Fans breach the language barrier at overseas expos of Japanese pop culture as soon as the music starts. Legions of non-Japanese, most of whose knowledge of the language is limited to basic greetings and exclamations, burst into karaoke-style singalongs, mimicking dance moves and waving glow sticks. This instant fluency lasts for about three to five minutes, then the song ends and they segue into shouts of approval in their native tongues. Rock on.
The Japanese music industry hasn’t had an international chart-topper since Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” (Ue o Muite Arukou) — released in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1963. And while contemporaries Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and virtual idol Hatsune Miku generate millions of YouTube hits, they are lightweights next to South Korean Psy and his one-off wonder, “Gangnam Style,” which is now famous for overloading the file-sharing site’s view counter last month.
The language barrier is what most Japanese industry producers cite as their chief obstacle to global success, especially in Western countries. But it’s also true that some managers seek to avoid associating their acts with established anime and manga fan bases abroad. In two recent cases in New York, I was told that management in Tokyo didn’t want “anime fans” or “otaku types” in the venues, at least not in the front rows, because the concerts were being filmed for Japanese DVD release. They targeted rock fans and club-goers instead, presumably seeking some kind of hipster sex appeal.
Lantis Company, Ltd. is the only major Japanese music producer whose eyes have been fixed on the anime prize from the beginning. Now into its 16th year, Lantis was cofounded in 1999 by president and CEO Shuji Inoue to produce soundtracks and theme songs for anime (known as “anisongs”) and game titles. (Inoue, a keyboardist and former rock musician, produced the soundtrack of the 1998 anime series, “Silent Mobius.”)
Lantis began producing shows outside of Japan in 2006, sending individual artists to appear in Europe, the United States and South America. To celebrate its 15th anniversary last year, the company put together its first package tour in Japan called “The Lantis Festival,” featuring a roster of anisong artists who performed nine shows in Tokyo, Osaka, Mie and Miyagi. Inoue estimates the tour reached 70,000 fans.
“That tour gave us the experience and confidence we needed to take a full package tour overseas,” he tells me at the company’s Ebisu-area headquarters.
This year, the “Anisong World Tour — Lantis Festival 2015” will visit six international cities: Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and Seoul, and a yet-to-be-announced final stop. On Jan. 16 and 17, a lineup of seven artists, headlined by JAM (Japan Animationsong Makers), will be joined by Hatsune Miku to kick off the tour at The Joint — Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Vegas.
“We’re specifically targeting American fans” Inoue says with regards to the debut show. “Las Vegas is an entertainment town. We have artists who will perform songs from 1980s and ’90s anime hits as well as contemporary series. You’ll hear music from ‘Dragonball Z,’ ‘One Piece,’ ‘Sailor Moon’ and ‘Macross.’ ”
JAM leader, veteran rock singer Hironobu Kageyama (known to “Dragonball” fans as “Mr. DBZ” for his soundtrack work on the series), believes that animation offers music a unique and far-reaching channel to listeners, especially online.
“Connecting with an audience through animation gives your music a greater opportunity to be recognized on the Internet,” he says. “I do my best to understand the animation I score, reading the script and so on, before I write. In some ways, (composing for) anime is easier because you already know the goal of your music.”
The festival will coincide with Otakon Vegas, an offshoot of the annual Baltimore convention, the largest on the East Coast. Many Lantis artists have appeared individually at Otakon. “Their staff share our purity of affection for Japanese pop culture contents,” says Inoue.
The Vegas premiere is a vast undertaking. A total of 80 Lantis staff members and 25 musicians will fly to the Nevada desert for the two-day event — plus Miku and her backing band and the 20 or so engineers and technicians required to stage the digital diva.
Inoue has no plans to profit from the tour, but he won’t agree to my calling it a long-term investment. The tour is a “service, like a gift” to fans of anisongs, who will return the favor if they’re given first-rate entertainment. He reminds me that last year was the first in which CD sales by domestic musicians in Japan, including several anisong creators, surpassed those of overseas artists.
“I like to think that’s partly the result of the high-quality product we’ve been offering Japanese fans for 15 years. The fans are now supporting us. And I hope to eventually earn that same level of support from overseas fans, too.”
Anisong World Tour — Lantis Festival 2015 kicks off at The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Jan. 16 (7 p.m. start) and 17 (2 p.m. start). Tickets for each day range between $50-$125. The tour resumes Feb. 7 in Hong Kong, with dates in Singapore, Seoul and Taipei to follow. For more information, visit www.lantis.jp/15th/2015.Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.