Image Source: アニプレックス on YouTube

Last Tuesday night, an episode of the popular TBS variety show Matsuko ga Shiranai Sekai (The World that Matsuko does not Know) came under the attention of anime fans in Japan.

In the show, highly-popular, highly-opinionated (and often controversial) TV personality Matsuko Deluxe, invites experts onto the set to explain certain social trends or out-of-the-ordinary hobbies.

How Anime Music Is Breaking into the Japanese Mainstream

This time, the middle section of the program, entitled Matsuko no Shiranai Anison no Sekai (The World of Anisong that Matsuko does not Know), was devoted to exploring the phenomenon of anison—the Japanese shorthand for anime songs that has become increasingly common. Let’s dive in and see what that tells us about how consumption patterns of anime fans is changing the music market landscape.

In particular, the majority of the focus was on the shift of this particular genre of music. It began as children’s songs, before becoming a subculture hobby, and finally displacing the more traditionally “mainstream” hits in the modern-day chart rankings.

To begin with, let’s analyze the way in which this show framed its topic. You have a portion of a prime-time show entitled “The World of Anime Songs that Matsuko Does not Know” and proceed to talk about how the majority of the hits in the top karaoke rankings for people in their 20s are anime songs. Firstly, the disparity is very clear in terms of how “mainstream” and anison culture relate. The presentation is clear in that Matsuko represents the mainstream. Since Matsuko does not know about the world of anison, then how can it be mainstream? It must be an unknown. Anison may be part of an “invisible” mainstream.

What I mean by that, is that karaoke has long been a mainstream mode of recreation for Japanese people and so karaoke trends would, at first glance, not be the most surprising thing to initially pick up for such a TV show. To give some context, the previous section of the program was about the vast variety and innovative alternate uses of instant pasta sauce, while the final third was about a guy who showcased some of the rarer rollercoasters in Japan.

The key point here is that one can argue that twentysomethings no longer fit into the typical viewership of these types of shows and therefore what twentysomethings are up to is portrayed through more of an outsider’s perspective rather than a participatory one. As a result, the program aims to illustrate how we got to this stage, where anime music is—seemingly inexplicably—both a subculture but also a replacement for a lost mainstream.

The simplest explanation is summarized early on by Matsuko, who quips, “Japanese media is being supported by the otaku.” In other words, the otaku are the ones still spending money and continuing to consume product. One look at Japan’s somewhat unique consumption trends and recent music sales statistics point to a resistance to digital downloads and streaming, as well as a still-strong CD market, even as most of the rest of the world is turning its back to the format.

The majority of the section is structured by going through the various decades and seeing how anime songs changed over time. These are split into three groups, firstly the 1960s to 70s, exemplified by Tetsuwan Atom, Aim for the Ace! and Galaxy Express 999.

Next, we have the 1980s to 90s, featuring anime such as Touch, Fist of the North Star, and Slam Dunk. It is here where we start to see anime music really come into its own. And though it is not focused much in the show, a lot of that is down to audiences gradually shifting into more mature age ranges. Lastly, we have the third section, simply titled “Anison has evolved this far!” and the case studies are mainly Neon Genesis Evangelion, Attack on Titan, and Your Name.

A certain discrepancy can be alluded to if we are feeling a little nitpicky because Eva should technically be in the 1990s section. This matters because, as has been the case for many of these prime-time variety shows focusing on anime throughout the years, any basic explanation of anime history tends to end with Evangelion, for the most part. Here, too, the guest explains how it was a game-changer which helped kickstart the trend of late-night anime. (Though that’s not to say that the show itself was shown at late-night; it was an evening show but it started bringing in more mature audiences.)

The key trend in the 60s/70s period is that the song’s lyrics would feature the name of the main character or title of the show prominently in the chorus. Additionally, it is a period from which many shows which have remained classics originated. You would be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person of any age that has not heard of Mazinger Z, Star of the Giants (Kyojin no Hoshi), or Sally the Witch (Mahou-tsukai Sally)—and many can probably at least hum the tune. This is what I mean by a “visible” mainstream—one recognized almost universally, without necessarily belonging to it.

Matsuko also makes this point in the sense that during this first time period, “anison“, even though they were not called that at the time, were widely recognized by all generations and even grandparents knew them.

Back in the day, anime songs were primarily thought of as merely the opening theme songs, and as such they were considered their own “genre.” However, looking at the trends today and just how much they have permeated the charts, Matsuko remarks that they are actually now simply kayoukyoku (pop songs). The implication here that they are pop songs that happen to be featured in anime. Kayoukyoku is sort of a progenitor of modern J-pop, encapsulating the popular trends of the Showa period.

It is therefore interesting that Matsuko would describe anison this way, but in a sense it is fitting when you consider that anison today is a genre in which “idols” are prevalent (though, admittedly, not exclusively). They also formed the backbone of the 1970s and 80s kayoukyoku scene, making the entire category seem like a resurgence of sorts.

Finally, we come to A Cruel Angel’s Thesis, the opening theme to Neon Genesis Evangelion. According to the karaoke data compiled by Joysound, this song was ranked among the top 10 songs in all age ranges from 10s to 50s. In fact, astoundingly, it ranked within the top 5 for all of the categories except those in their 50s, for whom it was in 9th place. It is in a league of its own as far as anime songs are concerned, showing real staying power and true mainstream proliferation. There are some exceptions recently like the Radwimps’ Zenzenzen-se (which was also high up for all ages except the 50s), but it remains to be seen if these are trends or are mainstays like Eva, which now has been covered so many times by a multitude of big-name artists.

Overall, the program did try to tie in some of the trends seen in anime songs today to origins in previous decades (such as by breaking down the composition of the opening to Attack on Titan), but the main element that stood out throughout was that the concept of “anison” has evolved to almost totally eclipse anything else happening in the mainstream consciousness regarding popular music. The increase in variety of anime-related content today compared to 20 or 30 years ago is a factor. Overall, anime and anime music are more visible as a whole, perhaps taking up more space in Tower Records than ever before, but that does not necessarily equate to accessibility.

The sheer number of works and dedicated fanbases thereof, along with short-run product cycles, have contributed to the compartmentalization of anime content, and such wide diversification means that one has to be not only predisposed to anime, but also willing to actively follow artists, event information, and suchlike. For instance, one cannot come across an anime song on the radio by happenstance, nor switch on the TV during the day and see anime like Macross Frontier, even though its opening theme ranks at number 4 in the karaoke chart.

Placed alongside other recent television shows which showcase the status of anime in society today, this program helps paint a fuller picture of the complexities surrounding the anime phenomenon within Japan.

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For reference, the top 20 karaoke songs for the first half of 2017 are as follows (with anime songs in bold—although a couple of those not bolded are actually “sung” by Hatsune Miku):

  • Koi (Gen Hoshino)
  • Zenzenzen-se (Movie ver.) (Radwimps)
  • Sugar Song and Bitter Step (Unison Square Garden)
  • Lion (May’n/Megumi Nakajima)
  • Zangoku-na Tenshi no Teeze (Yoko Takahashi)
  • Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari (Supercell)
  • God Knows… (Haruhi Shizumiya (C.V. Aya Hirano))
  • Senbonzakura (WhiteFlame feat. Hatsune Miku)
  • Ainekuraine (Kenshi Yonetsu)
  • Nandemonai ya (Radwimps)
  • Yokoso Japari Park e (Doubutsu Biscuits x PPP)
  • Ghost Rail (DECO*27)
  • Only My Railgun (fripSide)
  • Silent Majority (Keyakizaka46)
  • Kanade (Sukima Switch)
  • Buriki no Dance (Nikkou Denkou feat. Hatsune Miku)
  • Saudaaji (Porno-Graffiti)
  • Charles (Balloon)
  • Unravel (TK from Ling Tosite Sigure)
  • Butter-Fly (Kouji Wada)
Comments (2)
  1. The Genesis of Aquarion op is a really good example of a song that has reached way outside the anime market. It’s been used everywhere and a lot of Japanese people are familiar with the song, but almost NOBODY has actually seen the anime series itself.

  2. Was Macross (the first TV series and its movie) not featured? I thought the songs had a big success back then (and they sounded more like normal music than something specific to animation).

    It’s weird to call those opening/ending songs “anime-songs” nowadays when they’re almost all external songs simply promoted by the show (or “featured” like the article says). The last real songs made for anime are mainly found in little children TV shows op./end., movies and some in-episode songs.

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