EXILE: A Quest for Eternal Success Featured

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EXILE: A Quest for Eternal Success

Interview by Anthony Al-Jamie and Elizabeth Mays Photographs by Shane Karns

EXILE is an all-male J-pop group that over the past two decades has evolved from a boy band to a multi-generational entertainment empire. Six of EXILE’s 11 studio albums have gone platinum, with over 20 million sold in Japan alone. The group has had four generations of members, beginning in 1999 as J Soul Brothers and continuing today as EXILE. The group’s founder, Hiroyuki Igarashi, better known as EXILE HIRO, has retired from performing, but he oversees the band as chairman of its management company, LDH JAPAN Inc. LDH produced a supergroup of artists known as EXILE TRIBE, a collective that includes EXILE, EXILE THE SECOND, J SOUL BROTHERS III, GENERATIONS, THE RAMPAGE, FANTASTICS, BALLISTIK BOYZ, and Gekidan (Theater Company) EXILE. LDH has branched out globally through a score of initiatives ranging from music production and artist development schools to apparel, martial arts, modeling, film production and distribution, organic food production, and wedding planning. Members and EXILE TRIBE have also ventured into the world of acting, including Ryohei Kurosawa, better known by his stage name EXILE AKIRA, who appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Silence; Naoki Kobayashi, a lead actor in the Netflix original film Earthquake Bird executive produced by Ridley Scott; and Ryuji Imaichi. Each of these members appeared with Hiro at the 2019 Short Shorts Film Festival (SSFF) at Japan House in Hollywood. This interview was conducted on January 17, 2019.

TJ: What is unique about EXILE?
Something that makes us unique is that each of us leads our own individual artistic projects in addition to our musical career. Some of our members act and sing individually, one of our members has an apparel line, and one even has his own coffee brand. So, EXILE is not just a group, but it is also a project where all dreams can come true. That’s our mission at LDH.

TJ: What is your favorite thing about EXILE?
Hiro was just saying that we support each other’s dreams beyond dance and vocals, which is what the group is known for. That, I think, is a real strength. EXILE is more like a sports team. Its ethos will live on even if Hiro retires. That’s why he says it’s like a project.
RYUJI: I was given a dream by EXILE and became a member of J SOUL BROTHERS III. Through Hiro, we’re really able to move towards our own dreams with the support of everyone else. There’s nothing else like it.
HIRO: We’ve grown so much from the start when we were a small group and didn’t have a lot of sales. Through that growth, we’ve always had this unifying factor and always banded together. It really is about the family connection, which is so strong. So, that’s my favorite part.
NAOKI:I actually have two things! One of them is touring. There was one tour where there were two million people in the audience. I’m a dancer in this group, and normally it would be impossible for a dancer to perform in front of such a large crowd. EXILE has provided new opportunities for people like me. The second thing is that it’s been 12 years since I started JSB III, and I never would have dreamed I’d be in a Netflix movie that would be released in theaters. It’s all thanks to the growth I’ve been able to go through with this group.

TJ: How do you feel about attending the Short Shorts Film Festival in L.A.?
Naoki and I are ambassadors for the Short Shorts Film Festival this year [2019]. I’m really honored and grateful that we’re able to take on such a role and show the world all 10,000 of these amazing short films. We have studied a lot and really just devoted ourselves to these films. I’d love to make my own short film someday and submit it to SSFF.

TJ: Naoki, what has been the most enjoyable role that you’ve played in your acting career?
I think it was the Netflix one [Earthquake Bird]. I was playing a Japanese person who is in love with a foreigner. That role taught me we could connect to each other regardless of the language.

TJ: Akira, what was it like to narrate for the film Mifune: The Last Samurai?
Keanu Reeves narrated the U.S. version and I did the Japanese version. We were the only two people who narrated, so I really felt a lot of pressure. When you say Mifune: The Last Samurai to a foreign audience, I think you feel a lot of passion. But to Japanese people, he is really big — like an ocean. I think it’s really my duty to share that with the world. I’m very proud to be working with Keanu on this project and I really tried my best.

TJ: Along those same lines, are you a fan of the actor Toshiro Mifune and the acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa?
My stage name is Akira! I’m a huge, huge fan. Just recently, I was able to meet with a lot of the staff and crew that worked with Akira Kurosawa, and it’s really like one big family. They’re still carrying that torch and they are still very legendary in Japan. When I worked with Martin Scorsese on Silence, he always mentioned Kurosawa and his filming techniques. That’s how much of an impact he’s had, so I’m going to try to live up to my name — Akira.

TJ: Ryuji, can you tell us about some of the collaborations you’ve done outside of JSB?
I’ve done a lot of solo performances in different arenas and venues and have shot several music videos. I’ve also collaborated with a lot of different people like Daniel Arsham in New York. This isn’t the standard when you are part of a group, but at LDH I’ve had these opportunities. I believe my range of expression has really increased through these experiences.

TJ: Hiro, can you tell us a little bit about the LDH world?
LDH Japan is obviously all about entertainment. There’s EXILE and there is JSB, and that sort of thing. Now we’re starting to branch out into the world with LDH Europe, LDH USA, and LDH Asia, our subsidiaries in respective areas. In the U.S., there’s going to be a dance and vocal school, as well as restaurants and apparel. In Europe, we have hired Afrojack, the famous DJ, as our president. So, under the umbrella of love, dream, and happiness, we’re adapting our project to Europe and the USA. It’s beginning to spread and I’m very excited. I think it’s very similar to what Japan House is doing by opening up Japanese culture to the rest of the world.

TJ: What’s most challenging about entertainment management?
This organization can really thrive if there are great people involved. It’s truly all about the people. But beyond our dreams, it’s still a business. So, it’s the balance of dreams and business, and making both pieces work seamlessly, which is most challenging. Even when we were a small group, we’ve always had a supportive attitude towards our members’ dreams. As the organization grows, we have to use all of our cumulative talents to spread the message of LDH. It’s difficult because each person has their own desires and feelings, and we have to balance that with actually establishing a successful business. But I think we’re finding our way.

TJ: What’s the most memorable moment of your career so far?
I can’t wait to hear Hiro’s answer, but I can’t decide on the most memorable. When I was picked up by EXILE, I was asked to be the leader of J SOUL BROTHERS III. At first, I was really trying to make the best of this opportunity in EXILE, but then I was given this big leadership responsibility. It was a lot of pressure, but ultimately it translated into my solo acting work. My previous experience really made acting an even more valuable experience for me.
HIRO: Every year, for decades, I’ve tried to create the best event, so I really can’t think of one thing in particular. EXILE equals EXILE TRIBE, which equals LDH, so everybody’s career as a whole is a sign of my success. I think the structure that we were able to create, which catapulted so many careers, is really my biggest accomplishment. I might not be answering your question correctly, but spreading that even further is my goal. But if I had to pick one special moment, it might be my debut.
RYUJI: It is hard to pick one moment, but EXILE really gave me the dream to be an artist, and that was how I went for one of the auditions held by LDH. When HIRO spoke out my name after the final round of the audition, that was really one of my most memorable moments. I used to work in construction, so to be handed such a huge opportunity is something I will forever be grateful for.
AKIRA: It’s hard to say – all of my memories are treasures. The EXILE live tour called “Star of Wish” shows all the efforts of the past generations. It also shows the budding desires of the new generation, which is an interesting combination. Passing the torch is always important to EXILE, and seeing it happen is amazing. Now, audiences are really diverse in age and the future is really opening up with our live performances in Japan. Hiro once told me in a theater production that I am the kind of talent you see once every 10 years, and that really has carried me up to this point of working on Silence with Martin Scorsese. I’m really grateful for that.

TJ: What advice would you give to a young musician or actor who’s starting out?
Figuring out how to materialize your dreams is really the most important thing. I think to do that, you have to understand your past and where you came from. You have to keep thinking about how to get to where you want to be and find a way to pursue what you love most. With young artists, I see that a lot — that they don’t know where they came from. You need to look and know objectively where you came from and balance that with your dreams for the future.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.

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