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Ikimonogakari, Famous for ‘NARUTO’ Theme Song, Call ‘Ureshikute/Tokimeki’ an Affirmation of Their New Lineup: Interview

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Japan’s Ikimonogakari, the band responsible for NARUTO‘s theme song “Blue Bird,” has now began a new chapter as a duo consisting of Yoshiki Mizuno and Kiyoe Yoshioka and has released its latest double A-side single “Ureshikute/Tokimeki.”

Billboard JAPAN spoke to Mizuno and Yoshioka about the single, which contains both “Ureshikute” (theme song of the film Pretty Cure All Stars F, with sound production by Koichi Tsutaya) and “Tokimeki” (Pretty Cure 20th anniversary commemorative song and opening theme of the TV anime Kibo no Chikara – Otona Pretty Cure ’23, with sound production by Masanori Shimada).

This is your first single since becoming a duo. It’s a double A-side with “Ureshikute,” the theme song of the movie Pretty Cure All Stars F, and “Tokimeki,” the Pretty Cure 20th anniversary commemorative song and opening theme of the TV anime Kibo no Chikara – Otona Pretty Cure ’23. I heard that you wrote “Tokimeki” first?

Mizuno: That’s right. Pretty Cure was going to be celebrating its 20th anniversary, and we were honored to have them reach out to us to ask us to write a commemorative song. I think this was around last summer. People who watched the first season of Pretty Cure are now in their 20s or 30s. The people at Pretty Cure said they wanted the song to be one in which Pretty Cure encouraged and uplifted listeners again, wherever their lives had taken them, and reaffirmed their value. We felt a connection with that theme, as well. Our band’s very structure has undergone changes, we’ve set out on our own, and the environment around us has changed. We came to focus more on Yoshioka’s role as our singer, and we wanted to make a song that reaffirmed our own new style.

Yoshioka: Yes, I really connect with the song when I sing it. Of course, we wrote the song for the 20th anniversary of Pretty Cure, but there’s a lot that resonates with our own situation. When we went into the recording process, I was preparing to give birth. In that respect, as well, like Mizuno said, it felt like a song of self-affirmation, and I think that comes across in the tone of my vocals. It’s a song that gives you this feeling of optimism, no matter what your situation, so I truly poured my heart into it.

The first two lines, “The world sparkles now/because I decided it would,” are really self-affirming.

Mizuno: Thanks. I think with the spread of social media, people are deciding their values based on what they hear from other people. “It’s good because people say it’s good” or “other people are attacking this person, so it’s okay if I do, too.” I feel like we live in a world where it’s hard to decide your values for yourself and write your own life story. There’s a lot going on in the world, and people are struggling, so I wanted to make this a song with a message of “I think it’s okay, so it is.”

It’s a reflection of the tone of modern society?

Mizuno: I guess if you put it in formal terms, yes (laughs). When Pretty Cure came out, there weren’t very many anime with female protagonists that had fight scenes. I think the creators wanted to express that kind of powerful sense of dynamism.

The sound is truly vibrant, too. Masanori Shimada handled the sound production, right?

Mizuno: We wanted to make the sound both radiant and powerful. Shimada isn’t really the meticulous type, but instead builds up a solid sound while also taking a band-like approach to sound production. We knew that the song would be in good hands with Shimada.

I see. The sound production for Ureshikute was handled by Koichi Tsutaya. The orchestration of the song is amazing.

Mizuno: Right. When the demo arrived from Tsutaya, we started to worry about how much recording would cost (laughs).

Yoshioka: (Laughs) I think there were more musicians on the recording than any song we’ve done so far. It was like 60, wasn’t it?

Mizuno: Yeah. We were aiming to make it a really majestic song from the very start of the writing process. Our concept for the sound was something like the Los Angeles Olympics fanfare by John Williams. A lot of Pretty Cure characters appear in the movie, so we wanted a part where all of their voices came together in unison.

Yoshioka: On the first demo, it was just Mizuno on piano and me singing, but even at that stage the feeling really came through, and I was thinking to myself “this is truly an excellent song.” Towards the end of the song I’m singing at the top of my lungs. I don’t think we’ve ever sung a melody like this one. The lyrics, about accepting each other, are a perfect match. Accepting each other while respecting that there are things you’ll never truly understand. The song’s cheery, but there’s definitely a sensitive side to it.

Mizuno: I read through the movie scenario before writing the song. I drew out the key parts of the story (and reflected them in the lyrics). Like Yoshioka said, it’s about accepting one another, but that’s no easy matter. Everyone has their own sense of right and wrong, and it takes courage to rely on others. I wanted to try to express that in a fun yet gentle way.

The song has one phrase that really makes an impression: “Respect the differences you cannot understand/you don’t need to all be the same.”

Mizuno: You don’t need to unite as one; you can each follow your own path, working together with others to take on problems and challenges. We wanted to make a song that would still impart that feeling, even outside of the Pretty Cure context.

It’s a long song, clocking in at over six minutes.

Mizuno: It turned out to be pretty long (laughs). It starts with the chorus, then you’ve got a solid verse and bridge, then there’s modulation, and then a second chorus. It’s got it all (laughs).

It has all of the distinctive features of a J-Pop song. What do you think makes J-Pop so interesting and appealing?

Mizuno: I think it’s how packed with information the songs are. I think one of the characteristics of J-Pop is complexity within a fixed form. There are a lot of songs with a verse, bridge, chorus structure, and there’s complexity in the chord progressions, as well. I feel like that’s because the rhythm doesn’t form the foundation of the songs. Also, the melody reigns supreme. The singing is the heart of the song. Yoshioka, as well, has always striven to make sure that her vowels are enunciated and the melody shines through clearly.

Yoshioka: Right.

Mizuno: I think placing the emphasis on the singing, and not anchoring songs in their rhythm, is what makes J-Pop feel unique to overseas listeners. Also, J-Pop localizes songs imported from overseas. It’s like it combines different outside elements and develops them in a unique way. It’s one of the things that’s fascinating about Japanese culture.

Good point. It’s like Japanese culture itself.

Yoshioka: Throughout our band’s career, Ikimonogakari has always believed in that kind of music. I always listened to J-Pop, and it’s what shaped me through the years. So I’m actually curious about what overseas listeners think about it (laughs). I hope they find it unique.

One of the Ikimonogakari songs popular with overseas listeners is “Blue Bird” (opening theme to the TV anime Naruto: Shippuden).

Mizuno: I keep hearing from people who’ve heard it while overseas. An acquaintance who travelled to Vienna told me they heard “Blue Bird” playing in a coffee shop. Overseas musicians have covered it, and one girl sang it on a Chinese audition show, which got the crowd really excited.

Yoshioka: Someone who was a junior of mine in junior high sent me an email saying that he was listening to Blue Bird in Latin America when a local student said “I know that song.” We have a lot of international Instagram followers, too.

Mizuno: Yeah. I got a DM from a DJ overseas who wanted my permission to remix “Blue Bird,” so I gave them the contact information for getting permission (laughs). The year before last, we played an event (Bilibili Macro Link 2021) organized by bilibili (a Chinese video streaming service), and the reaction to “Blue Bird” was huge. We’ve also been getting more offers to play overseas.

Do you want to share your music with even more overseas listeners?

Mizuno: Of course. I’ve been saying it for a long time, but my hope is that J-Pop can be exported just like that — as J-Pop.

So the best thing would be if people listened to it as it is, with Japanese lyrics and Japanese song structures?

Mizuno: That’s right. I think that would be the most successful approach.

Yoshioka: I’m really happy that people abroad are listening at all. When we debuted, I never imagined that we’d have overseas listeners. It’s still surprising (laughs).

This interview by Tomoyuki Mori first appeared on Billboard Japan

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