Yokohama Arena feels special on this chilly Tuesday night in early March. It’s here that Radwimps — a rock outfit from Kanagawa Prefecture whose members could bike to this very venue when they were teens — are playing the first of two sold-out shows.
The group — featuring vocalist-guitarist Yojiro Noda, guitarist Akira Kuwahara, bassist Yusuke Takeda and drummer Satoshi Yamaguchi (though he has been on hiatus since 2015 due to a neurological disorder) — reminisces frequently during the show on their youth and watching gigs at this venue in the early 2000s. They play songs from across their career, touching on everything from pop-punk to experiments in electronica.
Yet the arena responds loudest to songs from “Your Name.,” the animated film about body-swapping teenagers for which Radwimps provided the soundtrack. When it comes time for “Zenzenzense,” the track most associated with the anime, excitement boils over.
Let’s be clear: Radwimps were already big. Since releasing their eponymous debut album in 2003, they’ve morphed from fledgling four-piece to album charts fixture. They did this by darting between styles: reggae-dappled numbers mixed with somber ballads and a rap-rock song that references Eddie Murphy.
But there’s a difference between the kind of success where fans recite sales statistics to convince the uninformed, and properly “big.” Radwimps have achieved the latter thanks to the success of “Your Name.”
“A lot of relatives started calling,” bassist Takeda tells The Japan Times with a laugh. “A lot more people know our songs now,” adds guitarist Kuwahara, who has come straight from the gym to the offices of Universal Music and is nursing a protein shake. “More people sing our songs at karaoke.”
This is an understatement. The songs Radwimps wrote for the film have become almost unavoidable. They’ve been invited to play them on popular weekly program “Music Station” (a first), and nabbed the Outstanding Achievement in Music award at this year’s Japan Academy Prize ceremony (Japan’s Oscars).
Radwimps’ contributions — from instrumental pieces to shout-along rock tracks — are essential to “Your Name.,” which may become this decade’s biggest anime.
“The music resonated because the message of the movie and that of Radwimps’ songs matched perfectly, without any gaps,” director Makoto Shinkai says via email. He first encountered Radwimps’ music in 2007, while spending a year in London. “The lyrics, in Japanese, were like nothing I’d heard before. They were so vivid.”
Years later, when starting what would become “Your Name.,” Shinkai’s producer asked who his favorite artist was. When he said “Radwimps,” an offer to score the film was extended.
“It was pure surprise,” Takeda recalls. “I’ve been a fan of Shinkai’s movies since (2002’s) ‘Voices of a Distant Star.’ I never thought something like this would come up.” Still, the arrangement presented new challenges for the band. Radwimps had never scored a film before.
“We could only look at storyboards. The director would say, ‘Right that second, this is where the chorus should hit.’ It wasn’t down to the minute, it was down to the second,” Kuwahara says.
“The instrumental songs were the most challenging for me, but it was fun thinking of how to be in the back of each scene,” Noda says via email. (He’s wrapping up the filming of a drama titled “Women of a Million Yen” and can’t make the in-person chat.)
Less enjoyable, though, was the new experience of having songs rejected.
“Before, when the band thought the music was good, it was good,” Kuwahara says. “Now, the director could refuse.” It was a process that could take time and resulted in a handful of proposed tracks being dropped entirely.
“The instrumental ‘First View Of Tokyo’ took a long time to be settled,” Takeda says. “Yojiro came up with it, but the director had many small changes we tried to adjust to. But none of them felt right to Yojiro. He kept thinking the original version was the best. There was a little bit of a battle between the two, and it took a while to settle.”
“I asked them to modify their music over and over,” Shinkai says. “I’m guessing now it was painful work for a band like Radwimps, who have complete control of their own world. But they never gave up and all of the background music works.”
This process went the other way too, with Radwimps’ contributions shaping the film’s final cut. Some were relatively small — Takeda notes that during the montage in which “Zenzenzense” plays, the original plan was to have the two main characters speak over it. However, Shinkai eventually opted to highlight the lyrics.
“To do that, he extended the animation. I feel sorry for the animators who had to do that,” Takeda says playfully.
Additionally, the anime’s entire denouement came together because of Radwimps’ “Nandemonaiya.”
“When Yojiro brought the rough version of ‘Nandemonaiya,’ I got so excited. When I listened to the song, I could immediately imagine the Tokyo that the main characters experienced,” Shinkai says. With that, the final segment of “Your Name.” — and one of its most iconic passages — was animated.
“When all of this started, the intention wasn’t for this to be huge,” Takeda says. “We wanted to do something interesting, on the side really.”
“When we started on it, I realized just how many songs we had to write for this project,” Kuwahara adds. “It was so time consuming. I thought ‘I hope this isn’t just an indie movie, I hope it gets huge.’
“And it did, so it all worked out in the end,” he says with a laugh.
Japan excels at seishun eiga (youth drama) and bands that revel in cliche. To critics, “Your Name.” and Radwimps could be seen as just the latest: The former looks like “Freaky Friday” for the otaku set, while the latter gets slotted in the same category as uninspiring anthemic Japanese groups.
Yet what makes them both so deeply compelling — and what makes Radwimps the perfect choice for Shinkai’s breakthrough — is the ambition at their core. This has long been what has set Radwimps apart, an energy conveyed through their genre-skipping experiments and Noda’s lyrics, which riff on the teenage experience.
Meanwhile, “Your Name.” tells a teenage love story even as it examines the vanishing Japanese countryside, post-3/11 anxiety and the transience of life. It hits you in the gut from about a half-dozen angles.
Takeda says it works because both the band and Shinkai came from the same place. As neither thought “Your Name.” would be massive, they worked in a way so as not to constrict each other. “I think that’s where we synced up.”
In the same way that Joe Hisaishi’s scores for Hayao Miyazaki’s works brought out the sweetness and melancholy at their center, Radwimps’ “Your Name.” soundtrack — especially the tracks with vocals — up the emotional drama at the film’s core.
“I wanted to cry,” Takeda says, laughing, about seeing “Your Name.” for the first time. “I was so touched by it. We knew the story very well, and obviously we knew the music well, but those coming together as a movie in front of us was really touching.”
The experience continues to impact them. Late last year, Radwimps released “Human Bloom,” their ninth studio album. Not only do songs from “Your Name.” appear on it, but several numbers rejected from the film pop up (“Hikari” and “Lights Go Out”). It sounds like a continuation of what started with the soundtrack.
After wrapping up a domestic tour, Radwimps will open for Coldplay at Tokyo Dome on April 19 before embarking on an Asia tour in June. And they’re starting to work on new music, too.
“Whatever experience we got from ‘Your Name.,’ I think that’s always going to be part of what we do now,” Takeda says. “It will always be part of us.”
For more information, visit http://radwimps.jp/
‘Your Name.’ has deep impact
The Japanese box office numbers for “Your Name.” say a lot. Director Makoto Shinkai’s animated feature about body-swapping teens currently sits as the second-highest grossing Japanese movie ever, trailing only Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” Suffice to say, it is a very popular flick domestically.
Yet those rare-as-a-comet numbers still don’t express just how much of an impact “Your Name.” has had here. Its rise started like that of any successful pop culture offering: PR landed it on TV programs, which would continue to discuss and reference the film. The soundtrack by rock band Radwimps took on a life of its own. Where it turned into a full-blown phenomenon, though, was when we started seeing reports of fans visiting the Tokyo spots portrayed in the movie and the more rural setting of Hida, Gifu Prefecture. Travel agency H.I.S. offers walking tours while the Gifu-based Nohi Bus organizes bus tours of Hida.
The “Your Name.” devotion is plentiful on YouTube, where users demonstrate how to style your hair like the film’s characters or cover Radwimps’ songs. Kumihimo, a form of braiding, has become hip among the Instagram set, partly due to the central role it plays in the plot.
Just as impressive is how well “Your Name.” has done internationally. It has performed well in Australia and New Zealand, while becoming the highest-grossing Japanese film ever in both China and Thailand. It also became the first Japanese film to open in the top spot at the South Korean box office since “Howl’s Moving Castle” in 2004, which has also led to plenty of praise from the country’s influential K-pop stars.
According to IMDB, “Your Name.” is currently the fifth-highest grossing film worldwide this year. It will be released in North America on April 7, and the folks behind the Cool Japan campaign will likely have their fingers crossed until then. (Patrick St. Michel)