Japanese Group Hopes 'Swan' Song Will Fly in America : Pop music: Dreams Come True, debuting in the U.S. market with 'The Swan Princess' theme, is one of many bands trying to break through.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Japanese pop group Dreams Come True debuted six years ago, its members thought about opening in London rather than in their own country. With a female lead singer and a soulful sound inspired by artists such as Marvin Gaye and Sarah Vaughan, the band seemed an improbable entrant into a music scene here that was then dominated by male bands and syrupy love songs rooted in enka, the traditional Japanese ballad.

But Dreams shook Japan's music world with its distinctive sound and went on to become hugely popular--producing three of the nation's top five best-selling albums.

Now the trio--lead vocalist Miwa Yoshida, bassist Masato Nakamura and keyboardist Takahiro Nishikawa--is poised for another improbable challenge: a debut in the American market as the first Japanese pop group to compose and perform a theme song for a major U.S. film.

"Our real dream is to export Japanese pop music overseas," says Nakamura, 36, the band's driving force who composes the music with Yoshida and arranges it. "Just as Americans pay attention to British (music) charts, I hope they pay attention to Japanese charts in the future."

The group wrote and performed the song "Eternity," in English, as the ending theme for the $40-million animated feature film "The Swan Princess." The film by Nest Entertainment and Rich Animation Studios--touted as an upstart new challenger to the Disney animation empire--opened in 1,500 U.S. theaters a week ago.

"Eternity" is being released as a single with "Swan's" major theme song, "Far Longer Than Forever," a love duet performed by Regina Belle and Jeffrey Osborne. Dreams has also produced a music video shot in Los Angeles.

For Nest and Sony Wonder--the family entertainment division of Sony's Epic Records, which is producing the soundtrack--banking on a Japanese pop group virtually unknown outside Japan may seem risky.

Although some Japanese instrumentalists have found international success, such as New Age synthesist Kitaro or saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, Japanese pop groups rarely have succeeded in the American market. Two of Japan's biggest pop stars, Seiko Matsuda in the 1980s and the female duo Pink Lady in the late 1970s, both tried and bombed.

Nakamura said his generation is the first to be raised only on Western music, rather than the traditional enka or military songs. As a result, he said, Japan is only now beginning to produce musicians with international appeal, including a current wave of contemporary acts that is garnering success. The all-girl group Shonen Knife has a strong alternative rock following in the United States, and the pop trio Pizzicato Five is receiving critical attention.

"It is every Japanese artist's dream to translate domestic success into success in the U.S. The reality, however, is that it just hasn't happened in the history of music in a serious and sustained way," said Mark Joseph, who works with several Japanese musicians as president of MJM Entertainment Group Inc. in La Mirada.

But in the global entertainment world of the 1990s, where Japan has emerged as an important supplier of capital, markets and distribution networks, it was only a matter of time before the Japanese would contribute musical talent as well, industry analysts say.

Indeed, in what may be the start of a trend, another Japanese pop superstar group, Chage & Aska, will also debut in the U.S. market this year--using the very same vehicle of an ending theme song for an American film.

The male duo, which claims Japan's second-biggest album sales after Dreams and excels in dishing up hit singles, performs the ending theme song, "Something There," for the $38-million action film "Street Fighter."

Based on the popular video game, the film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and is set for release by Universal Dec. 23, with Sony's TriStar handling international distribution.

Chage & Aska, who wrote and perform the song in English, are almost assured of wide public exposure. The soundtrack, on Priority Records, features rapper Hammer and football star Deion Sanders teaming up for the main theme, "Straight to the Feet," along with other tracks by Ice Cube, Public Enemy and LL Cool J. The video, featuring the Japanese group and the American rappers, is set for release on MTV later this month.

In both cases, the initial overture came from the Japanese side. Sony's Epic, in negotiating for rights to the "Swan Princess" soundtrack, offered up Dreams, its most successful Japanese act, as a potential contributor. Chage & Aska were approached by Capcom Co. Ltd., the Japanese firm that created the Street Fighter video game and put up 100% of the film's capital.

Both sides stress that signing on a Japanese pop group was not a condition of the distribution or financing deals for either movie.

"This started out as a way first to have a good song to benefit the picture, with added marketing spin in Japan and the rest of the world," said Matt Mazer, Nest's executive vice president. " 'Swan Princess,' to be financially successful, must perform in the world market. To add an international group makes the picture more cosmopolitan."

For "Street Fighter," Capcom executive Akio Sakai said the firm wanted a Japanese artist because the video game itself uses characters such as sumo wrestler E. Honda and the karate fighter Ryu. Executives say they also wanted to boost the film's appeal by featuring music other than rap, which is not particularly popular in Japan.

Capcom approached Chage & Aska not only because of the group's popularity in Japan but also in Asia. In the last year, the duo has begun performing regionally in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong; it also licenses several songs to be translated and sung in the Chinese language by local Chinese groups.

But to venture into the American market, the most tantalizing and competitive pop music arena in the world, is no easy task. And Japanese music executives are said to have become more cautious about trying after the high-profile failures of Matsuda and Pink Lady.

Piggybacking onto an American film is regarded as a safer way to enter, industry analysts say. "I think there is a justifiable sensitivity, a hypersensitivity, in the Japanese market about trying to enter the world entertainment market. If this were a French group or English group, no one would notice," one analyst said.

For the three Dreams musicians themselves, they dream of being recognized for their work not as "Japanese" but simply as good music.

"More than Japanese artists, we'd like to be accepted by Americans as artists who happen to live and write their music in Japan," Nakamura said in a recent interview. "We'd like to become a group about whom Americans talk about us and say, 'What nationality are they?' "

Dreams may come closer to that goal than any other Japanese pop group so far. For starters, their musical influence is decidedly American. Nakamura's greatest inspiration was the '70s soul of Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye and Barry White; even today, he says his string arrangements are still inspired by White.

Yoshida, 29, a pint-sized performer who packs a powerful voice, was mesmerized by the penetrating force and feeling of Aretha Franklin and other female soul vocalists. She went to high school with the band's third member, Nishikawa, 30.

The two hooked up with Nakamura after Yoshida met him six years ago at a live band session. After signing with Sony's Epic label, they scored several major hits with theme songs for TV dramas and commercial product campaigns--a common way bands get exposure in Japan, where radio stations and TV music shows are still strikingly limited.

As their albums soared beyond the million mark, the trio hit superstardom with their fifth album in 1992, "The Swinging Star," which sold 3.7 million and stands as Japan's all-time best-selling album.

But asked whether the world is ready to accept songs in the Japanese language, Nakamura is succinct: "No."

The group has stockpiled four tracks in English with an eye toward eventually releasing a worldwide version of its music. One of them, "Wherever You Are," was co-written and performed with Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire fame, and hit the top of the charts after release in March.

Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo bureau contributed to this story.

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