Classic is the New Pop: A Look at Classical Takes on Japanese Pop Music

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August 11, 2018

Classic is the New Pop: A Look at Classical Takes on Japanese Pop Music

Classical musical arrangements of famous songs from anime and Japanese games take the world by storm.

by Kalai Chik

Date Published: 11/18/2015

Final Fantasy’s Distant World Philharmonic Orchestra

Classical music covers have been a long standing method for fans to reinterpret a top hit into a different medium. Recently, top charting violinist Ayako Ishikawa announced a label debut album titled “ANIME CLASSICS” that will include covers of memorable anime songs. In a market oversaturated with electronic synthesizers, there’s a large demand for a more natural sound.

Similar to American artists such as the Vitamin String Quartet and Lindsay Sterling, fans and professional artists have interpreted their favorite songs into instrumental renditions. Fans from all over Japan upload their own arrangements of mainstream music, Vocaloid music, video game music, amongst other genres on Nico Nico Douga and Youtube. Many artists who become popular are sometimes noticed by independent labels. For those who choose to self-produce their own music, they find sizeable crowds at big events such as Comiket.

In Japan, the origins of anime and game music instrumental covers cannot be attributed to a single source. Although platforms such as Comic Market and other dōjin markets in Japan helped to facilitate interest in self-produced covers, these events only captured a small percentage of the population and remained relatively limited until the late 90s with the expansion of the internet. Nico Nico Douga, and more recently Youtube, allowed for fans to share their covers with people all over the world.

What sparked a small interest into a growing international industry was the internet. Some of the earliest online covers can be traced back to the mid-2000s with the introduction of the Japanese video streaming website: Nico Nico Douga or Niconico. There, dōjin music circles and individuals could share their renditions, often under the guise of a pseudonym or a physical mask to preserve their anonymity, while receiving live comments. No single anime or game unified and garnered interest in instrumental covers until the popularity of Touhou Project, the bullet shooter dōjin game, and Vocaloid, the voice synthesizer program, took off. Fans and users of these respective franchises were so attached to the music from those series that they would upload their covers of theme songs or highly viewed fan-made Vocaloid songs. Many of the original songs within these franchises have already received a large amount of exposure. Once fans turned them into instrumental covers, whether they were piano, jazz, or even rock, these songs became more far reaching as it attracted both franchise fans and non-fans.

After the solidified popularity of Touhou Project at Comiket 64 in 2003, the fan arrangement community expanded with now over several hundred groups who have moved from covers to producing their own music. Although there is no official reported number of impressions, early cover artists on NicoNico, such as Fukumen, reached over 1 million views in 2009. Due to the wide range of influential artists at the time, it’s hard to point to a group of people who made the fan scene what it is today. However, one of the biggest drivers of the classical music cover movement would be the Touhou Project community. Many of these fans were also the early drivers for the popularity of the voice synthesizer program, Vocaloid. Often these artists would do instrumental arrangements for both series and thus captured interests from people from both parties.

Pianist Akai Ryuusei made his debut in 2008 and the videos of his band MINT, as well as his music circle Tokyo Active Neets, cumulatively reached over 4 million views on Youtube. Both of his bands produce and play music of different genres ranging from jazz covers, fusion, metal, and rock. Similarly, Marasy, a well-known producer and pianist, has over 14 million views on Youtube for his cover of the famous Vocaloid song Senbonzakura, originally created by another famous fan musician: Kurousa-P. He, along with other well-known internet musicians such as TAM and Akai Ryuusei were among the many guests at Touhou Con at Anaheim, California back in earlier Fall of 2015. Rather than for money and attention, these artists were interested in showing the online collective their take on these top hit songs.

This is not to say that classical music arrangements are limited to just a niche population. Classical music is often found within the game and anime mediums. Often, corporations such as CAPCOM and Kyoto Animation will release jazz and orchestral covers from some of their most famous series. In 2009, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performed songs from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. These events attract such a large crowd that these orchestral tours have gone around the world. More recently and more famously, AWR Music Productions created an official symphony concert for the music of Final Fantasy. Originally, their first concert tour began in 2004 and performed in select cities in Japan. Later the tour would expand to globally beginning in the United States. Their most recent world tour, titled Distant Worlds: music from FINAL FANTASY with composer Nobuo Uematsu and conductor Arnie Roth, will be stopping in Chicago, Illinois on December 26, 2015 and in Florida, St. Petersburg on February 6th 2016.

Another notable concert tour is The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses which will be performing in Los Angeles on June 13th, 2016 at the Dolby Theater. Nintendo’s other title, Pokémon, also received its own concert tour: Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions. The tour is still ongoing in Australia and will return to North America on December 3rd, 2015 in Florida. For those who grew up playing Final Fantasy on the Playstation and The Legend of Zelda on the Nintedo Gameboy and Nintendo 64, it’s a taste of nostalgia while providing an alternative from the fist-pumping Top 40. The appeal of these nostalgic titles draw in fans who may have no interest in the classical medium and those who aren’t familiar with the original work. So far, it’s been very successful.

In a world where electronic dance music seems to sustain its reverb in the Top 40, this classical music movement helps to revitalize interest in a slowly fading genre. Talented musicians, inside and outside of Japan, can draw from a large repertoire of music from their favorite animated series or game franchise and meet others who share those same interests. The availability of these professional and fan arrangements to a worldwide audience contributes to the sharp growing popularity of classical music artists in a flat, fuzzy synth-pop world.


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Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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