The video of the song was released in May 2019 and it has reached almost four million and a half views so far.
So, what’s so special about this song? First, we’re talking about a power trio devoted to the purest and most visceral hard rock and heavy metal. It’s not a coincidence we can hear direct connections (sometimes very direct: towards the end of the song one can clearly hear “Into the Void”) with the absolute masters Black Sabbath.
Here you won’t find flirts with stoner and psychedelic sounds, nor any type of modern contamination. It seems Ningen Isu have arrived straight from 1972 but… they don’t sound obvious nor old. Their songs are quite long for a band devoted to classic heavy rock, with an average of six-seven minutes each.
How do they remain fresh and interesting? Because, give or take, each song contains some unpredictable and very well placed changes in atmosphere, so the whole thing remains enthralling from start to finish. Riffs are almost always very powerful and the groove has a great impact.
My first reaction was a continuous surprise: how can you put TWO guitar solos in a eight-minute song based on three-four one-punchier-than-the-other riffs, whilst singing in Japanese (totally non-comprehensible of course) but adding an effective chorus where words seem to be uttered by kids?
But most importantly, how can you do all the above and be authoritative and not tacky in 2019? Such a big challenge.
The video itself is a treat: a very peculiar atmosphere for those who, like me, have never loved Eastern culture too much. Simple yet effective stage costumes and a pleasant sense of alienation guide you through the whole video.
We’ll talk about the mimics of the musicians later, especially the ones of the bassist, but I can say from the start that if you pick any of the videos they’ve released since 2015 you won’t be disappointed.
And since I recently landed at Mat2020, where I am lucky enough to be able to talk about a lot of different genres, interact with the bands I like, and most importantly, having noticed there’s no interview in Italian with our Japanese heroes… I got in contact with them and they accepted: the interview above is the first Italian interview with Ningen Isu ever published. What follows is the English translation of the interview.
Spoiler: there’s a hidden gem for those of you who love Italian prog rock from the ‘70s.
Let’s wrap up this (too) long intro by saying that, thanks to the success of their videos, Ningen Isu will be touring Europe for the first time in February 2020. This represents their first tour outside of Japan, and they’ll be in Germany and the UK for three dates.
A little milestone for a great band that never gave up and has a lesson for all of us: only those who persist and persevere in following their heart and their goals will get a reward at the end.
Interview with Ningen Isu
Shinji will be answering all the questions
Let’s get the usual round of presentations: Who are you, and what’s your role in the band?
Shinji Wajima, guitar and vocals. Kenichi Suzuki, bass and vocals. Nobu Nakajima, drums and backing vocals.
Another classic: What does your name, Ningen Isu, mean? Where does the idea come from?
From the beginning of the band, we decided the concept was to sound like Black Sabbath with Japanese lyrics. We wanted to use scary Japanese words for the band name, but in Japan we don’t have the concepts of God and Satan like Christian cultures have.
So we named our band after a novel of Ranpo Edogawa which both myself and Kenichi really like, called “The Human Chair”. Ranpo Edogawa is a writer of horror, fantasy and detective novels. “Ningen Isu” is a novel about a man who hides himself in a chair to feel the bodies on top of him.
A nerd question: How did you learn how to play your instruments? You’ve all been in music for the majority of your lives. What was the thing that started the fire and got you into playing at first, and how did you perfect your craft over the years?
We are all self-taught musicians, and have studied how to play the instruments by ourselves. We were impressed by the rock music from America and Europe and we wanted to play like them. Therefore, our playing style is similar to hard rock from the ‘70s. Even though music in general music has been changing a lot since then, we think the music of that period of time is the best, so we still try to play in that way.
Your lyrics are as important as your music, and for what I can understand it’s where your Japanese soul is best represented. Who writes them, and what’s in them?
The lyrics are written by myself and Suzuki, although I have been writing lyrics in greater amounts, generally speaking. Our lyrics deal with topics such as the incompatibility with reality, the pain of living, and extraordinary things in general, which occur in space or in hell, etc. Instead of talking about these topics in a negative way, I write about them to “save” and dignify them. Buddhist terms are often used as we’re from Asia.
Did you do any particular studies? One can guess there’s a certain “spiritual” aspect in your music and lyrics.
I read a lot of books, something which guides me as a sort of methodology when I write lyrics. Real experiences from life are also a big hint. So yes, there might be spiritual aspects in our lyrics. I’ve also had psychic and UFO experiences, so I do talk about these occult subjects too. Having studies Buddhism at university might also have influenced me.
I also read that you’re singing in “Tsugaru”, a Japanese dialect. How come? Why did you decide not to stick to “regular” Japanese? If singing in Japanese was not enough, this choice sets you apart even more stunningly (and even in your own country).
First of all, I decided not to sing in English because I thought that by singing in our native language we would have been more persuasive. The feeling is more sincere. Also, I thought it would have been more interesting to sing in “Tsugaru” even though we had an inferiority complex, thinking we might have been labelled as “country folk” for this. Using “Tsugaru” in everyday language would have been something to be ashamed of, but in rock music it was a cool thing to do. In other words, it’s also a way to celebrate our roots. Most of the songs are in Japanese and a few are in “Tsugaru”.
Shinji Wajima’s voice is quite unique. Not the usual heavy metal singer, yet his tone and extension gives your music that special feeling. How do you approach singing?
Thank you for calling it unique. I'm not that good at singing, but I want to sing with my heart. When Japanese rock singers sing songs in Japanese, they often use an English accent or tend to speak fast, but I try not to do so and speak “proper” Japanese. I also avoid extreme colloquial styles of lyrics as it becomes obsolete with the times.
Shinji is not the only singer in the band. What’s the role of Kenichi Suzuki (bass) and Nobu Nakajima (drums) when it comes to singing?
The person who came up with the idea for the backbone of the song sings it. Because each song is the cry of the person's heart, and it seems most natural for him to sing it.
Whilst your lyrics certainly draw from Japanese culture, and so does your stage outfits, your music doesn’t seem to contain a lot of folk or Japanese aspects. It’s bad-ass heavy-rock-proto-metal from the Western part of the world at its fullest (what once was simply referred to as hard rock before all kinds of sub-genres appeared…). Not to say it’s not good (quite the opposite!), just highlighting how the music doesn’t remind the listener of anything “Japanese”. Have you ever thought about adding some special culture-bound melodies to your music?
In general, our sound is similar to rock music, so it’s not so domestic. But sometimes we do use local instruments, if it’s an instrument that we can play.
I have used the yokobue (transverse flute), taishogoto (Japanese harp with three-stringed zither), mokugyo (a wind wooden bell), and so on. The taishogoto sounds like Japanese sitar, so I like it and use it sometimes.
Have you ever thought about singing in English? Will it happen in the coming future?
I decided to sing in Japanese from the very beginning, so that happened without hesitation. I think I will not sing in English in the future because it is natural to write and sing lyrics in Japanese.
How do your songs come together? What’s the writing process behind them? And has it changed over the years?
We think our music it's traditional hard rock. Of course, I am honored and happy to be called heavy metal. The song is composed of a riff first, then we build the rest of the song around it, the melody, and finally the lyrics. I write the lyrics to best suit the tune. About ten years ago, I started making songs with a clear image of what kind of song I wanted to sing and what kind of topic I wanted to talk about. That way, you don’t get lost in the composition process. I also try to stock fragments of the lyrics for the future.
In any case, the trend of adding lyrics at the end (once the music is finished) has not changed for many years.
Your songs are made up of a few riffs and themes which “seem” to be disconnected from each other, yet this deadly mixture keeps the listener entertained and curious until the end, in pure progressive music fashion. I listen to your music and think “what’s gonna happen now?”, the wait for a surprise is big and I know something cool is about to meet my ears. Each one of your songs contains material for at least three-four songs that a “normal” average rock/metal band would write and record. The presence of more than one guitar solo in the song is also quite interesting and very rare to be heard these days. Yet it’s not about showing off but… it really does fit with the moment and mood of that part of the song. I also noticed this has not changed much since the first album “Ningen Isu”, published in 1989 (!). I believe this is a constant characteristic of your music (Author: Ningen Isu have published 11 studio albums so far).
How did you develop such song structure? What comes first, and how do you decide which riffs “make it” into the final song?
Since I started a band influenced by British hard rock, I make music with riffs first. Once the riff with a punch is completed, we will develop the music around it. With trembling music in mind, I will devise tempo change, key change, etc. It's important to make sure you don't feel uncomfortable with the music, not just stick everything together as it comes. When there is a clear concept, it is expressed from various angles. When putting together a song, guitar solos are second only to songs themselves. In any case, I don't mean to show the technique in a mischievous way, but I try to match it to the music. There was a time when guitar solos disappeared from rock music, but we decided to include them in every song.
Another band that has a similar approach to music, at least on record, is Scotland’s NWOBHM legends Holocaust. Famous all over the world for the hymn “Heavy Metal Mania” and for the awesome cover of “The Small Hours” made by Metallica, John Mortimer’s Holocaust have actually released a few interesting although not-so-famous albums in the ‘90es and early 2000es, such as “Hypnosis of Birds”, “Covenant”, “The Courage To Be” and “Primal”.
Still active these days (check out the latest “Elder Gods”, a true heavy metal gem), Holocaust are one of my all-time favourite bands. Here you can find the Spotify profile of the band:
To my ears, you both share a common attitude of freedom that is not so common to be found in traditional heavy metal music. A very open-mind approach when it comes to composition and how the song is gonna end up.
Holocaust and you are similar to my ears in some way. For example, both bands have a unique attitude towards singing. Not the most impressive voices in terms of range or extension, yet very much “the only ones that fit the music perfectly”.
Another aspect that makes me think about this similarity is the sudden and unexpected change of atmosphere that you both have in your music. Their music is also heavy as f**k, same as yours really, with powerful doom-ish and groovy riffs that will have your head banging in no time.
Lastly, you both have no fear of making “unusual” choices in terms of song structure and length. A very open-minded approach to music.
Do you know Holocaust at all? Is there any other band you can think of when it comes to similarities (other than the obvious ones that are always associated with your music such as Black Sabbath, Budgie etc)?
I don't know the band Holocaust. Excuse me. It is a very interesting group, so I will listen to it. Thank you for calling our music unique. Essentially, expression is something that is free, and only that very person can express himself or herself in that very way.
For example, a picture can only be drawn by one very painter, and if someone else draws the same picture, it is only an imitation. I think rock is a very flexible form of expression in music. The true value of rock music is not a cover song but an original song played by that very person. We are aiming for a sound that only we can do while referring to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
You’ve seen a rise in popularity in recent years. Is that related to any particular events?
I think our appearance at OzzFest Japan in 2013 and 2015 gave us momentum. And I think that the fact that our music and videos are available on YouTube is a big trigger. I appreciate that there is such a medium on a global scale.
How have your lives changed since then?
I became able to live on music. I'm very happy about this, and I am happy that many fans come to see us at the concerts. Now people recognise me in the street and approach me! Still, I do my best not to be arrogant and forget my original intention.
Has this rise in popularity in the world been mirrored by a rise in popularity in Japan too, or were you already quite well known at home already?
We became famous at one time when we debuted, then we were forgotten, and the recognition has been increasing in recent years. We’re not as popular as a pop music band, but we think people who like rock know our name now.
As said, you also took part in the OzzFest Japan 2013 (here’s the video of the gig: https://youtu.be/c0a-U94x6EU. This must have helped you massively I suspect, getting a lot of new people to know your music. How did Ozzy get to notice you? How did the whole thing happen?
Perhaps Ozzy learned about us through his Japanese coordinator. In Japan, we are recognized as playing music that is very close to Black Sabbath, so I think the coordinator pushed us on it.
Who did you share the stage with back then? Any cool anecdotes to share?
At Ozzfest in 2013, I was a band member of Momoiro Clover Z, a Japanese idol group.
I was happy when the members of Slipknot told me it was "great" seeing us live!
(In the picture below: An overview of some of Kenichi’s best moments from the videos of “Heartless Scat” and “The Colour out of Space”... Can you find his inspiration?)
Of course I know Italian Prog Music. PFM, Banco, Goblin... I was influenced by Goblin. The intro of "Heartless Scat" is an homage to them.
(Pics credits: http://ningen-isu.com)