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Japan won’t let ‘Frozen’ go

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

At first blush, the Japanese success of the animated film “Frozen” seems easy to explain. In a country where people pack Tokyo Disneyland on weekdays, of course a new princess-centric cartoon from Disney would succeed, but “Frozen” has been a phenomenon all its own. It’s on pace to be the second-highest-grossing film in Japanese history, and has become an inescapable presence in pop culture this year.

The soundtrack to “Frozen” boasts similar success. It topped the Oricon album charts for three straight weeks, the first animated-film soundtrack to do so since 1979. The musical numbers from the movie — in particular dramatic centerpiece “Let It Go,” originally sung in English by Idina Menzel — are more likely to be heard on TV or blasting through public speakers than any new AKB48 single. It’s the most ever-present music from the most ever-present movie of the year. So, how did “Frozen” (rendered as “Anna to Yuki no Joo [Anna and the Snow Queen]” in Japanese) pull it off?

Part of the soundtrack’s commercial success stems from Disney’s AKB-style approach to selling the songs. The Japanese album comes with all the original English versions of the movie’s musical numbers, and includes a second disc of Japanese-language takes on those songs from the film’s Japanese voice actors. The Japanese interpretations are well-done and the language change is rarely jarring (save the clunky Frank Sinatra-aping of “In Summer”). However, the real genius lies in the digital sales strategy. The soundtrack’s songs have held the iTunes charts in a vice grip for most of the year thanks to fans buying both the English originals and the Japanese covers, along with an additional, uneventful take of “Let It Go” from singer May J.

It’s also important to note that the “Frozen” soundtrack taps into a popular musical trend — the rise of pop music suitable for Broadway productions. In Japan, the American TV series “Glee” saw a period of popularity as did the American musical “Wicked” (Menzel also played one of the lead roles in that production’s first Broadway run and sang the song “Defying Gravity,” which, from sound to theme, is “Let It Go” in chrysalis). The technique has extended to popular music in Japan, from the embrace of New York trio fun. to the prominence of domestic acts such as Dempagumi.inc.

Ultimately, though, “Frozen” brings to mind classic Disney songs, many of which are now getting the theatrical treatment all over the world. The soundtrack’s success will probably get credit once more when today’s teens start spending their yen to see the on-stage version.