10 of the best collaborations in Japanese music

When it comes to music features here at Rice Digital, there’s a wide variety we find enjoyment in – visual kei, J-rock, and VTubers to name a few categories.

One interesting subject we have yet to delve into is the overwhelming amount of incredible collaborations within the broader field of Japanese music. When compiling a suitable list to showcase this area of the medium, I quickly ended up with more than 10 possible entries — but in the end, as personal choices, these are what we regard as some of the very best collabs out there.

Go into this with the understanding that my own personal taste in predominantly J-pop, with a few artists who delve into J-rock being mentioned here and there.

Additionally, this list features many possible meanings in regards to collaborating, such as two vocalists coming together for one single song, or the conceptualisation of an entire album thanks to multiple track composers and singer-songwriters.

Got your own thoughts? Then fill us in on what your favourite collaborations within Japanese music are in the comments at the end — or pen us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!

Maon Kurosaki’s H.O.T.D album

Starting off with an entire album to kick-start this already lengthy list sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? So here we have the one and only Maon Kurosaki, a well-known anison singer who provided themes for Jormungand, The Fruit of Grisaia and A Certain Magical Index II.

Her first ever release back in 2010 was her concept album H.O.T.D., based on the anime High School of the Dead. Each track in this collection appears in the order it showed up as an ending song for the show; her following album Butterfly Effect is seen as her first genuine album, and it is tricky to disagree with that.

While H.O.T.D’s production was handled entirely by Akihiro Tomita, each song was composed by someone different, with many being notable names within the anime and music industry. The result was a collection of powerful ending songs for the anime, each with their own sense of originality and memorability.

Members of the music production studio MONACA worked on the majority of the songs. Great examples include the emotional ballad Color Me Dark, composed by Ryuchi Takada, well-known for providing tracks for the Haruhi Suzumiya anime; the bitterly depressing Cold Bullet Blues by Keigo Hoashi, who has worked on the NieR games; Memories of Days Gone By from Hidekazu Tanaka, who has provided many songs in the Idolmaster series of games; and finally one of the most adorable pieces of Japanese music ever, Under the Honey Shine from Satoru Kosaki, who worked on Lucky Star, Monogatari and Beastars.

Alongside MONACA’s contributions, the guitarist of MintJam, a2c, as well as keyboardist setzer were behind three of the best tracks on this already impressive album – Return to Destiny, Fuss Fuzz, and Kimi to Taiyou ga Shinda Hi. Glanzenda’s The Place of Hope, and THE last pain, Miki Fujisue’s Houseki no Spy, Eiichiro Yanagi’s Hollow Men, and Yoshiaki Dewa’s The Eternal Song make up the rest of the album, and are well worth commending on their own for their contributions to the final product being as perfect as it is.

Overall, every single ending song of the anime resulted in Maon Kurosaki’s first ever album being truly outstanding. For our first exposure to Maon Kurosaki’s vocal talents, it was a brilliant choice and opportunity, as she delivers the emotions of each track to help provide closure to the events of each episode. And thus in the end, Maon Kurosaki’s album actually increases the impact of High School of the Dead in its own right. Neither the anime nor Kurosaki’s incredible debut would have been quite the same without the considerable talents of each and every song’s composer.

Vampillia and Jun Togawa with lilac

Jun Togawa is an artist who I simply did not realise was so underappreciated when I covered my top underrated female Japanese musicians. She was a perfect fit for that piece, so allow me to rectify this oversight right now and give her all the credit she deserves with this mention.

Togawa, despite never reaching mainstream popularity, was quickly seen as extremely influential in the underground music space, amassing a cult-like following within Japan as well as overseas — as evident by her increasing recognition online even to this day.

Her most famous song is probably Suki Suki Daisuki from all the way back in 1985; it’s littered with disturbing and quite frankly yandere-like lyrics and themes. Truly a surprising discovery that continues to get more recognition as time goes by. The eccentricity and originality of Jun Togawa is a one of a kind deal after all, no matter when you end up discovering her.

Back in 2016, the world was graced with Togawa’s return as a celebration of her 35th anniversary within the music industry. While Togawa has had plenty of past experiences with collaborations, such as during her time in her band Yapoos, and her work with Susumu Hirasawa back in the 1990s, her work with the dark and brooding rock/metal band Vampillia saw Togawa make the grandest of returns to form.

Lilac is only one of multiple features she made with the band, but as their first triumph together in a beautiful partnership, it set the bar high for more to come. With Togawa’s unique and haunting tone and the dramatic instrumental work, it’s truly a wonderful piece of music. She’s still got it.

Yasutaka Nakata and Kenshi Yonezu with NANIMONO

You probably know Yasutaka Nakata, even if you’re not aware of his name. As the driving force behind multiple award winning artists such as Capsule, Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, his massive success as a DJ, songwriter, composer and producer has seen him in collaboration with a number of fellow musicians. Artists he’s worked with include Crystal Kay, Scandal, Shiina Ringo, Daoko, Kizuna Ai, and our majestic vocalist right here, Kenshi Yonezu.

After his mainstream debut saw him move on from his Utaite name of Hachi, Yonezu started singing his musical creations after years of being a Vocaloid producer. In fact, since his breakout hit with Diorama, his first album release under his real name, he has received multiple awards, and an increase in international attention with many anime tie-ins and chart topping singles.

As of the release of NANIMONO, his biggest hits Peace Sign and Lemon were yet to come, but NANIMONO was an early indicator of how much of a rising star Yonezu was.

NANIMONO is an energetic and exciting dance number that would feel at home in any club even in 2021 with its timeless sound. Alongside the typically strong production we expect from Nakata, Yonezu’s poignant yet difficult to grasp lyrics highlight a moment in time many of us can feel for and relate to even on the dancefloor as we struggle to come to terms with our stagnant lives and finding the strength to go forth to our uncertain futures, for better and for worse.

It’s an underrated anthem for millennials everywhere, so keep this track playing forever for others to find solace with it.

Ken Hirai and Aimyon with Kaibutsu-san

Here we have my personal hit song of 2020, provided to us by the always-improving Aimyon, and the polished and always brilliant Ken Hirai.

Ken Hirai is much more well-known in Japan; he’s had a singing career since 1995 with multiple singles reaching the highest positions on the Oricon chart, and a compilation album being the best selling album of 2006 in Japan. That said, he’s likely familiar to many of us here in the west thanks to a particular music video and track called I Wanna Be a Popstar. Embrace the corniness and you’re in for a hell of a good time — and when taking in every other side of the musician in question, Hirai’s vocal talents and charm make it clear why he enjoys nationwide appeal and reception.

In comparison, Aimyon, at least going by both YouTube and Spotify’s listener counts, is much more familiar in the west. And it’s no surprise as to why, with an increasing appeal of musicians adopting a more genuine and relatable appearance and authenticity as seen with THE FIRST TAKE’s rising popularity on YouTube.

With Kaibutsu-san, a song about a relationship struggling to thrive due to a woman’s insecurity and her man’s easily distracted and uninterested nature, feels heartbreakingly modern and relatable in this day and age. With Aimyon’s youthful and desperate vocals clashing with Hirai’s sturdy, confident and disinterested lyrical responses, his tough exterior presented in the music video further aids the mesmerising song into providing a sense of being both heart-breaking and heart-wrenching.

It only gets better when witnessing the music video, where the powerful cinematography and choreography further exaggerates their differences and incompatibility — despite at least one of them desperately wanting it to work out.

Daoko and Okamura Yasuyuki with Step Up LOVE

When it comes to memorable J-pop collaborations, a certain name is bound to pop up in such a list as this. Daoko has had some very impressive collaborations ever since her mainstream debut, seeing her partner up with Kobayashi Takeshi, Nakata Yasutaka, Yonezu Kenshi, and the one and only TeddyLoid.

Since ME! ME! ME! and GIRL would be far too easy to suggest, I’m here with my own favourite collaboration of hers, which sees her alongside the almighty and immaculate Okamura Yasuyuki, known best for providing the Space Dandy opening theme. In fact, this collab is so good that it gets my vote as song of the year back for 2017!

Step Up LOVE was used as the ending song for Blood Blockade Battlefront, an impressive anime that managed to nab some of the best songs as its ending themes, as well as providing entertaining and complimentary visuals. But Step Up LOVE is catchy all on its own, as evident by me having discovered the song outside of the anime first. The combination of Okamura’s infectious high energy and best dad moves in the music video and Daoko’s fresh take on her signature sing talking style makes for a fresh-feeling collab.

The track is ultimately old school and new school music uniting in a fun and beautiful unity of modern and contemporary vocal performances, and it is ever so addictive to listen to.

Kanon x Kanon

Kanon x Kanon is the duo of Kanon Wakeshima and visual kei band An Cafe’s bassist, Kanon, resulting in their musical unit’s simple yet understandable name. While their chosen collaboration name is not imaginative, the very few creations the two managed to produce together will go down in history — mostly for being far too underrated, but absolutely adored by their fans.

The unit’s collaboration resulted in the two bonding over having the same visual flair and cravings for creating anime tie-ins, and the payoff is evident enough — though their passion for producing anime hits should have garnered them much more success than it did.

Their first collaborative single Calendula Requiem remains their most popular tune, being the opening to the horror anime Shiki, but my personal preference the single’s B-side, The Doll House for being a time capsule to what Kanon Wakeshima once was. Her transition into sugar-coated pop music is a far cry from her first exposure as an artist under the iconic visual kei band Malice Mizer’s guitarist, Mana, whereby she appeared more Gothic and haunting with her cello performances, and tended to focus on more baroque pop and darkwave sounds.

While their second single, Koi no Dotei, and its B-side, Renai no Susume, used for the anime 30 sai no Hoken Taiiku, is just as sickeningly sweet as Kanon Wakeshima is now, there is no denying how infectiously adorable and memorable the tracks are. The only genuine disappointment I have in regards to Kanon x Kanon is how short lived their collaboration ended up being.

Utada Hikaru and Sheena Ringo with Nijikan Dake no Vacation

Within the music industry of Japan, two of the biggest female artist names are right here. The incredible Utada Hikaru, best known for her songs for the Kingdom Hearts franchise, has seen success as an artist since her teenage years. Sheena Ringo, meanwhile, known as the founder and vocalist of Tokyo Jihen, was recognised alongside Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki as one of the three biggest female artists of 2000 with regard to annual income and popularity.

As recognisable names even outside of Japan, the two have seen success after success, and as accomplished singer-songwriters, they excelled with each piece of music credited to them. And nowhere is this as evident as their joint effort with Nijikan Dake no Vacation.

The song gives the pair an opportunity to put their feet up, quite literally, with the track celebrating hard working women everywhere, encouraging them to catch a break because they have been giving it their all each and every day. It’s a sweet and celebratory number, and whilst their latest collaboration with Roman to Soroban does not quite reach the same height as this one, Nijikan Dake no Vacation was a summer hit back in 2016 and will continue to be even in the future.

YUKI and chara

These names may not be unfamiliar to you, as I buttered up chara with every fibre of my being back in my article about underrated female Japanese musicians.

At the time, chara was in the midst of collaborating once again with a dear old friend, YUKI, and fans of this once dead unit had a reason to get up in arms to celebrate for its revival after well over 20 years since the pair’s last collaboration together.

The two veterans of the music industry have both had their fair share of mainstream successes and hits even the west will be familiar with, such as YUKI’s Dramatic being used as the opening to Honey & Clover, and her band JUDY AND MARY providing the opening theme to Rurouni Kenshin with Sobakasu, whilst chara’s best-selling single of Yasashii Kimochi is easily findable when delving into the genre due to its exceptional performance on its release.

However, it is no mistake that their music is a bit of an acquired taste, because these lovely ladies’ nasal tones may not be for everyone. On the other hand, this fact only ever adds to the uniqueness of their takes on J-pop.

Echo is their first mini-album together, and clearly puts more emphasis on quality over quantity, since it is only 8 tracks long. Each song is wildly different to the next, and solidifies the sense that the two artists are retaining their freshness, originality and creativity even after four decades in the game. It’s a mini masterpiece.

And if you like what you hear here, give them a try during their time as an all female metal band in Mean Machine, where they brought together other notable musicians in the industry to try their hand at new genres as a group, and play around with instruments just because they can, and because they wanted to. These ladies rock.

NIRGILIS and livetune with BEATLESS

NIRGILIS is a nostalgic music group who provided hit after hit of anime tie-in numbers during the 2000s. For anyone around my own age who got into anime at the same time, their name should not only be familiar, but its particularly “love ’em or hate ’em” vocalist is never forgettable after a listen of any of their works, for all the right and wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, livetune should most definitely be a name that rings a bell due to their widespread creations as a doujin musical unit within the Vocaloid industry, being the producers of famous Vocaloid songs Redial, Weekender Girl, Packaged, and Catch The Wave.

Livetune has frequently shown their talent and creativity in every single collaboration they are a part of, such as when partnered up with Yun*chi with Believe, and Yanagi Nagi with empty. BEATLESS manages to stand out from the rest for its effortlessly high energy production, feel-good lyrics, and a banging electronic beat we know only livetune would manage to deliver with.

Jun Maeda and Yanagi Nagi

As my final selection for the list, I’m closing it out with my all time favourite collaboration ever, and my favourite record to have ever come out of Japan.

The musical unit of Flaming June holds a special place within my heart for bringing together the exceptional talents of the iconic Jun Maeda, and the magnificent Yanagi Nagi. The infamous Jun Maeda of Key acclaim should need no introduction, and the exceptionally splendid Yanagi Nagi, best known for her airy and angelic vocals as supercell’s first ever guest vocalist, should also be well familiar to regular readers of Rice Digital.

The talents of both should be evident enough from their past accomplishments, and that should also be a great indication to how incredibly out of this world their joint effort on the concept album Owari no Hoshi no Love Song would end up being.

Yanagi Nagi’s career blossomed ever since her early days as a cover singer who went by the alias of “Gazelle” on Nico Nico Douga; she was immediately recognised after appearing as a guest vocalist on supercell’s album It’s A Beautiful Day. This not only brought attention to her real name rather than her alias, but led Jun Maeda to specifically seek her out to work on this album. The mutual respect was immediately apparent, with Yanagi being a fan of one of Key’s visual novels, Air, and Yanagi’s voice supposedly helping Maeda through his depression.

Owari no Hoshi no Love Song tells 13 original love stories across each of its tracks, with each set in an alternative timeline and universe to convey different facets of love through their narratives and themes. Each one manages to pull at the heartstrings in true Maeda tradition.

Where the emotional stakes are necessary, his lyrical writing and storytelling packs the punches, and while many of the tracks were challenging for Yanagi to successfully sing, she powered through and not only delivered the goods, but learned from the experience, as she went on to even greater achievements as a solo artist.

For example, Last Smile will make you uncontrollably sob as a story concerning a selfless woman doing all she can for science whilst finding a last moment of happiness through conversing with her significant other. Yuki no Furanai Hoshi covers a couple’s winter romance coming to its end as the season itself closes out at the end of the track. And the opening track of Owari no Sekai Kara manages to cover the potential risks of time travel being used to save a loved one.

As evident by covering only three of the album’s songs, Owari no Hoshi no Love Song is an album full of only hits, managing to cover a wealth of different stories and characters to feel touched by in each passing track. It is a phenomenal album that has stayed with me for years, and will do so until the very end.

While Owari no Hoshi no Love Song is my absolute favourite collaboration involving Yanagi Nagi, she has a number of notable works with other creators — binaria is the unit where she works in partnership with fellow Jpop singer Annabel, and mamenoi is her collaboration with MANYO, a visual novel soundtrack composer, resulting in yet another fabulous full-length album (Tachyon) unlike anything Yanagi ever did in her solo career or elsewhere.

This woman is a gift sent from the heavens, and this album as a result is one of the greatest records ever made. Give it a listen when you have a chance, and be sure to read Clovered Cinnamon’s English translations to fully understand the stories.

What are some of your favourite musical collabs? Let us know in the comments — or pen us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!

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Lilia Hellal
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