"I Didn't Want to Be a Mocking Adult" - Why Young People Support Kenshi Yonezu
Kenshi Yonezu is a musician who currently finds strong support from people in their teens and twenties. From his beginnings posting Vocaloid songs to NicoNico Douga in 2009, he then came to release songs sung with his own voice in 2012, and made his major debut the following year. Though he appeared from the internet, he hasn't stayed put there. Why does his music, which he always claims was an attempt to make something beautiful, captivate the hearts of young people?
A hall full of 1,500 people held their breath, listening intently.
There was no one standing on the wide stage. Music played from the speakers, and lyrics appeared on screen. Music videos played to match the songs. Everyone was enraptured, and couldn't take their eyes away.
On October 10th, at the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho, Tokyo, an advance-listening was held for the new album of singer-songwriter Kenshi Yonezu, BOOTLEG. The fact that the event, at which Yonezu himself did not appear, reserved an entire large hall is unprecedented all on its own, but mere days after the event's announcement, over 10,000 fans had signed up to attend.
Corporate Director Shunsuke Muramatsu from Sony Music Entertainment, the associated label, states that "(listening to the music,) I believe I bore witness to to awakening of a genius."
Asking people their thoughts in the lobby after the show, a pair of 22-year-old college girls unanimously replied with fervor: "I got goosebumps," "I was crying." One 16-year-old boy in high school told us "I got into him when he was active on NicoNico Douga, and I've liked him ever since." A 20-year-old college boy said "I look up to how he keeps evolving." And a 15-year-old middle-schooler: "I'm preparing for exams, so I'd like to listen to the album for encouragement when studying." It was clear to see how his words and melodies had pierced the hearts of teens and twenty-somethings and shaken them to the core.
The album contains a number of theme songs to anime and films, as well as collaborations with franchises. Kenshi Yonezu claims that creating songs to suit the requests he's received, oddly enough, actually helped him confront himself more deeply.
"(When making songs for offers,) the "core" thing I pay most heed to is looking for the common points between myself and the other party. For instance, with Peace Sign, which served as a theme song for My Hero Academia, I recalled my own memories of watching my favorite anime Digimon Adventure in grade school. I think I looked back a lot at myself from before age 18, when I was still living in rural Tokushima."
Yonezu, in 2009 at age 18, began posting music to NicoNico Douga under the name Hachi, and in 2012 shifted to using his real name of Kenshi Yonezu. Though he began his career as a "Vocaloid producer" - someone who uses Vocaloids like Hatsune Miku to make music - his music has greatly diversified since.
He makes songs and sings with his own voice. He also draws the illustrations on album covers and the like himself. He even involves himself in the animation for his music videos, and last but not least, he's attempted contemporary dance.
World-renowned choreographer and dancer Tomohiko Tsujimoto is another captivated by his talents. The two met for the making of the music video for the single "LOSER," and he gave lessons to Yonezu, who had hardly ever exercised, much less danced.
"He has a sense for things that's rarely seen. I've seen many spectacular dancers in Japan and around the world, but he has an outstanding grasp of it and his own style. It's not as basic as just being good at dancing. He has talent. He has a priceless beauty inside him, and a tenacious focus. He can understand dance by feeling."
As it turns out, it only took a mere two weeks of refinement for him to learn how to handle himself beautifully for recording. He's continued to have periodic lessons from Tsujimoto since.
A musician, yet also exhibiting extraordinary talent in the realms of art and dance.
What in the world is Kenshi Yonezu?
Born in Tokushima in 1991, Yonezu says he grew up with a sense that he "wasn't a proper human" as far back as he can remember.
"Looking back on my past, I wonder sometimes if I have the attitude I do now because I was born with a body like this, and a name like this. I was about 4500 grams when I was born, and the name Kenshi Yonezu also has its influences. It's my real name, but I've always thought it was a really weird and bombastic name, and I've been teased for it."
He also has strong memories of a time in kindergarten when his lips were badly injured. When he returned from the hospital after emergency treatment, the bewildered stares he received had a major influence on his self-consciousness.
"If there is such a thing as being "proper," in that moment I felt like I was a little deviated from it. I thought I'd become something different from the humans around me. I've lived thinking "I've become something improper" ever since."
Hiroshi Nakajima, a guitarist who plays in Yonezu's music and concerts, was a childhood friend of Yonezu's since grade school. They first met in fourth grade. His first impression came from a picture of Yonezu's put on display in the school's gymnasium. He'd drawn a game character on a keychain made of flat plastic.
"It was really good. It wasn't like something a grade-schooler would draw, but something could just see being included in a manga magazine."
As a child, Yonezu often drew by himself. He dreamed of drawing manga. He was a fan of series like Doraemon and Naruto.
"Since kindergarten, I remember drawing pictures in the sand with my finger. I also remember being happy when people said "you're pretty good." Maybe that's my mother's influence. She also makes art, and has an art teaching license."
He began getting into music from grade school to high school. It started with some Flash animations popular online in the early 2000's. He learned about BUMP OF CHICKEN from their songs being used in these animations, and became captivated by ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION and Spitz. In middle school, he acquired a guitar and got his friends together to start a band.
"Making a band, to me, felt like an extension of drawing. I wanted to make songs more than I wanted to do shows. The thing I wanted to do most was make a beautiful melody and lyrics, then put them together in one form, just like I'd draw a picture on paper."
Nakajima was also part of that band. He described his memories of adolescence like so.
"I first heard Yone's songs in second year of middle school. He told me he made a song and he wanted us to do it at the culture festival. He had the lyrics and music, so he talked with us like "So can you play this part like this?" I couldn't help but have a fun time. But all the members scattered when we got to high school. We kept up our relationships as friends, but as a band, we slowly faded out. However, Yone had a clear thing he wanted to do. I saw glimpses of him being sorta impatient sometimes."
His friends had perceived the band as an extension of play, while Yonezu was already beginning to dream of making it big as a musician. Yonezu explains the "impatience" Nakajima saw as follows.
"I had that hubris unique to adolescence. I remember I was thinking, I have something amazing, so I need to get out into the world before other people like me show up. Also, I was really scared of dying. I've always had the feeling like I needed to come up with my own "answer" to death. Since I'll die someday. Counting back from that, I decided to ask myself how I should live right now. That's how I've always felt."
Graduating high school and entering a vocational art college in Osaka, he continued to make music. He even made some new acquaintances and formed a band with them. However, bands just wouldn't work for him. That's when he encountered Hatsune Miku.
"At first, it was about popularity. At the time, Vocaloid and the NicoNico Douga scene were very exciting, and I predicted my music could be accepted by a lot of people if I took part. With just that one common point of Hatsune Miku singing it, I could meet people I never possibly could have prior. It was abundant with music like you've never seen or heard before."
And so in 2009, he took on the name Hachi and posted original songs using Hatsune Miku to NicoNico Douga. His fourth song posted, Close and Open, the Rakshasa and the Corpse, was the first to break one million views. Later songs like Matryoshka and Panda Hero also became hits with several million views. Among Vocaloid songs at the time, focused on cute pop, his rough and wild melodies were clearly unique. His name quickly became known among Vocaloid fans.
Nakajima remarks, looking back: "I thought, "sure enough." I really thought Yone's creations were cool, so I thought "of course it'd turn out like this." When he reached explosive popularity, it was sort of both happy and lonely."
Meanwhile, another Vocaloid producer making his start on NicoNico Douga in 2009 was wowaka, now active on guitar and vocals for his rock band Hitorie. He described their meeting over the net.
"When I started posting songs using Vocaloid, I had fun fishing around for songs to listen to. And among those, his songs were of a different color, a different smell. I could tell what melodies were his right away, and he was memorable for how he even drew pictures on top of making the music. From the start, I was aware that he had a real presence. So when he hit extraordinary views with Close and Open, the Rakshasa and the Corpse, I remember thinking "I knew it, people found him and he got popular. So cool! But argh! I'm mad!""
At the time, wowaka was a college student. Kenshi Yonezu, Hachi, was in vocational school. They both had plenty of time to spare. Once they got home, they booted up their computers and spent their days on video sites late into the night.
Yonezu thinks of this late-2000's era of NicoNico Douga, where anonymous amateur creators could all post Vocaloid songs, as his "home."
"It was a newly-born playground, and thus a place where everyone could just do things innocently without really thinking about their future. It was chaotic, stimulating, and very charming. The things it gave me are immeasurable, and my music career really does start there. I think it was a rare, fertile soil."
In the summer of 2017, he released his first Vocaloid song as Hachi in 4 years, Sand Planet. It was made to be the theme song for the event Hatsune Miku Magical Mirai 2017, commemorating the 10th anniversay of Hatsune Miku's birth.
This song was also shown in concert at Makuhari Messe from September 1st to 3rd. On stage stood a 3D hologram projection of Hatsune Miku, singing the song accompanied by a live band. A sea of pen lights waved in the seats.
However, the song was not quite a happy celebration of Hatsune Miku's anniversary. Over a dark, turbulent melody are sung lyrics like these:
Thunder flies back and forth in an empty sand pit
Worthless sounds, and eroded life
No grass will grow for the next millennium, it's a sand planet
Yonezu says this song was made with the imagery of NicoNico Douga slowly turning into a desert. Compared to the past, less Vocaloid songs hit the top of the rankings. While anonymous amateurs continue to improve themselves, it's lost some of its energy compared to the early days of Vocaloid music. He decided to make the song as a warning about that situation.
"When I was asked to do the Magical Mirai theme song, I was really unsure at first. I thought very hard what exactly I could and should do with the opportunity. So I tried making a happy song that was like, "congratulations on 10 years." I tried a bunch of other approaches, too. But this was the only one that seemed to stick in the end. After all, the things I've done with Vocaloid, well, they're not very happy songs. Even Matryoshka and Panda Hero demonstrate anger toward various things. That's why I felt going that direction was the only thing I should have done."
Yonezu says that "I've always made music questioning myself on what kind of person I am."
As a child, drawing alone at home. In middle school, making a band with friends in a rural town. At 18, finding Hatsune Miku and starting to do music online. His memories of the past, his constant efforts to make something beautiful, support him now.
"When I was a teen, there were adults around me who talked like their past selves were just crappy. I was really put off by that. I felt like, indirectly, I was being made fun of. I've always made music very seriously, in my own way. I've always had the belief that I'm making the most beautiful thing I can think of at that moment. If I look back at it today, I can see there are things I didn't think through enough, places where I was inexperienced. And yet, I was always earnest. I decided I never wanted to be the kind of adult who denied or mocked that earnestness, like it was a black mark on their past. That's a feeling I've kept to this very day."