It sounds like a modern-day fairy tale. A beautiful girl with a less-than-privileged upbringing somehow finds herself transported to a distant land, where her angelic voice earns her fame and fortune. Though Himeka may not yet be a household name, this Quebec native is poised to be the next big thing on the Japanese pop scene.
Himeka’s first big step towards stardom came in 2008, when she won the Animax Anison Grand Prix in Tokyo. Though she was competing against more than 3,000 aspiring artists, it was the charming Quebecoise’s singing, emotional expression, and mastery of Japanese lyrics that blew away the judges.
For the uninitiated, anison is short for “anime song” and refers to the piece of music that airs either at the beginning or end of an anime series. There are various types of anime songs, and stylistically the lines are often blurred between pop and anison. The main difference, according to the charming Canadian, is the connection viewers (or listeners) have with the song because of their devotion to the series or its characters – “you listen to the song all the time; you get attached to it.”
So how does a self-proclaimed “typical” girl from Quebec become an award-winning songstress in Japan? It’s a tale that spans several years and continents, featuring a shy but determined heroine.
As we sit down to chat at the Sony music headquarters with her manager, Himeka comes across as a sweet girl who’s still in a state of shock about everything that’s happened to her. Figuring out how to separate her artistic persona from her true self seems to be one of her biggest challenges, so she prefers not to delve too deeply into her past, revealing just a few details of her early life. The name Himeka is not the one she was given by her parents, but her own invention. It belongs to a character in a story she wrote as a teenager. In the tale, this goddess-like woman gave strength and inspiration to other people, and this powerful character also became a motivational figure for the aspiring artist herself. Finding inner strength and determination seems to be one of the defining patterns of the real Himeka’s life. She alludes to the fact that her living situation was less than ideal, and that she had to work extremely hard to bring herself to Japan, enduring tedious factory jobs and forgoing university. Though some of these decisions were out of her hands, she never gives the impression that she’s bitter or remorseful about her past, just that she’d prefer to focus on the future.
When speaking about herself, Himeka seems insecure and unsure, but her shyness and reservations completely melt away once she starts talking about the anime stories and characters she loves. Starting when she was 6 or 7, she became a self-professed “crazy Disney movie lover,” inspired by the beauty and kindness of princesses like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. Her clear blue eyes sparkle when she describes this princess in the forest who she considered her role model: “I wanted to be exactly the same.”
As she grew older and started high school, Himeka graduated from Disney to the fantastic tales of another faraway land: Japan. Though she originally watched the dubbed French version, she became obsessed with Sailor Moon, a story about teenage girls who are called upon to protect the Moon Princess. What was the appeal of this particular princess tale? “It was very touching that they were trying so hard, and sometimes they weren’t so good at what they were doing, especially the main girl. She was clumsy, but she really loved everyone and always tried her best. It was very inspiring in that sense. It’s like starting with a person who can’t do anything to start with, but eventually can. I think that gave me strength.”
Did the teenage Himeka see parallels between herself and the characters of Sailor Moon? Absolutely. Not only were they the same age, but Himeka identified with the Moon Scouts’ abilities to overcome their inexperience and gain some self-confidence along the way. “I felt a bit like that, you know? Compared to other people around me, I’m such a weak person, but I want to be stronger. I want to do something with my life.”
As it turns out, the characters in Sailor Moon were just the beginning. After finding out the show was based on a manga, this budding anime fan sought out the original title, discovering it at a comic book store on her way to school. The self-conscious teenager who felt she had yet to reach her full potential began to take solace in similar stories. As she discovered an increasing number of characters she could relate to, Himeka slowly but surely became enamored with anime.
Himeka began to visit the US regularly to attend anime conventions and gradually gained enough courage to enter singing competitions there. Though this was a wonderful experience for her, “it’s not like you really have the chance to progress as an artist by singing in Japanese in the United States. So I started thinking… if I really want to do this, I’d better go to Japan.”
At first, she kept her aspirations to herself, realizing that they might sound crazy to those around her. Although she wavered when it came to how others might see her, she never lost sight of her goal to make it as a singer. “In the past I listened to a lot of what people said to me about a lot of things. I then realized that, whether I failed or succeeded, nobody is going to take responsibility for what they said, so it’s my problem. It’s the same for going to Japan. I decided that I wanted to go, so if I listen to people who say I’m crazy, I’m the one losing my chance, and they’re not going to apologize to me. It’s better to just prepare things for yourself when you make a decision.” She kept her plans to herself and only her closest friends, but stayed motivated by promising herself in her characteristic upbeat way that “this was the path that I chose and this was meant to be, so as long as I make the effort, something’s gonna happen.”
Himeka’s story is not one of overnight success; it took years of preparation. She worked several minimum-wage jobs to save enough money and spent countless hours practicing and studying. Listening to her describe how she painstakingly taught herself Japanese – diligently deciphering song lyrics and tirelessly flipping through a Japanese dictionary to learn the corresponding kanji – is nothing short of inspirational. As a native French speaker, she used a similar method to study English. Though every once in a while a word escapes her, she expresses herself almost flawlessly, but in language ever-so-slightly inflected with the lilt of her mother tongue.
In 2008, Himeka finally made it to Japan, intent on pursuing her dream to become a successful singer. As soon as she arrived, she set to work applying and auditioning for competitions. Once she found out she’d made it to the semi-finals of the Animax Anison Grand Prix, she dedicated herself to practicing, bringing her CDs with her to karaoke boxes around the city and singing for hours on end every day.
Though her passion for singing and animation could hardly be questioned, Himeka did experience some pangs of self-doubt. She admits, “Of course I was really nervous. I understood most of what people were telling me in Japanese, but my replies were really short, and I was so scared that people would think, ‘What is she doing here? She’s not even Japanese!’” If anyone was thinking that, it surely wasn’t the judges, because they awarded her 1st place and a trophy that’s almost as big as the slender singer.
This win guaranteed her debut as a professional anison singer, and her first single, “Asu e no kizuna” was released as the opening song for the Valkyria Chronicles in May 2009. Watching her first music video, it’s not hard to see the connection between the fairy tale princesses Himeka admired in her childhood and her artistic persona. Drawing inspiration from Himeka’s description, the director created “a goddess-like character in a magical forest that knows all the secrets of the universe.”
Expressing the same excitement when describing the video as she does about dressing up as a princess in her childhood, Himeka is quite clearly living out her childhood fantasies, and loving every minute of it. Her delight is so pure and unbridled that I can’t help but let it rub off on me just a bit. Himeka’s story is the embodiment of the ‘you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it’ ethos. This is part of her charm, and the origin of her catchphrase, “magic sparkles.” She started using the tagline on her blog to “make you try harder and be stronger.” Visit her official website (www.himeka.info) and you’ll see the phrase emblazoned across the middle, appearing next to – surprise, surprise – Himeka dressed up as a fairy princess.
Though her career is just beginning, she’s already set for stardom, having signed a deal with Sony soon after her Grand Prix win. Her second single, “Hatenaki michi,” was released in November 2009. Himeka has not yet released an album, but she has been working tirelessly, doing promotional performances all over the country, and has several projects in the works, including a full-length album of anime cover songs, “Love Anison,” set to be released on March 3.
Poised as she is on the precipice of fame, Himeka still has the down-to-earth qualities you’d expect from a struggling artist. She adores her fans and sometimes wrestles with her burgeoning celebrity, finding it hard to distance herself from her online community of supporters and fans. She and her manager gently tease each other, but both admit that their relationship has not always been easy. Not too surprisingly, Himeka describes herself as “an emotional person,” a fact that is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the business side of being an artist.
What does the future hold for Himeka? She’d love to release a full album of original songs and is equally thrilled and terrified by the possibility of a solo concert. For the time being, she has no aspirations to write lyrics in Japanese, but she’d love to write her own music. She explains, “sometimes I feel like I’m not producing anything. I like to create things, so I can make some music myself and put myself into the music.”
It’s hard not to root for this real-life fairy tale princess, since her story is one of dedication and discipline paving the way to her success. The world is watching, Himeka, and we’re hoping the scope of your magic sparkles will be far and wide.
Catch Himeka’s live performance on March 27 at the Tokyo Anime Fair, being held from March 25 – 27 at Tokyo Big Sight in Ariake.
Story by Melissa Feineman
From J SELECT Magazine, March 2010