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“No way, you know Cutie Honey?” Kiki Hitomi exclaims, as we’re huddled around a small table in the kitchen of a Berlin apartment, makeup artists and stylists scurrying about, putting together looks for today’s shoot. “Have you heard of Dororo Enma Kun? It’s about this boy who was the son of Satan, I don’t think it was ever exported…” Within seconds of meeting each other, Kiki and I have discovered a mutual adoration of Japanese animated television series from the 70s and 80s, which of course, being born in Minoh (a suburb of Osaka), she experienced in real time.

It makes perfect sense, and not only because Hitomi, 46, grew up in one of the golden eras of Japanese TV. Her music, which brashly mixes everything from reggae to bashment, 8-bit, J-pop and trip-hop, pulls from a deep well of the kind of dramatic melancholy that is personified in classic anime. “In the late 70s and early 80s, a lot of anime had that anti-hero vibe,” she continues, explaining the link between her childhood television consumption and her current affinity for moody, heartfelt music. “I love the old Devilman series. The theme songs were always in a minor chord. I got really into minor chords and sad, passionate ballads. Drama.”

© Yannick Schuette
Coat: Lala Berlin
Shirt and trousers: Ganni
Shoes: Axel Arigato

While the through line from watching anime in her living room as a kid to her first solo album, 2013’s blanket-of-bass Karma No Kusari, is clear, it took Hitomi a long time to establish herself as a singer. Making her mark as a graphic designer with a degree from London’s Goldsmiths University, she spent her 20s creating psyched-out, iconographic designs and logos for legendary skate companies like Etnies. She had been considering pursuing music for a while, and the penny dropped when she first heard Damian Marley’s 2005 song There for You, which married reggae and enka, a type of Japanese folk music popular in the 1950s. While still in London, she swiftly founded experimental dubstep duo Dokkebi Q with producer Goh “Gorgonn” Nakada, and was recruited into King Midas Sound, a dark trip-hop trio founded by ultra-prolific producer Kevin “The Bug” Martin and featuring poet and performer Roger Robinson. By the time she was ready to write and record Karma, she felt the urge to focus on a project that would be entirely hers.

“The theme of King Midas Sound was heartbreak,” Hitomi says, talking about her decision to quit King Midas Sound. “The particular type of singing that Kevin likes was very fragile. When I would go for more punky stuff he’d be like ‘no!’,” she says, laughing. So she called on her heritage of dramatic balladry to record something unique: a mix of island music, enka, experimental dub and pop. “You know, like Ghostface Killah samples all those tracks from old Japanese samurai shows like Shogun, and those theme songs were also a barrage of enka,” she says. “I featured a lot of enka on my debut album. I just wanted to express myself, purely free.”

© Yannick Schuette
Dress: Wendy Jim (archive)

“I featured a lot of Japanese enka on my debut album. I just wanted to express myself, purely free”

© Yannick Schuette
Dress: Wendy Jim (archive)

Yellow Story, a standout track from Karma, tells the story of Hitomi’s experiences as an East Asian immigrant in London through dark and twisted reggae, like a cloud of static obscuring tropical sunshine. “The city was getting so gentrified, and everyday life was a hustle for me,” she states. Hitomi has since relocated to the German city of Leipzig (via a stint in Berlin), where she lives with her partner, Jan Gleichmar, who runs her current label, Jahtari, and their daughter. “The lyrics and the themes of that album just became about me stressing in London, experiencing racism. I would pop out of the house for five minutes and hear ‘Hey, Ms Chin!’ and stuff like that. Now I live in Leipzig, it’s so amazing. I have a nice flat, I can make music, I’ve got my daughter and I’ve got nothing to complain about.”

But with her newfound happiness came an unanticipated set-back: a mean case of writer’s block. “All of my emotions normally fit into my lyrics. So now I have been in the position where I can think about other people, finally! I started writing about politics, but in a soft and abstract way.” A brand new project, a duo with Japan-via-Berlin producer DJ Scotch Egg called WaqWaq Kingdom, was born from this frustration. “I started writing about environmental issues as well. I have a daughter now and I’m terrified. Why can’t humans and nature coexist? I don’t want to preach, but I want to encourage people to change, through the music.”

© Yannick Schuette
Left
Shirt: Elliss (archive)
Kimono: Kiki's own
Earrings: Nadine Now
Right
Transparent coat: Ganni
Shirt: Axel Arigato
Sunglasses: Stylist's own

At a recent show in Leipzig, WaqWaq Kingdom performed in giant, flowing neon robes while images of traditional Japanese dance was projected behind them. Their music, which is heavily influenced by a genre of folk called minyo, uses almost tribal percussion to create a trance-like aura. This cultural exchange makes Hitomi a natural fit for Unfold, a series of parties curated by Asahi Super Dry and Crack Magazine celebrating innovative strands in underground Japanese electronics. “I heard a Japanese DJ mix minyo and bashment together, and it was so amazing. DJ Scotch Egg is really into African music as well, and WaqWaq Kingdom became a melting pot of Afrobeat, UK bass and Japanese minyo. And I sing a lot in Japanese this time.”

While we’re talking, Hitomi shows me the brand new WaqWaq cassette, adorned with tiny monsters she created and designed herself, not unlike the heroes of her childhood animes. But even now, on the eve of a new release, she’s nowhere close to taking a break. “Normally I always had a collaborator, or a producer I work with, but I’ve just started making music from scratch, so I’m struggling,” she says, laughing. “But I’ve got another what, 40 years, still! I don’t want to get bored! If I can make music, and I can sing, I won’t get bored until I die.”

© Yannick Schuette
Dress: Lee Mathews at matchesfashion.com
Earrings: Julia Seemann

Photography: Yannick Schuette
Styling: Simon Winkelmueller
Styling Assistant: Carmen Wolfschluckner
Hair and Makeup: Eva Dieckhoff
Photographer’s Assistant: Dean Cocozza

Kiki Hitomi performs as part of Crack Magazine and Asahi Super Dry’s Unfold series, along with Kahn & Neek and L U C Y, at Arnolfini Bristol, 11 May