The Japanese word for cute, “kawaii,” has been popping up more and more in the English lexicon in recent years. From the popularity of Hello Kitty to singer Gwen Stefani’s new kawaii-filled cartoon “Kuu Kuu Harajuku” being cute means making money, and it’s no different in the world of music.
Spurred by the global success of Harajuku model-turned-pop-star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the headbanging teens of Babymetal, Japanese acts that traffic in up-tempo beats and playful electronics can also expect to be labeled kawaii.
One such act is Tokyo-based producer Yoshino Yoshikawa. His songs are often described as cute by music critics and fellow creators (Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth mashed-up a Yoshikawa track with one from rapper Danny Brown calling it “Kush Coma [Kawaii Yoshino Yoshikawa Version].”) And the label fits — some of Yoshikawa’s original works include “Kawaii Candy,” “Kawaii Macaron” and at least three cuts featuring the word “cat.”
“I feel there is a difference between how the Japanese and Westerners use the word ‘kawaii,'” Yoshikawa says from a cafe in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood. “I wanted to try to pinpoint the difference between the two perspectives, about what kawaii could mean to different people, in those songs.”
Listening to his latest album, there’s no doubt that Yoshikawa has changed perspectives. “Event Horizon” finds him meditating on topics such as artificial intelligence and human intersection with technology, themes far removed from what you’ll get from cuddly J-pop. He has used many of the same sounds from his previous work, but they’ve been switched up into something more reflective and heady that shows how kawaii can be flipped around.
Yoshikawa originally studied piano in elementary school, but admits he wasn’t into it. Instead, he gravitated toward the internet, composing melodies on his cell phone. A rough stretch in high school led to him becoming a bit of a hikikomori (shut-in), but during this time he got deep into two otaku (nerdish obsessives) music communities: One focused on the singing-synthesizer software Vocaloid, and the other an online scene centered around reworking music from bullet-hell shooter game “Touhou Project.”
“I got into all of this otaku music culture, but I never got too obsessed with it, because I didn’t feel there was that much freedom within it,” Yoshikawa says, referring to the limitations of Vocaloid (a pre-programmed voice) and “Touhou” (existing background music). That’s when a friend told him about the burgeoning netlabel scene, in particular Maltine Records.
He began releasing original work through the online imprint in 2009, mixing squelchy dance touches with twinkling piano notes and female vocals, well ahead of J-pop’s leap into kawaii. During this period, he figured out exactly what he wanted to do with his style.
“J-pop uses genres from abroad as a texture, and it kind of gets blurred. It becomes out of focus,” he says. Yoshikawa wanted to emphasize the texture of sound, so that individual pieces (say a bell, or a piano) would stand out in the mix rather than assimilate. Other netlabel artists, such as producers Avec Avec and Tomggg, followed a similar path, packing songs tightly with whimsical sounds.
Yoshikawa slowed down his musical output for a time and it was then he got into technology. The songs on “Event Horizon” wrangle with a rapidly digitizing world, Yoshikawa himself declaring he doesn’t want “to be part of big data” on “Opt Out,” while also deploying the synthesized voice of Hatsune Miku on several tracks.
“It has been almost 10 years since Vocaloid appeared, and people are starting to get used to it. It’s becoming part of a sound spectrum,” he says, adding that he was intrigued by the lack of emotions the program conveyed.
Still, “Event Horizon” features plenty of human singers, along with a lot of familiar synth sounds and sparkling details. But it never gets too cute, Yoshikawa opts instead for a more understated sound and deploys the kinetic stylings of Jersey club music.
“I can’t go back to a purely kawaii style,” he says. “It’s fun to throw myself into different styles, and just see what happens.”
It’s especially refreshing coming from the country’s contemporary electronic scene, where the same kawaii sounds Yoshikawa leaned on have collided with bass-heavy EDM styles, resulting in hyper-chirpy dance music with ample drops. It has its charms — and works wonders on the dancefloor — but sometimes you have to lay off the candy.
“This kawaii sound, it’s like sugar in music,” Yoshikawa says. “I wanted to level it down a bit. Like I’m trying to avoid becoming diabetic.”