Separate From Family, Growing Up With Autism, Band Frustration, Vocaloid Years, And Through A Long Tunnel of Despair to "Now"
It must have been because he could complete his latest album Bremen that Kenshi Yonezu decided to agree to this 10,000-word interview telling his life story.
To Kenshi Yonezu, who in spite of his massive talent - or no, perhaps because of it - has searched for a long time to find out how to express it (though granted, he's still only 24 years old), Bremen is a big first step that's brimming with confidence. From the first song Unbelievers, a song with a sprinting feeling over which he sings "let's accept all that comes, and laugh together," to the last song - and a love song - Blue Jasmine's powerful final line of "I'll always confirm that I love you," this album is brimming with positive energy for living and the pop appeal to spread it to many. The colossal talents of Kenshi Yonezu the artist and the heart and spirit of Kenshi Yonezu the human overlap perfectly to give off immense energy. It's a fantastic album.
And because he now stands in that position, Kenshi Yonezu has told us everything in this interview. To be clear, this is a 10,000-word interview with shocking contents. But from the story of Kenshi Yonezu's youth told here, the answer to the question "Why is Kenshi Yonezu Kenshi Yonezu?" should become apparent. And where he is headed as he passes through a long tunnel, together with what he sings in Bremen, should become clear as well. We hope to always watch over Kenshi Yonezu as he tries to head into the future alongside the past he revealed to us.
Q. First, when and where were you born?
A. I was born in 1991, in Tokushima Prefecture.
Q. Around where in Tokushima?
A. Tokushima City. So I say Tokushima, but I really mean the city.
Q. What was your father's job and family life like?
A. Thinking about it from the current day, it was an emotionally and physically poor household. I've hardly ever talked to my father. Think of it like this: in 24 years of living, if you squeezed down all the time I've talked with him, it might only be about an hour.
A. I do technically know things like where he worked, but I don't know what he was doing, and have no idea what kind of person he was concretely. So, I still don't really know to this day. (laughs)
Q. (laughs) He wasn't at home?
A. No, he was there, but it was like, he was with some old relative, or friend that wasn't very friendly. (laughs) He didn't come talk to me, and I didn't really go talk to him either, so we didn't converse at all. It always felt off, so I still hardly talk to him.
Q. Was he a strange person? Or a normal father?
A. Sure, I suppose he was normal, but I don't know a thing. So I really don't know if he was normal or weird.
Q. I see. What about your mother?
A. Compared to my father, she was friendly. I remember thinking how me liking to draw was probably passed down from her. My mother once went to a fine arts school, and had a permit as an art teacher, and really liked to draw and such. But, well, I don't know too much in specific. When she was at home, she did a side job making leaflets, and that view of her from behind is the first thing that comes to mind. Also, I really loved the house owned by my grandparents on my mother's side, so I remember going there often. That's why I know my mother's side of the family relatively well compared to my father.
Q. What kind of mother was she?
A. I pictured her as always fighting with my older sister, ever since elementary school. An observer would see it was just my sister starting quibbles, though, like "my lunchbox is different from everyone else's." Day after day, they were fighting, so I couldn't help but dislike it, like "What's wrong with this place?" Living that kind of life for a year or two, I became someone who found talking to people bothersome, and spent a lot of time at home alone. But when my mother and sister got along, they really did get along. Their fighting happened because they were just that close, and it was the same with my father. My sister, mother, and father got along pretty normally.
Q. Huh? Really?
A. Yeah. Somehow, I was always out of the loop. We were together when we ate, but, any topics discussed at the table generally unfolded avoiding me. I don't think I necessarily I disliked it. I just didn't know what words I was supposed to say, now that I think back on it. So I never fought with my family, and for that matter, never talked with them. I was just like air, so I wondered if it didn't matter if I was there... I often thought to myself whether I had any place to belong.
Q. In kindergarten and elementary school, surely you interacted with people besides your family. How was that?
A. I really liked playing with friends. I even felt like that made up for a lot of things. With friends, I could be really talkative, and we would laugh together over pointless stuff, but when I got home I wouldn't say a word - that was often the case.
Q. What kinds of kids were they?
A. Objectively speaking, I'd say they were quiet boys who liked to draw. For a long time, I've really hated my appearance. And I believe there was something that caused that. In kindergarten, I was playing tag or something, and I was running from the person who was it without looking forward. As I turned, I slammed into somebody. I really injured my lips. I think they're still a little swollen now.
A. I held my lips like "Oww!", and when I looked at my hands, they were covered in blood. I thought, "Oh, something really bad's happened!" They hurried me to the hospital, and did emergency treatment. And when I got back to kindergarten that day and stood in front of everyone, they were looking at me really warily, like they were looking at something filthy, all "Waugh..." I remember it very vividly: I had the thought that I was no longer normal. I've become different from everyone else, something terrible's happened to me, etcetera. It was minor, just a small injury, but I think I had the sense that it was a serious problem, and that I'd become some kind of monster.
Q. You must have had an unusually sensitive nature. So at that point, it felt like you'd fallen out of sync with everyone?
A. Also, my name's the same way, obviously. Kenshi Yonezu is a rare name.
Q. But it's a cool one.
A. Around elementary school, kids will say "What's with your name?!" rather than "That's a cool name," so I got teased a lot. So I really used to hate my name. Also, I've had a really big body since I was born, vertically long. Normally babies are about 3 kilograms, right? I was 4.5 kilograms.
A. And my body had a weird shape too, apparently. It seems people said things like "is this kid the Elephant Man?" - wondering if this kid had some kind of impairment. After learning about that, I've thought that maybe I was this kind of person from birth. There's been a lot of times where I've wondered "why am I different from other people?"
Q. Did a sense of not being a kid also bud as you got to later years of elementary school?
Q. Once that happened, what kind of person was young Yonezu?
A. What was I like, indeed... I got my first computer at home, in 5th grade. It was hooked up to the internet, and I got way into it. I really liked the Kirby series, so I often posted on the message boards of fan sites for it. Through the internet, there were lots of people who understood the things I liked, so I thought of it as a place to belong. By late elementary school, I felt lots of discomfort about school, and I thought I was really stupid. I didn't know what other people were saying. It felt like being a single Japanese person among foreigners. When kids in class said trivial things to me, I didn't know how to respond. So I kept replying ambiguously like "Oh, yeah" and smiling. As I did that, it became increasingly clear I couldn't be intimate with others, and I think that deepened the sense of myself as "different from other people."
Q. And it wasn't like there anything really fun in your school life, was there?
A. I really didn't want to go to school. (laughs) I didn't like to study, I didn't have all that many friends. I really hated it.
Q. In that state of non-communication at both home and school, did you retreat into yourself? Do you remember what you were thinking at times like that?
A. As someone who couldn't get involved with other people, I didn't really understand what my classmates said, so what I created were fictional people in my head to talk to. It's still there now, but there's a space inside me - a town, so to speak, and I had a habit of talking to the people living there. Those fictional characters were clearly my friends. That served as a foundation to rely upon.
Q. In that world, what did you look like, and how did you act?
A. Let's see, now... I guess I'd say, a normal person. I always wanted to be a normal person, ever since I was a kid. And I sensed that the fact I wasn't normal caused me suffering. So relationships where I could talk to these fictional people, hold proper conversations, conversations with no troubles at all, and laugh over pointless things - I really aspired to relationships where people could just have commonplace enjoyment of commonplace things, and rebound off each other normally. I wanted to be normal, and the only place that was possible was in my head.
Q. So there, you could live properly.
A. Right, right. That's how it was.
Q. Even so, in middle and high school, you had to start becoming part of society, right?
Q. I suppose living got harder and harder at that point.
A. Yeah, it simply got harder and harder and harder. The feeling of being Japanese among foreigners continued long after, and I wasn't able to construct any ways of dealing with it. I still distinctly remember being shocked when someone said "Yonezu only ever says the same thing, huh."
Q. When that was your desperate way of coping.
A. Yeah. When I talked to people, I didn't know how to respond, so I probably affirmed them the same way every time. "Oh, really" or something, though I don't remember for sure. So I really felt like, "what am I supposed to do?" then.
Q. It might be cruel to put it this way, but that was one serious affliction. (laughs)
A. It was serious. I had no concept of how to hold a conversation, or how to reply to make the other person happy. If some pointless topic was thrown at me in daily conversation, there wasn't a single word I wanted to respond with. But it was necessary to throw back something that was close enough, yet I didn't know what. When I thought about how other people did something so difficult like it was normal, I felt like I must be a huge idiot. And, though it's not like this was a confirmation, after turning twenty, a doctor diagnosed me with high-functioning autism, and that was when things first started to make sense.
Q. Until then, you'd only thought of yourself as an indescribable monster, but having a name given to it made it logical.
A. It told me how there was a proper reason for everything.
Q. What was it that caused you to move from feeling different from others, living a sort of solitary double-life, to starting to try doing work in the real world?
A. In the real world?
Q. When rather than just passively enduring, you started to take a step forward of your own. Was that not until quite a bit later?
A. When you ask me about "working in society," I don't really know, but I started a band in my second year of middle school. I guess that's the biggest and earliest thing where I tried to express something, or got open about my righteousness or what I thought was beautiful.
Q. What caused you to want to start a band? What were the circumstances?
A. I really liked traditional Japanese bands that were popular at the time. Bump of Chicken, and Asian Kung-Fu Generation, and Spitz. I simply aspired to them, and maybe the thought of wanting to be such a figure myself was what got me to do it.
Q. You couldn't communicate well with people around you, so did you sense that if you did it like Masamune or Fujiwara, speaking your words in a single bound, you could communicate?
A. I suppose I did... Not knowing what words to express myself with, I just thought "this song is good, the person singing is cool, what a beautiful thing." And then I clearly thought that I wanted to be like that too, and that spurred me to buy a guitar. A cheap one around 20,000 yen. And I asked someone in the same club as me, wanna start a band? (laughs) I think that must have been the first time I did anything so active.
Q. Did it go well?
A. It sure didn't. (laughs) At first, I brought in only people I was really friendly with. I vividly remember asking the guitar player "Let's start a band," him hitting back with "Any money in it?", and me replying "Well, there's money if we get big." (laughs)
Q. (laughs) How nice.
A. Then I was going around to other acquaintances like "you look like you've got a drum face, so you're on drums!" (laughs) Ultimately, it didn't work out, but I think it was great. I think back on it like "what would've happened if it had gone well?" pretty frequently. Like in the middle of the night.
Q. Which is to say, it was fun?
A. It was a really fun time.
Q. What kind of attitude did you have? Just a typical dumb and simple-minded middle school band?
A. That's the one. (laughs) We'd meet up three or four times a week to play a game we called practice. (laughs) We'd also meet up after school, to do pranks and things. You know the classic prank of opening a door at school and a bucket falls on you? We developed that. (laughs)
Q. (laughs) That's not being a band!
A. Hahahaha... It was really fun.
Q. But I'm going to assume it's because you had something in the form of "let's start a band" that allowed you to get so friendly and have such a fun time.
A. I guess so. The original reason I wanted to start a band because I wanted to play my original songs in a band.
Q. Oh, really? I thought you were just a band that copied Asian Kung-Fu or Bump. Was I wrong?
A. We did do copying too, but the thing I thought about doing first was original songs. Once you have two or three chords, you can make a song, right? At our middle school culture festival, I think for the first time in that school's history, we played an original song.
Q. Hmm, what kind of song?
A. What kind of song... I don't know if I can even call it "a really pure song," but even thinking about it now, I'd say it was a good song.
Q. What was it named?
A. It had the name "Song of Paints." Our performance skills were awful, you understand. But the melody and lyrics could make you think "this is kind of nice." So while the band itself may have not gone well, I think it was a really good thing how I could make songs like that, perform them as a band, and leave that sound behind. I feel that was the most fun time I've had. I have lots of dreams about that period, and they make me go "what am I even doing?" When I suddenly wake up and notice I'm not having fun at all, I get really depressed. (laughs)
Q. (laughs) You can't help that. How did things go afterward?
A. Everyone went to different high schools, so our "passion" for the band scattered too. We did concerts two or three times a year, but those... well, they weren't out of a sense of duty per se, but no one was very on-board.
Q. What was the band called?
A. Do I have to say that? (laughs) It was named Ofrogue. In an online game I was into at the time, there was this rare item, a card, and if you applied it to a weapon it would power up the weapon. But it was only dropped rarely when you defeated a certain enemy, with 0.02% odds or something.
Q. And you became a collector of that card.
A. Right. It was a card called Something of Rogue*, and I wanted it no matter what. So that's why I settled on that cheap name. (laughs)
Q. ...Thank you very much. (laughs)
A. (laughs) I wonder if I really needed to say that?
Q. No, I think it's brilliant! (laughs)
Q. Well, that band really was important to you. Regardless of its accomplishments, but in terms of you changing.
A. Right. And there was (Hiroshi) Nakajima who supports me now.
Q. He's ex-Ofrogue?
A. Right, right.
Q. Hmm, THAT Ofrogue...?
A. (laughs) Let's please cool it with the Ofrogue.
Q. What sort of mode were you in during high school? You'd found one fun thing, so were you like "oh well"?
A. It was pretty exhausting. I didn't even go much. I basically made tally marks on my pencil box of how many times I'd skipped this class, calculating it out like "I can afford to skip exactly this many classes." So I also didn't study much, and wrote songs by myself the whole time.
Q. At home?
A. Yes. And I would write lyrics in my notebook in class.
Q. So did you find something in making music? It was nearly simultaneous with the start of your band, but I assume it really was a major thing?
A. I wanted to make music. What I looked up to were bands, so that's the initial form it took. But my real intention was to make something; creating a song, writing lyrics, creating a melody and adding chords were the most important things. That's why I didn't enjoy concerts all that much. I think my vocal tone and lack of skill were also problems, but I wasn't hearing my voice at all and didn't know what I was doing, so I always had doubts. In the end, the thing that was still clearly remaining was creating music. In second or third year of high school, I discovered NicoNico Douga, and learned that if you uploaded things there, people would listen even if it was made by one person, so I did everything alone for a long while afterward.
Q. Sounds like perfect timing. If you hadn't learned about it, as much as you liked making music, it would have been pretty rough.
A. Yeah. The band naturally dissolved around second year, but Nakajima was the only one who didn't say "no" to me. Now that I think about it, while I'm not sure since I've never checked with him, I don't think he went along with me because my songs were good; he simply never said "no" to anything I did. The other members had clear things they wanted to pursue, so they said no and left. The bassist awakened to his passion for visual kei as soon as he got into high school and left because he wanted to do that kind of music, and the guitarist I started off the band with wanted to do some other style of music. The drummer went to a cram school and played rugby - while everyone else said no and left, he remained. I'd make requests of Nakajima like "This song needs guitar, so add a guitar part," get it recorded, and upload it to NicoNico Douga. We did that for a while.
Q. By then it was only a band in name only, right? I'm a little unclear on something; were you writing songs thinking you'd have a band in your future?
A. Right. I wanted to have a band. So I left for Osaka. I thought if I went far enough toward the city, there'd be band members.
Q. That was after you started posting to NicoNico Douga?
Q. After you posted a song, what happened with it? Were you just posting and that's it?
A. They got about 4,000 views at most, and there were a decent number of people who said they liked me, and a few people who commented on my blog saying "I like your songs," and we had some communication. But in the end, that's about it all it was. Feels kind of trivial, really.
Q. But after your band dissolved, and you weren't enjoying life as a high schooler either, seeing reactions to the songs you made and people supporting you must have been pretty -
A. Oh, I was super happy. That was all I did. I'd work on songs for 15 hours a day, uploading three songs in a month sometimes. Basically all I did besides make music was eat and sleep. My parents were probably pretty fearful.
Q. I'll say.
A. They even got me a tutor without my permission.
Q. That's because you wouldn't go to school.
A. (laughs) So I was like "leave and don't come back."
Q. Well, a typical shut-in high schooler, then. But since some time before, you'd felt "I still have a place here, so it's fine."
A. Yeah. In middle and high school, maybe I was a little overconfident. I thought of myself as an amazing person, making amazing songs like it was nothing, and knew I would become a truly great figure - I believed that without question. I figured people like me needed to get out into the world quickly, so I made songs constantly. So even to my parents, I was like "I'm totally fine, I can make music. And I can draw too. It's inconceivable I'll ever be short on food"... Yeah, I was a dummy. (laughs) I was running on a mysteriously confident engine of "I've got so much talent, this is all I need." So sometimes when I look back, I think, that was scary. What a tightrope act! (laughs)
Q. (laughs) That's true. So you never had any thoughts about finding employment, or other such things proper people would think?
A. I had absolutely no intention of finding employment. The most important thing to me during high school was leaving for Osaka, so I took the exam for a specialty fine arts school in Osaka where it was like, if you could write your name, they'd let you in.
Q. And your parents were like "what is he thinking"?
A. I'm sure they probably thought I was chasing an empty dream, but it seems my parents had experiences like that too. My mother went to a fine arts school, got a teaching permit, then just got a job at a regular company and returned to Tokushima, so she probably sympathized with me. She talked to me like "if you want to do it, go ahead and do it," so that was nice.
Q. There was no such conversation with your father, naturally?
A. Absolutely not. (laughs)
Q. Hahahaha. Maybe your father's really clever and was looking at the big picture? (laughs)
A. I have no idea. But when I was around 12, I occasionally went with him to my mother's-side grandparents' house. And there were some relatives there. While they were drinking at night, for the first time I saw him actually talking - oh, but not to me, of course.
Q. (laughs) It's that rare?!
A. He was clearly talking to the relatives, but maybe at the time I had the impression he was talking to me. About how he wanted to be a sailor once, but he had a detached retina and his eyesight got worse, so he couldn't get on boats, and at the job interview he just kept smiling and got accepted. That was when I first learned my father might be a more decent person than I thought. Maybe not as hopeless as I took him for. (laughs)
Q. That's definitely what he was indirectly telling you! (laughs)
A. So I don't really hate him, I just don't know him is all.
Q. Maybe your father's consciousness of you is stronger and more unique than your consciousness of him.
A. I guess so, yeah.
Q. So, when you left for Osaka hoping to start a band, what happened?
A. I did sort of start a band at the specialty school in Osaka, but that didn't go well either. But by that time, I was engrossed in Vocaloid. I basically neglected the girl I was dating at the time because I was so passionate about Vocaloid. The moment I posted Close and Open, the Rakshasa and the Corpse and it was like "whoa, it's really taking off!", she suggested breaking up. (laughs)
Q. She must have thought "no hope now." (laughs)
A. I couldn't help but be happy about the popularity too, so I was like "ah, it's no problem." I somewhat regretted it later, though. (laughs)
Q. Were you just totally engrossed by then? Without any consciousness of what kind of artist you wanted to be in the future?
A. That's right. It felt really strange that the songs I made spread so much and were heard by so many people. But somewhere in my heart, I was conceited, like "yeah, of course." I kept going along with it and was in a state of focusing on nothing else for 2 or 3 years.
Q. That was a pretty long soak. Naturally, there were surely good sides to that, but were there negatives?
A. Later on, I thought: for better or worse, my vision was narrowed. Or maybe just, was narrow. The island of NicoNico Douga was everything to me, and the information and methodologies that came and went there were everything, so I was only thinking about what kinds of things to make in regards to that. To put it another way, while I was becoming sharply focused, my field of view kept getting smaller and smaller.
Q. But at the time, that world was pretty much worth everything to you.
A. Right. Though looking around... there are biases, like "Vocaloid songs are an otaku thing." I had no sense whatsoever that a song simply being Vocaloid meant some people would be prejudiced against it. I was thinking of the things I made as the most beautiful things in the world, and that everyone would accept them unconditionally. So I don't deny that experience, but I wonder if it had adverse effects.
Q. People often say that you "came out from the world of NicoNico Douga," but it's not really like that. From the start, you had a vision of making beautiful music, and you passed through there as one form of output. I'm sure that's how it felt to you.
A. Yes. I simply wanted to make music. It was like that since I was a middle schooler drawing manga. Making a town in my mind and living with the people there took up a large portion of my time, so I wanted to portray that town in some way. That was my first motive, and Vocaloid wasn't even there at the start; I just thought more people might accept it if went through that filter.
Q. I see. And since then, you've lived a life of continued creation and expression?
A. That's right. The first year or so was really fun. But somewhere in the middle, I kept thinking... "Is this really okay after all?" Things got weird mentally, too. How should I put it... Was the Vocaloid thing I was doing really right? Is there something else I should be doing instead? When I started thinking about those things, I felt like the balloon of my creative drive was shrinking. So it seemed there would definitely come a time when I couldn't do anything. There was a period where information from outside felt agonizing, so I could only watch game playthrough videos. It was a rough time.
Q. It wasn't really talent running dry or a slump, but more like not having motivation as a person?
A. Right, right. As someone who could never properly converse with people, I was feeling that friction. It was especially bad around high school; the way I saw my classmates wasn't even like "foreigners," just "animals." I was thinking like, "they might bite me to death, so I'd better watch out and stay still in the corner"... I really hated it. In college, I started thinking "there's more freedom than high school, so I don't really need to go," and so I dropped out after a year. Then I found the wonderful sandbox of Vocaloid, and played in that for ages, not caring about anyone watching. After playing there for about a year, I guess there was a recoil. Being that I was a person born and raised with an inability to communicate, I hardly had any friends in the Vocaloid world either. Basically just wowaka of Hitorie (vocals/guitar).
Q. Ah, I see.
A. It felt like that reality suddenly fell down upon me one day. I guess I'm alone, huh. Just what have I been doing all this time? There were people on the other side of the screen who liked me, and I was satisfied, but there was no one around my real body. Once I started feeling that way, I couldn't do a thing. I came to strongly feel like I'd made a wrong choice. That's when it came to light I had high-functioning autism and depression. Then for about a year or two, I basically did nothing but watch game videos.
Q. It didn't feel like something that could be easily treated to just cure it.
A. Yeah. So I slept 24 hours a day, day after day... I couldn't see the value in living, and the one thing left was my Twitter. There were people who said they liked me, so if I sent out some words, they'd reply favorably. I thought again and again that I'd delete it, but it ended up staying. I think it saved me sometimes.
Q. So while it wasn't necessarily something that contributed to recovery, you were at least connected. Like a kind of lifeline.
A. Sometimes I thought if it weren't for that, I wouldn't have had to experience such suffering. But the truth is, the most important things were having a Twitter account and having videos posted to NicoNico Douga, because they really saved me.
Q. That went on for a year?
A. Yeah. Even I honestly felt like "it's been a whole year?" Time passed so quickly; I'd think "I should eat that natto I bought the other day," open the fridge, and find out it was a month expired. I'd also think "I want to watch a movie" and rent a DVD, but if I watched something like a Disney movie, I felt like dying. Brimming with hope, and ending happily... it was too dazzling, a world completely irrelevant to mine. No matter how you look at it, I'll definitely never get to visit such a world, I thought.
Q. It felt like you were being murdered.
A. Like a vampire being burned by the light of the sun. It got me thinking things like, "goodwill and positive things can hurt others sometimes"; "whenever you express something, it'll always hurt someone."
Q. A rather cornered and bewildered mental state. So how did you find your way out?
A. Chronologically speaking, I got like that before I made "diorama," so I just barely made that.
Q. That was something you "just barely" made?
A. That's right. It took about a year to create, but what that really means is I started on it a year prior, and did hardly anything for most of that time. They were days where I just kept writing what I was thinking on a locked Twitter account that nobody could see.
Q. Nobody saw it?
A. Nobody. I just followed some people so that my tweets would be among others on the timeline. So although nobody could see them, they were in the mix. So I could be there among all these people.
Q. So you were communicating as an invisible man.
A. Yeah. It was a really relieving environment.
Q. Heck, you had to do that to live. I never knew you'd made diorama in such a poor mental state.
A. I think it's a really good album, and I felt a sense of achievement when it was done, but I struggled with lots of that stuff while I was making it, and even after finishing, I wondered what to do. I lived in a rural part of town at the time, and it left a really big impression. There was a river, and the side of town I was on was really pretty and organized, and people with kids played in the area. On the opposite side, there was blue sheeting, and in places under overhangs with bad sunlight, there were homeless people living in cardboard box houses. It was a really bizarre location. I would sometimes walk over on the homeless side and watch people draw from behind. "Huh, this guy's pretty good." Maybe I imagined that being what was in my future.
Q. I was first asked to write about you when diorama came out, but I guess you were still in that tunnel at the time. Come to think of it, the manager kept saying "I can't contact him"... (laughs)
A. Hahahaha. Because I was currently incapable of talking to people, yeah...
Q. Then honestly, it was pretty recently you got out of there, huh?
A. That's true. Like... it just seems nuts to think about it now. (laughs) Like I would think, what if I just closed my eyes and kept walking? I'd fall down stairs with my eyes closed. Even when I went to a nearby supermarket, normally a trip would take around 5 minutes, but it took me about an hour to go there and come back... It was like I was walking in a mire the whole time.
Q. What got you to break out of it?
A. That was clearly Santa Maria. I had a method of making Vocaloid songs, making things that only made sense to me, and could make wholeheartedly as long as they were within that scope. Even though there were lots of people through the screen who adored me, there was no one around me... In that state, I thought, "yeah, I did want to be normal after all." In elementary and middle school, in that closed-off space of school, my abnormal self stood out, and I kept thinking "I want to be normal." Once I stopped going to school, my abnormal self was accepted as-is, and yet there was no one around me. I couldn't find a meaning to living. I thought maybe I'd put the cart before the horse, I'd chosen something with no meaning. So I wanted to make music for someone else. I had to make something that could make a person within a 5-meter radius of me 100% happy. That was my mission, or at least, I'd run out of all other choices. So there was no way left for me to live except by making a song like Santa Maria.
Q. I see. So making music with someone else was important. Creating Santa Maria must have entailed jumping a really big hurdle.
A. That's right. After I'd made it, I even thought I'd done something terrible.
Q. Why's that?
A. Because the various methodologies I'd built up during my time in Vocaloid were my sole means of connecting with people. By making Santa Maria, I was letting go of those -
Q. You were breaking ties.
A. Yeah. So maybe another rift would form between me and others. The thought of that was just unbearable.
Q. But ultimately you arrived at the conclusion that you had to move forward, and there was no other path but that.
A. Yeah. I mean, when I turned around, there was nothing there. To become normal and live happily, all I could do was make Santa Maria - express something with universal sounds and universal words.
Q. Rejected by reality, you made a town in your head, and when you expressed that world to NicoNico Douga, it was accepted. But it didn't have the substance to support your life ahead, nothing that could point you to the future. Maybe that's more or less what you noticed.
A. That's right. I know I keep saying it, but I really aspired to have a normal sort of life. I really like looking at the average blogs of regular salarymen, or office ladies, or students. They have an average way of passing time, live an average life, post photos of average scenery, things I've always admired. But I didn't know how to get in on that averageness, so... The feeling of wanting to be like them is still strong with me.
Q. But you're not a person who does things the way they do.
Q. With your different methods and different communication, you can probably start building communication with people like that.
A. Yeah, I guess so.
Q. It seems like from the day you were born, you've walked a tightrope of being alienated and isolated, but on the other hand having immense talent, and the two come and go. You say you want to be normal, but you can't walk the normal path, so you've veered to the left or to the right.
A. Yes, that's true.
Q. So then, I think that Bremen isn't a tightrope walk of extremes, but a kind of parting from your past life that rings in a new start. You have to start by living properly and aligning yourself in the center, and singing about your very own self. I felt this album was brimming with that resolve, and some songs feel like they decisively say "this is me."
A. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q. What sort of album do you think you've made?
A. In terms of sound, with YANKEE I thought I had to change, and believed I'd done things that I'd never done before. But thinking back on it, it was kind of half-and-half. I made use of some methodology from my Vocaloid days, and about half of it was conceited... maybe not the right word, but there were at least some songs that I made with the "just what I find beautiful" approach. This time, I completely dropped that. I'm not sure if I should call it a parting from those times, but I started off trying to make an album that denied them.
Q. To part from your past and cast away what you'd created, you had to come up with something new.
Q. What was it you came up with? Well, I guess that might be clear already. (laughs)
A. This album... well, it has the title Bremen. I decided on this title when I was making Will-O-Wisp. Will-O-Wisp illustrates a scene of turning your back to the light of a prosperous town and heading into the darkness along a dilapidated highway, and I felt a strong link between that and my mentality at the time. In my head, I'm thinking about creating songs with universal sounds, but on the other hand I feel like the brighter it is, the more the dark parts stand out. Trying to head toward a bright place, but maybe where I'm actually heading is an abandoned town. At that moment, I happened to recall the Musicians of Bremen. In The Musicians of Bremen, simply put, they get tired of where they are currently and don't like living here anymore, so they say let's go to Bremen and play music there, right?
A. That really connected with what I was thinking and doing. Just making bright things and walking toward a Shangri-la full of hope... would just doing that really be okay? It's really flimsy, in a way; I felt like it had no responsibility or persuasiveness. So I figured I needed negative words to abate my positive self. The Musicians of Bremen never actually reach Bremen in the end, right? There's some robbers in a hut, they drive them off, and are like, let's just live here.
Q. And then it's just, "they lived happily there."
A. Like "that's how it ends?", yeah. I think that's 100% proper. Shangri-la doesn't actually exist. You'll never find some wonderful town that's a 100% perfect projection of your ideals. So even if it's not quite a compromise per se, what's important is what you're able to find in reality. It’s not about the destination, but the journey - maybe the process is what’s most important. That's what I hoped to express with the album.
Q. Where there's a really bright hope, there's also a negative conclusion that convicts everything. Both could be called the truth, both could be called lies. Though being tied up in the middle like in your case is the most dangerous. (laughs)
Q. Lastly, to describe Bremen in rough terms, I feel that it's what you are now, Yonezu. I think it's your first time making an album like that. diorama was like a reproduction of past stock, taking it out and making it into music. YANKEE seemed like an album that drew an arrow toward a certain objective. With this album, for the first time, you're expressing "this is me" with the album as a whole. There are some incredibly confident and direct lyrics in all the songs, like Unbelievers's "Now, we can't believe it, such a cruel conclusion / We're unbelievers, crawling up again and again." That's a line we'd never see around the time of diorama. (laughs)
A. (laughs) Yes, you're right.
Q. And in Fluorite: "We were assured of it; we carry things invisible to the eye / Then suddenly, through one of them, we meet once again" - startling words anyone can understand. And Rerun has the line "Yes, it's true, I'm living, trying to leave behind my mark." Undercover and Neon Sign sing about having an intention of wanting to go somewhere bright, but feeling like it's wrong and suffering when actually trying to do so. And Hopeland is a rarity for you, being a song with a message. (laughs)
Q. A song with a message directed at pitiable people, including self-derisiveness and an almost desperate intensity. And then the last song, Blue Jasmine, is a love song, incredibly.
A. Yes, yes.
Q. I don't think you've had any love songs before this. Though it is a love song rich with metaphor. Ultimately, when you create a setting to make an album, it can end up feeling flimsy, and reeking of lies. So in this album, the things you wanted to say, the things you should say, the things you didn't really want to say but sort of wanted to, the things you really didn't want to say but thought it'd be good to - standing in your current position, you made an album where all those things are put out as-is. That's my impression.
A. I really think that's how it is. Before, I didn't sing things from my viewpoint very much. In diorama, for instance, I made most of the songs imagining the viewpoints of the people living in the town, but this album hardly has any of that. I've been making more from my viewpoint, or my child self's viewpoint.
Q. How do you feel about doing that? I mean, all the songs feel like they were written with considerable courage.
A. Hahahaha, yes. But it doesn't feel as unusual as before. You wouldn't catch me dead writing lyrics like these two or three years ago, and I doubt I could have ever imagined it. But now it's fairly natural, and I'm able to find it beautiful. There are people around me who approve of this form, and the opinions of friends and their kids on how well things are conveyed have gotten really important to me. With the songs I made here, before mixing, around the demo stage or so, I'd have people I'm close to listen and ask "How is it?" "Oh, it's really good." When I could get them to say that, I... well, I figured that must mean it's perfect. I didn't have time to think about that sort of thing myself, so that was my number one guidance, my scale for beauty. Being told "it's good" by people around me is more important than anything now, and it makes me happy. Maybe that's a part of myself I discovered in the process of making this album.
Q. Given it gave you a standard for beauty for the first time, it must have been really important. But before you showed the people around you anything, it was you who produced those words in the first place, right?
A. Right, yes.
Q. So sure enough, I think something's already happening inside you.
A. I guess so, yeah.
Q. I sense that's important. Which is why you wanted to sing it.
A. That's definitely true. I started off thinking "yeah, yeah, I'll write lyrics like this." I think the difference lies in now actively thinking about what I can do for the people around me.
Q. But that's not all, right?
A. Is it not? I wonder.
Q. For example, if we a liken a song to a present, and there's someone you want to give that present to. When you hand over the present, the person is happy and says "thank you." So you think "I'm glad I gave them this present." But before that, Yonezu, you picked out and bought the present yourself, and whoever it was you were going to give it to, there must have been a starting point that made you want to pick what you did. An impulse from zero of "this is what I want to give to all these random people." I feel like there had to be something like that.
A. An impulse from zero... I'm not sure. But sometimes I thought way back into the past to create some of it. Like, that's absolutely the case with Hopeland: it's directed at people like me who had no place to be as a kid, built on feelings of not being able to do anything for them. So I decided I wanted to affirm them 100%. I thought, I'd never sympathized with them, and probably caused them pain. There were faint traces of that sort of regret.
A. There's a reason for things like bullying. Even if it doesn't come from ill will, things like "can't read the mood" become a free pass. When people get left out of the group, it steadily changes to "it's okay to hurt them." I can understand now that it's a thing that comes part and parcel with a closed environment like school, it's just that kind of system. But I didn't ponder it deeply when I was witnessing it, and couldn't do a thing. It's gotten bigger and bigger and bigger now, so it's not only my past self; I want to 100% affirm the things around me. Whatever anyone says, no matter how much of the cause lies with them, I at least want to affirm them 100%. And whatever path they end up living, I won't mind.
Q. To that end, you even sing "A song for you, can you hear it? You can always come here." Previously, I don't think you would have gone as far as making a song so directed at a person, so maybe you felt that it was something you ought to do?
A. Yeah. Though it's like, is that all I can do...? (laughs) I've overlooked a lot of things. And, well, I feel like I've hurt people with various things. So it feels like atonement? Something like that.
Q. I see. After all, your talent did sort of run wild in the past.
Q. Yonezu, you felt like you were a monster, and were treated like air at home, but you thought "I have talent," so you let that talent run wild. I think that felt worthwhile and fulfilling for a time. But you crashed down into depression. "Just letting my talent run wild doesn't have any substance," you thought, and from what I've heard, you entered a rather long tunnel after that. You're talking about it like atonement, but I don't think that's quite the right word.
A. Oh, really?
Q. Since you have such talent, you wanted some suitable substance to deliver it on. By making that delivery, the people who receive it are made happy. Not someone through a computer screen, but attendees at a concert, or people you're close to - you're making physical people happy. Maybe now you're in the process of giving substance to your talent that once ran wild. I mean, on this album, there isn't a single song that just runs wild with talent and technique alone.
A. Ahh, I see.
Q. I feel there's something suitably fantastic on top of the fantasticness of the songs.
A. You can't live with just your mental aspects... There comes a time when you can't live solely on ideals. I'm thinking I should be realistic, in living as a human. Whatever thoughts I have, I should keep my feet somewhere realistic, and stand there to think. I think people who advance on ideals alone get really ugly, and I often see people who only have a realistic viewpoint and don't leave the 5-meter radius around themselves. I want to be a person who combines both of those. For diorama, I only had my ideals, but... I want to acquire more universality, and precisely, powerfully imbue my mind and body with things that will resonate even with kids and old people. To do that, I need to be a realist with ideals on top. I think about that all the time, just in day to day life.
Q. So a sense of "when I put out words, it's these words; when I put out a song, it's this song." You're trying to construct something like that.
A. Yeah, that's right.
Q. Go Go Ghost Ship and Hopeland were made by the same talent, but they take completely different angles. Hopeland has lyrics that save people, and fans of yours might not like this expression, but it's a really useful song. I think it serves like food.
A. Yes, I want to be useful. Humans are social animals, and live through mutual actions. Though I've been thinking about a lot of worthless stuff, saying this and that all in my own consciousness. But there's no point in that, like... it's not like it's going to produce grains of rice. (laughs) I guess the same thing is true of what I'm doing now, but... Well, the guys who make rice are the most amazing.
Q. Hahahaha! I get you.
A. People who make rice day after day are the most amazing, and I'm just in the entertainment business, so I'll never stand a chance against them. (laughs) Rice, and vegetables, even electricity and such - we can only survive by way of their 100% usefulness. Being so trivial in comparison, when I think about what I can do, I consider that maybe it's making songs like Hopeland.
Q. You've walked a risky path in your life, being shaken left and right, and while the shaking has calmed down, I'm sure you still do sway. You're still in your 20's, after all. And something like "Starving children in Africa don't need ideas or art, they need food" probably shakes you.
A. (laughs) Right.
Q. On the other hand, in the city, aren't there lives that might not be saved by food, but can be saved with just a few words?
A. Yeah, yeah.
Q. I don't feel that's a dualism, just still being in the process of finding the most appropriate path for the talents you were born with. In the sense of this album clearly stating that you're walking on the path most appropriate for you, I think it's really epoch-making. I think you'll keep getting more amazing.
A. Oh, really?
Q. Yeah. With the awareness that you have the talent to create this, you'll become someone who can make "rice with high-minded ideas." (laughs)
Q. That kind of thing exists. Very realistic, yet more lofty than anything.
A. Right. I want to make that sort of thing.
Q. As one step in the trial and error of getting there, overall, it's an incredibly well-done album. In Blue Jasmine, the final shocking love song...
A. (laughs) Yes?
Q. "Now, where should we go? Listen, darling, wherever it may be, / I'm sure that just having you beside me will make it special / With a kiss and a laugh, let's live like we're playing a prank / We've found something that won't go away, even if we lose it all / And I'll always confirm that I love you." That's how this album ends. I thought it was amazing.
Q. How did this come to be? Why did you think to finish off this song and this album with those lines?
A. Blue Jasmine happened when most of the album was complete, and I clearly thought "this song is missing." Stupidly direct, really confined... a song made just with things in a 1-meter radius of me. There was a sense of responsibility to it, too. The people listening to this album, once they've listened to it, they have to go back to living in reality, right? I made the song Hopeland, but Hopeland isn't a place that exists. So I was really worried after singing Hopeland whether it was okay to end like that. I feared that I'd made a song with a spirit based in ideals, and they'd be trapped inside it. That's when I thought: The Musicians of Bremen ends with them never reaching their utopia of Bremen, and it just goes "Who knows why, but they decided to live here, yaaay!" I felt I needed to have that option. "I'll find a place in society, and live decently." To do that, I had to realize that exhausting my words solely on mental things was incredibly lonely. Lofty ideas and things can't defeat the reality of "Okay, but what about tomorrow's meals?" And so the album had to end with a song that treasured the things in a 1-meter radius and actively encouraged people. I thought that was how it should end.
Q. Then you wrote it last?
A. Yes, at the very end.
Q. What did you think of it when it was done?
A. When I finished it... I thought it was a super good song.
A. (laughs) Right. This song's my favorite.
Q. Mine too.
A. (laugh) Really? It felt good to sing something so simple. A lot of the time after I finish a song, I never want to sing it again. But I think this song was born in a form that perfectly, 100% encompasses my mind, shape, form, etcetera. I don't think I've had a song this easy for me to sing before, nor one that stuck with me so well.
Q. I agree. Your songs are getting more and more substance. But in terms of saying "You can't write ideals in books! It has to be something that gets through to people!", you're still writing in books, ultimately. (laughs) Since you're still developing.
A. (laughs) Yeah.
Q. But this last song, at least, doesn't have any of those aspects. It's like a song that doesn't have an instruction manual.
A. That's right. I finished this song with unprecedented speed, in about two hours. I needed one last song, but the deadline was close, so as I pondered what to do, there came the melody, there came the lyrics, I added the chords, the arrangement gave me no real trouble...
Q. A different way to create, thus a rather different quality. Don't you feel that's a little worrying?
A. (laughs) Worrying?
Q. Like, "Making a song with an approach like that feels better. But I wonder what that means for Kenshi Yonezu's music?"
A. I guess that is a worry. By making this song the last one, I wondered if I'd get reactions like "I won't forgive you!" And there'll probably be reactions like "Yonezu sure has changed..."
Q. To use the earlier comparison, this really is rice. Most people will think you're someone who's lived his whole life with the notion of wanting to make rice, but it's more like "Yonezu really made rice..." (laughs)
A. (laughs) It's a great song, it really is.
Q. I think it's a fantastic album.
A. Hahahaha. Thank you very much.