K-Pop vs. J-Pop

K-Pop vs. J-Pop. This whole debate has a much more sinister backdrop than many assume.

Japan was destroyed by WWII. During its recovery, Japan copied and adapted the West. Like contemporary China, Japan developed its economy through developing infant industries. These infant industries shamelessly took ideas from the West. Frequently, the West criticized Japan for “stealing their patents and technology.” They were derided as “copy cats.” J-Pop is the product of this general trajectory. Neither rock nor funk originated from Japan.

Does this mean J-Pop is worse? Hell no. J-Pop is amazing. So is J-Rock or their Jazz. Japanese culture is fascinating. Often, J-Pop is more interesting than K-Pop — and vice versa. My point is that the reasons why we enjoy J-Pop or K-Pop might not be so historically innocent.

For example, South Korea’s pop industry gained popularity through westernization. Early K-Pop groups were shamelessly designed after western acts. K-Pop also shamelessly borrowed from J-Pop’s adaptation of western influences. This is why early K-Pop groups look like Japanese visual kei.

Many cite J-Pop or K-Pop’s musical attributes as their reasons for success. But, those musical attributes cannot exist without their economic conditions. Both genres gained popularity as their countries became extremely wealthy. Their industry was built from the bottom through severe exploitation: boy bands and girl groups signed “slave contracts.” Many were, and are, forced to undergo plastic surgery. They are worked to death; regularly, artists collapse from fatigue, sleep deprivation, and malnutrition. Their bodies are closely monitored for the “ideal weight.” Cheap, exploited labor, coupled with large ambitions, yielded huge profit. Modern production, especially in the 20th century, could not be accomplished without modern equipments. Modern genres cannot be copied without exposure to such influences, which requires a modern economy.

Furthermore, the musical attribute argument assumes that Nepalese or Thai music is not good enough. Do you really think Asia does not have creative talent outside Japan or Korea? Frankly, we’re just looking for different takes on western genres, rather than searching for genuine beauty and creativity. To prove my point: why is traditional Korean music not popular? Is it less beautiful or creative than K-Pop? No, it’s because westerners do not understand traditional Korean beauty.

So what do we really mean by the success of J-Pop or K-Pop? Mostly, we’re talking about economic success. K-Pop, for example, became a hot topic after its widespread success in Asia and later in the West. But, it’s not any kind of economic success. Indian music is loved by many, but it’s not mentioned alongside K-Pop or J-Pop. What kind of economic success are we talking about then? Well, we are referring to the perception of “successful westernization.” Many Asian fans praised K-Pop for its successful take on western culture. For instance, China regularly talks about trying to “replicate Korea’s successful westernization.” If you’re successful with music that is not western enough, then you’re not praised alongside K-Pop.

In other words, we have internalized the white gaze. What is beautiful is what we perceive to be favored by the White Race. This is why it’s so important for K-Pop to be “recognized by the West.” Great success in Asia was not good enough. K-Pop leaders like YG and JYP have always wanted to be “recognized by the West.” K-Pop fans are always trying to spread K-Pop to westerners. J-Pop fans claim to be less concerned with the white gaze, but if your entire economy is a copy of western capitalism, musical genres, etc…. You just think you are less attached to your chains. Any fan of Japanese anime or music know, first hand, the vast influence of the west. This is the truth behind K-Pop vs. J-Pop: we are hostages to white money and the white gaze. J-Pop is the relic of such power dynamics, and K-Pop is its grotesque chimera.


P.S. I am not claiming that we should not copy the west. That the west are entitled to their “patents.” Fuck that. Germany, Britain, France, and the US all developed their economies the same way. They stole from each other, built up their infant industries, until they were large enough to participate in “freer trade.” European music is just a copy of American music — and vice versa. The problem is that we are practicing this uncritically, without even considering its racial and power dynamics. How must we go beyond such cycles, if we do not even understand why K-Pop or American Pop is the way it is? For example, the history of American Pop includes the exploitation of Africans and African Americans. This makes the whole picture even more complex. Reducing such complex issues to “cool music” is not acceptable.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Moribito is fantastical. The story unfolds as if it were a lore or a fairy tale passed down for generations. It is full of magic and mystery, yet unlike any Western fairy tale. For instance, the supernatural of Moribito is supervened upon its natural world: i.e., whereas the supernatural hides from the ordinary in the West, the supernatural in Moribito’s world occupies an invisible layer of reality. It appears that the world of Moribito is composed of many grids stacked up on each other –similar to Michel Foucault’s view of knowledge. Interestingly, the nature of this world’s knowledge and history accords to Foucault’s view of each as well: history and knowledge are shaped by the powerful.

Despite some of its gloomy undertones, Moribito is, at heart, a moving tale of courage and compassion. Each character musters up the courage to sacrifice their lives to protect the ones they love. This seems typical of Japanese anime, but I believe Moribito breaks from that convention. If one watches the show, one finds that their bravery comes from humanity rather than inhuman fearlessness; it is full of weakness and doubt. This is evident from its focus on maternal love, nurture, loyalty, family, and friendship. Moribito is not simply a story about a hero fighting monsters to protect their friends and lovers. Much of the show’s conflicts come from human beings.

Another critical difference between Moribito and other supernatural shows is that the main character is a strong, female warrior. Balsa is stoic and courageous, yet kind and altruistic. She has an unwavering sense of duty and morality. Her stoic personality is complemented by the sensitive men around her – Tanda and Chagum. I believe that Chagum especially brings out the best of her, as she act as both his martial arts teacher, mother, and roel model.

Not every character in this show is flushed out and the animation can be quite strange sometimes due to its use of 3D animation. Nevertheless, the action scenes are exquisitely animated, and the way it sketches the world’s landscapes and supernatural entities is a treat to the eyes. Hence, these minor flaws do not detract much from the overall quality of this show. I really wish there will be a second series that delves deeper into the mysteries of this world. Moribito did an excellent job at not giving too much information, thereby keeping the supernatural ever more mysterious. Although this leaves the audience begging for some answers, it doesn’t ultimately disappoint us because the show gave the major characters’ relationships a satisfying closure. In other words, a perfect starting point for a new season!

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood

Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist is a masterpiece that will stand the test of time. It is larger than life yet deeply personal. It touches on loss, the meaning of life, cultural diversity, the dangers of science, Nazism, the Iraq war, and the list goes on. Arakawa seamlessly weaves so coherent a story from such divergent threads that it mirrors the skill of a first-rate novelist. She is a brilliant world-builder and her characters are exceptional.

For instance, Arakawa’s representation of women breaks with convention. There are strong, independent women like Izumi Curtis, Riza Hawkeyes, and Olivia Armstrong. These characters are complex and unique, as one can notice from each character’s distinct source of independence – confidence (Izumi), resolve (Hawkeyes), and leadership (Armstrong). There are tenderhearted mothers like Gracia Hughes and Trisha Elric; and those who cannot be captured by such umbrella terms like Winry Rockbell, Maria Ross, and May Chang. I suppose it’s only natural for Japan’s most successful female mangaka to embody such an ambitious project – to portray the totality of womanhood: thèse, antithèse, et synthèse. Furthermore, she gives plenty of time and space to include the backstory of every character. None of them has an uninteresting backstory and they all somehow play key roles in this mysterious world.

Despite the presence of alchemy, the world of Fullmetal Alchemist is very similar to ours. It is full of racism, hatred, war, greed, love, compassion, and courage. Alchemy is used as a metaphor for power, knowledge, and science. It seems magical at first, but one soon realizes that its rules cannot be bended much like the laws of nature. Even though they have such a powerful tool, we keep encountering those who wish to go beyond its limits. Alchemy is, arguably, a reflection of our weakness. As the philosopher Julian Savulescu noted, humans are much better at solving abstract problems than learning how to work together as a whole. Edward’s final decision in the show alludes to Arakawa’s message that we do not need to rely on knowledge and science to lead a meaningful life. Instead, we need to accept the human condition. Similar to Aristotle’s notion of the Good Life, Ed and Al choose to pursue virtues like friendship, altruism, humility, and compassion. Humanity was not meant to know everything, and the human condition bids us to focus on the Good rather than the Truth. It appears that Arakawa is a pragmatist– knowledge is useful insofar as it is practical.

The animé-adaptation successfully captures the strengths of its illustrious source through fast-pace, quality animation, and stellar opening and ending themes. This animé is one of my favorites, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good work of art.

Bakemonogatari

Bakemonogatari reminds me of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It uses the medium of harem, which often involves pedophilia (viva Humbert Humbert!), to delve into the psychology of its interesting characters, inundated by puns and wordplay. I have never seen such strange and compelling dialogues and characters. They are so markedly interesting that the overall experience of this show overshadows all of its faults.

The animation is not as fluid as Space Dandy’s, but its conscious usage of PP slides and strange shots manage to salvage it. If I have a bone to pick, it would be the music. The opening and ending songs were okay, but the music throughout the actual animation was very uninteresting.

If I have to summarize my review in two sentences, it would look like this: Bakemonogatari is a mind-trip, and its extensive wordplay will make you want to learn Japanese. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; but, if it is, then be prepared for a hell of a ride.

Space Dandy

If Steins;Gate uses the distortion of temporal continuity to augment the flavor of its plot, Space Dandy uses space-time distortion to elude the plot. Space Dandy is what happens when you put together the industry’s most talented animators – spearheaded by Shinichirō Watanabe who brought us Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo– to create something with no boundaries. This is why Space Dandy can be colorful, exciting, touching, hilarious, crass, beautiful, mysterious, genre-bending, trivial, and ultimately free.

This show will often compel you to perceive it as a profound commentary, but it will actively dissuade you from taking it seriously. You will try to give it a label, or try to place it in a neat category, but it will passionately fight your attempt to do so. So my advice: don’t fight it. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, for zombies, specters, stardust, and dandies lie ahead.

Steins;Gate

Steins;Gate is breathtaking. The dialogue is superb, the time-traveling is fascinating, and the character development is nonpareil. I dived into this show expecting an eerie experience – the kind of experience that warps your sense of temporal continuity. But soon I was realized that was only the tip of the iceberg. I was completely caught off guard by the brilliant dialogue –I highly recommend it to animé fans. This show revels in hilarious meta-commentary, appealing to those familiar with the animé world. Furthermore, the character development is organic, funny, and interesting. Thus, by the time its main plot and drama emerged, I was fully immersed in the characters.

After finishing this show in one day, I am certain it was designed to be binge-watched. Its plot is so gripping and the story is laid out in such a way that you never feel the incentive to hit apple Q or alt F4; plus, it’s only 24 episodes. If any of you have a few days to spare, or if any of you feel that dire need to be distracted from the mundanity of quotidian life, dive in. You won’t regret it.

The Illusion of Johan Liebert

I believe that Johan is a metaphor for pure evil, nihilism, and nothingness. I think the fact that the show makes it seem like Tenma imagined Johan’s revelation in the hospital alludes to the illusoriness of Johan. The constant reference to Johan as a fiction also hints at this idea. Another clue is that the show doesn’t fully explain Johan’s motives. Sure, terrible stuff happened to him. Yet, Nina experienced similar traumas, and she turned out fine. Johan’s origin story doesn’t fully explain Johan’s malice. Johan doesn’t make sense; he doesn’t fit neatly into the real world.

A person is grounded in a particular socio-cultural background, in a particular time and space. Johan isn’t like that. He is nameless, enigmatic, and seemingly everywhere. He is more like a concept of evil that plagues the lives of everyone– serial killers, families, orphans, and doctors. If you look at the totality of the characters, there is nothing that binds them together other than that they were all human compared to Johan –he even makes serial killers look sane.

Johan’s murders are cold and emotionless as Lunge once described. There is no goal, no motivation. Johan, in this sense, resembles nothingness, which takes us away one by one indiscriminately –arbitrarily. We desperately try to make sense of it, ascribe intentionality or even a governing set of laws. But in the end, I think such efforts are futile, for I agree with Wittgenstein that “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” Perhaps this is why it makes one’s blood run cold to see Johan in action; he does not make sense and the thought of a meaningless end terrifies us.

Why are Korean singers the best?

I always wondered why Korean singers were far superior to Japanese, Chinese, or American ones; and when I say superior I mean that Korean singers (in pop) tend to be, on average, more competent singers. It does not mean that American or Chinese singers do not have as many vocal gems as Koreans do. Rather, imagine a Korean equivalent of Coldplay, and that the singer would sing like Luther Vandross. So why is this so? Why do Koreans sing so well? 

Recently, I read an article explaining how Korea, historically, has always lauded a musician for his or her vocal ability rather than their creativity. This reminded me of how we call a musician 가수 which literally means singer regardless of whether one is a composer or a singer-songwriter. In the United States, we don’t call a singer-songwriter a singer. We call them an artist or a singer-songwriter; and we definitely don’t call composers singers. Such insight deeply clarifies why Korean artists overlook creativity; it’s not what their culture cares much for. This does not mean that Korean artists are all unimaginative. Instead, it explains the lack of diversity within the industry. There’s much creativity within their rather homogenous musical landscape –they just all sing!

Now, Korea is certainly having a boom of Hip Hop and Rap. But, it’s about the only exception where non-vocal music thrives. Instrumental music is not as prolific as Japan. Korea’s vocal music isn’t as diverse as the US –it’s either R&B, 발라드 (it’s called ballad, but it’s really a mixture of R&B and über-Korean sentiment –i.e., it’s melodramatic and hyper-sentimental), or boy band music. In fact, the Korean rock scene is dying, traditional Korean music is very fringe, same story for jazz and classical music. Electronic music supports boy band music rather than exploring the possibilities of electronic sound in a stand alone piece. 

Despite the lack of diversity, I think there is much hope. Korean boy bands these days, unlike their predecessors except for Seotaiji, create their own music –finding influence from hip hop, electronic music, jazz, and so on. It’s become unfashionable to be a boyband that just sings songs written by their company’s designated composer who writes for every other boy band. Moreover, the Hip Hop scene has been growing exponentially, and its growth has been largely positive. The rappers are skilled, innovative, and hip. Unfortunately, most of them are signed to big record labels that produce boy bands and dominate the industry. But, if such trends continue, then perhaps this would make room for more independent labels and artists, proliferating rock, electronic music, traditional korean music, and so on.