Interview: Sword Art Online Composer Yuki Kajiura

by Mike Toole,
Yuki Kajiura doesn't need much of an introduction – anyone who's been watching anime over the last 17 years or so is doubtlessly familiar with her instantly-recognizable style. Kajiura first became an international sensation for her work in shows like .hack//SIGN and Noir, blockbuster compositions with incredible melodies that are, in many cases, better remembered than the shows themselves. She hasn't stopped associating herself with success, either – her name is attached to an endless string of megahits, with names like Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero and Sword Art Online filling out her already inimitable discography.

Her most recent work appears in a little film called Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale, which will debut in the US this Spring, but if you have the means, you don't have to wait that long to experience Kajiura's music in a theater. American fans will finally have a chance to see Kajiura perform herself – in person - live this January at the Dolby Theatre (that's where they hold the Oscars!) and lucky for you, tickets are still available, and there's a special concert program and a Sword Art Online pouch included.

In advance of her performance, Anime News Network sent Mike Toole to ask Kajiura about her life, her work, and what inspires her.

What's the first piece of music that you heard growing up that really caught your attention, that you liked a lot?

Yuki Kajiura: I don't recall any specific piece of music, but my father really liked opera and classical music. So ever since I was in elementary school, I was the one who accompanied his singing on the piano. Also, our family would often go and see him perform. I loved the moment when you see the curtain rising in the dark, and all at once the space is overflowing with the sounds and lights. I would feel like I was being transported to a parallel universe. I believe I pursued a career in music because I wanted to recreate that feeling I had when I saw such a moving performance.

You've said that you were part of a chorus in junior high. How important was that experience to your becoming a professional musician?

I always loved to sing, so from preschool to college, I was part of many chorus groups. I was mostly singing the alto parts, so I was able to enjoy how all of our sounds were coming together when we were harmonizing. It was during high school when I first had other people sing a song that I composed for the chorus by myself. It began from realizing how much fun music is and seeing how beautiful it is to harmonize with other people. I believe these were all things I learned from my experiences back then.

Your first anime soundtrack was for Kimagure Orange Road: Summer's Beginning, from 1997. Would you say your sound has changed a lot since then? How about your approach to making music?

I think the biggest difference is in how I utilize the acoustic musical instruments. Since I was in charge of the synthesizer at the time of our band's debut, I was not familiar with playing classical instruments, including string instruments, during the recordings. I was not used to playing as many instruments as I do now. As for my approach back then, I was not used to composing so many songs all at once, and I was just doing my best to create each song one at a time. I believe now that I am used to it, I'm able to look at the general theme of each title and calmly compose each song.

You probably don't remember this, but I interviewed you about 12 years ago for another site! Back then, I asked about your style, and you said that you weren't sure you had a style. Do you still think this is the case - that you don't have a specific style?

I oftentimes hear that my music incorporates a style that it is too easily recognizable. So I know this is going to sound strange coming from me, but I actually make it a habit not to create music that is constrained to exhibiting “my style.” I'm only concerned about creating my best work for every project I am given. That's why I am still unsure as to whether or not this “style” of mine actually exists. The only thing is that I cannot help it when things that I like come out in the songs that I compose. I probably can't create any sounds that I do not like, and maybe to other people that is what they see as a certain style.

Is there another film composer that you really admire? Did you look to other composers when you first started out, or was creating your own sound more important?

I have so many composers that I like, but choosing which of them I admire or aspire to be is very difficult, and I don't think I have anybody like that. As I mentioned in my previous answer, I actually don't emphasize composing music that demonstrates a certain style of mine. Although, in my 20's and 30's, I think I may have been more insistent on showing my “style.” But once I was able to escape from that way of thinking, my work became much more enjoyable.

I tend to associate your music with strings and sweeping choral effects - but the Sword Art Online soundtracks have a real crunch to them, a lot of rock guitar sounds. Was this your idea, or did you work with the animation creative team to develop SAO's sound?

It was my personal choice. Though I do receive a lot of advice from the anime's creative staff about each title's general themes, I rarely receive any specific appointments on the type of instruments I utilize. (For example, in the case of SAO for the Phantom Bullet arc, I was told that the “song that describes the world should include a hint of metal”).

When you began work on the original Sword Art Online soundtrack a few years ago, what was your starting point? Did you begin by looking at the characters and creating motifs for them, or did you search for strong central melodies first?

Since SAO had an original light novel series, it was pretty easy for me to read the novel and grasp the general image of the title. When composing the BGM for titles, I tend to lean toward the overall worldview instead of just the characters. With SAO, I read the novels and the scripts many times and began with building a few song motifs that illustrated the theme of the story. I thought it was important to incorporate a “simplistic” aspect to the music that couples with a title like SAO, which has a diverse set of scenes and worlds. Sadness, happiness, cool, and creepy, I kept in mind that I really wanted to bring out each track's “role” through the sounds.


ERASED: ©2016 Kei Sanbe/KADOKAWA/Bokumachi Animation Committee

You also composed the music for ERASED, which is more rooted in the real world than a lot of your soundtrack work - what was your starting point there? Did you read the manga to prepare for it?

I of course read the original manga of ERASED. I was actually a big fan of the story before I was given this project and was always excited to learn what was going to happen in the next volume. So I was very happy when they asked me if I would be interested in composing the music for the anime series. In this title, the scenes change rapidly like a roller coaster ride, with many monologues making it very loquacious. I tried to keep the BGM subtle so that it did not get in the way of the scenes' movements or the characters' lines, but that doesn't mean that I wanted the music to fall short of describing the emotions or the worldview of the story. So I was especially sensitive to making careful changes with each note. Sometimes I would say the characters' lines out loud while I was playing to check if any of the notes were too loud.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a film's soundtrack?

I think it is important to familiarize myself with the original content or script of the series and come to truly understand the worldview that the title is describing, the overall flow of emotions, the characters' state of mind, and the atmosphere and tone of each scene. In certain ways, I believe that composing the BGM for a title is similar to working on the scenario of that title. It is not possible to compose something satisfactory without having a clear sense of the story and an idea of how I want to describe each scene.

A lot of your work is rooted in BGM, but you're just as famous for creating pop songs. Is there anything fundamentally different between composing for BGM and composing for pop music?

Rather than thinking about it as differences between pop music and BGM, I think there's a difference between composing music for a film and something I compose for myself freely. Lately, I've been composing BGM a lot more but when I do create something freely from scratch, I am able to feel very refreshed, since I get to reconfirm what kinds of sounds I currently like and want to hear.

Do you have set concepts or approaches you use when you start creating a song, or is every job a little different?

I always make it a priority to create music that I myself can feel moved by. There is no way for me to fully comprehend how other people are affected by my music, and of course I don't want to pretend like I do. I also don't wish to compose music under any assumptions or contrived notions of “if I make music like this, it will reach people's hearts.” I believe that if I make music that can speak to my heart, then it must also reach the heart of others. I create my music with that in mind.

How do you go about writing lyrics? Do you consider your own experiences, or just try to create something that's a good match for the media you're working with?

When I am creating the lyrics for a certain title, I do it by constantly thinking about that title be it day or night. I keep in mind the delicate balance between creating lyrics that are unique to that story but not anything too limited so as to not disturb the various images people may have of that story. But I also do realize that even when I am thinking about the story all the time, there is no way to keep my own thoughts or experiences from being displayed. That's because it is extremely difficult to put into words things that I do not believe in.


Madoka Magica: © Magica Quartet/Aniplex, Madoka Partners, MBS

I read a few prior interviews to get ready for this, and was impressed with how much you're able to talk about the stories and characters of stuff like SAO and Madoka Magica. Just how invested in the anime do you get while you're working on it? Would you say you're an anime fan?

To be honest, I don't think I can say that I am an “anime fan.” I haven't watched that much to claim that about myself. Although I have always enjoyed reading books and manga since I was a child, and as I mentioned in a previous question, I tend to familiarize myself with the original work and the script when composing music for a show. Personally, I usually enjoy stories and art that are on paper rather than film, because I can freely hear whatever music I want with books and pictures and enjoy them however I wish.

You've served as composer for multiple installments of both .hack and Sword Art Online, which are both stories about online gaming and social networking. Do you think there's something about your music that speaks to online life?

Hmm…I'm actually not sure about that. I have always enjoyed playing games, so when I am composing the songs, I like to imagine what kind of music I would listen to if I were the player, which is usually very entertaining to do. I just hope that the viewers also feel the same when they are watching the shows.

You've been creating a tremendous amount of music lately. What do you find most enjoyable about it?

In terms of composing the BGM, I am truly happy when I am able to compose a song that matches up perfectly to a scene and facilitates a deeper understanding of that specific part of the story. With purely the music composition side, there are never enough words to describe the joy I feel every time I hear the notes that I have composed taking shape in the studio through the talents of the musicians and vocalists, because until that very moment, the notes on a sheet of music are nothing more than the wild fantasies of the composer.


SAO Movie: ©2016 REKI KAWAHARA/PUBLISHED BY KADOKAWA CORPORATION ASCII MEDIA WORKS/SAO MOVIE Project

Your two solo albums are called Fiction and Fiction II, and you also sometimes lead a collaborative project called Fiction Junction. Why "Fiction?" Is there something about the word or its meaning that's special to you?

This is certainly my own personal definition, but I perceive the word “fiction” to mean “created by a person.” In nature, there are many beautiful sounds such as the sounds of water and birdsongs, but people desired something even more magnificent than that which led them to create “music.” This world is overflowing with amazing music and stories that people have created, but we still feel a need for something new, and I absolutely adore that greediness in people. That is why I love the concept of “fiction,” which is a direct product of people's intentions.

For someone who creates so much music, you've only got a couple of solo albums. Do you think there might be a Fiction III in the future?

There are no plans for it currently, but I definitely would like to work on something someday.

You also work with Kalafina, a group you formed and act as both songwriter and producer for. Is playing the role of producer for this group something new for you, or does it feel natural?

There is no simple answer for that, but it is very important for me to know who will be singing the songs I compose. Depending on the vocalist, that can affect how it reaches people's hearts, and I also keep in mind how compatible their voices are to the music I am composing. Kalafina is a very important group for me, because they are three very distinctly amazing vocalists, and their sounds inspire me very much. I hope the three of them continue to sing together.

You'll be leading an ensemble in Los Angeles pretty soon. You're no stranger to performing - what's that like? Are there challenges in performing that aren't present in the recording studio?

I guess in the recording studio I like to be as accurate as possible, while at live performances I emphasize having fun. I apologize for my answer being a little too broad, but I think it is very important to keep in mind that music delivered on the spot should also be more communicative. I think it's also relevant to remember that a live performance by an artist is visually demonstrated much more easily.

Anything else you'd like to tell us about the concert? Do you like performing for a live audience?

I am more than a little excited to be able to perform the music from SAO, which I put my heart and soul into, at an amazing venue live in front of all the fans. Usually, when I compose any music for a title, it won't reach the audience at least for a few months. But with a live performance, I can experience the sounds immediately with the people who are there. It's a very different feeling than when I am composing the songs, and there is absolutely no comparison to the joy I feel in these moments. And that is why I enjoy live performances so much. I hope everyone will enjoy the concert along with me!


discuss this in the forum (17 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Feature homepage / archives