Japan rang in 2020 with dreams of Olympic glory. Not so much the athletic kind, though there was that too, but more in terms of branding. It was a chance to reaffirm the country’s position as a player on the global pop culture stage.
Looking at the mainstream successes won by South Korea — pop group BTS, the film “Parasite” — surely there would be room for another player from Asia on the global pop culture stage.
By late February, though, Japan’s entertainment-industrial complex found itself disrupted or shut down completely as the novel coronavirus spread across the country. However, what grew into a once-in-a-century event also presented a period of transformation for a country often viewed as being behind the times.
In “Recultured,” a new four-part podcast series I helped write for The Japan Times, we explore the impact of COVID-19 on Japanese pop culture over the course of this year. We chose to describe this journey through mental states, since many of us were on similar emotional roller coasters, which I’ll use here to provide an overview of each episode. Japan’s artistic community may have had a tough year, but we remain hopeful that what comes next will be truly exciting.
Japan entered 2020 prepped for the Olympics. The Summer Games were scheduled to play out in Tokyo, and the country’s entertainers were gearing up for the collective gaze of the world.
“With the Tokyo Olympics coming to Japan, I thought that a lot more artists were looking abroad,” says Aya Nogami, a freelance international marketer working with the Japanese music industry. “They were excited about all the media coming into Japan, (and) a lot of people were planning to do stuff internationally with the Olympics.”
Perhaps the best example of an entertainment franchise preparing for its moment in the sun was the reality TV series, “Terrace House.” The program, which aired on Netflix and was produced by Fuji TV, follows six young people in Japan as they navigate life and love. Episodes of the latest season, “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020,” were scheduled to lead up to the Olympic opening ceremony. It was a savvy move as the show had become a sensation abroad thanks to its calmer take on the reality TV format, swapping out fisticuffs and tirades for understated drama.
“I think what grabs people is that it’s a ‘real’ reality show,” says Tom Hanaway, who reviewed “Terrace House” for The Japan Times. “In the show, they are just sitting around, making dinner, talking about their day.”
As the show played out, however, the novel coronavirus began to be an issue in Asia. In February, the cruise liner Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama, quickly becoming a coronavirus cluster and, at the time, one of the biggest hot spots for the virus in the world. This was not the global attention Japan had hoped to receive.
On the set of “Terrace House,” the cast and crew began having conversations about how to handle the situation, according to cast member Violetta “Vivi” Polt.
“I think we were talking … it was not like a joke, but not that serious,” she says. “Nobody thought it would be that serious. It’s something we didn’t experience before, where you can not go out and just quarantine and do work from Zoom. I think nobody could imagine how big it was going to be.”
By the end of February, the reality of the situation was becoming clearer — then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked the entertainment industry to avoid large-scale shows, and the live music industry virtually shut down after the request. TV shows stopped shooting and film release schedules fell into limbo. In late March, the International Olympic Committee and the government finally made the difficult (and costly) decision to postpone the games.
Perhaps more jarring was the death of beloved comedian Ken Shimura from pneumonia due to COVID-19 on March 29. By April it was clear, this was serious.
On April 13, only days before Abe declared a nationwide state of emergency for Japan, “Terrace House” producers announced they would halt production. A few weeks later, “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020” was canceled entirely following the death of participant Hana Kimura.
“Before all of this happened, I think we were at the beginning of what ‘Terrace House’ was going to become,” says journalist Eric Margolis. “We’ve seen Japanese pop culture has a very high ceiling internationally, on how popular it can get. I don’t think ‘Terrace’ was at its ceiling, not even close to it. Now, I think that’s all gone.”
In the spring, people all around the globe stayed indoors, whether by choice or by government mandate. The stay-at-home period differed for folks depending where they were — in Japan, the government “recommended” citizens stay home due to some particulars in the Constitution owing to recent history, and many did — but it seemed like everyone yearned for an escape from the ever-worsening reality of masks, disinfectants and paranoia.
One such escape could be found on your very own island paradise. Well, a digital one, of course. Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived in stores on March 20, selling nearly 2 million units within the first three days of its release in Japan, a record number. The latest installment in the long-running Animal Crossing series — a tranquil video game that allows players to decorate their digital homes and go fish while surrounded by animal neighbors — quickly became a Technicolor getaway for many. Writer Imad Khan described it as “the game for the coronavirus moment” in The New York Times.
“Obviously, Nintendo couldn’t have predicted it, but when people were scrounging for toilet paper and hand sanitizer (with) the idea of being stuck inside for hours and hours on end, (they) wanted an activity that literally moved at the same pace as real time,” Khan says. “What Animal Crossing did was give a sense of community that a lot of people were longing for, because all of a sudden you couldn’t meet your friends at a coffee shop. But maybe you could meet them in Animal Crossing.”
The game became a way for people to create a vague sense of normalcy, whether by catching up with friends, holding virtual wedding receptions or — in the case of then-U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden — starting an island serving as a digital campaign office, complete with pixelated yard signs. In a year that was anything but typical, Animal Crossing provided the fleeting feeling of the everyday.
Millions across Japan sought out similar comforts via their own island retreats, but they also had plenty of other online entertainment to turn to while hunkering down at home. Celebrities such as Naomi Watanabe held weekly livestreams on YouTube to promote staying indoors and help people feel like they were still connecting with someone, even if it was just through the web. J-pop artist Gen Hoshino, meanwhile, shared a minute-long song titled “Dancing on the Inside” about staying upbeat while at home, which quickly went viral. Even the prime minister got onboard, though he caught some flack for it once people got a look at his swanky stay-at-home surroundings.
What this extended period of isolation did, however, was kickstart a newfound interest in digital platforms, with Japanese consumers flocking to streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify.
“Streaming has been taking over a large portion of people’s consumption since COVID-19, and that trend is growing,” says digital music journalist Jay Kogami.
This was significant for an entertainment complex that was long seen at odds with the internet. Yet as the pandemic settled in and all eyes went online, even internet-phobic talent agencies such as Johnny & Associates got over their digital hangups.
In late May, the Japanese government began scaling back state of the emergency guidelines due to a reduction in new COVID-19 cases. With the fear of resurgence ever present, a “new normal” of social distancing and teleworking sunk in.
People sick of confining themselves to their apartments needed a release, and on June 30 they got one — that was the day pop group NiziU released the track “Make you happy.” NiziU’s nine members came together via a reality TV music competition that debuted at the start of the year, and though the show didn’t catch on at first, it found an audience among people stuck at home and looking for something to get hooked on.
During the start of summer, listeners had gravitated toward more somber pop, such as duo Yoasobi’s “Racing into the Night,” a deceptively jaunty tune featuring lyrics about jumping off a building. While the subject matter was dark, the lyrics struck a chord with the sentiment that seemed to dominate the general populace. So, when the coronavirus numbers started to go down, “Make you happy” provided an uptempo and catchy pop song that fit the more hopeful mood.
“It’s very close to (releasing) pent-up energy,” says culture writer Hannah Lee, who contributes to Japanese entertainment site Arama! Japan. “(That’s why) you got the Roaring ’20s right after the Spanish flu in the United States.”
NiziU’s emergence wasn’t just a matter of timing. The group essentially represents a shift from old models of music distribution in Japan, a country frequently gawked at by critics abroad for its continued fealty to CDs. While NiziU still puts out physical products, it follows the “digital first” model by focusing attention on YouTube view counts and viral moments that can morph into internet-conquering memes. NiziU’s “jump rope dance” choreography went a long way toward turning it into a household name.
“The jump rope dance — that’s something a lot of people do now,” says Arama! Japan’s Ronald Taylor. “They have things in songs, whether it be just a hook or choreography, that can make it go viral on TikTok and other social media. You can go and play that 15 seconds of you doing the jump rope dance, and then that just pushes the song to more and more people.”
It has taken a while for many Japanese musicians to wake up to the dominance of internet culture in the lives of younger people. However, many major acts are now putting their discographies online, with others shifting to livestream performances as a way to stay afloat while live shows are still taboo. The takeaway from 2020 could be that a 15-second TikTok can go a long way — both NiziU and Yoasobi will take part in this year’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” on NHK, arguably the central pillar of mainstream Japanese entertainment.
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Japan — with record case numbers being reported across the nation in December — many people are in need of some hope, especially at the holidays. We saw glimmers of hope in the successes of anime this year.
The anime series “Demon Slayer,” which was originally published as a manga from 2016 and became an animated series in 2019, enjoyed newfound popularity during the state of emergency period as people stayed home and explored the archives of various streaming services.
“I’ve talked to a few analysts who point to the pandemic as boosting ‘Demon Slayer’ even further than it was,” says Japan Times contributor Matt Schley. “It was already pretty popular before the pandemic, but it had the advantage of being on a decent number of streaming services, which a lot of people in Japan were either discovering for the first time or at least spending a lot more time on. ‘Demon Slayer’ was already in the ether anyway, and I think a lot of people sitting down on the coach during the stay-at-home period found it that way as well.”
Those conditions set the stage for the success of the franchise’s feature film, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie — Mugen Train,” released on Oct. 16. The movie became a sensation, attracting record-breaking crowds to theaters and, at the time of writing, closing in on Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the title of highest-grossing film in Japanese history. Timing was everything, though. People were primed on the series after months of staying indoors, while cinemas began operating at full capacity (albeit with all patrons required to wear masks and eschew snacks) around the time of its release. The movie’s success stood out globally, too, as film industries abroad teetered on ruin.
Prior to that blockbuster’s domination at the box office, however, “Violet Evergarden: The Movie” arrived in theaters. It is a film based on a series of the same name created by Kyoto Animation, a studio that last year experienced one of the worst arson attacks in Japanese history, shocking people around the world and upending the company’s release schedule. And yet, Kyoto Animation slowly but surely continued to work on its productions, including “Violet Evergarden.” When the film finally appeared on Sept. 18 after months of delays, it enjoyed a strong box-office showing, spending the bulk of its theatrical run in the top 10.
That the film was able to make it to theaters at all serves as a sign of hope, showing how one anime studio could overcome tragedy to deliver a celebrated work of art. It was a welcome ray of light in a mostly dark year.
It is this sort of optimism that can carry over to many sectors of Japanese pop culture, a feeling that, hopefully, we can also take into the new year. The entertainment industry once shied away from the internet and engaging more directly with its audiences — particularly those overseas. However, now it is welcoming more diverse creators and methods into its ranks. Artists who used to feel beholden to a system are embracing the kind of independence that the internet provides. The pandemic didn’t revolutionize culture here, but it definitely accelerated the trends that were already in motion.
Recultured from The Japan Times is available now on all major podcasting platforms. For more information, visit jtimes.jp/ddpod.
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