MIREI breaks musical barriers

In a conversation with Annenberg Media, MIREI discusses going beyond the limits of language, culture and genre in her music.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.

Mirei Touyama, or MIREI, lives in liminality. Her music is not limited to a single language and her discography portrays a collage of tonal diversity not restricted by the confines of consistency.

Born in Osaka, Japan, the 24-year-old artist started singing and dancing when she was in second grade. Since her debut in 2013, she has never been defined by a sole musical brand. In her decade of performance, she has released six albums, numerous EPs and singles with songs in both Japanese and English.

Most recently, MIREI took the stage at Anime Expo 2023, where she performed at the opening and closing ceremonies as well as at the Novo during AX Summer Fest on Sunday, July 2.

In an empty conference room on the third floor with a window revealing a hectic exhibition hall below, MIREI spoke with Annenberg Media about her experience throughout the weekend.

“I’m enjoying this event so much, like I just bought the ‘Oshi no Ko’ English manga, I went to the ‘Jujutsu Kaisen’ booth, I’m enjoying it a lot as an otaku* and also I am enjoying it as a musician,” she said.

Although this is not her first time performing at a convention like this, she sees a distinct difference in the audience compared to her usual performances. Well, aside from the “Naruto” and “Demon Slayer” cosplays she can spot in the crowd.

“I think at the concert hall, I feel like they have a connection to each other by me, like my music,” she said. “But at the convention, they all have connection in the audience by their culture and the topic of anime, and that makes the bond much stronger and that makes it super fun and easier to connect with audiences from the stage.”

Despite anime and manga being more recent hobbies of hers, MIREI’s earliest influence is pop music from the United States. She grew up listening to hit songs from American artists like Lady Gaga.

“When I saw Lady Gaga for the first time, she blew my mind as she amazed me because of how she expressed how she feels and how she is,” she said. “The song ‘Born This Way’ is amazing, and that gave me the courage to say that I might be kind of weird or unique, but I can be myself through music.”

But Lady Gaga is just one of the singers MIREI admires, as she cites Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Rihanna as other artists that inform her own songwriting. The work of these artists is also one of the reasons for her flexibility with her music’s genre.

At times, MIREI’s music may feel like R&B with relaxing beats woven into the melody’s background. Other times, it has the upbeat rhythm and vibe of some K-pop songs. It’s hard to label her work under one sound, and that is because MIREI isn’t too concerned about the “style” of music she makes.

“I make music not from the sound, but I first write from the lyrics and what I want to say and tell the story,” she said. “I always have the draft image of how it sounds like, and it is so random because I come up with my story and I don’t make songs like, ‘Oh, I want to do hip-hop next,’ ‘I want to do R&B next’ or something like that.’”

Even the languages she sings in represent her work transcending musical norms. With both English and Japanese songs under her belt, she finds that writing of the two could not be more different. Having lived in New York, MIREI feels that the cultural gap is visible in her work.

“In Japan, if you talk a lot, then you would get an image of noisy people or you don’t care about other people because there’s a culture of us reading the other side of the mind, or there is a word called ‘kuuki wo yomu,’ which means ‘read the atmosphere,’” she said. “American culture is kind of like the opposite, if I see it in that perspective, because in American culture, if you don’t say [something] out loud, nobody will notice it.”

These cultural characteristics may be most present in her latest release, “Lonely In Tokyo,” a rerelease of the 2020 song translated to Japanese. While the melodies and lyrics remain the same, there are slight differences.

The new edition carries more of a mature tone, along with a music video that shifts the focus away from the exploitation of the Japanese entertainment industry to the general loneliness of women in Japanese society. According to MIREI, this change is partially due to her own experiences over the past three years as well as the shifts in Japanese society during the pandemic, such as income inequality

“The problem in Japan like poverty or the gap between rich people and poor people, and poor people includes really young people, is really serious right now in Japan, so I wanted to include all of that,” she said. “So maybe my tone in the Japanese version seems kind of exhausted, tired because we’ve been in this financially bad situation for 30 years. In Japan, it’s kind of normal for us to be poor or normal to be tired, and we are just looking for ways to numb it.”

On top of this, her work takes into account her own identity as well, especially as an Asian woman working in the music industry. She recalled how when she was studying abroad in middle school in the U.S., she realized both the sexualization and stereotypes that often contributed to others’ perceptions of her as a girl from Japan.

“The most popular [Japanese] word for [others] was ‘yamete’** and later I found that it’s from like porn videos of Japanese people,” she said. “At that time, I realized that Japanese people are so sexualized.”

She explains that her appearance also played into the way others viewed her.

“I’m kind of a short person. I’m only 154 centimeters and so people see me as I am kind of like Lolita,” MIREI said with a laugh. “It really struck me a lot because it doesn’t fit to my personality. Obviously because I am not a person who’s like cutesy, fit to the standard, but it happens.”

Over the years, MIREI sought to break away from that mold and now goes beyond the barriers often present in music. Unrestrained by country, language, genre and perception, MIREI forged her own artistic identity.

But what is the future of MIREI? She is currently planning on touring the United States, and hopefully will return to Los Angeles soon. Not only is she working on new Japanese music, but she has several works in English that she is waiting for the right time to release.

“It’s going to be really a mixture of the English side of me and the Japanese side of me, so it’s going to be super fun,” she says.

MIREI continues to be the enemy of conformity. Rather than the typical Japanese idol, she pushes to be someone who can speak to more than one audience. She looks to reach out to lonely listeners with music without barriers, hoping at least one unique melody can connect or challenge them in unexpected ways.

*The word “otaku” often refers to a person who has consuming hobbies (such as anime, manga and video games). By definition, it has a negative connotation, but it has become more of a casual term to refer to people with an interest in these hobbies.

**“Yamete” means “stop” in Japanese.