Playing a sadistic real-life villain in the Angelina Jolie film “Unbroken” clearly took its toll on Takamasa Ishihara, who admits he wept and threw up as he prepared for his final scene. Now back in a more familiar role as the enigmatic musician Miyavi, the man known as the “Samurai Guitarist” is flying high once again. The 33-year-old was in a buoyant mood as he sat down with The Japan Times to discuss his experiences on set, his reaction to the film’s critics and his new album, “The Others,” which came out this week.
“I’m really buzzing about this record,” he says, speaking at the Universal Music Japan offices. “Changing to a Telecaster guitar gave it more of an electric sound and, as a result, it’s edgier and more aggressive than anything I’ve done previously. I wrote and recorded a lot of it in Nashville, Tennessee, which was amazing. I’m not really sure how I ended up there, but it was like rehab for me. Up until that point I was all over the place. I had the movie and everything that brings with it, plus a world tour. Honestly speaking, it was overwhelming. As a result I felt a distance growing between myself and music, I just wasn’t enjoying it. That changed in Nashville.
“It’s such a soulful place. The whole city is musical — you go into restaurants and even the waiters can sing. It was the ideal setting to rediscover my creative side and I think that is what I managed to do with this album. I’m not completely satisfied with it — I know I’ve got more to give — but I am happy. It’s got a real bite; I just can’t wait to get on stage and perform these songs for my fans here in Japan.”
Produced by Grammy winners Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders, “The Others” is Miyavi’s first album in just under two years. It’s raw, fast-paced and includes a cover of Denki Groove’s 1997 hit “Shangri-La.” It also features the soaring vocals of former The Music and The D.O.T frontman Robert Harvey on the song “Unite.” The two men met twice previously in Japan and have kept in contact via email ever since. Miyavi believed using a vocalist for one of his songs would “give him more opportunities to explore as an artist.” It worked well; “Unite” is unquestionably one of the best tracks on the album with Harvey’s Robert Plant-like voice complementing Miyavi’s style of guitar superbly.
With the exception of “Shangri-La” and “Unite” — words by Harvey — all the lyrics on the album were written by Miyavi, Drew and Shannon, and musician Leo Imai. It’s an expressive body of work conveying a range of emotions that sounds like a personal journey through various stages of his career. From despair in the song “Cruel,” where he sings about swimming in his own misery to defiance with the track “Into the Red”: “Knock me to the ground and I get up again / you can try and try until you go insane / only setting fire to the blood inside my veins.” As the album progresses it becomes more positive with songs like “The Others” and “Calling” reflecting the thoughts of a man who seems contented with the fact that he is something of an outsider.
“The main concept of the album is that it’s OK to be different,” he says. “This is something I’ve gradually come to accept, but it hasn’t always been that way. There have been times when I thought I needed to be like everyone else. Making my debut in Japan I had all these doubts about the way I dressed, the tattoos, my attitude. . . . Part of my brain was telling me I should be acting more like other J-pop stars. That feeling returned when I moved to Los Angeles. It was like I was an alien that didn’t belong — I was even nervous speaking to my daughter’s headmaster.”
It’s a little surprising listening to such a seemingly self-assured individual speak so candidly about his insecurities, yet, behind the swagger and huge on-stage presence, Miyavi feels pressure like the rest of us and nerves almost got the better of him during the filming of “Unbroken.” A story about Olympic runner-turned-war-hero Louis Zamperini, Miyavi portrays Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe; a prisoner-of-war camp leader who ordered all the other prisoners to line up and punch Zamperini in the face to teach him some “respect.” The song “Let Go” — arguably the standout track on “The Others” — gives an insight into the singer’s frame of mind as he prepared for his final scene as the villain.
“I was having a massage when I got the call to say we were doing the final part,” Miyavi says. “At that point it hit me just how big this thing was: I was playing a real person in a movie with a massive budget and hundreds of staff and crew were relying on me not to mess things up. Like I say in the song, part of me wanted to run and hide. It was hard to contain my emotions and I ended up crying and vomiting.
“Up until then I thought I was doing pretty well. I tried to stay in character the whole time, even bringing The Bird’s bamboo stick to restaurants with me. The last scene, though, was the most complicated and I felt I wasn’t ready for it. My acting coach saw that was I struggling and just told me not to fight it. Accept and just let it go. Those words had a profound effect enabling me to able to empty my brain and do the scene. I’m so grateful for the support I received. Angie (Jolie) was so sweet, too, telling me to take my time. However, that made me more nervous and I threw up again!”
Miyavi was determined not to let Jolie down in her second time as a feature-film director. He clearly has a huge amount of respect for the Oscar winner and even wrote the song “Alien Girl” about her. Initially reluctant to take on the role of The Bird because he didn’t “want to represent the negative side of Japan in a war movie,” he eventually agreed because of the Jolie-effect and her powers of persuasion. She told him it wasn’t her intention to glorify America and vilify Japan, but to “make a bridge between the two countries.”
Of course not everyone has seen it like that. Japanese nationalists have set up online petitions, branding Jolie a “racist,” declaring her persona non grata here and demanding the film be banned from theaters across the country, even though no release date has been set.
Japan has often been criticized for failing to acknowledge its wartime atrocities. In a recent visit here, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about how Germany had managed to build better relations with its neighbors because “it had come to grips with its past.” Miyavi would like to see people in Japan taking a similar approach.
“We shouldn’t try to hide our past,” Miyavi says. “Bad things happened, but we overcame it, learned from it and became a peaceful nation. Rather than walking around with our eyes closed, trying to deny everything, we should be more confident and take pride in the fact that we’ve managed to turn things around so much over the past 70 years.
“Being negative achieves nothing, but there will always be groups that need something to attack. I met Louis (Zamperini) and he loves Japan. He came here to carry the Olympic torch during the 1998 Nagano Olympics and was running along with local children. Everyone was smiling — that is the way to answer people. That is the kind of message we wanted to deliver to audiences. People don’t hate Germany because of ‘Schindler’s List’ and they are not going to hate Japan as a result of ‘Unbroken.’ Reasonable people know it’s just a movie. I really hope it is eventually shown here.”
Despite his early reservations Miyavi clearly has no regrets about taking on the role of The Bird. The movie has received mixed reviews, but he has been widely praised for his performance. It has also helped boost his profile in the United States, leading to an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” He says he’d be interested in doing more film work in the future, but for now his main focus is music. He already has four world tours under his belt, but says his “best days are still ahead.”
“The Others” is in stores now. Miyavi starts his nationwide tour at Club Quattro in Hiroshima on April 30 (7 p.m. start; 082-542-2280) and closes it at Studio Coast in Tokyo on May 16 (6 p.m. start, 03-5534-2525). Tickets are ¥4,700 in advance. For more information, visit www.myv382tokyo.com/en.