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Mashup is necessarily present in the music video, which format often allows artists to find a field of experimentation, not only for the sound, but also for the visual. The study of mashup in the animes openings showed how much the Japanese creators love to play with the borrowing, particularly on a visual level, between paintings and ancestral patterns, real life shots integrated to the animation, or several materials from the virtuality world. To takeover a Japanese music video is a follow up to that reflection.

But the use of mashup reveals itself to be pertinent in the Japanese music context, and more particularly in the recent pop rock, because it is generally associated with visions of a culture that is abundant with crazy hybridizations, in kitsch hysteria, between absurd, trash and vulgar. But is that really the case?

Before getting into those musical examples, from J-Pop to electronic, we have to remind ourselves of the singular relation between Japanese artists and the idea of borrowing. This borrowing happens in a total relaxation, where the use of external sources is way easier than in the Western part of the world. Artists dig in several cultures and do not hesitate to adapt elements to a Japanese way of thinking or esthetic. The songs, somehow, go through a filter, and are often changed and readapted to an Asian context. In that sense, the musicality and the video assert, through the created mixes, the country’s culture.

This raving mad Japan

The first examples of Japanese music that come to our ears, in our collective Western imagination, is the J-Pop, that landed here by the end of the 1990s. The creation the Japan Expo in France became an open door to several famous artists, while a lot of shops, of convention developers, of events and of specialized websites (Catsuka, Nautiljon, Anime News Network, for instance) extended this dynamic of musical importation. But even though the community of fans get bigger, J-Pop remains misperceived by a large part of the western population, or at least in France, where other things are popular, such as manga, or the animation, which slowly integrated the cultural landscape. This music remains especially associated with the image of a pouring Japan, in a non-total sense, abundant with references, but deconstructed, screaming and vulgar.

The mashup, firstly participates to this perception – and this one, wrong or not, is used anyway as a starting point for a first apprehension of the practice in a Japanese music video. The use of incrustation techniques goes entirely along this idea of a mad Japan, that, we have to admit, does exist.

One of the emblematic artists of this vision remains Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, somehow considered the Japanese Lady Gaga. The young woman’s universe is striking, with her several shifts between the most kawaii childish and the triviality sources that punctuates her music videos. Mashup gets to flirt with cosplay and acts like its real improved extension, as a way to get propelled in a universe of patchwork and of the surreal.

This mashup first seems composed for the absurd, the vulgar, or the kitsch, therefore carries the image of a raving mad Japan. It participates in that sense, to the rejection of some as well as the fascination of others for the J-Pop, and incarnates an almost exotic weird. Several other examples become moreover viral, such as Yatta! by the Happatai group, in which singers wearing fundoshis (robes worn by men, and especially sumos) wander; or the Mini Moni’s forced makeup. Among those viral videos, a lot touch the absurd humour, such as the “Sushi Tabetai” (“I want to eat sushi”), slogan of the disturbing Orange Range music video.

This famous band’s video is composed by the AC-Bu collective, whose characteristic is the visible esthetic, made of alloys between ads, pictures, and animated loops recreated from this material. This graphic work accentuates the hidden message in the lyrics that are apparently pretty simple and innocent, making the sushi an almost pornographic symbol.

One of the other aspects that participates to the “negative” image of J-Pop, lies in the unavoidable phenomenon – in terms of music video – of pop idols.

Mashup’s role towards pop idols: a machine to reform? 

The music video participates highly to the building of the fantasy image of the idol, whether they’re male or female. It places them in a position of performance, musically, visually, as long as physically, through the imposed beauty canon, or the affirmation of a certain facet of character that has to become something the public is familiar to. Those notions become even more important when in a pop idols reunion, such as the famous bands – boys bands or girls band – in Japan. Often, the singers don’t only meet other signers, but also dancers, actors, and even dubbers in several series.

So, what is mashup’s role in music videos that ought to build those personalities and to create a media “phenomenon”? First, most of the music videos try to valorise the singers’ dancing skills as well as their physical appearance. Therefore, they stay in a restitution, with close-ups and long shots of the song’s movement, and they impose small games of incrustation. Those games often reinforce the romantic image of the bands, or in a more interesting way, they focus on symbols from the virtual world. Emoticons, tiny hearts, smileys, or even video games graphics, are integrated in a punctual way to the song, with the aim of being directly linked to social networks, and also to have a visual language, with speaking emotions, mostly towards western viewers.

South Korean pop idol Lee Hi’s « Hold My Hand » 

Mashup is a way to reinforce the pop idol’s glamour, or a way to support a simplistic understanding of the song’s stakes. This remains something rare, and it is sometimes analog graphic games that sometimes allow the liberation of those tightly controlled icons. In the musical bands context, some music videos are exceptions, when it comes to more sophisticated effects, or to fancy decors and situations interleaved between dancing and singing moments, and that break their controlled static image.

The girls band AKB48’s « Gingham Check » music video parodies several elements from genre movies

Those exceptions are shy and punctual in a visual – and musical – field, that often appears as limited and redundant. But they are the path towards a likely mashup that, if it does not exist yet, could one day be a creative tool for transgression.

Beyond the pop idols, a much more independent stage…

If we move to a less musically close spectre of the J-Pop, the practices remain several and more or less imposed. Mashup can change from a simple game of incrustation to really personal practices on which this article is going to focus.

It has to be said that mashup belongs to a certain stage of indie bands, mostly coming from the pop-rock field, sometimes touching folk, jazz or even funk. This is particularly seen in the beginning of the 2000s, for instance with young artists involved in a fanciful boiling. Southern All Stars therefore offers an “old school” music video with “Rock n Roll superman”, made with collages recreating in urban or rural sceneries some everyday life pleasures, desire, the taste for a trip inside the surrounding shapes… There, mashup is a practice chose promptly in a playful aim, linked with the lyrics and the rhythm of the song.

Mashup becomes a touch of modernity, and at the same time, the taste of a western vintage. The games of collage are numerous, and the inspirations from the England rock scene from the 1970s are too. The young rock artists Shonen Knife’s music videos are inseparable from an everyday life tools mashup, but their musicality and their look however reminds us of the Beatles.

This same taste of a mashup extending the musical dynamic and the youth culture can be found in Kyoko Fukada’s music videos. She used to play in the movie Dolls, directed by Takeshi Kitano in 2001. Besides, this creation of bands participates in a feminist liberation still active today.

Mashup: some artists’ claiming concept

As we go through the decade, the idea of a mashup conducting this independent identity becomes less clear. What remains though, is that when the mashup is used, it appears as a distinction for some artists. It can therefore become a means of creation for a conceptualized song, claiming a certain message, a certain strong idea, or a particular chorus. In that sense, it appears a lot in music videos created by singers whose repertoire is ardently used in animes. Indeed, these animes often use for their openings – also subject to mashups, see article Open up Japan! – popular bands who will create, in relation with the animated content.

The singer Angela, used to creating songs for animes, therefore used the concept of a spiral in the opening theme song of the series Asura Crying. Her music video, thanks to a clever game of duplication, works the images in a vertigo as visual as the long singer’s crescendos.

Angela’s case is not harmless because it is linked to a whole of singers who draw in the European imaginaries instead of the virtual world. In the opposite way from the pop idols’ world, those bands – mostly of girls – cultivate a hold to the ancestral and to the opera genre. Then, the inspirations toward the West are numerous, between classical music and the European tale. The textures are sometimes used to nourish this state of mind, and the way they’re used in the mashup is a total claim of style. Kanon, one of the leading figures of this movement, in this music video, goes through cathedral carvings, with a flourishing nature, legendary characters and magical animals.

Since then, mashup in music videos can appear as a real claim of style. It asserts the vocal universe by giving it a physical incarnation, and then takes part in a certain way in the media company of the bands, including those who wish to get cut from the rest of the production. The technique is also present in music videos by the band BRADIO, in order to secure a funky image that the band tends to seek all the time in its creations. But in opposition to a singer like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the music videos don’t repeat themselves as similar sets, but more as new propositions constantly running away from their style definition. Thus, every music video comes to get appropriation of a specific imaginary. With “Hotel Alien”, it’s the taste for cinema and the big science fiction sagas that blow up in a fancy musicality.

There a real ambiguity appears, mashup being an artistic practice, worked in prospect of leaving the musical shackles; but also being a promotional tool poured in a media logic.

A rarifying practice?

However, mashup is rarifying. Really full of meaning for the young bands of the 2000s, it became more of a claiming brand, for universes conveying the kawaii or the non-sense Japan. But the new pop, rock, metal, or even jazz bands, offer nowadays more homogeneous music videos, closer to the ones produced in the United States. This is how an atmospheric relation gets installed, refusing to mix up, refusing the incrustation to remind them the fusion of the elements, the smoothing of the visual slicks; like Buck Tick, EXILE, or Super Beaver did….

In that case, does mashup belong to a certain age of the Japanese music video? Or at least, where is its identity, dragged as it is, between its massive participation to media phenomenon, and its dynamic usage in a more independent production, far from the standards? The identity is diffuse, mostly because the practice has been multiplied. It has not only been stuck to a 2000s scene, but has infused a little bit everywhere. A possible extension or intermediary, could also be the animation, towards which a lot of the bands tend to go more. Supercell, Lego Big Morl or Galilei Galileo, or the rap ban Suiyobi no Campanella, are examples of animated practices, that mix up techniques and institute very relevant plastic universe.

 Supercell’s « Utakata Hanabi » music video mixes animation and real life materials

But the most emblematic case in that mashup survival and in this taste of borrowing, of the remix and transformation of outside elements, remains a genius of the genre: Susumu Hirasawa. The artist is not unknown in the universe of the animation since he’s created several soundtracks to series, and mostly because he’s been collaborating with the cineaste Satoshi Kon for a long time. His “parade” made with festive sounds and multiple voices, gave all its strength to the dreamlike overflow of the movie Paprika. More than his collaborations that made him known in the Western countries, Hirasawa has a rich and complex career during which he experimented for a long time the sound mixing, since he mixes every and any sounds to his music; but also the use of Jean-Michel Jarre’s laser harp. The Japanese producer has, for example, founded the techno-punk genre, where, his taste for technology and his creation of futuristic musical mixes with his hollow voice resonating, can be seen. And with no surprise, his music videos use as many traditional materials as they use 3D utopic galaxies.

 To conclude…

The role mashup plays in the Japanese music video remains problematic. The practice allows bands to valorise a particular aesthetic universe, but it also increases this image of a kawaii, pop-idol, eccentric Japan. This last one, of course exists, but it is not the only one for all that. The use of mashup, combined with other techniques, like cosplay, karaoke, and graphic arts contributes however to the homogeny of this cultural pan. Curiously, when mashup is often an independent practice, kneaded with freedom and pregnant with marginal visual games; it is in musical Japan a media tool, increasing the image that agitates fan communities and annoys the hesitant ones.

This limited vision should, at least we hope, evolve and open up to welcome the multiplicity of techniques and practices. Because if mashup lost some of its identity through the last decade, it has however been broadcasted and spread towards marginal musical experiences. Such a chaos leaves the door open to new visions, a door that for now, struggles to find access between the Japanese scene and the western one.

Article written by Oriane Sidre and translated by Leïla Zemirli