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Translation: The Crossover of Akiba-kei Culture (Part 1)

Posted by Lurkette, in Translations, Interview 06 September 2020 · 0 views

2010 Era Idol Scene, Vol. 3
The Crossover of Akiba-kei Culture (Part 1)
Mofuku-chan, Furukawa Mirin, Naruse Eimi, and Hyadain describe the chance meeting and unification of the 2D and 3D worlds

2020.08.12 20:00

Welcome back to our series digging into the many different sides of the 2010 era idol scene. This time, we've taken up the subject of those related to the "Akiba-kei Culture" that came out of Akihabara in Tokyo. Originally, there were few points of contact between three-dimensional idol culture and two-dimensional otaku culture, but with Dempagumi.inc, who brought dempa songs within the boundaries of idols, catching their big break, those walls began to crumble, little by little. In this first article, we'll start with Fukushima Maiko, also known as "Mofuku-chan," the producer of Dempagumi.inc and founder of Akihabara Dear Stage, where the group was formed, then speak to Dempagumi.inc members Furukawa Mirin and Naruse Eimi, and hear from Maeyamada Ken'ichi, also known as Hyadain, who has worked on many of their songs. While they look back at the peak of niconico douga and Akihabara that started in the 2000s, we will uncover how this two disparate cultures came to crossover.

Interview, article: Onoda Mamoru
Interview cut photography: Soga Mime
Translation: Lurkette

When talking about Akiba-kei music, you definitely can't overlook erotic games

Otaku culture is often talked about at the same time as anime and idols, but the reality is they're only superficially similar. It's like comparing tennis and soft tennis... No, they're possibly even as different as tennis and table tennis. Naturally, the attributes of fans of anime and idols differ, as well. Nowadays, in 2020, that has become partly common knowledge, but at one time, the segregation of the two was chaotic. We begin our discussion when Akiba-kei culture was just starting to blossom.

Dempagumi.inc at that time were dashing their way to the major scene by way of Akihabara, as if they were weaving through every opening. When talking about them, they're always tied together with components of "the Akihabara strip," "massive multiplayer online (mmo) gaming," "niconico douga," "voice actors," and "hikikomori." It's proof that the members burst out of a scene unrelated to that of pure idol context, and for this reason, one could say they created a new set of values.

Looking back at Dempagumi.inc's founding and place in the scene, they are essential in redefining the idol scene over the last decade. The natalie editorial staff and I think this, and so we went directly to their producer, Mofuku-chan (Fukushima Maiko). Mofuku-chan herself is a zealous idol fan, and at the same time, she's a member of the intelligentsia, having gone to the senior high school attached to the Kunitachi College of Music and then on to study musicology at Tokyo University of the Arts. With that kind of background, she speaks on a wide range of topics, from avant-garde art to Disney. In the eyes of a woman such as this, what was so fresh about Akiba-kei culture? Also, what struck her, and how did she come to form Dempagumi.inc?

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Fukushima Maiko, also known as Mofuku-chan

"I had experienced anisongs, but perhaps my first encounter with doujin {fanmade] music was niconico douga, I think. I myself had received a sort of intellectual music education, so the act of these novice musicians posting their own music was at the time so novel to me. My way of describing this isn't very good, but on the first listen, the tonal quality was cheap, and it gave the same sensation as listening to songs from a previous era. J-pop trends at that time were moving from global music to being independent. A complete state of Galapagos. Music magazines at the time were having discussions like, "What will post-rock look like?" but then on this side you have people getting hyped up to Miko Miko Nurse" (Mofuku-chan).

Miko Miko Nurse was an 18+ romance game that was released in 2003... which is to say, it's an erotic game. The opening song, "Miko Miko Nurse - Ai no Theme" is recognized as the start of dempa songs, and it became highly influential to future creators. Mofuku-chan agrees, stating, "When talking about Akiba-kei music, you definitely can't overlook erotic games."

"One example of that is 'Tori no Uta.' It's the theme song for an erotic game called, "AIR," and now when I listen to Key's work, all of those songs are amazing. It was an anthem for the otaku of Akihabara. A song like this was part of a different indies scene than you'd find on Oricon, and it was surprising how it gained more popularity, bit by bit.

There was also Momoi Haruko's presence. While being a serious otaku, she made that public and went around doing live shows, and writing and composing music herself and singing songs from erotic games, all of that put together is quite punk rock, isn't it? I thought she shined so bright and was so cool" (Mofuku-chan).

Beyond being different in origins from common J-pop, the evolution of Akiba-kei music into a Galapagos-like form might have been a matter of course. Vocaloid sound software and Hatsune Miku were introduced in 2007. They dominated a generation, and people were noticing Akiba-kei music from all over the world, but the reality is that the scene was formed to be cult-like, but solid.

"Touhou Project was big, AMV culture... and of course Comiket (the world's largest fanmade product marketplace, 'Comic Market') was huge, of course. They would sell self-made CD-Rs called, "Work," and there was such impact in it being, "I made these songs myself, and it's so simple to burn a CD and sell it!" The first time I went to Comiket, I was in school, around 2002, I think, and I'm pretty sure 'ouhou was super popular at the time. Learning the phrase 'derivative work' was so fresh to me" (Mofuku-chan).

Hyadain, Naruse Eimi, and Furukawa Mirin talk about the influence of otaku culture

This chain reaction building would slowly become summarized in the world of nicodou. Comments on the screen were constantly heating up, and users were hungry for new expressions. Power that wasn't in existing media was certainly to be found there.

"On nicodou parodies were extremely popular, and videos were being posted one after another. You can call them meaningless and that would be the end of that, but they were innocently presenting parodies with jokes about games with the enthusiasm of elementary school boys. Like, 'the heck is this!?' I was amazed. It was so new. I guess that must have been when Hyadain first started posting things, right?" (Mofuku-chan)

That would be Hyadain (Maeyamada Ken'ichi), the music creator who works in a wide range of genres. The ones who immediately realized his talent were simply internet residents. The man himself looks back on the big turning point in his career, contributing to nicodou.

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Maeyamada Ken'ichi, also known as Hyadain

"Back then I wasn't selling anything as a writer. Naturally, I didn't have any feedback on my songs, and I had completely lost confidence. So posting was me trying to see how I was doing, like, "Will my sound reach the world?" For me, the biggest thing was finding the nuances in my repertory, like how will certain kinds of songs work out. There's no intermediary on nicodou, just direct comments, and others would mess around in the comments, and some people used my videos in their tertiary works. I feel like that impression of the site being a playground in that way was so huge" (Hyadain).

The future Dempagumi.inc members were also completely immersed in Akiba-kei culture this way. Naruse Eimi, for example. She always had a weakness for anime, and as she got older she got more and more absorbed in the 2D world. When we asked her what it was like being surrounded by otaku culture at that time, she spat back some responses that would seem hardcore to all but the true believers.

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Naruse Eimi (Dempagumi.inc

"Back then adult games and moe anime were at the height of popularity, and I myself was also obsessed with the more stereotypical things, like Key works, Kyo-ani (Kyoto Animation), as well as Touhou and AiMasu (Idol Master). I was also all the way in with the dawning of NewSokuVIP [a popular 2channel section dedicated to idle chatter on internet news) and niconico douga. I'd often show up to offline meetups for interesting internet things" (Naruse).

Naruse holds something equal to anime and internet culture as something she should devote her life to. That would be video games. When she was a student, she was obsessed with the mmo RED STONE, rarely coming out of her room.

"I served as a guild master back then, so I was busy contacting masters of other groups and setting up battles and things like that. I was so busy that I hardly worked at my job at all, and I was always terrified of the water and electric bills. In the summer there were a lot of times when I wouldn't have gas at all, so most of my meals were bean sprouts or the garnishes for sashimi that they sell in supermarkets. Still, I didn't really get sick and I think my days were pretty bright. My nature is that when I get into something, I have to push through until the end (laughs)" (Naruse).

Another member of Dempagumi.inc, Furukawa Mirin, recalled video games also being an enormous influence on her, after distancing herself, "I personally was pretty distant from Akiba-kei culture, but...:

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Furukawa Mirin (Dempagumi.inc)

"I was into RPGs, music games, mmos, and such. At any rate, I was too obsessed and dropped out of high school. The internet really was my whole world. I started to go to game centers in Akihabara after I dropped out, and some people I had gotten to know there led me to working in a maid cafe" (Furukawa).

AKB? What's that?

On the other hand, how much was Akihabara's idol scene actually developing? AKB48 had formed and had their first theater performance on the 8th floor of the Don Quijote Akihabara store on December 8, 2005. Surely many were looking at them generally as representatives of the Akiba-kei idols. However, Mofuku-chan objects to this view.

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The Akihabara Don Quijote store where the AKB48 theater resides

"Certainly AKB48 was referred to by the mass media as Akiba-kei, but to be honest, to fans of the maids and culture of the Akihabara streets, they were a completely different thing. They didn't cover that fanbase at all, and from the start I got the impression that people were split on them. That's because there was such a significant gap between the 2D and 3D at that point. 2D fans looked at AKB and their reaction was, "What, you 3D?" They practically had an allergic reaction. 2D otaku at that time were extremely fastidious, if you get what I mean. They were exceptionally vocal about being absolutely incapable of supporting anything 3D" (Mofuku-chan).

In addition to the rejection they faced by being human flesh and blood, one could also see some discomfort towards an influx of what seemed like mainstream culture. Akimoto Yasushi, who started AKB48, was a mega-producer who had again and again created hits in conjunction with TV networks. He's someone who runs straight towards the center of the entertainment industry, as it were. Moreover, the choreographer in charge of the group was Natsu Mayumi, known for creating the choreography for Morning Musume and the official theme song of the opening ceremony of the Nagano Olympic Games. Although at the time of their formation AKB48 was living in obscurity and struggling to attract fans, you can see the viewpoint that the theater performances were of the mainstream from the very start.

"When we look back at the culture of the Akihabara strip, there is something you absolutely must mention: the unit FICE. Their fans found them interesting, and the wotagei done by the fans showed off their charisma. A video of that wotagei was put up online, and the reaction was that it was so cool. For a while really everyone tried imitating that on the strip, really setting off the trend of wotagei.

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FICE performing in 2005 on the Akihabara strip

That's how it was, so when the AKB48 theater opened, it didn't become much of a thing for the people in the Akihabara otaku cultural sphere. I got the sense it was like, "AKB? What's that? It absolutely can't compare to Sakuragawa Himeko!" You also can't forget that @home cafe also produced the idol group Kanzen Maid Sengen" (Mofuku-chan).

@home cafe is likely the most famous maid cafe in the world, with 300 maids in total. The group @17 (At Seventeen) is currently also formed from maids from the same cafe, but they have no direct relation to Kanzen Maid Sengen.

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Kanzen Maid Sengen

"Kanzen Maid Sengen went on for about two years after debuting in 2005 before they abruptly broke up, and they've become legendary as it is now. But the girls really did have complete control over Akihabara. 'Maiding Story' in particular is a song that made history; now I want to look it up and have you listen to it.

The point here is that there was a plausible rumor spreading that Tsunku was writing songs for them under an alias. I still don't know whether it's true or not. Still, idol fans couldn't help but pay attention to something like that, right? Thinking back now, I wonder if that wasn't the start of the crossover between the 2D and 3D fans who were so cleanly split before" (Mofuku-chan).

The environment underwent a huge shift as underground idols surrounded the area. They broke out of Akihabara and many performed at live houses all over the city. A number of underground idol companies got together and proactively hold events. Amongst those companies and events, new stars were being born in quick succession.

"Back then the most popular underground idols were Chu! Lips... their nickname was Chups. Then there was a lot of spirit behind the likes of Feam and STARMARIE; they were known as "3strong." d-trance was popular, too.

Nowadays, the idol fans who know about this time are in the minority, I think, but Dempagumi saw Chups as their rival. They wanted to be cool like them when they'd watch them from the side at events. Berryz Koubou and ℃-ute from Hello!Pro (Hello!Project) were super popular then, and on the other side of things AKB48 had also developed a national presence. That said, Dempagumi didn't get their fighting spirit from BerryKyuu or 48, they got it from Chups. That's the reality of Akihabara" (Mofuku-chan).

As far it goes for Chu! Lips, Feam, and STARMARIE as 3strong, as well as d-trance, "Miko Miko Nurse - Ai no Theme," "Tori no Uta," Momoi Haruko, FICE, and Kanzen Maid Sengen, this part of Akiba-kei culture has been ignored in music history up until now. However, when it comes to the underground subcultures colliding with the mainstream, there is one more important thing that needs to be touched upon.

It's been shown how the street scene in Akihabara was massively popular, and the peak of that was from 2005 to 2008--that's what Mofuku-chan was remembering. In 2005, the phrase "Moe~" ["Infatuation~"] won U-CAN's new buzzword of the year. That was due to the aforementioned Kanzen Maid Sengen, and that is how Akihabara otaku culture became increasingly part of the national identity. In 2006, the anime version of The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi became a record-breaking hit, and continuing off of that, Lucky☆Star also exploded in popularity.

While the boom in popularity was growing, there was the spontaneous generation of the campaign to get Lucky☆Star's opening theme, "Motteke! Sailor-fuku," to number 1 on Oricon. Fans gathered their resources to buy up CDs, which only made fascination with the series grow. In the end, the song stopped at #2 on the chart, but fans still declared victory, saying, "The power of us otaku is incredible!" "We've finally taken the whole country by storm!" The truth was that as time went on, the trends shifted to be more in line with otaku. Naruse testifies to this.

"The strip was super hyped, every weekend, it was like a festival with what an uproar it was. Everyone in town was cosplaying, dancing, and for me, it was Eden! The whole thing was so passionate, it felt like anything could happen" (Naruse).

DearStage was a project formed to be something that otaku would eagerly wait for

As the mania continued, Mofuku-chan started Akihabara DearStage in December of 2007.

"What I was aiming for, what I was thinking was a place where people could bring that enthusiasm from the streets of Akihabara in with them. At any rate, there were infinite people out on the streets, so handing out flyers had a tremendous effect on business. Just having a cute girl say, "I'm going to be doing shows here now so please come see me," it was like a pied piper bringing in droves of customers" (Mofuku-chan).

The customers acknowledged that DearStage at first was not an idol cafe, but a place where amateurs could perform music and sing anime songs for them. Cute girls working there would perform niche music, like 90s anime themes or just what was popular on nicodou. They could experience songs live that they otherwise could only ever hear online. That's how they got support.
"You can only hear this week's #1 nicodou song at DearStage!"
"You can hear Tori no Uta every day at DearStage!"
DearStage was surely a project formed to be something that otaku would eagerly wait for.

"You could hear anisongs if you made it out to the concerts of the voice actors, but there really weren't that many voice actor concerts to begin with. The girls singing at DearStage were otaku themselves, so they could get excited every day about their favorite topics. There weren't nearly as many girl otaku as there are now, so I wonder if that might be what was so appealing to the customers" (Mofuku-chan).

Naruse, on the other hand, was part of @home cafe at the time. People she knew from online gaming had proposed the idea of working at a maid cafe to her, since she was low on money. With the growing boom, there was a rush of interview requests from TV and magazines, and she recalls, "It completely felt like I had become a cast member of the giant theme park that is Akihabara."

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@home cafe Akihabara Store​

"The @home cafe I was working at was the below the main store they had just opened, the restaurant and the manager were completely new, and we were all opening-day members, so it was a really carefree sort of atmosphere. Although a few of us did have something of an inferiority complex compared to the main location on the floor right above us (laughs). With that kind of environment we had gathered a number of really individualistic girls, and so it was a strange kind of store, more rooted in the underground... in other words, that's what would captivate me about DearStage. Like, 'What an odd place. It's super fun, the girls are cute, and you can sing your favorite songs!"
(Owada) Akari, (Yumemi) Nemu, Eitaso (Naruse)...... Just us Dempagumi members went and scouted it out, and like that we started working at DearStage" (Naruse).

However, it is often said that light is followed by shadow, and tragedy suddenly struck DearStage.
"It was about half a year since we'd opened, and that's when it happened."
Mofuku-chan lowered her voice to talk about it.

On June 8, 2008, the streets of Akihabara were dyed with blood. A then 25-year-old Katou Tomohiro indiscriminately ran a two-ton truck through a pedestrian walkway, and would then go on to stab passerby one after another with a dagger-style knife. Screams of agony sounded throughout the strip that Sunday, with the disaster leaving 7 dead and 10 sustaining injury.

"From 2007 to 2008 the media would continue to introduce Akihabara as a sightseeing area, and it had sort of become a situation where people who had no interest in otaku culture up to that point were like, 'Let's go look at otaku stuff.' So as the scene was getting bigger and bigger, Akihabara was becoming more and more sexualized. There was an excessive number of maids showing their underwear on the street handing out flyers, for example.

The truth is this was a pretty big change. At first the place was a utopia, really a place where obsessive otaku would say, "The third dimension is so hard..." But then the eroticism of flesh and blood came to encroach on them. Even the masses of people getting hyped up doing wota-gei had gone away. Some people had noticed that otaku were profitable, so those kinds of guys had gathered themselves there. The point is, the streets had changed. What came out of that was the Akihabara stabbings" (Mofuku-chan).

Because of this tragedy, the flames of a culture that otaku had built up were rapidly extinguished. Even though the victims were also actually otaku, too, relentless criticism was mercilessly poured on them by the rest of the world. Even under normal circumstances people looked at otaku disparagingly, but Kato's own view, "Otaku are a social ill," was the dominant perspective, simply because Kato himself was the image of what the world pictured otaku to be.

"If we had been reported on almost every day to that extent, that's what it would have become. The truth is that it had a significant influence on DearStage's customers. There were blockades on the streets, and because DearStage was dependent on those streets it became very difficult from a management perspective. I heard the maid cafes also had a very difficult time at that point" (Mofuku-chan).

In the middle of this adversity, Dempagumi was formed (the '.inc' was not included at first). DearStage was a different shade of Akihabara, but Dempagumi would become a group that lifted it up. The imps that would push the boundaries of the idol world, blending 2D and 3D, had been born.

With cooperation from: @home cafe/Public Company Big Fighter Project

(Honorifics have been omitted)