Hollywood Cinema should employ Japanese music in their films more often than they do. In 2021 K-Pop reigns supreme with its bigger than ever international following, but one can’t deny the inherent ‘Cool Japan’ factor we’ve all found ourselves enveloped by, and we’d love to hear more representation of it. Besides, if the Japanese Death Note live-action films can use Lenny Kravitz and Red Hot Chili Peppers cuts, no reason Indiana Jones can’t hang out with Asian Kung-Fu Generation, right?
Once in a while, we get to hear a bit of J-Pop in western film, though there’s more of a reason than just ‘the song was cool.’ Reviewing through some notable occurrences of the past 20 years, we can find out why it happens and only sometimes.
Note: we’re specifically focusing on Japanese song inclusions in soundtracks. Not Japanese musicians scoring films, like Ryuichi Sakamoto on The Revenant and Tatsuro Yamashita on Big Wave. We love that too, but Japanese artists scoring Hollywood Cinema deserves its own article.
It’s Pretty Obvious Why Disney Did So Twice in Two Years
If you weren’t aware, Disney is huge in Japan. Owning Star Wars and Marvel, Disney dominates everywhere at all times and is well on their way to becoming The Entertainment Monopoly.
However, Japan has a specific Disney subculture where people well into their adulthood care about Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck, and we’re not just talking about Kingdom Hearts fans! Tokyoites without kids will all too normally go to Disney Land and Disney Sea multiple times a year, and wear T-shirts with Goofy the Dog on them without a trace of irony.
Simply put, the Disney culture here extends past just loving the classic films and accepting the slog of ‘Modern Hollywood Cinema’, financed by their endless coffers to straight on appreciation for the iconography of Mickey Mouse. No wonder Disney pandered hard.
In 2011 and 2012, Disney went out of their way to include Japanese artists on two of their biggest mainline releases, one of them with a song specifically made for the film. 2012’s ‘Video Games meets Hollywood Cinema’ crossover Wreck It Ralph, a film that, to be fair, did feature cameos from icons originally hailing from Japan like Zangeiff and Sonic the Hedgehog, commissioned AKB48 of all groups to craft the tune ‘Sugar Rush‘ which acted as a theme for in the in-movie game Sugar Rush.
In fact, in Japan, the film is named Sugar Rush, giving the AKB48 collab increased importance. Admittedly, more interesting to us was a year before when 2011’s Cars 2 featured the all-time classic banger Polyrhythm by Perfume. When we say we want more Japanese music in Hollywood soundtrack, that’s what we’re talking about: A fantasy where Larry the Cable Guy talks of Perfume.
When Your Film Exists as ‘Cool Japan’ Worship, You Need to Call in The Big Guns.
Can’t have an article like this without bringing Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift into the fold. Sure, our next example is another case of a Japanese song being specifically created for this piece of Hollywood Cinema in question, but the most beloved of its kind: Teryaki Boyz’ ‘Tokyo Drift’ is a certified Gold track on the US billboard.
A banger long before we started using the word, the song nestled up right at home on the same playlists as Lil John’s ‘Get Crunk’ and eventually Fast and Furious star Ludacris’s ‘Act A Fool’. The song sounds as fresh as ever, and single-handedly lent clout to the one-off Tokyo Drift film.
Teriyaki Boyz’ ‘Tokyo Drift’ remained so beloved over the years that Detective Pikachu sought out HONEST BOYZ, a spiritual successor of sorts to the original group, to provide an original song for their film.
This Japanese Song Is in More Worldwide Productions Than Any Other, Probably.
What do *checks Wikipedia article* 2014’s Inherent Vice, Kyoto Animation’s Tamago Market, Charlie’s Angels, Malcom In The Middle, Kyoto Animation’s Hyouka, and Wii Music all have in common? They all feature ‘Ue Wo Muite Aruko’ by Kyu Sakamoto, more commonly known in English-speaking countries as ‘Sukiyaki’.
What, you don’t know the song that was in both Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill and Rob Schnieder’s Deuce Bigalo; Male Gigalo? Well beyond Hollywood Cinema alone, the 1961 Japanese hit ‘Ue Wo Muite Aruko’ became the 1963 international sensation ‘Sukiyaki’, a household tune in America despite the track being written as protest against post-war US Military presence in Japan.
It remains the only Japanese song to ever reach the top of the charts in The United States.
Most Likely Ayumi Hamasaki Wants to Forget About This.
We’re doing the eternal superstar Ayumi Hamasaki by dredging up this ancient history. Even those who’ve sat through this most hated piece of Hollywood Cinema probably conveniently forget that the best-selling solo artist in Japanese history contributed the credits theme to Dragonball Evolution. While the song ‘Rule‘ wasn’t specifically written for the nightmare in question, both single and film came out at the same time and some marketers on both sides of that deal saw a convenient opportunity. Best-case scenario, nobody actually told Ayumi Hamasaki what her poor song would be made complicit to, and she happily remains unaware of the trainwreck she played a small part in. Though that film weirdly eschewed everything that made Dragon Ball Dragon Ball, it weirdly did remember the property originally came from Japan, at least???
Unfortunately, the common thread through most of these picks is this: when Hollywood Cinema chooses a Japanese song, it isn’t for the sake of the art alone. That doesn’t make the songs or the films bad though, as we deeply treasure Tokyo Drift. Still, it points to Japanese music not being taken as seriously on a worldwide scale, despite anime and games being as mainstream as they are, and despite the vibrant music culture of Japan.
Being a song everyone from a certain generation remembers, at least ‘Sukiyaki’ probably found itself in so many Hollywood films and anime alike on the strength of what the tune captures alone. On the other hand, we’re not remembering Hikaru Utada for her Rush Hour 2 contribution, are we?