On my way into Kyocera Osaka Dome earlier this month, I passed a handful of young people of both sexes sporting dreadlocks, blousy shirts and kabuki-style white makeup. They were cosplaying as hyde, the coy lead singer of L'Arc~en~Ciel, the Japanese rock superstars who were about to go onstage.
I felt like I might have been at an anime convention in the United States--there were also a few women dressed as maids--but this was a rock concert first and a cosplay blowout second.
L'Arc~en~Ciel are now entering their 20th year of record-busting CD sales and sold-out concerts. I watched them perform two shows, with 40,000 seats both nights going at 9,000 yen a pop. The events were expertly paced and ludicrously high-tech--what you'd expect from a Japanese production that mixes carefully planned moments of seeming candor with expert efficiency.
Vocalist hyde live in Osaka
"In the beginning, L'Arc's music was associated with anime," manager Masahiro Oishi told me in a backstage interview. "But through experiencing their music directly, fans in several countries gradually came to recognize the band's worth based on its music alone. They have become genuine fans of L'Arc's music, whether or not they like anime."
J-pop and J-rock's connection to anime has long been both a burden and an opportunity. In the 1970s and 80s, anime soundtracks were heavily localized to attract American viewers, just as the anime narratives were butchered to fit expectations shaped by Hollywood and television.
But in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Internet connected global fans to Japanese creators with an immediacy that transcended distance. An edited Pokemon or Naruto episode was no longer acceptable. And original songs, written and sung by Japanese artists, were prized as a sign of authenticity.
American fans who knew no Japanese could still sing along with songs written and sung by Japanese bands like L'Arc.
L'Arc saw an opportunity in 2004 and had themselves booked at Otakon, the largest anime convention on the East Coast, for a live show at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena. The venue's 12,000 seats sold fast. Enthusiasm for the pairing of Japanese rock and anime was infectious.
"Nobody had tried anything like this [in the United States] before, certainly not on that scale," Otakon director Jim Vowles said. "But the announcement triggered a weeklong wave of Internet buzz, including buzz in Japan. And the show itself was fantastic and over-the-top, a real once-in-a-lifetime event. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. People are still talking about that gig, almost a decade later."
Meanwhile, Japan's pop culture industries are facing an unpleasant but unavoidable truth: Growth at home is no longer possible. A chronically low birthrate and unstable economy guarantee that. And competition from South Korea and China is making Japanese pop culture producers increasingly antsy about their futures.
"Even before the global media started picking up on the band," Oishi noted, "the number of our visitors on YouTube went over several million, and the Facebook fansites of each region grew bigger. We are now receiving numerous requests for live concerts directly from foreign fans. There is no way for us to not do it now."
L'Arc~en~Ciel backstage at Kyocera Osaka Dome, Dec. 4
L'Arc released two singles this fall and winter, the hard-driving "Chase" and the infectious "X X X (Kiss Kiss Kiss)," and they are currently finishing a new studio album. Next year, they will embark on their first world tour, with stops in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Their song "Good Luck My Way" is featured on the soundtrack of the latest Fullmetal Alchemist anime film, "The Sacred Star of Milos," which will be screened across North America courtesy of veteran US distributor Funimation next month.
"We don't make any distinction between our otaku fans and our rock fans," hyde tells me. "We want them both, and we want to make them happy. I love Evangelion, but I also love Depeche Mode and Duran Duran."
Other band members cite Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee as critical influences. In short, they offer a smorgasbord of Western influences, served up Japanese-style, with genuine spasms of talent.
But is that enough to tie together the West's rock and anime audiences in competitive markets like New York and London? We'll likely learn in 2012. Bassist tetsuya, a founding member, thinks the band has something unique to offer.
"We do the best show we can each time out, whether the venue is in Japan or elsewhere. We may not be able to do the same show with the same resources in the U.S. and Europe, but performance-wise, we'll make every show special."
And Otakon's Vowles believes that Japanese bands can succeed overseas--especially if they honor anime fans.
"Ever since that show in 2004, the bar has been raised considerably for fandom, and while there have been some awesome moments since, it remains a high point in our history," he says. "For Otakon, it made music a major element in our event going forward, and that had ripple effects throughout the anime convention world."
Kelts, a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo, is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. and the forthcoming novel, "Access."