Why Does Anime Occasionally Use English Songs?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asked:

I have noticed in a few rare instances that openings or closing songs are in English. On the other hand you have some very old song selections like in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, which I understand has tons of music references, uses YES's song “Roundabout” and The Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the anime Speed Grapher used Duran Duran's “Girls on film”. The only pieces I have ever heard that came out when the anime did and was not associated with a Japanese label, as far as I know, is Paradise Kiss use of Franz Ferdinand's “Do You Want To”. Why would a studio pick an English-speaking bands song over a native band? Are English speaking bands in general, not just the top 1%, that popular in Japan? Why would they choose an old song over something more commercially relevant? What kind of issues might they have trying to license outside musicians work?

Song selection for anime is mostly the domain of theshow's director, but most of the time there's a music publisher involved with the production committee, and the whole reason they're chipping in for the show is so that they can use it to sell music. And so the director often has no choice but to pick from the record label's roster of talent and the handful of songs they have at the ready (or commission a new song just for the series). Most of the time, this works just fine.

But occasionally the director will have a bit more power to choose the music he wants for the show, and in cases like that, he may want to go English. Some directors have stated that, even if they don't understand the lyrics, the mood conveyed in English is something that they'd have a hard time finding or creating in Japanese. In that case, the music simply has to be licensed from the Japanese distributor of whatever artist they want. It may cost some money and not immediately come with international rights (which are likely more expensive, particularly in the US). But unless the band itself is super restrictive with the use of their music, getting the rights usually isn't very hard.

English music is 100% mainstream in Japan (and most of the rest of the world). Every Japanese karaoke bar has an English section in their song book. Musical acts from the West, mainstream and obscure, play shows and sell tracks all over Japan. As some of the world's biggest media consumers, Japan gets everything—even exclusives from American bands that the rest of the world doesn't get. In sheer numbers, they aren't quite as popular as Japanese mainstream artists (or even some otaku "bands" like μ's from Love Live!), but they're still a big business and benefit from promotion in anime nearly as much as the local acts do. The funny thing is, what's popular in Japan can be hard to predict, and there are pockets of fans for virtually everything. Even small indie bands from America or Europe can have small, fervent followings there, to the point where they may be more successful in Japan than in their home countries.

Directors who are into music often have eclectic tastes and can opt for an English song to match the mood they have in mind for a show. Sometimes they'll have a specific song in mind, sometimes they'll just want something in English, because they consider it better at evoking the mood they're going for. The audience might not immediately know what the lyrics mean, but English is used almost for decoration in Japan anyway, so it doesn't really stand out.

In other cases, the corporate sponsor of a show and their connections to the West might have more of an influence. The most famous example of this would be the classic drift racing anime Initial D, which was sponsored by record label Avex. Avex had been cultivating a relationship with Italo-disco dance music producers for years to create a hybrid between 90s Hi-NRG dance music and classic 80s Italian-produced pop music, which was (sort of) in English and popular in non-English speaking countries worldwide. They called this genre "Eurobeat," and Initial D's iconic use of Eurobeat songs was conceived as a way to promote Avex's CD line.

And so these varying sets of circumstances have led to a few notable English tracks on Japanese shows. Backstreet Boys' hit song "I'll Be The One" was used as the theme for the 2002 family series Hanada Shōnen-shi. Susan Boyle sang the theme to Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW. Jean-Jacques Burnel of the punk band The Stranglers performed the opening to Gankutsuou. Ergo Proxy used music by Radiohead. Eden of the East had a theme song by Oasis. The list goes on and on. And this is in addition to English-language music composed specifically for shows or by local Japanese bands that perform in English or are composed of Western expats. It's common. REALLY common.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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