In Conversation: Takumi Kawanishi

An intimate chat with the J-Pop icon...

On stage, J-pop star Takumi Kawanishi exudes an electric aura that commands attention, amplifying the force of his group, JO1. His confident gaze is hypnotising, and his dance moves are razor-sharp and effortlessly elegant. However, his persona carries a touch of dichotomy – once the spotlight fades, he reverts to his naturally shy demeanour, which occasionally peeks through during this interview.

How do you balance the contrast?

He lets out a hearty laugh before pausing to choose the right words. “When I perform, I don’t feel like I’m being myself,” Takumi says. “It’s more like an on-stage version of me. But otherwise, I’m someone who wants to make people laugh and see them smile. What I try to do every time [before stepping on stage] is set my emotions or feelings to zero so I can concentrate. I don’t want to bring anything from outside during JO1’s live performances.” 

It’s a personal realm he has been crafting little by little, driven by a cherished dream. Hailing from Hyogo Prefecture, located in the Kansai region of Japan, Takumi grew up enamoured by baseball, diligently dedicating himself to the sport from elementary school until early adulthood – rising to become his team’s captain. Simultaneously, he also felt drawn to the world of singing and dancing, practising on his own every so often.

“[When I was around 11 years old], I remember watching TV and seeing a live performance by an artist, but I can’t remember who it was,” he recalls with a smile. “The video inspired me to [aim] for something similar to that performance.”

Takumi once mentioned that he attended an audition to pursue a career as an entertainer, but due to life circumstances, he cancelled the trip to Tokyo that would have completed the process. Despite this, his aspiration never waned, and fate eventually provided another opening. After graduating from high school, he settled into a regular company and worked as a buggy engineer before deciding to join Produce 101 Japan in 2019. 

A leap of faith, some might say. The televised competition gathered 101 idol candidates from across the country, all vying for the chance to debut in a boy group and perform on the global stage. It posed a promising challenge, but it left Takumi at a crossroads because quitting his job meant risking everything, yet he couldn’t ignore that it could be life-changing.

“I was aware that [Produce 101 Japan] was the last chance if we consider my age,” he observes, explaining that he continued reconsidering his path even while immersed in his daily routine. “I kept thinking I wanted to be on stage. At some point, I seriously thought I wanted to turn my childhood dream [into a reality], so this survival show became my last opportunity to achieve it.”

“I told my family that if I didn’t do it, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” he adds. “That’s how I convinced them it was the correct move for me.”

When Takumi was introduced in the first episode of Produce 101 Japan, he was briefly seen touching the first-place chair, symbolising a commitment to progress – for himself and the audience. Throughout his endeavour, his hard work and charisma, along with his now-iconic pink hair, captivated his fellow contestants and piqued the viewers’ interest. He was described as a “sponge” for his ability to quickly absorb any choreography, even without prior dance experience, and his potential increased with each successive round. Still, that’s not to say the road was without bumps.

Survival shows are a trial by fire, with trainees careening through high-pressure weeks – always at risk of being eliminated – to prove their worth. A single mistake could sink all progress, so staying focused amidst the turbulence was crucial. “I never thought about giving up, but there were a few instances when I almost [reached that point],” Takumi admits candidly. “But, every time I remembered my childhood dream and how passionate I was about it, it prevented me from giving up completely. I received so much help from other trainees who were also [striving] towards the same goal as me.”

Takumi’s perseverance endured, and he was selected as a member of JO1 on the final night of the show. It was a triumph his mind couldn’t fully grasp at first, and he concedes it took him “a couple of weeks” to embrace his new reality, with the awareness later arriving when he was recording a TV show. He looks back on it now with greater clarity and pensive calm: “That’s when I could finally acknowledge myself as an artist.”

JO1 have been steadily gaining ground in the ever-busy J-pop dominion, particularly during an era when multiple boy groups are standing out. Although their debut coincided with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, they turned adversity into possibilities – refining their artistry to be characterised by seamless harmony on stage. And they press on in advancing together. “We have a very close relationship,” Takumi says of the group’s connection, one that has gotten stronger over the years. “We respect each other, but most importantly, we really trust each other.”

With the group’s recognition, individual ventures also began to flourish. Takumi seized the chance to dabble in acting, initially taking part in JO1’s own drama called Short Program. But his pivotal moment came when he landed a leading role in the live adaptation of the well-known web manga series Cool Doji Danshi (or Play It Cool, Guys in English), alongside Yuta Nakamoto (NCT 127), Dori Sakurada, and Maito Fujioka. His character? The sweet, red-haired Souma Shiki, a design student who appears somewhat careless but with a heart of gold, always ready with a bright smile even in difficult times.

While filming, Takumi says he had to recalibrate his habits to mould a new routine and achieve professional balance. But what’s life if not a sea of challenges? He navigates them head-on, pushing beyond mere contentment. “The hardest thing was to [maintain] my physical condition,” he muses. “I had to wake up early in the morning to do my activities with JO1, and after that, I had to go to the shooting locations [of Cool Doji Danshi] and get into character, which I usually don’t do. I had to catch up with my sleeping schedule as well.”

How did you take care of yourself?

“Taking showers and getting into the bathtub is important!” He bursts out laughing. “Even though I was busy, I always tried not to skip that.”

Here, Takumi also reminisces about another small ‘difficulty’ he had to deal with everyday. “Souma had a lot of smiling scenes, and eventually, my cheeks would get hard,” he shares while stretching his face into an exaggerated grin — even prompting amusement from the translator. “It became ‘too much’ to give a smile at some point.”

Though Takumi is a newcomer to acting, he has already shown himself to be a versatile performer, infusing authenticity into every role he portrays. This growth has helped him explore new perspectives and bring diverse stories to life. “I really treasure the process in which I’m able to challenge myself and see how I can embody my character[s] and how much I can understand their feelings,” he says. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before his next project was announced: a significant step onto the big screen with Buzzy Noise, a film produced by GAGA Corporation and directed by the acclaimed Hiroki Kazama. Music lies at the centre of the plot, catalysing reflections about finding one’s purpose and achieving fulfilment. The protagonist, a young man named Kiyosumi, lives in monotony, with his sole source of happiness being the compositions he creates within the comfort of his apartment, which only he listens to.

Getting into the skin of a person like Kiyosumi required introspection to channel different levels of vulnerability. “When I filmed ‘Buzzy Noise’, I became quieter because of [Kiyosumi’s personality] and there were times when things felt negative in my everyday life,” Takumi says. “However, I don’t usually distance myself and I only tend to have the character inside me during the filming period. I do the switch and get into the role usually when I’m in the car going to the location.”

The change is poignant, increasingly evident in the emotional depth of his eyes. Yet, melancholy isn’t the only emotion present; as the story unfolds, sentiments of hope and self-discovery emerge. Kiyosumi’s routine changes abruptly when he meets Ushio, a spirited girl played by actress Hiyori Sakurada, who motivates him to break out of his shell and share his music with the world, believing it’s too good to remain as a hidden treasure. From that moment onward, he matures significantly, transitioning from someone whose decisions were dictated by others to the owner of his own narrative.

Most prominently, Kiyosumi also discovers what it means for him that others can listen to his creations, and that realisation resonated deeply with Takumi. It left a lingering impact. “Kiyosumi is someone who is choosing to do something he wants for himself, so I started to think that, as an artist, I want to continue making music that speaks to my heart. That’s the biggest lesson I got from Kiyosumi – that I can be whatever I want.”

At the climax of the movie, Kiyosumi and his newly-formed band, Azur, perform ‘surge’, a healing track that captures the vignettes of his journey. “[‘surge’] is six minutes long, and I had to think about how I could record [that much] by myself,” Takumi says, noting he spent approximately 10 hours inside the studio. “When I listened to it, I felt [this song] would give us a bright future, and the lyrics and the melody convey a lot of hope. It is composed by Kiyosumi, so in terms of my acting and singing, I had to understand it in-depth like him, so I did a lot of practice on the piano and read the lyrics so I could [dive] more into its meaning. That’s the thing I spent a lot of time doing as Takumi Kawanishi.”

In this sense, ‘surge’ represents a convergence of Kiyosumi’s essence and Takumi’s artistry, making the latter’s love for music more tangible. Furthermore, it holds broader importance as the first official solo release by a JO1 member. “I’m so happy and I was very honoured,” he says. “But… I was a little unsure if I should be the one taking this position.” 

The insight Takumi acquired from Buzzy Noise is almost certain to leave fingerprints on his aural storytelling in the future. Long before he entered the limelight, he had been drafting lyrics and melodies with a nascent enthusiasm, but now, with this newfound outlook, he’s ready to spark and enrich his body of work. Take another first: His debut self-produced track, ‘Happy Unbirthday’, released as a JO1 single that embodies a long-held aspiration to create music for his group.

And you can tell. Ask him about his first thoughts on listening to the finalised version of the song with the voices of his members’ in it, and he can’t contain his thrill. “Wow! Fantastic!” Takumi exclaims in English as dissolves into another fit of laughter.

“It has been in the making for two years,” he continues, placing his left hand under his chin and raising an eyebrow. “I was actually on stage when I got the inspiration for ‘Happy Unbirthday,’ and [my main thought] was to create a song that could [transmit] happiness to people – especially during a live performance.”

There are still dreams for Takumi to decipher and untold stories to shape, but these will come to fruition over time because everything has its own pace. What’s in the current phase is wrapping up the promotional cycle of JO1’s eighth single, ‘Hitchhiker’, which sold more than 500,000 copies in its first week of release. Additionally, he will soon premiere his next filming project, Run for Money The Movie: Tokyo Mission, where he co-stars with his groupmates Sukai Kinjo and Syoya Kimata, alongside Sota Nakajima, Taiki Sato, and Leiya Seguchi from the J-pop group FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE.

As for being in the right place at the right time? He says he experienced it at JO1’s concerts last November at the Kyocera Dome. “I started to recall my past – how I walked into the venue [for the first time] as part of the audience,” Takumi reveals. “However, at the same time, it also dawned on me that I was going to be the one performing [on stage]. That was when I realised I had made my dream come true.” 

And what do you think about expanding that dream – by having a concert at the Tokyo Dome?

“I know how big the dome is, and I really hope we can have a concert over there,” he answers. “And I wish to drive a buggy when that happens.” 

Words: Ivana E. Morales
Photo credit: LAPONE ENTERTAINMENT

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