By Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe four members of ONMYO-ZA look scary at first sight. But their music is equal parts beauty and aggression. The band members call themselves a “yokai heavy metal band” and have taken, as their musical theme, the yokai monsters of Japanese folklore.
ONMYO-ZA is known for difficult-to-understand lyrics full of archaic words, but the more you learn about them, the more you are attracted to their bottomless charms.
The band was formed in 1999 and made its major-label debut in 2001. It has two lead vocalists: Kuroneko, the only female member — who is capable of singing in a wide range of vocal styles from yokai to bewitching woman — and Matatabi, who sings furiously, as if punishing sinners. Matatabi is also the band’s bassist, composer and songwriter, while Maneki and Karukan play guitar.
Though their appearance and music cast them as stoic truth-seekers, their conversation is surprisingly interesting. I interviewed the band to get to know them better.
The Yomiuri Shimbun: ONMYO-ZA make meticulous plans well in advance. You decided to release your latest album, “Karyo Binga,” a while ago, correct?
Matatabi: You’re right. We decided the title and motif for our 13th album when we were producing our 10th album, “Kishi Bojin.” Karyo binga is an imaginary creature that has a human head and a bird’s body and sings exquisitely. Since our band started, I’d wanted to use this creature as a musical theme, and we’ve finally built up our skills and abilities to describe it.
Yomiuri: You named the first track after the album title. I heard karyo binga is a Buddhist word.
Matatabi: It’s called “kalavinka” in India. Some people describe its voice as Buddha’s voice. We depicted the creature using Kuroneko’s vocals and sublimated it in the form of music. We may be cursed for having tried that, though.
Kuroneko: The music is mysterious, and also full of life. Karyo binga supposedly makes beautiful chirps while still in its eggshell. It builds up its power, hatches and begins to sing, eventually bursting forth in brilliant song — I wanted to express such a process with music.
Yomiuri: While the song “Karyo Binga” sounds heavenly, the second track, “Ran,” has intense heavy metal sounds.
Matatabi: I intentionally made this contrast. Ran is a legendary bird. Although little known, it’s similar to the super-famous legendary phoenix. I’m attracted to something that is worthy of recognition but stays in obscurity. Our band has yet to be acknowledged by everyone, so I’ve compared us to this bird.
Yomiuri: I was surprised at your rare feat on the track “Ningyo no Ori” (Cage of the mermaid). When Kuroneko and Matatabi are singing different lyrics simultaneously, their words overlap to sound like wholly different lyrics.
Matatabi: We used this technique for the first time, although we’ve been good at blending two different melodies, taking advantage of having two vocalists. It’s a kind of word game, but I want to refer to Japanese tanka short poems, which often use puns and comparisons so that the reader can more deeply appreciate the feelings being described.
Yomiuri: The track’s guitar solos are splendid — they sound like a man shouting. Did Maneki or Karukan perform them?
Matatabi: I performed them, actually. I had the others listen to my solo on a demo, and they approved.
Maneki: I thought the impressive solo part could only be performed by Matatabi, who created the interesting story as the songwriter and composer.
Matatabi: I couldn’t have complained if our guitarists refused to let me play guitar. It’s proof that we have a creative and reliable relationship.
Yomiuri: How did you form your band?
Matatabi: I met Kuroneko in Osaka and wanted to use her voice to create a type of heavy metal with unlimited possibilities that had never been done before. My younger brother Maneki and his former classmate Karukan were playing guitar, so I asked them to join us. You could say I gathered people who were at hand, but I believe the band has come this far because it’s comprised of the four of us.
Karukan: I liked everything about the band, from its concept to the members’ stage names themed on cats, so I quickly agreed to join.
Matatabi: At first, ONMYO-ZA was meant to be an amateur band undertaken as a hobby. I never imagined we would make our pro debut.
Yomiuri: You’ve been sticking to your musical principles since the beginning.
Matatabi: We resemble amateurs, in that way. Record companies find it easy to promote bands that are ready to change with the times and trends. But we’ve decided not to change our principles and not to hesitate to call it quits if we can’t produce good results. We never appear on TV or radio and do nothing besides release new songs and give concerts. But we are supported by so many people. Music industry people say we are a very unusual band.
* * * Playful themes * * *
The band’s ninth album, themed on the legendary yokai fox with nine tails. It was released on Sept. 9, 2009.
“Fujin Kaiko” and “Raijin Sosei”
The band’s 11th and 12th albums, a popular pair released simultaneously in 2014 and themed on Fujin (the wind god) and Raijin (the thunder god). Each album has 12 tracks.
A song included on the album “Fujin Kaiko” and themed on a Buddhist nun imprisoned in a time warp, as depicted in Osamu Tezuka’s “Hi no Tori” (Phoenix). “Yao” in the song’s title is written with two kanji meaning 800, and also the meaning of countless numbers. The song runs for eight minutes.