The framed tour posters lining the backstage corridors of the Yokohama Arena testify to its storied past. The 17,000-capacity concert hall may not have the same cultural cachet as Tokyo’s illustrious Budokan, but it has acquired its own place in the national consciousness: The Rolling Stones, The Who, AC/DC, Queen and Kiss have graced its stage, trailblazing Japanese metal icons X Japan have headlined the venue – modelled on New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden – on no fewer than nine occasions, and it was here, on August 26, 2001, that Pantera played their final show, co-headlining (alongside Slayer) Beast Feast, Japan’s inaugural all-day metal festival.
Sometime in 2013, Suzuka Nakamoto, Yui Mizuno and Moa Kikuchi, now better known to the world at large as Babymetal members Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal, were taken to the arena by their mentor Key ‘Kobametal’ Kobayashi for a J-Pop concert. One day, he promised the girls, their group would stand upon this stage, would see and hear thousands of dedicated fans singing their songs back to them. The three teenagers listened attentively to their producer as he outlined his vision for the future, each secretly wondering how such a seemingly impossible dream might come to pass.
Two years on, that prophecy has become a reality. On the penultimate weekend before Xmas, the trio are back at the Yokohama Arena, not as wide-eyed music fans, but as the headline attraction on two consecutive evenings. By mid-afternoon on December 12, there are thousands of fans patiently queuing in the light afternoon rain and ‘Sold Out’ stickers are plastered all over the numerous merchandise boards that surround the venue. Hours before showtime, there’s already a party atmosphere in place. Men in Lycra skeleton bodysuits pose for photos alongside tiny Babymetal doppelgangers, while teenage girls gleefully apply black and white face paint to their friends and strangers alike. More than just a regular gig, this feels like An Event.
The brace of shows in Yokohama are billed as ‘The Final Chapter Of Trilogy’ for Babymetal, closing out a hugely important year for the band domestically, which saw the girls play statement headline shows at the Saitama Super Arena (capacity: 30,000) and Makuhari Messe in Chiba (capacity: 25,000). In their native land, according to figures collated by the statistics-tracking company Oricon, the trio sold 47,241 copies of their self-titled album in 2015, plus an impressive 26,667 DVDs and 52,240 Blu-Ray copies of their Live At Budokan, Red Night & Black Night Apocalypse and World Tour 2014, Live In London collections. In the UK, Babymetal’s biggest market outside Japan, the band’s next headline gig, on April 2, will take place at the 12,500-capacity SSE Arena, Wembley. Such statistics have made ripples beyond the music industry: influential Japanese magazine Nikkei Business recently featured the group in their ‘100 People To Make The Next Generation’ power list, noting, “They are not Idols: they are first level artists.”
The most intriguing aspect of the trio’s weekend in Yokohama, then, is the notion that the shows are not merely a celebration, well-merited victory laps on a two-year campaign which has made the Japanese trio the most talked about new band on the planet, but that they will offer tantalising glimpses into Babymetal’s future.
Both evenings start in familiar fashion, with tunes from Kobametal’s personal playlist – Bring Me The Horizon’s Throne, Judas Priest’s Painkiller and Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell among them – booming across the arena as the audience politely file in to their seats and designated standing areas marked with ‘HAPPY MOSH’ SH PIT’ placards. When Metal Hammer attended Babymetal’s Saitama Super Arena show last January, our own Stephen Hill observed that the group’s core audience on home turf was still largely composed of pop fans, a hangover from their origins as an offshoot of ‘Idol’ group Sakura Gakuin, but the enthusiastic gang vocals and air-punching which accompanies this stellar soundtrack suggests that either the Tokyo-based band are increasingly drawing in old-school metalheads, or that their audience – like the trio themselves – are fast assimilating into our world.
This noise, however, is nothing compared to the high-pitched pandemonium that erupts when Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal appear onstage throwing ‘Fox God’ signs (aka Kitsunes) amid a barrage of flashbombs, flames and strafing lasers.
For sheer entertainment, the 95 minutes which follow are quite unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere. While the dazzling staging contains echoes of the past – metalheads of a certain age will detect knowing winks towards Iron Maiden’s World Slavery Tour set-up in the three Sphinx-style Fox Gods which tower over the ramps and runaways onstage, while even Rammstein would do well to match the volume and intensity of pyrotechnics in use – the juxtaposition of the trio’s riotously effervescent choreography with the Kami Band’s jaw-dropping instrumental virtuosity remains a deliciously inventive mind-fuck. Across the two nights, there are tweaks in the setlist – Saturday’s audience get Akatsuki and Yuimetal and Moametal’s Song 4 mid-set, while Sunday sees _Rondo _Of Nightmare and the ridiculously infectious Onedari Daisakusen aired in their stead – but the energy levels never drop out of the red, with the audience mirroring the girls’ dance moves throughout, and becoming an integral part of the production. The circle pits which swirl across the arena floor for Gimme Chocolate!! and Headbangeeeeerrrrr!!!!! are a joy to behold, and an animated film featuring depictions of Ozzy Osbourne, James Hetfield, Corey Taylor and more as samurai warriors ahead of the Dragonforce-penned Road Of Resistance is wickedly entertaining.
Now I understand the power of Babymetal
It is, however, the unveiling of brand new Babymetal material, earmarked for inclusion on the forthcoming Metal Resistance album, which provides the evening’s most intriguing moments. In total, three new songs are aired, including the pacey, inevitable future crowd favourite KARATE, which is unleashed as a typically upbeat genre-mashing banger, as well as an emotion-laden quasi-power ballad, provisionally titled The One (though listed on the production notes as La La La) – showcasing Su-metal’s stunning vocals and surely destined to be the dramatic centre-point of Babymetal live shows for years to come. Opening the show on the Saturday evening, the song is shifted to the end of the set on Sunday, and sees the three girls delivering its anthemic chorus – ‘We are The One. Together we’re the only one…’ from atop a glowing pyramid-shaped ‘gondola’ which, illuminated by spotlights, glides slowly outwards from the stage and across the arena 20 feet above the, by now hysterical, audience’s heads. It’s a breathtaking, wonderfully theatrical climax to a captivating show, and a spectacle that will live long in the memories of all present.
The night, however, is not yet over, for Kobametal has two further surprises to unveil. The videos screens flanking the stage flicker into life once more to relay the news that Metal Resistance will be released on April 1, now officially rebranded as ‘Fox Day’ – the eve of the girls’ Wembley show. The second revelation clearly takes even the girls by surprise, as, to audible gasps from the crowd, it’s announced that Babymetal’s 2016 world tour will culminate in a headline performance at the 55,000-capacity Tokyo Dome. Think that Babymetal are just a novelty act, already an amusing footnote in metal’s lurid, fantastical history? Better readjust those preconceptions…
“Did we look calm when the news of the Tokyo Dome show was announced?” asks a wide- eyed Yuimetal. “It was actually shock, we were still in disbelief. Tokyo Dome is a place that wasn’t even in our dreams, so the idea of playing there is almost too unreal, so maybe that’s why we came across as casual. We’re still trying to swallow the idea of it becoming a reality.”
It’s the morning after the second Yokohama Arena show, and Babymetal are in a Tokyo photo studio, all shy smiles and polite bows as they greet Hammer and the entourage of make-up artists, stylists and management personnel who’re already in place for their arrival. In street clothes, the girls look even younger than their onstage characters – Yui turns up in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt – but their unfailingly polite demeanour this morning is accompanied by a brisk professionalism which serves to emphasise the fact that, between them, Su, Yui and Moa have amassed 20 years of experience in an unsentimental industry which recruits, exploits and discards young entertainers at a dizzying rate.
It’s entirely understandable, then, that Team Babymetal watch over their charges with hawk-like attentiveness, with Kobametal a low-key, but vigilant presence when media duties are performed. Images captured by Hammer photographer John McMurtrie’s camera are studiously scrutinised, and occasionally vetoed, when poses are deemed unbecoming or age inappropriate. Similarly, an iPhone is placed on the table in recording mode when the girls are interviewed, in order that the conversation may be monitored, presumably to safeguard against the teenagers’ responses, relayed by ever-present translator Nora, being misquoted or distorted. Questions about the bandmembers’ private lives are swiftly struck from the record, to the extent where a seemingly innocuous enquiry as to how the girls’ friends view their lives in Babymetal is shut down with the immediate reply, “We don’t like to feature their families or friends, so we’d like to not answer that question.” The girls, too, know the drill: a question about Su-metal’s hobbies outside the band is met with the splendidly vague answer that she’s “interested in the kind of thing that young ladies are interested in”, as if that actually says anything at all. This caution serves not only to protect the girls’ privacy, but also, crucially, to maintain some of the mystique that Kobametal deems fundamental and intrinsic to the Babymetal concept. As with Ghost, say, or Kobametal’s beloved Kiss, or indeed Steel Panther, laying bare the flesh-and-blood humans behind the art is seen as a distraction from the overarching concept. This being the case, though the members of the Kami Band are well known in Japan, and their identities freely disclosed on fan sites, the musicians are not permitted to conduct media interviews on behalf of the band: similarly, enquiries about Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal’s roles in the creation of the forthcoming Metal Resistance album are disregarded, as the official narrative maintains that the girls are but messengers for the omnipotent Fox God who directs their every career move.
“Imagine if after Mickey Mouse at Disneyland came out and entertained the fans, he took off his suit and started talking to you like, ‘Oh, I’m so tired, I hate my job’,” Kobametal explains via Nora. “That would break people’s dreams and destroy the fantasy.”
“It actually makes things easier for the girls,” he maintains, “because they can concentrate on what they have to do as Babymetal, can focus on just being who they are meant to be onstage, and not have to worry about anything else. In that sense it’s freer for them.”
This being said, when interviewed individually today (a rarity, necessitated by the fact that when today’s promotional duties are discharged Su-metal must catch a flight to Australia to resume work on the band’s new album), a more rounded picture of the personalities within the group and their individual aspirations emerges.
Beyond the imaginative myths surrounding the group’s origins, the roots of the Babymetal story can be traced back a decade to the moment when Hiroshima schoolgirl Suzuka Nakamoto followed her elder sister Himeka in enlisting at the Actors School Hiroshima, a stage school founded in 1999, which has groomed students for Idol pop groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48 and Perfume. Su-metal credits J-Pop trio Perfume as her inspiration for becoming a singer, noting “as I kid I was playing a lot of different musical instruments, but I never continued with any of them except for singing.” Two years older than Yui and Moa, Su-metal is happy to acknowledge that she’s the group’s ‘big sister’, and takes her role as the unit’s leader seriously. Somewhat reluctant to accept the mantle of being a role model (this despite major label debut single Ijime, Dame, Zettai being widely hailed for its anti-bullying message), when asked about her group’s positive influence, she deflects the question somewhat by replying, “I’m happy to know that there are fans out there who’re being inspired by Babymetal.”
“We never knew about metal music until we started Babymetal,” she states, “and to be able to reach out to people just like us is an amazing feeling. When we played Reading and Leeds festivals, we were the opening act, and I remember clearly that there wasn’t a lot of people watching at first, but the field really started filling up when we started. I could see people thinking, ‘Who are these people?’ but it was amazing to watch everyone react to the show. So to be able to go to a foreign land and know that we’re able to express who we are in front of people who know nothing about us is something we can be proud of.”
For her part, Yuimetal happily admits that it was Su-metal who inspired her to become a singer. As a nine-year-old, the Tokyo-born vocalist saw Su perform with her first professional band, Karen Girl’s, and recalls instantly thinking, ‘I want to be just like her!’ Recruited two years later for Sakura Gakuin, Yui laughingly reveals she went “ballistic” when she heard that she and her best friend, Moa, were going to be joining Su in Babymetal: “I just thought, ‘This is going to be amazing!’” she recalls.
Moametal, cited by the other girls as Babymetal’s perpetual ray of sunshine, cheerfully remembers having “no idea” what to expect when first invited to join the band.
“I was told that the group would focus on more ‘heavy’ music, but I had no idea what ‘heavy’ music meant,” she admits. “Like, did it mean we’d be singing about subjects that were heavy? So when I started being in Babymetal I realised, ‘Oh, this is what heavy music is! I was very shocked!’”
Both Yui and Moa cite Bring Me The Horizon as their current favourite metal band. Moa says she’s been constantly listening to Limp Bizkit, too, while Yui and Su list Metallica and Slipknot respectively as bands they admire and hope to emulate. Mention that in playing Wembley Arena in April, Babymetal will be taking one more step in their new heroes’ footsteps, and all three girls practically glow with excitement, with Moametal exclaiming, “I’m not sure whether anyone will come!”
“It still doesn’t feel real,” admits Su-metal. “I know that Wembley Arena is a very legendary venue and so thinking about us playing there is a little unnerving. For us to execute this show we’re going to have to come up with something legendary, too. The UK is a special place to us, and it’s always a place where we learn something new, and find something that benefits Babymetal, so we think that something special is going to be created at Wembley. No one should dare to miss it!”
“What I’ve learned most about being in Babymetal is that if it’s the three of us together we can do anything and overcome anything,” says Moametal. “I’m not sure how much our fans know about us personally, but it doesn’t really matter, because the most important thing is that they know our music.”
Babymetal are a real-life anime show
When talk turns to specific plans for 2016, all three girls, generally more confident and self-possessed than you might imagine, clam up, and the ever-enigmatic Kobametal will only offer his failsafe, “Only the Fox God knows” response. Asked whether the band, who’ve already been immortalised with their own Pop Vinyl figures – available soon via Forbidden Planet, the girls themselves don’t even have them yet – might consider expanding their brand into anime or manga spin-offs, the producer admits that he’s been approached “by a number of people with different ideas”, but insists that no deals have yet been struck.
“This is a special group we have here,” he notes, “but with Babymetal there’s already a fine line between reality and fiction, because Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal are characters in themselves, so in a way Babymetal are already a real life anime show. So to make that into fiction would be such a difficult process: it would have to be done precisely and in a way that accurately captures the personalities in the group.”
For now, however, and with no live shows booked until Wembley, Kobametal insists that the group focus is very much upon Metal Resistance, which will ultimately hold the key to the band’s future.
“The debut album in a way was almost a ‘best of’ because they released many different singles before the album was put out, so it’s a collection of the songs written to that point,” says Kobametal.
“But this album is going to be different, a proper studio album: the theme is all about this ring, this circle, The One, with everyone coming together, and the circle growing ever bigger.”
It’s a concept that’s close to the girls’ hearts. “The shows this weekend made me realise, maybe for the first time, that Babymetal is not just about us, and not just about us and the Kami Band – it’s about us and the band and everyone that’s present,” says Su-metal.
“At the end of 2014, we played Brixton Academy and played Road Of Resistance for the first time, and that song was all about exploring uncharted territories, and that’s what we did in 2015. And that final song at Yokohama Arena, The One, is a new message from the Fox God telling us where we need to go in the next year, with everyone pulling together as one.”
Su-metal looks over at her younger friends who’re throwing shapes for the camera, and smiles.
“At the end of yesterday’s show when we got on the ‘triangle’ [flying around the arena], that was the first time we were able to get that close to the fans and see all the smiling faces and see everyone putting up the fox signs and I understood the power of this,” she says quietly. “And that’s what going to push us on for the coming year. We feel this will be an important year for us all.”
Frock N’ Roll Stars
_There’s feminist thinking behind Babymetal’s kawaii stage clothes, explains Kobametal
WHAT ARE THE INSPIRATIONS BEHIND THE GIRLS’ LOOK?
“The basis is goth lolita fashion, and they’re also inspired by images of Joan of Arc. Babymetal’s concerts and performances are like battles to them, and their costumes are their uniforms that they put on to face the challenges that come their way, so it’s only natural to take inspiration from a heroine like Joan of Arc, or other knights from the medieval times and warriors from Japan’s past.”
WHAT WAS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE GIRLS’ COSTUMES AT YOKOHAMA ARENA?
“That gig represented the final show of Metal Resistance Episode 3, and the costume was made with a fusion of elements from all their past costumes up to that day, adding a triangle motif that would represent ‘trilogy’. In the past Su-metal’s top was made to look like an armour suit with scales, which we replaced with triangles instead. Every edge of the triangle symbolises Babymetal’s story – Saitama, Makuhari and Yokohama, the three cities where they gathered for their celebration and concerts with their fans – and of course the three members of Babymetal.”
**WHAT WILL THE GIRLS BE WEARING WHEN THEY HIT WEMBLEY ARENA?
**“They will be cool and fierce costumes with feminine finesse that will help us pave their way through their next chapter of their Metal Resistance!”
Babymetal release Metal Resistance on April 1, or ‘Fox Day’. They play London’s Wembley Arena on April 2