Kimonos and heavy metal. It’s a combination that few groups have pulled off convincingly. While the aesthetic may have been used last year to turn (or bang) more than a few heads in the West by heavy metal idol unit Babymetal, the tiny trio certainly wasn’t the first to attempt it.
Enter Ningen Isu (human chair). The group, named after the 1925 short story by novelist Edogawa Ranpo, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The band was originally formed by schoolmates guitarist Shinji Wajima (49) and bassist Kenichi Suzuki (48). Current drummer Nobu Nakajima (48) joined the band in 2004 after the band went through a revolving door of drummers in the 1990s. All three contribute vocals.
Ningen Isu first came to mainstream attention in 1989, after appearing on popular audition television show “Miyake Yuji no Ikasu Bando Tengoku” (“Yuji Miyake’s Rising Band Heaven”), or “Ika-Ten.” Responsible for debuting acts such as Blankey Jet City, Tama and Jitterin’Jinn, “Ika-Ten” was very much the center of a “band boom” during the late-’80s economic bubble of Japan. At a time when other metal bands were referencing speed and thrash metal, Ningen Isu stood out thanks to its slower, Black Sabbath-esque grooves.
The group has had a rather tumultuous history, being dropped from its label after four albums, which resulted in the members having to take up day jobs for much of the ’90s. They soldiered on however, releasing albums via independent labels at a pace of two every three years.
“I think we’ve all lived with the band at the center of our lives,” says guitarist Wajima at the Shibuya offices of the band’s current record label, Tokuma Japan Communications. “We had times when the band wasn’t doing so well commercially, and I think most people in a similar situation would focus on eating and living, neglecting their bands and eventually breaking up or going on hiatus. Or when you have a family, it’s actually very hard to continue this lifestyle. We wanted to be a band more than anything, even if we had to give up a lot of things, or if we were a bit poor.”
The band will perform in Tokyo at Shibuya Public Hall this Saturday, finishing up a three-date tour across the country in support of their 25th anniversary best-of compilation album, “Utsushiyo wa Yume,” (“Life is a Dream”), which was released last month. The compilation collects tracks from across Ningen Isu’s entire catalog, with four brand new tracks recorded specifically for the release. Complete with hallmarks such as “Hari no Yama,” (a guitar-charged cover of Welsh band Budgie’s “Breadfan” with the lyrics rewritten in Japanese) and the trudging-but-menacing “Ringo no Namida,” the collection showcases the down-tuned, heavy doom, gloom and sludge you would expect from a band often referred to as the “Japanese Black Sabbath.” Add lyrics referencing early 20th-century authors Junichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and throw in stage attire consisting of kimonos and shironuri (a kind of white face) makeup, and you have almost the perfect balance of British heavy metal with traditional and literary Japanese aesthetics.
“I decided on the band’s concept about a year or two before we debuted,” explains Wajima, who is heavily influenced by classic Japanese literature. “Rock music is very much Anglo-American culture, but I wanted to take that musical style and spirit and do it in a very Japanese way. I also try to be conscious of Japan as seen from overseas. If we approach rock music from too much of a Japanese mentality, then we would just end up copying overseas acts and we can’t compete with them.”
The show at the Shibuya Public Hall will be a milestone for the trio, who are playing the esteemed venue for the first time in more than two decades, thanks to a sudden renewed interest in the band from younger generations who have discovered Ningen Isu online. The renewed attention perplexed the band more than anyone, to the point where the members decided to hand out questionnaires after one show to see what other artists their new fans were listening to. Surprisingly, the answers weren’t limited to other metal bands, but included overseas artists and idol acts.
“We realized that the only thing that matters is that you’re active, and that you’re producing good material,” Wajima says. “Music fans are really honest. They don’t divide music up by genres. We started by wanting to do something different from what people expected to be heavy metal. Like, you’re not supposed to wear a kimono, you need to wear black. Or, you need to have a good singer. We wanted to do something interesting, something that would surprise people or make them laugh.”
With an expanding, young fan base and unexpected collaborations with other artists (Wajima recently contributed guitar to the B-side of Momoiro Clover Z’s upcoming single with Kiss) it seems like Ningen Isu has been rewarded for its perseverance.
“To me, a band lets you do all sorts of things, from writing lyrics and songs to playing guitar and singing. You can express yourself in full,” Wajima says.
He laughs, “Also, I like how you get way less money than being in a normal job. If you don’t become popular, it sometimes feels like you’re just working for free, but that’s what’s great about it. It’s something that’s removed from economics. Bands don’t have money, but they’re doing it because they love it. I’m very lucky to have a place like that in my life. It’s a place where you can become pure.”
Ningen Isu plays Electric Lady Land in Nagoya on Jan. 22 (7 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 052-201-5004); and Shibuya Public Hall in Tokyo on Jan. 24 (5:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 050-553-0888). For more information, visit www.ningen-isu.com.