Opinion Prone

My opinions, let me tell them to you.

I love Engrish. I really do. As uptight as I can get about the rampant misuse of English by native or theoretically fluent speakers, I find it ridiculously endearing when obviously non-fluent foreigners try, even when they get things wrong. Or maybe especially when they get things wrong. So it always pleases me to hear musicians stumble along with their broken pronunciation and broken grammar in anime theme songs or just in general; it’s courageous of them to even attempt singing in a language they’re not all that familiar with. I mean, Tomoko Kawase supposedly has a friend write her English lyrics for her, but she still ends up with stuff like “don’t scary.” There are a lot of great songs out there with awkward grammar and “alternative” pronounced like “alter” and “native” spliced together. Maybe they’re supposing that their primarily Japanese audience won’t notice or care, but with the significant overseas popularity of anime and related media, you have to wonder if they think about how silly they might sound to native and fluent speakers of English.

This post isn’t actually about Engrish songs though. With Engrish as such a common element in so many anime themes and inserts (and indeed, Japanese music on the whole), it’s always a real surprise when you hear a song that’s in English. English! No mispronunciations. No sketchy grammar. Minimal or no accent. They’re a rare breed, but not all that difficult to find considering a number of very popular series include them. Sometimes they’re sung by native speakers and sometimes they’re still Japanese artists, but they’re always a real treat when you come across them:

8. “living inside the shell” – Steve Conte, Shanti Snyder, and Yoko Kanno (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG ED)

It’s a huge given that there’s going to be Yoko Kanno somewhere on this list. In fact, exactly half of the songs on this list are composed by Yoko Kanno, two of which are performed by Steve Conte. Few people would argue against Kanno’s astounding skills across all styles and genres of music. Blues, jazz, hip-hop, classical, orchestral, pop, folk, rock, electronic, whatever, you name it, she’s done it. Language? Japanese, Latin, Italian, French, Russian, some made up gibberish that sounds Latin-based, and of course, English. It’s hard narrowing down her extensive portfolio of works to a handful of songs, but “living inside the shell” is surely one of my favorites. SAC’s first season ending, “Lithium Flower” was also a contender, but I prefer Conte’s vocals to Scott Matthew’s and the lyrics I find better suited to the thoughtfulness of SAC’s themes. The spoken portion by Shanti Snyder also adds an eerie dimension to the mood of the piece.

7. “Duvet” – Bôa (Serial Experiments Lain OP)

You know, Lain is one of those series I’ve meant to watch for years and years and years and still haven’t gotten around to. I have a freakin’ poster of Lain and I haven’t actually watched a single episode. One of these days, eh? Regardless, I’ve seen and heard the opening of the series and though it kind of classes with my impression of it, it’s a nice song and pleasant to listen to. Bôa is a British indie-alternative band that was pretty much unknown prior to their involvement with Lain and pretty much unknown afterwards as well. That can probably be said for a lot of artists that only contribute one song to a series though. The vocalist has an odd desperation to her voice that I also find kind of apathetic, which clashes for a strange effect. Maybe that strangeness is what relates it to the series itself then?

6. “key of the twilight” – Emily Bindiger and Yuki Kajiura (.hack//SIGN OST1)

Maybe this one’s kind of cheating since it’s neither an opening, an ending, nor an insert as far as I know. It just shows up on the soundtrack though if I’m wrong, you can blame it on the fact that I found no real merits in .hack//SIGN beyond its music and therefore never actually finished the series. “key of the twilight,” like most of the other music for the series and much of Yuki Kajiura’s compositions in general, has a strong celtic sound and influence to it that helps tie it to the slightly mystical qualities .hack. It also features a lot of echoy canons and sustained notes, which I’m a huge sucker for. Indeed, the same qualities make “In the land of twilight, under the moon” my favorite song of the series. I would have included it on this list instead, but while the lyrics are all in perfect English, the vocalists occasionally have accents. (It’s more obvious here than in the studio recording assuming they’re the same people because I can’t seem to find any information on the vocalists of the song.)

5. “gravity” – Maaya Sakamoto and Yoko Kanno (Wolf’s Rain ED)

The second of four by Yoko Kanno. Maaya Sakamoto has some of the most impressive English for someone who doesn’t seem to have been raised at some point in an English-speaking country. “gravity” was my first exposure to her music and an instant hit. The clear quality of her vocals helped emphasize the crispness of her pronunciation as well as the gentle melody. It suits the series well enough, but I think it’s an especially great foil to Wolf’s Rain’s opening theme, “Stray,” which is performed by Steve Conte. The two songs’ contrast reflects the series better than either of the songs could do alone.

4. “The Sore Feet Song” – Ally Kerr (Mushishi OP)

This fact that this opening was in English really surprised me when I first saw Mushishi since the series seemed so steeped in traditional Japanese visuals and influences, what with the dozens of self-sustained villages scattered around the mountains. Ally Kerr is a Scott of little renown, but the calming nature of the song and the whimsical, far-off lyrics he sings really define the series, and it soon became clear that no other song could fit Mushishi as well as “The Sore Feet Song” does. Even the name of the song invokes appropriate imagery for the show and the accompanying animation for the theme drives that in. It’s awesome.

3. “kiri” – MONORAL (Ergo Proxy OP)

I haven’t seen Ergo Proxy either, but I’m planning to in the near future. Hell, the theme song’s name is “kiri”! It’s like it’s calling me. :P Seriously though, the song does have a beckoning voice to it and the style feels very Western. If Wikipedia didn’t tell me that both members of MONORAL were at least partially Japanese and signed by Sony Music Japan, I would have just guessed that they were American or British (or Australian or Canadian). Still, while the bassist/guitarist was raised in Tokyo, the vocalist/guitarist was born in London and raised in France — he’s also apparently fluent in Japanese, English, French, and Arabic. Wow. Ergo Proxy’s theme has a very desolate mood about it and the accompanying visuals suit it wonderfully; it’s definitely enough to make me want to watch the series. Curiously enough, Ergo Proxy’s end theme is by Radiohead (“PARANOID ANDROID”), but that’s really nothing alongside “kiri.”

2. “Call Me, Call Me” – Steve Conte and Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop insert/OST3 “Blue”)

This and the next song are probably exceedingly predictable, but certainly they’re predictable for a reason. I don’t actually remember if  “Call Me, Call Me” was ever actually used as an insert song or whether it only appeared on the soundtrack (that’s an excuse for another rewatch, amirite?), but regardless, it’s a wonderfully appropriate song for the near-end of the series and the character of Spike in general. Conte’s voice is sincere but not rough, and he turns rather simple lyrics into something very powerful, especially in those sustained notes. Most of Cowboy Bebop’s music is very memorable, but this one’s still up there.

1. “Blue” – The Seatbelts (Mai Yamane) and Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop insert)

Whatever you think about the end of the series, this song suited it. ♥


Annnd, here are a few others I thought about but took off for one reason or another.


“Life is like a boat” – Rie fu (Bleach ED1) — I love this song and I love Rie fu, but only half of it is in English. :P Also, it’s gotta have the most boring PV ever.

“Wind” – Akeboshi (Naruto ED1) — I love Akeboshi and this was my first exposure to him; unfortunately, though he’s spent a bit of time in Britain, he still has quite the accent and is sometimes difficult to understand.

“Sakura Kiss” – Chieko Kawabe (Ouran High School Host Club OP, FUNimation dub) — This is one of the best examples of a dubbed over theme song I’ve ever encountered. The lyrics aren’t far from the original and the vocal quality is amazing. I have no idea who they got to record it, but the voice is both close to Kawabe to be reminiscent of the Japanese version and different enough to give it a life of its own. True, it does sound a little odd to hear the words in English because it’s so much more obvious how corny it is, but as far as capturing the energy and mood of the original goes, it’s perfect.

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  1. TJF588 on August 22, 2009 10:12 pm

    “Present da~y. Present…time. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA-!”

    Reading through the songs you highlighted, my limited exposure thought of “Life is like a boat” (then I see it in hono[u]rable metnions) and, well, Square Enix songs. You have “Eyes On Me” and “Melodies Of Life” from the PS1 FFs, and the English variations of the KH vocal themes (“Simple And Clean” for “Hikari”, “Sanctuary” for “Passion”). All sung by Asian artists, if I’m right (wanna say Faye Wong is Chinese, but I’unno).

    Of yours, though, the only one I knew by description was Bebop‘s ending. I may recognize the other Bebop, Lain, and GitS ones (especially the last, though what readily comes to mind is the mentioned “Lithium Flower”). I only have a few anime songs in my playlist(s), and only one soundtrack on my comp (Outlaw Star‘s, though I only have “TEARS” and maybe one/two of Melfina’s songs in circulation). Do know how pretty .hack‘s music can be, though, especially since a friend used to play it aloud.

    Also, “though”.

  2. Kiriska on August 22, 2009 10:30 pm

    I also thought of a few video game themes, especially those from Kingdom Hearts, but I wanted to limit this list to anime-related songs for one reason or another. It’s funny, I prefer “Simple and Clean” to “Hikari,” but “Passion” sounds infinitely better than “Sanctuary” to me. And Faye Wong is Chinese, yes.

    “Lithium Flower” was GitS:SAC’s first season end theme, so if you didn’t make it to the second season, I suppose you might have heard “living inside the shell.” The former is still pretty catchy though, so it might also just be more memorable even though I still think the latter is a better song.

    Yuki Kajiura’s involvement in .hack is its only high point for me.

  3. Ian K on August 23, 2009 12:36 am

    This is good stuff, major props to the Japanese artists who were able to make such good music in a second language.

    A point about specifically Western music, however: As I understand it, the music used for OPs and EDs is often selected based on whoever is bankrolling the show and what bands they are trying to push. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when I see a show features music from Westerner artists it’s a sign to me that the creators were given the artistic freedom to select the music that they felt was most appropriate for the show, and is potentially a sign of good quality across the board (not that this can’t happen with bands from Japan or other parts of Asia).

    I’m particularly fond of the of the openings for Lain and Mushishi, every time I see/hear them it psyches me up for the particular mood the show is trying to bring across.

    Some other noteworthy songs are:

    -“Falling Down” by Oasis (Eden of the East)
    A good song but not great, IMO, but I think it’s a good example of my original point about Western music being a sign of good quality.

    -“The Light Before We Land” by the Delgados (Gunslinger Girl)
    A very haunting piece of music used to devastating effect.

    -“Guardian Angel~Xavier’s Edit” by Juno Reactor (Texhnolyze)
    Okay, so the only English used is a voiceover at the beginning of the song. I don’t care, I really enjoy Juno Reactor, and this is probably my favorite song by them. I haven’t gotten very far in the show so I can’t comment on how well the song fits, but the opening sequence never fails to get my blood pumping.

  4. Kiriska on August 23, 2009 5:03 am

    Oh, I don’t know. I feel like a good percentage of theme songs by artists that also happen to be owned by the same parent conglomerate still relate wonderfully with the series in question and in some cases, seem like they’re written specifically with the show in mind. Takanori Nishikawa always comes to mind for that — “resonance” for SOUL EATER, “Howling” for Darker than BLACK, and “Meteor” for Gundam SEED all have blatant connections between song and series. I don’t really think chosen Western bands have a higher chance of being “appropriate” even if overall quality is might be higher.

    In fact I kind of think that Japanese artists have a greater chance of composing something specifically for a series than a Western equivalent because it’s much easier to communicate ideas without a language barrier, no matter how universal the ideas in the series might be. Also, I don’t really feel as if Radiohead’s ending for Ergo Proxy suits it too well even if the song itself is of good quality — but I guess I really shouldn’t say anything until after I’ve seen at least some of the series.

    I’ve heard of the themes for Eden of the East and Texhnolyze, the latter of which I was thinking of checking out eventually.

  5. Ian Keegan on August 23, 2009 11:14 pm

    I don’t necessarily disagree, it’s just that when a new show is rolled out with a song I can’t understand by a band I’ve never heard of before I have no idea (before I see it) whether the show will be a masterpiece or a commercial for the song or something in between.

    On the other hand, in the few instances I know of when Western music was used, the productions have been of high quality. It probably has less to with artistic freedom (as I originally stated) and more to do with the how much money the creators were given to work with.

    Now that I’ve thought about it a bit more, it’s not really different than if a big name composer is attached to a show – it’s a sign that the creators have money and are trying to create a quality product. However, I’m not familiar with Japanese composers (except for Yoko Kanno) so I probably wouldn’t realize that.

  6. Kiriska on August 24, 2009 12:29 am

    Ah, then it might just be a matter of familiarity for you? At this point, I feel like I know enough about various studios and even some directors to pre-judge series by that rather than theme songs since, relevant or not, I don’t find that they’re usually great indicators of the quality of the series’ story or characters, which is the most important thing for me. Even high quality productions might use a relatively unknown artist just because — for example, who’s ever heard of anything else done by the artist that did Evangelion‘s opening theme? The X anime series also had a really unknown artist do its opening theme. However both are from reputable studios (GAINAX, Madhouse), so a high quality can be expected anyway.

    I do agree that using Western music might be an indication of a higher budget though, so if you’re not as familiar with stuff like studio, director, or the source material, it could work well enough to judge based on music.

  7. kevo on August 24, 2009 6:38 pm

    Thanks for the trackback, man.
    English proficiency among Japanese people, especially educated Japanese people, is very high, which begs the question as to why so much Engrish exists. I believe that it’s a combination of apathy and irrelevance. If it sounds good, sing it. A lot of J-pop is this way, and I would estimate around half of J-pop songs has at least a sentence or phrase in English. The English language is very much embedded into the Japanese language.
    It’s true that the songs are not targeted at native speakers, but even if they were they are not targeted at your 4th grade English teacher. Stateside, I usually point to rap of hip hop in this example. No one is pointing out 50 Cent’s grammatical errors when he asks “where my homies at?” Just like J-pop, the grammar (or lack thereof) is stylistic, probably intentional, and aimed at a specific audience that does not care about formal, native English.

  8. Kiriska on August 24, 2009 6:57 pm

    Well, there are also many levels of fluency — just because someone is fluent in English doesn’t mean they always pronounce everything correct and understand proper grammar, especially when it’s so easy to get by without it. My parents have both lived and worked in the United States for almost twenty years, but if I can go a day without the urge to correct something they say, it’s some kind of miracle. I would very much consider their speech Engrish even if they’re technically fluent.

    The apathy even native speakers have towards their own language certain feeds into it, but I don’t really think the Japanese discard grammatical rules on purpose. It may just be too much trouble to correct it if they know no one most won’t really care.

  9. usagijen on August 28, 2009 4:57 am

    your list needs some HUMAN TOUCH, just saying ;)

  10. Jerry on April 1, 2010 2:56 am

    There is another full English song you missed from Wolf’s Rain series. The 2nd ED is also sang by Mayaa Sakamoto in English called “Tell me what the rain knows”. It’s godly and it deserve to be on top 10.

    Here is the link