A Song of Blessings, Ringing Out With Powerful Resolve
Kenshi Yonezu released his new single M87 on May 18th.
The title song was written as the theme song for the movie Shin Ultraman, planned and written by Hideaki Anno and directed by Shinji Higuchi. Its dramatic melody, powerful vocals, and complex structure making much use of key changes are very striking. Accompanying it are POP SONG, written as a song for a PlayStation commercial and released on streaming recently, and the new song ETA.
In this interview, centered around the process of M87's creation, we discussed his thoughts on his planned first tour in two years, his message for younger generations, and more.
Q. What was your impression when you received the offer to do the theme for Shin Ultraman?
A. I was startled. I liked Shin Godzilla enough to watch it many times in theaters, so when I found out Anno-san and Higuchi-san were making a Shin Ultraman, I was looking forward to the movie's release as a simple fan. I never imagined such an offer would come my way.
Q. Had you been exposed to Hideaki Anno-san's works, like the Evangelion series, since a young age?
A. I have lots of memories watching reruns of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water as a kid. I learned about Evangelion in about middle school after the fact and liked it, and I also watched Revival of Evangelion and the Rebuild of Evangelion movies again and again, so I had a lot of respect for Hideaki Anno-san.
Q. What about the Ultraman series? Did you have a familiarity with it?
A. Apparently I liked Ultraman a lot around kindergarten, but I don't really remember it. I had a PVC figure of him, and was apparently able to recite the name of every Ultraman to date. But I absolutely don't remember that, and after kindergarten I didn't pay much attention to Ultraman at all. So I became a bit distant from Ultraman, but I figured I would make a song that also took that sort of thing into account. In short, take a standpoint of not remembering what Ultraman is. That would be my stance toward Ultraman; to flip it around, I figure I couldn't have made this movie's theme song without going that way.
Q. Which is to say, a standpoint of having had intimate knowledge of Ultraman as a child, but now as an adult not necessarily remembering in detail how that came about or the stories. What ideas did that experience of yours lead you to?
A. Ultraman is someone who fights those who would bring any harm upon the Earth, protects the Earth, protects people in town. I think by doing that, he's giving people a kind of blessing. When I was a child, I was the one being protected, receiving all sorts of blessings to live. I may not remember it, but one of those was surely Ultraman. But it's not as if you can still remember everything you experienced as a child when you become an adult. I may have said this in the Paprika interview as well, but I don't think it's likely every one of the children singing and dancing to Paprika is going to remember it when they become adults. In fact, it might be that very few people will remember it. However, even if that happens, it doesn't mean that experience went away. In the same way, while the fact I used to love Ultraman may have settled into the depths of my memory, I can sense that my whole nature is built upon that foundation, and it connects all the way to my present self. So in writing the theme song for Shin Ultraman, I considered the favor and blessings I've received from my childhood, and how I have an obligation to give those sorts of blessings to the current generation of children as well. In both my past and future, there are most certainly figures like that. I wanted to write about that chain of blessings.
Q. Did you begin after receiving a script or materials for Shin Ultraman?
A. I received a script, and while watching the rush print, searched around for what kind of music would suit the work's style.
Q. What inspiration did you take from the film's story?
A. Ultraman is a protector of humans, but humans can be selfish, and when faced with an immense power, will try to use it. I think it's cool how though Ultraman finds himself in a dilemma between humans trying to use him and monsters, he still chooses to protect Earth and humans based on his own beliefs and convictions. How he appears kind and powerful despite being forced into a lonely fight might be the thing I emphasized most making this song.
Q. In the lyrics, the first verse uses the first-person "I," and the second verse and chorus use the second-person "you." It seems to be structured like there's a conversation happening in the song; why did you make it that way?
A. I believe one of the concepts of Shin Ultraman is bringing the original Ultraman into modern times, so I thought about what that could mean. I read what Hideako Anno-san wrote about what feelings he had during the planning of this film, and he said some striking things like "aiming for something that can keep adults' attention while reviving something from the past," or "wanting to value nostalgia." Reading that, I felt I couldn't escape from thinking on my own past self. Of course, I don't mean just flattering my past self, but making use of that to create something my current self can delight in 100%. That said, reviving something you saw as a child is fundamentally a conversation with your past self. So from there, the song naturally ended up working that in through a conversation between "me" and "you."
Q. So this song has a motif of "conversing with your past self." Is that connected with "the feeling of now being the one giving the blessings I received as a child" you described earlier?
A. Right. When I write a song for a collaboration, I always start by looking for what the work and I have in common. In that sense, though I don't think I'm as laudable as Ultraman, I've turned 31, so I'm becoming no longer especially young. I've been more frequently feeling how there's no use in doing music just for me, and how I can't be satisfied unless what I'm doing can have some societal meaning. In that way, I thought that safeguarding and protecting something, and telling things to younger generations, are aspects that we would soon have in common. If there's anything I can offer my own words about to generations younger than me, I should express them with powerful, assertive words. That ended up being the link between me and Ultraman.
Q. There truly are some assertive words in the lyrics, such as "If you have a desire, I'll see to it with all my might." The song seems to be challenging itself to beautifully express the notion of strength.
A. I have a fundamental tendency to avoid using strong words. There's power in such things, and using them can mean taking on some kind of responsibility. Ultraman is a story that begins with him coming to this planet, deciding to protect Earth after a certain impetus, and taking on that responsibility. Finding a distant connection, I thought I should take responsibility for what I say too. Make music with an assertive tone, that distinctly shows my resolve. That's an incredibly important process not only in making a song for Shin Ultraman, but in my life, so I thought that would the best form for it.
Q. What was the story behind giving it the title "M87"?
A. At first, the working title was "M78 [with numerals instead of kanji]," but when I checked with the movie team, Anno-san replied "If you're making it "M78," wouldn't "M87 [using kanji]" be better?"
Q. What did he mean by that?
A. He just decided upon receiving that comment, but apparently he'd heard an anecdote that Ultraman's birthplace was, during the original planning, not the M78 nebula, but the M87 nebula, yet something led to it being called M78 later. Even Ultraman not having a Color Timer in Shin Ultraman was done in order to revive Tohl Narita-san's true initial design for Ultraman. Shin Ultraman is a film with the intent of making the Ultraman Narita-san and the other creators at the time had wanted to make. So I imagine making the title "M87" was for similar reasons. I'm also fond of the coolenss of writing the numbers as kanji.
Q. The single also contains POP SONG, recently released on streaming, and the new song ETA. Around when and with what feelings did you make ETA?
A. This was a song I made thinking I'd include it on STRAY SHEEP (album released in August 2020), but chose not to. I might have mentioned it in the interview at the time, but it was so dark I decided against it. The fundamental feel of it hasn't changed since then, but with a slight change in direction, it was finally able to see the light of day this time.
Q. The line in this song "Waiting for me up ahead, I'm on my way to you" leaves a strong impression, and I thought about its connection to the announcement of your first tour in a long time.
A. I leave it up to everyone how to interpret it. Perhaps I unconsciously l had that sort of thought.
Q. What thoughts do you have about the tour?
A. With it having been 2 years, I'm thinking about whether I'll actually be able to do it well. I've had a long blank, and I have work to do reconstructing songs I made at a time with no concerts so they can be performed live. But sure enough, I think concerts are an important part of my career. I've had such a lack of opportunities to meet face to face with people who like me, so I'm interested in how I'll feel getting to meet after so long.
Q. Have your thoughts on concerts changed during the pause?
A. Personally, I'm the type of person who would ultimately be okay with it even if they did vanish for good. But at the same time, it feels perilous to have that thought. I don't think I have much of an aptitude for doing shows to start with. Since I'm a person who likes it best to sit in a recording studio or at a desk by myself, and endlessly build things up and break them down. But I do also have the desire to meet people who like me, and it's something I have to do. So I'm thinking, "I wonder if I'lll be able to face them properly?" I'll try to do my best to gradually restore my dulled body for then.
Q. Lastly, let me ask. You said you made the song M87 with an awareness of talking to a younger generation, but besides what you put into the song, what do you think about or want to express to that generation right now?
A. Let's see... "Never surrender the things you really don't want to give up," I suppose. Of course, a certain amount of compromise is necessary to live in society, and you have to make concessions with various things. But when it comes to the things you really don't want to give up, there's no need to surrender one iota. The moment you give it up, your life will become a mess. What it is will be different between people, so I can't say anything unconditionally, but I want them to look back on their life and think about it. There are times society will try to sway you saying "this or that is correct," and you feel like you're being taken here and there. But at that time, don't fall for cheap words or immediate benefits, establish for yourself "the moment this barrier, this threshold is crossed, I'll collapse," and defend it to your last no matter what happens. I want them to value that.