Music

The Lethal Weapons: Locked and loaded on the streets of Tokyo

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Nostalgia for the 1980s usually plays out more as an aesthetic than an authentic yearning to go back to the days of Rubik’s Cubes and “Miami Vice.” But that’s not the case for Aiki Kiyohisa, 38.

“My dad’s company collapsed in 1989, when I was 9. After that we lost almost everything … our house, lots of money. I literally want to go back to the ’80s, because it was the best time for me,” the musician says, adding with a laugh, “I have no good memories from the Heisei Era.”

The Reiwa Era has gotten off to a much better start for Kiyohisa, though. Earlier this year he launched a new ’80s-indebted project called The Lethal Weapons, which finds him performing as a football-helmet-clad character named Ai-Kid. He’s joined by an American playing a character named Cyborg Joe, dressed in homage to Marty McFly from “Back to the Future.” The pair perform music built around DayGlo synthesizer melodies leading to the types of choruses meant to be hollered along to. Their debut full length, “Back to the 80’s,” features references to the decade’s pop culture, from action film stars to extravagant club Maharaja.

“I see bands (in Japan) making ’80s- themed videos, but I don’t see bands that are like they are actually from the ’80s. We are ’80s,” says 33-year-old Joe — he declines to give his full name out of consideration for his day job.

The music finds a sweet spot between new wave and hair metal, but many of The Lethal Weapons’ songs spring out from modern Japan. Tracks poke at modern government initiatives such as Premium Friday and Cool Japan. Then you have the act’s breakout cut, the foul-mouthed “You Are Mother F——-,” a song boasting more than 575,000 views on YouTube to date. It got shouted out by J-pop superstar Gen Hoshino on his radio show and crept into Spotify’s “Japan Viral 50” ranking. It helped make the independent project one of this year’s surprises, pushing “Back to the 80’s” up digital charts and inspiring essays.

It’s also made the pair local celebrities in Toritsu-Kasei, a neighborhood tucked away on the Seibu Shinjuku line that they describe affectionately as “the middle of nowhere.” When they walk into an izakaya (tavern) for this interview, several older men — who might have stopped following music in the actual ’80s — take notice and let them know they are doing great.

This space played a part in The Lethal Weapons origin story. Ohio-born Joe moved to Tokyo in 2015 to work as an assistant language teacher, years after developing a deep interest in Japanese films. He says after finally moving into his apartment one station over, he went for a walk and ended up Toritsu-Kasei. Wandering around, he came across Bookmart, a used bookstore full of old Japanese movies, CDs and assorted knick-knacks.

He struck up a conversation with the owner — “he helped me get back home, too!” — who suggested he meet his friend, Kiyohisa. They all wound up eating at the izakaya.

Prior to meeting Joe, Kiyohisa juggled a list of jobs spanning from songwriter to anime director.

“I couldn’t get hired by any companies after graduating college, in 2003. I’ve been self-employed since,” he says. He briefly played keyboards in a band called Camino and worked on songs for an obscure electro-pop project called Blondy Bon Bianca, and has written songs for Momoiro Clover Z. Yet none of this led to much financial return.

“The owner of the bookstore asked me to make a theme song for them. I was so drunk … that’s why I said yes. I produced and thought of everything,” Kiyohisa says. The end result starred Joe, and the American had a blast.

“I thought why not get everyone together and make a band? Like, it was so laid-back. But I didn’t realize to what degree that he was a band man,” Joe says. Kiyohisa adds, “I wasn’t sure how serious Joe was about taking this. He kept trying to work with me, but I wouldn’t work with him quite yet.”

The two kept hanging out, though, and found they had lots in common.

“We like Hoppy, we like wrestling,” Joe says. “I went over to his house to play video games. It was like, ‘dude, I love the Ninja Turtles.’ ‘Me too! Let’s play ‘Turtles In Time.’ ‘ And we beat it. And we just reminisced about the ’80s because we are both ’80s kids.”

This generational connection got their imaginations racing.

“He asked me, ‘do you like Sylvester Stallone?’ Do I!? We were just throwing ideas back and forth,” Joe says.

It spread from their outfits — credit for which mostly went to Joe, with Kiyohisa admitting his get-up was rushed — to a proposed backstory Joe thought up involving the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, security robots and corporate thievery. This ultimately felt too complicated. “I think Joe is the best performer, but not the idea guy,” Kiyohisa says, both members laughing.

The entire theme intrigued Kiyohisa, who had always been fond of ’80s-born synth-pop, and knew the style was enjoying a resurgence.

“My style has never changed, it’s more like the world decided that it liked the things I do,” he says.

Kiyohisa writes and creates the music, while also penning lyrics. These include snippets of sometimes awkward English that he gets via Google Translate.

“I try to choose the dirtiest words for lyrics. I think it’s funny that I make Joe say those things,” he says.

“I love the English that is in the songs, and I don’t want to change it. And it’s funnier. It wouldn’t be as catchy if it were literal,” Joe says.

The actual songs The Lethal Weapons make offer plenty of catchy hooks and a sonic palette offering an easy escape to the years of the bubble economy. Yet the pair’s savviest moves came via how they presented the music, embracing strategies that many major Japanese labels still haven’t gotten around to. Kiyohisa decided to make videos for nearly every song on “Back to the 80’s” as a way to capture attention, and added subtitles — Japanese and English — to each one.

“I was so surprised when we did our live shows, and everyone knew all of the words, Joe says. “They were chanting and shouting.”

Leaning into the visuals led to “You Are Mother F——-” gaining online traction. The clip found The Lethal Weapons teaming up with a troupe of hardcore kaijū (giant monster) fans. It’s a fun high-energy number joined by a “weird Japan”-baiting clip. But dig in deeper and you get something with a punk attitude.

“The song is about people who are in a weaker position in society,” Kiyohisa says. “So I thought, what’s the best metaphor for those people? Kaiju are always beat up by the ‘hero.’ They justify it by using the idea of ‘justice,'” Kiyohisa says. He points to small details serving as nods to minority groups held back by Japanese society — the chant of the titular curse word references the Village People’s “YMCA,” a catchy dance but also a gay rights anthem — while the city backdrop features shots of government buildings, the ultimate power wielders.

The Lethal Weapons succeed because of a duality the members bring to the project, elevating it well beyond a simple gag group treading in nostalgia. Joe brings energy and charisma — he frequently starts anecdotes with “It’s a long story,” but delivers them in a way where you hang on his every word — that makes these great pop number on their own. He channels action movies, saying, “I think the ’80s were about having a good, fun time. And that’s what I try to bring to this band. Just having a good freakin’ time.”

Kiyohisa, meanwhile, brings a decade-plus of professional experience and a socially conscious perspective rarely found in these neon-tinged waters. Songs focus on the issue of overwork (“Premium Friday Night”) and the challenges of surviving on paltry wages (“Shaking Shaking“). The ’80s serve as bedrock, but the words often come from folks emerging from the country’s “lost decade.”

“I don’t want to say I represent the people in Japan who are having a hard time like that, but I want to make music that they can scream back at society,” Kiyohisa says.

For more information about The Lethal Weapons, visit twitter.com/TLW80s.