It’s taken some time for the news to hit overseas, but Wowaka, an internationally acclaimed producer of Vocaloid music, including songs such as “Rolling Girl,” “Unhappy Refrain,” and “World’s End Dancehall,” died on April 5 from heart failure. He was 31. He was the driving force behind the Balloom record label which produced albums from a multitude of other internationally praised Vocaloid producers and created music that inspired a subculture of fans to come together, including me.
Vocaloid is a series of voicebanks that are tied to characters and used to create vocals. For producers like Wowaka who may not have access to singers, characters like Hatsune Miku, the program’s most popular character, not only fill that role but can also be shaped and molded to fit the tone and image the producer wants to convey as Vocaloid characters aren’t real, breathing human beings, but a sort of mascot.
For those who’ve been part of the Vocaloid community since Hatsune Miku’s early days, Wowaka’s name carries more than just the weight of nostalgia. It carries a teenage-angsty resonance thanks to songs such as the turbulent, cacophonic “Rolling Girl.” “Mou ikkai, mou ikkai,” (One more time, one more time) the lyrics chant, again and again, representing an unending battle of loneliness where the enemy is oneself.
Wowaka was hardly a one-hit wonder. He was also the mind behind other over-energized Vocaloid super-hits like “World’s End Dancehall” and “Two-Faced Lovers.” Unhappy Refrain, his first Vocaloid album, is a collection of some of his most influential music, which is still being used in the most current iterations of the Hatsune Miku: Project Diva video games and performed at concerts around the globe. Where there is Hatsune Miku, there is Wowaka.
Wowaka began producing music in 2009, claiming to be an amateur. His hypnotic and energetic beats were pervasive. Within hours of the release of the single “Unhappy Refrain,” there were covers, and within days, custom PVs (picture videos, or animated music videos). His work was both powerful and infectious.
Wowaka was also one of the founders of the record label, Ballom, that produced his Unhappy Refrain album, along with many other famous producer’s albums too, including Oster Project, Hachi, and Agoaniki-P. In 2012, he returned to his own band, Hitorie, as a vocalist and guitarist. His energetic and cacophonic style carries into Hitorie’s music as well, so his band’s music is something familiar for Vocaloid enthusiasts, but with a much less unnatural voice. Wowaka’s most recent Vocaloid-centric song was released in 2017, called “Unknown Mother-Goose.” Hitorie just released a new album on February 27 called Howls, featuring an ending song for Boruto: Naruto Next Generations, “Polaris.”
I was 11 when Hatsune Miku was revealed; about 13 when I discovered what’s arguably Wowaka’s most notable song, “Rolling Girl,” littered about my Youtube feed in 2010. I was so consumed by curiosity about what Miku actually was that anything to do with her immediately had my attention back then because she was a literal enigma in the States. And the striking imagery of the music video by Akiakane made it an immediate favorite. All at once, it was a song that made complete sense and absolutely none—as music does when you’re, like, 13 years old. Everything makes you feel everything.
For a long time, I’d hidden my obnoxious love for Hatsune Miku because, well, no one around me understood it. I grew up in a five-square-mile town in the middle of rural Southwest Missouri. Singing anime girls were just not a thing.
I went to the first Miku Expo tour in 2016 at the Chicago Theatre—and for those who aren’t familiar, since Miku isn’t actually human, she performs her concerts as a hologram. For the first time, in the middle of the VIP section, I was surrounded by dozens of just-as-dweeby-as-me Midwesterners as Wowaka’s “Two-faced Lovers” blared right in front of us. We sang and we danced and we cried as this teal-haired anime girl hologram sang and danced with us. I finally found my people. Maybe it was the incredibly drunk woman beside me, maybe it was the young man holding my hands as we screamed every lyric in Japanese—the love and the pure, unbridled expression of it, was simply intoxicating.
When you translate Wowaka’s lyrics, they do tend to lean a bit dark, but in a way that’s deeply relatable and alien at the same time. “Rolling Girl” suggests self-harm and loathing; “Two-Faced Lovers” talks about the chaos of unexpected teenage pregnancy. It’s the beat and his mixes that suck you in and don’t let go. They get stuck in your head and make you remember them for years, even when you thought you’d forgotten the melody. It takes just the first two piano strikes of Rolling Girl for me to know what song is playing. The first beep of “Two-Faced Lovers.” The exaggerated electric guitar twang of “World’s End Dancehall.” Wowaka is iconic.
With his passing, we’ve not only lost a huge, immensely influential part of the community but a monumental part of our history. His work, though, will live on. Wowaka did more than create music for a generation. He created magic.
Aiden Strawhun is one part cat mom, one part glitter, and one part magical girl. You can find them on Twitter @AStraww