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.