[FULL DISCLOSURE: Diana Garnet is a personal friend of mine.]
Naruto Shippuden–the sequel series to the original Naruto anime about a young ninja aiming for the top and the trials he faces–has had many famous musical acts performing theme songs for the show. These artists include FLOW, Ikimono-gakari, Asian Kung Fu Generation, and more. However, there’s only been one foreign female soloist who has performed a song for the anime: Diana Garnet.
“My first encounter with Naruto was probably back in either late middle school or early high school before the series had started airing,” Garnet told me in a conference room at the Sony Music Artist headquarters in Meguro, “I went to a convention and saw goods with this little orange ninja and was like, ‘What is that? I need that in my life.’”
Blessed with nerd parents herself, American-born Diana Garnet was raised on classic anime like The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Ah! My Goddess, and Space Battleship Yamato. However, her love of anime would lead to her to eventually moving to Japan and performing the 32nd ending theme for the Naruto Shippuden anime. And Garnet’s no stranger to the anime–she’s been watching it since the first day it became available to her.
“I remember crying during the first episode particularly. Oh, Iruka-sensei…”
But the road to becoming a singer for Sony was a long one. Garnet began her transition into Japan at 16 with a study abroad program that had her studying on the rural island of Shikoku.
“It was really gorgeous and the lush nature seemed like it was from another era. It was very different from the crowded cities you normally see in anime. I really thought there could be ninjas there. I was pretty sure.”
This trip allowed her to solidify her resolve to pack up and move to Japan permanently. After finishing her high school abroad program and returning to the states for graduation, she went back to Japan as a university student a second (and subsequently third) time. There, she studied not only pop culture, but history, literature, media, food anthropology, and anything else they would let her learn about.
“I’ve always been interested in [Japanese] music in particular. It’s very forward-thinking, positive, and I really liked the cooperative message. It’s always about community and stuff like that. It always gave me power and hope when I wasn’t feeling my best, so I wanted to be able to give back to the Japan that always got me through hard times.”
After graduating university, Garnet stayed in Japan by working as an English teacher at public schools during the day and a conversation teacher at night. On weekends, she would do freelance vocal work ranging from narration and voice acting to providing songs for commercials and participating in various singing contests. However, her real break came when she landed a spot on the popular Japanese television show, Nodojiman THE! World, a program that features non-Japanese contestants competing for the title of the best J-pop singer. Not only did she win the show’s 2013 Spring competition, her singing voice on TV attracted the attention of Sony, who contacted the staff of the show and offered to sign her under their Sony Music Artist agency. From there she was quickly picked up by the Sony Music Records label and a major debut was soon underway.
As part of her debut, Garnet released a single and an album; Both collections of covers of famous Japanese songs, including Neon Genesis Evangelion theme song “Zankoku na Tenshi no Thesis” (A Cruel Angel’s Thesis) and Rurouni Kenshin’s “Sobakasu” (Freckles). After releasing these, Garnet felt it was time to release an original song. Out of many potential songwriters, Joe Inoue–an artist notable for his own hit Naruto Shippuden opening theme, “CLOSER”–was chosen because of his interesting perspective and ability to mesh with her style. Given the chance to send in a song to propose as a theme song for the Naruto Shippuden anime, the two got to work recording demos.
“Both Joe and I were huge fans of the show, so we were sitting there cramming in as many references to the series as possible. The lyrics and overall atmosphere purposefully alluded to a lot of Naruto imagery, which [the staff] really liked, so they decided to let us do the ending song.”
The song they produced–titled “Spinning World”–is a song that not only represents the unbreaking bonds between the characters in Naruto, but the strength to keep getting up when you’re knocked down as well. Garnet also told me that there’s a reason for the use of “spinning” in the song’s title.
“We called it ‘Spinning World,’ not just because of how the world of Naruto is constructed, but also because of the spiral or coil motif–or uzumaki– that has been an consistent overarching theme throughout Naruto. Not only does his last name mean “swirl/spiral,” but there’s a lot of visual representation of it as well …[For example,] the seals, chakra flow, rasengan…” she explained, “Everything has to do with swirly pools. So, we decided that absolutely had to put in the song.”
Although Garnet’s song was chosen for the ending, she never got to meet the production staff behind her ending sequence animation in person. However, Garnet hopes that the song could have been at least some of the inspiration behind the breathtakingly gorgeous animation sequence that accompanied her song.
“Maybe I’m biased, but I think that I’ve got the best ending sequence ever,” she laughed, “I saw a few stills beforehand, but I didn’t get to see it before it aired. The first time I saw it in full was the [first] airing. I was watching the TV with bated breath and the second it came on, I had a mini heart attack. It was gorgeous. Having my own voice as an ending to an anime on my own TV? I was bawling the entire time.”
The Naruto tie-in led Garnet to land a guest spot on Tokusō Keisatsu Jumpolice–a TV show promoting Shōnen Jump and other related properties–where she got to teach the hosts English using Haikyuu!! and Naruto catchphrases. She even got to teach them that in the official English version of the anime, Naruto’s catchphrase “dattebayo” is translated to “believe it.”
“Now they can communicate with anime fans all over the world! If they say ‘believe it!’ to an American, they might actually know what they’re talking about. They could make new friends, and with the Tokyo Olympics coming up, I think that’s really important,” she explained, “People all over the world watch anime–it’s become mainstream, so everybody knows Jump.”
Despite her debut in the anime world, Garnet says that many people initially didn’t pick up on the fact that she was from the US.
“There’s really interesting mythology about me online that I either grew up in Japan, I’m half-Japanese or part-Japanese… I read the most interesting things about myself online. It’s always very exciting to see what people write.”
She also mentioned that although it was difficult to reach out to the international community at first (one of the reasons being that her official YouTube channel is limited to Japan-only) in recent days, Garnet has been collaborating with Tokyo Otaku Mode to produce a series of for-fun acapella covers of various anime songs. This project includes songs from Sword Art Online, Code Geass, Tokyo Mew Mew, and Full Metal Alchemist, and she even sometimes brings on guests to perform with her and takes fan requests for what songs she should sing. She’s also connecting with fans on places like Facebook and Twitter.
“A lot of people have contacted me about like, ‘How can I work in Japan?’ or ‘What are different routes I can take in order to follow my dreams?’ I think that’s absolutely wonderful. That’s exactly what I wanted to do with my career; to inspire others and transcend barriers through music. I just hope I can continue to do more and call attention to the fact that there are people doing this and that they can thrive.”
An inspiration to fans abroad, Garnet herself finds inspiration in the characters of Naruto–specifically, Naruto himself. While Naruto sought to be Hokage–a seemingly impossible task–Garnet had her own difficult journey of becoming a singer in a foreign country. But just like Naruto, she never gave up.
“What Naruto taught me was that you need to keep picking yourself up and putting yourself out there. Naruto’s always at the forefront, no matter how bad he was at something,” Garnet elaborated, “It didn’t matter if I wasn’t absolutely perfect at something, it didn’t matter how unrealistic the prospects were–I was just going to keep slamming myself against that hurdle, getting better and accumulating experience along the way, until I finally made it over, basically.”
As someone who is still working to “evolve” her dream, Garnet believes that she can still continue branching out into different things besides singing and connect with even more people. More than anything, she wants to become an inspiration for others.
“I think that people have endless roads and endless possibilities ahead of them. Sometimes it’s important that you be a bit flexible with your dreams. Sometimes you’ll need to take little detours to get there or traverse roads you might not have considered or wanted to take initially. Sometimes you need to evolve your dream to get there and sometimes your dreams change, and that’s fine,” she said, “But what I’d say is really important is to have a thing you want to do and a message that you want to get to people and find any way to get that out. If you want to do something, do it.”