Billboard Japan recently interviewed MAN WITH A MISSION and milet, who collaborated on “Kizuna no Kiseki,” the opening theme song of the anime TV series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba Swordsmith Village Arc.
The two had previously collaborated on the ending theme song “Koi Kogare.” A CD containing both songs was released on May 31. MAN WITH A MISSION is also in the middle of its first world tour in four years, visiting North America, the U.K. and other parts of Europe in May and June and playing in Asia in the fall.
On behalf of Billboard Japan, journalist Tomonori Shiba spoke with milet and MAN WITH A MISSION’s Jean-Ken Johnny, getting an inside look at the process of writing the song and discussing the shared musical roots of the two musicians and their feelings about touring overseas.
To start with, what did you first think when they asked you to write the opening theme for Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba Swordsmith Village Arc?
Jean-Ken Johnny: It’s really popular, not just in Japan, but around the world, so, honestly, I was pretty nervous. On the one hand, I was very grateful, but on the other hand I was thinking about how I needed to straighten up and get serious.
milet: LiSA and Aimer sang the previous theme song together, so it would’ve been really lonely if I sang alone, but since I’d be working with MAN WITH A MISSION, the Ultimate Life Form, I knew I’d be in good hands.
This time, the anime producers suggested having male and female vocals, which is what led to this collaboration between MAN WITH A MISSION and milet, right?
Jean-Ken Johnny: That’s right. In Swordsmith Village Arc, Muichiro Tokito and Mitsuri Kanroji, who are “Hashiras,” fight alongside Tanjiro Kamado. The anime producers said they wanted a song with both male and female vocals, in line with the story. We provided them with a lot of different demo songs.
“Kizuna no Kiseki” features Japanese instruments, like shamisen and taiko drums. Where did you come up with the idea for that arrangement?
Jean-Ken Johnny: We listened to other songs that had been used in the series and found that the soundtracks for the films used a lot of Japanese instruments. However, the theme songs had never really put those instruments front and center. We thought we’d give the song more of an impact by prominently using Japanese instruments in the intro. We also knew that they’d go well with rock, so we figured if we combined live playing with sampling, we could create a really distinctive song. That was our idea from the very start when we began writing the song.
“Kizuna no Kiseki” Music Video
What kind of motifs did you use in the overall melody and sound of the song?
Jean-Ken Johnny: We thought about what elements would be shared in common with our musical sensibilities, what genre would be right for the anime, and what would set the song apart from other songs. We decided that an alternative, punk-like vibe would work really well. From the very start of the writing process, we were thinking of having milet sing, which we also hoped would provide the song with a bit of freshness.
milet, what were your impressions of the song creation process?
milet: As a Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba fan myself, I remember listening to the demo and being really moved by how well it went with the actual story. Also, my first impression was that the song easy to sing for me — I liked the melody, and it made it easy to bring out my own personal vocal qualities. I especially like the low-pitched bridge. I found the whole song to be packed with all kinds of ideas.
Why did you name the song “Kizuna no Kiseki” (“Miraculous Connections”)?
Jean-Ken Johnny: I think the Swordsmith Village Arc depicts the importance of connections — not just the connections between the main characters, but also their connections with all of the people who appear in the story. I wanted to pick a title that focused on that. To be honest, we’ve never given a song a name as direct as this one, but we wanted something really powerful, extremely straightforward.
Have you, MAN WITH A MISSION and milet, found any commonalities in your roots and the artists that influenced you?
Jean-Ken Johnny: Absolutely. When we started talking about it, it was just amazing how many artists we’ve both been influenced by. Sigur Rós, Smashing Pumpkins, and more recently, The 1975. A ton of artists that are also my absolute personal favorites. Before we collaborated with milet, the whole band was already fans of her voice and her artistry. When we found out that we shared a love for the same music, it suddenly made sense why we’re such big milet fans.
milet: When I first heard MAN WITH A MISSION, I was sure that their rock roots must overlap a lot with my own. But when I actually talked to them about it, I was astounded by just how much overlap there was. We also talked about movie music, and I was surprised at how similar our interests were there, too, with us both liking composers like Ennio Morricone, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer.
So, milet, your voice was being envisioned for the song from the very start. Jean-Ken Johnny, what do you think is so appealing about milet’s vocals, and what features set it apart?
Jean-Ken Johnny: Part of it’s the tremendous vitality in her voice. I really like the fabric of her vocals. I’m constantly impressed about how unrivalled her voice is. It’s not just her vocal qualities, but also how she sings, and the amount of emotion she pours into singing. It’s very multifaceted, taking the listener in various directions. There’s tenderness, and power, and beauty, but at the same time a certain darkness. There’s just so much packed into the emotions of her songs. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba isn’t all bright and cheery. There are also darker elements, deeper elements, like its philosophy and how it looks at life and death. We wrote the song knowing that she’d be perfect for it.
I’d like to ask you a bit about “Koi Kogare.” Yuki Kajiura wrote the lyrics and the music to the song, so I’m sure the songwriting process was different than that of “Kizuna no Kiseki.” How did work on “Koi Kogare” start?
milet: I started adding vocals from the demo stage. It was basically the first time I’d begun adding vocals while the track was far from being finished, so I found it really difficult. However, I felt really strongly about the melody and the lyrics, so much that it’s all I needed to 100% understand the meaning and message of the song. I think I successfully took on the challenge of properly conveying what was behind the words of the song.
“Koi Kogare” Music Video
How did the song arrangement process go?
Jean-Ken Johnny: First, Yuki Kajiura sent us the song with milet singing all of the vocals. Then we started to arrange it as a band. It was our first time working with Kajiura-san, so at first we were putting out feelers about all kinds of things, like vocal range. She really respected the band’s music sensibilities, sound, and, I guess you’d say, philosophy. The process was a very easy one for us.
milet, how do you feel about how “Koi Kogare” turned out?
milet: I don’t think previous Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba songs really emphasized love or women’s emotions. I myself had never really sung straightforward songs about being in love before, so it was really fresh and new to me.
What was the recording process like?
milet: The song was a challenge for me. Kajiura-san provided a lot of detailed direction. For example, she recommended pronouncing “a” like “wa” in the verse. There were suggestions like that for almost every word. The direction changed my concepts about singing. She taught me about the meanings of the lyrics, and the meaning of placing those lyrics on the melody of the song. It was a really precious experience for me.
MAN WITH A MISSION will be embarking on the “MAN WITH A MISSION World Tour 2023 – WOLVES ON PARADE,” in May and June. It’ll your first world tour in four years, and you’ll be visiting North America, the UK, and the rest of Europe. How are you feeling about the upcoming tour?
Jean-Ken Johnny: I haven’t been (overseas) in a long time. Fortunately, we’ve been able to keep in touch with our fans through sites like YouTube. I’m really looking forward to meeting them again in person. This time, we’ll be going on tour with a whole new album, so I’m sure the audience will have a great time.
MAN WITH A MISSION has performed shows in a lot of different countries since 2013. Looking back, how do you feel about that experience?
Jean-Ken Johnny: I’ve always been enamored by the idea of a band that’s loved around the world, so right now I feel like I’m in the process of chasing my dreams. Music has no borders, and it brings people together, regardless of their nationalities. World tours let us experience that, a little bit at a time, and I see them as incredibly important within my own career. I’m just overjoyed to be able to tour around the world.
Looking at global music trends, and the shape of rock, what do you see as the strengths of MAN WITH A MISSION as a Japanese rock band?
Jean-Ken Johnny: I feel like I’m still looking for my own particular strengths. From the perspective of the rock genre, there’ve been some pretty severe changes in the rock scene as we know it over the past 10 or 15 years. We’re still exploring, trying to figure out how a rock band can break through in the modern era. However, we do feel that the spirit of rock still lives on, unquenched. We see ourselves as carrying on the legacy of 90s music, fusing it with modern heaviness and a modern approach. When I hear news about rock still going strong, it’s tremendously encouraging, and I just hope that we can also be that kind of band.
Recently, there’s been a prominent trend of Japanese rock bands reaching overseas audiences through anime. What are your thoughts on that?
Jean-Ken Johnny: Even more than music spreading through the growth of the genre, I think what’s important is that we’re in an age where, thanks to the rich social media and internet environment, it’s easy for localized movements to arise. I think that for the Japanese music scene, the biggest factor is anime. Anime is incredibly influential. I feel like the easiest way for people to get into listening to cool Japanese music is through anime. Anime, I believe, provides Japanese bands with an opportunity to take the initiative and perform on the world stage. It’s a very powerful method for achieving that.
In closing, MAN WITH A MISSION, milet, could you please talk about your vision and prospects after having released these two songs?
Jean-Ken Johnny: We were fortunate to be able to collaborate with milet to create these wonderful songs, so now I’m just full of expectation, looking forward to seeing what kind of future these songs will create.
milet: I’m really looking forward to further refining the songs through my live performances. I think when I perform the songs in festivals and overseas, it’ll open up new vistas. I’m looking forward to seeing that, and I hope when I perform, people will see my individuality coming through in the songs, and I’ll be able to deliver the songs’ important messages directly to the audience.
—This interview by Tomonori Shiba first appeared on Billboard Japan