Strange Boutique (January 2012)

First, you need to read the column itself on The Japan Times web site on the “Akihabarisation” of Shibuya-kei.

The point with this piece, which I hope was clear from reading it, wasn’t to say that Shibuya-kei has become absorbed by otaku culture but rather that the popularity and media attention that has been lavished on the otaku as a result of their consumer spending power has made cultural reference points like anime, idol music and some of the more superficial elements of cosplay acceptable among the indie elite where they would have been considered frightfully déclassé or even shameful in Shibuya-kei’s 90s heydey.

In the 90s, a band like Soutaisei Riron would have fallen pretty squarely into the Shibuya-kei camp, but their success in the 2000s has a lot to do with their references to classic manga like Jigoku Sensei and their wistful ramblings about science fiction concepts. A group like Sweet Vacation are self-consciously cut from the Shibuya-kei template (sharply-dressed, professorial guy, possibly with a beard, plus chick singer) and yet they find themselves playing alongside people on the fringes of idol culture like Saori@Destiny, who started out singing on the streets of Akihabara dressed in a schoolgirl uniform, to crowds waving glowsticks in that eerily synchronised way that idol fans have. Sono na wa Spade are a cabaret act whose image changes with the winds and who have nothing to do with Shibuya-kei really, but their rejection of the 60s Euro-chic they started with in favour of schoolgirl uniforms, maid costumes and cat ears is evidence of the same trend.

Sono na wa Spade: Sweetholic

Part of this is just the musicians following the money, and possibly even more importantly the media narrative, and I’m willing to bet that part of this is due to the trend of Japanese culture just generally losing interest in anything outside Japan, as evidenced by the way gyaru fashion and otaku culture, both inward-looking rather than internationalist in perspective, are coming to dominate Japan’s cultural space. More than that, however, it feels like a deep-seated nostalgia for childhood, judging by the easy way these post-post-Shibuya-kei groups allow 1980s American pop culture references to sit alongside the more idol and anime tinged stuff.

Sweet Vacation: The Goonies’r’Good Enough

What’s interesting though, is that as the influence of Akihabara widens, so the core loses control over what people are doing on the fringes. As it starts to become more inclusive, the otaku themselves cease to be able to dictate its direction. You can see this in the way the artist Takashi Murakami took the influence of otaku culture and twisted it into a distinctive shape of his own. He was initially pilloried by the otaku community for ripping off their work and just generally doing it wrong, but look at one of the most successful animated films of recent years, Summer Wars, and Murakami’s influence is all over it, and even the more openly otaku-orientated smash hit TV series Madoka Magika seems to show some influence of Murakami’s work in its surreal nightmare imagery.

Clip from Madoka Magica (massive spoiler alert!)

The same thing is almost certainly happening in music. While the Euro-centric image of cool that dominated Shibuya-kei hasn’t exactly gone away, the centre of gravity has moved, and by bringing such an array of creative talent together with elements that used to be the preserve of otaku, I think it is inevitable that otaku culture itself will be changed as a result.

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2 Comments

Filed under Strange Boutique

2 responses to “Strange Boutique (January 2012)

  1. miffy

    Hmmmm, interesting twist on the whole otaku pandering narrative. Its just that the evolution is so slow……… And does it have a future as an international product? As it is, i dun think so

  2. I doubt any of these groups are going to do anything important outside Japan and I mentioned in the original JT piece that I think this kind of introversion isn’t a good thing in the long run (although as John Maynard Keynes once said, “In the long run we are all dead”). I think as evidence of anime/Akihabara culture broadening its base and starting to include ideas and creative driving forces from outside the otaku core, it could be a step on a path that will see otaku-related fan culture spin off subsets that might be more palatable for overseas audiences though. Who knows?

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