There’s been an intriguing movement in Japan over the past few years, where its painters, singers and even designers prefer to have their faces concealed; hidden away from the public eye almost as if to preserve their real-life identity. Auto Moai, for one, centres the anonymous subject in their art—whilst maintaining anonymity themselves. Khoki—a Japanese fashion label—keeps their collective on the down-low; the number of people behind the actual creative output on the runway left unknown to most. But leading the pack are its musicians: from Ado and Zutomayo to Yorushika and Yama, a steady stream of singers are rising through the charts—and no one really knows what they look like.
Or even how many members there are. See Zutomayo—the group whose full member list has never actually been disclosed. These musicians have chosen to promote their music faceless, with no semblance of a real-life identity that can be put to their name. But that’s not to say they’re doing it without an associated image at all. Instead, a virtual persona becomes the medium for their music; a stylised animated character that sings, dances or even performs in place of the real singer. Take Ado, who is behind top hit ‘Usseewa’ for example; her choice of representation being a femme-identifying character who wears a gothic-grim disposition about her—sporting long black tresses, a pale countenance and a distinctive blue rose everywhere she goes. Whilst Yama, the popular singer of ‘Haru Wo Tsugeru’, despite carrying a soulful, feminine voice in their moody tunes, has opted for a more gender-fluid character—of someone with a bowl cut and parka—to be the face of their music.
Eve and Yoasobi, on the other hand, have opted to lean into Japan’s nuance for creating narratives with fantastical parallel worlds; going one step further than mere animated characters. Although both artists no longer go out of the way to conceal their identities completely, both still remain more closely associated with the visual narratives and personas that they’ve since created. It’s of note here that J-pop or K-pop artists are sometimes relied on to sing the accompanying soundtracks for the industry’s popular anime and films. Yet these artists have decided to dream up entire visual universes and characters that solely belong to their musical landscape instead—so much so that their music videos should also have an intrinsic part to play should fans wish to unearth entire lore from their music. See Kara no Kioku: the ongoing manga masterminded by Eve where various supernatural characters (also known as zingai) such as Kurukuru or Hitotsume-sama also transform into the subjects of focus in his visually evocative music videos, as if to leave clues of their mysterious part to play in it all.
Yet one cannot possibly hope to expound on this phenomenon without also prefacing the vocaloid world or the utaite community—the latter the unifying term for a subculture of musicians who sing covers of previously released songs, whilst choosing to keep their identity a secret, for the most part. Before he composed and sang his own songs, Eve was an utaite and vocaloid producer himself, working with the synthesiser software that dealt out computer-generated vocals to create music. Whilst the first vocaloid artist of its kind might have been the avatar Hatsune Miku—whose name translates to ‘the first sound of the future’—the vocaloid space can be said to have birthed droves of new-generation musicians who now dominate Japan’s domestic music charts. Think current favourite hitmaker Yonezu Kenshi, Ado and Ayase, the producer half of the Yoasobi duo.
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Whilst not all of them may have chosen to keep their identities as top-secret as Yorushika or Zutomayo, their roots in vocaloid music is inextricably linked to the curious possibility of separating one’s musical talent from any association with their physical appearance. A culmination of outstanding vocals, brilliantly animated visuals that tell a story and effective marketing—they’ve come undeniably close to figuring out a successful formula for another future of the music industry.
For one to focus on the beauty of the art itself: the crispness of the voice, the melding of instruments, the lyrical ingenuity. And music can therefore also transform into the space it so promises for some; a place of comfort and solace, where you can be whoever you want, whenever you want. The latter, perhaps is something the likes of Yama, Yorushika and Zutomayo all understand, as their public personas—behind virtual masks, shrouded in the shadows—stand as the most confident excavations of their current selves. For some others, of course, it may simply be about protecting their real-life identities, in order for them to emulate some semblance of normalcy in their lives.
Yet with all that said and done, where does this phenomenon really lead us next? It is a true head scratch moment in some sense: are the Japanese simply too ahead of their time—as they always have been? Whilst the chance to rid ourselves of the need to be led by our physical appearances and leaning into what really matters is before us, there is something to be said about whether it will ever be something the industry-at-large or global audience might fully grasp. Perhaps it’s something that only Japan’s ever-futuristic landscape could truly deliver on; a land where the hyper-cyber, virtual avatars and the long-prevalent desire to transform into someone they’re not (read: cosplay) is consistently celebrated and embraced. But only time will tell. In the meantime? Face or no-face, the music prevails—and our ears will welcome being the sole judge of talent.