Upbeat Japanese Songs That Are Actually Dark
Surely most of us can relate to feeling better, happier, motivated or more positive whenever we listen to upbeat music. Well, in most cases, that is. If we were to delve deeper into the overall mood of a song, the chords and keys used along with the message of the lyrics, some of them can be deceptively upbeat with unexpectedly dark undertones.
With J-pop booming again, here are some recent Japanese music releases that contain lyrics addressing deep topics revolving around society, relationships, and humanity. Feel free to listen to these songs as you come up with your own interpretations like I did. Since music is subjective, your opinions and thoughts may not necessarily be in line with what they communicate to me, and that’s okay. Be prepared for a bit of deep dive into these songs, but enjoy nonetheless!
1. “Racing Into The Night” - YOASOBI
Alternative Title(s): Into The Night / Yoru ni Kakeru / 夜に駆ける
Year of Release: 2019
Album: The Book
Genre(s): J-Pop, Yakousei
J-Pop duo YOASOBI took the world by storm with their breakthrough debut single “Racing Into The Night''. After going viral on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, it became a commercial success and went on to top the charts for 6 weeks. It is crazy how they have managed to achieve such a milestone, especially considering they only started out in the J-pop industry at that time. Ever since then, the duo has been on a roll, with this music video amassing a staggering 270 million views at the time of writing.
If you were to ask me, “Racing Into The Night'' is the epitome of a Yakousei song because of its catchy, danceable tune with elements of J-Rock and R&B. The cheerfulness of the song is further accentuated with a seemingly vibrant MV. Ironic and funny as it seems, many people (myself included!) used, vibed and danced to the song on social media without realising it contains rather gloomy lyrics.
“The sinking sun, the rising night sky. Overlaps with your figure behind the fence. Ever since the first day we met. You stole my heart”
The song starts off with a boy recalling the moment he fell in love at first sight with a girl he met at a rooftop fence. For some context, the rooftop is a common spot where people would jump off in Japan, but whether it aims to shed light on the alarming suicide rates prevalent in its society or not is unknown. Based on interviews with YOASOBI, “Racing Into The Night” draws inspiration from a short story called “Temptation Of Thanatos”, or Temptation of the Grim Reaper. It is only through the MV that we discover the girl (portrayed with her eyes tainted in paint) has suicidal tendencies and continually coaxes the boy to commit suicide together. This is seen where the girl falls in 0:17 and tries to jump again in 1:16.
“I give my utmost love in hopes for the dazzling tomorrow In the never ending night before we fall Come and take my hand Even the days that you hid inside, wanting to forget It'll melt with the warmth of my embraces”
Through acts of physical touch and words of affirmation, the boy tries his best to stop the girl from attempting and committing suicide because he does not want to lose her. Despite all that, the girl’s eyes remain tainted and the boy’s efforts turn out to be futile as towards the bridge of the song, he screams, “I want to end it all. When I went along and said that, you smiled for the first time.” This goes to show how the girl is still obsessed over the idea of death and has always wanted the boy to commit suicide with her.
“In the never-changing days when I cried You seduce me with your tenderness towards the end Just like I’m about to sink, just like I’m about to melt The staining fog dissipates”
Gradually, the optimistic boy confessed that he “became unable to smile”. This is when we see that the girl has accomplished her mission as he succumbed to temptation. In the end where they held hands on the rooftop fence at 3:48, it is implied that the girl and boy ultimately committed double suicide. Given how this is not explicitly conveyed through its lyrics, it is pretty understandable why people still continue to sing and dance along to this catchy yet gloomy song.
2. “Overdose” - natori
Year of Release: 2022
Genre(s): J-Pop, Dance-Pop, Yakousei
I first stumbled across “Overdose” from my friend recommending it to me. Not going to lie, it reminded me of EXO’s Overdose because for obvious reasons, they had the same song titles, and most importantly, they also tackle the topic of toxic love. Like YOASOBI’s “Racing Into The Night”, “Overdose” is also natori’s breakthrough debut single. Part of why the viral hit became a commercial success and inspired trends can be attributed to his cool vocal tone accompanied by its catchy and funky tune.
“Even though I was so close to figuring it out Drinking, vomiting, forgetting everything Looking at my true feelings that are clad in water, in the opposing mirrors”
The MV persona is stuck in a toxic relationship. They are aware that nothing good comes out of staying in the relationship any longer. They face the feelings hidden deep in their heart and mind. However, they continue to wear rose-tinted glasses out of distorted love for their partner, and choose to follow their heart by escaping reality. Later, we also notice how their partner could be lying to the persona and themselves through the line, “Next to you, all dressed in lies”.
“It’d be nice if we could end this, abruptly Spoiling and rotting, just like that sweet fruit, we start to break”
Despite their relationship already in shambles, both of them continue to put up a facade and avoid facing reality. We can see how love is akin to a drug that is too addictive to quit because while both parties are in love with one another, they are also suffering mentally and emotionally. Yet, they still continue to be romantically involved and neither of them, especially the persona, shows signs of wanting to break up.
“Don’t stop it music, darling”
Along with “Overdose, you and me”, natori also sang this line multiple times, signifying that the persona seems to become co-dependent on their partner to the point that they are willingly to suffer in the process of their relationship. Just as how taking too much drugs can lead to life-threatening consequences, too much love expressed in a toxic and unhealthy way can also be equally dangerous.
3. “Usseewa” - Ado
Year of Release: 2022
Genre(s): J-Pop, J-Rock
Another impactful debut single that made the list, Ado’s “Usseewa” made waves for its explosive instrumentals and sensational lyrics that seemingly disses Japan’s society and its norms. Taking into consideration how they have a collectivistic culture that emphasises conformity and harmony, it is not surprising that many Japanese were taken aback by the song. While many people initially had mixed reactions, “Usseewa” is relatively well-received especially amongst the younger generation.
“What is rightness? What is stupidity? I’ll show you what they are!” "I was an honour student being young Before I realized, I was already grown up A train of thought like a knife Which I didn't have that with me But I'm not having enough fun Something is missing”
As Ado steps up as society’s spokesperson, she also takes on the persona of a model student, then later a working adult who leads a relatively dull and predictable life. It is implied that they have high levels of moral character but are sick and tired of living the way most working adults in Japan do. The song title, “Usseewa”, practically says it all, which means ‘Shut up’ for short in Japanese (うるさいわ ’urusaiwa’). Throughout the song, we hear Ado lashing out “Shut up, shut up, shut the hell up” in a derogatory way multiple times. This is also paired with the bright colours and glitch effects in the MV, symbolising how the persona is on the verge of going berserk and ultimately did due to the social norms set in place.
“Understanding the latest trends Checking the stock market on my way to work Joining a company with the pure spirit These are the obvious rules for us workers” ”I’m hella tired Pour drinks when glasses are empty Take off the skewer so it's easier for everyone to eat Check and order before anyone does These are the minimum rules for the social manner”
In fact, these lines shed light on the dark side of Japan’s working culture. Since the working environment there is highly built on harmony, being ignorant on current affairs and trends could get one ostracised, and checking the stock market could be an example of a conversation starter and a way for them to gain knowledge. The song also seems to speak from the perspective of a fresh graduate who looks forward going into the working world, taking their first steps into adulthood, and is enthusiastic to work hard. They then face the harsh reality, realises how toxic it can get and dreads the working life especially the after-work drinking aspect.
Unlike Singapore, drinking culture is real in Japan. It takes place outside of the workplace setting, but hierarchy and seniority still applies whether they like it or not. They are forced to go to such drinking parties in most occasions, or are invited and have the choice to not go. In the case they do attend, it is also the norm to accept a drink being poured and served to them without question. However, when they refuse, they will potentially ruin their chances in advancing their career, spoil the mood and be seen as unsociable and rude by their colleagues and higher-ups.
Negative emotions like frustration, dissatisfaction and anger are heavily and powerfully expressed through Ado’s deep, captivating, husky voice. Personally speaking, the song’s lyrics would not have resonated with those who have listened to “Usseewa” as much if not for her voice.
4. “Villain” - teniwoha ft. flower
Alternative Title(s): ヴィラン
Year of Release: 2021
Album: No Boy
Genre(s): J-Pop, Noise Pop, Vocaloid Utaite
If you know who Hatsune Miku is, then the concept of Vocaloid will be no stranger to you. Like Miku, teniwoha is a Vocaloid producer as well as a anonymous singer with a distinct, androgynous synthetic voice. As teniwoha’s most popular work to date, “Villain” addresses LGBTQ+ topics like gender dysphoria and gender transitioning which are not so widely talked about in current songs. I was pleasantly surprised to see these topics being covered, and it was my sister who told me about this song after knowing that I am writing this article. Thinking of it, this is one of the more unique and least familiar songs to me amongst the ones in this list.
“I’m sure we freak them out just by holding hands You’re reported when you opt out of the “rat race” I’m not a mutant, I’m just me Whether that’s X or Y”
Again, we come to realise how judgemental and unfair society can be towards LGBTQ+ individuals and couples at the beginning of the song. From getting weirded out to giving them side eyes, they are treated and perceived as abnormal when they do small, affectionate gestures like holding hands in public. However, no one cares when heterosexual couples do the same thing.
If we were to think about it, what makes them different from heterosexuals that they get judged for doing something that is completely normal? It is as if they did something wrong because they do not share the ‘same’ identity as the majority of society does. The line “My hated life” sung at the start and end of the song further expresses the individual’s sadness and hatred in their own life due to being demeaned and discriminated by society for living as they wish. Why should that be the case? They are solely embracing and being themselves. No matter their gender, they are still themselves through and through.
“I wear different clothes and pretend to be a boy in front of you Dear Dr. Durand Durand Please come pick me up To someone I don’t even know, I’m already a villain”
It is implied that the individual identifies themselves as female and wishes to live a life that matches their gender identity. Through “No one knows, I don't want anyone to know what's under my skin”, we can also tell how they do not feel comfortable with their assigned gender. Although taking on an identity other than what is assigned to them at birth is what truly makes them happy, LGBTQ+ individuals are seen as villains for defying gender status and norms. Hence, the cultural reference to Dr. Durand Durand from sci-fi film Barbarella being called out to pick up the individual is significant because it signals their way of seeking for help but they can only turn to other villains like Dr. Durand Durand himself.
“Hey, you know a writer named Ranpo? Import you Someday, even artificial flowers will bear fruit”
We also spot another cultural reference to prominent Japanese author and critic, Edogawa Ranpo. Paying homage as a fan, teniwoha intentionally included Ranpo’s name as he was curious about homosexuality and identifies himself as gay. The line “even artificial flowers will bear fruit” also appears to be a metaphor for hope whereby the dream of transgender women giving birth to babies can turn into reality one day.
It takes a lot of courage to show your true self and live an authentic life. We should never judge someone by their outward appearance alone as it does not always reflect who they truly are as individuals. At the end of the day, LGBTQ+ individuals and couples are also humans.
5. “Shinunoga E-Wa” - Fujii Kaze
Alternative Title(s): I’d Rather Die / 死ぬのがいいわ
Year of Release: 2020
Album: Help Ever Hurt Never
Genre(s): J-Pop, R&B
Fun fact: Did you know that there was no music video and promotions for “Shinunoga E-Wa”? Yet, the song still managed to go viral (thanks to fan edits!) and top charts worldwide. With Fujii Kaze’s crisp, soothing voice singing the intoxicating melody, “Shinunoga E-Wa” became well-known for being a beautiful and passionate love song. Some of you may find it being here weird and controversial, but continue to read on to see why I feel it can also be a dark upbeat song.
“Pinky swear, if I do tell a lie I'm willing to swallow needles or anything Monday It doesn’t matter if it's Sunday”
The first verse is a reference to ‘Yubikiri’, or pinky promise, a familiar tradition that originated in early modern Japan. When the Japanese make a promise, they interlock their pinky fingers and say, “Pinky swear, whoever lies will be made to swallow a thousand needles”. It is by all means an exaggeration to warn people to not break the promise they have made, if not they would face deadly consequences. While Yubikiri is now a harmless and adorable gesture, it was not the case centuries ago and hence could be the reason it is relevant to the theme of “Shinunoga E-Wa”.
Back in the early 1600s to mid-1800s, prostitutes expressed affection and swore eternal love towards their favourite clients by cutting off their pinkies. This is where the bloodier meaning of Yubikiri, or finger cut-off, comes into play. It may be a grand act of love that symbolises how the prostitutes are willing to take their lives for their loved one. Still, it does not change how cutting off your pinky is a gruesome way of showing affection.
“If I had to keep being separated from you like this I’d rather die (I'd rather die) I'd rather die (I'd rather die)”
By repeating the title “I'd rather die” throughout the song, Fujii Kaze sings from a lover’s perspective and expresses how they are intent on not being apart from their partner. Given how food is a means of survival, he takes it to the next level in the line “I choose you over three meals a day”, further emphasising the lover’s passionate love for their partner.
The song also seems to glorify the concept of ‘dying for love’ as they are willing to die if it means preventing them from being apart from their partner. By viewing their partner to be more important than anyone else, what about their friends and family who very likely have been by their side, loving and caring for them longer? If the lover does die in the end, won’t they be the ones who suffer and grieve for his death the most? Well, if we were to sum up “Shinunoga E-Wa” in one sentence, the saying ‘Till death do us part’ would be the way to describe it.
Now that we have reached the end, what are your thoughts on these songs? Music is undeniably an integral part of our lives, but admit it or not, most of us hardly pay attention when listening to a song and rarely go out of our way to understand what an artist is trying to communicate to us. That being the case, what I am trying to say is that like many things in life, it never hurts to give some songs another chance before judging them for how they appear and sound like during the first few listens. Who knows, you may end up liking a certain song more than you think you would!