The Anime Issue: This Side of Japan's Favorite Anime Songs of 2021 (So Far)

This Side of Japan covers the year's best anison releases with special guest Hannah

Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old! I am currently taking a quick break from production, and so the regular newsletter will return on Wednesday, July 14. But here’s a little special feature covering our favorite anime music of the year to hold you over until the next publication. Enjoy! You can check out previous issues here.

While just about any kind of J-pop artist can get commissioned to record a track for an anime franchise, anison (portmanteau for “anime song”) have also come to mean something more than simply music placed on a cartoon show or movie. An entirely separate industry have been built around acts focused on media tie-ups, if not directly developed in conjunction to an anime franchise. The scene consists of singers and musicians who mainly contribute their talents for a show’s lead track as well as voice actors who record songs either as the characters they perform or under their own name. Some of the music may share compositional and aesthetic styles, but it’s more of the consumer base that links the artists together.

For this list, our special guest Hannah and I focused on artists specific to the anison industry. Ikimonogakari, for example, did not qualify as a choice even if they contributed a song to Boruto Naruto Next Generations for they are outside contributors to the scene. Some choices may toe into the realm of idol as well as games—hello, Nijisanji and BanG Dream!—but we considered their main associated scene as much as possible to determine eligibility. What’s for certain is that all the selections here are great J-pop releases of 2021 that’s worth your time.

You can check out these songs and more of our anison favorites in this Spotify playlist!

Here is what Hannah had to say:

I want to say that music is always evolving, but for whatever reason the evolution that has made the deepest impact on me (read: that I've personally been the most obsessed with as of late) is without a doubt anime music. Interestingly enough the list of my favorite anison year to date are quite perfect to show some of those changes that have been occurring in the past couple of years.

Hannah/Angry is a hobby writer and likes sharing her very vocal opinion on everything entertainment on her Twitter, Selective Hearing and Arama! Japan. Aside from listening to way too much K-pop and J-pop/rock music, she frequently reads trashy light novels, manga, webtoons and web novels. She previously collaborated with This Side of Japan for Club Under Construction: Discussing Bandai Namco’s New Denonbu Project.

“EVERYBODY! EVERYBODY!” / “YOU YOU YOU” by Yu Serizawa with DJ KOO & MOTSU [Avex Trax]

Without a doubt, anison is currently in the middle of what people would call the “seiyuu and character song boom,” wherein an almost idol-like industry has really centered around voice actors both in and outside of the characters they play on screen. One such seiyuu idol to lean into this phenomenon is Yu Serizawa of the idol group i☆Ris, who both plays a character on the cast of How Not to Summon a Demon Lord and sings the ending and opening of the show. And much like idol music, seiyuu and character music have a built-in fan base ready to eat anything up, allowing for a large range of experimentation.

That’s probably why the producers of “EVERYBODY! EVERYBODY!” teamed up with two of Avex's most legendary acts, DJ KOO of TRF and MOTSU of m.o.v.e, to create a song reminiscent of the Eurobeat that helped drive Avex's initial popularity. The uptempo coupling track “YOU YOU YOU” features a choreography obviously made not just for Tiktok but also anikura. Avex has recognized this recent phenomenon within the past 10 years through their immediate release of ani-club versions of both songs within a week of the work’s release—the first of many remixes to be released of these tracks. —Hannah

EVERYBODY! EVERYBODY! / YOU YOU YOU is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:DOGFIGHT” by m.o.v.e. (2004); “EZ DO DANCE” by TRF (1993)

“Kirari Party Time” by STARRY PLANET [SUNRISE Music / Bandai Namco Arts]

“Kirari Party Time” sees the cast of Aikatsu Planet ease a little from the work load of their gig as the show’s central, fictional idols. But while they play it loose, planning a surprise for their favorite person, the group doesn’t wind down in the slightest. The chorus is simple and infectiously sweet with a couple of peppy “whoa-whoa-whoa”s and “yeah, yeah, yeah”s. The verses, meanwhile, travel down a silly, zany path, full of abrupt style changes (that brief hip-hop breakdown!) and kitchen-sink arrangements (the tumbling drums and accordion!). The music of “Kirari Party Time” is full of commotion and yet the busy production hardly registers as noise in light of the idols’ all-smiles enthusiasm to celebrate. —Ryo

Bloomy Smile / Kirari Party Time is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also: “No. 6” by Miku Ito ft. Lowland Jazz; Bitter Sweet Darling” by Smewthie

“Ayafuwa Asterisk” by DIALOGUE+ [Pony Canyon]

DIALOGUE+ perhaps knew “Ayafuwa Asterisk” is too good to be relegated as a B-side, and so the group cut two separate singles from Jyaku Chara Tomozaki-kun to be released on the same day. This ending-credits song is decidedly more low key than its sprightly opening-title counterpart, “Jinsei Easy?,” but the song still shines with brief flickers of synth zaps and guitar squiggles flashing from the mellow, jazzy piano arrangement. “The temperature of this sad heart is still ayafuwa,” they sigh at the end of the chorus as a blinding ray of synths burst into the track. Based on the avalanche of sounds that tumble in thereafter, their unrequited love won’t be resolved any time soon. —Ryo

Ayafuwa Asterisk is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:Life Is Cider” by Anemoneria; “Mirai Canvas” by AiRBLUE

“Perfect SEKAI” by Dia Kurosawa [Lantis]

If The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is the start of the character song boom, then the Love Live! franchise should be considered the apex of the movement and the point at which this musical development became less of a niche phenomenon and something that is here to stay. Nothing reflects this more than the fact that the idol groups associated with the franchise, μ's (pronounced "Muse") and Aqours, were invited to Kouhaku Utagassen multiple times, a mainstream recognition of a burgeoning movement. 

“Perfect SEKAI” brings together many of the things that makes Love Live! music work. Because most of the music in the franchise eventually finds a way into the related video game, each musical work is meant to enforce a character of sorts around each person through the interrelated ideas that span various songs. This particular song reflects Dia's "traditional cool beauty" archetype but with the kind of upbeat energy fans are used to associating with Aqours in particular. —Hannah

~ WHITE FIRST LOVE ~ is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:MY Mai TONIGHT” by Aqours (2017); “Hotel Moonside” by Kanade Hayami (2015)

“Ushirogami Hikarete” by Ai Furihata [Purple One Star]

The more Ai Furihata leans into pastiche, the better her Bubble-nostalgic songs sound, and “Ushirogami Hikarete” finds her honing in on the performance. The intro already calls upon the melodramatic with electric guitars coming at sharp, striking angles; the hot synths drip with gloss and melancholy. Furihata patiently draws out every small, specific detail—empty beer cans, finely painted manicures—to magnify its significance as set pieces to the overall sullen story. It’s slightly over the top, but it’s only doing what break-up pop does best: centering the heartbroken as the protagonist facing a world conspiring against them. Striking well-timed sighs and other camera-ready poses, Furihata knows how to bring this theater to life. —Ryo

AXIOM is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:Seize the Day” by Asaka; “Sugarless Kiss” by Suzuko Mimori

“smile smile ship Start!” by Aqours [Lantis]

The use of music to reinforce and strengthen the characterization of particular works is nothing new. After all, soundtracks are an essential part of any visual work, and intertexuality is something that is as old as acting itself. What makes “smile smile ship Start!” stand out are the clever ways in which they truly reflect how anison-group music is meant to not just reflect the characters the seiyuu act in the anime but also the expectation of chika idol-like performances by anison fans. Whether it's the prevalence of idol calls and mixes at anison lives or the use of the super controversial “yes tiger” call during songs, what was once confined to spaces of idol shows has now become standard at anisong concerts. “smile smile ship Start!” cleverly ties together pieces of the actual OST of Love Live! Sunshine!! with a composition structure meant to accommodate idol mixes. The fan reactions to other Aqours tracks should show some of the creative ways in which anison fans interact with these types of standard uptempo songs. Though there haven't been many anikura or lives as of late, there’s no doubt fans would do the same for “smile smile ship Start!” —Hannah

smile smile ship Start! is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also: the orange revolution wotagei for Muse’s Snow Halation”; the snake wotagei for LiSA’s “Rising Hope”

“MAYDAY” by Aimi [King]

The flip side to Aimi’s first single in 8 years takes the Poppin’ Party member out of her familiar field of power pop to instead place her as a peer among contemporary internet-bred J-pop. Pensive pianos restlessly hit and crash atop a bed of an equally propulsive beat. Paired with an animated music video featuring a dynamic, endless stream of lyrics, the song aims to be among the crowd of YouTube uploads shared by post-Vocaloid creators. And like others from the community residing in darker ends, Aimi indulges in the melodrama suggested by the maudlin music, shouting out a rather morbid chorus: “tell me, why was I born / sometimes I can feel like I want to die,” she sings, not so subtly calling for help. Aimi showcases a staggering duality in “MAYDAY,” nailing the voice of the doomed as much as a confident foot forward. —Ryo

ReSTARTING!! is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:Strobe Memory” by Maaya Uchida

“BURN IT UP” by GYROAXIA [Bushiroad]

Depending on the perspective, “BURN IT UP” could be a misnomer or an ideal entry point to GYROAXIA. The ARGONAVIS from BanG Dream! band grabs at almost every hard rock style to show off their range in their new album, ONE, sometimes updating it with pop and hip hop to carve out their own style. That said, the album’s insistence to dip into as many styles as possible also means they nail a raw visual-kei metal track like “BURN IT UP” only to move on and not revisit it ever again. It’s slightly disappointing they don’t pursue more of what they have here anywhere else on the album, though it also teases the kind of heavy metal that GYROAXIA is capable of. —Ryo

ONE is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also: “Bursty Greedy Spider” by Konomi Suzuki; Another Great Day!!” by LiSA

“RADIO LOVE HIGHWAY” by Kizuna AI & Moe Shop [self-released] / “Virtual Strike” by Nijisanji [AN COLOR]

A discussion of the way anison and character songs have evolved in the past few years would be entirely incomplete without discussing the impact of virtual YouTube creators, known simply as VTubers. A mix of 2.5D anime characters and idols, they have quickly become a dominant force in anison creation today. 

The largest from the first wave of VTubers, Kizuna AI stands out from the impressive roster of collaborations she has had over the past few years including the likes of Yasutaka Nakata, Enon Kawatani and Taku Inoue. Moe Shop is no exception, and this latest release continues a trend of stellar music that people have come to expect from Kizuna. 

Perhaps directly as the result of the pandemic, live-streaming VTubers in particular have experienced a huge surge of popularity. And as a result of the pandemic being truly a global phenomenon, no corner of the internet was left untouched by this trend. Nijisanji, one of the largest Vtuber agencies in Japan with multiple popular international branches, showed the reach of their impact through a single released simultaneously in the four different languages that they stream in. Much like Kizuna AI, the strength of the recruited talent for their music tends to make Nijisanji songs a real treat to listen to, and “Virtual Strike,” written by Teddyloid, is no exception. —Hannah

RADIO LOVE HIGHWAY and PALETTE 003 - Virtual Strike is out now. Listen to it on Spotify here and here.

See also: “Petrichor Wo Watatte” by Denonbu/Mitsuki Seto (2021); “AIAIAI” by Kizuna AI (2019)

“Jam” by Aimi Tanaka [Wave Master]

Aimi Tanaka joins forces with Neko Hacker for the lead track of her first mini album in three years, Kuuhaku. The producer lightens the tempo of his hyperactive, future-bass-indebted beats to hand a dreamy electro-pop for the voice actress to bask in while she introspects. That said, the music is teeming with bite-sized sounds, a bubbling synth bass here and skittering drums there, before it even gets to the bursting EDM chorus. Tanaka lets the blast of energy thrust her forward, embracing its spark to shed skin and welcome her brand-new self. —Ryo

KUUHAKU is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.

See also:Kimagure Tick Tack” by harmoe; “Dream hopper” by Rikako Aida

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