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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.

November 26, 1994|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — 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.

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