Kenshi Yonezu/Hachi - Globe
GINZA, August 7th, 2023 (Original Article)
The New Horizon Arrived At With Kenshi Yonezu's New Song, Globe
"I Have to Convey That Life is Worth Living"
Kenshi Yonezu has released Globe, the theme song for Director Hayao Miyazaki's new Studio Ghibli film, "How Do You Live?" [English title: The Boy and the Heron]. This song also merits celebration for being his 100th under the name Kenshi Yonezu. Over the course of 4 long years, this song was continuously being brushed up alongside the film, and could be considered a kind of culmination. We asked about his attitude toward the works of Director Miyazaki that have influenced him greatly since childhood, and the creation of this song. In this first part, we bring you the details up to the arrival of the request.
— On your social media, you wrote that you were first asked to create the theme song 4 years ago. At the same time, you say you were bewildered - "why me?" I imagine you had many exchanges with Director Miyazaki and Producer Toshio Suzuki, but could you tell us the process up to its completion?
The first point of contact between myself and Studio Ghibli was, back when the short film Boro the Caterpillar (2018) was being shown at the Ghibli Museum, being interviewed by the Ghibli magazine Neppu about my thoughts on it. After seeing the movie and finishing the interview, they told me they'd show me around the studio. At that point, there were already concept illustrations for How Do You Live? up on the wall, so I was like "this must be a character from the next film." Naturally, there was nothing said about me singing the theme song at that point, but Miyazaki-san did happen to be there. I was told "why not greet him while you're here?", and I felt like I was going to die. But meeting him for the first time, despite being from his perspective a 20-something youngster from who knows where, he spoke with me very cheerfully, asking how old I was. "I'm 27." "27 years ago, why, that was just the other day," he said to me. Though I felt like I'd been through plenty of ups and downs, that left a strong impression - "huh, so to him, that all just happened the other day?"
Very soon after those events, I started making Paprika (2018). The request was for a "support song" that would also be sung and danced to by children, and as I thought things over, I found myself stuck on this sort of paradox of "what does it mean to make a support song sung by children, AKA the ones being supported?" As I agonized over it, I found myself naturally looking to Hayao Miyazaki-san. I've watched his works since I was a child, and he's always made films with the attitude of needing to convey to children that "life is worth living," so I decided I wanted to take a closer look at how he makes movies and deals with children. In watching Miyazaki-san's movies and poring over his writing, the conclusion I came to was "don't belittle kids." Thinking children are "like this," with only so much mental and physical capacity, and making a song that's kind even to those who don't surpass that... I shouldn't approach it like "you're like this, yeah?" Even if there are parts of what I've made that I worry might be hard for kids to sing or understand the meaning of, taking a condescending attitude toward children just robs them of their independence. Thus, I decided to start from the place of not underestimating children. I think it's Miyazaki-san who taught me that fundamental idea.
— With Paprika coming about in that way, it must have come as quite a shock when not long after, the request came in asking if you'd make the theme song for Hayao Miyazaki's new movie.
That's why the first thought when I got asked was "why?" When I questioned why they wanted me, I learned that Miyazaki-san had apparently heard Paprika playing on the radio, so when children were singing and dancing to Paprika at a Ghibli nursery one day, Miyazaki-san hummed along with them. Suzuki-san saw him and asked, "why do you know that song?", and he replied he heard it on the radio. Suzuki-san took this opportunity to suggest "well then, how about we let this person handle the theme song?", and Miyazaki-san said "sure, that sounds good." The song Paprika, which I made with an attitude toward children adopted from Miyazaki-san, was to his liking, resulting in me doing this theme song... To call it "fate" feels kind of cheap, but I really did sense a sort of inevitability in it.
— Did you receive the storyboards soon after being asked about the theme?
Right. I was handed 5 big books full of storyboards. It truly was heavy, both physically and emotionally.
— It was the whole film straight through, from start to end?
The storyboards were fully prepared at that point, without a single difference from the now completed form. That was in spring of 2019.
— What sorts of exchanges did you have in the 4 years since then? I heard you visited Miyazaki-san's studio about 10 times.
The first thing Miyazaki-san spoke with me about in our first meeting was a rather frank discussion of why he decided to make this film. He'd made a variety of movies up to now, but there were things he didn't show. Though he'd always had gloomy and muddy aspects deep inside him, he hid them while creating, and he decided now was the time to open up the lid. He started by explaining that basic idea, and how he had to convey to children that "life is worth living" - that was where his duty lied. I had seen those words themselves in writing and videos many times, but to hear them straight from his mouth as he sat across from me at a desk, they had even greater weight. Seeing him say those words himself, emotional and on the verge of tears, was extremely striking. I'll probably never forget it as long as I live.
— Back when LADY was released, you spoke about your perspective that "humans are fundamentally chaotic, like a consecutive chain of chaos; there's no need for them to be consistent." That feels in line with Director Miyazaki's comments. Like the two of you were harmonized in making the film and song respectively.
I've been watching his movies since childhood, you see. Back then, I simply absorbed them, but ever since I became someone creating music myself, I've really just continued to watch him with a kind of adoration, taking tons of influence from how he makes films, and how he thinks and acts. Given there are fundamental things about the ideas I live by and the ways I think that I couldn't explain without bringing him up, I think it's all but expected to have something in common there. I had a conversation with Suzuki-san to include in the photo album that comes with the Globe single, and in that, he mentioned how he and Miyazaki-san talked about Kenshi Yonezu here and there while I wasn't around. Apparently Miyazaki-san said "I feel like he might be similar to me in parts. He's someone who's done a lot of playing on his own, isn't he?" Which is certainly true. So not to sound audacious, but in that sense, I wonder if there are at least a few things we have in common that we were born with.
— Did you ever actually tell Director Miyazaki the story behind Paprika's creation that led to this opportunity?
No, we never talked at all about that. My nerves were truly shot in our first meeting, so I don't remember anything I said very well, but I vaguely recall saying something like "I was greatly impacted encountering your films in grade school, and I want to make an embodiment of the fact that I've lived this way."
— Afterward, during your visits to Koganei, did you continue to talk about not just details of the film, but life and ways of thinking?
That's right; I hardly remember having any detailed talks. But one thing I distinctly remember is the story of Miyazaki-san floating a boat made of wood on a nearby river to draw a picture, that boat getting caught in some plants or trees, and it not being able to move anymore. When he went back to check on it, it remained stuck there, which he said felt like a curse of some kind. It was idle chatter, but it left an impression on me.
— In the comment you put out, you wrote that your time in Koganei "was nearly always clear and pleasant days, almost bizarrely so." At the same time, you said "I remember walking through darkly descending tree shade." Normally when making a song, I imagine you often picture a scene or situation and drop it into the music; was there some particular scenery you imagined this time?
In fact, I believe that scenery I wrote about in the comment probably did have at least some influence. I'm someone whose "normal" is holing up in a small room at a computer, thinking back on past things and retracing my memories to make music, so occasionally going to Koganei gave me an uncommon opportunity to go out. It really was bizarre how often it was sunny. And I'm talking blindingly bright. But, and maybe it's just my nature, when the sun shines bright, my eyes go to the shadows. The stronger the sun is, the darker the shadows are cast. In fact, I think my childhood memories of playing in the mountains have had a major influence on my creative work. The mountains of Tokushima... they actually give me more of a "valleys" impression than "mountains." There are lots of mountains in a chain, and rivers run in-between. So while they are mountains, the "valley" part, the rivers in the middle, left a very strong impression. I spent clear summer days playing in those rivers, and when it's incredibly sunny, the other side across from the river really did look almost as black as night. The sort of pitch darkness where you can't see an inch in front of you. It feels like you're connected to some other world. So I recall that back then, I would snap lots of photos of the other side of the river with disposable cameras, wondering if I might catch a ghost in one of them. I didn't, alas.
— Did you look at the five books' worth of storyboards all in one go?
Right. I reread them over and over again.
— Did anything relating to the song come to mind?
At first I had a period where I wondered what I could take from the storyboards, and what I should take. At the point I received the storyboards, it hadn't yet been decided when the movie would release, with it seeming it might not be for quite some time. So rather than get started on the song right away, I spent an extremely long time determining what kind of film this even was, and what I felt looking at it through my eyes. There was a good 2 years where I just kept those storyboards in the back of my mind while doing other jobs and living life as usual.
— When did the actual creation of the song start?
I believe I started earnestly making the song after seeing some rough-draft footage. At that point, it naturally didn't have voices still, and no music. The art was also lacking in spots, or in this placeholder state where they just put the storyboard there as-is. Around when I viewed that was when I finally started getting a move on.
"I Couldn't Ask For More Than Feeling Honored"
In this second part, we asked about everything from the creation of the demo track up to the finished song.
— You've created a lot of songs on request and for collaborations by this point, but this time feels incredibly different from past songs. I don't think it's a common experience to be tasked with the theme song for a movie created by someone who's been a huge influence on you.
I may not know what's going to happen in my future, but I feel like I couldn't ask for more than "feeling honored." But when I consider what "feeling honored" means, I feel it's an emotion derived from my life up to now, my sensitive childhood, personality aspects of that nature. For example, even if I were praised as excellent by the president of some country, while it's possible I'd feel grateful, would it be an "honor"? I get the feeling it wouldn't be. After all, it's not like I've been living per that person's influence. In that way, I believe there's no greater honor than me being involved with this film, exchanging words with Miyazaki-san, and getting to create this song. Because I've always watched his movies, and adored him all my life. For these four years, I've both considered it an honor, and wondered if it might mean the end of my life as a musician. Those polar-opposite emotions were swirling around in me all that time.
— Do you remember the first time Director Miyazaki listened to the song?
There came a day where I burned the prerecorded demo track onto a CD, and he would actually listen to it. Thinking I had to be present too, I went, feeling as if I was going up to the gallows. While sitting across the table listening to the song from a speaker, Miyazaki-san shed tears in front of me. That sight left the strongest impression out of anything in those four years. I imagine I'll keep it with me for the rest of my life. People might have all sorts of thoughts listening to this song in the future, and might even say it's no good at all. Even if that should happen, there's still the fact that it made Miyazaki-san weep, and that I had the experience of witnessing this myself can make up for anything.
— Is that the moment pictured in the photo album with you and Miyazaki deeply bowing to each other?
Yes. Miyazaki-san bowed to me right after he finished listening, and I hastily did the same.
— Had the shape of the song solidified at that point?
There were minor alterations, like the length of the song and some instrument changes, but it had basically the same form it has now.
— Did Director Miyazaki or Producer Suzuki have any requests for the demo track?
Not particularly, but I feel like they told me "it's long, huh." We also discussed "where should it play?" It was ultimately decided to play it over the end credits, but honestly, even I thought it was long. It was actually longer, taking an approach of going back to "the sky on the day I was born" and making more words and music from it, and at first I was thinking I'd go up to the point of death. But it's already there in the title "How Do You Live?", and giving it such a direct scent of death just didn't seem appropriate for the song or the film. So I cut it, feeling that it would be crude to make it blatant.
— As for the title "Globe," you mentioned it in the interview with Suzuki-san, but it was based on a scene in a Ponyo documentary where Director Miyazaki was using a globe, correct?
Right. That's why, even if I certainly couldn't say it's directly related to this film, that scene in that documentary was very striking to me as someone who's always chased after Miyazaki-san. Using a brush and watercolors to paint the scenery of the local area on a little globe. By creating a vibrant world on the globe, it feels as if he's the ruler of that little Earth. It felt so suitable for him as a creator of films, and so the phrase "as if spinning a globe" came to me naturally. I intuitively felt then that the title had to be Globe.
— Speaking of the lyrics, the chorus has the phrase "crossing over the rubble." "Rubble" is a rather powerful word choice.
To get personal, I like the painter Paul Klee a lot. In particular, I really like his painting called Forgetful Angel, and following from that, there's one called Angelus Novus (New Angel). The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a short poem about it. The ninth thesis in his Theses on the Philosophy of History is about the "angel of history," and I'm extremely fond of it. To broadly summarize: the angel of history has his wings spread. He's looking back, gazing at a growing pile of rubble. The angel just wants to stop and stay there. If possible, he wants to revive the dead buried in that rubble. However, there's an unceasing headwind blowing. Buffeted by that wind, he can't close his wings. Carried by the wind with his wings open, he can't help but be moved forward. That wind is called progress, the act of living in this world - so goes the poem. I really love it. I felt something in common between this poem and the films Director Miyazaki has made, as I think there's a strong sense of it in the film How Do You Live? as well. So I think the use of "rubble" may have taken inspiration from there.
— The line "I go on down this road, because I wished for it to go on" is also stunning, carrying a sense of pride held by all people who create.
As I grow older, I become more able to see my own life objectively. I've lived my life as a person who creates music, and I've realized there are a lot of things that are necessary for that. In the field of music, of course aptitude, or to put it more simply, talent, ends up being important. It's cruel, but there are things you can't make happen unless you have it. However, even before that, there are actually things like enthusiasm, or will, or having a wish, wanting to do this, wanting to make a certain thing, wanting to live a certain way - without these to start with, you won't even get started. You could have immense talent, and capabilities that could change the world, yet without that passion, you can't make use of them. What comes to be most important is enthusiasm, wishes, and prayers. With things such as those, humans are able to cut a path, get onto that path, and continue on toward new wishes. Miyazaki-san continuing to make movies had a great influence on me. Including the fact that I am who I am now thanks to him, I feel like that chain of blessings, that succession, is something extremely important, so perhaps that lyric has these feelings contained in it.
— Bringing up "prayers" and "wishes" reminds me of the striking use of bagpipes in the intro and chorus.
The bagpipes weren't in when Miyazaki-san first listened to the demo. During the brushing-up stages, Queen Elizabeth passed away. I watched the broadcast of the grand funeral service, and it was very intricately done. During one part of it, there was a servant who played bagpipes to wake Queen Elizabeth up every morning in place of an alarm clock, who did a final solo. The bagpipe player was in the center of a strictly symmetrical camera shot, and slowly moved toward the back until out of sight. That scene was very striking. I tried putting the demo track over that video as a test, and the (musical) scale matched perfectly. Looking it up, I found out bagpipes evidently only have about three scales, and it just happened to match one, which felt incredibly fateful. The film also begins with a mother dying, so if you think of Queen Elizabeth as a mother figure of sorts, I figured it might be well suited.
— Queen Elizabeth died last year, in 2022. So then, about when was the song finished?
It wasn't completely finished until this year. Sure enough, I wanted to keep working on it up to the last second, so even if it was practically ready, I kept being like "maybe a little more like this, a little more like that," and finally finished it around the same time as the fixing of the film.
— What was the idea behind putting in that sound like a floor creaking?
That's the sound of a piano pedal creaking. When I first made the demo for Miyazaki-san to listen to, I thought I should record it in a proper studio with enough intensity that it could be listened to as if it's more or less the final thing. Yet when I recorded with a quickly-prepared piano and microphone, quite a bit of noise got picked up. The creaking sound of stepping on the pedal was also in there. Afterward, when I recorded with a real deal piano and a mic set up with utmost care, it felt all too lacking. From there, I did a lot of experimentation, trying fancy pianos, pianos with beautiful sound, all sorts of pianos. Eventually I moved on to felt pianos, where when you press a key and it strikes a hammer to make a sound, there's felt inserted into the part that's struck to dampen it. I did trial and error to determine if making that fabric thin or thick was better. I even tried putting in hand towels and things instead of felt. Ultimately, the best choice was stockings. Though I settled on stockings for the dampening fabric, the piano itself just wasn't sticking for me, so I made an attempt recording with the piano at the family home of (Yuta) Bandoh-kun, who co-arranged the song. An old piano that had been used since his mother's generation, in a very ordinary household, without any soundproofing set up or anything. It wasn't as if it even received any special maintenance, yet when I recorded with that piano, naturally noise and the creaky sound of the pedal got in there, but we discussed how maybe that was actually best after all. We recorded around New Year's, so it had the mood of a homecoming.
— The cover for the CD is a layout sketch by Director Miyazaki. What was your reason for picking this image?
I always draw the covers myself, every time. The only time I haven't before now was Ghost of the Sea (2019), the theme song for the film Children of the Sea by the manga artist Daisuke Igarashi, who I have extreme respect for. What these two instances have in common is that it felt brazen for me to draw the art. I thought I had no choice but to use art drawn by Miyazaki-san. After looking through the storyboards to decide what scene would be best, I felt the scene of the protagonist Mahito at a desk, reading "How Do You Live?", would be most appropriate for this song. I went to talk to Miyazaki-san personally. I asked, "Is it all right if I use this?", and he simply said "It's fine."
— Incidentally, do you like birds? Many appear in the film as well, including herons.
The apartment I used to live in let you go onto the roof all you wanted, and there were a lot of crows flying around the area. I know you shouldn't really do this, but I would feed them onigiri and things. In doing so, I gradually came to recognize individual birds, like "this one's back again." Crows really are clever; sometimes when I didn't even go on the roof or give them onigiri, and was just lying on my living room sofa, they'd tap-tap-tap on my window. They'd come to visit, like "gimme the onigiri." They're really smart. For a time, I was like a friend to the crows.
— Do you have anything you consider a protective charm?
Kenji Miyazawa's poem anthology Spring & Asura. I first obtained it in my late teens, the same period when I read the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, and it served as a guide at a time when I was having a nervous breakdown. I extremely love the closing lines of the poem Koiwai Farm in it, which are actually in this song as well. At the time, I would always go out with it hidden in my pocket. It's now only in my memory, but by remaining always in my mind, it still serves like a protective charm.