Ladybaby combines the furious intensity of screamo metal with the saccharine sweetness of J-pop. Despite forming in May, the trio has become an online sensation and just embarked on an international tour.
Ladybaby. From left: Rei Kuromiya, Ladybeard, Rie Kaneko. All photos by the author
Rei Kuromiya looks horrified. It's already 15 minutes past the 14-year-old pop star's 10 PM curfew, and she's being held hostage by a large bearded man in a dress. The age of the man, who calls himself Ladybeard, is harder to determine. When asked, Ladybeard insists that he's a five-year-old girl. He's also Rei's bandmate in the wildly popular J-pop/metal trio Ladybaby. We're shooting the breeze backstage as the bearded "five-year-old," who claims he was a professional wrestler before starting the band, wraps his massive arms around Rei's neck like a python, and announces that it's time for a wrestling lesson.
"Right!" shouts the man with a maniacal grin, "so you want to take your arm out here around her arm. The left hand goes on the right bicep, and the right arm goes round the back of her head. That's a sleeper hold! You squeeze here to cut the blood flow to the brain. She'll fall asleep in no time!"
Third bandmate Rie Kaneko waits calmly nearby for her turn. The 17-year-old is repeatedly pinching her eye like a tuna roll as she squeals the word, "Sushi!"
Ladybaby has only been a band since May, when a Japanese impresario decided to combine two teenage J-pop aspirants with the cross-dressing Australian metalhead, who he spotted on the cover of a wrestling magazine. The resulting band combines the dark and furious intensity of screamo metal with the saccharine sweetness of Japan's kawaii culture. It's a merger that has rocketed the band to stardom almost overnight. Their latest single " Nippon Manju" has racked up nearly nine million YouTube views in just three months and the group is about to go on its first world tour. A top comment by one viewer neatly sums up the general reaction to Ladybaby: "At first I was like wtf, but I love the combination <3 I'm addicted."
We're backstage at a venue in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district, where the streets are lined with girls in frilly maid, ninja, and school girl uniforms. The girls stand handing out flyers to the passing otaku, anime and manga-obsessed single males. It's otaku like these who fill the concert hall to capacity tonight for Ladybaby's show. The men, ranging from their teens into middle age, are so fanatical that many of them have memorized the group's intricate choreography for each song in order to mirror it back in perfect synchronicity.
This is the group's last concert in Japan before making their international debut in New York City. There's much talk in the dressing room about world domination and other topics that highlight the seemingly-countless surreal quirks of Ladybaby. I want to know what the people of planet earth can expect from our new pop overlords. Ladybeard acted as translator for his bandmates.
VICE: What does New York need to know to prepare for your arrival?
Ladybeard: There's absolutely nothing it can do to prepare.
If they hide, will they be able to stay out of danger?
It will be inescapable. Do you remember New York in the 30s? King Kong shows up swinging on buildings, chucking women and whatnot. Hard to miss. Same thing. Ladybaby.
Rei has been working on her building climbing, and she has picked out several buildings that she has in mind to scale in New York City. Rei loves crime. She's the bad one. She says she wants to take a selfie with some shady characters in New York—the bad people of New York.
How did you guys come together in the first place?
Obviously siblings. You can see the resemblance. At the time, we all had separate solo careers. I only know the story from my angle. The CEO of Clearstone, the record label and costume company, was getting off a plane and he saw a magazine with me on the cover, and he said, "What the hell is that?" He called me up and said, "I want to work with you." I said OK and he came back later with photos of the girls and told me he was putting me in an idol group.
What did the girls think of you?
Rei says she thought I was a weirdo.
She says, "Even more!"
Well, you have your whole life ahead of you, don't you? What's the long-term plan?
Obviously, world domination, but more specifically we're going on a world tour. This has happened for us much more quickly than it happens for most idol groups. They have to spend 10 years plugging away at it before they even get an opportunity to go to Osaka. We only started this thing in May. So, we're very grateful.
Let's talk about world domination. What is a Ladybaby regime going to be like?Hardcore! It's going to be hardcore, Roc! I'm bringing in beard-care to the group right away.
That's bound to be a highly controversial policy. I mean, you're already getting hate mail, right?
Interestingly, the girls said they received no hate mail whatsoever. Only love mail, which is unavoidable. The only group which consistently hates on me is other metalheads. I get lots of hate mail from them, which I can understand. They're purists.
What's the purpose of your music?
It's spreading a whole lot of happiness all over the place. That's kind of how I feel about it. It makes me feel fantastic! It's a combination of my favorite things. I love the composition of pop music, but I love the execution of metal. I love the power and the sound of metal. So there's two things coming together. Let me ask the girls.
Rei says, "It's very powerful. There's no one else quite like us."
Rie says, "It spreads happiness and joy in abundance."
All right, so you've gotten a lot of attention for cross-dressing. What's your concept of gender?
I've been doing it for such a long time, and it's so subverted now, I don't even think about it anymore. I started doing it when I was younger. There was a lot of more thought going into gender roles back then. A huge part of it was being an outgoing young guy with a big mouth in Australia. When I was a teenager, I'd go to parties and all the jocks would want to fight me. So, I found that cross-dressing was useful in the sense that I could walk into the party in a dress and I would instantly disarm all the jocks within five or ten minutes. Then I could go straight into enjoying the party. What's amazing is I'm a martial artist and when you're wearing a dress and you knock a guy out, that's a lot sweeter than any other situation possible!
It's the dress combined with the beard which really creates an unstoppable tour de force, the nature of which can only truly be understood by the forces at work in the universe in control of everything! Beards and dresses have an unstoppable power which few have realized in the past.
So, why don't the girls have beards?
They've been working on it! I think this is the one area where the girls are not pulling their weight—their beardlessness. We're hoping that by the end of the world tour, both of them will start to sprout some stubble. We're doing all kinds of things to speed that up! We're rubbing McDonald's hamburgers on their faces! They're definitely old enough to have beards. I had a beard when I was 14. I'm only five now though, so figure that one out.
So, I'm curious, what does the transgender community here think of you? Really, if they have a reaction at all, it's that it kind of has nothing to do with them. They think it's cute, and that's as deep as it goes. Me personally, with my solo stuff, I was surprised by how much support I got from them when I came to Japan because I think what I do could easily be misinterpreted by the community as a parody of what they take seriously.
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No. But I was surprised by the amount of support I got from them. That's a great question for Naoko Tachibana. Naoko is Japan's foremost photographer of cross-dressers. That's how we met. Naoko says I don't count as part of the community because I'm a performer. It's not a lifestyle choice. Hence they don't take offense and don't see me in a negative light. I think that would not be the case in Australia. Probably the same in America.
Being an outsider gives you more freedom?
I think if I'd started as an Australian in Australia, I would have met a lot of resistance. But, since I started here, I've been embraced by a lot of people who I don't think would've embraced me any other way.
Can you talk a little bit more about what it's like to go into your persona?
If I don't get myself completely amped and ready to knock a house down and kill everyone I see, then the show is flat. Especially because what I do is still so far out of my comfort zone. You'll notice there's no other Caucasian pro-wrestlers dancing like little Japanese girls. Before the show, I just want to run and find stuff to smash—storm around. I have the girls hit me a bunch of times. Everyone hits me. But I do the same thing before I wrestle.
How is this similar to wrestling?
Interestingly, wrestling is the most emotional thing I've done. You're hitting people and getting hit. That really gets to you emotionally, especially if you're working a long-running storyline like a feud. If I have to cry, wrestling is the easiest time to do it.
How do you bring out your inner five-year-old girl?
It's there all the time.
You've obviously had to overcome many barriers to do what you do. Much of what you represent is transgressive to social norms. How free are you, and what ways are you still repressed?
It's funny, because this whole career of mine has been built around not being good enough for my other careers. I was an actor, and a stuntman, and a voice actor, but I was never good enough to be totally top level. That's probably why I've come to this thing that no one else does. I'm the only one doing this, and I seem to be all right at it. So, in that respect, I was constantly told that I couldn't do everything I tried to do. And hence, doing what I do now really is freedom from all that.
See Ladybaby's website for more information about upcoming tour dates.
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