It’s not exactly shocking that Japan, the country where the modern video game industry truly took form, is home to a vibrant music community devoted to the creation of 8-bit sounds. Yet it is a bit of surprise to realize that this new generation of chiptune composers aren’t exactly influenced by the past.
“My generation, and the generation under me, didn’t really experience the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era,” says Toriena, one of the rising stars at the forefront of Japan’s chiptune music community. “So we aren’t really familiar. But it is fascinating how there are generations now who are more interested in these retro-game scenes than when I started.” A subgenre of electronic music, chiptune has long centered around the pixelated sounds generated by sound chips from older video game consoles, which are widely available in the game-centric shopping districts of Tokyo’s Akihabara or Osaka’s Den Den Town. In addition to creating frantic music using a repurposed Game Boy and the popular software Little Sound DJ, Toriena also co-runs the label Madmilky Records, which she co-founded; she also handles all the artwork for her releases, and still finds time to team up with various national chain stores and to sing on other artists tracks.
Many early video games, such as Space Invaders (1978), were developed in Japan, as were their soundtracks. The now ubiquitous Super Mario Bros. soundtrack was composed by Koji Kondo for Nintendo in 1985. Pioneering Japanese electronic outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra included 8-bit bloops on their eponymous debut album in 1978, while that trio’s Haruomi Hosono would go on to release an album entitled Video Game Music, featuring various game themes reworked into proper songs. At the same time, the actual soundtracks to titles were becoming more complex, with composers making the most of available technology to create looping, enthralling songs that were jackhammered into the brains of thousands of kids.
Gradually, a devoted cluster of artists who were using these vintage sounds to create music began emerge, led by the pop outfit YMCK and Soichi Terada’s Omodaka project. Live shows and festivals devoted to chiptune began popping up all over the country. And even though the music itself is drawn from a very specific set of sounds, its style and format is constantly changing. “I think the Japanese chiptune scene is moving on to its next phase,” says Breezesquad, a chiptune maker from the western city of Fukuoka, a locale that has long housed a bustling 8-bit music scene.
“There’s already many Japanese chiptune youngsters, like Toriena and Gigandect, and some internet labels like Trekkie Trax and Maltine Records are really remarkable at connecting chiptune with other musical and cultural fields.”
Right now, Japan’s chiptune scene is an interesting mix of veterans and young guns, pushing the sound in all sorts of new directions. Here’s a list of some of the most notable names in the Japanese chiptune scene, artists who are molding the sound of what’s to come.