Summer Sonic’s helter-skelter lineup provides a lot of chances for younger Japanese acts

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

When it comes to music festivals in Japan, Fuji Rock is the pretty one, Rock in Japan is the domestic one and Summer Sonic is the crowd pleaser. Past headliners have included acts as diverse as Metallica, Beyonce, Green Day and Stevie Wonder.

In 2018, music’s mainstream is all over the place when it comes to genre, so it’s good that Summer Sonic tries to cater to everyone: This year’s headliners include Beck and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds for the 1990s kids, Chance The Rapper for the hip-hop crowd and Marshmello for all those EDM heads on Sunday. Scroll down the timetable, though, and everything gets represented — metal, spiritual jazz, Latin pop … Nickelback.

This variety can be found in the Japanese acts lining the bill, too. Summer Sonic has long been more open to domestic acts compared to Fuji Rock — which has put more effort into representing Japan acts as of late (likely because it brings out more locals). Summer Sonic has in turn gone a step further, showcasing bigger J-pop names such as mid-tempo rock bands like Mr. Children and Tokio, and over-the-top idol acts like Momoiro Clover Z and Babymetal. It’s as if the Overton window for J-pop at music festivals is sliding further up the Oricon charts.

Scanning this weekend’s lineups at the simultaneous Tokyo and Osaka shows, however, it looks like organizer Creativeman has gone with variety and youth over legacy. The closest thing to a marquee J-pop name gracing the main Marine Stage at this year’s event is the Back Number, a popular band but one that lacks the kind of hard-core fans who will trek out to Chiba just to see them (unlike the fan army of Mr. Children). In a way, Summer Sonic 2018’s domestic offerings capture the current discombobulated state of the country’s music industry, while also offering a good glance at what the future might hold.

Looking at the Tokyo roster, a lot of space this year goes to young women trying to move up the J-pop ranks. At the top of the pack is Daoko, who plays the Rainbow Stage on Sunday afternoon (and who may possibly join Beck for his headlining spot as they collaborated last year). She was half responsible for last year’s biggest hit, “Uchiage Hanabi,” alongside Kenshi Yonezu. The surprise success of that song was so sudden that she’s still trying to find her footing, so this set should be a big moment for her.

Plenty of other aspiring stars will get a shot at showing off this year. Saturday sees the deep-voiced iri appear early on the Sonic Stage, while the following day sees the bouncier stylings of Riri in the same spot. Both dabble in forward-thinking pop production (lots of pitched vocals, lots of off-kilter synth sounds) anchored by sticky hooks. Those whose taste gravitates toward anime theme songs should get out early Saturday morning for Sayuri, a rising name in the anison (anime songs) genre who merges zippy melodies with dabs of acoustic guitar. Chanmina, meanwhile, offers the biggest departure from typical J-pop as she’s more rapper than pop star — and one of the only domestic hip-hop acts getting significant billing at the event (see also Sky-Hi, who leans more pop in 2018).

See the future: For a sense of where J-pop is (or should be) heading, check out Aimyon
See the future: For a sense of where J-pop is (or should be) heading, check out Aimyon’s Saturday set at the Beach Stage on the Tokyo leg of Summer Sonic.

The most intriguing young female artist playing Summer Sonic — and the one hinting at where J-pop could go in the future moreso than anyone else — is Aimyon, at the Beach Stage on Saturday. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter went viral in 2014 thanks to a video using the Line messaging app to tell a story of a stalker, and has since become bigger thanks to spoken-word pop songs and loose-limbed funk featuring lyrics about being a young Japanese person in the 2010s. She’s on an upward climb — not to mention one of the first artists to really benefit from streaming sites such as Apple Music — and one to see if you are interested in where J-pop trends are heading.

Still, this is a music festival and Japan is a country that continues to gravitate toward rock above all else. So, aside from Back Number, the only other Japanese acts appearing on the main stage are rising rockers My First Story and The Oral Cigarettes (is there another kind?), who are both playing Sunday. Scattered throughout the weekend are other acts that have been kicking around for a while, from hard-rockers Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas to the loopy Frederic.

To see the next big thing in J-rock, head to the Rainbow Stage on Saturday. Rising quartet Polkadot Stingray plays early in the afternoon, and has quickly become one of the more buzzed-about acts in the mainstream rock space thanks to energetic numbers that are topped off by vocalist Shizuku’s singing. After Polkadot Stingray comes Kami-sama, I Have Noticed, a band whose members each sport masks (they kind of look like Marshmello’s extended family). Kami-sama also played last year, but looks to cement its rising status with this weekend’s return.

An entire side stage at Summer Sonic is devoted to idol pop, but two artists have managed to jump to larger spots this year — possibly because the festival is still riding high on Babymetal’s big Marine Stage set from last year. Passcode and Bish both perform over the same sort of metal-inspired music, and both deliver a more aggressive performance than your stereotypical idol outfit. Similarly, Band-Maid plays harder songs while dressed (vaguely) as maids. Not technically idols, but in a similar orbit.

One of the newest corners announced for the festival this year is the clumsily titled Tokyo Female DJs area. But it delivers on the name with sets from Licaxxx, YonYon and Yuka Mizuhara (sister to Kiko).

Summer Sonic also offers space for somewhat underground acts via its Space Odd Stage (named after a venue in Daikanyama). This year, garage-rock group DYGL, unnerving electro act yahyel and rapper Ryohu are among the acts playing this smaller spot nestled near the food booths, though it only runs during the all-night Midnight Sonic portion of the event. The Space Odd Stage will also host Wednesday Campanella and Ziyoou-Vachi.

And finally, there is at least one semi-novelty representing true J-pop this year. Sunday on the Mountain Stage, Tsuyoshi Domoto — one half of the Johnny’s group Kinki Kids — brings his solo project, Endrecheri, to life. It lacks the real kick of Summer Sonic’s former attempts at bringing in top-level J-pop — maybe fans would flock to Chiba for Kinki Kids, but it’s tough seeing all but the most committed shelling out to see some half-baked Prince homages. However, it represents the one real outlier at a festival that is putting far more attention on younger Japanese acts.

Summer Sonic will be held Aug. 18 and 19 with the Tokyo leg taking place at Makuhari Messe and Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba, and the Osaka leg taking place at Maishima Sonic Park. Two-day tickets cost ¥29,000 and ¥25,500 respectively, while one-day tickets cost ¥16,000 and ¥14,500. Sonicmania takes place at Makuhari Messe on Aug. 17 and costs ¥12,000. For more information, visit www.summersonic.com.