It was Spring 2018 when I first encountered the Japanese multimedia franchise known as Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle. I was on vacation in Japan, and on a visit to Ikebukuro, I happened to walk past a Hypnosis Mic collaborative cafe. Not wanting to disturb the customers, I quickly left while wondering what it was I had just seen, though the large images of handsome anime guys with microphones told me that it was something at least idol-adjacent. I eventually learned the gimmick of Hypnosis Mic—rap battles!—as well as its incredibly odd premise (more on that below), which both puzzles and intrigued me. So when the anime was announced (full title: Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle “Rhyme Anima”), I thought it would be my chance to finally see firsthand what this was all about. The result: a show that’s not the most sophisticated work per se, but is consistently fun and ridiculous.
The outline: In the aftermath of World War III, Japan’s government has been taken over by a women-led political group called the Party of Words, who have managed to outlaw all weapons and replaced them with special devices called Hypnosis Microphones. These microphones can affect people physically and mentally, and they’re most powerful when wielded by talented rappers. In this environment, men are only allowed to live in specific areas of Japan called divisions, and in the present time, groups of men from each division are tasked with forming rap crews in order to compete in a tournament known as the Division Rap Battle.
The four main groups of Hypnosis Mic are uster Bros!!! (three brothers from Ikebukuro), Mad Trigger Crew (a combo of yakuza boss, police officer, and military veteran from Yokohama), Fling Posse (a fashion designer, a literary author, and a gambler from Shibuya), and Matenro (a doctor, a host, and a salaryman from Yokohama. Both intra-group and inter-group dynamics between the characters make for prime shipping fodder, especially because the leaders of each have a shared history.
I certainly was confused upon hearing all this first explained to me, as I had a ton of questions about the political implications of the plot. Women are clearly the target audience, so why are women also the primary antagonists of the series? What does it say that women are both responsible for demilitarizing Japan and saving it from itself but also are incredibly authoritarian? What would a feminist activist or a men’s rights activist think if they watched Hypnosis Mic? My best guess is that the setting is mostly a pretense, and that all contradictions are secondary to style and drama.
One thing I have to acknowledge is that because I’ve come to primarily know Hypnosis Mic through the anime, I had a fundamentally different experience from the fans who were there at the start. In its original format of music CDs, fans could purchase and vote for their favorite groups to advance—akin to voting for one’s favorite idol in AKB48 or Love Live! In its anime incarnation, Hypnosis Mic is mostly about cool rappers shooting music laser blasts with and against one another, like a bunch of hip hop Nekki Basaras from Macross 7. They call forth ethereal sound sets through which they deliver their verbal beatdowns, and it’s heavily reminiscent of how characters from Yu-Gi-Oh! might summon the Blue Eyes White Dragon or the Stardust Dragon. I titled this post after a gag from Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged because it just so perfectly sums up Hypnosis Mic that I couldn’t resist. Also, I think there really is a similar spirit of spectacle between the world’s most famous card game anime and the world’s only anime about superpowered rappers.
As for the raps themselves, I’m not the best judge of quality, even as I’ve been trying to learn. However, I believe there to be a genuine desire from the franchise to make rap exciting and interesting to an audience that is probably not well versed in it, and from what I’ve read, they do use experienced hip hop producers. The lyrics for certain songs can get pretty clever, and while not every voice actor in the series is a bonafide genius on the mic, the quality is generally high, and there are a few standouts. I’m particularly fond of Jyuto’s bars, the cop character from Mad Trigger Crew. Speaking of them, I don’t know if I’d call Mad Trigger Crew my favorite group, but I do like how Rio (the military guy) keeps accidentally grossing his teammates out by feeding them dishes made with bugs and other unorthodox things—someone I can relate to. My actual favorite character is the leader of the Party of Words, Touhouten Otome, but she doesn’t rap in the anime, so you can see where my preferences lie.
Hypnosis Mic is a trip, and the anime is worth checking out just to see with your own two eyes that such a show really exists. I love the idea that the franchise as a whole is potentially introducing rap and hip hop to people who might not have bothered with it otherwise; something akin to Hamilton. Much like how Hetalia inspired fans to learn more about history, it can be a gateway into discovering an entire musical genre. Though hat I really wonder is, how would the real world’s rap greats look in the world of Hypnosis Mic? Would someone like Tupac, Rakim, or Eminem summon rhymes so strong that they shatter the Earth itself?