They’ve got no major radio play, no prime video exposure and no mainstream media trumpeting their fame and glory.
So how did L’Arc-en-Ciel, a Japanese band with a French name, become the first rock group from the Land of the Rising Sun to headline Madison Square Garden?
On Sunday, the four-man band from Osaka will play the storied 19,000-seat arena, which surprised even the show’s promoter. Three month ago, the company (AEG) booked the group into the smaller Theater in the Garden — capacity: 5,000. But so many tickets were sold, they were bumped up to the big room.
According to Roland Kelts, author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.,” the seeding of the band’s American audience came not from the music world but from the rapidly growing demimonde of graphic novels and animated films known as anime.
“The band and their management reached out to that community of fans, and that’s a significant base to tap into,” Kelts says. “Every year they have an anime convention at the Javits Center and they fill the place. One in Baltimore drew over 30,000 people over four days.”
“Anime conventions connect to a lifestyle and image that’s about fashion and attitude,” says Ted Kim, CEO of MNet, the only national English-language channel for fans of Asian pop culture. “That’s all part of this weird Asian music puzzle that’s starting to click now.”
L’Arc-en-Ciel’s first American concert, in 2004, was held in connection with the Baltimore anime convention, allowing them to play before 10,000 people.
“Japan is thought of as the country of anime,” wrote the band’s one-named singer, Hyde, in an email interview. “We hadn’t made an approach to America [before that\]. But eventually we noticed that a lot of people were being nice enough to wait for us to come.”
The group had waited far longer. It has been together for more than 20 years, forming in 1991 in industrial Osaka (think Detroit, only Japanese). Its songs take a theatrical approach to gothic-synth music and heavy metal — sort of like Queen performing a mashup of Depeche Mode and Metallica.
The band’s name means “The Rainbow” in French. “Lots of people had names in English,” Hyde wrote. “We just never thought of a good one.”
L’Arc quickly became a multi-million seller, not only in their own country but later in China, Korea, Taiwan and yes, France. A show last May in Tokyo, to benefit victims of the 2011 tsunami, drew more than 100,000.
L’Arc isn’t just a popular phenomenon. By offering a contrast with the many manufactured Japanese and K-Pop acts and adding solid songwriting and musicianship, the group has become a critical success as well.
Its latest CD, “Butterfly,” released last month, features the odd burst of English lyrics, as have their albums for the last 10 years. The group released its first disk in the States, “Smile,” back in 2004, keyed to the Baltimore date. The band members, however, still don’t speak much Anglais. “It’s kind of a weak point of mine,” Hyde wrote, “but I do my best.”
That may become less of a problem as younger Americans find themselves increasingly open to all things Asian. “I’ve met with people who are not Asian who have told us they don’t want our music videos subtitled or the host to speak English,” says MNet’s Kim. “They’d rather hear it in its natural language.”
That makes sense given the escalation of such global Japanese brands as Hello Kitty and the Pikachu character from Pokémon. These days, you can see the latter in balloon form, floating right alongside Snoopy and Bullwinkle, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Witness, too, the trajectory of sushi. “Twenty years ago, the idea of eating raw fish was disgusting to many Americans,” Kelts says. “Now you see it in every supermarket.”
Kelts, whose mother is Japanese, ties the increasing interest in Asian cultures to a generational change. “While an older generation of Americans looked to the U.K. and Europe for cues as to what’s cool, this younger generation is looking to Asia,” he says.
You see that in ad campaigns, which often use Asian models to push any product meant to look futuristic. “It’s a different look and perspective,” says Kim.
Kelts admits this mind-set can lead to a certain objectification and “exoticism.” But as mainstream audiences delve further into the wealth of Asian cultures, they’ll become exposed to more of its nuance and depth.
Access to world culture via the Internet has helped such sophistication evolve. The Web proved key to spreading the world about L’Arc, allowing many fans to find out about the group by researching soundtracks to popular anime movies like “Full Metal Alchemist,” written and performed by L’Arc.
The audience for their music here is hardly all Asian-Americans. Kim says L’Arc’s concerts draw many ethnicities and age groups. No doubt that crossover has boosted his network. In the last three years, MNet has tripled its distribution to 11 million homes. (It’s seen in N.Y. on Time Warner and Verizon Fios).
It helps that Western pop stars have gotten on board. Gwen Stefani pushed Japanese pop culture a few years back by featuring on her tour the Asian backup singer/dancers Harajuku Girls (named for an area of Tokyo).
At the same time, Justin Bieber has reportedly done some recording for his upcoming album with Japanese pop star Jin Akanishi. Already, Akanishi’s first U.S. single, “Test Drive,” featuring Jason Derulo, has hit No. 1 on the iTunes Dance Chart.
Likewise, Japanese designer/DJ Nigo has worked with Pharrell and Kanye West. (Nigo has his own store and fashion line here in SoHo, titled Bape). And, last year, the electro-band Far East Movement became the first Asian-American band to score a Top 10 U.S. pop hit on Billboard.
Whether such toe-in-the-water tests of Japanese culture can explode into a sustainable phenomenon remains a question. No group from that part of the world has ever maintained a U.S. crossover. In fact, no group comprised of Asian-Americans has sustained one either.
“Except for kung fu movies, I don’t think that people have really wanted to let in that sort of ‘yellow’ image,” Hyde wrote. “But already a lot has changed in the past 10 years.”
“Somebody will make a breakthrough,” he believes, “and soon.”