This interview was originally conducted and published by “club Zy.” in Japanese. JROCK NEWS is partnering with club Zy. with the aim to popularize Japanese visual kei globally. Learn more about our partnership here.

Since their major debut in 1996, HAKUEI is no longer just the vocalist of PENICILLIN, but someone whose talent is showcased across many fields. A producer for actors and other artists, model, fashion entrepreneur, jewelry designer, and picture book author to name a few; one cannot help but be overwhelmed by his motivation and hard work.

Among these, we received news that he has been appointed honorary editor-in-chief of Japan’s biggest visual website, “club Zy.”. In this interview, we discuss his thoughts regarding this topic, and feelings about his wide range of activities.

The honorary editor of “club Zy.” is truly prepared to lay his life on the line for this scene.

“Visual kei is gradually changing, and that’s part of what makes it interesting.”

First of all, could you tell us about the circumstances leading you to become the honorary editor-in-chief of club Zy.?

The producer of club Zy., Seiichi Hoshiko (Chairman of JVK), and I have known each other for more than 20 years now. He’s given me the chance to try my hand at a regularly scheduled radio program, as well as a serial at club Zy., among others. We’ve been working together for a really long time. We’ve traveled together when there have been concerts, or shootings overseas, whether it’s professional or private matters, we’ve become quite close.

Hoshiko is without a doubt one of the central figures of the music scene, and for some years now he has been looking to revitalize the visual kei scene. Of course, Hoshiko is working hard but he wants to bring something new to the scene, so he sought my advice. We’ll work together to bring some more energy to the visual kei scene. As we talked about producing and planning things, not only contributing as an artist, I wanted to do it.

So it’s not that “club Zy. is HAKUEI’s official site”, but it’s something you’re actually working on, right?

That’s right. If it can be recognized that I have a relationship with club Zy. outside of being an artist, it will become easier to plan for things. Also, when discussing what a good title would be, “honorary editor-in-chief” seemed to be the easiest to understand for the users, too.

So, though my title is “editor-in-chief”, my work is not to create or edit content for club Zy. I’m an artist, so I’m not looking at the situation through the lens of someone on the inside of club Zy., but set in place more as a producer for various things.

After hearing your side, “honorary editor-in-chief” really is the aptest title, isn’t it? Are there any specific things you want to do in this role?

There’s a lot actually, and we already have plans we are working on. Though, I can’t tell you anything specific right now. We still haven’t settled on anything, we’re still deciding a lot of things and trying to work out the best time for announcements, etc. I can’t talk about that, but generally, we’re planning concerts and events for example, but I have more interesting ideas in me. So, I want you to wait for those.

Looking forward to it! Alright, what is it you find attractive about visual kei?

Visual kei really isn’t like anything else in the world. It’s original Japanese culture. There are similar kinds of artists around the world, but no other country has evolved an original style like this. Kind of like something from the Galápagos Islands [laugh]. Visual kei definitely has its roots in western music, from artists like Culture Club, Duran Duran, David Bowie, and the like, but nowadays, there are basically no artists of that same style in western music.

Japanese anime, games, and idol culture have evolved in a similar way, and are an accepted part of our culture overseas even as they mature. It’s a big part of what makes them attractive, right? Another big part of what makes visual kei uniquely Japanese is probably the physique of Japanese people. Basically, the physique of westerners isn’t that well suited. Japanese people, even men, have slim frames and thin faces, which is well suited to the unisex image of visual kei. Other than the factor of visual kei fitting to Japanese people, you could say it really is an aspect of culture unique to Japan.

You mentioned previously about revitalizing the scene, but what’s your impression of the current visual kei scene?

As I said, visual kei has become well known overseas, and as such there are a lot of foreign fans. It’s just one piece of Japanese culture, but it has support. On the other hand, within Japan there’s been a period of inactivity—right now, it’s in a slump. The younger bands now aren’t giving up though. They’re making interesting music and bringing new ideas to the table.

Previously, big labels or record companies would hold large events and there was a place to go. But this gradually reduced, and even though there’s a lot of bands who get along well together and are from the same areas, the desire to hold events like this isn’t really there anymore. There’s a lot of bands these days who handle their own sales.

Thus, I think it’s necessary to create a place that can serve as a source for visual kei, and that’s what I want to realize.

Certainly. I think allies to the cause will definitely appear. When you’re racking your brains for an answer, I think having those artists that you’ve worked together with for a long time is a strong point.

I myself have only really been focusing on the things Hoshiko is doing, but really, if you want mochi, you go to a mochi shop, and that expression fits this situation well. I think it’s necessary to match each artist with a good idea. I’m studying that concept now.

When you start working on something big, you definitely need money and people, and there’s certainly a big risk involved. It’s not that we’re just sitting on our hands in this case, there is a process involved. I want to put all of my efforts into the things I can do, and borrow the strength of other people in order to revive the visual kei scene, you know?

Also, visual kei is changing from one generation to the next, and enjoying various artists is fun in itself. Even if times change, aren’t there genres that stick to the same sounds or fashion trends? In that respect, visual kei is gradually changing, and that’s part of what makes it interesting.

Currently producing actor Ryuji Sato

Visual kei is, in a good way, a special genre, but I feel that the range of styles is quite large. So, not to limit us to our current discussion about you being honorary editor-in-chief, for a long time now, you’ve done a lot of work outside your activities as an artist, HAKUEI. On that note, I’d like to hear about some things. Firstly, you produce a lot of artists!

Producing isn’t something that I had always wanted to do, really, but while discussing writing songs for other artists, the opportunity to produce an artist came up, so I took it. Through that kind of thing, now I am the sole producer for actor Ryuji Sato, but that stemmed from the personal relationship I had with him. I was in charge of creating the theme song for “Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High”, which Sato was cast in, and we met on set.

Teiichi is a musical, so part of Ryuji’s work involved singing, and I thought he was incredible. He had a great voice, and while talking at after parties and such, he told me he actually wanted to be in a band. Talking to him felt like talking to musicians of the same generation. I felt that same kind of mischievousness that old musicians had like he was on the edge of something, it made me feel nostalgic. I had the feeling that, if it was him, we could definitely create something, so eventually, I asked him if he would like to make music together.

It seems to have really brought out the producer in you. So that’s how you started out as sole producer, but how did it feel to start taking charge?

It was really hard [laugh]. It’s so much more work than my own recording. When it’s my own, I make the song, then proceed with the arrangement to some degree, next I’ll write lyrics, I may only sing, but I do everything. Create the song, arrange it, record rough vocals, be present for all of the recording… that kind of thing.

Also, this time it’s a bit different, or rather, there was a different understanding on Ryuji’s side and mine. While I only wanted to be a producer that creates music, it seems that he thought me and him would definitely sing twin vocals in a band together [laugh]. Ryuji’s manager also thought so, so he was like, “what, it’s not that way?” [laugh]. I don’t dislike twin vocals but, I had pictured Ryuji singing as the center-point of a band, and began making songs with that image in mind, so then we talked about how I already had this kind of plan.

As we did that, Ryuji told me, “Even if it’s just one or two songs, I want to try twin vocals.”. I thought to myself, “if it’s just that much, it’s fine”. There weren’t people that’d do such things, I thought it would be interesting, so we just did it.

I think it’s the nature of a musician that when they are asked about wanting to do twin vocals, they immediately answer “yes”. But the fact that you already refused once, I can see that you have really come to think like a producer.

I have, haven’t I? But I thought that twin vocals would be an interesting idea. Of course, Ryuji would be the main singer and as opposed to that, I thought I could be a tool to really help him take off. On a position other than the main vocalist, I could do whatever I pleased, and that sounds like fun [laugh]. Because that’s something I can’t do in either PENICILLIN or my solo work. But singing a couple of songs together, at the live we could create ups and downs that are just our own. That’s why, while at first I was like “Eh?” at the idea of twin vocals, eventually I thought I could make it into something good.

I think Ryuji Sato must be very pleased. To move on, let’s talk about the acting business. Since you started with your first lead role in 1997 in the movie “30 -thirty-”, you’ve been appearing as an actor in movies, theater, and the like.

“30 -thirty-” was written and directed by Shinobu Sakagami, whose autobiographical novel it was also based on. While it is fiction when Mr. Sakagami was writing it, he projected a lot of himself into the protagonist. When it was being made into a movie, Mr. Shinobu didn’t need the lead actor to be a talented performer; it would be fine if they were bad. He wanted someone like a musician who could play the role like a real person.

So that’s how I got the offer. To be honest, I had no interest in acting, it was the role of an office worker, so I couldn’t decide what to do. But a chance to tell such a story doesn’t come easily. I was young at the time, so I just decided, “for now I’m going to try it”.

You’re always ready to take a challenge, huh? However, because acting was such an unknown world to you, I feel like there must have been many confusing things too?

There were many. Naturally, I understand that my acting wasn’t good, but I was surrounded by amazing actors. Hiroshi Abe, Koichi Sato, for example. They were definitely really amazing. Their acting was natural, their words were easy to listen to, even their movements were good. As an amateur among them, I really felt the struggle, so every day I thought, “I wonder if this is okay, I wonder if this is okay?”. That’s how I recall doing it.

Musicians do some light acting in music videos, it seems that it can be split into those who feel that acting is interesting, and those who say that it really isn’t for them.

Acting is definitely interesting. At the time I appeared in “30 -thirty-”, I actually mentioned it in an interview, but when you’re making music, you have to think about the chord progression, the melody, the rhythm arrangement… and little by little you piece it together until you have a full piece of work, right? Movies are also like that, I thought. There is a story, you have to make it into a script, direct it on the spot, the scenes pile up one by one, until it becomes one piece. In that, it quite resembles making a music album. As actors are just one of the gears inside that, I understood that it’s okay to enjoy it in that way.

But I really feel like I don’t have acting talent. If I had talent, I thought I’d be more active in acting. It was the opposite, even if I had offers, I rejected them. There were some discussions about dramas, even quite splendid ones. But I thought, I cannot appear in this. I cannot put a person such as myself among people who dedicate their lives to acting. But even if I kept refusing, if it’s something like a musical that makes use of my skills as a vocalist, or I get asked by a friend, I do it here and there.

I get that you are very down-to-earth.

Of course, when you appear in a movie or a drama, your fans will also watch it, and the quality of your work is very important. So if I’m not confident that I can deliver good results, I simply won’t do it. That’s why I don’t feel like I can be very proactive as an actor.

Nevertheless, if an interesting offer comes, and I think I could pull it off, I think I’d do it.

For example, if it’s a role where there is almost no dialogue and I’d have to act with movement and atmosphere, or a role killing somebody [laugh]. If that were the case, I feel like I could make that pretty unique [laugh].

“As well as modeling for fashion brand “elements,H”, HAKUEI has released his own collaboration line. He has also collaborated with jewelry brands Lips&Tips and VS.”

That’s great [laugh]. If we’re talking about wanting to try it, I’d like to see it actually happen. As well as using your body to express when singing or acting, for example, you also produce and model for the fashion brand “elements,H”.

We currently have two designers at “elements,H” but one of them, Hamamoto, used to be a designer for “PEACE NOW”, and originally I modeled for them. While modeling for them, we also developed my own collaborative line and had a few releases each year.

But after that, “PEACE NOW” dissolved. I always had a great time working with them, so my feelings were that I’d like to work with them and collaborate again sometime. Other brands asked me to collaborate with them, which I considered, but I felt like Hamamoto and I were on the same wavelength, you know? And so, I thought maybe if Hamamoto hadn’t decided what she wanted to do next, we could start a new brand together.

Hamamoto really is a person with incredible talent, and at that time she was the main designer for “PEACE NOW” which had about 20 stores in total. There is no doubting her skill, and after proposing the idea to her, we launched “elements.H”.

You really are a man of action. After launching “elements.H”, did you leave the brand direction and such to Ms. Hamamoto?

No, we came up with the brand concept together. I’ve always liked clothes, particularly runway fashion. I wanted to make things that were a little bit runway style with some spicy elements, but things you can wear in your daily life. So that became the founding concept of “elements.H”. Basically, this brand is the embodiment of all the things I really like. Hamamoto understands this, and the things she wants to make really are similar to my ideas. It made the set-up pretty smooth.

I don’t just watch over everything and say what to do or not do, though. With the exception of collaborative projects with other brands, I oversee the design for all our collections and contribute ideas. When I come up with ideas, I’ll sketch patterns, check everything individually, make suggestions on what kind of buttons would be best, for example, or “I want to put some embroidery here”. But only that much. I stick to being an advisor, a model, helping out a little… That kind of thing.

That’s a nice pattern. Speaking of fashion, you have also released collaborations with jewelry brands “Lips&Tips” and “VS”.

This was also kind of a coincidence, as previously, I had no intentions of doing something like this. I was featured in a jewelry magazine and at that time I asked if I could take some of the samples. I looked over the goods with the writer, there were a few different brands but my eyes landed on “Lips&Tips”. I was really drawn to it, and was like “This is really cool. It’s so tasteful”. And the writer was like, “Thank you very much. That’s actually my brand” [laugh].

He was very pleased, and sent me the samples which I wore pretty much every day after that. Then, when I went back to do another magazine feature and he noticed the jewelry had become kind of worn, he said, “If you really like it that much, would you like to make something together?”. From there, we started collaborating.

This year (2018), in December we’ll release a freshwater pearl chain necklace with a medallion. I wanted to make something like a protective charm, with a Mary locket that you could put a picture inside of, and a cross-shaped charm. Based on that, the owner drew up a detailed design, I gave my feedback and opinions, and that’s how we came up with the final product.

I understand that you really like jewelry, too.

I do really love jewelry, too. One thing I’m happy about is, before, that writer kind of started “Lips&Tips” pretty much as a hobby. His main source of income was as a writer or editor, and between jobs, he would work at his own pace making jewelry he liked and putting it up for sale in select shops. But after collaborating with me, it seems like jewelry has become his main work. When I heard the story, I was really happy. He’s a very talented person, I only served as a catalyst by spreading his name.

Group photo of HAKUEI’s band PENICILLIN.

“I express myself through the medium of visual kei and would like to keep doing so.”

I think the writer is really grateful, though. HAKUEI, you are also a member of manga artist unit “Manga Kyodai”, and you published a picture book.

This was a coincidence, too [laugh].

Let’s start from the beginning. I like natto, and I was a kind of “friendship ambassador” for a certain natto manufacturer. When we were discussing at that time, we thought making characters or something for it would be interesting. Then, one day the phrase “Natto Samurai” suddenly came to me [laugh].

I thought we could make the Natto Samurai into the hero of a story, and I couldn’t just sit on the idea, so I called my friend, manga artist Usamaru Furuya, and just kind of babbled on. He said “HAKUEI, calm down. Can you come to the studio now?”. At the studio, I explained my idea again, Usamaru was on board and he spent all night drawing around 30 pages for the picture book [laugh].

Then, an acquaintance of mine, actor Norihisa Hiranuma, took it to a publisher and told me “I’ve decided to publish it” and that was that [laugh]. At first, we wanted to release it through Gentosha (a Japanese manga publisher among other), but the president of Poplar at that time was interested and offered to publish it if we could redesign it and turn it into a series. And so, we changed the title to “The Natto Samurai Inside the Fridge”, altered the concept and made three books.

Making one is already difficult, but making three must have been terrible. “Natto Samurai” is a fantastic concept, and you can really feel the enthusiasm of the three-person team.

The three people in “Manga Kyodai” have a great balance. An actor, a musician, and a manga artist working together can be disconnected, but when ideas come together, they become something interesting. One of the problems with making a picture book, is that it takes around one year to make one book.

So, we stopped after making three, but this year, Hiranuma’s first child was born. Their birthday is July 10, which is “Natto Day” (In Japanese, seven can be read as “nana”, ten as “tou”) [laugh]. We talked about possibly making some art, Hiranuma coming up with the story, and it ended up with us making plans to release something on July 10, 2019. If it goes well, I think it will probably become the fourth book in the “Natto Samurai” series.

I think it will be hard work, but I’m looking forward to seeing the new work. At any rate, beyond the scope of artist, you really are involved in many things. What is the driving force behind all that?

To put it simply, curiosity. If I think something is interesting, the feeling of wanting to do it becomes stronger. I despise the idea of not taking an opportunity and regretting it. Actually, when I don’t try things, it’s that I don’t know whether I am cut out for the job or not, you know? Of course there are instances when I wish I hadn’t tried to do something, but there is still something to be gained from those experiences. I live by that thought and find myself doing a lot of different things.

Once again, I can really feel that it’s important to you to properly enjoy the things that you like. If you only like things on a surface level, you can’t start anything, right?

That’s what I think. Though my way of thinking isn’t something like… There’s some weird endeavor I can’t do, but I want to be able to do that kind of thing, so I should study hard in order to do so. It’s simply that I like it; so when see and touch various things, knowledge and such comes to me naturally. Ideas come to me when I’m in a position to present them. More important than my sense of duty to these things, is that it is fun. Because they really are the things that I love.

Clothes, jewelry, watches, and accessories are all things that I love. An acquaintance of mine is the manager of a rather large select shop, but we can talk to each other all night about accessories and watches. What I mean is, I think my love runs deep.

I think that’s why you are able to meet professionals in every genre. So, the next time you come across something you find interesting, do you think you’ll give it a try?

I think so. I do a lot of different things at the same time, and people say it will be extremely difficult, but I’m not doing every single thing all year. I make jewelry collaborations once or twice a year, and I haven’t put out a picture book for a few years now. I put my full concentration into each thing, one by one, at a pace I can manage.

Personally, I think I still have some room left to do some other things, so if something comes up that I want to try, I’ll probably do it. However, now I’ve become the honorary editor-in-chief for “club Zy.”. At the time, I thought if I didn’t properly prepare myself, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I hated the thought of somehow just coasting by in name only.

Walking the path of music together since forming PENICILLIN more than 26 years ago, it feels inevitable that this kind of situation has occurred. I continue to express myself in the medium of visual kei, and would like to keep doing so, so I am fully prepared to lay my life on the line for this scene. I would like you to stick around to witness what the future holds ahead.

HAKUEI:
Official Website
Twitter
Blog

PENICILLIN:
Official Website
Twitter

The Brow Beat:
Official Website
Twitter

JVK (Japan Visual Kei):
JVK Official Website
club Zy. Official Website
Twitter (club Zy.)

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