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.