Uchikubigokumon-doukoukai is a three-piece rock band hailing from Japan, consisting of frontman and guitarist Atsushi Ohsawa, bassist Junko and drummer Asuka Kawamoto.
Known for its distinctive blend of heavy-hitting loud sound with trivial lyrics, the members “create theme songs of their favorite foods and snacks without being asked, write songs dedicated to their local trains and favorite TV programs, and sing about poverty, worrying about hair loss, being scared of obesity, the joys of taking a bath and going to bed,” as they explain on their official site, and call their style “everyday-life-based loud rock.”
Formed in 2004, the band settled into its current one-man two-woman format in 2006. In 2009, the group dropped its first nationwide release called Shominha Bakudan-san, and performed a solo-headlining concert at the prestigious Nippon Budokan in 2018.
The trio released Konna bandomei dakedo iindesuka (which roughly means, “This is the name of our band, are you sure?”) on April 21, a four-track set that contains “Shufu no michi” and “Kiwami meoto kaido,” featured as the opening and ending themes of the Netflix animated series The Way of the Househusband. The series, based on the manga by Kohsuke Ohno, was released on April 8 and can be viewed in 190 countries around the world.
Ohsawa, the leader and principal songwriter of the band, sat down with writer Daishi "DA" Ato, on behalf of Billboard Japan to talk about the band’s unique style and origins, and shared his thoughts on what he admits is an unexpected global expansion of their music.
Let’s start with the catchy band name, Uchikubigokumon-doukoukai. I hear you chose it because a member wanted to go with a Japanese-style name. Could you explain why you settled on this one in particular?
Our drummer, Kawamoto, was the one who wanted a Japanese-style name. There are lots of musicians in Japan whose musical roots lie in Western music, so band names tend to naturally use English terms.
But Kawamoto thought that people wouldn’t be able to remember an English name, so Japanese would be better. I tended to agree with that, so I asked her what she had in mind, and she replied, “Chonmage Trio” (chonmage refers to men’s hairstyles in Japanese period dramas).
I talked her out of that one but accepted the premise of a Japanese-style name reminiscent of samurai, which reminded me of a scene from [the popular period drama series] Toyama no Kinsan that my dad used to watch long ago, where the magistrate tells criminals during trials that they’ll be beheaded (uchikubi) and their heads exposed (gokumon). So I suggested Uchikubigokumon-doukoukai (doukoukai means club, as in a circle of like-minded people).
If I were to explain this to people outside of Japan, I’d say that it comes from a kind of punishment in samurai dramas. Sounds metal, doesn’t it? [Laughs]
But from what I’ve heard, your musical roots lie in Western music. Bands like Van Halen and Mr. Big were your gateway bands.
The bands I used to copy on guitar in the beginning were B’z and X [now X JAPAN]. But the J-pop mainstream at the time was mostly “Being-kei” [music by acts belonging to the entertainment group Being Inc.], bands that didn’t feature much guitar playing. Precocious young Ohsawa wasn’t satisfied with such music.
So from there I surmised that “music with loud guitars must be Western” and began reading a magazine called Young Guitar, and the CDs that I found in rental stores happened to be Van Halen and Mr. Big.
My brother also owned stuff by Bon Jovi and Skid Row, and Skid Row’s third album in particular was metal that was ahead of its time, so they were influences as well.
You also listened to German metal, right?
I went from listening to X to looking for other genres that featured pleasing melodies over speedy drumming and discovered German metal. When I first heard Helloween, I was like, “This is it!”
So from junior high to high school, I listened to L.A. metal, German metal, slash metal, and hard rock. I think Uchikubigokumon-doukoukai’s roots lie in L.A. metal that features pop melodies over solid, pleasing riffs, and German metal where elements of metal and pop coexist. And Junko, our bassist, loves Motley Crue.
Your band’s music is solidly based in metal’s legacy, like you just explained, but somehow your fans and the media don’t talk about you as being a metal band. Why do you think this is the case?
We tell people when explaining our genre that we’re “everyday-life-based loud rock” because of our lyrics. We call it “loud rock.” Sound-wise, we’re closer to metal than a lot of recent loud stuff out there, and when I’m writing riffs, I often find myself thinking, “This is metal,” but it’s like we missed our chance to introduce ourselves as metal.
So you were really into a lot of mainstream metal and hard rock, but your band’s music doesn’t reflect those influences in a straightforward way. Why?
Well, I think a lot of it probably has to do with force of circumstance. First, when I decided to take on lead vocals, I gave up trying to write lyrics in English. And I realized something when I first wrote lyrics in Japanese.
Because I listened to so much Western music, the melodies that I came up with were those suited for English pronunciation. So our music could have sounded Western, but when you try to fit Japanese words into the melody, it ends up sounding like Japanese pop music.
From there, I sort of harked back to the basic “A verse, B verse, Chorus” J-pop aesthetic from my days of listening to Japanese bands before Western ones, which seems to have naturally neutralized the heavy-duty metal music within me.
That’s really interesting.
Also, something I notice when I’m writing songs is that a guitarist tends to write melodies that have no pauses for taking breaths. A normal person would rewrite it to make room, but our band wasn’t committed to having the main vocalist sing everything, so we figured everyone could just sing the songs.
Even if I come up with growly metal melodies, when the women members sing them, they instantly sound pop. So our songs became catchy thanks to that additional pop element.
Another major factor was that we don’t have a double bass drummer. So I might come up with phrases that suit double bass drumming, but since we can only use one, when we arrange it accordingly it ends up not sounding full-on metal.
So these various circumstances overlapping each other eventually led to the current Uchikubigokumon-doukoukai sound that’s somewhere between heavy and catchy.
Your live performances feature a VJ, which is uncommon for a band with a sound like yours. When did you start doing it?
It’s an approach we tried for the first time about four or five years into the band’s career. It was just a joke at first. We were introducing our merch while the stage was being set up with a video that showed the songs in our CDs along with the words. People seemed to enjoy it and our CDs sold better that way.
When we were considering doing something like that during our shows, we happened upon a venue that could manage it, so we asked someone in another band who knew a thing or two about computers to “use PowerPoint or whatever to show the lyrics,” and people seemed to love it.
Also, we started the band because we wanted to play loud music, but after we became recognized for our lyrics, we began getting feedback from people who wanted to be able to hear the lyrics better. In order to make that possible, the reasonable choice would be to turn down the volume on the guitar, but we didn’t want to do that. Video was the answer to having it both ways. By using video to show the lyrics, we could continue playing however the heck we wanted.
One of our managers suggested that we set things up so that we could do it anywhere, so now we have second-hand TV sets and projectors that we use on a regular basis.
The VJing is one example among the many novel ideas that your band has put into action, such as livestreaming a free concert in the early days of the pandemic and your virtual reality night club. Each project is meaningful and not just a publicity stunt. What’s the thinking behind these ideas you come up with?
They all start out as jokes, actually. I mean, the songs are jokes to begin with as well, so when we write a song about Umai-bo [a popular snack], we’re like, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if everyone were holding Umai-bo during the show? They only cost 10 yen apiece so we can hand them out!” And when we actually did it, people loved it, so we just kept on doing it for 10 years. I think we’re getting used to putting ideas into action like that.
Another thing is that we’ve always considered nightclubs as a place to enjoy ourselves. We were a part of a culture of weird bands sort of competing against one another in terms of having fun, so it’s a kind of continuation of the “Won’t this be fun?” “Yeah, it’ll be great!” playfulness from those days.
Another standout characteristic of your band is your bassist, Junko, who is 62 years old. I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many other female bassists anywhere in the world who plays so aggressively like she does at her age. I imagine she puts in a lot of effort to keep up that level of performance.
Actually, she’s not aware of it and that’s the way she really is. I kind of marvel at her. Her private life is really aggressive, too. She started taking dancing lessons in her fifties, took up kick-boxing, rode a bicycle down to the Shonan beach [in Kanagawa] from where she lives in Tokyo because she felt like seeing the ocean. I’m twenty years younger than she is and I can’t keep up with her energy. And it wasn’t a road bike, just an ordinary bicycle.
She’s got frightening stamina. She’s young at heart and her physical energy keeps up with it, so she naturally stays youthful. She doesn’t do any anti-aging stuff, and when I ask her what she had for dinner last night, she’d say, “Snacks.” [Laughs] She’s like a high school girl. I asked her to play in our band without knowing there was such a big age difference, so our fun band became even more fun.
How did you get involved in the Netflix anime series, The Way of the Househusband? Both the opening and ending theme songs match the anime perfectly, and I can’t think of anyone else better suited to write songs for this series.
Netflix suddenly reached out to us. I also thought we were perfect for the job, so I was like, “Sure, thanks for calling!” and accepted right away. We finished the songs really quickly, too. Writing songs about homemakers is totally in line with what we usually do, since the theme is right smack in the middle of our style of “everyday-life-based” music. The only hard part was trying to keep them within the minute-and-a-half constraint of anime themes. It was like solving a puzzle that we usually don’t have to do.
Did you take into consideration the fact that the songs would be released worldwide through the series when you were writing them?
It was more like we wrote those songs for the manga the anime was based on, rather than towards an international audience. The ending theme is enka [a style of Japanese sentimental ballad based in traditional music], and I thought that it would be really fun I when I realized it would be heard around the world. I figured it would probably sound fresh to the ears of people outside of Japan. We did our best to incorporate enka’s characteristic kobushi singing, and our “enka metal” will sound alien to listeners, so we’re curious as to how people will react to it.
Did you originally have any desire to release music geared towards a global audience?
No, I mean, if I’d wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have named our band Uchikubigokumon-doukoukai. [laughs] I never expected this band to rise to global stage, so I was caught off-guard.
Around 2004 when we formed the band, the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, and it wasn’t so easy to upload music and video online. “Connecting with the world” was something people talked about, but I didn’t think it would ever be that simple.
But the band lasted longer than we expected, technology advanced further than we expected, and music and video can now be shared around the world instantly. We’re taken aback by these things, so no, we never imagined we’d enjoy such developments.
You might want to consider another band name for a global audience.
Actually, we were slated to perform at South by Southwest in March 2020, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. We were planning on calling ourselves GOKUMON for short because we didn’t think anyone would be able to remember our full name. We figured people in the States might have heard of Goku [from Dragon Ball] and Pokemon, so “Goku” and “mon” put together wouldn’t be a stretch. [Laughs]
That’s true. When did you begin to realize that you had an overseas following?
When we released the music video for “Futon no naka kara detakunai” (“I Don’t Wanna Get Out of Futon”) in 2017, it went viral internationally even though we never intended for it to do so. A video with fan-subs was going around and it got views in China in particular, then went on to make a buzz in the U.S. and Europe.
So we released an official video with English subs and people from all over the world listened to our song. That was the first time we became aware that our band might be accepted outside of Japan.
You mentioned SXSW. Are you considering doing international tours when the pandemic passes?
Yes, we are. We were going to perform at SXSW while showing English translations of our lyrics on video, so we’d plan on making that happen someday.