Image source: Lantis Channel on YouTube

Anime music is its own genre. Most anime fans probably already know that. But here’s some facts about anime music in Japan that they may not know.

Recently, on the TV show Kan Jam—a variety show featuring the pop idol group Kanjani Eight—the topic of anime music was covered, with interviews with professionals in the industry and in-depth analysis on what makes anime music unique.

Ever since the beginning of anime itself, anime music has been part and parcel of the subculture anime scene. In recent years, however, anime music has been making its way further into the mainstream consciousness than ever before, with artists like Nana Mizuki and the cast of Love Live appearing on the annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen—a roughly five hour musical event that is held every New Year’s Eve where popular songs are performed live—or the opening song to Kemono Friends being performed live on Music Station—a popular mainstream music show that profiles hit artists and songs every week. Last year, of the top twenty karaoke songs requested by people ages 20 — 29, fifteen were anime songs.

Currently, anime music can be categorized into three genres: anime scores, anime tie-up songs, and anime songs.

Anime scores are the background music that plays to enhance the emotion of various scenes in anime. While anime scores rarely have vocals and are often less prominently featured than the opening and closing themes, they are still vital components to anime and have their own followings. Famous anime score composers include Yoko Kanno, Yuki Kajiura, and Hiroyuki Sawano.

“MOBILE SUIT” by Hiroyuki Sawano

Provided courtesy of iTunes

Anime tie-up songs are songs that are sung by pop or rock musical artists whose songs happen to be used in anime. These are songs that maintain the artists’ established musical image while simultaneously capturing the series’ atmosphere. A popular example would be the song, Rewrite by the group Asian Kung-fu Generation that was used as an opening song for the series Full Metal Alchemist and was the winner for the Best Theme Song category for the first American Anime Awards in 2007.

“Rewrite” by Asian Kung-fu Generation

Provided courtesy of iTunes

Unlike tie-up songs, the third category, anime songs, are sung by artists who predominantly sing songs that are used in anime. Anime songs can also be divided into three sub-categories: Songs sung by anime singers, songs sung by voice actor/singers, and songs sung by characters.

Songs sung by anime singers are songs sung by artists who primarily sing anime songs and whose general involvement in anime is the use of their songs. A famous example of an anime song singer would be Hironobu Kageyama whose voice has become a staple for various “hot-blooded” anime series.

“CHA-LA HEAD-CHA-LA” by Hironobu Kageyama

Provided courtesy of iTunes

Songs sung by voice actor/singers, as the name implies, are songs sung by voice actors who also have active careers as professional singers. Perhaps the most famous example of a voice actor/singer would be Nana Mizuki.

“PHANTOM MINDS” by Nana Mizuki

Provided courtesy of iTunes

Character songs are similar to voice actor songs in that they are sung by voice actors. However, the difference with character songs is that they are sung as the character the voice actor plays. Songs from The Idolm@ster, Love Live, or K-On! are an example of these.

“Snow halation” by μ’s

Provided courtesy of iTunes

Most anime theme songs are exactly 89 seconds in length. This is due to the general format of anime. Most anime episodes are a 30 minute format. Every episode has two commercial breaks, each taking up 2 minutes 30 seconds. 90 seconds are devoted to the opening and ending theme songs, leaving 22 minutes for the actual episode itself.

The reason anime theme songs are 89 seconds instead of the full 90 seconds is due to an industry regulation that requires the theme songs to allocate a half-second of silence at both the beginning and end of the songs. Most composers write full songs and edit them down to the standard TV size format, “Part A → Part B → Chorus” and then alter the tempo or cut or extend certain areas so that they will fit the allotted 89 seconds.

With only 89 seconds to capture the essence of a series and draw the viewer in to the content they are about to see, composers utilize various tricks of the trade that are rarely seen outside of anime music. One common format trick is to have the Part A and Part B of the song be played downbeat and primarily in a minor key and have the chorus be played upbeat primarily in a major key to ramp up the sense of excitement and intensity. This format is a classic and has been used for decades. An example of this format can be heard in one of the most famous anime theme songs in all of Japan, the classic opening theme song for Lupin the Third.

“Theme of Lupin III (2005 New Mix)” by Beatmac Junior

Provided courtesy of iTunes

The opening theme song to the recent smash hit Kemono Friends is a song that makes full use of its 89 seconds and stuffs in various musical tricks to engage the listener. While most songs use the previously mentioned template format of “Part A → Part B → Chorus,” Kemono Friends‘ theme is formatted, “Chorus → Part A → Part B → Chorus → Part D → Grand Chorus.”

“Youkoso Japari Park he” by Doubutsu Biscuits & PPP

Provided courtesy of iTunes

In the past, anime music has gone through two revolutions, propelling the genre into the mainstream. The first was in 2006 with the series, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. In episode twelve of the series, there is a stage performance with the characters performing the song God Knows. At the time, due to anime budgets and scheduling, using highly detailed animation aside from in an anime’s opening was considered taboo in the industry.

The animators of Haruhi went above and beyond, recording video of the song being performed and recreating everything within the performers’ movements in the anime. Before 2006, this was considered highly impractical for the primarily hand-drawn anime industry. However, technological advances allowed for trial and error within the animating process, which gave the animators leeway to make the animation much more realistic. God Knows was a song that was made for just one scene, but quickly gained immense popularity. The series itself became extremely popular in Japan because of episode twelve, and God Knows is still a regularly requested song at karaoke—it was number seven of the top twenty karaoke songs requested by people ages 20 — 29.

“God Knows” by Haruhi Suzumiya (voiced by Aya Hirano)

Provided courtesy of iTunes

The second anime music revolution occurred in 2009 with the explosive hit series, K-On! With a story about high school girls playing music in a light music club, K-On! successfully turned music itself into an anime genre. The anime was specifically about its characters being musicians—with multiple character songs throughout the series. Because the series made becoming and being a musician accessible to its audience, it became a cultural phenomenon with junior high and high school girls joining their own school light music clubs and forming bands all around Japan. Songs from the anime topped the music charts and instruments that the characters used in the anime were sold out from music stores everywhere. By making music into its own genre, K-On! paved the way for other music-centric series like Love Live to enter the mainstream consciousness.

“Cagayake!GIRLS” by The Sakura High School Light Music Club

Provided courtesy of iTunes

Currently, anime music concerts fill stadiums and series like Love Live are becoming commonly recognized if only in name. Anime music continues to thrive and evolve and receive further mainstream exposure. Every season on Anime Now!, we post various anime theme songs we think are worth checking out, but that only scratches the surface of what is out there. The anime music world is going to get even more interesting and exciting and I’m looking forward to where it goes—preferably jamming all the way.

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Comments (10)
  1. There are also a lot of idol anime franchises now. Besides Love Live and UtaPri, there’s Ensemble Stars, Tsukipro, i7, and a few others that have gotten popular. Rejet’s Pythagoras Productions series actually has really good music, especially the songs with Toshiyuki Toyonaga’s character. He’s such a great singer (he sang the 4th Durarara!! opening, “Day You Laugh”). He’s in a few idol shows (and non-idol anime like Yuri On Ice, of course), but Lagrange Point’s music is just amazing.
    But yeah, male idol shows are super popular in Japan, but they haven’t caught on overseas yet…

    • It’s really a shame too. Some of the male idol shows are really entertaining.

  2. Nice article, good to see some insight on anime music!

    • Thank you!

  3. Good article on the growing japanese music industry.
    While I do like anime songs on OPs and EDs I tend to come off
    a little underwhelm, mainly because most of the songs have a
    pop or rock influence on them, which is not a bad thing but its
    so repetitive. I want to hear something like Shibuya-kei, which
    was somewhat popular in anime songs a decade ago.
    It’s not that I hate pop or rock influenced anime songs, its just
    that I find it overrated.

    • I totally understand that. Every season I’m lucky if I can find more than one song that will stick with me.

  4. It’s difficult to explain all the ways that anime music works, but they include the cooperation between artists and across different companies, longer established artists helping younger artists (Isao Sasaki and Ichirou Mizuki are still performing), collaborations within and across record company boundaries, and the way that it is in the interests of the lyricists, composers, performers, anime production committees and record companies that anime music be as good as possible.

    Besides karaoke, concert events released on video and/or broadcast have strengthened anime music’s appeal, including record-company or artists-specific concerts such as Yuki Kajiura live or King Super Live and events hosting several artists across different labels like Animelo Summer Live and Animax Musix.

    I’m still waiting for someone to write a thorough series of articles on the subject.

    • That’s a great idea!

  5. Not to mention, I think a huge part is due to a lull in the music industry itself. I’ve been a jpop fan for 20+ years now and I have seen it’s heyday….which is not right now. The once big artists are hasbeens, retired or basically non-existent. I’m sure the ease of getting anime music helps a lot too. Japan is such a homogeneous country with everything, especially it’s music, the easiest reach is anime.

    • Personally I think it’s less a lull and more a saturation of the market. A lot of jpop feels mass produced with very little really standing out.

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