Dubbed by their countrymen “the Japanese Black Sabbath”, Ningen-Isu has been active in their homeland since forming in 1987. Despite the band beginning to gain worldwide acclaim, their name is still not commonly known among metalheads outside of Japan. The Metal Observer was recently granted the opportunity to interview these Japanese legends on the heels of releasing their eighteenth album, Burai Houjouo, in June of 2014, which could very well be one of the band’s only, if not THE only, interview in English.
When asked about their popularity in and out of Japan, guitarist and vocalist Shinji Wajima states that he felt “hard rock is not so popular in Japan and our band ‘Ningen-Isu’ has earned a cult following. So our music career has gone our own way.” He also stated that he realized “that people in Japan who are listening to our music are becoming increasingly common” and also that he’s noticed that there has been an increase in those “overseas people”, as he puts it, becoming interested through the internet. Speaking of which, the band did announce, as Shinji Wajima states that they are planning to make the band’s homepage in English as well, to “introduce and spread our music all over the world, step by step.”
“Namahage” from 2014’s Burai Houjou.
Jumping in to contribute, Kenichi Suzuki, vocalist and bass player, offers, “It may because our lyrics are written in Japanese.” Drummer, Nobu Nakajima adds, “I was feeling that there were circumstances that listeners in Japan who like hard rock could not get information about hard rock bands, both domestic and overseas, a decade ago. But by the wide spread of the internet, we could have chances to appear on festivals and events.” He also states that the “people who would know Ningen-Isu have gradually increased” because of this.”
I asked the band how they felt about playing overseas and, if given the opportunity, would they play outside of Japan. In the band’s nearly thirty years of existence, they have yet to play a show outside of Japan. Kenichi Suzuki states, “I can’t imagine how many people will come and see our live performance, though. I think we can satisfy them, if they come and see our live performance.” Nobu Nakajima excitedly states, “Of course I wish I could have concerts overseas.” Tempering his enthusiasm a bit, he goes on, “But I thought first of all we made ourselves better known in Japan. Ten years have passed since I joined Ningen-Isu. As we have gotten more visibility than before, we want to spread our Ningen-Isu world overseas. We are seeking a more effective way. If the band is offered by someone from overseas, I want to make a live performance.” Shinji Wajima also states that, “I want to give a live performance abroad any time soon.” I know if Ningen-Isu played in North America, I would be willing to make one hell of a trip to see them live.
A live version of “Ringo No Namida” from 1990’s Ningen Shikkaku.
When asked about their choice to perform in a Japanese dialect and if they had ever considered performing in English, Shinji Wajima states, “When I first stated a band, I tried to write lyrics in English. But I couldn’t. It is the most convenient thing for me to write the lyrics in my native languages to send messages in my own mind. [The] Eastern world is different from [the] Western world in both the mental side and the physical side. I sometimes will sing and perform in English, but I basically will sing and perform in my native language.”
Ningen-Isu is Japanese for “human chair”, which is taken from a short novel by Ranpo Edogawa. I asked the band what was it about that particular piece of literature that made them adopt the moniker. Shinji Wajima relates, “We wanted our name to be weird and evil like Black Sabbath or some meaningful name in Japanese. The Christian religion is not so prevalent in Japan as Western people think. We Japanese don’t understand a concept of the conflict between God and Satan very well. Even if we took our band name which evoked Satan in Japanese, we thought we couldn’t make any impact to Japanese listeners. I though it was very cool to take our band from the title of literary works like “Flowers of Evil” by Mountain. “Ningen-Isu” could evoke suggestive and psychotic images, like an imperfect human being or on the way to human being, etc. I shout with Mr. Suzuki “This is it!”.”
A live rendition of “Shinagawa Shinjuu” from their 2006 album, Hoochie Koo.
Ningen-Isu’s music is often described as a mix of Black Sabbath styled doom metal, progressive metal and hard rock with a strong focus on Japanese vocal melodies and a lot of grooving riffs. I asked the band how they would describe Ningen-Isu’s sound to someone who has never listened to the band. Shinji Wajima answers, “Your description is just perfect! I think can add certain messages which are psychotic, a sense of discomfort to reality, anxiety to freedom, vision of a next coming era and so on to your description.” Kenichi Suzuki adds that it, “becomes a strong accent that I adapted playing a style of Samisen, which has come down to the district of Tsugaru in the northern part of Japan.” Nobu Nakajima states that “our live performance is in full force equal to our studio recordings”, which he feels is a very appealing aspect of Ningen-Isu.
The band’s latest album, Burai Houjyou, continues the trend of great albums. The music is varied, with traces of various subgenres of metal, while still sounding like Ningen-Isu. I almost feel like the music is more raw and emotive this time around. I asked if the songwriting and recording of Burai Houjou differed from how other albums were written and recorded. Shinji Wajima states, “The circumstances surrounding the band are getting better. We could appear on the stage of Ozzfest Japan. I could reconfirm what we wanted to do and by the appearance of Ozzfest Japan, I felt like we made a re-debut. We made this album within a year after the release of the previous album. This album may be positioned a second a album after our re-debut.” Regarding the styling of the album, he continues, “We made this album featuring guitar riffs which are the basic elements of hard rock better than our previous works.” Nobu Nakajima states that, “We always try to create convincing and satisfactory riffs consistently through our albums. I think we could get a clearer view of this policy from our song writing to the studio recording this time than before. We felt confident in the process and result of this album. I personally always try to care about making the band groove as first priority and play the drums so as to live up to the history of Ningen-Isu. I always adopt new phrases of the drum. I challenged a lot of things through the recording of this album.” Kenichi Suzuki simply adds, “I think Mr. Wajima wrote the songs more energetically than usual.”
“Kaijin Nijuu Mensou” from their 2000 album of the same name.
I asked the band if they could walk us through the life of a typical song from concept to the finished product and if any members are the main songwriters or if it is a shared responsibility. Shinji Wajima answers, “A typical song of this album is “Namahage”, which we made a promotional video clip. I wrote this song based on the idea as followed and expressed in this idea “Namahage” (a Japanese custom he later describes). “I think human beings cannot have the right to sit in judgment on human beings. War still occurs somewhere in the world. It may be solely the existence of another dimension that can have the right to judgment on human beings. “Namahage” is the traditional folk event held in the northern district of Japan since early times. Many men who wear ogre masks walk around houses of the village wildly, sometimes get angry with village people, sometimes preach and pray for people’s happiness. I played a heavy riff on the arrangement side, because it is a song of ogre. I also adpoted to my guitar playing a style of Samisen (a traditional Japanese string instrument, like guitar. Play styles are different from one region to another).”
The band’s stage garb includes traditional Japanese attire (not to mention Kenichi Suzuki’s facepaint). I asked if there was a reason for appearing on stage in this style of dress. I questioned if this dress was a way of standing out or something different altogether and what the style means to the band. Shinji Wajima explains that “regarding traditional Japanese attire, it can be said that this is an extension of our expressing our songs in Japanese. I want to emphasize an identity as Japanese. We Japanese seldom wear Japanese traditional Kimono in our time. It is extremely unusual to see Japanese men who wear Kimono downtown. So I want to wear traditional Japanese attire. But to be clear, this is not an expression of Nationalism. I think excess Nationalism leads to Militarism. I oppose war under any circumstances.” Kenichi Suzuki states, “I always wanted to be like Gene Simmons!” as his reason for his face paint and dress. Nobu Nakajima states, “I change my costume on purpose other than off the stage. Wearing traditional Japanese attire is Ningen-Isu’s typical character. I can concentrate on stage performance and get fired up by separating stage costume from casual wear.”
“Sarashikubi” from 1996’s Mugen No Juunin.
Those who have listened to Ningen-Isu can attest that there is an undeniable chemistry between the band members, especially between Kenichi Suzuki’s bass playing and Shinji Wajima’s guitar riffs. I tried to find out what the secret recipe for success was. Does the interplay between the two instruments come naturally or is it something that they strive to perfect with every release? I asked the band how they were able to constantly create memorable hooks in both their music and vocal harmonies. Shinji Wajima explains that, “I was struck to listen to British and US rock music in childhood. I thought how cool they were! On the other hand I felt bored to hear Japanese popular songs. I began to play the guitar to do rock music. I think Mr. Suzuki felt the same way. I always yearned for simple and strong guitar riffs. I copied a lot songs. I thought the coolest point of a composition is that guitar and bass guitar are in good unison. Bass guitar is played in harmony with guitar and traces the guitar hook-line.” He continues with, “The chemistry was not created naturally but as a result of copying a lot of song. We are making effort to harmonize the guitar and bass guitar picking (up, down or alternate) to let our audience listen more effectively. Regarding our vocal abilities, we cannot sing so well. That’s why we are doing all the things how we can let our listeners hear more memorable and more effective.” I tend to disagree with the statement about singing abilities, but it’s interesting to hear his take on things. He adds, “Suzuki and I grew up together. We can feel the same way when we play in the band together. As Suzuki and I stated from the same point; that we want to play rock music. There has been no large difference of view between and neither there will.” Kenichi Suzuki comments, “Mr. Wajima and I have been friends for 35 years. We usually are so busy that we cannot go outside together. So we communicate, play or enjoy in studio and on stage.”
Nobu Nakajima now has a decade under his belt with the band. I asked if the band felt that he was a better fit than previous drummers (as that is the only line up position to ever have been changed). I asked if they felt that he’s in the band for the long run now and if there was the same sense of chemistry with Nobu as there is between Shinji and Kenichi. “A band is like magic,” Shinji Wajima states. “So I think I don’t need to be extremely technical. Neither so with Mr. Suzuki. The most important thing in our band is groove. The reason is our music features riffs mainly. If we only pursue the technic in every part of instruments, we cannot keep the groove. It takes a long time to be in the groove. Suzuki and I are feeling the same sense of chemistry with Nakajima. After he joined the band, the band goes better than before. I think it proves. I believe he’s in the band for the long run now.” Mr. Suzuki simply states, “I think Nakajima’s wild drum play fits to the band who loves old hard rock music.”
A live version of “Jinmensou” from their debut, self-titled EP.
The Japanese scene in many ways is almost like a micro universe of its own, with the imagery, language, often flamboyance and in other cases almost hermit-like foreclosure to Western culture, influences and lifestyle. I asked how the band felt that they fit into this unique landscape and if they considered themselves to be an actual part of the scene. Heavy metal has a very fanatic and intense following in Japan, so it’s only natural to inquire about the band’s fan base. Shinji Wajima states, “If a Japanese musician follows only the style of the music of the Western world, he or she cannot keep their position for a long time. It is because they are not real expressions that derive from their real soul within. We, Ningen-Isu, keep on pursuing an expression of rock music based on the identity of Japanese. I think that makes Ningen-Isu stand at a unique position in the Japanese music scene. I think there are several kinds of Ningen-Isu fans who like overseas metal, counterculture in Japan and so on. We don’t want our fans to limit what they should be. We don’t want to be categorized in one position.” Kenichi Suzuki offers, “I don’t know about the Japanese music scene and also don’t care about them. We have kept on hard rocking with heavy riffs. Our fans that are sympathetic with our attitude will encourage us forever.” Nobu Nakajima adds to Mr. Suzuki’s sentiment, “I don’t care where we are in the Japanese music scene. Our fans treat us as the band that can make a concert based on our steady career. That’s because we have kept on expressing our music in hard rock and performing a hard rock that we love. Our live performance must be seen!” He also adds, “Mentioned to our lyrics, I think our core fans loves the content and literariness of our lyrics.”
The band was started back in 1987, so I asked if they foresaw that the band would still be together over 25 years later. I asked how the scene had changed over the years and what the band’s future could hold. Shinji Wajima answers, “It is really unexpected that we can keep our band so long! When I first started Ningen-Isu, I thought I would break up the band when I was 30 years old. I was aware of the band as my lifework ten years after I had started the band. Then I had no idea to break up band twenty years after I started the band.” Kenichi Suzuki states, “I thought I could continue the band but I imagined our activity would be more unspectacular. I will continue the band even if the audience decreases dramatically and will our agreement is terminated by the record company.” Shinji advises that, “There was a trend that it was cooler not playing a guitar solo in a composition for a period of time. I thought we became old-fashioned. But I dared to play the guitar solo.”
“Shinigami No Kyouen” from 2000’s Mishiranu Sekai played live.
With Japan being well known for Visual Kei, Ningen-Isu seem like a stark contrast, seemingly far more rooted in Japanese traditions. I asked how they saw the flamboyance of these acts compared to their musical substance. Shinji Wajima answers, “Probably Visual Kei is not influenced by Western music. Visual Kei is a genre that has continued to grow only in the Japanese music scene. It seems like a new movement that reforms Japanese music culture after the Pacific War. I don’t deny it at all. But there seems to be nothing in common between Visual Kei and Ningen-Isu. To exaggerate, Ningen-Isu’s mission may be the trial of the mixture of Western rock music and good old Japanese culture.”
With the advent of the digital age, including MP3’s and file sharing, I asked if the band had noticed increased recognition and if they felt that this was positive for the band. “We really feel grateful about the internet which has become widespread. I feel our fans have been gradually increasing with the rise of the internet. Of course it is a positive element for the band. We could not have attracted major media attention for a period of time. As the internet is widespread all over the world, I thought there were some people who came to know Ningen-Isu through the internet, but the visibility may be more than we expected. Thank you for the overseas listeners who favor Ningen-Isu!”
“Jigoku Hen” from 2013’s Mandoro.
I’ve always enjoyed finding out what influences my favorite bands. It can be quite telling finding out what makes a band tick. Ningen-Isu’s lyrical themses have touched upon Buddhism and literature throughout the years. I asked what bands have influenced the band, or members in general, and, also, what specifically influenced Burai Houjou. Kenichi Suzuki states, “I give Wajima a free hand to make concepts of compositions. Though each band member has different favorite artists, I personally listen to Uriah Heep’s albums which didn’t sell well very often recently.” Shinji Wajima answers, “We are much influenced by the teachings of Buddhism on our conceptual side. All the things I want to be are written in Dhammapada, which is one of the primitive Buddhist Scriptures. I was moved to a phrase of Krishnamurti, who is a philosopher of religion in the 20th Century. A phrase of his speech which is, “It is only when you waive to strive the safety of life, Fertility toward life will appear.” This phrase leads to the title of our album, Burai Houjou. I love all the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A story teller finds unique and common beauty to specific stars and flowers in the very opening of “Ligea” which is one of Poe’s works. I wrote a same title song by sympathizing to this opening part.” He continues, “I still respect 70’s rock music. I am recognizing that 70’s is a period that rock was really rock, not industrialized yet and had a real voice from the bottom of the heart.” Nobu Nakajima chimes in, “When we rehearse, we often mention about the bands which are Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jimmi Hendrix, Deep Purple and Queen. We are much influenced by these bands in every aspect of our band activity. We also mention Kiss, Metallica, Motorhead, AC/DC and Van Halen. I personally listen to Iron Maiden, Rainbow, Hanoi Rocks, Cheap Trick, T-Rex, BBA, Captain Beyond, Japan, the Police and U2!”
Leaving the floor for the band, I asked if there were any final words of wisdom for our readers or if there was anything else that needed mentioning. Sagely, Shinji Wajima states, “I think music and art are universal languages. I think if someone plays real cool rock music, whoever listens to this song feels really cool. Even if you cannot understand the words, if the music comes from the bottom of the heart, I think you can share the emotion. I want to strive to express that way.” Kenichi Suzuki offers, “I think Mr. Wajima is a genius! Every people who listen to Ningen-Isu will prostrate tehmselves before the talent of Mr. Wajima!” Nobu Nakajima closes, “Yeah! Ningen-Isu rules! Come and see our concert!”
Ningen-Isu’s cover of King Crimson’s classic “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
To those who have never listened to Ningen-Isu, do yourself a favor and check out Burai Houjou, which is available through the band’s label, Tokuma Japan Communications. Ningen-Isu are one of the most consistent bands in history and they deserve any attention you can give them. The band seems more than willing to play foreign shores, so if there are any promoters reading this, let’s make this happen.