Kenshi Yonezu/Hachi - Globe
Natalie.mu, August 4th, 2023 (Original Article)
This is the Way I'll Live - The Hayao Miyazaki and Myself Packed Into "Globe," Looking Back on 4 Years Creating the Theme Song for "How Do You Live?"
We interviewed Kenshi Yonezu about his new song, Globe.
Globe was written as the theme song for Director Hayao Miyazaki's new film, "How Do You Live?" [English title: The Boy and the Heron]. Yonezu has for some time stated his affection for the works of Studio Ghibli and his respect for Director Miyazaki, making this the realization of long-held feelings.
The CD single, released on July 26th, also comes with a documentary photo album that follows the development of the theme song. What transpired behind the scenes of the 4-year creation process? Yonezu discussed with us the influence Hayao Miyazaki's works had on him, the feelings he put into the song, and much more.
- Encountering Hayao Miyazaki's Works: A Powerful, Foundational Experience
— What was your foundational experience with Ghibli films, and the works of Hayao Miyazaki?
The first one I watched was Princess Mononoke. It was 1997, and I was in 1st grade. The area I was in at the time had hardly any movie theaters, and I didn't have a habit of going to see movies, so it wouldn't be going too far to say it was foundational just for me seeing a movie in a theater. That first time I watched Princess Mononoke extremely sticks in my memory.
— What kind of impact did it have on you?
It's an incredibly violent film, with arms and heads flying off - it shows all sorts of things you could reasonably expect a child to be traumatized by. The strongest sensation I was left with was "what the heck did I watch?" I don't know if it's because of that, but I can also still recall associated memories at the movie theater itself. I went in my father's car with my sister for the three of us to watch it, and before going to the theater we dropped by McDonald's for hamburgers, so the paper bag was under the seat while I was watching. In the dark theater, I vividly remember being able to faintly see that brown bag bathed in the light of the screen. That's just how intensely I remember the experience.
— Starting with Princess Mononoke, I imagine you went to see lots more Ghibli films as they came out. Is there one that's particularly memorable to you?
I feel the deepest attachment to Spirited Away, which I went to see around 5th grade. Somehow it's hard to put into words, but part of it is probably the fact the protagonist Chihiro is around the same age I was at the time, and I definitely had a longing as a child for the sorts of fantasy worlds where things happen that could never happen in ordinary life. A regular girl you might find anywhere, by some accident, gets lost in a place she doesn't know. That had a sense of reality to my childhood self - that I myself might, in my ordinary existence, turn into some alley and find that kind of world in front of me. I felt like that possibility was being suggested to me. I believe it was an enriching experience.
— Do you have any favorite scenes or moments that stick with you in Spirited Away?
It's a cliché answer, but I really like the scene of walking on the train track slightly submerged into the sea. At my recent concerts, I often have the same image at the opening and ending. That's influenced by Spirited Away. Where the first thing you see and the last thing you see feel completely different because of what you saw in-between. I learned about that from reading a book with quotes from Miyazaki-san. If we compare a movie to a tunnel, you want your viewpoint when you go in and when you come out to be a little different. Between before the audience came to the theater and afterward, you want their view of the world to have somehow changed, if only in some small way. I feel that using the same picture at the start and end is highly effective for expressing that kind of thing. So in the sense of being influential on me as well, Spirited Away might be number one.
- As a Great Teacher, and As a Father of Sorts
— Your formative childhood experiences aside, even after you came to create music as an artist, have you often referred to the works of Studio Ghibli and Director Miyazaki's thoughts and views?
I suppose so. It may just be what I've referred to the most in my whole life. But even I can hardly remember how it ended up that way. Of course I've lived my life watching Directory Miyazaki's movies, but I just can't recall if there was some great impetus for me referring to them when it comes to creating things, or when that began. That's how self-evident it is to me; I just found myself doing a kind of adoration.
— Right, that makes sense.
When it was decided I'd make the theme for How Do You Live?, I formally thought about not only what Ghibli films were to me, but Hayao Miyazaki-san himself, and I realized: there's no one in my life I could call a teacher. Whether it's music or art, I've had hardly any experiences being clearly taught something by someone. I was never very focused on schoolwork either, and I've hardly experienced any senior/junior nor boss/subordinate relationships. Being taught something by an elder and it having a major impact on my personality - looking back on my life, I found that kind of thing to be an extreme rarity. So maybe I looked to Hayao Miyazaki-san as a kind of teacher. As a great master, or to take it further, a father-like figure. His films overflow with blessings; meanwhile, if you read his writing, it's overflowing with bitter words. So he denied me, while at the same time teaching me "it's okay for you to live." Recently, I've come to wonder if I'd been looking to him for a kind of paternity.
— In a past interview, you mentioned writing the song Flying Swallow while picturing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. You were particularly influenced by the Nausicaä manga, and said it served as a guide. Could you go into detail on that?
If Spirited Away was a formative childhood experience, the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga was one for my adolescence, around 18, when I left the countryside and was living in Osaka absorbing all sorts of things. The part that left the biggest impression was the final scene. When the Master of the Crypt and Nausicaä talk, the Master says "You are a dangerous darkness," and Nausicaä replies "Wrong. Life is the light that shines in the darkness!" That line "Life is the light that shines in the darkness!" was incredibly impactful to me at the time. It was crucial for showing that you could impart something in short and simple words that were also universal enough to align with your own life. I truly felt like just having those words would let me live into the future. At the time, I lived a life struggling in darkness, and in despair and disappointment, I sometimes wondered if it was pointless for me, unable to shine, to live in this world. Yet this had the impact of affirming my entire life, like "Right, that's fine." That's why Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind became something important to me.
— In another interview, you talked about meeting Director Miyazaki and Producer Toshio Suzuki for the first time. Did meeting in person change your impressions?
Seeing Miyazaki-san in documentaries, there'd be scenes of him making stern remarks to staff, giving an impression like a stubborn father. But while it's obvious if you think about it, there's no chance he would act like that meeting a youngster for the first time, so he was all smiles when we first met. My impression was that of a cheerful grandpa. Seeing a young guy from who knows where, he asked me "How old are you?" "I'm 27." "27 years ago, why, that was just the other day." I imagine it was just a casual remark, but that he actually conversed with me was an epoch-making experience to me.
— By then, the knowledge that Director Miyazaki was making a new feature film was already out there.
Around the time the short film Miyazaki-san made, Boro the Caterpillar, was finished, I went to Ghibli for an interview in the Ghibli-published magazine Neppu about it. At that time, I was shown the studio - "just while I was there" - and by then they already had planning documents for How Do You Live?, and even Mahito's face up on the wall. I remember thinking something like "So this is the next film? Wonder what it'll be like."
- An Honor, and At the Same Time Incredibly Terrifying
— I heard that the impetus for you being asked to do the theme was Miyazaki-san hearing Foorin's Paprika on the radio.
Paprika was a new experience for me, making a song for children to sing and dance to. And also, it was requested it be some kind of "support song." During the period where I agonized over what a support song sung by children, who are typically the ones being supported, would sound like, Miyazaki-san's films were a big reference point. He's someone who's always been considering children as he makes movies, so I took a renewed look at how he made them. The conclusion of sorts I came to is that you can't underestimate kids. Going "doing this might make it hard to sing" or "will kids understand this word?" - choosing to make it kinder for a child, mentally or physically - would probably just come off as belittling children, I realized. Rather than making it by myself wearing a shackle of "this is how kids are," I considered it important to just be like "This is what I've made. What do you think?", standing on equal level with them to make something, and that's how Paprika was created. Then about a year later, I suddenly was asked "How about a theme song for a Ghibli film?" I could only describe my feeling as utter shock. Like "ehhh?!"
— So hearing about it stunned you at first.
Yes. I think at first I was like, "why?" Talking with them about things, apparently Miyazaki-san had heard Paprika playing on the radio. One day, at a nursery run by Ghibli, the children were singing and dancing to the song, and Miyazaki-san hummed along. Suzuki-san saw that, and thinking it some kind of fate, asked "What do you think about having the person who made this song make the theme song?", and he said "That sounds good." So Paprika, created with Miyazaki-san's films as a major cornerstone, was heard by Miyazaki-san, and that led me to be singled out for the theme to How Do You Live? - it was a truly awe-inspiring series of events.
— How did it feel at the time, hearing the details of the offer and making the song?
I don't remember very well. I actually hardly remember my first impression when word came in, either. You would all but expect to be so impactful it'd lodge in my memory, right? Yet I hardly remember what was going on then. Thinking about why that is, I imagine it's because it was an honor, but incredibly terrifying at the same time. For the four years since then, I've had a faint unease that it might be the greatest honor of my life, but could also be the end of my life as a musician. So the truth is, I don't remember very well.
- Going Home Taking Everything In, Sparing Nothing
— Did you receive descriptions of the film from Director Miyazaki or Producer Suzuki, or have meetings of some sort?
To start, I received the storyboards and got to read them over, and afterward we talked through meetings. Miyazaki-san told me about his basic idea: how he'd made a lot of different movies in the past, but this time he would open up the lid. He had in some sense been putting a lid on dark and muddy parts inside himself, but this time, he told me, he'd do away with that, going places he didn't go before, making a movie out of all of it, darkness and all.
— Ah, so that's it.
Also, he clearly recalled being a child and having doubts and dark feelings, like "Is it really okay for me to live in this world?" So he also discussed how through films, he wanted to convey to his past self, and children of the same age living now, "it's okay to live in this world," and "life is worth living." Miyazaki-san has said these things in various books and interviews, so I'd heard about it before, but they came from his mouth straight into my ears. While telling me this, Miyazaki-san was overcome with emotion and cried a bit. I vividly remember that.
— So there was talk of Director Miyazaki's childhood as well.
Right. We also had lots of totally irrelevant conversations. Once Miyazaki-san, to draw a picture of a boat, floated a boat made of wood on a local river, and it got caught in the vegetation. And then whenever he went there, it was stuck in the same place. It looked to him like some kind of curse, he said. He was probably just telling me about a thing that happened recently, but those words also left an impression on me.
— Not just meetings related to the work, but talking about memories of childhood, or thoughts on things he'd seen... I get the sense that time you spent on rambling conversation was very important.
Right. Speaking from my side, I've truly been saved by his films since childhood. As an adolescent, I went and made it into an adoration. It's a bit personal, but he might be my greatest teacher. And now I was able to work with him. Sitting across from each other at a desk for a meeting, I was determined to go home taking in his every action and word, sparing nothing. At first, I was incredibly formal and tensed up.
- Not Aging Nor Fresh, Something You Can Listen To For a Long Time
— Around when did you actually start making the song?
I don't remember for sure, but I think I started about 2 years ago. The whole time I was looking at the storyboards thinking about what would be good, while not knowing when the release would be. I wanted to do as much trial and error as I could manage, yet as much as I considered and as many things as I tried, I wasn't able to put it together as a song for about 2 years after being given the storyboards. A lot of time passed by just staring down the storyboards.
— I imagine there are many choices to be made when making a song, but for something that's suitable to play at the end of the movie, I suspect there's inevitably a desired tone for it to have. What was your starting point for creating the song?
I established the foundation from the start. I started from "let's make a Scottish folk song." It's extremely difficult to explain how I got there, but I always felt something Scottish-folk-song-like in Miyazaki-san's films. At the same time, I decided it would be something simple. Rather than an ornate sound built up with many instruments, I really just wanted it simple, using a minimal amount of instruments like piano, and then my voice singing over it. It shouldn't feel aging nor fresh, sort of as if it was old from the start; I should make something in that format that you can listen to for a long time. I decided that near the start.
— The bagpipes in the intro are striking as well. What about those?
Queen Elizabeth died during the process of making the song, and I watched a video of the funeral. In one part of it, there was a solo by the bagpipe player who woke her up every morning. At a symmetrical angle, the bagpipe player slowly moves toward the back while playing, eventually disappearing. I was very struck by that when I saw it. I tried playing the demo I'd been making over that bagpipe video, and the scale matched perfectly. Looking into things, I found that bagpipes only have so many possible scales, and the song I was making just happened to match one of them. I was like, well, now I have to put bagpipes in. I'd actually been thinking of just going with me singing over a single piano, but after that experience, I felt there was something there, and had no choice but to put it in.
— At a volume quiet enough that you have to listen for it, there's also a sound like a chair creaking. What can you say about that sound?
I wanted to make this song with great care every step of the way, so as pre-production for creating the demo, I took the step of going to a recording studio, recording there, and presenting what I'd made. However, though I call it "recording," I was trying out a variety of instruments, so I recorded without being too particular about the mic recording setup. And so, the creaking of the piano pedal made it into the demo. It wasn't something I'd done intentionally, but once it was recorded that way, I felt like it made for a really good sound. I tried recording without that, a piano in a proper recording setup with all noise removed, yet I couldn't help but find it lacking. I tried out a variety of recording setups, too. I changed studios, tested a number of different pianos, and changed where I was recording. I even tried using a properly extravagant piano, but I couldn't shake the feeling that none of it beat out the first piano with the squeaky pedal.
— So there's that whole story behind it.
Finally, thinking "let's try it just once," we recorded with the piano at the family home of (Yuta) Bandoh-kun, who did the arrangement for the song. A normal piano in a totally typical house. We recorded without any particular soundproofing, setting up the mic in the room where he'd spent his childhood, with the old piano from his mother's generation that he used to play. It's not like it had gotten periodic maintenance, yet it definitely had the best feel of them all.
— Rather than a perfect soundproofed environment with a fancy piano, the sound of a piano that's nothing special, yet has clearly passed much time with someone, was what stuck best.
It did. Bandoh-kun's mother was also in the same room while we did the recording. The piano was apparently one that was bought for her when she was a child. We came to visit around New Year's, so she was like "it feels like coming home," finding it all wonderfully peaceful. It was a really fun experience.
- "This is How I've Lived," "This is the Way I'll Live"
— How about the lyrics? What gave you your first lead on writing them?
I struggled most with the lyrics. I wondered where to even start. Anyone who's watched How Do You Live? can probably understand, but the method of more or less applying it to the story just wouldn't work. What I do still remember is getting to see some rough-draft footage, and thinking that it was like an ivory tower.
To an extent, I felt that it's a film that isn't thinking about the viewer; it's putting all its focus on what he told me in an early meeting, about "opening up the lid and taking out the dark, muddy things." So making a song summarizing this whole story is impossible from the jump. Knowing that with certainty from early on, I thought about what kind of song I should make, then. Growing up watching his movies from an early age, all my life respecting both the films themselves and the image of him creating them, I decided it could only work as a song about the relationship between those two axes: myself and Hayao Miyazaki. Thus, much like the title "How Do You Live?", the stance I'd take creating the song would be "this is how I've lived" and "this is the way I'll live." The only way I could create this song was to recapture how I saw Hayao Miyazaki and make it into music. As such, that's what the lyrics are like. Of course, that isn't to say I'm singing about myself. It's a song made for a film, so it does project the protagonist and what takes place in the story, but at the same time, it untangles Miyazaki-san himself, and me who grew up watching Miyazaki films, and things of that nature, all still muddied. Going back to when I was born, in what way have I lived? That's where the lyrics ended up. I struggled with the lyrics all th way to the end. Since it starts with "the sky on the day I was born," I actually wanted to go up to death, too. Like "the sky when I'm dying." I wanted to put something like that in, but figured it would leave too much unease, and might be superfluous considering the title of "How Do You Live?" So I ended up cutting that out.
— The song starts with "the sky on the day I was born"; were those the words that came out once you decided to take the song in this direction and set out to write the lyrics?
That's where I began. I decided I wanted to start with an overwhelming sense of blessing. Taking into consideration all the films Miyazaki-san has made to convey to children that "life is worth living," I felt convinced the song had to start from the place of "you were born here wanted."
— Looking at the lyrics, the line that personally hits me most is " I go on down this road, because I wished for it to go on." What do you have to say about that part? What feelings were you putting into the word "road"?
The sense that you're living in a succession of all sorts of things. After all, I've grown up absorbing the things Hayao Miyazaki has made, and also, there are young people looking at the things I make with that influence, feeling something, and making things of their own. I've gotten more opportunities to talk with those young people in recent years, and that's led to more and more opportunities where I truly feel that I'm a part of that continuity. So, in thinking about what's ultimately important when making something, I felt that of course talent and aptitude and such are important, but things like enthusiasm, will, and companions come above that. Without them, you won't even start; I become more painfully aware of that the older I get. Without the initial will to accomplish something, do a thing this way, do something like that, no matter how much one-of-a-kind genius you have, even if you have incredible aptitude and talent, you won't get anything started. I've seen lots of people collapse without that, after all. Indeed, passion, will, a kind of prayer - those are at the root. That's exactly why I'm able to move forward one step at a time. "Wishing for something" is an incredibly essential and universal act, isn't it? I think those sorts of feelings come out strongly in this line.
- Living in the Present in the Context of History
— The lyrics contain the lines "It all began with my little self, making an honest wish; accepting a sadness into me, I turn down the road." This feels related to a line in "Koiwai Farm" from Kenji Miyazawa's Spring & Asura; what was the origin and intention of these lyrics?
To say it up front, I've always liked that line in Koiwai Farm. In my teens, when I tripped on a small stone in front of me, hit my head, and became so oversensitive I was worried I might die, that was a line that saved me. At the same time, Miyazaki-san himself has various attachments to Kenji Miyazawa, and it felt like a major point in common between us. I was like, now it won't work unless I put this in. I have my life, and as a result of all sorts of things that happened in it, I arrived at this film. That's a great blessing to me, and an honor. And if I think about why something so fortunate happened, I sense it's because of all the things that have saved me throughout my life. In particular, I feel there'd be a great difference in what my life was if there hadn't been that line in Kenji Miyazawa's Koiwai Farm. It's just a possibility, but I might not have been alive in this world. That's truly how major it is to me. It was impossible for me to make this song ignoring that. From the start, I've lived treasuring that line so as to put it here, to create this song - I remember having that sense of it being inevitable.
— This is just my interpretation as a viewer, and I feel How Do You Live? is a work that can be interpreted in hundreds of different ways, but my impression was that it's a film with a theme of inheriting and passing on things. Not just Director Miyazaki passing on the things he's done to future generations, but how he himself has inherited things from his predecessors; I felt it depicted a passing of the baton in terms of creation. So this song, Globe, having a line from Kenji Miyazawa, indicates it not just being a theme song by Kenshi Yonezu for a work by Hayao Miyazaki, but containing within it influence from someone yet prior. In that sense, I felt it added to its strength as a theme song.
I think all the time about how I'm living in the present in the context of all kinds of history. I really like Paul Klee. There's this painting he did called Angelus Novus, and Walter Benjamin also wrote about it:
(from Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History")
I really like these words as well. I've lived decently long, and as years pass, I find myself thinking back more frequently on things I find nostalgic, things I grew up watching, things from when I was more sensitive than I am now. Before long, I simultaneously think back on how there's no getting that back now, and on people who I've lost. The influence of those words is in this song, too.
- A Feeling of Making a Little Earth, a Whole World
— Where did the title of "Globe" come from?
This was purely inspiration, but while watching a documentary on the making of Ponyo, I saw Miyazaki-san draw a picture on a globe. He was drawing the land around Ghibli in watercolors, and talked about how doing so let him visualize the land where he's living in 3D; that scene stuck in my memory. The brush covered in paint sliding along the globe left a strong impression.
— That image had enough impact to make it a central motif of the song.
Miyazaki-san has made fictional worlds in the format of film, but seeing him put a brush on a globe, I really got the sense he was making a little Earth, a whole world. It occurred to me that it contained all the essential elements of what he's been doing all this time. Then the words "as if spinning a globe" came about, so I intuitively felt Globe would be a good title.
— The package for the CD single comes with a photo album following the song's production. What was your impression seeing it?
There are photos where Miyazaki-san and myself are shown at similar angles. I feel a sense of audaciousness, maybe even discomfort. It's a feeling of "sorry for being an inexperienced youth."
— There are even photos of the wrap-up party when it was finished.
The wrap-up party was on a different day after the first private showing. Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san did introductions first, but then Joe Hisaishi-san and I were called up after that. The two of us went on stage, and Hisaishi-san also asked me about the story behind the creaking piano pedal, then we went right into the kagami-biraki [ceremonial opening of a cask of sake with mallets]. Yes, I was called up alongside Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san and Hisaishi-san. I was told beforehand "you might possibly go up on stage," so I thought I had readied myself to not look disoriented if that happened, but I didn't even imagine I'd be there for the kagami-biraki, so I was extremely hesitant, thinking "should this even be happening?" I swung my mallet down on "go," but Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san are powerful grandpas, so they struck it immediately and forcefully, sending a spray of sake flying that got on me for being too slow. They were like "heheh, sorry." I remember thinking I should have been more bold about it.