Jan Svenungsson

"BABYMETAL – Ijime, Dame, Zettai", bcnvt.se, Stockholm 6.8.2021

In 2003, an exhibition of masterpieces from the Tokyo National Museum was shown at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. For the first time, three of the museum's "National Treasures" had been allowed to leave Japan. For the whole nation, there are a couple of hundred cultural objects that have received the highest classification of cultural worth. Here was a small ink painting, a painted six-part screen and a sword blade without a hilt. The blade had been forged by Nagamitsu, a famous blacksmith in the late 13th century, I was told. That it was a masterpiece had been clear from the start. Ever since, it has been treated as a priceless treasure and polished twice a week by experts.

I learned two things in Bonn. In Japan, there is no clear boundary between art and craftsmanship. And the respect for quality can be staggering and boundless.

July 5, 2014, midday, in Knebworth Park, north of London. Sonisphere, a festival for heavy metal. A Japanese band will take the stage. It's their first concert in England. Their debut album has just been released. They were supposed to play one of the smaller stages, but for some reason they have been moved to the biggest one.

BABYMETAL consists of three schoolgirls. Moa Kikuchi (Moametal) and Yui Mizuno (Yuimetal) have just turned fifteen, and Suzuka Nakamoto (Su-Metal) is sixteen and a half. They are nervous. They are dressed in a kind of uniform: red tutus and stylised harnesses, and will soon be performing choreographed dance routines and sing in Japanese in front of four adult musicians in white robes with ghost-painted faces, facing a crowd of nearly 50,000 Englishmen.

The first song starts with a brutal machine-gun riff: BABYMETAL DEATH. Soon there are huge mosh pits in the audience. No projectiles land on the stage. BABYMETAL plays five songs and closes with Ijime, Dame, Zettai (Bullying, No, Absolutely) which is filmed and has now been viewed more than thirteen million times on Youtube. It opens with Moa and Yui taking up starting positions as sprinters at each end of the main stage, while Suzuka hums a simple melody to pre-recorded piano. In front of the stage, people push to the sides to create an open space. A carefree youth does somersaults in the empty circle. Then silence. Su-metal glares at the crowd. The camera captures her fierce expression in close-up. Frenetic guitars kick in, double bass drums begin to thunder. Moametal and Yuimetal run at full speed towards each other, across the whole big stage, passing, turning and sprinting back again. The crowd rushes in chaotic battle. Wall of Death! The song, six minutes long, complex, virtuosic and melodic, swells and surges and builds towards an emotional crescendo that ends with the three, perfectly synchronized, freezing in a triumphant final pose.

There's something archaic and affecting about this short concert film that creates meanings far beyond those seen at first glance.

BABYMETAL shouldn't be able to function. The group was created in the fall of 2010 as a side project by producer Key Kobayashi (Kobametal). The context was Japan's hyper-commercial pop music industry, with young "idols" often exhausted and run to the ground in a couple of years before being replaced by new ones. Kobayashi had spotted Nakamoto's talent and had the idea for an experiment with her as the lead singer, combining pop and dance with his own passion for heavy metal. The two younger girls were recruited to flank the slightly older Suzuka like "angels". A first song is recorded, Doki Doki Morning, in which two, three completely different forms of music collide in something never heard before. Choreographer Mikiko Mizuno creates an integrated dance. A video is made with simple means – and what was meant to be a parenthesis, turns out to have a life of its own.

BABYMETAL begins performing in front of dancers in skeleton costumes pretending to play instruments. But from day one, the music – and the dancing – is irrepressibly ambitious. Kobametal writes himself or collaborates with underground musicians, creating delightful genre-bending compositions. One song, Megitsune, goes through more than 30 versions before he's satisfied. At the same time, he begins to develop a bonkers "mythology" that borrows liberally from various pop-cultural and religious sources and, in short, holds that the Fox God (Kitsune Sama) has sent the three girls from a "heavy metal galaxy far far away" to "make the world one with heavy metal again". At a concert in late 2012, the skeleton dancers are replaced by real musicians, virtuosos drawn from Japan's metal elite. BABYMETAL demands to be taken seriously... and starts playing in contexts not associated with idol music. Mizuno creates choreographies for all the songs, which become as irreplaceable parts of the whole as the lyrics.

After Sonisphere, BABYMETAL becomes an international sensation. For many a revelation, for others an abomination. They tour and play with bands like Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bring Me The Horizon. 2016 sees their second album and 2019 their third, which is celebrated with a tour and an arena concert in Los Angeles.

Unusually, their live recordings are always better than the studio versions. With one exception, all released songs have also been performed live, with their unique choreographies. The visual expression is constantly evolving and is captured in numerous concert films. The perspective in the films alternates between expressive details – glances, smiles, signs with the fingers – to incredible stage constructions and complex dance patterns. The three performers prepare for each task as if for a battle, and grow with each victory. Today, BABYMETAL is Japan's most successful music export ever.

Yuimetal retired for undisclosed medical reasons in 2018 and has not been replaced. Three dancers (without microphones) take turns taking her place. Su-metal and Moametal, who are now 23 and 21 years old and have spent half their lives as the Fox God's emissaries on Earth, have no social media and never appear in photos or on film without uniform (which have changed over the years). The difference between projected and real life is total, and the artists can live unmolested outside of art.

In 2021, BABYMETAL celebrates its belated tenth anniversary with ten concerts (Doomsday I – X) at the legendary Budokan in Tokyo. The first two took place at the end of January. The audience was limited to a third of normal and had to wear double masks. Across the world, followers waited impatiently for updates. The centrally located stage was surrounded by fire.

Perhaps the main reason for BABYMETAL's impact is that everyone involved: the artists, the producer, the musicians, the songwriters, the choreographer, the cinematographers, the technicians... are extraordinarily skilled and uncompromisingly dedicated to their nutty art form. In a cultural landscape fluid and dissolved, they maintain the same respect for mastery that justified 750 years of polishing the perfect sword blade.

Jan Svenungsson