The electronic producer Emamouse sports a bag-like mask that extends down to her shoulders of a sad young brunette girl with a single light blue fish in her hair that Ema made because her “face has nothing to do with [her] mind.” Her Twitter page is a bizarre assortment of kawaii drawings, statues wearing masks, and surrealist imagery. In an age where information on everyone is readily available, she remains one the few artists who leaves listeners with more questions than answers. And the music has the same effect.
The Tokyo-based artist, who has released 14 full-lengths and nine EPs of albums to date, specializes in denpa song, a Japanese subgenre that toes the line between otherworldly and adorable. Denpa songs are often played off-key, in wonky time signatures; as catchy as the melodies may be, hints of dissonance and unease linger beneath. The modern connotation of the word “denpa”—which roughly translates to electromagnetic waves— is derived from the 1981 Fukagawa Street Murders. After brutally murdering two women, two toddlers, and injuring many others, Kawamata Gunji, the killer, plead insanity, claiming that the denpa had instructed him to commit the crimes. Since then, the word has evolved into a slang term used to describe off-beat people and their strange fantasies.
So how does an eclectic artist like Emamouse fit into this foreboding narrative? Behind the mask and glittering synths is a touch of sinister. For every kawaii element, there is a surreal twist waiting. Her gorgeous synthesizer melodies often drift into dissonant territories, her lo-fi psychedelic album covers muddle her cartoonish art aesthetic, and perky vocals are made ominous through her use of heavy reverb and delay.
Admittedly, Emamouse doesn’t take much influence from—or even listen to—other modern denpa song artists. When she was younger, she fell in love with the Japanese duo Under17 and tried to replicate their sound to little success. She started cultivating her own style under the Emamouse moniker seven years ago, one that attempts to recreate the hidden realities of our world.
“I often take rides on my bicycle, it’s good for the construction of my brain’s world,” she says. “I think there are other dimensions around us that anyone can easily come and go into. [These dimensions] may be invisible to you, but are you able to confirm that there isn’t a fish with feet standing directly behind you? I don’t dream about the fish’s existence. I believe that it does exist. If you can not see or believe it, then I want to make it and show it to you.”
Like most denpa song artists, Ema was also largely influenced by video game soundtracks, listening to them “as a normal teenager would listen to Nirvana.” Games such as SimCity, Dragon Warrior, Knight Gundam, and their soundtracks offered an easy way for her to slip into different realities. She’s never had the opportunity to score a full-length game, so she took it upon herself, writing two OSTs for fictional shooting games that she created in her head, plant spiral bio bombing, and its sequel, PSBB2.
This creative ambition for building many rich, character-driven albums is essential to understanding Emamouse. She has dozens of releases to her name, and is “planning to make [albums about] all the different worlds so that the world and the layer of the dimension are different for each album.” Going through her back catalog is akin to exploring the inside of a child’s mind. Some releases, like 2017’s World Gazer, zip by in a flurry of arpeggios and drum beats; others, such as the magical journey EP, drift along like a lazy day. Strange characters appear, landscapes explode out of the sound. Each of her releases differs in musical style and story elements, but they’re all tied together with Ema’s signature mutated vocals.
On her most recent album, Pigeon’s Point, Emamouse continues to wander down unexplored paths. Hints of IDM, hyper-pop, and chiptune weave together to build a world full of shiny plastics and disquiet. “PP2,” the opening track of the record, features an awkward, marching drum beat underneath vocals that are made unintelligible by pitch-shifted modulation. It evokes the same feeling of hypnotism that motivated Ema to write the album.
As a child, a model house near Emamouse’s home transfixed her. The way the home mimicked everyday life but remained barren on the inside gave her an uneasy, yet extraordinary feeling. She recalls listening to Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s opus The Four Seasons as she walked by the empty buildings and having her reality become warped. “I was completely in a different world,” she says. “I wanted to reproduce the uncomfortable feeling and beauty that I felt at that moment at my will, according to my image as much as possible. I think I succeeded in it.”
Uncomfortable and beautiful are appropriate descriptors for most of Ema’s work. Each release is wildly unpredictable, and the sharp turns can leave the listener caught between “What just happened?” and “Where am I?” When an otherwise poppy track spirals into a detuned mess of chords, it feels like Emamouse is a mother bird pushing the listener out of the nest for the first time. A lot of musicians tell you, or at least imply, how you’re supposed to feel about their work. Not Emamouse. She’s just trying to unveil the realities around us.