On March 25, spectacular rock band L’Arc~en~Ciel will make history, becoming the first Japanese act to headline a show at Madison Square Garden. The band, which is making only its second appearance in the US in twenty years, was recently interviewed in Osaka and Tokyo by half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer Roland Kelts in advance of their first world tour.
The author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US, Kelts, who splits his time between Tokyo and New York, examines contemporary Japan for numerous publications, including a monthly column for The Daily Yomiuri, the largest English-language newspaper in Japan. He is also a contributing editor to the forthcoming second English-language edition of Monkey Business: New Voices from Japan, a Japanese literary magazine.
JapanCulture•NYC recently spoke to Kelts about L’Arc~en~Ciel and the upcoming historic event.
JCNYC: Why is it significant for L’Arc~En~Ciel to be the first Japanese band in history to headline Madison Square Garden?
RK: It’s significant as a sign of the broader movement of contemporary Asian popular culture into North America, Europe, and South America, all of which have growing fan bases for anime, manga, and Japanese street fashion and design. Music is a natural, partly because of the anime soundtracks that fans at cons sing along to verbatim, even if they don’t speak any Japanese. L’Arc have contributed to the soundtracks of Fullmetal Alchemist, Gundam and other titles – and lead singer hyde told me backstage in Osaka that they’re all huge fans of Evangelion.
The Korean government has pushed hard to promote and cultivate K-Pop as a global force. Japan has arguably been a tad sluggish on the uptake, but that’s changing fast as the Japanese industry faces a shrinking domestic fanbase. The nation’s low birth-rate and relatively stagnant economy make for a challenging market. For L’Arc to headline MSG is a big step toward expansion in the global market, not just in the US. New York’s ethnic diversity and global media outlets make it ideal for gaining worldwide exposure.
JCNYC: Why hasn’t a big Japanese act headlined MSG until now?
RK: Well, it’s a big and busy place, with sports, concerts, all sorts of entertainment bookings. And it’s in the middle of a big and busy city that is one of the world’s central media markets. It’s hard to schedule a show from thousands of miles away, especially for performers who have full-time schedules in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, Japanese producers and performers have been relatively unambitious in approaching the US or other Western markets – at least until now. For a long time they could rely upon the domestic audience, and success at home seemed to suffice.
JCNYC: What is the band’s main goal with this concert?
RK: They told me that their non-Japanese fans have long requested that the band perform live outside of Japan, especially in venues beyond Asia. They have a very active presence on YouTube and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, where the English-language posts begging for shows in the US and elsewhere multiplied. I think the opportunity to reach out to that audience is a big factor behind booking Madison Square Garden and venues in London and Paris. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that headlining MSG is apparently one of L’Arc founder tetsuya’s lifelong dreams.)
As I wrote in Japanamerica, the Internet is a crucial part of this story. The easy access in traversing cultural, not to mention geographical, borders opens a wealth of trans-cultural encounters and experiences. L’Arc’s new album, Butterfly, for example, will be available for download on iTunes on Feb. 8. Fans outside of Japan no longer need to seek out hard-to-find and pricey import CDs or bootlegs.
JCNYC: L’Arc has been around for 20 years. What kind of crowd do you expect on March 25? People in their 30s and 40s who’ve been listening to them for 20 years, or a younger demographic who knows the band from its anime theme songs?
RK: I suspect there will be quite a range of ages represented – just as there is at their shows in Japan. The thirty- and fortysomethings will likely be driven in part by nostalgia for a band they listened to through teen and young adult years, and the younger fans will probably be motivated by the band’s connection to anime and even cosplay and fashion, since L’Arc were long ago considered key members of the ‘visual kei’ movement in Japan. Even though they’ve left that behind, they’re still very visually oriented and fashion conscious.
JCNYC: What is the biggest challenge for Japanese bands – regardless of popularity in Japan – breaking into the US market?
RK: The most obvious is language. It’s hard to reach a large audience in the US without songs, or at least large portions of songs, in English. Japanese artists like L’Arc are aware of this by now, and are tackling the challenge. English versions of new L’Arc singles are allegedly on tap. X-Japan‘s Yoshiki is now based in Los Angeles, as is Jin Akanishi, both recording and conducting interviews in English, and of course Utada Hikaru is fluently bilingual.
The other challenge is stylistic – both in terms of sound and visual presentation. A lot of Japanese pop and rock songs are produced with one ear attuned to the karaoke crowd. Melodies that suit sing-alongs can become big hits in Japan, partly through karaoke.
The rough equivalent in the US is music that is produced for the club scene, where an infectious beat and repetitive chorus might make a hit out of a comparatively thin melody line.
And visually, a lot of Asian audiences seem more drawn to what Westerners might consider a softer, more effeminate look in their male pop stars, and the cute, or ‘kawaii,’ in both male and female performers, versus the harder-edged, more aggressive sexual presentation of a lot of pop performers in the West.
The visual differences seem to be blurring, though. Lady Gaga, for example, often appears more like a playful cosplayer angling for a rise via the inventive and outlandish versus straight on sex appeal. Gwen Stefani had her “Harjuku Girls” moment; the UK’s Gorillaz is an anime pop band. And Western stars like David Bowie, Elton John, glam-rockers and Madonna (I’m sure I’m missing many) have long toyed with gender-bending presentations.
JCNYC: The band went on a three-year hiatus, yet sold out Ajinomoto Stadium in May 2011. The only time L’Arc has played in the States was in 2004 at Otakon in Baltimore. How do you think L’Arc will be received at the Garden after so much time and distance between shows?
RK: It’s hard to know for sure, but their one Baltimore gig in 2004 is still being talked about years later. They have the advantage of being a rarity in America, let alone at the Garden. Otakon’s director in ‘04, Jim Vowles, recently told me that it was a “once-in-a-lifetime event,” and that the audience reaction was, in his words, “overwhelmingly positive.” If that passionate fanbase shows up, and if they spread the word to others via the Internet and old school word-of-mouth, the MSG show could be a twice-in-a-lifetime event for some, and a revelation for new fans. If it’s successful, it could also be the tip of the iceberg for other Japanese and Asian performers seeking to connect with fans and expand their audiences in the US. L’Arc put on quite a show.
For more information about tickets for L’Arc~en~Ciel World Tour 2012 at Madison Square Garden, visit the band’s website.