Rampo x Hard Rock = NINGEN ISU

Shinji Wajima (NINGEN ISU)

Mar 06, 2023

OVERVIEW

Named after an Edogawa Rampo novel, the hard rock band NINGEN ISU (which translates to “The Human Chair”) was formed by members who love Rampo. The band has released numerous songs based on Rampo’s and others’ literary works. It is popular both at home and abroad as one of Japan’s leading hard rock bands. This time, we invited Shinji Wajima, guitarist and vocalist of the band, to the Edogawa Rampo Residence to share his unique view of Rampo and how he fuses Rampo’s works with rock music.

Rampo capturing the spirit of minorities

——— You have been performing music for more than 30 years with the band NINGEN ISU, which is inspired by a novel by Edogawa Rampo. What about Rampo has resonated with you?

Wajima Our youth was during Japan’s bubble era. I think there is a cyclical boom in writers in the “Shin Seinen” area, but Edogawa Rampo was in a state where all his works were usually available in paperback.

——— You were more interested in Rampo and his peers than other writers in your era.

Wajima That’s true. I had the impression that the writers of the time did not portray minorities. But Rampo’s novels depicted the spirit of minorities. It’s a counterculture, or rather, novels born out of the spirituality of non-mainstream people. So, the image is that young people who don’t reject mainstream culture but can’t get on board with it will always continue to read Edogawa Rampo. Suzuki (Kenichi) and I were both of that mentality, so we were reading writers from the “Shin Seinen” area.

——— How did the name of the band become NINGEN ISU?

Wajima Band names are basically in English. When we were in a band, there were very few people who named their bands in Japanese. That was odd, and if we name the band in English , it becomes the same as the others. We wanted to put forth our minority mentality, so we decided to come up with a band name in Japanese. So we thought about the detective novels we loved to read. It could have been Yokomizo Seishi or perhaps Yumeno Kyusaku. But I felt that Edogawa Rampo was pop, even in a counterculture way. That’s because everyone knew Rampo.

——— Oh, I see.

Wajima After that, I realized that not everyone knows Rampo (laughs). Many people don’t associate NINGEN ISU with Rampo. But we thought it was pop to give the band a Rampo’s title. So Suzuki and I were excited about it.

——— Did you decide on NINGEN ISU easily?

Wajima The process of thinking of a name is also enjoyable, which is why I intentionally took the long way. I thought up several candidates, but in the end, I thought NINGEN ISU fit the band the best. And it’s not descriptive. Moreover, it is a phrase coined by Rampo combining “Ningen (human)” and “Isu (chair),” isn’t it? In hindsight, I think there was no other choice.

Matching British hard rock with Rampo

——— The basis for combining Rampo and the band’s name was of course Rampo as a reading experience. But more specifically, what brought the two together?

Wajima There’s a typical pattern for the protagonists in his early short stories, isn’t there? He’s smart, but doesn’t fit into society. But he has his parents’ inheritance and doesn’t have to worry about money...In other words, a moratorium for a rich slacker. And we were the bubble generation, so we had a few years where we didn’t need to be overly intense about getting a job. So I linked the protagonist written by Rampo with the feelings of a depressed youth who did not fit in with the bubble-era vibe.

——— As for the band’s style, you’ve talked about the influence of Black Sabbath. That’s the lineage of British hard rock. The musicality part and Rampo match, but...

Wajima I thought it was a good idea. First of all, the premise is that hard rock and heavy metal have Christianity at their roots. So I thought that if I simply tried to do that just because I was inspired by foreign rock music, I would be hit a dead end in terms of lyrics. That musical style would just be borrowed or stylized without some kind of spice or backbone.

——— I see.

Wajima If I were to ask if we can express our music with Christian values, I would say that because we haven’t been around Christianity since childhood, singing about the Christianity we have studied wouldn’t be realistic or be understood by the Japanese people listening. We later added Buddhist elements. Our starting point, however, was that I thought it would be interesting to add the world of Japanese detective novels, even though it is entirely fictional, as our look. I borrowed NINGEN ISU for the band’s name because people would instantly understand it as a Rampo-esque world.
——— So your plan from the beginning was to make the stage fictional.

Wajima That’s true. Also, it is fairly common for these rock groups to take themes for their songs from novels. Take for example, Iron Maiden’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” or Mountain’s “Flowers of Evil.”

——— So by crossing literariness with musicality...

Wajima You get more depth. We wanted to do it ourselves because we had an image of a worldview that would be twice as expansive. I thought it would be more Japanese to bring in a Japanese writer. So that’s the reason for Edogawa Rampo. Rampo is also pop, with a touch of counterculture, so I thought Rampo would be more rock than pure literature.

Turning Rampo’s works into songs

——— I think it must be a tough job to create an original Japanese-language version of a genre of music that is often grouped together as hard rock or heavy metal.

Wajima When we created the album “Shin Seinen (New Youth)” (2019), we decided to make songs full of titles taken from Rampo’s novels. “Kagamijigoku (Hellish Mirror),” for example. I composed this piece with an image first in mind, wondering how to express the feeling of light reflecting off a mirror and changing the substance in various ways in the chords. In writing lyrics, of course, the poem can’t be like the synopsis of a novel. Because it is definitely better to read that novel. When I create a song based on a novel, I borrow the setting and layer my own opinions into it while interpreting what I think the novel wanted to convey. That's usually how I write my lyrics. This might be very disrespectful toward the author…

——— No, I wouldn’t say that’s so. It is about how one work is accepted and leads to another form of expression.

Wajima It would be nice if it could be like a variation. On the original work.

——— You have used a variety of works by various authors as your subject matter, but do you consider Rampo separately from other authors?

Wajima I think about them separately. When I write songs based on the original works of Rampo and other detective novel writers, I try not to make them sound like pure literature.

——— You mean when choosing the words in the lyrics.

Wajima Yes. Put simply, it’s whether or not there is humanism. When using Edogawa Rampo’s titles, if I put humanism in, it will destroy Rampo’s world. Rather, they are novels about people who know but can’t do anything about it. So when I write songs that borrow from Rampo’s novels, I try to write about the parts where people go off the morally correct path. But as a matter of fact, it’s tough for me when I write beyond that. That’s because there is no salvation.

——— From your own perspectives...

Wajima Yes. I can't write anything that actually follows the immoral path. So I keep it within the inevitable state of mind. Or I want to write something like, “That's just a quip or joke,” and so I do. I like the back stories of the characters in his early works. Why does this person head toward crime? And the pattern is that the person eventually faces his doom. I write about the feelings of the protagonist whose doom is looming. I can’t write about the crime itself.

Edogawa Rampo is there in times of trouble

——— Your one-man tour in 2022 was titled “Yami ni Ugomeku (Struggle in the Dark). ” Was it named to indicate a return to Rampo post “Shin Seinen”?

Wajima Oh, I couldn’t help (laughs). I want to express my gratitude once again, but it’s like Edogawa Rampo is there for me in times of trouble (laughs). I have been doing that for over 30 years. I have used quite a bit for tour titles until now (laughs).

——— Your best albums often feature Rampo’s titles as well.

Wajima Yes, that’s true. I usually name them “NINGEN ISU Best Selection.”

——— From Shincho Bunko (laughs).

Wajima I can’t help but borrow from them (laughs).

——— Speaking of album titles, after “Shin Seinen,” you released “Kuraku” in 2021. You are alluding to Rampo’s novel “Ningen Isu (The Human Chair)” which was first published in the magazine “Kuraku.”

Wajima It was the next album of “Shin Seinen” and I wanted to feature them like two sides of the same coin. If “Shin Seinen” is the head, “Kuraku” is the tail. Rampo also wrote quite a bit in “Kuraku.”

——— “Yami ni Ugomeku” also appeared in “Kuraku.”

Wajima Oh, that’s right (laughs). First of all, I liked the phrase “Kuraku (pain and joy),” and the fact was also significant that the times started to enter a state of turmoil. I could sing simply about fear or love, but it somewhat feels like a lie. The real fear has completely exceeded the fiction, so we can’t compete with it. There is no way to put it in words. I have no option but to write about how I perceive reality in my own way, not being critical or political. I thought I had to use music to express how to live in this day and age.

——— In this respect, I think music is a more abstract expression. Not descriptive.

Wajima Ah, yes. Music is a good form of expression taken from that perspective. It must be hard to do it in prose. Something about that person will inevitably pop up.

——— While depicting the times, you cross new tastes on top of the Rampo-esque world. I hope to see an album named “Houseki” someday, after “Shin Seinen” and “Kuraku.”

Wajima That’s something to think about. I’ll be sure to come and greet you when that happens (laughs).

Drawing Room of the Edogawa Rampo Residence/ October 26, 2022
Photos: Nozomu Suenaga
(The Edogawa Rampo Memorial Center for Popular Culture Studies, Rikkyo University)
Interview and text: Ryuki Goto
(Assistant Professor, the Edogawa Rampo Memorial Center for Popular Culture Studies, Rikkyo University)

Profile

Shinji Wajima

Shinji Wajima was born in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, in 1965. When he was a college student, he formed the hard rock band “NINGEN ISU” with his high school classmate Kenichi Suzuki. Shinji Wajima is the guitarist and vocalist of the band. The band made its major debut in 1990 with the album “Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human).” The band was described as “literary rock,” fusing ideas based on Japanese classical literature with hard rock music. The band performed at OZZFEST JAPAN in 2013 and 2015. They have received high acclaim both in Japan and abroad. In 2021, the 22nd album, “Kuraku” was released. His books include an autobiography, “Kussetsu-kun” (Shinko Music), and a collection of novels based on the music of NINGEN ISU, “Yoru no Yume Koso Makoto: NINGEN ISU Shosetsu Shu” (co-authored, KADOKAWA).

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