Although the artists once grouped under the Shibuya-kei umbrella — Cornelius, Kahimi Karie and Fantastic Plastic Machine, to name a few — have moved away from their old musical styles and want distance from the genre, Shibuya-kei remains a convenient expression to identify that loose assembly of 1990s musicians who rebelled against J-pop hegemony and transformed the international image of Japanese culture.
The Japanese media invented the term more than a decade ago to describe the hodge-podge of young musicians ignored by the mainstream, but who sold anomalously well at Shibuya’s import record stores HMV and Tower Records. Sonically, the artists did not share a specific style, but more of a guiding philosophy. They worked almost exclusively in pastiche and bricolage — mixing, matching, rearranging, deconstructing and straightup stealing from California ’60s soft rock, French Ye-Ye, Chicago house, East Coast hip-hop sampling (Pizzicato Five), German krautrock (Buffalo Daughter, Takako Minekawa), Scottish anorak pop, Madchester club beats (Flipper’s Guitar), Brazilian bossa nova, Italian film soundtracks (Fantastic Plastic Machine) and any and all other internationalist, retro-futurist genres. Labels often referred to the result as “Japanese yogaku” — Western music created by Japanese artists.
Shibuya-kei won a large group of young fans who had grown too sophisticated for the Japanese pop machine’s monotonous parade of tone-deaf idol groups and pseudo-bad-boy rock bands. Things kicked off when “Young, Alive, in Love” by Flipper’s Guitar appeared as a nighttime TV drama theme song in the early ’90s and the two agnes b-wearing young musicians in the band — Keigo Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa — became heart-throbs to legions of readers of Olive, the now-defunct “alternagirl” sister mag to Popeye. When Flipper’s broke up in 1992, Ozawa went on to become a bona fide pop star. Oyamada, aka Cornelius, started the influential and idiosyncratic label Trattoria Records, and around his orbit grew an ever-expanding group of compatriots with diverse sonic agendas but a shared antiestablishment attitude: including the doll-like Kahimi Karie, the new improved Pizzicato Five with Nomiya Maki, the soulful Love Tambourines at indie label Crue-L Records, and laid-back rappers Scha Dara Parr.
Only a handful of these artists ever cracked the Oricon charts, but their success with hipsters on the fringes and adoring teenagers helped create a bewildering infrastructure of independent record shops, trendy cafes, and open-minded book stores that made Tokyo a repository for so much obscure international modern culture. All over the world, the ’90s saw a rise of sample culture, and foreigners could not help but notice that the Shibuya-kei crew was on the leading edge. Music creation had gone from being “pure songwriting” to something based in consumption, collection, and curation — three areas in which the Japanese had always shone. By the late ’90s, foreign labels from Los Angeles to Berlin were snapping up Japanese artists for worldwide release.
Shibuya-kei’s subsequent overseas success is still its greatest legacy. Pizzicato Five and Cornelius sold tens of thousands more records in the United States than Utada Hikaru and her million-dollar marketing campaigns ever managed. Some of Japan’s contemporary appeal as a “cultural power” stems from the foreign cognoscenti’s fascination with and admiration of Shibuya-kei and the music’s influence on Western artists — such as “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”-era Flaming Lips. Along with manga and anime, this helped change the worldwide image of Japan from a nation of undiscerningly imitative consumers automatically eating up anything foreign to a wonderland that absorbed, chopped up and spat out the coolest content. As with Ura-Harajuku fashion, Shibuya-kei raised standards for mass culture in Japan high enough that the Japanese started to sense that they had actually surpassed the West.
The music itself, however, has not aged particularly well — especially since most of the output featured artists rewriting their favorite ’60s songs with the minor addition of some then-contemporary but now-outdated production. With the key Shibuya-kei references better known and cataloged now, it is hard to imagine someone wanting to hear a quirky reinterpretation of songs by Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends when the original tracks are easy to find.
The ex-Shibuya-kei artists have moved on to much more mature sonic experimentation, and people like Cornelius and Buffalo Daughter are still some of Japan’s most innovative musicians. Unfortunately, however, the internationalist Japan they helped to build has started to erode under less welcoming economic conditions and a youth culture less interested in the outside world. Two of the best Shibuya-kei record shops, Maximum Joy and Zest, both met sudden deaths in the last two years. But we should not cry over the end of Shibuya-kei as the conclusion of a formal cultural “movement”: It was more like the BGM of choice for the mass adoption of cutting-edge culture in ’90s Tokyo. The monuments may be disappearing, but the spirit of Shibuya-kei still lives in every trendy cafe playing obscure ’60s bossa nova lightly in the background.