Five years ago, Halloween was a niche event in Japan. Save for a few posh neighborhoods in the nation’s bigger cities and in Western enclaves, the holiday mostly went unnoticed. As October 31 drew near, you could maybe find a few small costume parties and a few packs of decked-out revelers on the streets of Shibuya, but that was about it.
Today, though, Halloween in Japan (especially Tokyo) is a big deal. In the week leading up to October 31, party goers jam up the streets of places like Shibuya, before heading off to orange-and-black-heavy club events, or just drinking on the streets until trains start running in the morning. More and more products feature Halloween imagery - nothing shifts culture quite like advertising dollars - and what was once obscure now feels like a spooky staple of the calendar year.
J-pop has predictably embraced the change too, but peering back even further reveals that you could create a timeline of Halloween’s break-out popularity in Japan through Japanese songs alone. To show you how the scary holiday has evolved over the years, and to get you in the proper mindset for tonight, here are five songs showing how Halloween has evolved in Japan.
1. Tommy heavenly6: “I’m Your Devil (Halloween Remix)”
Every cultural shift needs a pioneer, someone who beats everyone else to what eventually will become common. Tomoko Kawase, better known for her aliases Tommy february6 and Tommy heavenly6, certainly fits the bill when it comes to the creepiest day of the year. Many of her videos from the 2000s onward felt apt for Halloween, or at least felt aptly creepy for Halloween, and she came off as someone playing around with imagery and ideas confined to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Her 2012 “I’m Your Devil (Halloween Remix)” feels like a good place to start this list. That was the year where the seeds of Halloween in Japan as we now know it sprouted, and this cut is one of the first to explicitly shout out the event.
2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: “Fashion Monster”
3. Halloween Junky Orchestra: “Halloween Party”
October 17, 2012 stands as the pivotal day for Halloween in Japan. On that day, two songs came out, one riffing on Halloween imagery, the other directly celebrating it, which proved hugely popular (and probably taught advertisers that this could be turned into a marketing tool). Let’s look at Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Fashion Monster” first. Lyrically, it has nothing to do with Halloween, but rather reads as a statement about her clothing choices and the feeling of alienation it sometimes brings. Yet the video is pure Halloween rave up, featuring Kyary in one of her most memorable outfits, backed by an equally hair-raising band. Besides being one of her biggest hits, it visually sets the stage for Octobers to come.
“Halloween Party” by rock super-group Halloween Junky Orchestra is definitely about the spine-tingliest day of the year. This project was fronted by the rock band VAMPS, a duo pretending to be vampires, which definitely makes them fitting ambassadors for the holiday (aside: there is another article to be written about visual-kei, and how it’s extravagant looks hinted at the arrival of Halloween in Japan). Alongside over a dozen other well known artists (including the aforementioned Kawase), they craft a dizzying celebration of October 31, with shout-outs to all the cornerstones of the day. It performed extremely well on the charts.
4. AKB48: “Halloween Night”
When a biggie-sized group like AKB48 starts playing around with Halloween imagery, game over. The group’s 41st single came a couple months before the year that Halloween in Japan really felt like it took off. What’s most noteworthy about “Halloween Night” is how it seems to predict what Halloween in Japan actually feels like today; nothing about the clip or music is remotely scary or unnerving (which they had done better on the single “UZA” anyway). Rather, they break out the disco equivalent of an Almond Joy and simply play up the dress-up-and-party side of the event, which is part of the charm today. Now that the main ideas behind Halloween were established, a song like “Halloween Night” celebrated what it could become.
5. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: ”Crazy Party Night”
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s career has been in a strange place the last few years, she releases singles at a slow drip, and most of them are tied to holidays. Plenty of articles in the Japanese media have wondered why she seems to have moved away from music. At the same time though, she’s found a great niche; she’s Japan’s premier Halloween performer. Last week, she wrapped up her The Spooky Obakeyashiki live event, her latest October spectacular featuring a heavy Halloween theme, to rave reviews. This branding started with 2015’s “Crazy Party Night,” a song actually about the holiday (unlike “Fashion Monster”) and sounding far more in tune with the day. Here is Halloween cementing its status, and revealing itself as a potential lane for an artist to head down.
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