• Music

J-pop Favorite Ikimonogakari Makes Fresh Start as Duo

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kiyoe Yoshioka, left, and Yoshiki Mizuno of pop group Ikimonogakari

On May 3, vocalist Kiyoe Yoshioka and guitarist Yoshiki Mizuno of pop group Ikimonogakari took to the stage at Vinawalk, a commercial facility in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture.

“In this place, we’re starting over again with this song,” Yoshioka said before launching into “Sakura” (Cherry blossoms), the band’s debut song.

Ikimonogakari has performed on the streets of Ebina, their local base, countless times — as a trio. For the May gig, Yoshioka and Mizuno performed without any other musicians to mark a new chapter as a duo in the very place where their band was born.

Ikimonogakari released many hit J-pop songs as a three-piece act. In the summer of 2021, however, guitarist Hotaka Yamashita left the group, even though the members had a strong bond. The trio reached the decision after discussions sparked by Yamashita confiding a concern: “Will we really continue to pursue music as a career?”

For the past two years following Yamashita’s departure, Yoshioka and Mizuno practiced as a duo behind closed doors. On the day the two performed in Ebina, they also released “Star.” The track is used as the theme song for the movie “Ginga Tetsudo no Chichi” (Father of the Milky Way railroad), which focuses on the family of Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), a poet and children’s book author known for “The Night of the Milky Way Train,” among other titles.

The duo received the request to write the song at a time when they were turning down other offers because Yoshioka was due to have a baby.

Kiyoe Yoshioka sings during Ikimonogakari’s first live performance as a duo in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture, in May.

“Yoshioka was expecting a baby, and I’m also a father,” recalled Mizuno, who wrote “Star.” “I found a connection between us and this movie that focuses on the relationship between parent and child.” The offer was finally accepted, not least because Yoshioka wanted to sing for the movie.

She took part in the recording session while still pregnant. “I couldn’t breathe deeply and couldn’t belt out the music the same way I did before,” she said. However, “I was happy as I found myself singing well despite those challenges. It was a very precious experience for me.”

Perfecting J-pop

Ikimonogakari was formed in 1999 by Mizuno and Yamashita, who went to the same schools from elementary through to high school. The name came from the fact that they were assigned to take care of living creatures kept in their classroom when they were first-graders in elementary school. In Japan, schools often keep killifish, insects and other living creatures for educational purposes.

Yoshioka joined the group later that year, and the three made their major label debut in 2006 with “Sakura.”

On the track, the vocalist takes a deep breath just before she starts to sing, through which she seems to show her determination, as if to say, “This is where it all begins.”

However, Yoshioka simply said, “I was too preoccupied to think about that.” In the first place, she said she remembers almost nothing about the recording session. This indicates the rigors of the yearlong training period set by the group’s record label in the run-up to its debut.

Yoshiki Mizuno smiles at the audience while playing guitar during a gig in May.

Ikimonogakari raised its profile through live street performances before being scouted by an entertainment agency and a record label. During the training period, Mizuno and Yamashita were confined to a studio, having been told to write songs and make changes to them with an aim to get them adopted as theme songs for anime and other programs. Yoshioka, a music college graduate, was “trained” out of her previous habits and taught how to sing pop songs.

The training period was so tough that Mizuno later said he could not visit the studio for several years afterward because “the room’s smell reminded me of the hard days.”

However, all the hard work eventually paid off. “Joyful” (2009) was used as a commercial song for a popular confectionery, while “Arigato” (Thank you; 2010) was adopted as the theme song for NHK’s serial morning drama “GeGeGe no Nyobo” (GeGeGe’s wife).

The root of Ikimonogakari’s popularity is its pursuit of J-pop. The group has been popular among men and women of all ages.

“Back then, the term J-pop was considered to symbolize something uncool and tacky,” Mizuno said. “I wickedly thought it might be better to force it to go in the opposite direction, [making our songs pure J-pop],” he said with a laugh.

Ikimonogakari began to graduate from the streets to live music clubs and halls. The band eventually held concerts at Yokohama Stadium, which was its original target. The trio was also chosen to appear in NHK’s “Kohaku Utagassen” (Red & White Year-end Song Festival) every year from 2008 to 2016, which helped it become more widely known.

‘Put out to pasture’

On Jan. 5, 2017, the group announced that it would enter a period of what it described as “pasturing,” or inactivity.

The announcement came at a time when the ensemble seemed to be reaching its peak, as it had celebrated the 10th anniversary of its debut the previous year.

From left, Yoshiki Mizuno, Kiyoe Yoshioka and Hotaka Yamashita are seen in cow suits to announce Ikimonogakari’s “pasturing” period. Yamashita later left the band.

“The group’s existence was growing in a happy way,” Mizuno recalls in his book. “But on the other hand, we had significantly fewer conversations among ourselves. Each of us was so occupied with the task of fulfilling his or her own role in the group.”

The group came up with an impressive way to make the announcement. It was the brainchild of Yoshioka.

When the group was traveling in a car, Mizuno, as the leader of the group, asked if there were any good jokes to describe the group’s plan to take a break. Yoshioka replied, “In other words, it’s like we’ll be put out to pasture, isn’t it?” To make the announcement, they were photographed in cow suits.

During the “pasturing” period, the members built up skills as musicians in their own ways. Mizuno provided songs to other singers as a composer, while Yoshioka released an album in which she sang cover tunes. They also ate out frequently and talked to each other a lot. They felt as if they were back in high school.

In November 2018, Ikimonogakari announced the end of their “pasturing” period and resumed activities.

They seemed to get back on track, but in June 2021, the group made another crucial announcement: Yamashita was leaving the band.

When asked if there was the option to dissolve the band, Mizuno said, “We didn’t consider that, but I did wonder if we could make it as a duo.”

The two eventually reached the decision to continue Ikimonogakari as a two-member outfit. “I wanted to grow a little more as a singer and songwriter,” Mizuno said. “I told [Yoshioka] that we should move forward.”

Yoshioka said: “I told him, ‘Let’s see if the two of us can do it. We’ll give it a try.”’

Strong start as duo

This August, Ikimonogakari will feature at the “Rock in Japan Festival,” one of the nation’s largest music events. The band will also conduct a nationwide tour of 19 cities from February to May next year.

More good news seem to be on its way, as Yoshioka said there are some songs that “have already been recorded but are still not ready for release.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kiyoe Yoshioka, left, and Yoshiki Mizuno of pop group Ikimonogakari

“There are things that only the two of us can create. When the leader [Mizuno] produces new melodies, I think: ‘Oh, he’s composed a nice song again. I’ll perform it even better.’ I believe we can compete with each other and help improve each other. It’s been 17 years since our debut, but this is the first time I’ve said things like this,” Yoshioka said.

“I have a strong ego. I’m the type who thinks ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it,’ more strongly than I should,” Mizuno said. “But thanks to other musicians, our staff and fans, our music can reach a wider realm than if I just work on my own. That’s why we must live up to their expectations. I believe our group really has a great responsibility, [supported by many people].”

Yoshioka added: “Ikimonogakari is not possible without those who listen to us.”