For Hatsune Miku’s 10th birthday, Kenshi Yonezu wrote the turquoise-haired anime darling an apocalyptic song. “Suna no Wakusei” (English title: “Dune”) finds Yonezu, under the alias Hachi, programming the avatar for singing-synthesizer software Vocaloid to sing about a “desert planet” where life has eroded and “no grass will grow for the next millennium.” It’s seemingly more climate-change-centric than celebratory, all set over an unsettling mix of guitar and mocking cheers.
“It’s actually about the state of Niconico,” Yonezu tells The Japan Times, referring to the video-streaming platform once known as Nico Nico Douga. “When I revisit the site, it has a desert-like atmosphere and it’s so much different from before — in good and bad ways. It was for Miku’s 10th anniversary, but I couldn’t make it happy (so easily).”
On closer listen, the song’s lyrics reveal many references to the old Vocaloid community. Niconico, the site sometimes referred to as “Japan’s YouTube,” served as a musical starting point for Yonezu. After several years as a Vocaloid producer, Yonezu started performing in 2012 under his own name — and with his own voice, rather than a digital one.
Today, the 26-year-old is cementing his status as one of the country’s biggest new music acts and 2017 in particular has been a banner year. Up-tempo rock cuts such as “Peace Sign” and “Orion” are currently among the most viewed Japanese music clips on YouTube (along with “Suna”), but none touch “Uchiage Hanabi,” a big-screen-ready ballad he co-headlines with fellow Niconico crossover Daoko. It has become the second half of the year’s biggest hit so far.
On Nov. 1, Yonezu releases his fourth album, “Bootleg,” which could establish him as one of the biggest names in a new generation of J-pop performers.
“In the fifth grade, I got a PC and, subsequently, the internet for the first time. My first introduction to music was actually through flash animation cartoons,” Yonezu says. He grew up in Tokushima, and some of his most influential music memories came via independently made cartoons set to rock songs by the likes of Asian Kung-Fu Generation and Ellegarden. Inspired, he formed a band in junior high school.
But his real musical leap forward happened later: “When I moved to Osaka at 18, I saw online that there was this vocal software that could make machines sing, almost as well as a human,” he says. He found the flourishing Vocaloid scene on Niconico and was blown away by the mish-mash of styles within. “It was quite chaotic, the genreless approach people took was exciting,” he recalls.
Intrigued, he bought the Miku software and started creating rock-oriented songs under the name Hachi.
“Using my voice and name, showing myself, it can be a difficult thing. It’s almost painful. That’s partly why I used Hatsune Miku, as I could use that to hide myself,” he says.
I believe him. Yonezu’s voice is deep in tone but reserved. His bangs tend to cover both his eyes, drawing attention to a pair of aqua-colored earrings and a nose stud. He takes his time answering questions.
Yonezu released a solo album, “Diorama,” in 2012 through an independent label he and some other internet-based artists started in order to spread their names. The tracks on “Diorama” take after the swifter side of punk acts Bump Of Chicken and Asian Kung-Fu Generation. At his weakest, Yonezu plays the devoted fan and mimics his influences a bit too much. At his best, he subverts the usual J-rock formula via disorienting percussion and electronic touches (“Living Dead Youth“) or sudden stops and turns (“Mad Head Love”).
“Bootleg” straddles the line between new territory for Yonezu (he flirts with rapping his delivery on the limber “Loser,” and uses triumphant strings to bring home the climax on “Orion”) and familiar (“Peace Sign” is all heads-down guitar chug). It’s full of off-kilter details — along with “Suna,” his best creation — but also sounds recognizably his.
“I like to reference many things — comic books, movies, bands I like to listen to. It might not have an original, unique sound to it, but rather I’m piecing together music — I’m bootlegging something together from all of that,” he says about the title. “It’s kind of a cynical statement, aimed at the cult of originality.”
Yonezu adds that for every new album, he wants to avoid repeating himself, “kind of like Radiohead.”
“Every time they make a new album, they jump even further to a different place,” he says.
“Bootleg” features guest vocalists and songwriters, but the biggest name he has worked with isn’t present. That would be Daoko, a Tokyo-born artist who gained attention by uploading soft rap tracks to Niconico at the start of the decade. Yonezu says he’d long been a fan, but it was after seeing her live that he thought a collaboration was possible.
“She expresses her music through a thin, whispery voice. It’s completely different from my own voice — it’s quite low, a bit stronger,” he says. “I felt something like envy.”
With ideas for a creative partnership in the works, they went the route Radwimps went with last year’s “Zenzenzense“: a dramatic song tied to an animated film (in this case, Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.”). However, “Uchiage Hanabi” ended up far more popular that the film it appears in, Akiyuki Shinbo’s “Uchiage Hanabi, Shita kara Miru Ka? Yoko kara Miru Ka?” (“Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?”).
That tie-up underlines another characteristic of “Bootleg”: Yonezu has reached a point in his career where most of the songs he creates are tied to some other commercial venture, whether they be for TV anime (“Peace Sign” and “Orion”), museums in Paris (“Number Nine”) or films (“Uchiage Hanabi,” which appears on “Bootleg” but without Daoko). Such collaborations are part and parcel among top-level J-pop acts, and Yonezu sees the phenomenon as positive.
“By having to keep them in mind while making the songs, new elements wound up appearing in my music,” he says.
Yet there’s something a touch bittersweet about Yonezu and the generation of artists who started experimenting with music via Niconico, such as Daoko or the hard-edged electro-pop act Reol. At the moment all of them seem poised to enter the upper echelons of Japanese pop, while the world they came from is disappearing.
“Nico Nico Douga has a long history now. Ten years ago, there weren’t as many people. It was like a separate island of the internet,” Yonezu says. “For a lot of people, the internet lost the feeling of being a place you could escape to.”
Even though Daoko has crossed over to the mainstream via the sort of ballad she would have never sang before, and Yonezu finds himself juggling requests for commercial tie-ins, “Bootleg” still does a good job of referencing those chaotic Nico-Nico origins. New music fans may not be able to escape into the internet, but they’ve got a safe space in Yonezu’s music.
“Bootleg” is on sale now. Kenshi Yonezu is currently on tour and will play two shows at Kobe International House on Nov. 4 and 5 (6 p.m. start; ¥4,800 and ¥5,300; 06-6341-3525). For more information, visit www.reissuerecords.net.