At sweet sixteen, Japanese pop phenomenon Hatsune Miku has her whole life ahead of her. In fact, she may have an eternity, because unlike her rivals she hasn’t aged a bit since her 2007 debut. And there are no tantrums or tiaras either, despite a number-one album. This teen only needs electricity. With her trademark cyan pigtails, tomboy necktie and thigh-high boots, Miku’s faultless performances defy her youth. But then, as a hologram, it’s not her lack of faults that has garnered legions of glowstick-waving fans, it’s how very lifelike she, and the rise of digital pop stars, has become.
Cheerful and playful at their Shibuya studio, the four women of Speed have the energy and excitement of a debutant J-pop girl group. Yet their joviality masks the fact that they’re veterans of the most successful female Japanese group of all time. Between forming in 1996 and splitting up in 2000, Takako Uehara, Eriko Imai, Hitoe Arakaki and Hiroko Shimabukuro sold over 20 million records. Ten years later, as they prepare for a reunion tour, the women of Speed are all still in their 20s.
“We were talking with each other like ordinary 20-something girls over dinner,” says Uehara. “It had been about seven years since we’d stood on stage together, and I knew I needed to remember I was ‘Takako Uehara of Speed.’”
Dressed in a light floral ensemble at her record label’s office in the upscale Aoyama district, J-pop starlet May J has a look that can only be described as “free-spirit chic.” Yet she seems more concerned with a side of herself that fans can’t see.
“I have to go to Iran and find my other roots,” she declares. “I want to debut in Iran, if it’s possible. I hope I can be a positive image for Iranians.”
“I’m obsessed by soul,” says Emi Tawata. “It’s the sound of a band with human emotions on their sleeves.” And if it’s soul you’re after, the 25-year-old Okinawan singer has got plenty to go around—along with blues, jazz, R&B, and a seriously funky hairstyle. All are very much in evidence on her recently released debut album, Sings, which marks the end of a long ride that started with a street jazz band in Vancouver.
Opinions on Yoko Ono usually fall into two categories: antipathy or aggressive defense. What many music critics miss is the fact that, unlike most musicians who use songs to convey their emotions, Ono is a conceptual artist who began using the medium as a mere canvas for her imagination. Her music, then, simply doesn’t make sense to those listening for emotive melodies or an angelic voice.
Since 1999, Wyolica has been hailed by critics for its melancholic “folky soul,” crafting a hitherto unknown sound summed up in the title to second album Almost Blues. After a greatest hits compilation in 2004, though, they slipped off the radar, working on various solo projects and collaborations. But 2009 began with a new mini-album, Balcony, and soon the idea of letting the decade pass unnoticed began to prey on vocalist Azumi’s mind.
“I don’t want to look back,” Shizuka Kudo says as we chat in a secluded area of an Ebisu café. “The past is the past and I don’t want to hang around!” One of the most popular idols of the ’80s and ’90s, Kudo has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career, with eleven No. 1 hits, including eight in a row from 1988-1990. Where other idols simply drift into obscurity, she’s maintained a high profile, and today, at 38, she’s as high-spirited and talkative as ever.
Aya Sugimoto’s name is synonymous with all things sensual. Since her ground-shaking 2003 divorce, in which she famously (and very publicly) left a “sexless” marriage, Sugimoto has become a flag-bearer for women’s rights, particularly when those rights involve sex and relationships. Her sensational views are backed up by edgy performances in film and on stage, and she lends support to causes ranging from animal rights to female independence. Sugimoto’s new project promises more of the same: an adaptation, using the sensual Argentinean dance form tango, of the true story of Sada Abe, the notorious Meiji-era prostitute who asphyxiated and castrated her lover.
Serenely and alluringly, the lotus flower opens. Unabashed, the temptress strides out, brimming with sexual beauty and proclaiming that the age of the Japanese lolita has passed. She has blossomed instead into a modern Aphrodite, a woman whose physical beauty exudes power, confidence and charisma. The kawaii generation watches in awe as she transforms into something startlingly sexy yet still adorable. She is erotic yet cool—ero-kakkoii.
Yuna Ito strides into the room, brimming with confidence. And she has every reason to. Not only has she recorded a No. 1 album a mere two years since moving to Japan, but she’s now living the life she’s fought years to achieve. “It’s just the beginning,” she proclaims.
Ito is at ease with herself and her newfound celebrity status, and she has the acumen to realize where to draw the line between the two. “The entertainment world is a fantasy world, and it should be—people don’t need to see the normal parts, otherwise it wouldn’t be entertainment.”
Guitarist, songwriter and key founding member of the former Sadistic Mika Band, Kazuhiko Kato has the air of an English aristocrat about him. Polite and soft-spoken, he looks the part of a true gent, surrounded by an array of antiques and artifacts that adorn his apartment like a treasure trove. Now settling back in Japan after years of living abroad, he is only too keen to extol the virtues of the band’s British heritage.
Back in 2002, one of the biggest J-pop singers embarked on an ambitious solo project, riding a surging wave of interest in R&B. Namie Amuro was taking a risk few well-molded idoru would dare, and though seen as a little eccentric at the time, the resulting album, Suitechic, now seems like a smart business move.
With the likes of New York-born Hikaru Utada and Misia as role models, an abundance of mostly female singers indebted to American R&B have charged up the charts, many of whom also have significant backgrounds in the States. From Crystal Kay to Bennie K, AI to Double, and new acts Soulhead and Yoshika, R&B divas are giving J-Pop some attitude.