Shibuya-kei was one of the defining features of the music and fashion scenes of the 1990s, and it helped spawn the idea of “Cool Japan.”
The genre’s sound was eclectic and openly embraced Western musical influences such as ’60s lounge music, bossa nova, French pop and British guitar-pop, then coupled that mix with dance-music tenets and sampling technology. Flag-bearers for the movement include Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine and Flipper’s Guitar.
Shibuya-kei also represented a rare conjunction of commercial and artistic success, with independent artists having a real impact on mainstream music. In fact, some of these acts arguably set the scene for a flirtation between major Japanese labels and indie musicians that saw new-wave revivalists like Polysics sign to Sony and U.K.- U.S.-rock-influenced groups like Supercar and Number Girl define the subsequent decade in Japanese alternative music.
In the mid-2000s, artists such as capsule, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Plus-tech Squeeze Box, Macdonald Duck Eclair, and the Aprils seemed like they might herald a revival of the Shibuya sound. Among them, capsule were the only group to make a commercial impression, and that was in large part (at least initially) down to their connection with the idol-trio Perfume, who were at that time considered to be a largely Akihabara-related phenomenon (we’ll get more into what that means in a moment).
These days, in fact, it seems that many of Japan’s more commercially ambitious yet creatively inclined musicians see the more culturally specific and Japan-centric anime and idol-music worlds, for so long the domain of Japan’s despised otaku (nerdish obsessive) subculture, as their path forward, and judging by the chart dominance of Akihabara-based idol-monstrosity AKB48, it is perhaps inevitable. In 2007, JVC records made the connection explicit, with the release of a compilation titled “AKSB,” on which artists like Pizzicato Five veteran Yasuharu Konishi covered songs from a variety of popular anime.
One place that this conjunction was on display recently was at the Koenji High venue in Tokyo on Nov. 22, where the Aprils celebrated the release of their new mini-album, “Magical Girls.” That title is a direct appeal to the nostalgia evoked by ’80s cartoons such as “Magical Princess Minky Momo,” with its pastel-colored artwork (and equally pastel-tinged music) drawing a connection across the Yamanote Line loop from Shibuya to Akihabara.
Appearing alongside the Aprils were pop-cabaret performance troupe Sono na wa Spade (The Lady Spade), who, over the past few years, have trodden a path that has taken them from a kind of Shibuya-kei reminiscent, sexy-1960s-spy-movie chic to a full-on cat-ears-and-maid-costumes Akihabara fetish image complete with anime cover songs and self-produced erotic art books.
Sales of non-Korean foreign music continue to fall in Japan and the more internationally-minded indie musicians are finding themselves (possibly self-confined) in a kind of incestuous hipster niche. When The Japan Times spoke to him last year, Nobuya Usui of (M)otocompo (who will be performing with the Aprils at a gig on Feb. 4) talked of a creative malaise in the indie world, noting that many of the more vibrant creative talents were working in the underground idol scene, and it’s easy to see the crossover between the ’80s-animated, pop-culture nostalgia that the Aprils occasionally flirt with and the tokusatsu imagery (live-action monster shows such as the “Godzilla” and “Super Sentai” series) of recent idol breakthroughs Momoiro Clover Z.
In one way, this simply shows that the Shibuya-kei revival was a mirage from the start. The Aprils have been playing around with geeky pop imagery since they formed in the early 2000s. They were at the forefront of the “chiptune” vintage-videogame-influenced scene that eventually spawned YMCK. They covered the song “Lum no Love Song” from the classic ’80s anime “Urusei Yatsura” way back in their early days, and in 2009 they made a whole album of music using the Vocaloid voice-synthesizer software’s Hatsune Miku character.
As well as this, however, I believe this “Akihabarization” of Shibuya-kei reflects the cultural sway of the otaku. Increased media attention and consumer power has led to a new respectability, which has opened some of the more picturesque surface details of Akihabara culture (including anime fandom) for wider, nonotaku uses. Playing to their audience’s shared childhood ephemera is culturally introspective and probably not a positive long-term trend, but it shouldn’t be seen as the defeat of an intellectually curious pop culture by the animalistic behemoth of Akihabara.
Look again at the Aprils CD and it’s clear that their “magical girls” are by no means the innocent, saucer-eyed ingenues of otaku fantasies. Listen to Sono na wa Spade’s anime covers and you’ll notice they’ve chosen to play avant-garde theatrical composer and all-round drug-addled hippy J.A. Seazer’s ludicrous “Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku,” a song from psychedelic ’90s mind trip “Revolutionary Girl Utena.” These are artists just as keen to evoke literary figures such as Vladimir Nabokov or Shuji Terayama as they are magical princesses and maid cafes.
It may not be a big step forward for music, but as a sideways shuffle, it certainly has something interesting to offer.
The Aprils play Hills Pan Kojo in Nishi-ku, Osaka, on Jan. 28 (5:30 p.m.; ¥2,500 in adv.;  6110-0178); Milkyway in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Feb. 4 (6 p.m.; ¥2,300 in adv.) and Feb. 10 (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,000 in adv.;  6416-3227). The Aprils “Magical Girls” is on sale at record stores now. For more information, visit www.aprils.jp.