Attempting to grasp Shibuya-kei’s formidable sprawl can feel like a somewhat impossible task. After all, many Shibuya-kei artists intended to upend the confines of time, place and style in popular music – and many succeeded.
Shibuya-kei, or Shibuya style was, clichés aside, more than simply a style of music. The term refers more accurately to a tacit collective of likeminded individuals, defined by their location (in the record shop-strewn fashion district of Shibuya, Tokyo) and a loose time period (the very late 1980s through to the turn of the century).
Flipper’s Guitar was both one of the earliest Shibuya-kei groups and one of the first to achieve chart success in the style. Early Flipper’s Guitar records Three Cheers For Our Side (1989) and Camera Talk (1990) employed a jangly, guitar-led approach dubbed “neo-acoustic pop”. Hinting at influences such as sunshine pop and bossa nova, the group found popularity – yet, only a year later, their sound would be almost unrecognisable.
Flipper’s Guitar’s final project, 1991’s Doctor Head’s World Tower, was transformed by plunderphonics and sampling. Doctor Head’s World Tower created a bridge between the extravagant record collections built during the previous decades’ of Japanese economic prosperity and contemporary styles such as alternative dance, shoegaze and Madchester/Baggy. A textural and expansive work, Doctor Head’s World Tower paved the way for the breaking down of barriers between pop music from different styles, eras and continents.
Active in the same period, Pizzicato Five approached Shibuya-kei from a different angle. Headed by Yasuharu Konishi, the group picked up the dregs of the global, urban city pop style of the previous decade and funnelled those influences into a luxurious, multi-genre pastiche.
Beginning with 1987’s Pizzicatomania!, Pizzicato Five embarked on a decade-long streak of remarkable records. Traversing lounge to French house, bossa nova to downtempo; Pizzicato Five became trend-setting figureheads for many of the different strands of Shibuya-kei that followed.
The latter half of the Shibuya-kei period (generally considered from 1996 onward) saw the emergence of those strands.
Among them, there was no more obvious descendant of Flipper’s Guitar than Keigo Oyamada, who was, along with Kenji Ozawa, one of the group’s final two members. Oyamada’s work under the alias of Cornelius radically escalated the plunderphonic experiments initiated on Doctor Head’s World Tower. Fantasma was his masterpiece: a genre-bending, hyperactive piece of musical patchwork reverent to both the conformities and extremities of global pop.
Fantasma arguably remains Shibuya-kei’s flagship work – but it barely represents the enormous amounts of variation and innovation within the style. The genre’s broad definition, favouring a mindset over actual musical characteristics and commonalities, spawned rampant individuality. Among the likes of Fantastic Plastic Machine and Kahimi Karie, Towa Tei and Cibo Matto were hundreds of different stylistic avenues of pop music.
As third-wave ska met chanson and krautrock met dream pop, Shibuya-kei’s artists became harder to bracket under a single musical style. Yet, to this day, the scene remains one of the most venerated and identifiable in modern Japanese popular music.
Why is that the case? One reason perhaps has to do with the genre’s image. Shibuya-kei’s artists were playful, internationalistic and, crucially, cool. The genre’s incorporation of so many styles from across the globe made it easy to sell overseas, and its kitsch, retro-futuristic fashion and aesthetics were knowingly bold. Shibuya-kei coincided with the late ‘90s and the Japanese tourist board’s marketing of Japanese ‘cool’ – ever since, the genre’s artists have been deified as synonymous with an era of chic, urban modernity.
By the early 2000s, most of Shibuya-kei’s artists had moved on to different styles. And yet, thanks to its imagery, fashion and, of course, its outrageously ingenious pop experimentation, it remains one of the most widely-known and appreciated periods of Japanese pop.
Check out our Shibuya-kei playlist!