Once upon a time it was the summer, and I was thirteen years old. I was going to be in marching band in August, I had just gotten my first cell phone, and the myriad possibilities of girls and late nights and rule-breaking were splayed out in front of me, waiting to be seized. This, however, made me no less weak to the vice of the 9-to-15-year-old boy: Shōnen anime, serial Japanese cartoons about hotheaded young fighters. Maybe the obsession stemmed from watching DIgimon in fourth grade, but by the time I was headed for high school I was watching a program in Japanese with fan-made subtitles that had not yet been marketed in America. It was called Naruto.
Eventually they did market my favorite TV show to American eight-year-olds, but back in those days I was riding high, swapping CDs of four episodes at a time with five other teenagers and trying to figure out which ninja school I would practice. I regard it as the nerdiest time of my life (and again, this was before I started marching band), but in return for that squandered social capital I got to hear this song a few times every day.
Anime theme songs, particularly the Japanese originals, tend to be hammy and outdated as a rule, and that's not to say Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s "Haruka Kanata" isn't goofily dramatic, but somehow it's in lockstep with the young-loser-itching-to-prove-himself baggage the Naruto character carried. It had the heft of emotional punk rock behind it, owing quite a bit in retrospect to bands like Jawbreaker. Quite simply, the song gave voice to how I felt as a relatively annoying teenager, and how the only thing I really wanted was anything other than my life.
For me "Haruka Kanata" became a classic, a song where I can sing every word despite barely grasping, through awful translation, the shadow of its meaning. Of course, I had the vast (and, regarding matters international, rather vague) Internet to go even deeper. Eventually I had an album on my 256-megabyte Rio mp3 player that had three different transliterations of its title. I had no clue what was happening, only that I thoroughly enjoyed the noise and the thrust of it all.
Eventually I’d figure out they were a band of college friends who made a few indie records before signing to a Sony subsidiary, a reasonably successful group still cranking out records as of 2013. They even host their own bilingual music festival every year in Japan, featuring American and British bands along with national talent. Despite all this, though, they haven’t garnered as much of a following Stateside; while I’m inclined to blame that on the language barrier, I think it’s also because they’re similar to the punk and indie rock we crank out here. People probably expect Asian stuff to be weirder or more divorced from Western cultural convention—take Dir en Grey for instance, who have headlined at least one U.S. tour with their gruesome bastardization of the “Visual Kei” movement. Since they’re operating in familiar cultural territory for us, a rock band like AKFG won’t shock or excite people just because they’re Japanese, and that may be a disadvantage here in America.
Regardless, I may have exoticized them, back when I first thought anything Japanese was cool (and at times, vice versa). After a while, though, I stopped interpreting the band’s foreign nature as a sign of unique mystery, and appreciated what their music offered me as a lover of music in general. It taught me about language, about the contorting songwriters do to cram their message into a harmonic context; the lead singer managed to fit the endless syllabic stream of Japanese lyrics into repeating verses, a habit he may have learned writing the band's early songs in English. It was also the first time I'd heard songs that demanded reflection and encouraged introspection, making me wonder what feelings within me a song like "Mugen Glider" was dredging up.
More than anything directly experiential, it taught me to hunt and to stay hungry. It made me work to discover music I could fall in love with, even if someone was making it half a world away. I gave a classmate ten DVDs a few years after outgrowing Naruto, and he handed me back missing volumes in my encyclopedic view of rock music, bands that no doubt could top anything Western I was hearing at the time. Not as dire or poetic as Soviet teenagers swapping samizdat punk tapes, but it still seemed valuable to me, because it's hard work liking something that isn't immediately popular. Before Pitchfork--hell, before Myspace--I had J-Rock.
Call me oblivious, call me a late bloomer. I'm not ashamed to say that some part of me still thanks that ninja cartoon every time I fall in love with a rock song, and every time I find a gem in some hidden corner of YouTube. Without it I'd still be memorizing Linkin Park lyrics, hearing music but not feeling it, not digesting or understanding it. Surely not writing about it.