The Beauty of Forgetting Yourself, and What Buds From Ephemeral Memories
Kenshi Yonezu will release his single "Horse and Deer" on September 11th.
In addition to the title song Horse and Deer, written as the theme song for the TBS Sunday TV drama No-Side Game, it also contains Ghost of the Sea - the theme song for the animated film Children of the Sea based on Daisuke Igarashi's manga - and the new song "Let's / Isn't it."
In this interview by Natalie.mu, we of course discussed what went into the creation of this single that gives a sense of Yonezu's new circumstances, as well as his recent release of a self-cover version of Paprika, originally written for the grade-schooler unit Foorin.
Q. The title song Horse and Deer is the theme song for the TV drama No-Side Game. In what way did you begin creating it?
A. I began making it after being contacted about the show, but I had to release Ghost of the Sea in advance of the single to match the release of the Children of the Sea film, then had to work on this song immediately afterward. For nearly ten years, I'd loved the Children of the Sea manga, and kept thinking I'd want to make the music if it were ever made into a movie, a dream that was realized after all those years. And personally, I felt content that I'd made some really beautiful music. But that contentedness was a bit too much, and resulted in a kind of burnout.
Q. I see. I don't think it's unusual to feel you've burnt out after your longtime dream was accomplished.
A. It took an incredible amount of effort to take a new step from there. I was so satisfied with making Ghost of the Sea, it almost felt like I'd done everything I sought to do. I thought there was nothing left in me. But I have to continue making music. So slowly, aimlessly, I considered what I needed to do to head for somewhere new, and Horse and Deer ended up being what it is.
Q. I sensed a contrast between Ghost of the Sea and Horse and Deer - how close they are with the media they're a theme song for, and how they confront that media. As you stated in the last interview, Children of the Sea was a very important work to you. On the other hand, No-Side Game's motifs of rugby and corporate sports, and being a drama based on Jun Ikeido, all feel quite distant from your own culture.
A. That's true.
Q. So I feel like there were hurdles to overcome. What would you say to that?
A. I did worry about that. As I read through the script I was sent, I thought, I've never even worked for a company, much less been demoted... So where can I put my pin in the world depicted by this show? However, while I haven't really stated this publicly, sports are no longer all that distant from me.
Q. How do you mean?
A. I've come to love soccer in the past year or two, and I'm completely absorbed in it now. I'm in a state where if I have time for it, I'll just watch nothing but soccer games. So when a request for No-Side Game came in for me then, a request for a theme song to a drama about sports, it felt like some kind of sign, like something was unconsciously set into motion.
Q. I suppose so. When and why did you get into soccer?
A. It was during the World Cup last year. As for why, I think it's because it was incredibly distant from me. I get a real sense that from birth up to the present, I've lived compensating for the things I lack. I've been self-conscious about being born with one stat that's excellent, and all the others being lacking. So I've always been thinking about how to compensate for that. My taking on dancing was one of those "compensations." For a long time now, I've been chewing up things distant from me, opposite from me, and making them into music. At this particular time, that may be soccer.
Q. In writing the theme song for this TV drama, from where did your concept for the song originate?
A. Let's see... This is going to be about soccer again, but while making this song, I watched a documentary about a soccer club team on Amazon Prime Video called All or Nothing, and I found it really interesting. Sports players are restricted from eating whatever they like to regulate their physical condition, do strict and tedious physical training every day, suffer dozens of injuries in their lifetime, sometimes major ones, and spend their days dealing with that pain. And their careers end in their mid-30's, at the latest. I got this sense of them as an incredibly ephemeral, noble breed. These players spend most of their days living this tedious lifestyle, but when it's time for a game, they face off in front of an audience of tens of thousands. When someone makes an amazing shot, they hit a peak of emotion where they forget themselves, and you see the players embracing and celebrating together. In the documentary, when the game's over and the team goes back to the locker room, the members and staff surround the MVP of that game and shout their name to the riff from The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army. That was a truly beautiful moment, and I felt kinda envious.
A. No matter what happens, even in hectic, passionate moments, there's a part of me devoted to remaining calm. The players don't do that; having lived through repetitive days, they forget themselves and focus exclusively on defeating their opponent. That purity and foolhardiness, plus how if you win, everyone will congratulate you, call your name, celebrate with you... That's an earnestly beautiful sight, I felt, a truly universal love. I thought about whether I could make that into music. I feel like this song was born while watching scenes like that.
Q. You had a desire to represent unchained emotions like rejoicing and passionate frenzy in music.
A. Right. Lately, I've come to feel that "forgetting yourself" is really important. Like I said earlier, by making Ghost of the Sea, I realized one of my dreams. Then all of a sudden, I found myself thinking "Where should I head now? There's nowhere left for me to go." So I've been thinking about what axis I should live around from now on. And I came up with "forgetting myself." This might just be a prideful remark from someone who could realize his dream, but I felt like more important than realizing the dream itself was how much I could immerse myself in heading there.
Q. I see.
A. Depending on how you view the world, everything can look like nothing. You can think "What meaning does this ultimately have?" about all sorts of things. In fact, you could say that about soccer. I was someone who existed distant from soccer, so I thought so little of it as to be like "why not just use your hands?" That's just how cold a person I am. But if you think deeply about anything in that way, you'll end up saying "There's no particular meaning to living in this world." Everything comes to look like nothing. At that point, you'll even look at yourself from a bird's-eye view and feel like killing yourself off. That's exactly why I sought passionate moments, moments where I can forget myself. I think that's another reason I got into soccer.
Q. So that's the story. Do you feel those "losing yourself" moments wanting No-Side Game as well?
A. The scene where Kimijima, as played by Yo Oizumi-san, motivates the team, felt very similar to the "encircling the MVP in the locker room and shouting their name" scene I mentioned earlier. Watching the show reminds me how I really need that kind of passion right now.
Q. Horse and Deer always plays in climactic scenes every episode. How do you feel about the use of the song?
A. I feel the love there. "No side" in rugby basically refers to the moment you change from conflict to harmony. I read the script and understood that this was a story expressing that, so I wanted to portray that sort of moment. That affection of embracing and extolling each other in the locker room. I made the song hoping to represent that, so when it actually played in the show, I thought "Ahh, that's right, I wasn't thinking wrong."
Q. I'd like to hear about the structure of the song. Considering your stated motif of "piercing a passionate moment," I think it's an awfully complex and difficult song. The chord progression, the melody, even the beat aren't your standard fare. How did you progress making this song?
A. In my burned-out state, I needed to find something new inside me. If I went on without anything, I'd just repeat the same things over and over. I'd just be making songs by habit, like an assembly line. I had to avoid that situation at all costs. So while playing guitar and looking for the chords and melody, I ended up with this song before I knew it. But I feel like I've reached somewhere new.
Q. The bridge part starting with "to what should I compare" is especially amazing. The chord progression and development is pretty wild.
A. I think that's because it's the part I was most messed-up while making. (laughs)
Q. Among your songs, I think Horse and Deer might be the type that's thought of as "hard to understand" and kept at a distance. And yet, I felt it was a song that has the strange power to permeate through the world.
A. I think that's possible because it's a drama's theme song. A complex and mysterious song that at first glance you don't get at all starts playing on your TV as the theme song for a drama. I like that sort of situation. I'm interested in, like, what would people who don't like music all that much think if they heard a song like this? Maybe it's a form of mischievousness, but as such, it's like I've laced it with a slow-acting poison.
Q. So you're taking advantage of the fact it'll be played to the world as a drama theme song, and set it up so the people hearing it feel like it extends into pop?
A. That's right. In fact, I think that's sort of what pop songs are. If it doesn't have pop elements and alternative elements coexisting, I don't even think it suffices as pop. Of course, in that sense, even this song is the result of me simply obeying my senses.
Q. Incidentally, what's the origin of the title "Horse and Deer"?
A. Personally, I chose it feeling it could be nothing else. The whole time I was making the song, I was thinking "it's such an idiotic song." I even sing in the lyrics, "I didn't have any idea," "I was never able to do that well." I thought of lots of titles, and even had some longer ones, but after I pared them down, only "Idiot" remained. So I made it simply "Horse and Deer" [putting an "and" between the two kanji that make up "idiot"].
Q. And the album cover is just a drawing of exactly that.
A. Right. There's an "idiot [horse-deer]" there. So that's all it could be. Like drawing a picture of a tree and titling it "Tree," or drawing a street and titling it "Street." It's the same thing.
Q. Tell us about the third track, the coupling song "Let's / Isn't It." I felt some new musical ideas in this song too - how was it made?
A. There's been a lot of really awful events lately, haven't there? Cars running into lines of kindergarteners, repeated murders on the street, buildings burning... Ever since Reiwa began, there's been so much of that happening, it's felt like we're entering into one outrageous era. In accordance, I've felt a terrifying frenzy forming. On social media, I see various angers swirling around. It may be righteous indignation to the people involved, based on a kind of justice, but I see awful statements on my timeline that I hesitate to even repeat, like "Somebody like that shouldn't have been born," or "They should be tortured then killed." I'm like, what in the world is this?
Q. I definitely know what you mean.
A. Seeing this mad whirlpool becoming a giant mass and trying to push in a single direction... I felt like a deranged era might be beginning. There's madness dotted all around, and it feels ike it's watching you all at once. This may be the opposite of what I said in Horse and Deer, but I think we have to oppose that frenzy. Because it's a crazed era, we have to live ordinarily, keeping our sanity. This is a song that resulted from me thinking about what we should do to accomplish that.
Q. I see. Though it's a coupling song, it's a very important one. How about the melody?
A. I haven't made a song with these kinds of chords much. At first, I thought I'd like to make a pleasure-seeking or carefree song. One without many notes, that's just a framework of a song. But I was thinking how I wanted to express the mood of recent times, to attempt to digest and represent the events happening within and outside Japan today. That may have had a remarkable effect.
Q. The mood is clearly a serious one.
A. That's true. As I said, I want to resist the scariness of that frenzied indignation, the bitter words swirling around inside, the nervous mood, the narrowing of your vision and lack of consideration for your words and behavior as you push on straight ahead. It's my kind of antithesis to society.
Q. Tell us about the recent music video for Paprika featuring your self-cover version. Compared to when you made it for Foorin a year ago, the circumstances around this song have definitely changed, and it's spread among children around the nation. How are you taking that?
A. It feels like it's become such an unbelievable thing. People show me videos like "my kids are singing it" or "they're dancing to it." And not just once or twice. Honestly, I don't entirely get the whole situation.
Q. (laughs) As a matter of fact, my nephew loves the song and often dances to it. I think Lemon also reached many people, but perhaps it's not often you've experienced a song going this much out of your hands and spreading far.
A. Right. I don't remember a thing about when I was a preschooler. I don't remember what I liked, how I was living, nothing. But certainly, my experiences then are connected to my present self, by virtue of being adjacent land. I may have forgotten, but it's not as if those experiences themselves went away. I've taken root in that soil and grown, letting various flowers bloom and wilt. If you asked me whether the children singing and dancing and enjoying Paprika now would remember it in 10 or 20 years, I'd imagine they wouldn't. It'd be a fleeting memory they'd nearly forgotten and say "yeah, there was something like that" about. But forgetting and losing are absolutely different. That experience may be small in size, but it takes root deep within the earth. If the music I make can become such a thing, I think that's something to be truly happy about.
Q. In a previous interview for Bremen, you did say you wanted to make "universal" things. You talked about how that may be a pop universality, yet maybe it's actually closer to the universality of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. From that perspective, you've realized another one of your dreams.
A. Right, that is true.
Q. I think it's fantastic how you made something that dissolves into children's subconscious.
A. There's no greater honor for someone who makes music. I wasn't the singer of the original Paprika, and children wouldn't know what kind of person I am. And yet my music ends up directly reaching them, and they enjoy it. Whether a haiku or a nursery rhyme, I think when a work with an unidentified author has stuck around to this day, it's because of its overwhelming strength. So it's truly an honor that the song has reached something close to that.
Q. With that in mind, tell me about the self-cover. You took a different approach to the arrangement and melody; how were you looking at it?
A. First of all, I didn't want to get in the way of the original song. Because whether it's children singing or 28-year-old me singing completely changes the nuance. As such, what I could do was simply express how 28-year-old me is living what I can think of as the most pleasant and beautiful life. Though I do imagine it can be heard as a nostalgia-focused, backward-facing "things were better then" kind of song.
Q. No, my impression hearing it was less nostalgia and more of a challenge. Rather than simply yearn for the past, I think the song properly reflects the present.
A. I figured if I didn't have that "challenge" mindset, it would end up being just a nostalgia song. It was important to "sample," or sort of make a collage out of, the innocence my present self has; I was thinking things like "Wouldn't it be neat if I did this?" "Wouldn't it be neat if you did that?" "Okay, got it! I call this song "the Neo Bon Dance"!" Otherwise, it'd be swallowed up by nostalgia and sentimentalism. I believe it ended up being a song I myself could find enjoyable.
Q. Hearing you say that, I feel like all your songs are clearly opening up new doors. In the interview for Flamingo / TEENAGE RIOT too, you said you "wanted to do something unprecedented." Do you feel that's taking shape?
A. I truly do. Sure enough, I'm steadily being driven more and more by necessity. Eminem said this too, but while at first you can draw anything you want on a blank canvas, as you make music, you run out of places to draw on the canvas. That's the critical issue faced by any musician, or anyone who makes things, and it's coming to befall me too. As I make all kinds of songs, if I'm not careful, it can become habitual and feel like an assembly line. I'm driven by the necessity of how to escape from that. Without it, I couldn't have made these songs, and it's allowed me to open new doors on my own. That's truly the difficulty and greatness of keeping things going. I don't know how long it'll go for, but at the very least, my present self can proudly think "this is the most beautiful," and I'm able to make things that are new to me. I think I'll continue to find enjoyment in looking for blank gaps in the canvas and saying "If I plop down this color here, it unifies with all the other colors." Making this single gave me confidence in that.