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ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION on New ‘BORUTO’ Theme Song ‘Karma’ & Modern Sense of Entrapment Reflected in the Series

todayFebruary 8, 2023

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ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION recently released their 30th single, “Karma.” The band wrote the song as the opening theme for the latest season of the TV Tokyo-produced animated series BORUTO – NARUTO NEXT GENERATIONS, which began last month. The theme of the song is how the two protagonists are buffeted by fate, but the lyrical world of the song is also a reflection of how we all feel in this age of uncertainty and confusion. The heavy but constrained melody and the sound production are new territory for the band.

Shortly after their major-label debut in 2003, their song “Haruka Kanata” was chosen as the opening theme for the second season of NARUTO. “Karma” marks their fourth musical tie-in with the NARUTO series. NARUTO has been inextricably intertwined with the fate of AKFG. Billboard Japan spoke with the band about the song’s appeal, the highlights of their new single’s B-sides and more.

Gotoh: NARUTO really means a lot to us. In particular, our 2002 release “Haruka Kanata” was a major turning point in our careers. At the time, there wasn’t really an established culture of using music from rock bands as the theme songs of animes. I’m sure it must have seemed strange to some rock fans. However, Japan was producing high quality animation that was gaining attention around the world. We thought that when NARUTO was put out on the world stage, we’d be able to go right along with it. I remember feeling “this is a wonderful opportunity” when we got the offer.

Kita: Yeah, now that you mention, I feel like we approached it really carefully. Like, we set aside time for all of us members to discuss it. At the time, we didn’t know what kind of image this would create for the band.

Yamada: When we’ve played “Haruka Kanata” or any of our other NARUTO songs overseas, the reaction has just been immense. Everyone sings along so loud it feels like they’re going to drown our our actual performance. It’s made us realize how well our music has been received overseas. In a sense, it’s like NARUTO has been our partner through the years.

What is the appeal of NARUTO and BORUTO?

Ijichi: I’ve been a long-time reader of the two series, and they’ve been consistently good the whole time. One of the things I like about them is that there are elements that are fun for kids and elements that adults can enjoy.

Gotoh: With BORUTO, Masashi Kishimoto has passed on the baton of illustrating the comic to Mikio Ikemoto, but the characters still have the same appeal, and the comic is packed with ideas. BORUTO starts with a heartbreaking scene, and through the story it’s hard to find any signs of hope. NARUTO was also a pretty hardboiled comic, but I feel like BORUTO draws you in even more. Either way, the story is far more complicated than when we first started reading NARUTO in Weekly Shonen Jump (laughs).

When you’re asked to write a song for a show, how do you reflect the show’s world in the song?

Gotoh: For any show, not just NARUTO, I always do a ton of research. That’s because I want to read the original comic and write a song that’s truly inspired by it. As for our latest song, “Karma,” the comic isn’t finished yet, so we had to write the song without knowing what would happen next in the story. My hope is that the main characters can overcome these obstacles being thrown at them by “fate,” as it were. As I touched on a second ago, in the first episode, Boruto and Kawaki face off and fight each other as enemies. The story is going to circle back to that at some point. I racked my brains about what kind of story would lie beyond that face-off between the characters that the comic opens with.

Do you think there’s a message in there for modern society?

Gotoh: Yes, I do. In the modern world, it isn’t easy to set down your burdens and try to shoulder new burdens. I feel like you can really see the growing disparity in wealth, and that wealth disparity is becoming even more entrenched. Parents’ economic situations are being passed on to their children. The “winners” keep on winning and the “losers” keep on losing. There’s a feeling of disgust with the state of the world, and at the same time a desire to break through these barriers and overcome these problems. I think the feeling of entrapment in the world of NARUTO and BORUTO shares a lot in common with the sense of entrapment I feel in our own modern world. We’re living in a society with that same antagonism and division as in that first episode of BORUTO.

I feel like that sense of “entrapment” is also reflected in the heavy but constrained melody and sound of “Karma.” The part that really sticks out to me is the four lines of the bridge: “The reason we’re alive/Must be part of that modest dream/If it gets crushed underfoot/It plays right into the hands of those that have cursed our world.” What are you trying to express through these lyrics?

Gotoh: Right now, everybody is just all looking down on each other and ridiculing each other. When I see that, I just think, “Is this really enriching our lives?” The people that held the World Cup made more than the athletes that played in it. Over 6,000 people lost their lives in Qatar in the construction of the stadium and surrounding infrastructure. I just keep thinking, “Can’t we make a world a better place?” I’m not blaming anyone. I just wonder why we can’t praise each other and encourage each other. If we don’t, we’re just “playing into the hands of those who have cursed our world.” One of the things that’s incredibly reassuring is that I have people who stand with me. It’s wonderful that I’m in a band. From my position as a member of a band, I feel like if everyone could just get together on weekends and enjoy each other’s music, we could make it in this world without losing hope. I want everyone to realize and appreciate the value of the relationships they have with each other. That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote the lyrics.

The B-side of “Karma” is “Weather Report,” which was written and sung by you, Kita. It’s a refreshing song, but the lyrics are quite serious. It’s about interpersonal relationships that never progress.

Gotoh: “Karma” is a song about the relationships between us, no matter where life may take us, so in “Weather Report” we wanted to sing about relationships that are in a rut, never coming together. When I wrote the lyrics, I was thinking about how tire tracks never cross unless you make a U-turn. Ken (Kita) would be singing, not me, so I thought it might be good to have a sweet love song, which is different than the kinds of songs I sing. We’ve had other songs like that, too. When I’m not the one singing, we can be a bit more free in deciding what the theme of the song will be.

“Nissaka Down Hill” feels like a followup to your 2008 album Surf Bungaku Kamakura. What led you to go back to that approach?

Gotoh: It’s a power-pop song with power chords, octaves, and unison, but there are also some unusual chord progressions here and there. It’s a really fun song to play with the band. I wanted the feel to be like Weezer’s “El Scorcho.” With Surf Bungaku Kamakura, we were thinking about Weezer’s first album. The title, after all, came from “Surf Wax America.” This time, we want an album that has that Pinkerton sound. It’s like half parody of the 1990s, but half sincere. That’s what pop music should be like, right? We’ve basically applied that style, but matched it up our own sensibilities and made changes to update it for our times.

What were you all trying to set out to do with your sound design approach?

Ijichi: We recorded all of “Weather Report” in a single take. Lately we’ve been trying to finish our songs in as few takes as possible. Up until the day before the recording, we spend a lot of time thinking about it. But then, on the actual day of the recording, we want to get takes that are as fresh as possible. Our goal when we recorded this song was to get it in three takes or less.

Yamada: “Karma” is a tie-up that we wrote on request, so we wanted to make a song that had the AKFG feel we’ve established over the years, but the B-side songs were all very challenging. “Nissaka Down Hill” is a power-pop song, but it has a different feel than any of our past songs. There are only three songs on the single, but I think there’s really a lot there.

Kita: Going back to the “Karma” lyrics for a second, Gotch had already pretty much nailed down those four lines from the demo stage. The bridge evolved over the course of a jam session by the four of us, and Gotch changed up the melody along the way, but that core remained all the way through the finished song.

Gotoh: You said the song had a “constrained” melody, and, you’re right, we tried to avoid having a really soaring chorus. If it had that kind of chorus, we wouldn’t want to perform it live. It would just be too hard (laughs). With “Karma,” we were traying to create a “sustainable emo sound” that simmers and builds up, not one that really takes a physical toll. We’re almost in our 50s, after all (laughs).

A lot of people passed away in 2022, the pandemic continued unabated, and every time you thought the world situation couldn’t get any worse, it did. Hopefully 2023 is a good year.

Gotoh: I really hope so. So many terrible things happened in 2022. For example, if the World Cup had been a less corrupt event, Messi’s win would have been so much easier to celebrate wholeheartedly, but the information that came to light made that impossible. I just want to always try to live a better life. Every time I meet someone, I remember that, and we try to create a better mood wherever we go. We’ve got a lot of concerts coming up, so we’ll keep trying to do our best in 2023.

This interview by Takanori Kuroda first appeared on Billboard Japan

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