Over the past two decades, Japanese pop culture has made major inroads abroad, thanks mainly to interest in video games and anime.
Interest in those two areas has never really translated into much love for J-pop in the West, but recent acts such as Babymetal and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu have made some progress winning new fans. Garrett Yim, the musician behind electronic project Meishi Smile, says that despite small gains, J-pop fans are still treated with a bit of apprehension.
“In America, to enjoy Japanese pop culture is still very taboo,” Yim says. “I think people just need to display enough confidence in themselves to show that what they like is a completely normal thing.”
The Los Angeles-area resident also runs the small Zoom Lens record label, and he’ll bring a sampling of his label’s sound to Japan next month when he plays shows as Meishi Smile in Tokyo and Osaka.
His visit will also include a set at a day-long showcase for Tokyo netlabel Maltine Records at Liquidroom on May 5. Maltine and Zoom Lens share an affinity for much of the same style of self-produced electronic music.
Meishi Smile’s music is infused with anime samples and influenced by the work of producer Yasutaka Nakata, but Yim says his earliest encounters with Japanese pop culture came via his Nintendo 64 game console.
“I have fond memories of being a bit alone as a child and not having many friends,” he says, “but I never really cared because I spent most of my time playing (video) games.”
The soundtracks to those games stuck with him, but discovering Nakata’s MySpace page was what really motivated him to start creating music. “It was like music you were meant to dance alone to,” he says.
Before Meishi Smile, Yim created noise music under the alias Yuko Imada and acoustic-driven shoegaze as nono. He began Meishi Smile after becoming more interested in “future techno idols” such as Nakata’s capsule, Perfume, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Aphex Twin.
“There are many elements from Yuko Imada and nono. still present in Meishi Smile, they’re just explored under a different musical format,” Yim says.
Meishi Smile’s debut album, “Lust,” was released in 2012, but reissued this year by U.S. label Attack The Music. On the 14-track “Lust,” Yim balances J-pop influences with a melancholic shoegaze sheen. It’s an emotional blur with a dancier edge.
Yim says Meishi Smile doesn’t conform to one type of sound, though. He is a longtime fan of Maltine, which features free album downloads on its website. He has been enthusiastic about showing his support for the netlabel’s acts, which eventually paid off. He struck up an acquaintance with Maltine head Tomohiro “Tomad” Konuta that eventually resulted in him releasing last year’s “Mysterious Summer Vacation” via the Maltine website. The six-track digital album features Yim remixing J-pop and anime tunes from the likes of Sotaisei Riron and the cartoon “Chobits.”
“My Maltine show will feature all aspects of what I do with Meishi Smile,” Yim says. The event will feature artists from Maltine’s growing roster, including Briton Calum Bowen, who records as Bo En and shares Yim’s J-pop infatuation. Bowen will also perform at a Zoom Lens showcase at live-streaming studio 2.5D, with local artists such as Yoshino Yoshikawa and LLLL.
“I think with Zoom Lens I’m trying to establish a sense of community and bring about a message to make people not feel like losers all the time,” Yim says. “I feel like J-pop and anime subculture in America is very punk rock and I hope for that community of people to grow stronger together.”
Meishi Smile plays Liquidroom in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 5 (3 p.m. start; ¥3,300 in advance; 03-5720-9999); 2.5D in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 9 (7 p.m. start; ¥1,500 at the door); and Club Stomp in Chuo-ku, Osaka, on May 11 (5 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in adv.; 06-6245-0889). For more information, visit www.zoom-lens.org.