INTO1 RIKIMARU on How ‘UP and DOWN’ Expresses His ‘Limitless Potential’ as a Choreographer & Performer

INTO1 RIKIMARU stepped into the global spotlight as a member of the boy band INTO1, which was formed through the Chinese TV show, CHUANG 2021. He’s generating buzz not only for his superb performing abilities, but also his personality and vibe. INTO1 RIKIMARU recently released a new single, “UP and DOWN.” In this dance tune, he expresses his own philosophy regarding the ups and downs we experience in our lives. He created the choreography for the song and took part in writing the lyrics and music, as well, once again demonstrating his self-production capabilities.

Billboard Japan spoke with INTO1 RIKIMARU about the meaning and message behind the new song.

What led you to write “UP and DOWN”?

I’m not a great speaker, and I’ve had a lot of trouble communicating what I want to convey. I’ve used dance to relieve stress, but I’ve started to feel like I want to talk to more people about my own life. I also sing now, so I thought that I could express what I wanted to say through my lyrics.

So when you were writing the lyrics, the first thing you did was decide what you wanted to sing about?

That’s right. I wrote it all out, in detail. Then I picked out the parts that were particularly important to convey and built up on them. For example, the bridge starts with “hēiàn duózǒu guāngmáng” (“the darkness steals the light”). I used the word “darkness,” but everyone has times when they’re stressed or full of negativity. I want people to keep fighting and break through that shell of darkness.

The lyrics of “UP and DOWN” hint at unlimited potential, with a message that “Life doesn’t always go smoothly. There are times when it’s smooth sailing but also times where everything comes crashing down. However, all of these experiences, good and bad, are part of our lives, and by experiencing them we grow as people.” Was there something specific that led you to want to write about that?

Yes, there was. When I first started as a choreographer, everything was going well, but then at one point I found myself simply unable to come up with anything. At the time, I had to come up with choreography for 13 songs to be performed in a concert, and I only had one week. There was this dance break, about 20 seconds long, and I just couldn’t come up with anything good. I redid that section 47 times over the course of a week. That, combined with a few other things, left me feeling really down, thinking that I could no longer do anything. I wanted to throw my hands up in the air, but I decided to just choreograph the section one more time, and it turned out surprisingly well. I realized that I could have given up, but that simply taking a break and trying again can really raise your spirits.

Even someone at your level has times when they can’t come up with new choreography?

I don’t know what you mean by “my level” (laughs), but, yes, it definitely happens. I used to believe I could do everything, but now I’ve realized that when I hit a roadblock I just can’t make any progress. Maybe that’s just the way I’m built.

Did you encounter any difficulties when writing the lyrics?

Phrasing and length were difficult. I had to share my ideas within the boundaries set by the rhythm and melody. First, I just wrote out everything I was thinking, and then I thought about how to shorten it. And, what’s more, this time I wrote the song in Chinese, and I still don’t know what kinds of turns of phrase are cool. So I wrote the lyrics in Chinese, matching the melody, and sang through it. Then I changed any parts that didn’t sound good. I also asked my Chinese friends if certain words or phrases sounded cool or if they meant what I thought they meant.

Japanese and Chinese pronunciation are totally different, too, right?

Right. I’ve spoken Japanese all my life, so I could instantly come up with different ways of saying things, but with Chinese there were words I didn’t know, or times when I couldn’t think of other ways to phrase things. It was hard, but it was also fun taking on a new challenge.

You also helped write the music.

The music was mainly written by music producers Koshin and NONE, but I also worked on it by pointing out things like “I want to use these kinds of dance moves, so could you put in some sounds like this?” I’m still a beginner when it comes to songwriting, so I don’t know what would sound good. So when I made suggestions, I’d phrase it like, “What would it sound like if we did something like this?”

So during the songwriting stage, you were already thinking about the choreography?

I tried creating choreography for the melody written by Koshin and NONE, but it didn’t quite click. So then I just let myself create the choreography freely, and I came up with ideas about how to make the choreography work well with the melody by adding certain sounds. I then suggested these changes to Koshin and NONE. For example, in the rap section of the second chorus, at first the beat was the same. But if the beat were the same, then the dance would be too energetic, and it would feel like I was going overboard, so we dropped the beat. I think that really changed the feel of the song.

So you tried to include some changes of pace.

I’m a little fickle, so when I’d think, “I’d get bored around this part of the song,” I’d change things up (laughs). I also tried to match the languages. My Chinese lyrics didn’t match the initial melody very well, so we changed the melody a little, and we changed the beat a little…and in the process we ended up really refining the song.

What were the key points when it came to the choreography?

I always want the lyrics, melody, and movements to match. This time, the lyrics were in Chinese, and the melody also felt Chinese, so I used dragon-like hand movements. I love dragons — my dog’s name is even “Lóng” (Chinese for “dragon”). I also love the Great Wall of China, because it looks like a dragon. The way the Great Wall climbs up and down mountains also shares something in common with the “UP and DOWN” concept. And it just keeps going on and on, you know? The lyrics include the phrase “wúxiàn xiǎngxiàng” (“limitless imagination”). So, in that sense as well, the dragon was a key point of the choreography.

You not only choreograph your own songs, like “UP and DOWN,” but you also provide choreography for other artists. How does it differ when you’re creating choreography for others and when you’re creating it for yourself?

To be honest, creating choreography for other artists isn’t that hard. That’s because they already have an image. I know the style and feel of the artist, so I just have to mix my own style with the requests of the artist. When it comes to my own music, though, I don’t really have a clear image of what would fit best. Also, because I’m doing the choreography myself, there are no constraints, so it can get messy, with too much in the mix. I’ll look at the choreography and think, “that’s a little extra,” so I’ll take things out, but then when I do that, I look at the results and think, “now it feels threadbare.” Getting that balance is hard.

People often understand others more than they understand themselves.

Right. When I write choreography for myself, I hire dancers. If I’m dancing while choreographing, I lose sight of things, so I find someone who can dance my part, and I get an overall view so I can decide on what works and what doesn’t.

I see.

It must have been hard for the dancers in the music video for “UP and DOWN,” because I’m the type of person who’s always suddenly saying “I want to do this” or “I want to try that.” I didn’t meet the dancers until the day before filming. My sister made a video for the dancers that explained the choreography, so the plan was for them to watch that, learn the choreography, and then perform it on filming day. But the day before filming, I suddenly decided I wasn’t happy with the choreography (laughs). I changed like 70% of it all of a sudden. We didn’t have much time, so I mentally pictured the choreography and thought about its structure, and then we tried it out on the day of filming. So the dancers learned the whole thing in about seven hours.

70%?!  INTO1 RIKIMARU, with that approach we’re talking about the work of a genius. The dancers who were able to relearn all of the moves that fast were also impressive.

The dancers were really flustered. I feel terrible about it (laughs). The music video is going to be released soon, too, so don’t miss it. I wore three different outfits in the video, and the dance that went with each one was different. In the parts where I’m playing a twisted character, the dance moves are weaker. When I’m representing peoples’ dark sides, the dancing is more powerful. In the confident parts, the moves are brasher and more aggressive. I hope these differences come across to the viewer.

Now, I’d like to ask you a little bit about yourself. Your first overseas work in the dance field was in America. What led you to switch your base of operations to Asia?

When I started learning to dance, with a teacher in Japan, it didn’t resonate with me. Then I started watching American dance videos on YouTube, and I went to the U.S., and I was blown away.  Everybody had completely dedicated their lives to dance. They were more interested in dance than fashion. They were more interested in dance than eating. The dancers I was surrounded by, who really worked hard, are now achieving success around the world. I wanted to do the same, but since I’m Asian, I thought it would be better to pursue the Asian dream than the American dream, so I chose Asia. I’d also always dreamed of dancing to music that I wrote, singing songs I wrote, so I practiced my singing, too. I’d go to karaoke, turn off all the microphone reverb, and practice singing, recording myself at the same time. I went to voice training. And that wasn’t enough, so I practiced at home, too. Eventually, I got decent at singing, and that’s where I am today.

So behind your great performances, you’ve poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into your craft.

I don’t really feel like I’ve worked that hard, though. I do what I do because I enjoy it. It’s like an extension of what I do for fun.

You’re an artist now, and until now you’ve been a choreographer. What have you placed importance on in each of these activities?

As a choreographer, what’s important is having new ideas and surprising viewers. I think that a choreographer’s job is to create routines that visually surprise the audience. However, as a performer, what’s important isn’t just having surprising choreography, but also how you present that choreography. If you present it wrong, you could spoil the surprise. When I was a choreographer, I’d tell Korean artists, “please do it more like this.” Now that I’m doing the dancing myself, I can’t do that anymore (laugh). I don’t like dancing that’s just cool. I want it to be more like the music is flowing out from my dance. As an artist, it’s important to express that. I think that’s the hardest part. I learned about that from Michael Jackson. Unlike nowadays, Michael hit those notes exactly, without autotuning, and his voice had so much emotion. He’d make people faint just by standing there and pointing. Seeing him simply singing is such a moving experience.

So many artists say they were inspired by Michael Jackson.

Sure. Just think about his clothes: a tank top, high-water black pants, a button-up shirt — none of it’s all that cool looking. But when Michael wore them, he looked so cool. He wasn’t influenced by others; he had his own style.

What do you do to make it like the music is coming from your dancing, like you mentioned earlier?

When I practice, I always think about about how well my dancing is matched up to the music. But it’s not just about matching the music…It’s hard to put in words. Like, right now, I’m hungry, so it would be like putting that feeling of hunger into my moves. But when I record it and then watch the video later, most of the time I’m overdoing it. So I try to keep it a bit more subtle, making little adjustments.

You look at yourself objectively.

I think about the filming of the music video when I’m creating the choreography, so I think things like “right now, the camera’s pointing at me from over there.” That changes things. Lately, all of the successful dancers around the world are all about equally skilled. Going beyond that requires expressiveness. I’m sure you’ve experienced this from time to time — a dancer whose dancing isn’t all that good, but who catches your eye more than a better dancer. If you talk with someone like that, they’ll tell you how when they practice, they go into their own world. I think that people who have that kind of expressive ability and who can use it in front of others make great performers.

I see. You’ve been active in a lot of parts of the music scene. What kind of relationship do you want to have with the scene going forward?

I’m the kind of person who wants to take on a lot of different genres. I’m still in a state of flux. So first, I want to discover my own style. You know how you can be like “BLACKPINK is like this. Billie Eilish is like this. Beyoncé is like this,” that kind of thing? I want to create my own style and have it recognized by people around the world.

I look forward to seeing what that style ends up being. Do you have any closing message for your fans?

My new song, “UP and DOWN,” is only part of my story, but please give it a listen. If you’re struggling with anything in your own life, I hope that listening to it and to the meaning behind the lyrics will raise your spirits. I already uploaded a video for the song to YouTube in 2022, but with the new video I’ve made some changes and put in some surprises, so I think it’ll still feel fresh and interesting. This song is just Episode 1, so you won’t want to miss what comes next.

This interview by Azusa Takahashi first appeared on Billboard Japan

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