Article. Hwang Sunup (Music Critic)

He’s received knocks on his door from every corner of the Japanese entertainment industry: TV, movies, anime, games—you name it. Even when live shows were shuttered during COVID-19, demand for Kenshi Yonezu only went up and up. His music, which has become well known for its incredible ability to raise awareness of whatever media it’s featured in, has become a must-have commodity to those in charge. The news that he was chosen to write the theme song for Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki’s new and likely final film seems to mark a new high point in his career—even among all the huge collaborations he’s worked on over the past several years.


Kenshi Yonezu’s songs never follow a well-trodden path. It’s no exaggeration to categorize what he’s doing as being in a league of its own, drawing as much inspiration from the thing he has been requested to write for while maintaining only a minimal connection to the plot line. Also of note is, as an artist who grew up consuming all different kinds of media, he’s intimately familiar with the feel and overall structure of each type. Let’s take a look at some of the soundtrack work Yonezu has done, as an  introduction to the musical mind of this trendsetter in the world of Japanese pop culture today.

​“Peace Sign” (the first opening of the second season of My Hero Academia anime)
I think this is one of the most straightforward songs in Yonezu’s entire catalog. In the same manner a protagonist of a coming-of-age movie overcomes obstacles to achieve inner growth, Yonezu uses tried-and-true techniques to arrive at an adventurous new place. His focus from the very start was to capture the rather run-of-the-mill approach of the show. In the end, he decided to take things in an unmistakably pop rock direction in the vein of “Butter-Fly,” the iconic theme song from Digimon, a series that made up so much of his childhood.

The song is also strategically written to be just like the music he liked to listen to as a kid by focusing on universal childhood experiences. Interestingly, despite this sense of shared experience, bits that are unmistakably Yonezu’s experimental sound are scattered throughout. The more you delve into the sound and structure of the track—like the full-bodied chords that repeat just when you’d think it’s coming to an end, or the versatility of the guitar in the verses—the more you can tell how much he toiled away at it. There’s always going to be the unmistakable mark of Kenshi Yonezu in any of his songs.
​“Fireworks” (theme from the animated film Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?)
The first time I heard this song, I knew nothing else could possibly suit the movie so well. It perfectly conveys   the atmosphere of Japan’s traditional fireworks festivals and the not-quite-in-sync feelings of the two main characters. It’s a hit made in heaven for the summer, with plaintive piano and dazzlingly explosive strings in the intro and luscious harmony between Daoko’s and Yonezu’s vocals. Daoko’s voice sounds like it would wither at the slightest touch while Yonezu conveys his feelings from a safe distance. The song represented a new style for Daoko, who got her start as a rapper, and was Yonezu’s best performance up to that point. “Fireworks” does an excellent job of showing how skilled Yonezu is at capturing the images from the film in music form. Yonezu went on to do a solo cover of the song with a radically different arrangement for his album BOOTLEG.
​“Lemon” (theme from the series Unnatural)
Even though it’s been five years since Unnatural wrapped, I would guess many people still get choked up when they hear the words, “yume nara ba dore hodo yokatta deshou (If only this was all a dream).” The theme song was an exceptional fit for the series: the music and the show itself are so inextricably linked that you have to experience the two together before you can fully appreciate them apart from one another. The show is about forensic scientists who help the bereaved come to grips with the loss of their loved ones and Kenshi Yonezu’s dying words bring each episode to a close. His grandfather passed away while making the song, giving him his first difficult taste of the tragedy of death, which, Yonezu said, is the reason the song is so powerful. The song, which makes a comparison between the sun and a lemon that’s been sliced open in a rather literary approach, was Yonezu’s way of redefining death. And it’s proven to be evergreen even five years after its release: As of this March, the song had over 800 million views on YouTube.
​“KICK BACK” (opening theme of Chainsaw Man anime)
Chainsaw Man has got to be the most refreshing piece of media I’ve consumed in recent years. The story progresses in ways that constantly defy the reader’s expectations and the cast of one-dimensional characters are fleshed out with complex relationships. The author’s genius combination of unexpected turns and stylish art threw me right into something the likes of which I had never experienced before. And the particular sense of betrayal felt throughout the series is emphasized once more through this song. It’s a whirlwind of experimentation, with everything from an entirely unique style of purposely distorted vocals to a sudden twist that veers right in the direction of classical music. Once you hear the line, “Doryoku (effort), mirai (the future), a beautiful star”—taken directly from Morning Musume’s 2002 song “Souda! We’re ALIVE”—you’ll realize it’s futile trying to guess what comes next. When I learned King Gnu founder Daiki Tsuneta co-produced the song, my first thought was how such a ridiculous song could only be the output of such a ridiculous collaboration. Ultimately a drum and bass track colored by Yonezu’s take on rock, it’s also an important one because it pushed them to become the first Japanese artists to hit the Spotify global charts.
​“Moongazing” (theme from Final Fantasy XVI)
Kenshi Yonezu once said that video games were what fulfilled his longing for escapism when he was a kid. He’s said that Final Fantasy VII in particular opened him up to a wider sense of self and helped to solidify his tastes. In a way, Yonezu’s songs—works that tend to give listeners a glimpse into reality through the lens of fantasy—are indebted in some part to the games he played, and the Final Fantasy series in particular.

This song shows just how much love and respect he has for the series. He felt that being in direct control of the protagonist for hours and hours on end is that much more immersive than watching a TV show or movie, which is why he took pains to make sure the game’s storyline and the song are inextricably linked—a vastly different approach compared to the theme songs he’s written to date that try their best not to be inseparable from the media they represent. The game itself is the darkest in the series and the melody played by the solemn piano and cello reflect that mood. The lyrics are equally moving, sending the message that the human process of meeting, parting and longing is a piece of what keeps us moving forward as a species. Anyone who’s journeyed through the game’s virtual world will likely resonate with how well it matches up with Clive, the main character. Of all the theme songs Yonezu has written, “Moongazing” is the one that’s most irrevocably woven together with its source material.
“Spinning Globe” (theme from the animated film The Boy and the Heron)
This song is the theme for what will likely become director Miyazaki’s final film before truly retiring, giving Kenshi Yonezu the weighty task of putting a period on the legendary animator’s entire body of work, but from another angle, it can also be seen as a sacred task of giving back to Miyazaki for everything Yonezu has received from him. Yonezu is already a self-described Miyazaki kid; his song “Hien” was directly influenced by another of the director’s works, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. “Spinning Globe” comes with a lot of pressure as far as the history of Japanese pop culture is concerned as it’s the artist’s 100th song. It’s a clear testament to his craftsmanship, then, that he’s able to convey his intended message so lucidly despite the pressure that came with the job.

It’s an extremely simple arrangement—some piano and a soft beat, and a sound with an Irish flare that somehow feels reverent—and in this way of his, Yonezu tosses flowers behind Miyazaki as he takes his final steps off the stage, in the form of a musical rendition carefully crafted upon many conversations with Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli general manager Toshio Suzuki. It feels as though Yonezu is circling in on the meaning of life—that it’s ultimately a process of filling in a map of the heart as you experience repeated gains and losses. The song maintains its calm demeanor throughout, but as you listen, it creates perceptible ripples in your heart and in your mind, urging you to take a sober look at your own life.