In the concert touring world, you can often count on the usual suspects to bring their production A-game when they hit the road: U2, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Jay-Z, to name a few.
But the world is a big place, and there are pockets where performers reach a size and a scope in their native countries that dwarf even the biggest international competition. While relatively unknown outside their native lands, their local popularity sometimes grows to such a level that the subsequent tours take on their own staggering dimensions.
Case in point: Exile, a 14-member Japanese all-male pop dance band. Let me guess: they’re not on your iPod. No surprise there, as they’re virtually unknown outside their own country, and okay, maybe most of you would be on the higher end of the band’s demographic. Still, consider this: more than 20 million records sold since 2001; their own weekly television show; a stable of other artists including a girl group, a DJ, and a dance troupe (all of which may explain why they are most often referred to as Exile Tribe); and stage shows that sell out in minutes and clock in at nearly four hours. Yes, Exile is big in Japan, and you can thank me for waiting two whole paragraphs to say that.
Of course, when you’re that big, you need a concert of equal proportions. The group’s most recent tour, Tower of Wish, hit all the big indoor stadiums for multiple gigs around Japan this year, bringing with it 300 performers, a production design with hints of traditional Japanese culture, Cirque du Soleil-inspired side shows (BMX bikes, anyone?), classic rock concert excess, and, for good measure, a mammoth inflatable dragon, all traveling in 120 trucks.
Combining all of these elements was both the vision and the task of Kuniyoshi Ichikawa, show director/designer of the tour and the president of Next One Create. Ichikawa has worked with Exile since 2007, and they have developed something of a process for each tour. “I generally get some keywords and images to use as inspiration from the tour producer,” he explains. “But since I’m the director as well as the set designer, I work on directing both the show and the video at the same time. Once I’ve collected all the necessary materials, I make a presentation to Exile with CGI and storyboards.”
For this tour, one of the bits of feedback Ichikawa got from the Exile team was the word “Wish.” From that, he began sketching ideas for a tower, made up of four legs that merged at the top and then expanded again slightly to hold a large globe, rising up to 45m tall, or 148'. Two LED screens encircled the tower at the halfway point and again about 2/3 of the way up; the smaller screen was 35' in diameter with a height of 15.7', while the larger one was 48'x21'. In addition, all four legs of the tower were covered with LEDs on three sides, as was the globe. All of the LED screens were custom made by Komaden.
Ichikawa says he clad the entire tower in LED screens so that the concept of “Wish”—for the audience and the performers—could be expressed via the video content. “The wishes of the audience became the monument as the tower delivered a variety of expressions and messages with each song,” he says. “Sometimes it showed something cool, sometimes it was comical, and sometimes it was touching.”
Underneath the tower was a mainstage approximately 69' wide with four separate moveable components; three of the pieces moved horizontally while the outer piece spun. (Exile is composed only of singers and dancers, and the band plays in the pit, so the main stage was not hindered by musical equipment.) An outer ring encircled the main stage approximately 125' out and was connected via four bridges that were moved manually by the crew. Lining the outer stage was a series of eight smaller towers containing speaker arrays, followspots, moving lights, and even a large contingent of PARs, all topped with fabricated suns that were lit with LED fixtures.
Initially, Ichikawa envisioned a more complex outer ring. “I like a stage that surprises the audience by moving something that’s not supposed to, so they don’t get bored during three-hour concerts,” he explains. “I was thinking that the outer stages and bridges would rotate together but also change speeds depending on the performance, but eventually, we decided it was more practical to move just the bridges manually.”
One of the highlights of the show was a giant inflatable dragon that wrapped itself around the tower and popped its head around the top. “I was thinking that we needed something on the top of the tower, something similar to King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building,” Ichikawa explains. “I settled on a dragon, which is considered a god in Japanese culture as it signifies, among other things, rain for the fields at harvest time. So we chose that for good fortune on this tour.”
For lighting designer (and avid fisherman) Koji Sasaki, all of that real estate, coupled with the ever-increasing number of performers, provided its own sets of challenges. “The number of performers increased without notice almost every day,” he explains. “So I needed to make sure all the performers were visible from the audience when they needed to be, but also relatively invisible when they didn’t. It sounds simple, but it can actually be difficult in such a large space.”
Helping to alleviate that challenge was a series of 24 Strong Xenon followspots located throughout the space; eight 2kW units were housed in each of the eight towers, while 16 3kW units were paired in eight locations between each of the towers. Automated fixtures were a mix of Philips Vari-Lite and Martin Professional units. Sasaki opted for a large contingent of VL3000 Spots—118 to be exact—because it “has high light intensity and hard edging so it can get the most of gobos,” he says. An additional 48 VL3500 Wash units were needed to add light from the outer ring and other accents. Martin MAC IIIs were chosen for the side of the main stage for their animated gobos, while 76 MAC 301 Wash units were added for their zooming ability.
Among all of Sasaki’s fixture choices, perhaps the most intriguing was his use of an oldie but a goodie: nearly 600 PAR64 units, housed on the eight surrounding towers as well as on the outside of the main tower, all used to light the audience around the stage. “We could, of course, have used LED spots to light the audience, but if you dim them to less than 50%, I feel like they lose their beauty,” he explains. “I also have to mention that I prefer using a filament light source and don’t actually like LEDs, even though I used some on this tour for the upper towers. It’s kind of like fly fishing; I just prefer a bamboo rod over a carbon graphite rod.”
Despite the plethora of costume changes and the abundance of video screens (not to mention that inflatable dragon), Sasaki wanted to fill the remaining spaces with as much additional color as possible. He mostly succeeded, though he had some challenges with a couple of colors. “I like bright color, and I like making contrast using color,” he explains. “But I don’t use CMY to mix to green because it’s too dark; I used the color wheel to get the green I wanted. I also wasn’t really satisfied with CMY’s light pink. I plan to use a color wheel for the light pink for the next show as well. I want the manufacturers to make a fixture that can give me a bright and beautiful green and pink.”
The latest incarnation of this Exile outing ended in July after a tour around Japan that averaged two and a half days for load-in and 12 hours for load-out. Through it all, Ichikawa’s set received quite a lot of attention all over the country for its size and scope; he notes that people are already asking him what the next set will look like. “But you know who is really wondering what’s going to happen next?” he asks. “The crew—they always get scared every time I come up with a new idea for these shows because of all the hard work I make them do.”
It sounds like Sasaki agrees with that. “There were two challenges for me on this tour: one, fill all of the areas of the venues, including the roof, with lighting, and two, go fishing as soon as possible after surviving the hardest working conditions. I would say two was the most important.”