snippets of that tour appear on The Lion and the Witch, a live EP released that same year through the band’s website.
Originally hired as backup dancers, the 4 woman we now know as the Harajuku Girls have become an unshakable aspect of No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani’s solo career. Inspired by the fashion-forward Harajuku district of Tokyo, the Girls played prominent roles in music videos and public appearances starting with Stefani’s solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby. They’re perhaps best known for their appearance in the “Hollaback Girl” video, but they were a part of Stefani’s creative output through at least 2012.
A fairly prominent backlash erupted following accusations of racism from comedian Margaret Cho, and those same worries crop up again in 2013 following a misguided music video from mall punk Avril Lavigne. Stefani, however, maintains that the Girls are simply an extension of her interest in Japanese culture. That interest has shown up in the artist’s clothing line, her music, and, I’d like to imagine, her collection of anime figurines.
Vektroid, et al.
What better way to represent the cold, commercialized hell that the vaporwave genre conceptualizes than with contextless katakana? The artists who continue to contribute to the internet-fueled microgenre make frequent use of Japanese text in their song titles and album cover designs, evoking a bygone era when Japanese culture was just beginning its current saturation of the American psyche. A generation raised on Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z could not ask for a better visual representation of 90s nostalgia and childhood half-memories than these eerie, uncomfortably familiar album covers.
Though part of the insurmountable wave of 90s twee/indie bands, a Glaswegian trio named bis made a (tiny) name for themselves by going all in on middle school anime/manga geekery. Their debut album The New Transistor Heroes features the band in all their 90s-styled manga drawing glory, Though their music hewed closer to stuff made by other Glaswegian groups, the song “Statement of Intent” proved to be a good enough facsimile of J-rock nonsense to be included on the Jet Set Radio Future soundtrack next to dyed-in-the-wool Japanese groups like Guitar Vader. Though bis moved away from their faux-Japanese image over time, it’s the look they will always be remembered for.
Famed producer Steve Albini has worked with groups like Nirvana, Pixies, and The Jesus Lizard, but he also has a storied career as a musician himself. Musical projects like Shellac and Big Black let him flex his own musical muscles, and it turns out that a few of those muscles are totally into the seedier side of Japanese culture.
The most notorious example is without a doubt the cover to Big Black’s 1987 album Songs About Fucking, which features a particularly coital image seemingly sourced out of some obscure 80’s hentai. Not to be outdone, Albini and members of Scratch Acid emerged as a new band, Rapeman, that took its name from a satirical manga featuring a lustful antihero as its lead. Albini’s third band, Shellac, has a decidedly more European verve.