In the relatively short amount of time between Shibuya-kei’s beginning and end (that is, from the early Nineties to around the turn of the century), it was never quite captured by any clear boundaries or precise definition. It was more a tacit collective of like-minded artists, from whom the art produced many, many strands too loose and numerous to, in retrospect, ever be effectively drawn together.
Melodically, Shibuya-kei bridged the orchestral pop and Wall of Sound of Brian Wilson and Dyke Van Parks, Brazilian bossa nova, Californian ‘60s soft and psychedelic rock, French Yé-yé and chanson, American East Coast hip-hop sampling and plunderphonics, lounge pop, exotica, film music and much more, bringing together styles of music from all corners of the globe that had never previously interacted in such fluid fashion.
These artists took historic, internationalist pop genres and updated them for the ‘90s, bolstering their dancefloor cred with the beats of breakbeat, downtempo, trip hop, krautrock, Chicago house and British Baggy/Madchester. While Shibuya-kei wasn’t the first retro-futurist pop movement, it was one of the most audacious, made even more recognisable by its kitsch, retro fashion aesthetic.
Despite the vast number of styles captured within its tunes, one could theoretically still reduce a definition of Shibuya-kei to little more than “Japanese indie pop.” Yet, that doesn’t come close to grasping its intentions, ingenuity and impact. It was more a mindset shared by a select group of artists within a brief time period, fashioned in the record shops of Shibuya and spearheaded by underground, independent icons of the previous few decades of Japanese music.
It also represented a landmark period of transformation for Japanese pop music both within Japan and internationally. Shibuya-kei saw indie music take over the Japanese domestic mainstream music market for the first time, while artists like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius gained traction as some of Japan’s most celebrated cultural exports.
In fashion as well as music, these artists were essential contributors to the curation of Japan’s equivalent to “Cool Britannia.” Few genre phenomena have so effectively swept up listeners with such romanticism and nostalgia, and even fewer have had such long-lasting impact.
The breadth and lack of solid definition of Shibuya-kei makes a full history nearly impossible. Instead, here I’ll offer a guide to the work of five artists who capture the style and best represent its innovation and influence.
Flipper’s Guitar, ‘Doctor Head’s World Tower’ (1991)
The first major Shibuya-kei records can be traced back to the late ‘80s with releases such as Pizzicato Five’s Pizzicatomania (1987) and Bellissima! (1988). While the best Pizzicato Five records would come a few years later, their peers in the innovation of Shibuya-kei, Flipper’s Guitar, released the genre’s most consequential early works. Their first two records, Three Cheers For Our Side (1989) and Camera Talk (1990), both pushed forward “neo-acoustic pop,” a style of tightly-written indie pop music full of loosely played acoustic guitars (not unlike jangle pop) and frequently adorned with strings and synthesizers.
Both of those records alone became foundations of a certain style of Shibuya-kei then pursued by bands such as Nelories, Bridge, Johnny Dee and Cymbals. Yet, despite their remarkable impact, it was Flipper’s Guitar’s third and final work that still stands as their most forward-thinking and creative piece of Shibuya-kei. 1991’s Doctor Head’s World Tower took the colorful and transportive nature of Three Cheers and Camera Talk and immersed listeners in the beats of Madchester/Baggy (the alternative dance genre founded in Manchester in the ‘80s) and a near-total adoration of The Beach Boys.
By 1991, Flipper’s Guitar were down from five musicians to the duo of Kenji Ozawa and Keigo Oyamada. A personnel deficit notwithstanding, Doctor Head’s World Tower managed to build upon the massive popular success of Camera Talk by taking that same neo-acoustic pop guitar style and chopping-in bits of samples and Madchester beats. Produced by Kenichi Makimura (an ‘80s icon behind great city pop albums by the likes of Taeko Ohnuki), Flipper’s Guitar mixed Beach Boys vocal harmonies with the actual sampling and interpolation of Beach Boys tracks, all of which intermingled with the kind of swallowing guitar noise one normally associates with British shoegaze acts of the same period. Unlike Oyamada’s later works, it wasn’t wildly cut-and-shut but lush and shrouded in layers of distortion.
The way in which Doctor Head’s World Tower self-referentially tuned-in to past trends while unmistakably retaining contemporary features has even been read by some as somewhat postmodern (or as postmodern as pop music can be). While early Pizzicato Five albums similarly submitted to decades of cross-continental pop, Flipper’s Guitar were the first to perfect it. Both Ozawa and Oyamada would go on to make indelible marks on the genre in their own right. Ozawa released Life in 1994 before becoming a somewhat more conventional pop artist, while this piece will return to Oyamada, who took an altogether more consequential path.
See Also: Venus Peter’s Space Driver (1992), released on Oyamada’s Trattoria and another shoegazing, neo-psychedelic Shibuya-kei record easily mistaken for Madchester/Baggy.
Pizzicato Five, ‘Happy End of the World’ (1997)
While Flipper’s Guitar were innovating within one corner of Shibuya, Pizzicato Five had dominated the rest of the ward with their own prolific streak of genre-transcending records. Pizzicato Five weren’t the face of Shibuya-kei merely because they were the movement’s most popular and most exported act, but because they themselves actually explored and pioneered so much of the genre.
Since their debut Couples in 1987, they had navigated lounge, space-age pop, bossa nova, baroque pop, smooth soul, alternative dance, deep house and breakbeat without pausing for breath. Between 1987 and 1997 they released no fewer than 11 albums (not including compilations and TV soundtracks), each one tweaking their sound and exploring a slightly different strand of global pop culture.
At the culmination of that decade of invention and reinvention came Happy End of the World, an opus of lounge, sunshine pop, funk, disco, jazz pop and soul. It was, at its most skeletal – and the manner in which it differed most from Flipper’s Guitar – a fundamentally electronic work. Beat-driven experimentation traversed the styles of drum and bass, breakbeat and downtempo (and, in parts, even bits of minimal techno and IDM) in a way that had been hinted at on Pizzicato Five records like Sweet Pizzicato Five (1992) and Bossanova 2001 (1993).
But here those hints were fully realized. As a result, Happy End of the World has both the density and adventurousness of a plunderphonics record (despite much of it being performed live) and the chilled, featherweight listenability of lounge and easy-listening pop.
Most of all, however, Happy End of the World summarizes the contribution of Pizzicato Five to Shibuya-kei. It’s scatty and vast, assembling more stylistic influences than one thinks is feasibly possible. It’s also, as Pizzicato Five always had been, relentlessly, intensely cool. Despite continuing to release music until 2001, so aptly does Happy End of the World represent their knowingly worldly sense of visual and audial style, both retro and futurist, that they would never really best it.
See Also: Pizzicato Five’s Pizzicatomania (1987), a Haruomi Hosono-produced, groovy, punchy space-age pop compilation and their first masterpiece.
Cornelius ‘Fantasma’ (1997)
Retrospective pieces on Shibuya-kei often dismiss the actual music as but a side-note to the movement’s huge cultural impact. They deem these records dated and overly pastiche (an argument I heartily disagree with, given the genre’s deliberate intent to be both of those things), but one album always manages to evade such criticism. That album is Cornelius’ Fantasma, frequently considered a pinnacle not only of Shibuya-kei, but of plunderphonics and independent music more generally.
In the years since the breakup of Flipper’s Guitar, Keigo Oyamada had been anything but quiet. His label Trattoria, founded in 1992, had given a platform to Shibuya-kei artists like Venus Peter, Bridge and Kahimi Karie, while Oyamada himself was now producing music under the alias of Cornelius. In 1995, Oyamada pitched his plunderphonic, “cut and paste” sampling credentials with the impressive but imperfect 69/96, a noisier, more psychedelic work that moved beyond the subtle sampling of Flipper’s Guitar and worked mostly with elements of heavy rock.
Within a month of Happy End of the World, Oyamada released Fantasma and shifted the musical landscape once again. One of Shibuya-kei’s most iconic works is also, however, it’s most difficult to pin down. Fantasma is a hi-resolution sprawl of live instrumentation and widely-sought samples, an immersive experience that throws its listener recklessly from style-to-style. It’s maniacally technical and detailed but also cartoony and humorous (Oyamada whistles Beethoven and samples the Magoo opening, Planet of the Apes and The Goonies). It’s cheesy and occasionally annoying but ridiculously innovative too. Irregular in every regard, Fantasma somehow manages to normalize such oddity and, on subsequent listens, it’s easy to forget just how flooring it was the first time around.
Due to Fantasma’s Matador release, it’s also one of the best-known Shibuya-kei records outside of Japan – if anyone has heard a Shibuya-kei release, it’s probably Fantasma. It marks a watershed moment for Oyamada within the genre, where he would turn his attention towards indietronica and folktronica (his 2001 album, Point, would be another sonic adventure but a firm move away from Shibuya-kei); an album that, for him, seemingly accomplished nigh-everything that a Shibuya-kei release could.
See Also: Spank Happy’s Freak Smile (1995), another ridiculously arty work of field samples, working avant-garde jazz, orchestral minimalism, jazz pop and trip hop into a similarly post-Flipper’s Guitar sound; and Takako Minekawa’s Fun 9 (1999), space-age art pop with East Coast-style hip hop sampling and production from Oyamada himself (Minekawa’s then-husband).
Fantastic Plastic Machine ‘The Fantastic Plastic Machine’ (1997) / ‘Luxury’ (1998)
But, as earlier established, Shibuya-kei was more a movement of like-minded artists than a strict style. It was too broad to have a singular peak. While this piece so far has only really covered the two originators, there were numerous others that were part of the movement and producing groundbreaking work. Indeed, there was a side to the style only distantly recognizable to the works of Keigo Oyamada and Flipper’s Guitar. This side evolved from Pizzicato Five; artists like Towa Tei, Cibo Matto, Kahimi Karie and Mayumi Kojima delivering smoother, more fashionable, atmospheric and often dance-focused music fixated on genres like Brazilian and French pop, bossa nova, chanson, nu-jazz, downtempo, trip hop and film music.
Tomoyuki Tanaka, under the guise of Fantastic Plastic Machine, approached Shibuya-kei from a different angle to Flipper’s Guitar. A DJ in Kyoto’s acid-jazz scene, he already possessed deep musical archives and a somewhat natural knack for spinning a turntable. Accordingly, his two key contributions to Shibuya-kei, The Fantastic Plastic Machine (1997) and Luxury (1998), were both clearly separate to his neo-acoustic peers. FPM was the groundbreaking work and Luxury the more refined, but both were inventive, slightly surreal and utterly smooth pieces of dancefloor-worthy retro pop.
Tanaka’s two crucial works succeeded so emphatically because they were totally entrancing, but also because he captured the essence of what people generally perceived of as Shibuya. Glamourous, sophisticated, fashionable and cosmopolitan, his Fantastic Plastic Machine albums transported listeners to an imaginary, appealing version of Tokyo’s famous shopping district. Along with Towa Tei and Cibo Matto, Tanaka helped forge these visions, projecting an image that has still never really faded. The late ‘90s saw the end of Shibuya-kei in the fresh, revolutionary form that it had maintained for over a decade, but the image of urban, independent fashion remained.
These artists’ other significant legacy would be associated with the heavy use of samples and club beats. Some post-Shibuya-kei artists would follow in the footsteps of the guitar-driven indie pop of Flipper’s Guitar, but many more significant acts, in genres such as picopop and electropop, would expand upon the electronica initiated by Tanaka.
See Also: Even if Viva! La Woman (1996) is often their most celebrated work, Cibo Matto’s Stereo Type A (1999) is catchier and more sonically adventurous, mixing retro French pop with neo-soul, hip hop, art pop and trip hop.
Yu Miyake ‘Katamari Damacy Soundtrack: Katamari Fortissimo Damacy’ (2004)
By 2004, Shibuya-kei had largely run its course but, perhaps predictably for such an impactful cultural phenomenon, it left trails of disciples in its wake. The likes of Cymbals, Neil & Iraiza, Microstar and Roly Poly Rag Bear would follow the genre’s guitar-led indie pop conventions, while lounge, jazz-pop and bossa nova styles were pursued more purely by Lamp, Mayumi Kojima and Qypthone.
The early 2000s also saw acts such as Capsule, Sonic Coaster Pop and Plus-Tech Squeeze Box innovate through the cacophonous, manic, sample-heavy bleeps and bloops that defined “picopop” (Capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata eventually escalated his electropop style and went on to produce for J-pop superstars Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu). Others, inspired as much by the mindset of Shibuya-kei as the music, incorporated its retro-centrism into other genres. Halcali’s Halcali Bacon (2003) brought film music, baroque pop and bossa nova to catchy, joyous hip hop and Serani Poji’s One-Room Survival similarly injected retro influences into punchy J-pop.
One album managed to define the post-Shibuya-kei Japanese pop landscape better than the rest. It pursued lounge and jazz, but also picopop and electropop; it brushed turntablism up against hyper electronica, and tied it all together with boundless playfulness and appreciation for past and present pop. Few pieces of music can be so relied upon to put a smile on your face as Yu Miyake and co.’s Katamari Fortissimo Damacy, the relentlessly cheerful soundtrack to the puzzle-solving video-game.
Katamari bounces around in a way that is difficult to imagine possible without the likes of Fantasma or The Fantastic Plastic Machine. More than those musicians that followed one of the many paths already lain by Shibuya-kei, Yu Miyake captured the shape-shifting, pop-culture-amalgamating nature of the genre. Crucially, he also grasped its romanticism and nostalgia: Katamari is as easy to fall in love with as any of the other records in this list. Miyake swept up listeners that both had and hadn’t played the game and, in the process, created a piece of music widely-regarded as one of the finest video-game soundtracks ever made.
In the two decades since Shibuya-kei, the movement’s influence has been profound (and is another article’s worth of work in itself). Though it petered-out around the turn-of-the-century, Shibuya-kei has since saturated numerous cultural landscapes with its postmodern pastiche and cross-genre, cross-cultural appreciation. As yet, it remains a remarkable and unique moment in music and fashion and an exceptional period in the history of Japanese pop music.