Fujii Kaze: The Biggest Japanese Musical Phenomenon Since Utada Hikaru?

People Entertainment

The latest superstar on the Japanese music scene is singer-songwriter Fujii Kaze, tipped by many as the biggest talent to emerge since Utada Hikaru. A talk with Matsuo Kiyoshi, one of Japan’s leading R&B producers, about the prospects ahead for an exceptional talent.

Matsuo Kiyoshi

Began writing as a journalist on R&B and hip-hop while still a student at Waseda University, and went on to build a career based on his extensive travels overseas, carrying out exclusive interviews with major figures like James Brown and Quincy Jones. Started work as a musician from the mid-1990s, sparked by his friendship with Kubota Toshinobu. Has enjoyed success as a producer with artists including Hirai Ken and Tōhō Shinki, selling a total of more than 30 million records. Prizes include the 50th Japan Record Awards, in 2008, where he won for the song “Ti Amo” by Exile, for which he wrote the music and words and also acted as producer.

A New Artist Spreads His Wings

At just 23, singer-songwriter Fujii Kaze has made a name for himself as one of the brightest prospects in Japanese music. His songs are marked by original, freewheeling, and catchy melodies and unique lyrics, often sung in the dialect of his native Okayama in Fujii’s supple yet sturdy voice and backed by his own skillful piano playing.

He made his debut in November 2019, when his single “Nan-Nan” was released as a digital download. Today, when subscription services are rapidly becoming the mainstream way of listening to music even in Japan, it is no longer unusual for artists to make their music available in digital form only. Even so, there was something a little different about the way Fujii set about making his debut: he has built his career so far mostly through his presence on YouTube.

Since he was just 12, Fujii has posted cover versions of a wide variety of musical genres on his “Fujii Kaze” YouTube channel. Even since making his official debut, he has continued to release music videos, performance footage, and live streams via YouTube. At the same time, he has strictly limited his appearances on mainstream conventional media like TV and music magazines.

A tour that was originally planned to coincide with the release of his first album, Help Ever Hurt Never, in June 2020 had to be canceled, but he soon made up for this disappointment by uploading a series of live streams featuring himself playing and talking at the piano. These triumphant performances won him further acclaim, helping him to turn a potential disaster into an opportunity.

Fujii is well on the way to building a successful career on own terms—relying on YouTube, streaming services, Instagram, and Twitter. In that sense, he seems to mark the arrival of a new generation in Japanese popular music.

The tracks he has covered on YouTube suggest a voracious appetite and eclectic tastes, but his own music would probably be categorized as R&B based on its groove. I decided a good way to get a handle on Japan’s latest R&B sensation would be to talk to Matsuo Kiyoshi, one of Japan leading experts on the genre, to see how he views the new phenomenon. This interview took place remotely on October 28, 2020, the day before Fujii’s concert at Tokyo’s Budōkan.

A Family Steeped in Music

Matsuo says he first became aware of Fujii Kaze around the fall of 2019, or toward the end of the year. “Not long after that, someone at Universal Music told me Fujii was going to make his official debut with the label. By then the hype was starting to build, and I started to feel a sense of excitement—that maybe this guy had the potential to become something special. Like everyone else, I started going back over his YouTube videos, tracing the course of his development. In some of his early videos, he’s still this fresh-faced kid, playing alongside a slightly older guy who looked like he might be his older brother. The fact that he was already posting videos at such an early age—you’d have to assume it was done under a parent’s influence. I started to wonder if maybe his parents were musicians or something.”

Kaze’s older brother Sora, also a musician who plays piano and saxophone, has a profile quite similar to Kaze’s, which is only natural since they’re brothers. The father isn’t a musician himself, but he’s certainly a fan, and seems to have introduced his sons to all different kinds of music while they were growing up.

“I’m not surprised to hear that he developed his ear for this type of mostly American music under his father’s influence,” notes Matsuo. “In fact, it might be the case that the children of fans and critics are exposed to more types of music than the children of actual musicians. Professional musicians don’t tend to listen to other music when they’re practicing, and compared to fans and critics who might have music on all day long, a lot of musicians may not listen to all that much music in terms of volume, although they may listen more intensely. The breadth of Fujii Kaze’s musical tastes at such a young age shows you just how bad things can get growing up in a music-loving family!”

Fresh Yet Familiar

As a general rule, you can often sense at an early stage when a newcomer is going to be someone who breaks the mold. But at the same time there is something about them that reminds you—in a positive way—of what came before. Fujii’s music feels especially fresh now, at a moment when the music industry is facing unprecedented difficulties. But there’s also something almost nostalgic about it—a reminder of how things used to be. It reminds you: this is the way new stars used to burst onto the scene back in the 1980s and 1990s. The person I’m thinking of in particular, of course, is Utada Hikaru.

Fujii Kaze’s music has that accessibility that is one of the positive qualities of Japanese pop music. But there is also something heterodox, almost foreign, about it. That’s part of what makes him reminiscent of Utada, I think. Probably it’s the first time we’ve seen something like this since she first hit. With Utada, her background quickly became clear: the important presence of the singer Fuji Keiko, her mother, but also her father Utada Teruzane, who was absolutely crazy about American music. It was the perfect balance. With Fujii Kaze, who grew up in a provincial city, I think that there is a similar balance between his rootedness in the local culture of Okayama, together with this massive injection of foreign pop music under his father’s influence.

A look at Twitter makes it seem that Fujii hasn’t yet prompted the expected reaction from people in the music business. According to Matsuo, this is because he’s difficult to pigeonhole. “He’s got an R&B feel about him, along with a jazz sensibility, and even elements of classical. And it’s all nicely balanced. Perhaps that’s why? I wonder if he’s deliberately trying to maintain a certain amount of ambiguity about where he sees his own roots, or if that’s just the kind of person he is.

“But I think the reason why he’s drawing such passionate support from some people is that there’s something in his vocal style that is really reminiscent of Japan’s kayōkyoku pop standards—in his way of playing with the melody, the flow of his vocals—so that even though he covers so many foreign songs, something about his music remains distinctively Japanese. It’s not entirely in line with the conventions of American, or Western, popular music styles.”

Part of that authenticity comes from the use of dialect in his songs, Matsuo adds. “He spent all his life in Okayama until he came to Tokyo, so it probably feels natural to him to sing the same way he always spoke when he was growing up. But I get the sense that he uses it as a tool as well. He has this technique that enables him to fall back on dialect in places where it would be difficult to make the words fit in standard Japanese. And he uses this technique very skillfully to enable him to fit the words and melody neatly together.”

Indeed, in a song like “Mō-Eh-Wa,” the words hardly sound like Japanese anymore, which certainly helps give it a sense of freshness. There is precedent in entertainers like Kuwata Keisuke, the lead singer with the Southern All Stars, who has always twisted the sounds of Japanese so that it sounds as though he’s singing in a foreign language.

Matsuo agrees on the impact of this nonstandard Japanese in Fujii’s music. “A few years ago, there was a promotional film produced by a local government in Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyūshū that featured people speaking the local dialect, cleverly arranged to sound like French. It created quite a stir, but actually this idea has been around for a while. There’s a kind of methodology to Fujii’s approach: a way of grabbing people and getting his message across. I think maybe that’s why he chose to go with YouTube, rather than say Sound Cloud or some other audio file-sharing service.”

Not Just a Pretty Face

Fujii is more than just a singer, though. His skillful and energetic piano playing is also a large part of what makes his YouTube videos so impressive, as Matsuo explains.

“I think any time you encounter someone with really great technique like that—and this is not limited to the piano—it makes you wonder about this person, and the kind of life he’s led to get this far. In the case of Fujii Kaze, I think he just gives viewers a sense of excitement: Here’s this young, good-looking kid . . . where did he learn to play so well? It’s quite different from watching some old geezer maestro play!”

As a musician, Fujii clearly has the chops to succeed. But how does Matsuo see him from a producer’s perspective?

“One of the first things that hits you is his appearance—he’d stand out even if he wasn’t singing. As far as his music’s concerned, there’s a strong sense that he’s pretty much self-contained—that what he needs to make his music is there already inside him. The production on this album was done by Yaffle. It’s quite a light production, really just concentrating on getting the sound right, and there is nothing in the production that gets in the way or obscures Fujii’s individuality. The production is so restrained it almost seems as if the artist has produced himself.”

Globally, one of the major trends in R&B right now is “trap”—a type of slow-tempo hip-hop with a relaxed rhythm and heavy bass beat, with rap or other vocals over a backing track mixed in with electronic sounds. As Matsuo notes, though, Fujii is charting a course that has nothing to do with this mainstream style of the moment. “In the States, trap is one of the best-selling styles of music there is, but I guess you could say that Fujii isn’t trying to break away from the mainstream type of R&B music that’s popular in Japan.”

(© Takayama Hirokazu)
(© Takayama Hirokazu)

A multilingual performer, Fujii seems to speak English pretty well. But Matsuo believes it goes beyond something he has picked up by ear, like his music.

“I think it’s more than a question of just having a good ear. If you listen to interviews he’s done in English, his grammar is pretty solid too. It’s not the kind of English that people sometimes pick up by hanging out in New York for a couple of years. He must have studied it quite seriously in school.”

Despite appearing at times not to be especially ambitious, Fujii also presents the vibe that he set his objectives at a young age in Okayama, and has steadily ticked off the things he knew he needed to achieve on his way up. His language skill attests to this. The school he attended is one of the best in the prefecture in terms of getting students into prestigious universities, and puts a lot of effort into its English teaching, having been designated by the Ministry of Education as part of its “Super English Language High School” program.

Jealousy and Disappointment, and Beyond

“Fujii comes across as the kind of person who could provoke a lot of jealousy from other people in the industry,” says Matsuo, “particularly from his peers of the same kind of age. Probably it’s already happening. He just seems to have everything a musician needs to go out into the world and make it really big. In fact, it might transcend jealousy and inspire a sense of despair in some people.

“I think his peers in the business probably realize how special a talent he is. The booklet that comes with the first edition of his album is quite unusual: There’s this faint scent of flowers that comes off when you turn the pages. I was quite surprised—it made me realize how much attention is fixed on him, and how high the expectations are in the industry that he’s really going to be something special.”

As Matsuo explains wryly, whenever people in the music industry come across a good-looking young guy, they go all out to stress his artistic side, using moody black-and-white pictures instead of crisp color shots. “I can read pretty clearly the intentions and hopes behind the photos used in the packaging for his CD, including, apparently, the idea of deliberately obscuring his good looks in the image used for the front cover!”

This approach is something that’s been seen before, Matsuo says. “It’s not just the music, although the music has elements of that too—it’s the whole the way of packaging it. I was listening to it over and over yesterday and thinking maybe that is the right way of doing it, or at least the most appropriate approach, when it comes to selling popular music.”

Fujii is a talented writer, stresses Matsuo, rattling off several catchy songs built around quite effective hooks. He also talks about the strong kayōkyoku character, the flavor of Japan’s postwar pop standards, in a lot of his songs. “The melodies and chord progressions certainly don’t deny that part of Japan’s musical past.”

Looking ahead at possible futures for this young musician’s career, Matsuo talks about another young artist who made a huge splash on the Japanese music scene. “He really does seem to be able to do just about anything he sets his mind too. As young people like to say these days, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered, but if the nail sticks out far enough, it can’t get hammered down.’ Utada Hikaru was a classic example of that, I think.

“At the moment, I don’t think Fujii has gone that far yet. There are aspects of his debut album that reminded me of Utada, but obviously he’s still a long away from achieving anything like the phenomenal success that she had. Her debut album First Love sold 7.65 million copies according to the Oricon chart figures, making it the best-selling debut album ever in Japanese recording history.”

Fujii’s debut has come at a time when those figures aren’t realistic anymore, notes Matsuo. “I’d like to think that will work to his advantage, though. I’d like him to make a mark that will leave no room for quibbling. I hope he will go on to become the kind of performer who creates a before-and-after line in Japanese musical history, that makes people say: After him, everything was different.”

(Originally published in Japanese on December 4, 2020. Banner photo: The jacket cover of Fujii Kaze’s first album, Help Ever Hurt Never. Courtesy Universal Sigma.)

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