Interview: Studio Ghibli Theme Singers Azumi Inoue & Yuyu

by Zac Bertschy,

Even if you haven't heard of Azumi Inoue, you're probably intimately familiar with her work; Inoue sang some of the most iconic and internationally-recognized theme songs for several classic Studio Ghibli films, including Castle in the Sky and – of course – My Neighbor Totoro. She's not the only singer in her family – her 12-year old daughter Yuyu has been singing for the past 5 years and is about to launch her solo career. The two of them performed live at this month's J-Pop Summit in San Francisco, and we asked Inoue what it was like collaborating with Studio Ghibli legends on something millions of people around the world cherish.

ANN: For Azumi, what was your impression of the music industry in Japan back then? How did you originally get the job?

AZUMI INOUE: I debuted as an idol singer. At the time, Japan's music industry was in the golden age of idols, and I debuted spectacularly as the first singer and idol on a rising record label. Unfortunately, we didn't sell well; however, 3 years after my debut, through an acquaintance I auditioned for “Kimi wo Nosete” and passed, which led me to where I am now.

Can you tell us what it was like recording the original song for Castle in the Sky?

When I asked Director Miyazaki “how should I sing?” he responded: “Your voice is perfect, so just sing without thinking about it”; therefore, I was able to relax and sing. Later on, I heard that around 20 singers had auditioned before me, and had I not sang well, they would have given up and made the song instrumental.

Did you work directly with Mr. Miyazaki or Mr. Hisaishi? If so, what was your impression of them?

Director Miyazaki gave me the impression of a principal at a rural (maybe even branch) school.  Although somewhat rugged and unsophisticated in style, he would choose words, which conveyed those things that were most important to life. I felt like this is truly a man with a kind spirit.

Mr. Hisaishi at the time was still an up-and-coming composer; he knew about many different genres of music and seemed like a fastidious person.

How did you feel about the film, Castle in the Sky? Does the song carry any special meaning for you?

When I auditioned, I was not informed about any of the film's contents, and even after passing, I still had no idea what my song would be used for. In this uninformed state, I attended the advanced screening. Heart racing, although moved by the adventurous action movie, I kept thinking disappointedly, “Ah, I guess they're not using my song after all…” When we reached the ending and my song started playing, I began to cry out loud. If I not encountered this film - this song - I think my career and direction as a singer would have been entirely different; therefore, this song holds the most meaning to me.

When you were recording the song for Totoro, did you have any idea what a phenomenon the film would become? What was your first impression upon reading the lyrics for the song?

I had no idea. It was supposed to be a song for a commercial, so at first, only the “Totoro totoro♪” hook was written, and it gave me the impression of a cute song (aha). In the end, it didn't become a commercial, but it left such an impact that they decided to make it the ending song, and that's how it came to be as it is known now.

You've performed these songs for many years; how do you feel about them now? Do they still carry the same meaning for you?

With each year, they become more and more precious to me. Aren't songs where even if it has been 30 years since the film was released today's children can still sing along few and far between? I think [Ghibli's songs] remain popular because parents play those songs for their children and sing them together. Not only in Japan, but also when I go abroad, everyone sings along in a loud voice. I am incredibly grateful to have been given a number of those rare songs that can cross national borders.

How do you feel about Miyazaki's return to work from retirement? Do you hope to one day collaborate with him again?

Director Miyazaki is a true creator, so as long as he is alive, he will continue to produce. Instead of creating under the relentless schedule he's maintained until now, by consulting his body and taking his time, I believe Director Miyazaki will be able to produce many more brilliant works to come. Therefore, I was very happy to hear this. Because this means that I will be able to watch more Miyazaki works.

Of course, I would love to work with him again. If I am told: “This work needs Azumi's voice,” I will be elated as always.

For Yuyu, do you ever compare your experience in the music industry with your mom's? How has it been different for you?

I haven't really compared and thought about it before. My mother was able to carve her own path by herself, so I think she is an incredible person. She is my idol, but I believe I also need to try for and by myself. With regards to differences, there's an adult's voice and a child's voice, so when my voice becomes that of an adult's, I think it would be nice if I could produce a voice like my mother's, so I am practicing every day. If someday I am able to sing exactly like her, I'd like to inherit all of my mother's songs.

You're only 12, but you've had a career for 5 years already. How does it feel to be a veteran singer? Do you get the respect you deserve?

Just as the Japanese phrase “One must not forget one's first love” goes, I think I'd like to always carry on with fresh emotions. To be honest, I think I have gotten better at talking since I started, but I still want to keep trying and improving. My goal/inspiration for speaking is AKB48's Sashihara Rino.

How do you go about selecting songs for your albums? What sorts of songs stand out to you? What do you personally want to sing about?

Up until now, I have only thought: “how do I work with the songs I am given?” because I do not choose my own songs. Regarding genre, I like Classical songs like The Magic Flute. In fact, rather than liking, I would say I am studying.  At the moment, I most want to sing show tunes.

Thanks to Azumi Inoue, Yuyu and Viz Media for the opportunity.

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