In a world saturated with celebrity culture, it’s not hard to sometimes get a bit envious of some stars. It’s understandable, because from a distance the fame, the sex appeal and seemingly endless amounts of cash can seem pretty alluring.
However, the green-eyed monster gets some satisfaction when a celebrity tries to cross over to another field and doesn’t make it. Nonfans will look on with an air of skepticism — and even indulge in a bit of schadenfreude if the star doesn’t reach the lofty heights of their previous forays.
However, for every Mr. T and Bruce Willis, whose crossovers were far from triumphant, there is a Mark Wahlberg and Takeshi Kitano who find success in their alternative “true calling.” Former mixed-martial artist Genki Sudo is now finding his star rising for a second time as popularity grows for his dance-performance unit World Order, whose music videos have become viral sensations.
“When I was in high school I had two dreams,” Sudo says. “One was to become a professional fighter, and the other was to become a musician.”
With a noteworthy fighting career under his belt (he retired in 2006), and World Order having clocked up a total count of more than 16 million views for its videos on YouTube, it seems that both dreams have come true in a big way. The Japan Times caught up with him bright and early at a cafe in Tokyo’s Minato Ward one recent morning to talk about his second rise to fame.
World Order got its break at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference last summer in Los Angeles when Sudo gave a short speech in English about the quake-stricken northeast of Japan. Then his seven-member all-male group, wearing their trademark dark suits, roused the audience with a robotic dance that had been intricately choreographed by member Ryo Noguchi. The troupe’s movements are slow and precise, but can suddenly speed up as if switched between the “slow motion” and “fast forward” buttons on a DVD remote control.
World Order has steadily been gaining international recognition since the Los Angeles show, garnering attention on popular websites such as Boing Boing and The Huffington Post. It has also recently been popping up on Japanese TV, making appearances with artists such as Johnny’s frontmen SMAP. If that’s a way of gauging popularity in the local mainstream market, then World Order has joined the ranks of a small group of reverse-import artists who have successfully made it back to these shores.
And Sudo is certainly no stranger to foreign shores. The roots of both of his careers can be traced back to success abroad.
“There would definitely be some demerits if I tried to start World Order here in Japan,” Sudo explains. “I thought it wouldn’t be perceived as that cool, an ex-fighter becoming a musician, you know?”
True enough it can be an upward slope embarking on a new career in an overly familiar environment. Perhaps a stickler for challenge, his fighting career also took off in the United States, when he won his professional debut match-up against Tiki Ghosn by a unanimous decision in June of 1998, before returning to Japan and winning his first fight in Tokyo the following year.
After racking up a strong professional MMA track record, Sudo traded in his shorts and gloves for a suit and glasses to focus more of his time on musical endeavors.
“I was always planning to stop at some point, being a pro fighter and all,” Sudo says. His retirement and subsequent change of job description may not have come as a huge surprise to some however, especially to those who have seen his extravagant entrance shows, where he came into the arena decked out in flashy and elaborate costumes, usually backed by a posse of dancers.
“It came to a point where my passion for performance overtook my passion for fighting,” says Sudo with the beginnings of a smile. “I’m just glad I didn’t get punched too much in the head over my career.”
Having sufficient brain cells left after eight years in the ring has led him to recently complete a master’s degree in regional political administration. “I like history,” says Sudo simply. “So I thought I’d learn about politics.” There is no doubt his interest in history and politics has lent itself to some of the lyrics in World Order’s songs, all of which Sudo writes himself.
“These days the world has become mechanized,” he says. “What’s needed now is a more organic order. There are a lot of songs out there about love and such, but not many about civilization itself.”
It appears that the messages in World Order’s songs have had more relevance since last year’s earthquake.
“3/11 was a turning point, not just for Japan, but for the world,” Sudo says. “We are at a point where we should ask ourselves whether it’s OK to continue the way we’re going now, and reconsider our balance with nature.”
Indeed, the track “Machine Civilization” does pose the question: “Something broken / In the twilight of machinery / Where’s the world going?” A bit broad but still insightful considering the song was uploaded to the Internet just a week after the quake last March, and as the ongoing nuclear crisis was just starting to unfold.
Musically, World Order’s songs cater to fans of Japanese electropop with multimillion-selling producers Tetsuya Komuro and Takashi Watanabe on board to boost Sudo’s lyrical and musical credentials. Tastes aside, the tracks have a unique Japanese flavor, while in contrast with other forms of mainstream J-pop and hip-hop.
“It’s physically impossible to express all of Japanese culture,” Sudo says. “But if Japanese artists just rap like artists in the United States, then I don’t see them becoming too popular overseas. They’ll think we are just copying them.”
So, for a man who has wowed audiences both in the ring and on the stage, what’s his idea of good entertainment?
“A lot of entertaining is about projecting one’s ego,” Sudo says. “It’s about finding the balance between my values and the audience’s. Finding the gray zone. Things are never just black or white, the answer is always gray. That’s where the secret lies.”
For more information, visit www.worldorder.jp.