Japan’s ‘EGAKU -draw the song-’ YouTube Series Strives to Visually Revitalize Existing Songs

EGAKU -draw the song- is a Japanese YouTube channel featuring videos capturing the process of popular manga artists, illustrators and animators drawing illustrations inspired by their favorite songs. The series launched a year ago on Oct. 31 with the first episode featuring manga artist Miki Aihara (Hot Gimmick), who chose Rhymester’s “Tousou no Funk” (Funk on the Run) as her inspiration. The first season featured other prominent artists including Kamome Shirahama (Witch Hat Atelier) who illustrated milet’s “Grab the Air” and designer daisukerichard who drew his rendition of Creepy Nuts’ “Nobishiro.” 

Through these videos of professional artists drawing illustrations set to tracks of their choice, the series aims to encourage people to enjoy existing songs from a new perspective. Emi Harada of Sony Music Entertainment explains that the initial purpose of EGAKU -draw the song- was to revitalize previously released music.

Harada: I’m usually in charge of theme song tie-ins for animated TV shows and video games, and I coordinate the creation of music by artists to go along with those works. I thought it might be interesting to kind of reverse that process and came up with the idea of asking the visual artists to choose pre-existing songs and have them draw a picture based on how they perceive it.

The videos are created by Takehiro Kanou and Ku Misan of zona inc. Kanou says he enjoyed the process from the start. “It was our first time creating YouTube content from scratch, and we had a lot of fun from the initial stage of discussions,” he says, but Ku notes that she had some misgivings. “At first, I was thinking that it’d be difficult,” she shares. “I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to convey the process of drawing a picture within the space of a song, and since we also had to make the music appealing as well as include the atmosphere of the artists’ workplaces, I thought we had a lot to overcome.”

The original plan was to shoot in a studio, but after repeated meetings, it was decided that the shooting would take place in the visual artists’ respective workplaces. This added to the difficulty of the production.

Kanou: EGAKU is essentially an excerpt, a summary. The shooting itself takes five to six hours. Each artist works at a different pace, so it was up to us to decide which elements to highlight and how to bring them together.

Ku: We spoke to (the visual artists) about which parts we’d be using and the tempo we had in mind in connecting them. Sometimes we’d face issues about the balance between the BPM of the song and the illustrators’ drawing speed, or run into something like, “this scene is too subdued compared to the excitement of the song’s chorus.” The tools people use and the way they draw are all different, and for example, the way each artist draws eyes shows their individuality. We also made an effort to include items from their workplaces. We figured it’d be fun for fans to imagine how a manga artist might have used those items as references by showing the books and other things they have.

Using the entire song is another characteristic of the video series.

Harada: Some suggested that using the whole song would be too long, but the stories and worlds depicted in each song can’t be conveyed with just a portion of it. We also stick to having the visual artists choose the song they really want to work with [instead of requesting the song]. It takes a lot of time to get permission for each track, but we think it’s best to have them draw their works based on music they really like.

The first episode featured manga artist Miki Aihara’s interpretation of Japanese rap pioneers RHYMESTER’s “Tousou no Funk.” How did the producers of the series go about booking and shooting the inaugural video?

Harada: We first made a sample video, then made offers to the visual artists we wanted to feature in our series. We then met with the ones who kindly agreed to work with us and asked them to choose a song, then shot the episodes. I heard that our first featured artist, Ms. Aihara, is really a huge RHYMESTER fan. I did kind of wonder if it was appropriate to launch the series with an act that had switched labels [laughs], but I’m glad we were able to make it happen.

We asked the series producers which of the videos released so far has left the greatest impression on them.

Ku: For me it was the video of Kamome Shirahama drawing milet’s “Grab the Air.” She used analog tools, as in dip pens on paper, and it felt really live. It helped me see that there’s a different quality to it compared to digital art. Her workplace shows her style and we also got shots of her dogs. Shooting and editing was so much fun, and it was also viewed a lot, too.

Kanou: Shiqako was also great. The thing is, he and I were friends back in school. He used to work as an assistant for manga artist Yasuhisa Hara on his Kingdom series, and then later Siqako’s own Manshu Ahen Sukuwaddo (“Manchurian Opium Squad”) series became popular. When I asked him about participating in EGAKU, he said sure and chose Denki Groove’s “Ichigo Musume wa Hitorikko” for his episode. 

Harada: The first episode of Season 2, featuring Blue Period’s Tsubasa Yamaguchi drawing PornoGraffiti’s “Tsukikai” (“Moon Keeper”) was also memorable. While most of the illustrators had already decided on the composition of their works or had their sketches finished before the shoot, Ms. Yamaguchi started by drawing many rough compositions on a piece of paper. She even decided to start over again from scratch after she’d started coloring it. I thought the entire process was like a real-life version of her manga series Blue Period.

Season 2 started on Oct. 7 with new videos — Yamaguchi’s episode, plus Mayu Yukishita drawing Yurufuwa Gang’s “Strobolights (Yurufuwa Gang version),” Paru Itagaki drawing Chara’s “PRIVATE BEACH,” and Miki Yoshikawa drawing ORANGE RANGE’s “Ishindenshin” — dropping four days in a row.

Kanou: In the beginning, our intent was to focus mainly on the visual side of the presentation, but in Season 2 we shifted towards taking the fans of the music into consideration even more. The songs start from the beginning of the clip now because people wanted to hear them as soon as possible.

Ku: We’ve also expanded the range of how we show the process. Miki Yoshikawa’s (Flunk Punk Rumble, A Couple of Cuckoos) episode is kind of comical because she suggested we do it that way.

Tsubasa Yamaguchi is a manga artist with a degree from the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts. She is currently working on her popular series Blue Period, which depicts a young man’s efforts to get into art school and his life at the university once he passes the demanding entrance exams. Yamaguchi chose to work with PornoGraffiti’s “Tsukikai,” the B-side from the J-pop duo’s smash-hit single “Melissa” from 2003.

“It was the first music CD I ever bought, and I especially loved the B-side,” she says of her song choice. Elaborating on the illustration she drew based on the poetically heartbreaking number, she shares that “the song contains many memorable scenes, and I wanted to give form to the one that the protagonist would probably recall many times in the future.” The song’s appeal is effectively drawn out in the video series because the illustrators’ own tastes and memories come first regardless of the song’s popularity or how well known it is. 

The collaboration between manga artists/illustrators and music presented in the EGAKU series holds considerable potential as visual content. What do the producers envision for its future?

Harada: Like I said earlier, our first goal is to revitalize previously released music. We’re hoping to introduce the appeal of these songs through the series and channel the renewed interest towards making the songs popular again on streaming platforms. The next goal we now have is how to make the best use of the drawings. We could hold exhibitions and sell merchandise based on them and such, so there’s lots of business potential there.

Kanou: I think it’s also important to accumulate and archive the videos. For example, if we have pictures of 30 songs, we can turn them into some other format, like art books. As for exhibiting them, it might be nice to display them as installations. Make the space itself a work of art, not just limited to just showing the drawings and the process of creating them.

Ku: I’m sure there are many ways we could transform what we have, like the artworks, videos, and song lyrics into an exhibition. It’d be great if we would bring it to that level by continuing with the series.

Harada: I’m glad that the illustrators who participated had fun drawing their works and that the musicians are also happy with the series. In response to Ms. Yamaguchi’s video, frontman Akihito Okano of PornoGrafitti commented, “(Thanks to her art) I was able to further expand the image of this song when I sing it. It’s a great honor as a musician.” We wanted to make the content meaningful for both the visual artists and the musicians in that way. Of course, we can’t keep doing this unless there are viewers who enjoy it, so we’ll do our best to promote EGAKU and bring it to as many people as possible. 

This interview by Tomoyuki Mori first appeared on Billboard Japan.

Katie Atkinson