Jean-Ken Johnny can remember the look on peoples’ faces the first time he stepped on stage with Man With A Mission. It was 2010, and the guitarist and his bandmates were launching themselves with a gig at a club in their native Tokyo. Johnny knew they were doing something different. He just didn’t know what everyone else would make of it.
“When we walked out, everybody was, like, ‘Whoah, what are these guys?” says Johnny, in an accent that’s two-thirds Japanese to one third American. “They couldn’t really understand it. That’s natural. If I saw a band like us onstage, I’d be the same.”
It could have been the band’s unlikely mash-up of earnest alt-rock and banging EDM. It might have been the non-stop energy that crackled around them. Or it might have been the wolf heads that all five members wore to disguise their real faces.
Actually, it was definitely the wolf’s heads.
Today, Jean-Ken Johnny is sitting in a cramped dressing room backstage at The Dome in North London, surrounded by members of his entourage. Later tonight, this 600-capacity room will host Man With A Mission’s biggest UK headlining show, and Johnny looks pleased.
Or at least I think he does. It’s difficult to tell exactly, because right now the man on the other side of the tape recorder is wearing one of those same wolf heads. It’s large and as immobile as fibreglass, with expressionless yellow eyes and a fixed tongue lolling over sharp white teeth. His voice comes from somewhere deep inside it. Sitting opposite him is simultaneously surreal, silly and disconcerting as hell.
That’s exactly what Jean-Ken Johnny and his bandmates want you to think. Man With A Mission look like they’ve been ripped straight from a comic book and made flesh. Like many great Japanese bands, they take a multitude of ill-suited influences and jam them together until they fit: grunge, techno, alt-rock, Manga culture.
“Man With A Mission is not just a name,” says Johnny. “Everybody has a name. It’s a message from us that people won’t be able to ignore us.”
And the wolf’s heads? Don’t worry. We’ll get to them soon.
The queue outside The Dome is 30 strong at 3pm. The racial make-up is maybe 20 per cent European and 80 per cent Japanese. Kuniki and Tami are both 22 and students. They’ve travelled to the UK from Tokyo because they’re never going see them in a venue this size at home again. “They are a very big band,” says Tami. “This is a very small show for them.”
This much is true. Man With A Mission are well under the radar in the west but they’re superstars back home. Their four albums to date have all gone Gold in Japan, shifting upwards of 100,000 copies each. Their singles regularly land in the Top 10. The last time the band played in Japan, they headlined two nights at the Saitama Super Arena, a gigantic sports venue just outside Tokyo. 35,000 people watched them each night.
And they say rock music is dying.
“Playing in front of that many people, that means a lot to us,” says Johnny. “But playing in front of a few hundred people that are really waiting for us, that’s just as important.”
Wolf heads aside, Man With A Mission set out from a fairly traditional starting point. Johnny – or at least the person under the mask – grew up listening to 90s grunge and alt-rock: Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine. At the same time his head was being turned by the techno-rock bodysmash of The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers’ breathless big beat rush, the in-your-face agit-prop of Asian Dub Foundation.
These two worlds collided in Man With A Mission from the start. They put in the legwork, hammering small clubs in Japan, the so-called “live house” culture. “Everybody who likes jumping and crowd surfing would come too,” says Johnny. “And normal people too. People in suits would come and jump to our music.”
The image didn’t hurt, of course. A band in animal heads are social media catnip, especially in a country where comic book culture is so ingrained. Man With A Mission plug into the worlds of anime and Manga – they’ve written songs specifically for numerous popular TV shows and movies. “Look at us,” he says, not unreasonably. “Of course we fit into that world. A lot of people in Japan think it’s kind of nerdish, but we love it.”
Japanese culture is important to Man With A Mission. Part of what they do is spreading the word. “What’s going on in Japan musically is really cool,” says Johnny, “and we’d like to show that to the world. And of course, show them what we do too.”
So, let’s talk about heads. Because you want to know what the hell they’re all about, right?
The heads have been in place from the start. They’re an integral part of who Man With A Mission are. Like Kiss in the 70s, GWAR in the 80s and Slipknot in the 90s, they’re never seen in public without them. Here’s what we do know about Man With A Mission. We know the stage names of the band members. There’s Tokyo Tanaka (vocals), Kamikaze Boy (bass), Spear Rib (drums), DJ Santa Monica (decks) and Jean-Ken Johnny himself. But they’re not giving anything away beyond that. Certainly not their real names.
We also know that they have concocted a fake biography, which involves them being created by a mad-scientist for evil purposes as the ultimate life-form – half-man, half-wolf – before being frozen in the ice in Antarctica. During their time in the deep freeze, the faux-bio goes, they heard every form of music with their frozen wolf ears, hence their unlikely mash-up of styles. So far, so comic book.
To his credit, Jean-Ken Johnny tried his best to stick to this story. Here are a few snippets of our conversation to give you an idea of what it’s like talking to a man in a fibreglass head:
Me: Did you grow up in Japan?
Him: No, we were grown in a laboratory.
Me: Why do you wear wolf masks?
Him: This is not a mask.
Me: What’s the attraction of wolves?
Him: There is no attraction. This is what we were made. We were born like this.
This is entertaining for roughly 60 seconds, but it’s no way for two adults to behave. Let’s be grown up about it. What’s with the masks?
He pauses. When he does speak, his answer is unexpected.
“It is theatrical, but it’s about connecting people,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of bands coming from Japan, trying to break overseas countries, and there’s definitely… it’s not prejudice, but if someone comes from another country like Japan, people have an image in their head about them. The heads make it easier to focus on music. You don’t have to worry what kind of person is inside, what kind of character.”
There’s a logic to what he says, though it ignores the fact that five men in wolves’ heads causes its own distraction, albeit a brilliant one. There’s also a weird disconnect between Man With A Mission’s music and their image: the former skirts as close to the earnestness of Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots as it does Firestarter, while the look is… well, you can see for yourself. Strangely, Johnny doesn’t see any gulf between the two.
“Actually, they totally fit together,” he insists. “We feel a lot of energy in what we make. At the same time, this image you see is all about energy.”
He’s adamant about not revealing his real identity. Which is crazy in itself, given that most people get into music to be recognised.
“This is true,” he says.
I don’t even know if you are Japanese. Are you?
If you went outside and stood in the queue without your wolf head on, would nobody know who you were?
“Uh-huh, that’s probably fair to say.”
You know, people will try to find out?
“Maybe some people might. But they’ll never find me.”
This isn’t true. A few minutes’ internet detective work and a couple of emails swiftly uncover Johnny’s real identity. But maybe not knowing is more fun. And Man With A Mission are nothing if not about the fun.
For all their success at home, Man With A Mission are part of something bigger. Japanese rock is having a moment right now. From the where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? suckerpunch of BabyMetal to the renewed interest in J-Metal godfathers X Japan, the country’s homegrown bands are hitting harder and heavier than ever before on the international stage.
Man With A Mission know this. They’ve already played several times in the UK, and America too. They made their debut in LA back in 2011, playing shows in the Whiskey and the Roxy – places that Johnny describes as “the kind of legendary venues that I only dreamed of playing.” They’ve toured the US several times since. American audiences are less phased by men in wolfheads. “I guess there are a lot more crazy people there, so they were, like, ‘Oh, OK, let’s see what these guys can do.’”
They’ve made some influential foreign buddies along the way. They befriended Slipknot DJ Sid Wilson after a drunken night in a mutual friend’s bar in Tokyo. They teamed-up with Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump for 2017’s movie soundtrack single Dead End Tokyo. And they’ve forged a mutually beneficial trans-cultural relationship with British band-of-the-moment Don Broco, who opened for them at their Japanese stadium shows and who they’ve just supported in the UK.
It’s all good groundwork for their forthcoming fifth album, set to be released in the summer (they’re keeping schtum about details, up to and including the album’s title). It’s condescending to assume that every Japanese band wants to break Europe and America – why would they when the market at home remains huge, and physical CDs remain the most popular (and lucrative) format? But Man With A Mission definitely do, even if they’re aware of the scale of the task.
“It’s not easy for Japanese bands to be taken seriously,” he says. “One thing might be that most Japanese bands don’t speak English and don’t understand what’s going on. But at the same time, that’s something maybe we shouldn’t be afraid of. Because what makes the Japanese scene cool is that it’s pretty different to what you guys have. It’s not easy, but there’s always a way.”
And if you have to take off the masks to do that, would you?
“It’s not a mask. So that’s never going to happen.”
The yellow eyes don’t move. The lolling tongue remains immobile. But deep inside the wolf’s head, Jean-Ken Johnny is grinning.
Man With A Mission play Reading & Leeds Festival, Aug 24-26 (opens in new tab). The band's latest single is Freak It! ft. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. Watch the video below . Visit Man With A Mission (opens in new tab)'s website for up to date info.