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Orchestral strains and pop culture: A match made in Japan

Anime helps ensembles like the Tokyo Philharmonic reach younger set

A Hatsune Miku mascot makes an appearance at "Hatsune Miku Symphony 2017" with the Tokyo Philharmonic.   © Crypton Future Media

TOKYO -- Hatsune Miku knows how to keep a crowd enthralled -- as much as a synthesized voice and animated figure can "know" anything. Inside a Tokyo concert hall one recent evening, Japan's virtual pop superstar wowed penlight-wielding fans with a combination of singing, dancing and violin virtuosity.

The electro-diva's musical accompaniment that night was decidedly less high-tech than she is: the strains of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I got goose bumps throughout the performance," said Hiroki Mochizuki, a 32-year-old from Fukushima Prefecture, who clutched a Miku doll during the show on Nov. 29. "I was worried the charms of the original songs would be lost in the orchestral arrangements, but it was the exact opposite."

The concert, titled "Hatsune Miku Symphony 2017" and hosted by Warner Music Japan, was part of an increasingly common crossover between orchestral performances and two of the country's big pop culture commodities: anime and games. In these performances, the ensembles play theme songs, often while related images are projected onto huge screens above the stage.

The Tokyo Philharmonic is receiving more and more requests for these shows: It has participated in 50 such performances in 2017, up from 22 in 2015. The orchestra said about 14 performances have been scheduled or are in the works in 2018.

The shows appeal to a young crowd. A large portion of the audience at the Miku concert, which filled the Tokyo International Forum almost to capacity, appeared to be in their 20s and 30s.

The live music and digital graphics seem to be a powerful combination. A 21-year-old university student from Aichi Prefecture said she "cried from the outset."

"I was moved by the unity of [Miku's] images and the orchestra," she said.

A Warner Music Japan official said the orchestra helps to "express a new worldview." The Tokyo-based company is thinking about taking the show overseas.

Youth movement

The Tokyo Philharmonic was back at the International Forum on Dec. 4-5 to accompany a screening of the 2016 blockbuster animated film "Kimi no Na wa" ("Your Name"). 

The idea of the "Kimi no Na wa Orchestra Concert" was to show the full-length film with the orchestra playing songs and other soundtrack elements. Quite a few couples could be seen in the packed house. 

The audience at the "Kimi no Na wa Orchestra Concert" stands and sings during an encore. (Photo by Yao Takeshi)   © 2016 Kimi no Na wa Production Committee

"Although I had watched the film more than 20 times, it somehow felt more real," said a 27-year-old visiting Japan from South Korea.

Aoi Takimoto, a 25-year-old Tokyoite, said with a laugh, "It was an orchestra concert that did not make me sleepy."

Miyu Matsuda, 19, said it was her "first time to attend an orchestra concert."

This is music to the ears of the Tokyo Philharmonic. Iori Iwasaki, an orchestra representative, expressed hope that "more young people will take an interest in the orchestra" -- perhaps enough to come out for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the end of this year.

Average ticket prices for orchestra-anime shows run from 6,500 yen to 9,500 yen ($57 to $83). Some packages, which include goods, cost as much as 12,000 yen.

Norimitsu Iijima, COO of Tokyo-based show organizer Promax, said "the quality of anime and game music is increasing" thanks to improvements in device specifications.

Songs and stories

Another Japanese orchestra specializes in music for games. The aptly named Japan Game Music Orchestra, or JAGMO, has been managed by smartphone game developer Kayac since 2015.

The group held three performances at the roughly 2,000-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in August, playing music from games such as "Final Fantasy" and "The Legend of Zelda." All three shows were sold out.

JAGMO performs around six times a year. Producer Kazuya Yamamoto said its popularity stems from its unique arrangements; the orchestra does not use imagery.

Once a new game is released, he said, orchestra members actually play it through to the end, to grasp the best track order and the timing of sound effects. This leads to more complete arrangements that bring the game's story to mind.

"We are well-regarded for being serious about music," Yamamoto said, adding that some people who listened to the "Final Fantasy" repertoire were moved to tears because they recalled scenes from the game.

JAGMO, too, attracts young crowds, but it hopes to widen its appeal by staging big-band performances and playing at weddings and other special occasions.

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