Japanese animation has its share of famous composers. You have Joe Hisaishi’s myriad contributions to the films of Studio Ghibli, from Castle in the Sky to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. On the television front, you have Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame, the genre-blending Taku Iwasaaki, and the perennially gothic Yuji Kajiura. Not to mention modern artists like the up and coming Masaru Yokoyama, or the infamous Hiroyuki Sawano. But forget soundtracks for a minute: what about bands? Idolm@ster and Love Live have their fans, and I don’t begrudge them their albums upon albums of music one bit. But recently I realized my music player was roughly half made up of Japanese bands I really like, and…some of them are really good?? Let me share a few of them with you, if you’re looking for an introduction. I can’t promise that I’m a great music critic, but I can promise that I personally love all of these bands.
The second season of Attack on Titan is airing this spring, bringing with it yet another bombastic piece by Linked Horizon (the sister project of the even more established and opulent Sound Horizon.) But the ending theme is a real surprise: a spooky piece by Japanese indie band Shinsei Kamattechan. It’s a more off-kilter sound than you’d expect accompanying one of anime’s biggest commercial hits, but Shinsei Kamattechan deserve the exposure; their lyrics perfectly match the existential enuui of being a lost and confused twenty year old in Japan, or in fact a lost and confused twenty year old anywhere. Their later work is more accessible, but their early stuff was a legitimate grassroots success, rising to fame through weird music videos on sites like Nico Nico Douga.
Attack on Titan is probably Shinsei Kamattechan’s highest profile anime credit, but they’ve contributed to the medium more than you’d think! They did the orchestration for the theme song of Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko, a high-pitched, almost unbearable earworm that for me was by far the most memorable aspect of the show. But Nono himself, the lead singer of the band, contributed to the themes for the controversial adaptation of Flowers of Evil in 2013. In doing so he worked together with fellow cult singer Mariko Goto, establishing Flowers of Evil as having the true deepest bench of musical talent in anime history.
Where to start: Their album Tsumanne is a pretty good mix between the more accessible and hellishly quirky strains of their work. You can find it on iTunes.
Ling Tosite Sigure
I first discovered Ling Tosite Sigure while reading a post years ago on bateszi’s anime blog. Their music didn’t click with me immediately, but after listening to their album “just A moment” two times through, it became one of my all-time favorite bands. Lead singer TK and his band members aren’t always easy to listen to (there’s a lot of shrieking) but their music displays incredible technical skill, and the harmonies when everything comes together on each song are always beautiful. TK’s since gone on to release his own independent albums, which I haven’t listened to as much but would believe is quite good. That said, my heart remains with Ling Tosite Sigure proper, one of the Japanese indie rock scene’s more notable successes. As much as some of their later releases fall into a formula, it works well enough on me that I don’t really care.
Ling Tosite Sigure’s most notably contributed theme music to both seasons of Psycho Pass. In my opinion these songs are absolutely the best thing about the series, though I know others who enjoyed the show more than I did! More recently, TK’s contributed theme songs he wrote solo, most notably “unravel” from the first season of Tokyo Ghoul.
Where to start: just A moment is the one I started with, and I’d recommend it to anybody.
Etsuko Yakushimaru’s one of the most beloved anisong singers of recent times, contributing to everything from The Tatami Galaxy from Mawaru Penguindrum. But what folks might not be familiar with is that she’s released plenty of music on her own, via her band Soutaisei Riron. Their songs are cute and quirky, but there’s something weird and vital in their best work that lodges itself in your head and refuses to leave. The lyrics are wild as well, ranging from seemingly banal to quietly apocalyptic. I’ve heard from some fans that the band’s recent releases haven’t been quite up to par with the old ones–maybe affected by Yakushimaru’s new solo career? But Soutaisei Riron never fails to cheer me up, and I’d say it’s one of the most pleasant discoveries I’ve made as a fan of music in the past few years.
As far as I know Soutasei Riron hasn’t contributed any music to anime per se. But Yakushimaru herself is a hugely prolific solo artist; besides her aforementioned work, I really liked the song she contributed to the third season of Sailor Moon Crystal as well. You wouldn’t think a singer from an indie band that prided itself on anonymity would go on to pitch for rebooting one of the most beloved magical girl shows of all time, but. The anime industry is a small world.
Where to start: Hi-Fi Shinso is my personal favorite. Just about every song on the album is great.
Okay, I’m cheating: when you think about anisong artists, Shiina Ringo doesn’t come immediately to mind. She’s one of my all-time favorite singers, like if Radiohead and Lady Gaga had a baby. Her career covers everything from really, really good J-pop to an album literally titled “Kalk Semen Chestnut Flower” to her heavily jazz-influenced work on the band Tokyo Jihen. She recently contributed the theme song to the film Miss Hokusai (and the soundtrack to live-action manga adaptation Sakuran), plus the orchestration for the themes to recent anime masterpiece Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. But despite this, she’s largely given television anime a pass. You could say that she’s one of those invisible artists who has a huge influence on the music scene, while still being too cool and vibrant to have much to contribute to a medium that can be so unabashedly disposable and commercial.
But wait, can it be? Is that Haruko from FLCL in a nurse’s outfit? One of Shiina Ringo’s most successful singles is Honnou, the one with the music video where Ringo wears a nurse’s outfit and punches through glass. Haruko wears a nurse’s outfit in this scene as a tribute to Shiina Ringo herself. It’s just one of FLCL’s myriad of pop-culture references, but considering the show’s free-wheeling spirit of rock and roll I’d say Ringo’s brand of smashing conventions was a key influence.
Where to start: Shouso Strip makes for an accessible introduction to her work, but Kalk Semen Chestnut Flower is arguably her masterpiece. Either is excellent.
Of course, there are plenty of bands I’ve left out. What about Supercar, whose members have contributed to everything from Eureka Seven to Ping Pong? What about the Rolling Girls’s pitch perfect covers of the Blue Hearts, or Coaltar of the Deepers’s rocking piece “Dear Future?” Where the fuck are the pillows??? All of these are good questions, and might deserve future exploration. But for now, I leave you with this: