In June 2023, comedian Tonikaku Yasumura appeared on the British audition show Britain’s Got Talent and became the first Japanese contestant to make it to the finals. Recently, he released “PANTS,” his first-ever digital single, under the name MC TONY.
The track was produced by Double Clapperz, a grime unit made up of producers UKD and Sinta. The song plays on the juxtaposition of its production and its lyrics. The sound features elements of U.K. drill, a dark, menacing genre from South London, iconic for its ski masks and gun sounds. The lyrics, on the other hand, extol being “naked” — unarmed and non-violent.
Billboard Japan talked to Tonikaku about the making of the song and the story of his overseas success.
How have things changed around you since you appeared on Britain’s Got Talent?
I’ve got more international job offers, and recently I’ve been going overseas for work at least once a month. In October I made it through auditions for the French version of Britain’s Got Talent, and I also appeared on audition shows in Italy and Korea. The other day, I also appeared at the OC JAPAN FAIR in Los Angeles.
Have the audience reactions been different in different countries?
I got the biggest reaction in the U.K., but I got a standing ovation in France, too. I performed in French, and it even turned into a call and response (laughs). The reaction has also been good in Italy, Korea and the U.S. So far, every country I go to, I’ve been warmly received.
What led to you appearing on Britain’s Got Talent in the first place?
I wasn’t originally trying to break out overseas, but my talent agency, Yoshimoto Creative Agency, sends out videos of comedians that overseas audiences might enjoy to audition shows around the world. Britain’s Got Talent just happened to like my material. So at first, it felt like going on an overseas vacation. I was like, “I get to go to the U.K.! How lucky!”
But when I actually got there, the schedule was really tight. I arrived in London at around 11:00 at night, and then the next morning we started with rehearsals, filming, interviews, and the like. And then the day after that I flew back to Japan (laughs). It was really a whirlwind trip, and I wasn’t able to do any sightseeing. I took a brief detour to Buckingham Palace and saw a guard riding a horse. And on that little sightseeing detour, I got pickpocketed.
I was obviously a tourist, looking around at this and that, so I guess I made an easy target (laughs). It felt like I’d gone through a rite of initiation.
What was the response like when you performed your material for the first time in the U.K.?
They loved me in the auditions. But I wasn’t so sure, and I didn’t really get my hopes up. We filmed in January and the show was broadcast in April, I think, so there was a pretty big gap. So at the time I simply thought, “Well, that was a good experience,” and I pretty much forgot it. I was really surprised when they told me I passed the auditions.
It seems like you carefully tweaked your strategy for foreign audiences, like making your stage name “Tonikaku.”
To be totally honest, I wasn’t really thinking about hitting it big with overseas audiences, I was just hoping the fact that I went to the U.K. would generate some buzz in Japan. So I didn’t think too deeply about my stage name, “Tonikaku,” I just picked it so that when I appeared on shows in Japan, my co-performers would be like, “What’s up with picking that as your stage name?” Actually, I used to be part of a comedy duo, but we broke up and I started performing on my own. Up on stage I’d tell the audience “My name is long and kind of hard to remember [his Japanese stage name is Tonikaku Akarui Yasumura], so just remember ‘Tonikaku.’” “Or you can call me Tony, if you’d like.” I never dreamed that one day in the future, people overseas would be calling me “Tony!”
It was really striking seeing the call and response that happened with the audience on the U.K. show when you said your iconic line, “Don’t worry, I’m wearing pants.” In Japanese, you don’t need an object after “wearing,” but in English you do, so when you say, “Don’t worry, I’m wearing,” other people have to jump in with “pants.” I feel like that’s another reason for your victory.
Right. In Japanese, you wouldn’t spell it all out, “Don’t worry, I’m wearing ‘pants’.” But I translated it literally into English, which turned into this unexpected call and response. I was surprised, too.
I wanted to keep the act simple, with few lines. I didn’t want to practice there in the U.K. (laughs), so I just kept it stuck to simple, easy to remember phrases, and I think that’s another reason people liked it. In that sense, I struggled with French. I’m less familiar with French than English, and it’s harder to pronounce.
Now, you’ve released a digital single, “PANTS,” as MC TONY.
The genre, U.K. drill, is a popular genre that came from a really dangerous part of the U.K. Everyone dresses all in black, wearing ski masks, but there I am, unarmed, wearing just underpants. I thought that gap was pretty funny. I also tried out various ways of delivering the lyrics. At first, I sang it in a brighter, happier voice, but Mitsunaga, the lyricist, said “It’ll sound cooler if you sing it in a lower voice to match the track.” I took his advice, and now it’s got over two million plays (laughs).
What led you to try your hand at music?
It’s because I met Takaya Mitsunaga [HYTEK Inc.], who handled overall production for the song. Mitsunaga said that the wall separating comedy and music is much lower in the U.K. than in other countries. The other day, I went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe [the world’s largest performing arts festival, spanning three to four weeks each August in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh], and I was surprised to see several performances in which comedians were doing freestyle rap.
There’s never been that much separation between comedy and music in Japan. For example, the comedy duo Downtown collaborated with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. What kind of things would you like to do going forward?
As I mentioned earlier, at this point last year I had no idea how much would change over the course of this year. That’s how it is every year. There are always unexpected turns of events, and those reveal new possibilities. I want to just go with the flow, without thinking too hard about what lies ahead.
You want to play it by ear.
Exactly. That’s what I’ve done so far. If I think of new material for overseas audiences, the next thing I know things could be taking totally new turns, so I want to take on each challenge as the ideas come to me. For example, the Paris Olympics are coming up, so I might do all-nude poses of the different sporting events (laughs). I still haven’t appeared on America’s Got Talent, so I’d like to take on that challenge in the near future, too.
This interview by Takanori Kuroda first appeared on Billboard Japan.
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