For its fans, L'Arc-en-Ciel's performance here Saturday - the Japanese rock band's first in the United States - is an event of global, perhaps even galactic, magnitude.
Message boards are ablaze with international chatter about the 1st Mariner Arena concert, the crowning event of the 11th annual Otakon anime convention, taking place tomorrow through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center. Some 20,000 participants are expected to attend. The event, in its 11th year, includes panel discussions, costume competitions, films, dances and concerts devoted to anime, the Japanese cartoon art form turned total lifestyle.
More than a few L'Arc-en-Ciel followers from as far away as Tokyo, Peru, Spain and Finland say they are coming for the concert alone. "I never would have even considered journeying across the country for a convention, but when I saw that our boys would be there ... well, that did it for me," wrote one quivering California fan on an Otakon Web board. "God, I'm praying for a meet-and-greet. But will I be able to go through with it? Do you guys understand that we will be looking them in the eye?? I'm not sure if I can do that."
Otakon affords L'Arc-en-Ciel (French for rainbow) a built-in audience among convention participants who know the group through theme songs they have composed for Japanese anime television series including GTO, DNA2 and Full Metal Alchemist. The 2001 sci-fi film Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within also contains a L'Arc song titled "Spirit Dreams Inside."
The quartet has become wildly popular in Japan and around the Pacific Rim since its 1991 beginnings within Osaka's "visual kei" rock scene, where musicians put equal time into their look as their sound. "Back then, the color of choice among independent musicians was definitely black only," according to a group history. "Contrarily, L'Arc-en-Ciel dressed themselves in white. This led to the birth of the term and phenomena of shiro kei, or 'white group.'" Naturally, loyal fans came to shows dressed in white as well.
L'Arc's U.S. debut is a possible bridge to an even larger following. "I hope the U.S. audience will enjoy our show," the band's vocalist and front man hyde says by way of a publicist who translated his comments. "I'm not sure what kind of audience we have in the U.S., but I hope that our music will reach the anime crowd and beyond."
L'Arc-en-Ciel's "appeal is basically everything. I love their image, their outfits and hairstyles and how they keep changing," says Jose Rivera, a 20-year-old University of Minnesota sophomore coming to the show. "The band members are all hilarious and/or intriguing in their own ways both as icons and as people," says Rivera, who as a male L'Arc fan considers himself one of a rare breed.
"When I found L'Arc-en-Ciel, I had already found some other J-rock and visual kei bands I enjoyed," says Naomi Baxter, a Gainesville, Fla., resident who hopes to get to the concert. The group "was just far enough away from the norm, and it had a good alt rock sound."
The band has emerged from its glam rock origins and small label repertoire to become an avatar of Japanese rock 'n' roll, known as "J-pop" or "J-rock." But unlike young phenoms plucked from obscurity to become the country's next boy or girl band sensation, L'Arc-en-Ciel has matured into a versatile group that takes its cues from hard rock, pop, techno and other genres. "Each member makes the music that they want to make," explains hyde, who says the first tune he ever played on a guitar was by Motley Crue.
The group has just released its ninth album. Smile, in the United States on Tofu Records, a Sony label. "They're really trying to build beyond the niche market," says Jonathan Harmon, Otakon's director of guest relations.
Over the years, the group has become "more universal in the way of U2," even as it has retained its Asian identity, Harmon says. Their music "taps into that quintessential notion of sadness," he says. "It originally goes back to Buddhism, and this concept that everyone eventually dies. Life to some extent is suffering."
Whether or not L'Arc's sound may bring a Japanese sensibility to American rock 'n' roll is immaterial, hyde says. "I don't think it matters where rock music came from. For instance, animation wasn't even born in Japan [and yet it is a sophisticated medium there]. What's good is good no matter where it came from."
The video for "Living in Your Eyes," a Smile track, depicts a tragic explosion (staged) in slow-motion reverse. It has a haunting, wistful quality that speaks to the more ruminative side of the band, which has recently regrouped after two years spent on independent projects. "Living in Your Eyes" "is an "expression of the fact that four of us got back together after a long break," hyde says. "It also expresses how we felt during the recording after coming back together."
The video may also capture the excitement and gratitude shared by fans like Rivera, who perhaps once feared that the group would never come together again, much less appear in the United States.
"I mean, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Rivera says. "You can only have a first concert once."
What: 11th annual conference on Japanese animation, manga, J-pop and east Asian culture
Where: Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St.
Tickets: $55 for a three-day pass, $40 for a one-day pass
Concert: L'Arc-en-Ciel performs 5 p.m. Saturday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Concert admission is included with purchase of a three-day or Saturday-only Otakon registration. There will be no additional fee for the concert, but admission is not guaranteed.