The Japanese Guitar Icon Talks to Us about Risks he takes, Dealing with the Aftermath of Fukushima, and Working with Angelina Jolie
Words by Daniel Robson
You might say Miyavi is a confident person. With his seventh studio album charting at No. 8 in Japan last year and then released worldwide in April, his self-owned management company overseeing his career and a growing fan base welcoming him for tours all around the globe — not to mention an instantly identifiable slap-guitar rock sound that sets him apart from other Japanese artists — he has certainly earned the right to be.
When we meet at the Tokyo office of his label, Universal, he walks into the room and starts chatting with me casually in English as if we’ve met a dozen times before. We haven’t; not even once. But Miyavi, whose real name is Takamasa Ishihara and is also known to fans as the Samurai Guitarist, has a steady charisma and open way of talking that simply make you want to like him, as well as a spirit of adventure that has seen him reach out to the world with his self-titled latest album all sung in English.
“Japan is a tiny country, isolated,” he explains. “I really love my country. I’m half-Korean, but I’m proud of myself as a Japanese. But I think it’s an instinctive feeling to want to stretch beyond borders — if there’s a moon, people want to travel to it. It’s the same thing.”
Singing in English is only one piece of the puzzle. Miyavi describes nailing the quirks of English pronunciation in the studio as “torture,” albeit also a necessary step to speak directly to his fans overseas. It’s work. In 2007 he moved to LA for three months to immerse himself in the language, and during our interview he continually checks his English expression for errors.
However, the real key is simply wanting to go overseas in the first place. Miyavi’s previous management was happy to do the thing most Japanese management agencies do: focus on Japan and ignore the rest of the world. Japan is geographically small and easy to tour, while its music market is now the strongest in the world. Moreover, the music media is easily controlled. An artist can do just fine by touring only in Japan and releasing an album a year for the domestic market. Low risk, high reward.
But Miyavi had bigger ideas, and in April 2009 he set up J-Glam Inc to take control of his own destiny. “To be independent makes it easier to take risks,” he says. “I didn’t want to get involved with people who didn’t want to pursue the dream. I have a family and staff to be responsible for, but it’s worth it. Without any excitement or thrill in your life, it’s boring.”
The gamble paid off, as we know. Miyavi has toured the US and Europe several times, as well as playing shows in less obvious places such as Russia, Finland and China. He recently performed at the Troubadour in LA, a one-stop appearance that he hopes will be followed soon by another full US jaunt.
He says that performing overseas has an effect on the music he makes. Singing in English on recent material is an obvious change, but the songs on Miyavi also carry more of a global pop sound, a slick production that resulted from recording sessions in Britain and that at times recalls such mainstream pop artists as Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake.
He admits he has deliberately made his music more accessible as a way to grab the attention of a wider audience. He sees it as a kind of game. “One of the fun things on a tour is to get a reaction from the local security guys and promoters. When I can rock the people who are not familiar with my music, like the security guys who have no idea what’s going on, I feel like I’ve won.”
He takes a similarly pragmatic approach to touring as he does to production, performing outside of Japan as a two-piece, aided only by a drummer. This he says is due to budgetary constraints, but it doesn’t come across as cutting corners. Songs such as “Horizon” and “No One Knows My Name” boast strong rhythm, from the electronically enhanced beats to Miyavi’s string slaps, and are well suited to a two-man set. He says that his next album, currently under construction and possibly out later this year, will harness this live energy for a more “human” sound. “Rhythm is one of the keys to connecting with people,” observes Miyavi. “There is no language, but a beat is a beat.”
While “Justice” is social commentary and “Secret” rather unsubtly addresses the sweat and rhythm of desire, Miyavi also has its laid-back moments. In March Miyavi released a video to the song “Guard You,” a mellow ode composed in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and the resulting meltdowns at the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant. The song expresses the pain he felt being away from his wife (retired J-pop singer Melody) and two young daughters during a time of great uncertainty.
“I went on the road in Europe after the disaster happened, and it was a hard decision to leave my family, friends, staff and fans,” says Miyavi. “And even after I got back to Tokyo, I was away from my family — they evacuated to Okinawa, to my wife’s side of the family. I realize that there were many people suffering worse conditions than I was, in the Sendai and Fukushima areas, because of the radiation. Some people had to be away from their families to deal with the problems, and some people are still having a hard time even now. It’s still not fixed. So, as an artist I wanted to make a song. The message is that being separated from the people who you treasure is also the way to protect them, and as long as you keep moving forward, the sky’s going to clear.”
Miyavi keeps pushing himself. He recently finished shooting his first proper film role (he doesn’t count playing himself in the 2004 film Oresama), portraying World War II POW camp sergeant and Class-A war criminal Mutsuhiro Watanabe in Unbroken. Directed by Angelina Jolie and due out on Christmas Day in the US and Boxing Day in the UK, the film chronicles the life of Olympic athlete and POW Louis Zamperini.
At first Miyavi was hesitant to take on a role that would be so controversial, especially in the eyes of Japanese viewers. “My role is pretty brutal — as a Japanese guard who tortures the main guy (Zamperini). (Watanabe) was an actual person, so it’s a really sensitive role. I don’t think what that guy did was right, but I didn’t want to forget the respect, and to portray him with humanity.
“When I first met Angie, she said she wanted to make a bridge — between America and Japan, and other countries that may be having similar problems. Angie is not only an actress, but also a great artist. She said that forgiveness is the underlying theme of the whole film.”
Promotion for the film will presumably eat up some of Miyavi’s year, along with finishing that new album and his first ever performance at Japan’s Fuji Rock festival in July. Lamentably, these activities keep him from adding one more skillset to his resume: kitchen rock star.
“I think I’d be good at cooking,” he says, that confidence bubbling over like a pan on the boil. “I’m a fast learner, and, like with acting, I think there are many things I can gain that would influence my (musical) creation. But one of the reasons I stay away from cooking is that I think that once I start I will never stop. I’ll want to make something distinct — and original.”
Miyavi is out now worldwide.
Be stunned by this exclusive live video with Miyavi, from the MTV Iggy vaults: