The Revolving Circle of Life, and What's There Even If It's Not Seen
Kenshi Yonezu's new song Ghost of the Sea will be released with limited distribution on June 3rd.
Ghost of the Sea was written as the theme song for the animated film Children of the Sea. Yonezu, charmed by Daisuke Igarashi's original manga since his teens, produced a song full of life that gets close with the world of Children of the Sea and its majestic story that connects to the sea and the stars.
In Natalie.mu's interview, on top of the thoughts in the background of creating Ghost of the Sea, we discussed the behind-the-scenes of other recent developments, such as his nationwide tour spanning from January to March, "Kenshi Yonezu 2019 Tour / When My Spine Becomes Opal," and Masaki Suda's new song "Spot the Difference," where he was involved in lyrics, composition, and production.
Q. So, you read the original manga for Children of the Sea in your teens. What impression did you have of the manga at the time?
A. I believe I was about 18 when I first read it. I was raised in the remote countryside of Tokushima, and the amusements I could find were limited. So when I turned 18, I left for Osaka, and absorbed a whole lot of things I hadn't known until then. One of those things was Children of the Sea. The first time I read it, I thought "to think there's such an amazing, incredible mangaka as this." It's a manga where supernatural events unfold, but there's a great persuasiveness to it. The manga has a sense of reality to the point that you wonder if people like Umi or Sora actually exist somewhere, and it's packed with fear and admiration of the unknown. It truly did influence me a lot. To tell the truth, I'd always thought things like "if I made a theme song for this manga, I wonder what kind of song it'd end up being."
Q. That was before this film adaptation was brought up?
A. Right. Occasionally I'd think stuff like "I wonder what would be fitting?" And thus when I saw talk of a film version, the moment that info came out, we approached the producers like "I absolutely want you to let me do it," and so they let me write the theme song for this.
Q. What aspects of Children of the Sea stimulated you? Were there parts that resonated with your own style and thinking?
A. "Occult"... is a cheap way to phrase it. But I have a fear of the unknown, yet on the other hand, this desire to see ghosts and supernatural phenomena. Back when I was going to kindergarten, I'd look through the pages of this book I had at home that was like "Encyclopedia of Sea Creatures." Actually, I have traumatic memories of this picture of a giant squid from below stretching out its legs. Thinking back on it, I believe I had this mix between fear and admiration of the unknown, like what's depicted in Children of the Sea, since I was a child.
Q. You've had an acquaintance with the original author Daisuke Igarashi ever since you provided the theme song for "Louvre No. 9 ~Manga, the Ninth Art~" (an exhibition held in 2016), isn't that right?
A. Right. I even had a chance to go for a meal with Igarashi-san, and talked with him about Children of the Sea then. In the Children of the Sea manga, the story progresses interposed between "Testimonies About the Sea" from people who don't appear in the main plotline. I told him "those testimonies were really great," and Igarashi-san told me "you know, I drew this manga because I wanted to draw those." I had this feeling of like, "that makes total sense."
Q. What was the exact time you started to work on the song?
A. I officially heard word at the end of January this year, so starting then. I started making it shortly after entering February.
Q. So you truly were making it in the middle of your tour.
A. Yeah, that's right.
Q. In our Lemon interview, you mentioned that making a song while on tour was a lot of trouble. You said making a song was an act of diving deep within yourself, and it was very difficult to switch over to "standing on stage in front of people" mode. How was it this time?
A. Hmm... Actually, I don't remember much about when I was making Ghost of the Sea. (laughs) I'm sure I must've been making it while on tour, but all I remember are events from after the tour ended on. I started on it, and finished it to a certain level of satisfaction, but thought "is this really going to cut it?" I spent some time after the tour brushing up the arrangement.
Q. How did the arrangement work proceed?
A. It was a very simple song at first. The melody was based around a digital chorus, specifically a digital choir. But the more I worked on it, I felt I heard the tone of orchestra and strings... But I have no education at all in orchestra, and no knowledge about strings, so I thought about asking someone else for help. That's how I met an arranger around my age who primarily did orchestration.
Q. The sound in this song is really innovative as well. It uses digital choir techniques that you've had since Gray and Blue, but also has a super-low bass in the chorus. Did this audio come about during the brushing-up process?
A. That was there from the beginning. The initial stuff was the piano, the rhythm, the low synth bass, and also, a sample of a whale's cry echoing the whole time at the bottom. I tried digitally adding some strings, but I decided I'd rather record it live instead, and that's how it assumed its current form. I think it ended up as a very dynamic song, and suitable for the movie.
Q. To reference some foreign music, this sound has some connections to Billie Eilish's first album ("WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?") with its bassy sounds and harmony, though it also has this dramaticness as the theme song to a Japanese film. I think it links to all sorts of things, but at the same time, it's a sound that can't be found anywhere else.
A. Right. I get a true sense of weaving together a variety of elements, gathering together what various individuals have.
Q. The lyrics have scattered motifs and lines from the original Children of the Sea. The chorus also has the line "The most important things, words can't describe." How did you treat these motifs?
A. The first thing I worked from was "the story of the chair." Though it's just a trivial anecdote from toward the end of the first volume.
Q. Even with the rest of the manga, it's a very memorable part.
A. The story is that if you place a single chair on the beach, the ghost of an ancestor will return there. As proof they returned, there'll be flowers or fruit on the chair. And another one is that if you put a chair in a locked room and close the door, and there's been a change to the chair next time you come in, it means there's something you can't see in that room. It does end up relating to the story, but there are these anecdotes that aren't the main plot at all. Those little things felt very symbolic of this story, and I was really attracted to the motif of chairs.
Q. And so the song begins with "In this wide open room, there's no one here; just a single chair, stained with the smell of sea breeze."
A. Right. This manga itself is studded with themes of birth and rebirth, so it doesn't portray thinking about the things you've lost in a negative way. It's a story that's like, you may have gone away, but I bet life will be born in a different form somewhere else. It's not simply "feeling lonely because someone's gone"; there's a very positive impression, here in this manga. As a result, from the story of the chair, I decided to make a song about rebirth, and about thinking on things that your eyes can no longer see.
Q. So that was how this song began. Another memorable anecdote from the original is about shores. It says that to creatures who live in the sea, the land is a world of death. In other words, shores are the border between life and death, the border between our world and the next. Ghost of the Sea ends with the lyric "On a sandy shore, with a cool breeze, we'll meet again..." Basically, by starting on a chair and ending on a shore, I feel it symbolically incorporates the original work's motifs of life and rebirth. I suppose that was inevitable.
A. That's right. In terms of the idea that beaches are places where life and death swap places, we aren't creatures of the sea, but creatures of the land. In the end, we can only measure things with rulers from our side of the shore. On the other side, they may have their own order and things we don't even know about, yet we can only live in a certain type of world. And we ultimately have to affirm that...
Q. I imagine this is a topic that's difficult to put into words, but could you break down "we ultimately have to affirm that" a little more?
A. If shores are the border between life and death for humans, the sea sort of symbolizes death. That sort of thing can be pretty captivating to me, personally. The sea is called all sorts of things like "the origin of life" and "the mother sea," right? Yet regardless, it's a harsh place where humans can't live, and gives the impression of a place near to death. So if the sea is death, we're on land... on the side of life, and just have to live there. As such, we have to ultimately affirm living. After finishing the lyrics and full version of this song, while I was reworking the arrangement, one of my best friends died. So, while it really was only coincidence, when I looked at the lyrics I'd already finished, I couldn't hear it as anything else but singing toward him.
Q. I suppose so. I truly did feel it was surprisingly coincidental myself. Children of the Sea is a work that portrays the cycle of life and death on such a large scale, and there are also mythic motifs. So while it's something you could interpret in any way you want, and you could extract any theme from that world, what you're singing in Ghost of the Sea are words of loss, parting, and farewell gifts. And so it's a song written for this story, while also turning out to be a very meaningful song in your own life.
Q. It's curious, but it made me think that things like this do happen.
A. Naturally, I wasn't anticipating that at all, and the only word I can use to describe it is "coincidence." In fact, that's the sort of supernaturalness the Children of the Sea manga has. I think it's a manga that teaches us that events humans can't comprehend are unfolding somewhere, that there are certainly things in this world people don't understand. When speaking in that sense, even if it may be only "coincidence," I wonder if it was somehow prearranged...? I'm not sure if I should say it like that, but I wonder.
Q. Indeed. To add to that, I think that honest emotion of "if I put it in words, all I can say is "coincidence," but it feels prearranged somehow" also seems to go along with the implications of the lyric "the most important things, words can't describe."
A. Yes, that's true.
Q. In all these senses, this song seems to have strange, multilayered links between the song, the work, and your own circumstances.
A. That's right. It's a strange song. Though I certainly have had experiences in the past where I think "why did it turn out like this?" about the music I made. Reality is appended after the fact... It really is curious.
Q. I'd like to talk about your tour that went until March of this year, "Kenshi Yonezu 2019 Tour / When My Spine Becomes Opal." I believe your concert presentation has advanced remarkably since your one-man show at Makuhari Messe last year. The entertainment aspect is just naturally there, and on top of it, there are twists that take it to supernatural places, places on the border of reality and unreality. Including videos, dancers, and other effects, it stands as a work of composite art. What do you think about all of it?
A. I originally did bedroom music by myself, making self-contained songs alone in front of a computer in a tiny room. Then as time's passed, I've been surrounded by more people who involve themselves, and taken in elements from many others. As that grows larger, it steps closer to some form of composite art. That made me re-examine my own position. Rather than the boatman, I think I'm the object of worship, like a Buddha in a little altar.
Q. Which is to say...?
A. I don't have any sense that I'm becoming a boatman and doing something. I'm closer to the little wooden Buddha being worshipped on the boat. It doesn't necessarily say anything, and it's various other people who are actually getting to work. It's about how everyone perceives and responds to "Kenshi Yonezu." Of course, the one making the initial core - the songs, the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm - is Kenshi Yonezu, but I'm basically just the shintai, I guess.
Q. Back in our interview for Bremen (an album released in October 2015), you also talked about boats. You saw Pom Poko, and thought "I want to try something like Mahayana Buddhism." I wonder if there might be some unconscious origin there that expresses itself in various ways.
A. Right. But I'm absolutely not thinking I want to become something holy. That said, people tell me I'm charismatic. A mysterious and aloof presence and stuff. That sort of thing makes me wince. I'm just a normal human, and there are these people around me, and if they don't put their all into rowing the boat, things don't get anywhere. I have that sense of being a weak entity. But even if I'm just a small wooden doll, a mere idol, the big boat can't move forward without something like that. The words of an individual coming out of an individual's body might be trivial things. However, those trivial things can move forward as ubiquitous things, providing the dynamic force needed to grow larger. I simply have the ability to exactly hit upon that dynamic force. I'm plenty satisfied with that as it is. Although talking like this feels weirdly spiritual, which I don't like.
Q. You also make lots of songs about going drinking. (laughs)
A. Yeah, true. (laughs) I've always said stuff like "I want to be chosen by God," but there are such things as "the way the public's going," "the way the times are going." Only a small handful of people appear on the surface of that. There's some kind of intention there. Hidden among a swelling sea, there's some kind of subconscious intention. Everyone lives their lives somehow feeling that subconscious thing. Especially if you're living in Japan, there are political matters, and many people dying in disasters, and you just have to live in the middle of all that. Among this are humans who can skillfully pick out this consciousness within subconsciousness, like passing it through the eye of a needle, and give it form. I think that's how the people who carry pop music are. I want to be a faucet which pours out that "consciousness within subconsciousness." Though I'm also fine being a plain wooden doll. Really, just that is enough. Occasionally it comes out from me, but it's not my own ego there. It just feels like trivial little things.
Q. Parallel to your creation of Ghost of the Sea, I believe you also did the lyrics, composition, and production for Masaki Suda's "Spot the Difference." When did you get involved in this?
A. I'd been doing that one since a while ago. I actually intended to finish it around 6 months ago, but I got weirdly unyielding and ended up making him wait.
Q. You wrote something about a "slump" on your blog in December last year...
A. Hahahaha. (laughs) You're sharp. I was writing about exactly that.
Q. You had the connection with Masaki Suda from Gray and Blue, and I imagine doing something together was really difficult. What was it like making this?
A. I really think he's someone with a rare talent. He's a really pleasant guy, and above all, his voice is really great. In that sense, I've always thought he was someone who should use his talent to sing. Then, by some strange turn of events, we sang a duet, and it turned out to be a truly beautiful thing. Thanks to him, I could create something new and different. That's why I felt that as long as I worked with him, even if I wasn't singing, he'd probably allow me to create something like I've never made before. And in truth, I did get the sense that a song with chords like that wouldn't work very well if it were me singing it. I absolutely had to make a song that only he could sing, or else - at least to me - it'd feel like a step back. That's exactly why I was unyielding, and it took an awfully long time. But the way I see it is like, in the end, I could make something really fantastic.
Q. I feel the living connection between Yonezu and Suda in this song. How before "producer and producee," you two are friends.
A. Right. Unless it's a person I can pay respect to, I can't make music. In that way, he's one of the rare people who can allow me to make songs that aren't 100% for me to sing.