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The Japan News/Yomiuri
The Japan News/Yomiuri
Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Wrier

YOASOBI transforms fiction into music

Ayase, left, and ikura of YOASOBI pose for a photo. (Credit: The Yomiuri Shimbun)

The two-member unit YOASOBI, a dominant force on the music charts since around this spring, turns fiction into music.

Their first work, "Yoru ni Kakeru" (Running through the night), has been viewed more than 108 million times on YouTube and ranked within the top five songs on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart for more than five months. How did YOASOBI -- comprised of composer Ayase and vocalist ikura -- come up with the idea of turning the narrative and atmosphere of a short story into a J-pop song? How has it become such a hot topic?

-- Combining music and story

The video for "Yoru ni Kakeru" begins with an intricate melody and a voice that has a touch of sadness. Then, against the backdrop of the fast rhythm, a dress-clad young woman is seen falling headfirst through space.

This video, an animated film directed by Nina Ai and accompanied by the duo's music, was uploaded on YouTube and other streaming services in November 2019. The song is based on "Thanatos no Yuwaku" (The temptation of Thanatos), a short story by Mayo Hoshino about a girl trying to commit suicide by jumping off the top of a condominium and "I," the male protagonist, who becomes fascinated with her.

The story itself is short enough that it can be read in just a few minutes. Listening to the music, you may get a mysterious sense that the story is pushing its world's boundaries and is more deeply immersing you in its narrative.

"I emphasized the link between the story's development and its atmosphere [in relation to the song] and tried to express the novel's spine-chilling moment through sound," said Ayase, who composed both the music and lyrics.

Reading the story after listening to the song gives you a better overall understanding, as though you've been given all the pieces to a puzzle. You can also experience new emotions and clues in various parts of both the story and the song such as hidden meanings between the lines and foreshadowing in the lyrics, rhythm and key transpositions.

"I put all of my focus into singing as the novel's protagonist and made a conscious effort to eliminate my own singing habits," ikura said.

"Her voice has clarity. Hers is a voice everyone can listen to flat -- in a good way," Ayase said.

The song's music video saw 1 million views in the first month or so and its profile grew increasingly higher from spring. It topped 10 million views back in April and has now blown past the 100 million mark.

The members of YOASOBI were reportedly amazed when the song was played over 1 million times. Now it's one of the songs of 2020.

-- Talents spotted

In May 2019, Yohei Yashiro of Sony sent an email with a link to a Niconico Douga video to colleague Shuya Yamamoto, a coworker on a project at the time. The video was for a song called "Last Resort" sung by Hatsune Miku, a pioneering vocaloid virtual singer.

Yashiro, who has watched the vocaloid scene since the technology's earliest days, was amazed with the song's composer and their ability to write melodies that were in a class of their own. That composer was Ayase. After playing in a band for nine years, he had been recognized in an instant in the completely different vocaloid scene. Yashiro was convinced that Ayase had enough versatility to also do well in a different genre.

Yashiro and Yamamoto then became involved with, a fiction-posting site hosted by Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc., which invites people to post fiction on given themes and runs a fiction-writing contest, aiming to find works worth adapting to manga and films. Although there were one-off music composition projects on the website, the two had plans to produce a unit that specialized in music for the site.

They then asked ikura to join Ayase, who was already aware of her through her covers of J-pop songs that she posted on Instagram.

Their second song for the unit, "Ano Yume o Nazotte" (Tracing that dream), is also based on a story hosted by the site.

"This project allows me to expand the world of a story written by someone else through my own filter," Ayase said. "It lets me work on ideas, turns of phrase and story developments that I wouldn't come up with myself. I feel like I'm able to find interesting chemistry each time."

Shortly after the release of "Ano Yume o Nazotte," held a competition, in which YOASOBI would write and perform a song inspired by the winning work. This is how "Tabun" (Maybe) by Shinano became another of the duo's songs in July. The story's film adaptation is set to hit theaters on Nov. 13.

In this way, young talent continues to be launched into the world like a chain reaction.

-- A bright new star

In May, ikura created a buzz online when she posted a video of herself singing a new arrangement of "Yoru ni Kakeru" on "The Home Take" YouTube channel. Visually, YOASOBI's music videos have so far only used animation, which serves to enhance the atmosphere of each story's world yet deprives Ayase and ikura of opportunities to appear in the videos themselves.

Artists familiar with vocaloid culture often conduct their musical work without actually appearing themselves. However, ikura was already an active singer-songwriter who was open about her work with YOASOBI. Still, it seemed to many people as though the mysterious singer known as ikura had finally revealed her identity.

"I thought that they were both attractive people when I met them in person, so I didn't think they needed to hide their identities," Yamamoto said.

"My YOASOBI work does take up quite a bit of my time," ikura said. "But my solo work is the major part of my career and something I'd like to pursue more."

She is indeed charming as a solo singer as well, singing pastoral folk songs in her soothing voice. Ayase is also a good singer who has solid footing as a solo artist, in addition to his side work as a vocal producer.

For the both of them, YOASOBI began as an extracurricular activity of sorts.

While the unit is noted for its concept of producing music out of fiction, the works Ayase creates deserve praise on their own merit. He has the ability to come up with surprisingly original melodies that go against theory, by ascending or descending by just half a note, for example. He's also adept at choosing words that make melodies soar high.

"It's not as though I'm manipulating the melodies on purpose," Ayase said. "I just think that my melodies are the coolest. It may be because I would often listen to songs by aiko and Sukima Switch, and the fact that I used to play classical piano. What I've become most careful about when writing a song is how the language is used. Even a good melody can sound horrible depending on how the words are set."

-- New song 'Gunjo'

YOASOBI's fifth song, "Gunjo" (Ultramarine), was released on streaming services on Sept. 1 and is based on the manga "Blue Period" by Tsubasa Yamaguchi that is serialized in the Gekkan Afternoon monthly manga magazine and has become an invigorating anthem for people who devote themselves to things they love. The song's chorus was sung by the group Plusonica, of which ikura is a member. The song has also been used in a TV commercial for Alfort Mini Chocolate, a confectionary by Bourbon Corp.

"I wrote the song thinking it would be great if this song would become a pat on the shoulders for anyone striving to live through their 'blue period,' a time when they have yet to make something of themselves. The chorus is the song's highlight," Ayase said.

"When I listened to the song for the first time, I could instantly visualize a blue morning landscape in Shibuya and the youthfulness seeping from the protagonist's emotions. I was impressed that the images of the color and the music were closely united with each other," ikura said.

When asked what in particular she paid attention to when singing the song, she said: "I did my best to convey the protagonist's emotions through the words that express them, such as 'munashii' (feeling empty) and 'kuyashii' (vexed) and on the exclamation 'Ah' that appears at the beginning of several phrases. Throughout the song, I also sang with the intention of wanting to be there for people as they chase their dreams in a time of struggle and pain."


Born in 1994 in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He started taking piano lessons at age 5 and has appeared in international piano competitions as well. Influenced by rock band Maximum the Hormone, Ayase joined a band in high school as a vocalist and in 2018 started writing vocalo music (music using vocaloid voice synthesizer software).


ikura went to Chicago shortly after she was born in Tokyo in 2000, and returned to Japan when she was 3. She started writing music and lyrics as a sixth-grader in elementary school and began her activities as a singer-songwriter under her real name, Rira Ikuta, when she was in the third year of junior high school.

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