From "Hachi" to His Real Name: The Self-Depicting "diorama"
Kenshi Yonezu, the newcomer who's already become well-known among rock listeners and online music fans. What kind of creature is he? In truth, Yonezu's already received more than 20 million total views on songs he's posted online, being one of the most popular Vocaloid creators, "Hachi." But "Hachi" chose to sing under his real name of Kenshi Yonezu and record brand new songs for his now-complete first album, diorama. This is no doubt a significant event of online talent being unleashed upon the real world.
Handling the lyrics, composition, arrangement, vocals, performance, videos, artwork, and mixing himself, he possesses unheard-of creativity in this online era. His popularity is apparent from the fact that the songs already posted online - "Go Go Ghost Ship," "vivi," and "Love and Fever" - have already amassed a total of 1,700,000 views. A new talent springing up on the rock scene, which has for some time seemed lacking in CDs, lacking in hits, and generally stagnant. Upon the successful release of his album, we conducted the first long-form interview about his album: a diorama-esque portrayal of his profound inner world.
Q. How do you currently feel now that your first album, diorama, is complete?
A. Hmm, I guess just "it's finally over." Since I've been planning the album since about two years ago.
Q. Incidentally, Yonezu-san, you already had a staggering number of popular songs as the Vocaloid creator "Hachi." Had you simply released, say, an album focused on "Matryoshka" with its 5.5 million views, that alone would have sold easily. So then why an album of brand new songs, with your real name, and your own singing?
A. I think everyone thinks of me as someone who's succeeded in Vocaloid, but I had a feeling of not wanting to hide behind the cloak of Vocaloid. The Vocaloid characters are all cute, and work perfectly as pop icons, and they can't have opinions, can they? All that makes it really easy for a creator. But I was always worrying, "What if this is like The Emperor's New Clothes...?" I wanted to get away from that.
Q. I see. So you were worried that perhaps it was just Vocaloid's greatness helping you along. Personally, I very much liked "Urban Playground" (from the album OFFICIAL ORANGE, released November 2010), so I was very glad when I learned you were providing all the vocals for this album.
A. Urban Playground was like a kind of prototype to move myself forward. I believe I've been having these same thoughts since all the way back then. I thought, if I'm going to be making an album, it seems right that I should sing it myself, and there's lots of different music I want to try. So I decided to make this album, and worked on music and illustrations in my room for two years.
Q. Your risky move of doing the singing under your real name gave birth to a pure yet sensual rock album that shakes both mind and heart. I'm surprised at your arranging ability, Yonezu-san. I expect it'll have a big impact on the rock scene, which has stayed distant from Vocaloid culture thus far.
A. Hmm. I think in some cases, you can't get something until you give something up. There's the famous quote, "Hold on tightly, let go lightly" (from English director Peter Brooks). To get to someplace new, you have to change yourself. If you make trifling things that still cling to the past, then perhaps it's best to lay yourself bare.
Q. Even the title of the album, diorama, seems to represent you. I think it's an album that expresses your profound inner world like a diorama.
A. From the beginning, I wanted to create a sort of miniature little town. I've always loved to imagine characters, stories, and places for people to live in.
Q. I get a strong impression that you're an aloof creator, Yonezu-san, but the idea of trying to communicate to innumerable people through music interests me greatly.
A. But I'm not good at communicating with others... I've always thought human relationships have gotten pretty weak in our age, kind of? Even if we live in the same town or school, our bonds are usually so flimsy... We have conversations, but we can't really tell if we're connected or not... I wanted to express that view of the world in my work.
Q. So that's the gist of it. Perhaps it's not going too far to say that social media's rise as a simple communication tool has some effect on that. Incidentally, while of course you handled the videos and artwork yourself, but did you ever consider having any guest musicians?
A. Knowing myself, I guess I knew deep inside it'd be no use not working alone... I don't know how to put it, but when working with another on making something, if our ideas differ even a little bit, it takes away all my excitement. I think, "No, they don't understand..." and that's the end of it. It's fine if we can understand each other, but sometimes it's just a huge pain to do so... So I tell myself I should just work alone. And since I can draw, it was perfectly possible for me to do everything myself.
Q. Even if you say you "know yourself," you're carrying yourself very well for a first interview. Have there been any incidents where you sensed serious miscommunication?
A. I got in a band in my second year of middle school and was in it until the end of high school, but something just didn't sit well with me... Perhaps it's a bit mean to say I "ran away to the internet," but it's through the faint feeling that things would be easier that way that I arrived here. Additionally, I've sometimes found the desire to create from miscommunication. It makes me think about odd and flimsy relationships...
Q. So then the catchy music of your album is grounded in a desire to communicate? Listening to it myself, I felt a strong intention of trying to surprise and please the listener.
A. Perhaps that's true. But I simply like poppy things. I don't like weird things that I don't understand. In my musical life, craving for communication comes first. Like music is the only contact I can make with society... Of course, there's not really anything else I do in my daily life.
Q. Do you feel the Vocaloid works you made as Hachi and the songs you sing now are different?
A. They're rather separate. It's me making both, so the major parts are the same, but I suppose one goes in more deep. Free of the Vocaloid interface, I feel more like I'm laying myself bare. So yes, they're different things.
Q. Posting "Go Go Ghost Ship" to NicoNico Douga, calling yourself Kenshi Yonezu for the first time, it broke 700,000 views as a new-wave dance number. Listening to that song, I was wondering if you liked UK rock artists, like those who perform at SUMMER SONIC.
A. Well, the title does start with "Go Go." I believe I did focus on UK rock-ness and the addictiveness of the song.
Q. It's a definite feel-good song, with the singing and the pace of the lyrics. Meanwhile, the seventh song "vivi" gave me a pained feeling in my gut.
A. I think that's the song that most closely matches my inner world. No matter what, we can't understand each other. Whenever I think we have, we're really just passing each other by. vivi depicts that kind of sadness. I think itt's something you just have to accept...
Q. Oh yes, the video for "Love and Fever," on the DVD included with diorama, portrays an absurd world that pushes its ethics and morals. The art made me think of American writer Edward Gorey. He typically used very thin lines, and it had a very artistic monochrome feel.
A. I like Gorey's "The Doubtful Guest." Perhaps I was influenced by him. Sometimes I wonder why he drew whole books in pen, but I suppose it's because coloring is a pain.
Q. Still, doing all your artwork must have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort, right?
A. It's hard to distinguish the time spent on life and the time spent creating. My life is really one of only creating. When I'm not making something, I'm reading, or taking a look at the internet... making me feel like my life simply is creating.
Q. I suppose the videos, which spectacularly present your world, took just as much time and effort.
A. When making the songs, I had a desire to finish everything fully, so I ended up starting on the videos as well. And, as they're my own works, I kept saying "Can't cut any corners..." So they took a fair amount of time in the end.
Q. Back to the "miniature little town," I really like the impact of the "town" being on the back of a giant catfish on the cover.
A. There was the earthquake in March last year, right? That comes through a fair bit. In the beginning, I wasn't making it with any sense of disaster. I thought I would just make an ordinary town. But last year, the town collapsed before my eyes, and I thought it would never be the way it was before... The catfish matches art of catfishes from the Edo era. Since there was a huge earthquake then, too. But I wasn't thinking of trying to make a statement or anything. I think it's all just an extension of my drawing and playing games as a child.
Q. So what are your musical roots, Yonezu-san?
A. I like BUMP OF CHICKEN. We got a computer with an internet connection in fifth grade, and it was popular then to make Flash animations to BUMP songs. Perhaps it was a forerunner of the kind of thing done on NicoNico Douga nowadays. "Searchin' for My Polestar" and "Dandelion" bring back memories. Being online got me worked up over them.
Q. I see. They're artists I could see being associated with your fairytale style and monochrome feeling. Judging from the variety of your vocabulary, I get the impression you read a lot.
A. I like books. I put emphasis on the way words sound. I like the beautiful anthologies and such by Kenji Miyazawa and Yukio Mishima.
Q. I bet an old bookstore would be good for you.
A. Please don't take me. (laughs) I don't like looking around bookstores. I can almost never find the books I want... It's easy online. Just click.
Q. Oh, right. On the gallery page of your official site, there's a storybook posted with the same style as your album.
A. I've drawn lots since I was little, but that was my first time drawing pictures to match a story. Actually, I drew it because I didn't have much else to do when I was at my parents' house last summer.
Q. It seems there's a connection between it and characters appearing in the diorama songs, too.
A. Indeed. Namely, caribou. My head was full of things for diorama last summer, so they share the style.
Q. It seems listeners are hoping to see a concert for the release of your album. What are you thinking about holding concerts?
A. I'm... not really in a concert mood now. First of all, I have no band... And the diorama album never had any pretense of being associated with a concert. So there's that. But I suppose I'll have to someday...
Q. Well, any last messages for the listeners?
A. I'm feeling totally washed-out right now... I hope you can all listen to diorama.