"Freedom Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be" - How Kenshi Yonezu Has Changed, Entering His Thirties
10 years since beginning to sing as Kenshi Yonezu. From Lemon to Paprika, he's put out songs being sung to a broad range of generations, adults and children alike. In his twenties, he says, he had to face large walls in front of him daily to live as a popular musician. In what ways has his mindset changed upon entering his thirties?
Kenshi Yonezu calls himself "a person who makes music for the modern public." It's now been exactly 10 years since he moved from being Vocaloid producer Hachi to singing with his own voice as Kenshi Yonezu. In that time, he's tackled music by always considering what it means to be "pop."
"In my twenties, I considered saying the words "I'm not interested" to be taboo. It felt like the moment I said that, it would establish my "territory," and I wouldn't be able to go any bigger than that. It doesn't matter what it is - I'll get interested in it, meet people completely different from myself, and in so doing reconstruct my form. I felt like that for about 10 years."
"But turning 30 last year, it was like that restriction was repealed; that is, I started to think "ah, I guess it's fine now." I definitely don't think taking interest in all kinds of stuff and reshaping yourself is a bad thing in the least, but rather than rushing to gain interest in all these things, I really feel like it's about time I looked deeply for themes that are important to me."
In these 10 years, the range of Yonezu's music has dramatically broadened. His album STRAY SHEEP featuring the hit song Lemon, upon its release in August 2020, had excellent CD sales, downloads, and streaming play counts, surpassing the double million mark (Oricon total rankings). Meanwhile, there are still many fans who lovingly listen to his earlier albums like YANKEE and Bremen.
"Before, there were these big obstacles in front of me. These obstacles I had to get over one by one, of "what should I do to live as a popular musician?", or "what should I do to establish (the music I make) as pop?" They were like giant walls, and I had to get over them as if I was rock climbing."
"When those obstacles were there, I just had to confront those stresses, so it was easy. Of course (creating) is extremely difficult, but it was fine to just focus on that and not look at anything else. I'd climb and climb, and reach the top, and when I stood at the top thinking "phew, I've climbed it," I was able to see far too many things way off in the distance. I could see the small things in the distance at an incredibly high resolution. I think there are times I've lost sight of what I should really be looking at as a result."
These "obstacles to living as a popular musician" have hardly anything to do with whether or not things would catch on. Looking back on the time Lemon became a social phenomenon, he called it "a natural, spontaneous event, like a typhoon."
"Of course, part of me feels like because of that happening, I gained some freedom as a musician, so I'm grateful for it, but it's not something I could do on my own power. Besides, freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be. (laughs) Having some kind of obstacle is easier on the mind."
He's only performed on TV a single time. He does occasional InstaLives, but they don't come across as something with great effort put into them; he can be seen reading out interesting comments, sometimes playing a song and singing along, and generally following his whims and acting freely.
"The general public are people who go with the flow, so I think there'd be no point in taking the initiative to do any particular approach. Taking that too far would give me a wicked mind, I feel. I imagine having too little of one might also be questionable for a popular musician, but I don't want to have wicked thoughts.
How does Yonezu picture a "popular musician"?
"Looking back, I think that as a child especially, I lived with a self-punishing feeling of "the world is generally right, and I'm always the one who's wrong." In the process of looking at my surroundings and where I stood to figure out why I was mistaken, and what I should do to not be mistaken, I encountered music that sounded as if it were being sung about me yet reached a broad audience of people besides me, which shook me to my core. If I were to put my mental state at that moment into words, I think I would express it as "wanting to be a popular musician.""
In his twenties, he kept journeying to meet with other people. Turning thirty, he's now trying to get on the next stage.
"I get the sense that to live a just, deep, and long life as a musician, I need to maintain a distance from certain things and create a sacred space. If your reasons for making music become too deeply involved in other people's evaluation, in things external to yourself, I don't think it can last long."
"I talked about my feeling that "the world is generally right and I'm always the one who's wrong," but in continuing to make music, my way of thinking has gradually changed, and now I feel more like "hey, world, go along with my mistakes." Naturally, I have no intention of arrogantly jerking around those around me, and don't mean to hurt other people either, but I'm not a perfect human, so I sometimes do shameful things. I was born that way, so there's no helping it if I make mistakes. I feel like by making music, one song at a time, I'm praying for my wretchedness to be forgiven. It might be hard to understand, but that's kind of what popular music is like to me."
In April this year, it was announced he would write the theme song for the film Shin Ultraman, titled "M87." It had already been announced that the movie was being planned and written by Hideaki Anno and directed by Shinji Higuchi.
He was told that Shin Ultraman would be a reboot that dropped the original Ultraman character and world, aired on TV from 1966 to '67, into the modern day.
The offer to do its theme song was a "bolt from the blue."
"I didn't even imagine there would be a "theme song" to begin with; given that the famous theme song ("Song of Ultraman") exists, it was extremely difficult figuring out how to reinterpret Ultraman in 2022. One idea I had was that it would be take the form of an homage of sorts to the original Ultraman theme song, but I considered that me being a modern popular musician was a major reason why I was called, so I ought to make a completely new song unrelated to that, and thus it took that shape."
The lyrics for M87 contain the line "Right now, don't be afraid of everything; be the one person to know pain."
"Pain is an incredibly personal sensation, isn't it? Even if an occurrence isn't that big a deal to one person, it could be a serious problem to someone else. So I'm saying, don't try to relativize that sort of thing. It's no use comparing yourself to others and invalidating your own absolute feelings. You can't surrender your pain to others. I think perhaps that's an extremely important thing for living powerfully and kindly like Ultraman."
The Ultraman design appearing in Shin Ultraman had the stated concept of "returning to the original designed by Tohl Narita." Tohl Narita was not only responsible for designing Ultraman and the monsters, but is a spirited artist who studied at art college, and a sculptor.
"I considered that I ought to start from what Ultraman is like in Narita-san's mind, so I aimed to take inspiration not only from Ultraman, but from all of Narita-san's art and designs. Since Narita-san's a reputable artist. It seems he's a person who's greatly suffered in the rift between artistic pursuits and amusing the public. I came to think that having the song include that discord of Narita-san's, untangling such things one at a time, was an extremely important duty. So I pictured a dignified song where, despite being pulled from both ends, you're holding to a single major axis and standing tall."
Though Ultraman is now something adults can enjoy as well, it was overwhelmingly children who were enthusiastic about the original Ultraman. Yonezu, too, heard from those around him that he used to play with a PVC figure of him when he was young.
"I don't remember it myself. However, just because I forgot doesn't mean the experience itself went away. For instance, I don't think each and every child who sang and danced to Paprika is going to remember it. People's new experiences build on top of past experiences even from before they can remember, constructing their rich nature as people. I believe I received Ultraman's blessings in kindergarten, and that came in a roundabout way to connect with my present self. I myself might be blessing someone I don't know by making music, and I expect I might be awaiting some blessing I haven't seen yet in the life ahead of me too. I wanted to put that "cycle of blessings" into this song as well."
Having finished transporting a heavy load, what he wants to do now is "live a proper life." It would seem that when he leaves things be, his daily cycle gets bent out of shape.
"That's been the biggest consequence of the lack of concerts. During concerts, my schedule is set, so I end up rather healthy in mind and body then. Sure enough, I wanna live healthily. (laughs) Because I think keeping things up is extremely difficult. Rather than go around looking at a variety of things, I'll prioritize more primitive interests. I'll look more at myself, and won't seek reasons or goals for making music from my surroundings. I believe that might be an important thing for these next 10 years."