Sound Decision
Kenji Kawai

by Jonathan Mays, Apr 26th 2006
Without Kenji Kawai, there probably would not be an anime music market today. Kawai caught the world's ears when he wrote the score for Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell in 1995. Since then, he has worked on such anime as Patlabor WXIII and Avalon, and major live-action Japanese movies like Ring and Dark Water. Now, one of anime's most celebrated composers is here to share some of his best stories and secrets.

I know we're reaching back here, but I was wondering if you could talk about your time at Shobi Music Academy.
After I decided I couldn't continue studying nuclear power at a university, my parents were worried about me, so I went to the Shobi Conservatorium of Music. I enjoyed the female friends. In the end, I stopped studying at the school after about half a year.

Is that when you joined the Muse band?
Yes, when I was part of the backing band for one of my friends, I saw an advertisement for a contest. We quickly pulled together a few people and made a band called Muse, and we ended up winning the contest. But we disbanded after writing about 20 songs.

I heard Naoko Asari was the person who pushed you to try writing anime music.
She worked with Shigeharu Shiba, who was the sound director of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. She introduced me to Mr. Shiba, and that's when I started to work with animation music. Basically, I didn't get a lot of influence from her at first. However, she has given me a lot of musical advice since, and it has come to have a big influence on my work.

What kind of direction does someone like Mamoru Oshii give?
He gives me his images and very precise instructions for composing with different instruments. Moreover, I always attend by Mr. Oshii when recording and check the fine nuances. However, my music character is esteemed to the last. The environment of working with Mr. Oshii is very comfortable for me.

Do you have any good stories of working with Oshii?
Once when we were recording with Mr. Oshii at a studio about 70 kilometers from Tokyo, we were discussing how to get home after the midnight session. The recording engineer and I were fine since we drove cars from our homes. Mr. Oshii didn't have transportation because he had come to the studio by a producer's car. I might have been able to take him home, but we lived in different directions, and, to tell the truth, it was troublesome for me.

When I told Mr. Oshii my decision, he called Kazuhiro Wakabayashi. Mr. Wakabayashi is a sound director who works with Mr. Oshii frequently. He also works on a lot of Hayao Miyazaki's films, so he was quite busy. Mr. Oshii told him, “We are having an urgent meeting. Please come here soon!”

Mr. Wakabayashi put down his work and got to the studio an hour and a half later. As soon as he got there, Mr.Oshii told him, “Let's go home!”

That's great. How about anyone else?
I have many stories about Mr. Nakata, but I'll save them for next time because they will be long!

Regarding Ghost in the Shell's "Follow Me," are you a fan of Joaquin Rodrigo's work?
Yes, I like Joaquin Rodrigo. But it was the producer's idea to put Follow Me in the film.

Is that what happened with Beethoven's Pathetique in Patlabor, too?
Yes, it was the director's request.

Who are your favorite classical composers?
I like Edward Elger and Aleksandr Borodin. I have other favorite composers, but I have never incorporated their elements intentionally. My favorite composer is Burt Bacharach. He is not a classical composer, but I am greatly influenced by him. He is the composer whom I respect most.

Let's talk about some of your distinctive styles. Do you have a theory for your powerful percussion?
I am not especially sticking to that. I like percussion instruments, so I put many of those sounds in my music.

What about female vocals? How do they fit into your palette?
I imagine angels and a voice of Venus from female vocals.

Your darker music is great. Is your attitude towards it different?
I have no idea why. It's true that I've done a lot of action movies. But I prefer to compose melancholic music and comedy about evenly.

What was your most challenging work?
I think Ghost in the Shell was the hardest of all. I was very worried about composing that music because there were new styles to write.

Fans in America never had a chance to read your "Mixing Room" essays from Newtype. Would you like to talk about those?
Oh, I was only writing foolish things. It is only good by some means as I go angling without telling the story of music at all.

Like what?
The story about when I went angling and fell into the sea. Or the story about when I was making a toilet. I don't think it's worth reading!

How's your work going right now?
I've been composing for Death Note, which is a Japanese live-action film. It is based on the Japanese comic. After that, I will work for the Hong Kong live-action movie Dragon Tiger Gate.

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