Kenshi Yonezu on ‘KICK BACK’ Becoming First Japanese-Language Song Certified Gold by RIAA: Interview

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Kenshi Yonezu‘s “KICK BACK” was recently certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. It’s the first song with Japanese lyrics to reach this milestone.

Released on Oct. 12, 2022, “KICK BACK” was written as the theme song to the anime series Chainsaw Man. The series enjoys popularity in North America; many listeners probably discovered the song through the anime.

Gold status means the song has achieved over 500,000 units in the U.S. Billboard Japan spoke with the multi-hyphenate about his latest global hit that became the first-ever J-pop song to achieve this feat in the American market.

How did you feel when you heard about being certified gold in the U.S.?

Really happy. It’s all thanks to Chainsaw Man. It’s still kind of hard to believe, but in any case, it made me happy.

This is a certification within the U.S. market. What are your thoughts on the American music scene and listeners there?

I’ve been listening to American pop music since I was a kid, so it’s really gratifying to have been accepted there. I want to know what kind of people are enjoying my music, so I sometimes wonder what it’d be like to sit down with them and ask directly. I’ve never been to the U.S. before but it’d be great if I could go do a show there someday.

The 32-year-old creative wrote the music and lyrics for “KICK BACK” and enlisted Daiki Tsuneta of King Gnu and millennium parade to work on the arrangement with him. Yonezu has been a fan of Chainsaw Man since the serialization of the original manga began, and being tapped to work on the opening theme for the anime version was a meaningful experience to him.

The song also drew attention for sampling J-pop girl group Morning Musume.’s “Souda! We’re ALIVE.” With drum and bass as its foundation, the track is unique with frequent key changes and full of outlandish developments. The “Lemon” hitmaker looked back on the creation of this single.

You mentioned you have been a fan of the Chainsaw Man manga that the anime is based on. How do you feel about the work now that you have written the opening theme for the anime?

The manga Chainsaw Man is still being serialized and I always catch it when it comes out every week. It’s always gripping and I think it’s a truly exceptional manga. It’s a great honor for me as a pop songwriter to be involved in such an amazing work, and that feeling seems to grow more and more each day.

Could you share the songwriting process with us? Looking back, what kind of song were you aiming for?

First, I remember feeling that I couldn’t do this assignment half-heartedly and that I didn’t want to ruin the manga by being involved in it because It’s such a great work. I had a lot of fun working on the song. It was also more like hanging out with a friend than work because Daiki Tsuneta and I communicated about the arrangement. Looking back, I strongly feel that it was a really enjoyable time. When we were making “KICK BACK,” the vibe was full of this sense of messing around, like, “Let’s go nuts with this,” or something like that. I’d love to do this kind of thing again. 

The lyrics of “KICK BACK” are in Japanese. The “Lemon” hitmaker’s observations about his commitment to writing songs in Japanese and about the way the appeal of a piece of music can be conveyed without depending on words were also noteworthy.

“KICK BACK” is the first song with Japanese lyrics to be certified gold by the RIAA. What are your thoughts on Japanese-language songs making their way across borders to be heard in other countries?

I’ve lived as a Japanese person for 32 years, and am someone who has truly surrendered my identity to the Japanese language. When I write songs, I really get the sense that things like my methodology, what I want to do, and the joy I feel when singing and performing are largely tied to the Japanese language. It’s what feels most comfortable to me. To go even further, that special power won’t reside (in the song) otherwise. So, I hope to continue doing what I do while facing myself in this way.

But to be honest, I’m not sure at all how my songs are being interpreted by people outside of Japan, and especially people in the U.S., as in this case. I’d love to actually meet with people who like this song and hear what they have to say.

The emotion and energy of a song can come across even if we don’t understand the meaning of the words. What are your thoughts on this particular work?

I often find myself hearing a song in a language I don’t understand and thinking, “That’s good.” I’ve been feeling really strongly lately that I want to value that sense of “I don’t understand it, but It’s good.” Looking at social media, I get the feeling that if people start flocking to a single place all the time by seeking value and meaning in a song, that fundamental aspect of music will become increasingly obscure. So if people who don’t understand Japanese hear this song and think “that’s good,” then I’m glad I made it. If that’s how people are interpreting it, I feel grateful.

The music video accompanying “KICK BACK,” directed by photographer/video director Yoshiyuki Okuyama, also made a splash. Featuring Yonezu and Tsuneta working out at the gym, the situation gradually escalates in an over-the-top way as Yonezu tries to one-up his music collaborator who maintains his cool. The experience of shooting the mind-boggling visuals — make sure to watch until the credits — was apparently an emotional one for Yonezu.

You have received comments from many countries on the music video for this song. The video left quite an impact. How do you feel looking back on it?

That was amazing. That was the skill of the director, Mr. Okuyama, and I feel so fortunate to have ended up with such a great music video. For the past few years, I had been in this mode where I try to incorporate humor and funny elements into my songs and music videos to sort of remake myself by observing from a bird’s eye view. When the visuals for “KICK BACK” were done, I felt that there was nothing more I could do. It was such an epoch-making event for me. I feel like I’ve done everything I could.

Yonezu continues to have a busy and fulfilling 2023, releasing three new songs: “LADY” on Mar. 21, “Moongazing” on June 26, and “Spinning Globe” on July 17.

“Moongazing” was written as the theme for the video game Final Fantasy XVI. “Spinning Globe” is the theme for Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated film The Boy and the Heron, set for release in U.S. theaters Dec. 8. Both songs are reaching audiences around the world.

The prolific singer-songwriter reflected upon the position of “KICK BACK” at this point in his career and shared his outlook for the future.

How do you consider “KICK BACK” to be positioned in your career?

As I said earlier, it’s a song that ended a mode in my life, and I think it’s also a song that disrupted my public image. I also reconfirmed a lot of things by writing this song. I realized people wanted something like this, and it also occurred to me that I like this kind of thing. All in all, it’s become very important to me.

What do you have in mind for your future endeavors?

I recently traveled abroad and it was a great experience. Not for my career or anything like that, but in the sense of spending time in cities built by people who grew up in a completely different culture, where the language is different from my own. I’m more interested in that kind of thing and… I’m not sure how to put it, but I just want to make good stuff. If I can do that, then that’s enough. And I also kind of feel that if my senses don’t change in a gradual way like that, I won’t be able to make good stuff anymore. I hope to have fun doing what I do. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

This interview by Tomonori Shiba first appeared on Billboard Japan.

By: Billboard Japan / Photo: Courtesy Photo

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