Rhythm-based video games dominate Japan’s arcades, and their popularity has influenced everyone from major pop stars to underground electronic producers
Japan is considered by some margin the longstanding pioneer of video game culture, both for how the country has continually reimagined the gaming console and for the population’s widespread embrace of the medium. Game soundtracks have the power to narrate our youth and break out into the realm of classical music, but Japan’s love of video games has not only influenced a wave of producers and pop stars, it’s helped create them. While producers inspired by Aphex Twin and acid house hone their skills on Ableton in their bedroom, in Japan, creators are doing the same in the arcade. Games like Jubeat let you imagine yourself as a J-Pop J Dilla, while Para Para Paradise (named after the Para Para dance craze, not the Coldplay anthem) brings wannabee dancers centre stage. For all the musical expertise, instrumental talent, or rhythm-based hobbies out there, there’s almost certainly a video game to virtually channel your talents into – and in Japan, superhuman gaming talents are helping to create the next wave of icons and fuelling unexpected underground movements.
THE DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
In western territories the popularity of video game soundtracks are more appreciated as a niche artform or for its enlisting of outside musical talent – Hudson Mohawke’s recent Watch Dogs 2 soundtrack and 65daysofstatic’s ever-evolving compositions for No Man’s Sky were celebrated as a part of the game’s overall narrative – but in Japan, video game composers are treated like pop royalty in themselves
Since its creation in 1997, Konami’s Bemani line has cemented itself as Japan’s most popular range of music-based consoles. Games like Gitadora (an arthritis-inducing drumming simulator) and BeatStream (a game that can only be described as a steroid-pumped equivalent of Candy Crush) attribute their colossal success to a roster of electronic composers and crossover J-Pop stars creating their soundtracks. Take Dance Dance Revolution, whose two most famous in-house artists Naoki Maeda and Yuichi Asami have broken out from behind the scenes to become name artists in their own right. This shaky, handheld recording of Maeda playing Japanese happy hardcore in LA or Asami soundtracking the end-of-tournament celebrations at 2012’s Konami Arcade Championships are small examples of their overall worldwide appeal, but Maeda and Asami are far from the only two Japanese artists to amass a near cult-like following.
Names like DJ Yoshitaka, Kors K, and Ryu☆ all began their career producing playable levels for the hugely successful Beatmania IIDX franchise before building success in the wider musical world, harnessing a unique fandom where dual-wielding air guitar solos send stadiums into fits of hysteria. Away from the beatmakers making 200BPM nosebleed material, J-Pop stars Tag Tsubasa and Mayumi Morinaga lead choreographed dance troupes of thousands with live performances of your favourite Beatmania IIDX anthems. The undisputed home of this form of Japanese clubland is found in the Bemani in-house label beatnation Records, founded by dj TAKA in 2006 to champion Beatmania IIDX artists and releases inspired by the game. As a true testament to the label’s success over a near decade-long existence, the yearly beatnation summit has cemented itself as the Glastonbury of the Beatmania IIDX calendar.
Ever since the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in July 1983, Japanese musicians have pushed the boundaries of 8-bit and 16-bit sound. From Hirokazu Tanaka, who transformed a 19th century Russian folk song into the Tetris theme tune, to Yuzo Koshiro’s pivotal soundtrack to Streets Of Rage, Japanese musicians have turned limitations in technology into an artform in itself. The release of the Nintendo GameBoy in 1989 made these sounds both portable and inexpensive. That was a good thing – mostly, depending on whether or not you choose to believe the urban legend of Pokémon’s Lavender Town. But with that new capacity for technology and compositional tools like Little Sound DJ came chiptune, the artform of turning hacked games consoles into musical instruments. While it remains a niche genre reserved for those who have the patience to trawl through a large amount of lacklustre offerings, the genre hits its peak in Japan.
For the chiptune purists there’s Professor Sakamoto, whose 2016 album INSERT vol.3 – NINJA OR DIE is an 8-bit ode to a Shinobi-esque video game that never existed. Live, Professor Sakamoto performs dressed as a Berghain-dwelling Darth Vader with a Famicom Disk System attached to his head. Others, like producer, label founder, and graphic designer Toriena, are brands in and of themselves, collaborating on GameBoy-inspired clothing lines and hoodies that we’re all far too old to wear. Outside the realm of solely 8-bit influences, however, is where the future lies, with labels like the Tokyo-based Trekkie Trax fusing western influences with sounds of the arcade. As long-running labels like Booty Tune bring juke and footwork to the Far East, Trekkie Trax merge similar global genres with chiptune to pump Street Fighter-inspired Miami bass from your laptop speakers. Trekkie Trax releases like Hiroki Yamamura’s “Disco Traveler” and Carpainter’s “Out of Resistance” hark back to the retrofuturism of titles like Wipeout, while Masayoshi Iimori’s “Break Over DPA” (as featured on beatmania IIDX 24), ensures that 8-bit lives on for the next generation.
If you think the UK’s nightlife laws are a little outdated, be thankful you don’t live in Japan. Until 2015, a 67-year-old law was in place across the country stipulating that venues that allowed their customers to dance were classed as ‘adult entertainment establishments’, and as such were banned from opening past midnight. It’s also common to find internet cafes (or mangakissa) doubling up as overnight lodgings for Japan’s avid gamers, and the country has one of the highest rates of game addiction anywhere in the world. With the increasing popularity of VR, it’s understandable to see why wouldbe night owls could turn to adopting a virtual world as their own, and it’s not completely farfetched to think it could create the country’s future pop stars too.
Virtual pop stars have become big business in Japan of late. Relative new kids on the block Eight of Triangle are, well, just pretty unnerving all in all, and Hatsune Miku recently played a sell-out show at London’s Barbican despite the fact she doesn’t actually exist. In fact, with the rise of VR and the Oculus Rift, games like Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X put you in the audience of the virtual pop star’s virtual performance, virtually. As a Japanese term which roughly translates as ‘geek performance’, Otaku Gei describes a dance craze seen at J-Pop concerts where grown men hold glow sticks and move in unison with each other to the sound of girls over half their age. It derives from Romeo & Juliet, apparently, but thanks to VR and a non-existent band called the Cinderella Girls, you don’t even need to leave the house to dance with teenagers. For those who want to be the star themselves, however, then Joysound VR fuse two of Japan’s favourite pastimes: karaoke and idolising J-Pop icons. If singing at the television alone in your house doesn’t sound ideal then you can (sort of) do it in the company of one of Japan’s biggest boybands, Golden Bomber, as you join them onstage amongst thousands of virtual fans.