Pop culture | What’s up under the (rising) sun?

It causes fascination, amazement, passion or incomprehension: Japanese pop culture, crowned with great export successes, leaves no one indifferent. Beyond the costumades (cosplay) and karaoke, what are the striking phenomena of this colorful environment that have grown in recent years in the Japanese archipelago? Overview.

Posted on July 19, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

Sylvain Sarrazin

Sylvain Sarrazin

From drawing boards to theater boards

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Behind this funny label of “2.5D” hides the adaptation of manga into musicals or plays, in which heroes from the world of 2D (Naruto, Sailor Moon, Demon Slayer…) Find themselves personified by actors on stage, all embellished with choreography, acrobatics, songs, visual and sound effects. There are even specialized venues, like the AiiA 2.5 opened in 2019 in Kobe. The phenomenon is growing (from 70 new shows in 2013 to 197 in 2018, with 2.78 million spectators, according to the PIA research institute) and eyeing abroad, China, the United States and Europe starting to welcome them.

V-tubers invite themselves

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V-tuber? V for “virtual”, tubeur for “youtubeur”. These animated characters modeled on the manga style feed video channels in which they comment on the news, test apps, video games, and cultural products. This is THE trend in Japan: according to the Japanese research organization User Local, cited by The Japan Times, there were 4,000 at the end of 2020, and the number continues to swell. The leader: Kizuna Ai, with 3 million subscribers currently. First confined to Japan, these virtual stars are quietly setting sail abroad.

The Otakuthon, Quebec’s high mass of Japanese pop culture, which will be held from August 20 to 22, has also invited three Japanese V-tubers this year. The festival organizers explain this success by the efforts of bilingual admirers who subtitle some of the videos, but also those of the agencies producing these V-tubers, increasingly tapping the English-speaking market. “Kiryu Coco is considered to have had the greatest impact on exports,” illustrate the organizers.

The shamisen back on stage

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Stefan Latour, co-president and spokesperson for Otakuthon, underlines the return of certain traditional arts integrated into the popular sphere, such as the rakugo, a form of humorous literary show that has featured in manga – let us quote The rakugo or life, recently adapted into animated. Another striking example is the resurgence of the shamisen, a traditional three-string instrument, in modern cultural productions.

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On the stage, Yoshida Brothers had already paved the way in early 2000, bridging tradition and current music, and many groups have followed in recent years, serving it in hard rock or metal sauce, such as Wagakki Band or Band Maiko , very popular recently. On the graphic arts side, the manga Those Snow White Notes, starring shamisen players, was entitled to an animated adaptation in 2021. And proof that the instrument is not only of interest to the Japanese, the American animated film Kubo and the Two Strings, released in 2016, has achieved critical and commercial success.

The vocaloid path

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Imagine: thousands of people singing and dancing to the rhythm of an artist’s performance on stage… 100% virtual. Vocaloids, this is another phenomenon that has grown significantly in the last decade, since the consecration of Hatsune Miku, head of the movement. Basically, it is a composition software allowing to create synthetic voices based on human vocalizations, but complete virtual singers have been created little by little, some giving concerts in 3D projection! The ranks of the competition keep growing, with today around a hundred vocaloids in Japan and China. Hybrid forms appear, marrying real singers and virtual artists, like the duo Yoasobi, which has been a hit since 2019. As for Hatsune Miku, she began to give international shows and even planned a first foray into Quebec in 2020, finally canceled.

The hostagei, in search of visibility

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This movement has been around for some time, but is refining and digging its place in the limelight, tells us Valérie Harvey, author and sociologist specializing in Japan. The hostagei (pronounced “o-ta-gué-i”), who want to free themselves from the negative image sometimes attached to fans of pop culture (otaku), are fervent admirers of singers or people performing elaborate choreographies, luminescent sticks in hand, on concert beds to support their idol, during one-off events or while filming. “It’s pretty fancy, they want it to be seen as art – ‘gei’ means art. It has been around for a little while, but it’s more and more popular, we are starting to see them in Japanese films. Some even want to make it an Olympic sport! », Underlines Mme Harvey. As proof, international competitions of this practice were set up in 2019.

COVID-19 : la culture pop au top


Movie poster Demon Slayer

When pandemic and Japanese pop culture meet, what happens? Much excitement, according to a conference on this theme organized by the American-Japanese Society of Dallas. We note in particular that all the cinematographic records at the Japanese box office were shattered last year, in two months, by an animated manga, Demon Slayer. “Observers explain this success by the particular situation of COVID-19 and the resonance of anime themes with Japanese culture, such as family protection and perseverance in the face of the crisis, but it must also be placed in a more global trend in the industry, based on a multimedia strategy, ”explained Seio Nakajima, sociologist at Waseda University.

From virtual to real


Valérie Harvey, sociologist

Although it seems rooted in the virtual and for some it evokes the withdrawal into the sauce geek, Japanese pop culture tends, according to sociologist Valérie Harvey, to make a recent return to the concrete. “We have the image of someone who stays at home, but it’s as if the digital community is going to seek a link that is embodied in reality afterwards. It started before the pandemic, and is likely to grow even more, she warns. We see it with musicals, where fictional characters are embodied, with Hatsune Miku, which brings together thousands of spectators, with the hostagei, who meet and train together, with congresses which gather more and more people. . In Charlevoix, we saw pop-up shows this summer, but it has been happening in Japan for a few years, it is very popular and it will spread. Perhaps that is the future: the return of the concrete influenced by digital technology: there is a desire to be alike, even if what brings us together is not real. ”

And on the techno side?


The connected mask slips behind a fabric face cover.

We always wonder what new technological gadget has been developed by the archipelago. The organizers of Otakuthon told us about the connected mask from Donut Robotics. The device slips behind a face cover and connects to your phone or that of your interlocutor to transcribe your voice into text, amplify it or translate your words while ensuring physical distancing.

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