As Kwaku Gyasi noted in Varsity magazine, the pop music industry is made for the young. It’s rare to see a hip-hop star over 30 on the charts in the USA, and other genres are similarly dominated by youth. And it’s not just the USA. Music schools in Germany often emphasize that pop musicians have to be young and more beautiful than average, leading one to question how music has anything to do with pop or vice versa.
Like most pop music around the world since rock and roll spread across the globe, J-Pop tends to be youth-oriented, and idol groups even more so. From the days of the “Lollipop” bands all the way through the boom of idol music in anime and otaku culture, one sees image after image of teens and (maybe) collegians as the faces of idol music — except for Zombieland Saga where they’re old enough to be already dead.
So when I see a new J-pop idol group featuring women in their 30s, I take notice.
When Anri Okita told me last year that she had a new project, I would never have guessed it would be a J-Pop idol group. Having been a big fan of her earlier music and live shows, I listened with great interest to her talk about the project, BLACK DIAMOND, and her focus on women’s empowerment and diversity in the concept for the band and in its music. The J-pop idol group comprises five women, Aris, LV, Mary, Miiro, and of course Anri-san. Two of the women are in their 20s and three are in their 30s (tact does not allow me to say which is which)– a highly unusual and risky proposition in a genre obsessed with youth.
But if anyone could succeed at such a venture, I’d say it was Anri Okita. In a career filled with artistic projects from manga to album covers to music to NFT imaginary anime, she has worked so hard on so many projects and made all of them more successful than anyone but she could predict. I have no doubt her new project will be the same.
After I finally caught up with her at a break in her incredibly busy schedule, Anri-san was gracious enough to allow me to speak with her further about BLACK DIAMOND and how she keeps the faith. I bring this interview to you below.
Seattle Star: Empowerment has become a big talking point in Japan recently. It’s even in the name of the new national soccer league, the Women’s Empowerment League. With Japan ranked the lowest among developed countries regarding gender equality, this seems like a good time for your own empowerment project. What does empowerment mean to you, personally?
Anri Okita: I’ll say this is a great question for me.
Yes, I often feel that the concept of gender discrimination is naturally rooted in our country. I feel that there is rampant moral harassment, which can be solved by saying things more forcefully. In Japan, there is a word “shifting the blame,” the kanji meaning of which is “shifting the blame to the wife.”
And then there is a strong tendency to make fun of women as “old women,” starting with those in their thirties.
Seattle Star: Not just in Japan. The whole sheng nu “leftover woman” nonsense is rampant in China. And the USA is far from accepting, too. We still have ads for products that promise to “Make skin over 25 look younger!”
Anri Okita: Women also make fun of their own age by being modest about it, so I feel how deep-rooted this idea is. I hope that the idea of women being respected regardless of their career, their age, whether they are married or not, whether they have children or not, will spread like it has in other developed countries. I hope that my presence and activities will give courage and hope to many women.
Seattle Star: I hope so, too. A lot of people know that you’re an excellent graphic artist, through your Atelier Anri work on YouTube. Very few people know that you used to play the piano and the saxophone. I’ve heard you play a lot of different styles of music: pop music, EDM, jazz, showtunes, hard rock, even a couple of enka classics. When did you decide to sing professionally?
Anri Okita: I don’t know if I can play the pianos and saxophone now as I learnt them as a child. I respect many genres of music. Of course I like R&B the best, but recently I’ve been interested in rap. It might actually not matter which genre of music, as long as the message you want to convey is conveyed, like the empowerment story I mentioned earlier.
My music dream originally started when I was 10 years old. I really wished to become a professional musician when I was about 21 years old. I vowed that I would make it happen. My best friend from high school remembered me saying that. I said, “I’ll be famous and then I’ll be a singer to make it come true.”
Seattle Star: I’ve always known that you were interested in making a new recording after your Gorilla CD in 2017. You had big plans for a new album of Showa-era songs in 2019 with a new record label, but then along came COVID-19 and everything stopped. Did you feel like this was another “lost opportunity”? How close were you to giving up on music?
Anri Okita: Thank you for another great question. Somewhere along the line, I was starting to get used to being screwed up in my music career. AV work was an easy way to raise my profile, but it made the barriers to what I originally wanted to do even greater. It’s only natural that I would be excluded. I knew that.
But despite that, I was more reluctant to give up than anyone else, and I was always looking for a musical opportunity somewhere. I was looking for a way to become a singer abroad. And even if you think in your head Should I just give up now? your body is in a constant state of searching.
Seattle Star: I know you like to quote the Utada lyrics from “Time Limit”, When people don’t get results they quit right away (そろそろ成果が現れ始めなきゃやめてしまう), but yet you didn’t give up. You kept going with other things and eventually music came back to you. How did you get into BLACK DIAMOND? I understand it has something to do with your dentist?
Anri Okita: As I continued to look for a way to be active in the music world, I found out about the project through a very kind dentist in Toranomon, who has been a doctor for generations in Japan and who knew someone involved in BLACK DIAMOND. I was shocked. The role of singer I had been aiming for for 12 years was being held in the form of an audition. Relatively quietly. There was no big publicity, but I was able to selflessly get myself into the final audition.
Seattle Star: After the auditions, the group came together in September of last year. How soon did you start working on the songs together?
Anri Okita: Although the lyrics were different, the audition song was already the same as the current debut song, “SUPER DUPER.” The lyrics changed several times. At first we were told that our debut would be in February. I was very, very impatient, but I felt very, very happy and elated.
Seattle Star: I’ll bet! You’ve been wanting to play new music for a while now. The two BLACK DIAMOND songs so far, written and produced by 8utterfly and BLACC HOLE, are quite different from your own music on Milky Pop Generation. They are much more like hard EDM dance music. The production sound is very heavy, unlike your more straightforward pop songs like “Colours” or the beautifully lyrical “Song for the Earth”. And you’re part of an ensemble instead of singing solo. How do you approach this kind of music as a singer?
Anri Okita: I have never been confined to one genre. I still am not. I’m interested in rap, and K-pop and J~pop are both good. I even have the hope that maybe I can finally create my own original genre or something.
Maybe it’s because I have no original desire to fit into the existing ones. Because I am the only person in this world who acts like me. I want my fans to see and hear this new and unseen thing.
Seattle Star: The ensemble chemistry is obviously important to this project. You have known Mary-san and LV-san a long time. How enjoyable is it to work with them on this project?
Anri Okita: I am not good at jumping into a crowd of strangers by myself. So I invited both Mary and L.V. to audition. Because they are perfect in looks and ability, but most of all because their hearts are top-notch. I feel very safe and trust them.
Seattle Star: Listening to Aris-san and Miiro-san talk during the YouTube Debut Commemoration with Wataru Linda-san, I thought it very charming how much they look up to you. Have you noticed when you see them, you’ve already begun empower other women, even when you don’t know it?
Anri Okita: I didn’t notice. I’m glad to hear that! Then I would like to pull them along even more. Now that we are partners, we should be active together. And we will be able to do that. They are two chosen charmers, I trust them!!!
Seattle Star: So far, you’ve released two singles, “Super Duper” and “Hungry Spider.” A third single is on the way, “Sing Your Dream,” and then a full CD release. Can you say a little more about the CD? I understand it’s only available in person at your shows?
Anri Okita: No, it’s on-demand manufacturing. Here you may request it online!
Seattle Star: You’re a very visual person, which I suppose is why you became a visual artist. Your graphic design and art concentrates primarily on the ethereal, the spiritual, and the ideal, which is evident in your recurring treatment of angels and angelic figures. So far, however, your music videos are very earthy! For you, how do you balance the earthy and the spiritual in your music?
Anri Okita: Did you feel it was earthy?
Seattle Star: “Hungry Spider” less so, because it’s more surrealistic, but “Super Duper” definitely.
Anri Okita: It was very sparkling and equally dreamlike for me. I think you can expect the work that will come out in the future to be of a higher level. Music video is a space where my good qualities and talents are maximised. I even feel it is my most spiritual and visual.
Seattle Star: BLACK DIAMOND have a show scheduled for 17 May at Zepp Haneda. How are you preparing for the show?
Anri Okita: I go to lessons and practise at home, and I practise in the studio with the dance teacher. In between, I have other jobs in music. On 17 May, people of amazing quality will be composing the stage and a lot of very big music people will be watching us by invitation. It will be the most nerve-wracking scene of my life. It’s a chance I definitely want to seize!
Seattle Star: I expect the Zepp Haneda show to be a great triumph for you. It will be a great opportunity for your fans too. After three years of quarantine, how exciting is the opportunity to meet people face to face again?
Anri Okita: I have been really looking forward to it. Especially because the music scene has been so restricted. In a way, I think a lot of music fans have been waiting for this. And I want them to enjoy not the scenery they have seen before, but a world view they have not seen before and female group music that asserts a lot of diversity (which is often said these days) and I want them to feel the joy of being able to start over again.
Seattle Star: Obviously you have fans all around the world. You have said you plan on a tour with BLACK DIAMOND as well. Where would you like to visit?
Anri Okita: Indonesia, Greater China and India. Of course, it would be great if we could perform in the USA and Europe, the home of music, of course!
Seattle Star: Michelle Yeoh said when she won her Oscar award this year, “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.” How does it feel to be in your prime again?
Anri Okita: I want to be the one who can say that on the big stage. I guess it was my destiny and I feel I am on a mission. It is an unprecedented event. I want to enjoy being a pioneer and be the best professional I can be!
Seattle Star: I know you will. I’m happy to see it. Thank you, Anri-san. It is an honor to talk with you.