Girl in the Shell — A look at Japanese Cyberpop

As is the norm these days, the recent trailer for the upcoming live action take on Ghost in the Shell garnered both the usual round of cautious optimism and outright distaste. Put me in the camp of the former; I’m a sucker for anything where Scarlett Johansson plays something less than human. But while I’m happy to let my love for Under the Skin and even Lucy blind me to its faults, I still couldn’t help feel disappointed in the generic industrial song used to soundtrack the trailer. It’s a shame the producers of the American Ghost in the Shell didn’t go with the music originally commissioned by HKE, a British artist who’s been featured before on Neon Dystopia. HKE’s dreamy digitalism would surely have run in the same vein as other audio excursions into the otherness of Japanese cyberpunk. Think of Kenji Kawai’s haunting chants that dominate the original Ghost in the Shell, or Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s brilliantly hypnagogic music for Akira. And how about the oldest part of that holy cyberpunk trinity from Japan, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which would lose half of its effect without the noise and industriality of Chu Ishikawa’s score?

But Japanese cyberpunk music doesn’t always have to be about instrumental sounds, as it’s equally as interesting to listen to the Japanese mainstream and beyond to find curious examples of song merging with the cyber. Take for example Kuruma (‘Car’) by solo artist Tentenko, a techno- fetish ode to the automobile.

Released not long after Ghost in the Shell‘s trailer in 2016, Kuruma is a terrifying crossbreed between man and machine, much like the iron man Tetsuo himself. You can put this at the feet of the song’s producer, EYE of art rock legends Boredoms, but this would be grossly incorrect. Tentenko herself has been putting out album after album of bedroom-produced noise music in the short time since quitting girl group BiS, mixing her ‘aegyo’ vocals with sounds both alien and extreme. Tentenko’s solo path may not be surprising perhaps for watchers of the now defunct BiS, aka Brand-new idol Society. This was an act which seemed to rebel against J-pop idol culture on their final album, making Atari Teenage Riot-style digital hardcore and homages to the Tetsuo movie series with videos like this. Check out the promo for STUPiG, which is pure punk-cyber.

The BiS girls even put out two horror movies before disbanding, one of which, IDOL is DEAD, is based around a cyborg zombie. It doesn’t get more cyberpunk than that, does it?

The similarly inclined girl group Momoiro Clover Z further put the ‘art’ in art pop with the concept for Neo Stargate, a music video that starts off with the cold fonts and cheapish CGI of 90s Japanese sci-fi cinema. It goes even further askew from there, with its weird gimp mask fetish from the future. I still haven’t seen or heard anything quite like this. Shall we call it cyberpop?

Predating all of the above with the Japanese cyberpunk aesthetic was Syoko, lead singer of 1980s post-punkers G-Schmitt. In 1986 she released the solo EP Soil, complete with cyber-girl front cover and the absolutely jaw-dropping Erewhon, which in a way is the 80s equivalent of Tentenko’s Kuruma.

Erewhon is a song which both lulls and disturbs in equal measure. Syoko’s flawless vocals compete for attention with a burbling machine bass and a horrible creeping sense of machine malfunction. At times it feels like she’s literally singing from within the machine, a literal ghost in the shell trapped tight in the robotic coils of its cold empty heart.

If you look closely at the cover to Soil, you’ll see Syoko only has one arm, the other snapped off as if she was an organic mannequin. The coils have taken their toil, perhaps.

The cover for City Life by Koharu Kisaragi, also from 1986, has a similar cyberpunk feel. Perhaps something was in the Tokyo waters back then? Either way, what a great year for music that was, as City Life’s lead single, Neo-Plant, can attest. This is a more rhythmic kind of cyberpunk pop . Japanese cyberfunk, almost.

Finally, on the topic of artwork, I was struck by the similarity in covers between Tentenko’s latest release Industrial Products, as featuring Kuruma, and the 1984 album SFX by Haroumi Hosono, a founding member of Japanese electronica gods YMO. There’s something very familiar in the colour and aesthetic, a similarity that extends to the ‘buffering processor’ feel of the beats. Listen here to the title track from SFX, or check out the song Alternative 3 from the same LP below.

Funnily enough, the liner notes to SFX state that the music was solely inspired by Western cyberpunk and science-fiction landmarks such as Alien and Blade Runner, the latter of which heavily inspired both Akira and Ghost in the Shell in the years after SFX’s release. As such, the cyber circuit closes, and we find ourselves back in familiar territory. This is something made more ironic by the fact that modern-day Japan and its neighbouring countries actually come close to what was envisioned by cyberpunk cinema and literature all the way back at the beginning of the 1980s. Whilst we’re on the subject, aren’t there new iterations of both Alien and Blade Runner to provide company for Ghost in the Shell in 2017? Hopefully all of these movies will get soundtracks worthy of their cyberpunk themes. One can only dream of electric feats to soundtrack the industrial sets of Alien Covenant, say, or the urban sprawl of Blade Runner 2049. In all these visions of the future, though, you can rest assured people are listening to sounds much like the Japanese cyberpop of now.

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Written by Giacomo G L E E
Giacomo is author of Funereal, a novel set in Seoul with cyberpunk themes. Black Mirror meets Black Swan in a look at the unique 'fake funeral' industry of South Korea - for fans of Mitchell, Gibson, Sterling and Murakami.
  1. I cannot tell you how much I loved this. Japanese Cyberpop is something that I wish more mainstream shows/movies would tap into. They can be the perfect mix into any cyberbased storyline.


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