INI is a global boy band made up of 11 members (Rihito Ikezaki, Takumi Ozaki, Masaya Kimura, Takeru Goto, Yudai Sano, Fengfan Xu, Hiromu Takatsuka, Shogo Tajima, Hiroto Nishi, Kyosuke Fujimaki, and Jin Matsuda), the winner of one of Japan’s biggest audition shows, PRODUCE 101 JAPAN SEASON 2.
Since debuting on Nov. 3, 2021, they’ve released three singles, all of which took first place on Billboard Japan’s weekly singles sales chart, Top Singles Sales. On Dec. 14, they released their long-awaited first album, Awakening. Hopes are high for their further success.
Billboard Japan interviewed the entire band and talked to them not only about the album, but also about the current state of INI.
You’ve already made a lot of fans in Japan, but for people outside Japan: What kind of group is INI?
Shogo Tajima: We formed this group through an audition show, so we’re a group of 11 people born in all kinds of different places with very different backgrounds.
Kyosuke Fujimaki: We’re part of a talent agency that was established in Korea and Japan, so our music videos and songs are made in Korea, but they have Japanese elements mixed in, creating something that’s all new.
Fengfan Xu: There are elements of J-pop in the way members sing, and in our personalities, so our songs have the best qualities of both K-pop and J-pop.
Masaya Kimura: The way we operate is also a bit unusual for a band in Japan. Each of us has our own strengths and specialties, and we have a real diversity of personalities. Fengfan (Xu) speaks English and Taji (Tajima) speaks Korean, which also makes it easy for us to reach out overseas.
Hiroto Nishi: I feel like we must be the most energetic dancers in Japan nowadays. One of our strengths is our powerful and dynamic performing style. It’s one of our hallmarks.
Takeru Goto: We also have members who are particularly skilled at rapping or at singing. That’s a point of pride for us, as a group that makes music with a hip-hop base.
You’ve recently released your long-awaited first album, Awakening.How did it come out?
Takumi Ozaki: The album is the culmination of our first single, “A,” our second single, “I,” and our third single, “M.” The album’s theme is “awakening,” and I think it really brings out everything each member has been working on so far.
Kimura: In terms of dancing and vocals, we’ve grown since our first single, and I think the album clearly shows how the members have awakened. We haven’t been practicing for years and years as trainees, but instead we entered this world through an audition show, so we’ve been practicing day by day by finding time in between our other activities. When we practice, we’re always focused on how we can show off how we’ve changed since when we released that 1st single, and the results of those efforts are packed into this first album, which shows an “awakening INI.”
Yudai Sano: That’s exactly what I was thinking. For each single we’ve released, I picked something that I really wanted to focus on in my own way. This album brings out all of that.
Hiromu Takatsuka: I think this album establishes what kind of group INI is. Each of our three singles has shown, little by little, what kinds of songs we sing. Then, with this album, I think we’ve established our identity.
Ozaki: We’ve awakened not only as performers, but also as people. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do all kinds of work, so I think we’ve grown as people, too, making the group more appealing. That growth ties into our performances, and I think you can feel it in the album.
Fujimaki: I think we were able to put all of our development into the album and I hope that we can move on from here into the future.
I’d like to talk a little about your songs.Your first song, “SPECTRA,” is your lead single, and Nishi worked on the lyrics, right?
Nishi: That’s right. It was pretty hard. I worked with some Korean writers on it, and you know how the way language sounds to natives and non-natives is totally different, right? Korean, especially, is similar to English and the consonants are really clear, while in Japanese the vowels are really clear. Thinking about our previous songs, I figured that it would be better to focus on the sound, more than the meaning. I struggled with which type of approach would go over better.
Are there any key lyrics?
Nishi: “Orera saikyo (‘We are the best’)” (laughs). I just said, almost offhand, that it would be fun if we sang “Orera saikyo,” but that turned out to be the key to the song. For the Korean creators, the sound of those lyrics just clicked, I guess.
Goto: The parts that Nishi came up with were super easy to tell. When I read through the lyrics, as soon as I came to a part that Nishi wrote, I was like “A Japanese person came up with this.” You could feel Nishi’s word sense coming through. As a fellow member of the band, I felt really proud that his lyrical suggestions were used. I sing some of the parts that Nishi wrote, so my own parts are my favorite parts of the song.
Nishi: Wow, that makes me so happy! Thank you! During practice, I’ve seen Takumi mouthing the lyrics to the verses I wrote, which is wonderful.
Sano: The tone of the song is also really clearly defined, so it’s easy on the ears. The intro starts out with this mysterious feel, and just when you think it’s going in an ethnic direction, it settles down, then it gradually swells towards the chorus, and then it pops. It really has that INI feel.
Fujimaki: It fits the album perfectly. It conveys that bright, bouncy feeling, and I hope our performances give that same feel.
The next song is “Dramatic.”
Kimura: The way “Dramatic” develops is really interesting. The chorus sticks with you, and the song keeps changing direction as it unfolds. We wanted people to notice the dancing, as well, so we had ReiNa, a Japanese choreographer, handle the choreography. We’d always worked with Korean choreographers before, so this was our first time asking a Japanese person to do the choreography. It was pretty hard, but it perfectly matched the song, so it was easy to really get into.
Tajima worked on the lyrics for “Runaway,” right?Were there any key lyrics?
Tajima: The part that goes “Worrying like I always do, Sleepless nights gnaw at my heart, I want to shout, but no matter where I go, I just can’t shout” — the part I wrote! I hope I expressed that feeling of frustration of wanting to just shout it all out, but not being able to. I was really happy that my lyrics were used. This part links up with the “I finally found you, And as I hold your hand, I’m not lonely,” and it makes me realize that I’m not alone, I’m here with my MINIs [INI fans], my fellow band members, the people around me, working hard alongside me. I wanted, ultimately, to make it an optimistic song, and I think I succeeded in packing all of those elements into just a few lines.
Rihito Ikezaki: I really like the theme of this song.
Tajima: It’s like a “voyage.”
Ikezaki: Yeah, exactly. Like, when someone finds someone they love, you often hear things like “I’m right here next to you” or “I love you.” You don’t often hear things like “Let’s run away together.” You’ve got to deal with society every day, but choosing to escape is also a viable choice. I love that.
Xu: I’m with you, there. I feel like this is a song we’re singing to our MINIs. It is full of that sense that we have nothing to fear because our MINIs are with us.
Jin Matsuda: We need to keep growing together with our MINIs and getting bigger and bigger. I feel like the song also carries a message of enjoying the moment, and of staying together into the future.
Nov. 3 marked the one-year anniversary of your debut.I’m sure you’ve had all kinds of experiences in the meantime, but one of the big ones was KCON 2022 LA, your first time performing outside of Asia.Did you take away any lessons from that?
Kimura: I learned how big the language barrier was. I keenly felt the limits of my ability to express things outside of actually performing. Fengfan did his best for the team, but there were language barriers when it came to MCing, when it came to listening to others — everywhere. The audience got really hyped watching our performance, but there were huge barriers everywhere else. So that experience showed us where the issues we need to tackle are.
Matsuda: I learned that I need to study different languages. Fengfan was a true lifesaver. We were interviewed by local media, and, needless to say, it was all in English. We didn’t know what to do.
Ikezaki: Fengfan handled everything.
Matsuda: Shogo took the initiative when Korean was involved, too. It made me realize how essential Fengfan and Shogo are to us being able to call ourselves a “global boy band.” It brought home the fact that we need to try harder.
Xu: K-pop groups always have members who can speak Japanese and English, and they developed those skills when they were trainees. We didn’t have a trainee phase, so we need to work hard and study languages on our own. I was also acutely aware of our lack of ability to really command the entire venue.
Tajima: It showed us that the MCing is also important. Every part, from taking the stage and performing to talking to fans, is an important part of shaping our group’s image.
Ozaki: Right. When I stood up on that stage and heard the cheers, I was like “This. This is what it’s all about.” I really felt that strong desire to be right there when I heard those cheers. I want to keep doing my best, never forgetting that feeling for even a moment.
Matsuda: I also felt the cultural differences. It was a great leap forward for me.
Kimura: Even people who had never heard of us before got really into it. Maybe that’s the L.A. mindset.
Nishi: That was exhilarating! It made me realize that I wanted to put on live shows where it felt like everyone was enjoying the entertainment together. At the same time, I realized that in Japan, too, we need to be able to create an atmosphere that draws in the audience.
Fujimaki: I’d never experienced that kind of atmosphere before. I was just swallowed up by the atmosphere and the excitement. I got really hyped up, and I used that to good effect in my performance, but I lost sight of my own limits. On the one hand, it was super fun, but on the other hand there were parts of my performance that were a bit sloppy.
Takatsuka: It was really amazing, wasn’t it? There were all kinds of people there — Japanese, Koreans, Americans, people from other countries — and looking out from the stage, it felt different than when we perform in Japan. I was aware of just how big the world was, and how little we were. But, at the same time, I felt an even stronger drive to make it big on the global stage.
Goto: I watched the performances by the other artists, and they were really world-class entertainers. I realized how timid we were. It was really frustrating at first, but by the time we were about to go back to Japan, on the other hand, I was really fired up.
Sano: I was so nervous that day. But I thought to myself, “If you let yourself get nervous, it’s all over,” so when I performed, I just kept telling myself, “You’re the coolest person in the world!” Perhaps because of that, when I rewatched my performance, I really did think I looked cool.
Matsuda: It’s important to think “I’m the hottest guy in the world!”
Sano: It really is. The event reaffirmed the importance of being confident when you perform.
I see that you learned a lot. How do you plan to use what you learned in the future?
Goto: One thing we want to apply right away to our upcoming arena tour is pacing. We’ve never performed over a dozen songs at one of our shows, so this will be all new to us. I think that looking crisp and sharp will be important. Moving energetically looks cool and gets the audience amped up, but you can’t look all blurry when the camera is on you. I was really surprised watching the other artists at KCON 2022 LA. I was like “How do they look so clear on camera?” So I want to use what I’ve learned and study up how to look even better on camera.
Sano: For me, it’ll be about being confident when I perform and improving my basic abilities. When it’s my turn, I want to put in a performance that sticks in people’s memories. When they’re heading home from the show, I want the MINIs to be saying, “Yudai was just amazing during that part.”
Nishi: Yeah, that’d be nice. For me, I want to create a space that’s great for me and for all our MINIs. I really like sharing that sense like, “I’m having fun, and the MINIs that are watching me are having fun.” I want to create that atmosphere of a shared experience that I felt at KCON 2022 LA.
Ikezaki: That’s what I was thinking, too. You get really nervous, and you’re thinking, “I can’t mess up the choreography” or “I can’t be off-pitch,” but a real artist can simply pump up the music together with the audience. The top K-pop musicians are really good at that. The level of quality is high, but you can also see that they’re having so much fun up on stage. I want to learn to do that.
I’m getting a clear vision of you all growing tremendously in the future.What kind of perspectives and mindsets do you plan to apply as you grow as a global boy band?
Xu: Assuming that we become even more widely known in Japan, I want to keep in mind that people’s eyes are on us. There are MINIs overseas, and people around the world are watching our content, so I also want to always keep in mind that we’re being watched by people outside Japan, too. I also want to maintain an awareness of minority and gender issues. There aren’t very many Japanese groups that have that kind of mentality, and I hope that we become more attuned to those issues in the future. That’s going to be essential as an entertainer in the global market, so I want to make that one of our goals.
Ozaki: I agree. Also, my personal opinion is that it would be good for our members that can speak English and Korean to become active overseas, such as appearing on TV variety shows. The more we can communicate, the greater our potential to reach those markets, and we might be able to get even bigger as a group by extending ourselves more on the global stage. Of course, we’d also be building a solid foundation in Japan.
Takatsuka: Right. We’ve tried hard to let people know about INI, but I really feel that we need to go beyond that and find something extra. We need to create, discover, and refine new band appeal and bring out the individuality of our group. For example, that would include our overseas efforts, like Takumi mentioned, and also the TV dramas we appear in. That approach of actively taking on new challenges is important. So far, we’ve been emphasizing INI as a group that can dance and sing, but as we grow through the years, I hope we discover all kinds of other “INI strengths.”
This interview, by Azusa Takahashi, first appeared on Billboard Japan.
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