BTS debuted in Japan on 12 June 2014 with the single album No More Dream. Their first full Japanese Album, Wake Up, was released on Christmas Day of the same year. Since then, the group has released 9 further single albums and 3 additional studio albums. The single albums contain Japanese versions of lead singles from their Korean albums, and in most cases, a new Japanese song or lead single. Similarly, the studio albums are made up of Japanese versions of their Korean songs with the addition of new Japanese tracks. Further it needs to be noted that the Japanese albums are not just ‘remakes’ plus ‘new’ tracks but rather exist in dialogue with their existing work, either through sampling or reworking themes and melodies. For example, Ringwanderung, the intro to Face Yourself is a remix of Best of Me which is one of the tracks on LOVE YOURSELF 承 ‘Her (18 September 2017), the first in the LOVE YOURSELF album series.
All together there are 81 tracks spread across their Japanese single and full albums, of which 18 are Japanese originals. These include remixes of IDOL, Fake Love and Attack on Bangtan. BTS, The Best is a compilation album and has 23 tracks. The lead Japanese single is Film Out which was co-written by Jungkook for his upcoming solo mixtape. Six of the remaining songs are their Japanese tracks and the remainder are existing remakes of Korean tracks including remixes and of course, Dynamite BTS’ first English language single. The album package consists of an audio CD and a Blu-ray/DVD of supplementary material including a making of the jacket photos, seven music videos and accompanying making of videos. There are seven versions of the album, one regular and six limited, varying in price according to their additional content and the location and status of the consumer/fan.
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Japan is the second biggest market for music outside of the US, and indeed in the early days of K-pop, was the biggest external market for idols. This is despite ongoing social-political tensions between the two nations. It is no surprise therefore that most groups and soloists are active in Japan from early on in their careers. In addition, groups with Chinese members, such as EXO and NCT (WayV), also release Chinese language albums and promoted in China before the ban on soft imports from Korea in 2016. This ban came to an end this year as a result of the formation of a strategic partnership between KBS (Korean Broadcasting Systems) and CCTV (China Central Television) in February. The impact of this on KPOP remains to be seen. BTS, for example, have yet to set foot in mainland China. As a result, Japan continues to the one of the most lucrative markets for K-pop. BTS, The Best was released in Japan on June 16th, immediately going to the top of the daily sales album chart with 572,000 copies sold. In fact, in one day BTS exceeded the weekly record of 467,000 held by SixTONES as well of their own of 564,000 with Map of the Soul 7: The Journey.
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The Japanese tracks are: Crystal Snow, Don’t Leave Me, Let Go, Lights, Stay Gold, Your Eyes Tell and Film Out. Crystal Snow is the earliest Japanese track on the album. It was originally released on 6 December 2017, as part of the 8th Japanese mini album. The song is written and produced by Kanata Okajima, Soma Genda and RM. It is also on Face Yourself, the 3rd Japanese full album along with Let Go (written by Sunny Boy, JUN, Hiro and UTA who also produced the track) and Don’t Leave Me (written by Hitman Bang, PDogg, SUNNY BOY, UTA and produced by UTA) which was released on 4 April 2018. Lights (written by UTA, Yohei and SUNNY BOY and produced by Pdogg, Masaya Wada, KM-MARKIT and UTA) is from the 10th single album and the 4th full length Japanese album, Map of 7: The Journey (15 July 2020), alongside Stay Gold (written by UTA, SUNNY BOY, Melanie Joy Fontana, Michel “Lindgren” Schulz, JUN and KM-MARKIT and was produced by UTA) and Your Eyes Tell (written by Gustav Mared, Jungkook, UTA, JUN, and produced by Mared and UTA). Finally, Film Out (written by Iyori Shimizu of Japanese rock group, back number, and Jungkook and produced by UTA), the lead single for the BTS, The Best, was released on 2 April 2021. While the Japanese tracks have the distinct BTS’ trademark sound and production quality, there is a clear difference between their Japanese and Korean songs which needs some contextualisation. On the surface this is because UTA, who is a famous Japanese songwriter, producer, composer, and arranger is credited on all the Japanese tracks. In addition, the consistency of sound also has to do with the intersection and interaction between J-pop and K-pop, the concomitant and commingled histories of which is sketched up below.
Contemporary J-pop derives from the kayōkyoku and enka genres. Kayōkyoku is traditionally simple, eschewing the sort of political themes that enka (speech) was originally associated with when it emerged in the 1880s and 1890s during the Meiji period, attracting its audience with repetitive melodies and cute (kawaii) communication style. With its vocal vibrato and tendency towards melodrama, enka would go on to influence in some shape or form Korean trot music during the Japanese occupation which in turn would impact K-pop when it emerged as a distinct genre in the mid to late 1990s. It should also be noted that Korean trot also influenced enka and that the relationship between the two is considering more complex that the typical one-way transmission model which often is applied to popular media in colonial situations. Ballad heavy, contemporary enka draws on the codes and conventions of melodrama and is generally known as the ‘song of feelings.’ While “Otsukare”, which is a Japanese unit song by SOPE (Suga and J-Hope), is not an official release, but rather a fan song, its simple charm can be situated within the kayōkyoku genre. However, BTS’ Japanese songs on their album releases, as represented here by BTS, The Best, arguably draw on enka, as their bleak lyrics, melodramatic style and focus on emotions is more suited to the context in which the songs mainly circulate. The dark tone of the songs is evident in the visual stylistics of the accompanying music videos for Stay Gold and Film Out, both composed and filmed during the continuing pandemic.
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It also needs pointing out that most of the Japanese original songs (5 out of 7) on BTS, The Best are OSTs. Let Go and Don’t Leave Me were composed for the Japanese remake (2018) of the Korean drama, Signal (2016). Connected to this is Film Out, the most recent single, which is the lead track of the big screen Japanese adaptation of the TV drama, Signal: The Movie, released on the same day as the single on 2 April 2021. Stay Gold is the theme song for the J-drama, Spiral Labyrinth – DNA Forensic Investigation (2020). Like Signal, Spiral Labyrinth is a crime drama based around the solution of cases that at first sight seem to be impossible, and whose resolution relies on the uncovering of trauma from the past. The final OST track is Your Eyes Tell, the title track for a film of the same name by Takahiro Miki (2020). This is an adaptation of the Korean romantic drama Always (Song Il-Gon, 2011) in which an ex-boxer and former debt collector learns to appreciate the small things in life through his relationship with a young blind woman. Participating in the writing of the two latest Japanese songs, Jeon Jungkook is a talented songwriter whose affinity for emotional ballads is apparent in his songwriting.
Despite the fact that most of the Japanese songs contained on BTS, The Best are OSTs, they share thematic similarities not just with the other two Japanese songs on the album – Lights and Crystal Snow – but also with their Korean tracks. This consistency across releases is important as, despite ongoing tensions in the region, cultural proximity enables media flows across borders as a result of shared memory-making and systems of meaning. The traumatic aftereffects of colonialism for both nations can be found in the discourses of pain and hardship that circulate in popular media forms including music. For example, in Lights, J-Hope’s verse concludes: “I don’t wanna just listen to happy songs / I’ll face my loneliness, color my life / Losing and gaining, but I’m still searching for something today” (2019). This seems contradictory as J-Hope is known as the ‘hopeful’ member of BTS, yet it is often those who shine the brightest who suffer the most.
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In Film Out, RM’s verse also draws on images of darkness and concomitant anguish: “Decay too far gone absorbing no light or water / Sealing my wounded heart with a rootless, leafless vow / Two glasses were placed side by side, their role / Never fulfilled, ah, just as they were / Since you last touched them” (2021). However, even though the lyrics can be said to be forged through pain and despair, hope remains, and light overcomes darkness. In Don’t Leave Me, the chorus, which is sung by Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, literalises this through the following verse “No matter what, darkness erases / Keep your eyes open and feel it / You are not alone” (2018). The message from these songs is consistent with the rest of their oeuvre, that while trauma, personal / political, is an inseparable fact of life, it is possible to overcome or at the very least, live with it and move onwards into the future, perhaps most famously with their last Korean single release Life Goes On (2020). Interestingly, the vocal line tends to dominate the Japanese tracks, as demonstrated by Let Go and Don’t Leave Me, where their range, harmonies, and stacked vocals are on full display. Although many have interpreted these songs as relating to their real-life problems at the time (they were contemplating whether to stay together or split up), it is important to stress that they were both written for the Jdrama, Signal.
BTS, The Best is a great introduction to BTS’ Japanese discography with the Japanese original tracks showcasing the group’s ability to utilise introspective emotionality to connect with audiences across languages and cultures. Indeed, it could be argued that some of BTS’ best work can be found on their Japanese releases which breathe new life into classic BTS songs such as Blood, Sweat and Tears and Spring Day. The addition of Dynamite demonstrates that the members can traverse languages in a similar way to how their discography traverses genres.
Written by Dr. Colette Balmain
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.