2020 – The Year In Review

The year in J-pop…

2020 has proved to be a grim year for many reasons, but chiefly because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also meant that many live shows and events (including Hyper Japan) were either cancelled or postponed to a future date. Yet, despite the gruelling impact of Covid both personally and professionally on so many people, many music acts still managed to battle on through.

This was a mixed year of underground idol action, new releases from established acts and a few interesting curveballs. Here’s J-Pop Go’s review of the year…

In January, we saw the return of Kanon Wakeshima to these shores. Her style had changed from the baroque pop of earlier releases, such as ‘Still Doll’, instead aiming for the more emotive style reflected on new EP Odd Sting & Intrigue. The J-Pop Go review summed it up: “Those that favour her Lolita Pop period may find less to dig into here, but Odd Sting & Intrigue offers up a Kanon Wakeshima for the new decade, delivering a series of slick lounge pop moments that have their own appeal.”

J-Pop Go spoke to Kanon the same month to get an update on her plans: “I want to play as many gigs as possible. I also want to record new music in this country, so I just want to get involved in music in whatever way possible.”

Kanon was also performing in London as part of a special New Years celebration gig organised by Gig Connection, alongside artists such as Jun Okada and Hide Takemoto. J-Pop Go’s review of the event compared Kanon’s unique baroque style contrasting against Jun Okada’s acoustic guitar reveries, summing up that “tonight’s performance has been very special.”

Those familiar with the Japanese grassroots music scene in London will no doubt be familiar with singer/songwriter Jun Okada. A regular performer at many gigs, including open mic performances and impromptu shows at Japanese venues, Jun also spent nearly ten years in the UK busking around town armed only with her guitar and distinctive voice. J-Pop Go interviewed Jun, who was unfortunately planning to return to Japan. “I’m happy, but sad too because I have to go back to Japan. I wanted to work here as a musician, but it is difficult to get a visa so I have to go back. I want to come back again as a musician.”

With the 15th anniversary of the release of ‘Life is Like a Boat’, Rie fu announced plans for an album of self-covers, which will include a new version of her classic song. 2020 marked the 15th anniversary since the release of ‘Life is Like a Boat’ as Rie explained: “Indeed, this song has become a boat that carried me across the world, and I am so excited for the next journey that awaits this year. I am releasing a self-cover album, and a new version of this song would be included. Thank you for being a huge part of this wonderful journey!”

Before Covid had fully gripped the UK, gigs were still happening with Dir En Grey making a London appearance. Similarly, Hatsune Miku returned to the UK in January as part of Miku Expo 2020 Europe. Meanwhile, the announcement that both Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Miku were taking part at Coachella this year sparked renewed interest in J-pop acts on the global stage.

One of the emerging idol groups to come under more scrutiny was Cy8er. Originally an outfit formed in 2015, the group expanded to five members and were notable for their EDM approach to idol pop. Their debut album Tokyo also featured a collaboration with Yasutaka Nakata (Perfume/Kyary Pamyu Pamyu).

The appearance of Babymetal’s 2019 Metal Galaxy album (see J-Pop Go review previously) had caused some controversy due to the weaving in of more diverse influences, although their signature ‘kawaii metal’ was still part of the DNA of the album. The inevitable UK live show gave audiences an opportunity to appreciate Metal Galaxy’s tunes from a different perspective – and they didn’t disappoint. Augmented by third ‘Avenger’ Momoko Okazaki (Sakura Gakuin), Babymetal delivered blistering live renditions, including a dynamic ‘PA PA YA!!’, kinetic ‘DA DA DANCE’ and a euphoric-flavoured ‘Shanti Shanti Shanti’. Classics such as ‘Gimme Chocolate!!’ and ‘KARATE’ also made the evening a night to remember.

The name of Maika Loubté will probably find familiarity among anime fans for her contributions to Carole & Tuesday. The musical sci-fi anime by Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe has proved to be popular anime title of late, in particular for its musical flourishes. In March, Maika released Closer, a collection of songs that kept a pop sensibility with a French flavour. This included the breezy ‘Prismé’, the groove art-pop of ‘Snappp’ (featuring Miho Hatori, ex-Cibo Matto, New Optimism). Elsewhere, there was the hypnotic beats and stylish electronica on ‘Celine’, which also features a guest appearance from techno producer Risa Taniguchi.

Meanwhile, there was shocking news from the Necronomidol camp when it was announced that Risaki, Rei and Michelle would be departing from the group. The sudden news also mean that the idol group would be going on a brief hiatus.

Anime Limited began making more moves into making more Japanese soundtrack music available. This included the news that the official soundtrack of FLCL would be available on CD from April.

The Covid-19 crisis had a big impact in Japan, presenting perhaps the biggest challenge for Japan’s live-music industry since the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when overseas artists canceled shows over radiation fears. Perfume pushed on with a planned show at Tokyo Dome In February, but canceled a show at the same venue the following evening.

The crisis also impacted the UK, resulting in the closure of many live venues as lockdown rules went into effect. This had a devastating effect on concerts and cultural events, Orion Live’s scheduled 2& (DOUBLE AND) and Mariko Takei’s performance plans were postponed, as well as PSYDOLL’s planned UK tour, which was likewise cancelled. It also impacted outfits such as Aldious (who had planned to make their UK debut this year) and Scandal, who had to reschedule their concerts.

Meanwhile, Hyper Japan, one of the fixed points on the Japanese cultural calendar (and one of the year’s best opportunities to get Japanese music to a broader audience), also had to be cancelled. The European idol event Monster Of Dolls was similarly postponed.

Japan Matsuri moved to an online event, again headed by Naomi Suzuki. Among the treats were idol outfit Kamenjoshi, the Flying Elephants – a Japanese band playing tribute to the legendary Beatles, the Ryoma Quartet, fusing traditional Japanese instruments with strings and also Naomi performing with the Fukuoka International Philharmonic Orchestra.

Live music may have been temporarily halted, but it didn’t stop music being released. The summer months saw a new studio album from Niji no Conquistador. Rainbow Gravity featured 17 tracks of summer-infused pop joy. The album also boasted contributions from Motonari Murakawa (BABYMETAL), Takashi Asano (Dempagumi.inc, LADYBABY) and MOSAIC.WAV.

“I think we’ve become a completely different band after being “reborn”. We were able to create our own goals, raise our technical level, and express ourselves in our own way with complete freedom.” Rock combo Brats discussed life under Covid and new album Karma in a new interview care of Jrock Neews.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu delivered a slice of kawaii magic with new outing ‘Kamaitachi’.

Meanwhile, Maison book girl released their Fiction album, a Best Of compilation with 15 tracks, including a new song.

July saw a new release from Scandal in form of digital single ‘SPICE’, which saw the rock outfit on fine form for a bold guitar-fuelled outing.

“My original influences were metal and hard rock, before I fell in love with idols myself” commented Garuda in a new interview with Beyond Senpai, “My current activities are rooted in the style I originally liked. I love pretty performances, of course, but I consider cool performances to be more suited to me. I think having plague masks and nail bats helps me to create a stronger and darker world…”

Virtual idol Hatsune Miku also returned, celebrating her August birthday with her Magical Mirai 2020 album.

August also saw the 75th Anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, a day which invited reflection on the event and also provided an opportunity for commentary. Hiroshima seems like an odd choice of inspiration for a synth-pop song, but OMD’s 1980 single ‘Enola Gay’ somehow managed to exist as both an engaging electronic pop song as well as carrying a thought-provoking message at the same time.

Ooberfuse are a London-based duo formed by Cherrie Anderson and Hal St John. Their version of ‘Enola Gay’ is a collaborative effort between Ooberfuse with Japanese chiptune artist Hibari. Hibari employs an electropunk approach to his music, marked out by his staccato vocal delivery and an intense physicality for live performances. The end result is a slower, more haunting take on the classic synth-pop song with Cherrie Anderson’s vocals presenting a sad, wistful quality. Meanwhile, Hibari contributes a raw, visceral slice of commentary (“One’s so-called “justice” kills another”) which poses awkward questions.

Promoters Orion Live obviously enduring issues with live shows due to Covid, but in September they announced the launch of Setsuzoku Records – a UK-based record label dedicated to licensing and distributing the best music from Japan’s diverse and creative music scenes. Among their initial signings were IBUKI and Heavenstamp

October brought sad news when it was learned that Maisa Tsuno has passed away. Member of popular Japanese rock band Akaiko-en, she also penned tunes for Hello! Project acts.

Momoiro Clover Z returned with the announcement that they were doing the theme song for Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Eternal The Movie with the main cast.

Elsewhere, PIGGS, led by former BiS member Pour Lui, released a new music video for ‘Kumanbachi no Dokuhaku’ which clocked in at over 5 hours long.

Japanese mannequin outfit FEMM had a busy year. In October they released the euphoric pop of new song ‘Chewing Gum Cleaner’. They also collaborated with Duke of Harajuku, a member of music label tokyovitamin. That resulted in the release of the sublime ‘Summer Dream’ and the clipped beats of ‘Level Up’.

But the duo weren’t done yet. In December they unveiled new song ‘Sit Down’, which heralded new EP 404 Not Found. It also came complete with a striking new video. Apparently shot in one take, the video (which was produced by Japanese bass duo HABANERO POSSE) shows a live performance in which FEMM interact in real-time with massive screens.

In the video’s multifaceted multimedia world, concepts such as size, dimensions, area and even gravity seem to deviate from the laws of physics, creating a new analog performance work where the lines between virtual and real are kept deliberately unclear – the perfect world for FEMM to live in.

In November, to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Milan Records announced the release of EVANGELION FINALLY on vinyl, CD and digital. The album featured a collection of vocal soundtracks performed by Yoko Takahashi, Megumi Hayashibara and others with songs featured in Neon Genesis Evangelion and EVANGELION: 2.0 YOU CAN (NOT) ADVANCE.

Utada Hikaru drew controversy when she tweeted three words on the result of the US Presidential Election. Utada was also once again providing song duties for the next Evangelion film. ‘One Last Kiss’ was recorded for Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, due for release in January 2021.

Tokyo-based idol group DESURABBITS announced that they planned to end activities next year.

Meanwhile, This Is Arashi marked the seventeenth studio album by the popular Japanese idol group. It included the singles ‘Brave’, ‘Turning Up’, ‘Kite’ and their first entirely English song, ‘Whenever You Call’. Released in November, the album was to be Arashi’s last as the group went on hiatus from 11th December.

Despite their touring woes from earlier in the year, PSYDOLL returned with new EP Rebirth. It was another release that encapsulated the Tokyo duo’s “destructive, sweet sounds”.

Idol Underworld had a very productive year, organising online cheki sessions as well as livestreams. The dizzying array of idol acts and artists that the outfit covered included Merry Bad End, Bury, Miscast, Frun Frin Friends, Zombie Powder, Kankaku logic, Hanako san and JYU JYU among others.

IU’s Derek also announced the first trailer for his documentary The Flowers Of Passion: Stories From The Japanese Underground Idol Scene.

In December, it was Happy 70th birthday to acclaimed Japanese Joe Hisaishi, composer of over 100 film scores, including many Studio Ghibli soundtracks.

Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku served up the Ebichu Aki Urara to Kutsuwamushi to Ongaku no Kodama Daishite “Chuon” 2020 album, which showcased Ebichu’s concert held in September in Chon. This marked the first time Ebichu had performed in front of a live audience since the outbreak of Covid-19. It was announced that Ebichu’s Ayaka Yasumoto had been diagnosed with Malignant Lymphoma, and would be going on an indefinite hiatus to focus on treatment.

2020 may not have been the best of years, but with it coming to a close, we can only look forward to the new year to see what J-pop delights 2021 can bring us.