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Internationally Adored Japanese Rock Band L’Arc~en~Ciel Plays its First Ever North American Concert In Baltimore

Swank and Smile: L'Arc~en~Ciel members (left to right) Yukihiro, Hyde, Tetsu, and Ken.

By Josephine Yun | Posted 7/28/2004

L’Arc~en~Ciel plays the 1st Mariner Arena July 31 at 5 p.m. Otakon runs July 30 to Aug. 1 at the Baltimore Convention Center. For more information, visit www.otakon.com.

Just before 5:30 a.m. EST Sunday, June 27, roughly 40 people gathered in an Internet relay chat room. Some wished; others guessed. All were waiting for a very important announcement. Minutes later, it came: “Just confirmed! Otakon 2004 presents L’Arc~en~Ciel Live in USA.”

Word of the Japanese rock band L’Arc~en~Ciel (translation: the Rainbow) making its first U.S. appearance sailed through news feeds, blogs, journals, and message boards, as well as Web sites dedicated to Japanese music. Familiar fans professed their intense, undying love for Baltimore’s Otakon, now in its 11th year and one of the largest anime and East Asian culture conventions in the world. Fence-sitters scrambled for rides, beds, and tickets.

“I love Otakon,” says Pata over the phone from Michigan; the 18-year-old plans on attending Otakon 2004 (July 30-Aug. 1, at the Baltimore Convention Center) with her younger sister. “I love the people. It’s a great con, and I would have wanted to go anyway. But L’Arc~en~Ciel was the deciding factor in dropping everything and flying out there.”

That fan devotion has built L’Arc’s success thus far. Formed in 1991, the band—vocalist hyde, guitarist ken, bassist tetsu, and drummer yukihiro (no, they don’t use last names and, no, they don’t capitalize the names they use)—went major after its 1993 debut, Dune, topped Japanese indie charts that year. In 1995, L’Arc sold out Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan (capacity: 13,449) in 28 minutes; in 1997, it sold out the Tokyo Dome (56,000) in four minutes. The simultaneous 1999 release of ark and ray shot to No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. And in 2001, the band asked fans from all over Asia to vote online for songs to include on its first compilation album, Clicked Singles Best 13; it got 100 million responses. Later that year, L’Arc’s members took two years off to pursue solo projects, but the hiatus didn’t diminish their popularity. Its new album Smile entered the Japanese charts at No. 2 when it was released this past March.

Despite its huge following in Japan and elsewhere, the concept of having dedicated American fans is hard for L’Arc to grasp. “It doesn’t feel real to me,” hyde says through a translated e-mail interview. “I’d be very happy if it is true.

“I’m not nervous yet,” he continues. “I’m just looking forward to going. We can only perform L’Arc~en~Ciel’s music as usual. We just wish that the U.S. audience will see our performance and enjoy it. We’ve always tried to do the best show we can at any given time regardless of location, and that’s what we’ll do for [this] concert, too.”

Hyde’s answers are sensible, but L’Arc’s work is hardly stoic or sedate. L’Arc stands apart from other Japanese groups partly because all of its members are skilled songwriters and experienced musicians. With lucky looks, they comprise a fresh, original act among walls and walls of mass-produced factory idols in Japan. And though it is fashionable, L’Arc doesn’t dress as flamboyantly as other J-rock bands whose outrageous outfits inspire cosplay, the painstaking fan practice of dressing like anime characters or other icons. It established itself independently, beyond the ready-made fan base prepared by tie-in media, appealing to a wide audience.

And its music is equally varied. Smile’s “Ready Steady Go” is a hip-smacking, guitar-chugging, upbeat number. “Hitomi no Jyunin,” another Smile track, is sweet without being mushy or schlocky, showing off ken’s remarkably reflective guitar and tender strings. Both songs exhibit hyde’s trademark emotive, long-reaching vocals. L’Arc’s compositions are an organic, bittersweet mix of flair and energy, eloquently balanced.

L’Arc’s imminent Baltimore arrival fulfills the hopes of many a conventioneer. “L’Arc~en~Ciel has been our most requested guest for the last three years,” says Jonathan Harmon, Otakon guest relations coordinator for L’Arc~en~Ciel. “It’s a dream come true, because we get to provide our fans with whom they want to see more than anybody else. It feels very, very rewarding.”

Each year, Otakon gets a little bigger. More than 17,000 people attended last year, and thus far 12,000 people have preregistered for Otakon 2004, with organizers estimating an attendance near 21,000. And unlike years past, where Otakon’s musical guests performed in the Baltimore Convention Center’s main events hall, L’Arc~en~Ciel is booked for the 1st Mariner Arena, a move to accommodate not only con-goers but L’Arc supporters and the musically curious as well.

Tofu Records, the Sony affiliate responsible for North American releases of its Japanese artists, has been interfacing with and catering to all three crowds since its founding last year. It released Smile in the United States at the end of June and recently reissued Clicked Singles Best 13. And the timing is sweet. As gatherings such as Otakon diversify, more and more fans are discovering J-rock and other facets of Japanese pop culture independent of anime. J-rock, J-pop, and Japanese fashion panels are now a given at most anime conventions, making them more than people decked out as their favorite figure.

Ultimately, L’Arc’s fan base may reach further than anime does. Otakon has long drawn people from all over the country; this year, they’re coming from all over the world. Since the L’Arc concert announcement, Otakon has preregistered people traveling from Canada, Mexico, Singapore, the Philippines, Peru, Finland, and Spain, in addition to hard-core fans coming from Japan.

“It was really weird because I don’t usually jump into trips easily,” says fan Rita Chen over the phone from Toronto. “But for L’Arc it was totally like, ‘I don’t care how much it costs, I’m going.’ I’m actually coming just for the L’Arc~en~Ciel concert.”

“It amazes me,” Harmon says. “We were expecting for fans to travel from Japan and other countries, but we just weren’t quite prepared for the geographic diversity from which these people are coming. It’s pretty incredible.”

For North American L’Arc fans, what’s incredible is being able to see the band without flying over the Pacific. “What I like about L’Arc is that you get the different styles from everyone in the band,” Chen says. “They’re constantly evolving—I like the way they experiment with sound. Because it is a risk, taking something that might not be that popular.”

Truth be told, the whole thing is risky. L’Arc’s stateside debut is its chance to expand its fan base, win the curious, and reward the faithful. But no one—fans, Otakon organizers, the band itself—is quite sure what to expect.

“I don’t particularly think that we’d catch on in the U.S.,” hyde says. “We’d be happy if we did, though.”

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