Big in Japan

How does one tiny island nation create so much disposable pop?

But its newfound success hasn't always had positive effects. When superstar Hideto Matsumoto, known to his fans as Hide (pronounced hee-day), hanged himself in the bathroom of his Tokyo mansion in 1998, he inspired a wave of copycat suicide attempts that resulted in the deaths of two girls. Hide's music and fashion were hugely influential throughout Japan, inspiring imitators and rocketing up the charts in the clubs as well as in the karaoke parlors. After signing with Sony in 1988, Hide played the part of a rock god in several bands, including X Japan, Saber Tiger, and the obscenely monikered Spread Beaver. A KISS and Aerosmith fan since the '70s, he took Japanese glam beyond heavy metal, infusing it with the grunge that had become popular in the United States in the early '90s.

Hide's hair, clothes, and makeup launched a thousand breathless Web sites dedicated to describing it in almost pornographic detail. Fans kept records of each of his concerts, and his funeral in Tokyo's Honganji Temple was well-attended, with 12,000-plus young Japanese queued up to pay their last respects. In the past year since his death, Hide's shadow remains large. Groups such as GLAY -- which recently played to 200,000 people in Chiba, making it Japan's largest concert ever -- and L'arc~en~ciel have carried his torch, continuing to push the moody sounds popularized by the doomed young star into the homes of Japan through commercials, movie soundtracks and television appearances.

L'arc~en~ciel's (a French term for "rainbow") current tremendous popularity with young Japanese people may be related to the vacuum left by Hide's death. Fronted by another Hyde, L'arc~en~ciel -- or Luruku, as they're commonly know by the Japanese -- sing about half of their lyrics in a sort of broken, nonsensical English. After suffering an almost unheard-of drug bust in 1997, the band saw its CDs being pulled from store shelves in moral indignation. Defying public criticism and armed with a slightly more American-friendly sound and new drummer, Luruku rebounded in the past year to chart success but were bitterly denounced by some longtime fans for abandoning their more traditional, romanticized sound.

Hideo Matsumoto, known to his fans as Hide, was so popular in Japan that his fans did everything he did, with unfortunate results.
Hideo Matsumoto, known to his fans as Hide, was so popular in Japan that his fans did everything he did, with unfortunate results.
Namie Amuro dominates the Oricon charts in Japan, with the help of producer-Svengali Tetsuya Komura.
Namie Amuro dominates the Oricon charts in Japan, with the help of producer-Svengali Tetsuya Komura.

The group's ties to the still-practiced Enka tradition are more apparent than in the slippery disco of girl group SPEED (who owe more to the Spice Girls than anything), Namie Amuro, or even the boy groups such as SMAP or Kinki Kids. Enka, a highly emotional song form, relies on a baroque vocal arrangement that deals in themes of lost love and nostalgia, and L'arc~en~ciel's Hyde is recognized throughout Japan as perhaps its greatest rock vocalist, with an emotional range that belies the flashy trappings of the wild hair and clothes the band favors.

And those trappings fit right in with Japan's consumer culture. A walk through Tokyo's hip Harajuku district reveals photoclub booths where you can get your picture taken with members of some of J-pop's biggest stars, and vending machines offer the top 20 CDs for your ultimate shopping convenience. Groups such as L'arc~en~ciel make numerous appearances on the tube, sometimes to sing their latest hit, sometimes providing theme songs to popular sitcoms and cartoons. All the while, certain producers and publishers such as Tetsuya Komura are making a killing repackaging American pop and selling it to their own people with Japanese lyrics.

The ruthlessly structured Japanese music industry, however, is squashing the smaller indie-music scene by keeping it out of sight of the masses, flooding the market with singles and compilations of performers who have been rigorously coached in the science of pop superstardom. Perhaps it's the final irony that the only inroads being made by Japanese musical groups into America are by acts who find themselves virtually blacklisted from the national media in their home country. But while Cornelius and Buffalo Daughter wow the hipsters in New York and Los Angeles, groups such as SPEED (with its collective average age of 16) and MAX continue to capture the imagination of Japanese teenage girls with a mixture of innocent sexuality and almost unbearable cuteness. Coming soon to a tiny backpack near you.

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