By Michael W. Harris
RADWIMPS is a Japanese band I first became familiar with via their music for Makoto Shinkai’s beautiful anime film Your Name, and whose music I will forever associate with my final months in Virginia—a time of my life that will forever stir up complex and uncertain emotions. And while the exact memories and images of places accumulated in my ten months at the College of William & Mary have already begun to fade as I settle into my new life in Memphis, the music of RADWIMPS will always yank me back to the sidewalks and streets of Williamsburg, VA.
The music of the group is a mélange of styles, ranging from hip-hop to rock, but the majority of their music would fall into what I would squarely call pop. And catchy, sensible pop at that. So it was that shortly after falling into the world of Shinkai and Your Name, I quickly downloaded all the albums and EPs that I could and put them on repeat. Which is to say that I had listened to most of their catalog prior to moving to Memphis, and which is why I find it curious that it was not until after I had moved that I had the experience of being stopped in my tracks by the song “Weekly Shonen Jump.”
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I was first struck by the song’s soft, lilting melody and spare, piano driven arrangement. Given how it from the same album that features many of the songs written for Your Name, it is safe to assume that it was written around the same time, and as such it does sound quite similar to these tracks.
So while I was immediately take by the song’s lyrical quality, beautiful vocals, and lilting melody, its title confused me. Weekly Shonen Jump is one of the most widely read manga magazines in Japan. For the uninitiated, manga is essentially Japanese comics, and, like American comics, these are many types and genres. “Shonen” manga is among the most popular manga and are aimed at adolescent boys (the word “shonen” literally means “boy” or “youth”) and Shonen Jump has serialized many of the series that most Americans might be familiar with via their anime adaptations: Bleach, Dragon Ball, My Hero Academia, Naruto, One Piece, and Yu-gi-Oh!, to name a few. It was also briefly released as the monthly magazine Shonen Jump in the US from 2002 to 2012 (and afterwards as a digital publication released weekly).
I say all this because, without being able to understand the Japanese lyrics, the tone of the song is not at all what I would expect for a track titled after a weekly manga magazine featuring what amounts to superhero comics aimed at an adolescent male audience. The song and title caused a disconnect, a cognitive dissonance, that I really needed to understand and resolve. And even after looking up the lyrics, I was still puzzled and maybe even a bit uneasy about how this song might sit in relation to our current cultural reckoning of toxic masculinity (and its oh so lovely sub-genre of toxic fan culture). So what, if any, conclusions have I reached after sitting with the song for a month or so? I am still uncertain, but maybe writing through my ideas will help me sort out my feelings.
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If there is a central thesis of “Weekly Shonen Jump” it is that of teenage uncertainty and lack of confidence: “I was dreaming of a future, one like something out of Shonen Jump, / On the lookout for when you’d be in a tough spot, and for when I’d have a chance to shine.” So we have the male protagonist “I” and the female (heroine is used later to describe this person) love interest. The singer is not confident, but escapes into the fantasy of Shonen Jump, and even though he is fully aware of its unreality, and that no one really talks like they do in manga (“I don’t really have any expectations to use any of the showy affected lines”), he takes confidence from the characters in the pages of the magazine (“I know the future is waiting for me, one where the plot will twist dramatically…” and “Knock it off with that hunched-over pose / The one you adopted to be better aligned with your shrunk, diminished heart”).
It all seems very cute and innocent, and it might be when you are a teenager. However, speaking as someone who, like the singer, loved the superhero genre (in its American form) and had a healthy distance from the pages while still reveling in the escapist fantasy of it all, it is easy to identify the seeds of what could easily manifest into toxic fandom and resentment towards the “heroine” if she does not somehow react in a way that aligns with the scripts as presented in Shonen Jump and his dreams (“I’m nurturing a secret, told to no one / So that I can entrust it to my future heroine”).
Yes, it could be a very innocent, even healthy, fantasy that the singer-protagonist draws confidence from. Writing for Japanese cultural news site SoraNews24, reviewer Casey Baseel wrote that the “lyrics give an eloquent voice to manga fans who see something aspirational in the characters…[and] manga can also give readers the courage and strength to pursue the dreams they have for their own, real lives.” And that is possibly the best and maybe even common outcome of a teenage fascination with such wish fulfillment stories that young boys read, but it does seemingly ignore the elephant in the room of the conversation we are having right now.
Clearly, the music of the song backs up the more starry-eyed interpretation of “Weekly Shonen Jump.” Sweet is a word that can describe what is being sung about and encapsulates the pure innocence of a young boy having the first awakenings of dreams and desires and is looking to the media around him for some way to put meaning and order to the chaos of being a teen. A process made even harder by his confusion and lack of self-confidence. It is something I am entirely sympathetic towards, having been that boy and looking for models in the media I enjoyed (see my posts on Fantastic Four and M*A*S*H). But such nostalgic reminisces as “Weekly Shonen Jump” mask the issues plaguing so much of today’s internet fan culture, to say nothing of Japan’s own crises of plummeting birth rates and shrinking population.
Perhaps I am asking or reading too much into a song. It is a simple love letter to childhood and the joys and confusion therein. However, RADWIMPS, because of their association with Your Name, are in the perfection position to say something to the young men who are some of today’s most toxic and infectious trolls. Those angry, young boys who become angry men who abuse and victimize women, or (in the US and other parts) commit horrific acts of violence.
Yes, the fans of anime and manga, or video games and comic books, are not all toxic, angry, violent, shut-in, misogynists. I would even say that most are probably fairly well-adjusted. Speaking for myself, I am shy and reserved, a bit lacking for confidence in some areas, but is otherwise simply a human man who, while stubborn, is perfectly able to be respectful and even sympathetic towards others.
Still, “Weekly Shonen Jump” could have been more profound and direct in speaking to a group that could use a message that amounts to more than “keep dreaming and keep the faith.” They could said that “you may dream of these moments, but life can surprise and thrill in other ways.” It isn’t enough to imagine a better future, you have to actually work towards it. The future is not “waiting for [you]” as the song suggests. That attitude is the one that leads to resentment. You have to go out and make it for yourself.
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Despite all this, I still really like “Weekly Shonen Jump.” It is an achingly beautiful song…it just has some potentially problematic lyrics. Granted, I am dealing only in translated lyrics from one site on the internet, so who knows how good they are and what nuance is lost in translation.
Regardless, though, it remains that “Weekly Shonen Jump” is a song that had a chance to potentially say something to uplift a group of young boys that many times are looked down upon and bullied for their love of certain media. And while the song does much to build a group identity, it does not help building anything that will help this group weather the future that lay ahead that will hopefully result of that which they speak of in the song.
And yet, I still listen to it quite regularly. It helps, though, that I can’t understand Japanese. I can ignore the problematic lyrics and focus on that which first captivated me: the beautiful melody and arrangement. So, maybe it is good that I never learned Japanese?