Interview: Shiro Sasaki

by Justin Sevakis,

Shiro Sasaki isn't a name most anime fans know, but his 25-year career as a music producer has catapulted some of the biggest names in anime, from Yoko Kanno to Maaya Sakamoto to Yuki Kajiura to May'n, into the spotlight. Originally with Victor Musical Industries, and now as CEO of his own company -- Flying Dog Inc. -- Sasaki talked to Justin Sevakis about his history in the business, the process of making anime music, and what works of his he's most proud of.

Justin: What sort of music do you listen to? What influences your tastes?

Sasaki: I try to listen to a bit of everything -- absorbing as wide an array of genres as possible. I like all sorts of music. Nothing specific, though I was a huge Beatles fan.

Justin: Were you always an anime fan, or did you just happen into this genre?

Sasaki: When I was young I watched anime, but when I started high school, I was in a rock band. Because of that, I was more interested in music. When I joined Victor, the company I work for, I got involved with anime as part of my job.

Justin: Do you go to a lot of anime-related events?

Sasaki: I've been to Anime Expo in America a few times. But there's nothing I attend regularly every year.

Justin: When did you start working on Anime?

Sasaki: When I started out, I worked in the sales division of the business. I started in 1982, right around when Macross was first broadcast. At that time, I was shocked to see how well anime was selling in the market and how popular it was. I spent about three years in sales, and then the boss of the anime division called me over to that division. I've been there ever since.

Justin: So, did you actually go straight to producing anime music?

Sasaki: Actually, yes. At first, I wanted to help produce J-pop!

Justin: That was around the time mainstream J-pop songs started getting used in anime; it was the end of the Gatchaman-style superhero theme song. Is this something that you can kind of take claim for, pushing anime music in that direction?

Sasaki: It depends on the situation. The most important factor is whether the music fits with the film or not. I've never taken an artist that needs promotion and tried to needlessly fit their music into anime. The most important thing is to create a song that fits the film.

Justin: Who makes the final decision as to what song gets used for an anime, if that song is not made exclusively for that anime?

Sasaki: We consult with the director and anime producer to make that decision.

Justin: So obviously you've worked on some really big, high budget scores in the past - mostly with Yoko Kanno and Yuki Kajiura. I remember specifically around the mid 90's that you were even using the Warsaw Philharmonic. That doesn't seem to happen much anymore, does it?

Sasaki: Hmm... basically, for us, I think we invest more money than other companies. For last year's Macross Frontier, I think we spent ten times the typical budget for the music.

Justin: Is that all going into production, or is it that some people just get paid a lot for their work? The singers for Macross Frontier were all kind of new, right?

Sasaki: Basically... Macross Frontier had a lot of songs beyond the usual background music. If there are lots of songs, it costs more. Also, Yoko Kanno's work usually involves a lot of money, but that's not because of Kanno-san specifically - it's because it takes a long time to compose all the music. Plus, we had a foreign orchestra for the project. So altogether, it involves a lot of time, thought, and of course money.

Justin: I noticed when looking at your credits that you are involved with many of the planning committees for anime; is that purely in a music sense, or do you do other things on those projects as well?

Sasaki: The main thing I'm involved with is music for anime - making the songs and the background music. However, at our company we also have video producers, so lately I've been doing a little of that. In other words, setting up proposals for anime, settling on a director for projects, arranging production, and getting anime ready for TV broadcast - all the stuff that a program producer is expected to do. All the projects I've worked on have been anime.

Justin: So the credits for a lot of those projects have your name listed?

Sasaki: Yes, if I've been part of the proposal, the planning, production... and if I've been in charge of music, I'll be listed as the "music producer." Mainly I produce music but sometimes I produce the film itself. For example, for Samurai Champloo, I produced the program. The director - Shinichiro Watanabe - is the same person who directed. Cowboy Bebop. He is a friend of mine, so he told me about his new program idea, and I offered to produce it.

Justin: And [Watanabe's] taste is so musical.

Sasaki: He listens to tons of music, and his sense of music is very good.

Justin: How do you decide on a composer for a project?

Sasaki: The first thing I consider is what kind of music the director wants. I talk to the director and producers about the music they want, and then suggest a composer for the project. Once they give me the OK, we start making the music.

Justin: After that decision is made, how long does the composer - let's say Kanno for example - have to produce a draft of the music?

Sasaki: It depends on the situation, but I'd say one or two months.

Justin: Wow, that's a lot of music for a short time!

Sasaki: There are situations where you do what the director asks, but if you create the music exactly as the director requests, it can be a bit dull. Also, there are the times where the director won't even have a specific request. Usually we make changes little by little, if they are necessary, as the director requests them. For example, the director will have a "strike zone" for what they want. I'll recommend [musical styles] near or around that zone.

Justin: I'm under the impression - please correct me if I am wrong - that anime music is not composed in the same way that an American film score is composed, where they get a rough cut first. What does a composer get to work off of originally? Do they get design sketches? What do they start with?

Sasaki: Hmm.. it's a difficult question. We don't make anything "plain" or "as expected." For example, we don't make "sad" music that simply sounds sad. Another example would be a suspenseful or scary scene - instead of taking a suspenseful scene and adding scary music to it, if you add a beautiful piano melody to it, it can become even scarier. We don't aim to create something typical - we aim to enhance the atmosphere. We like to create something original - that's the position of our company.

Justin: I wanted to ask you about something that was kind of a common theme in Macross. It's something really original to anime I think: sequences where stuff blows up in space, set to music. For example in Macross: Do You Remember Love? the song plays, and it makes those explosions almost magical. The same thing happens in Macross Plus, where the song "Information High" plays. Did you work on Megazone?

Sasaki: Yes. I produced part three. For Megazone 23 Part 2, I was assistant producer.

Justin: That song, "Himitsu Ku·da·sa·i." Is that something that you had some insight into when that first started happening and why do you think it worked so well - that love song set to horrible explosions?

Sasaki: The music is produced differently depending on whether it is for a film or a TV program. For film, the film or scene is finished and then music is added where it is requested. For TV, there are many times when the music will be recorded before the scene is even finished. That's when you make the music first - for example, produce fifty tracks or so first and then pick what works best. For example, for Megazone and Do You Remember Love?, the images were already done, so we simply decided which scenes needed music. That is worked out with the director. Having music with the explosions and such was actually mentioned in the storyboards; the decision was made that even if there's an explosion, the music should keep going, because that affects the mood of the film. In the case of adding film to existing music, one way to do it is to match the music with the pictures. If you do that, it's best to end the music before any explosions. However, if you leave the music going through the explosion and then some, it's best to pick music that matches the emotional intention of the piece. For Do You Remember Love?, the feelings of Lynn Minmay, the singer, are important, so no matter how many explosions there are, that music is set to continue.

Justin: And I imagine Macross Frontier works in a similar way...

Sasaki: Yes.

Justin: I have to ask this, and you don't have to tell me the answer if you don't want to: have any of your soundtracks ever outperformed the anime?

Sasaki: None of the anime ones have, but there was one live action film called Ashura-jo no Hitomi [English title: Ashura: Blood Gets In Your Eyes] where Yoko Kanno did the soundtrack, and I produced it.

Justin: Did you also work on Song to Fly?

Sasaki; Yes. For Song to Fly, we produced the music for the game, and half the music was for the game while half was Yoko [Kanno]'s original work.

Justin: Are there any soundtracks that you have produced that you are really proud of, but maybe the anime wasn't successful and nobody heard it?

Sasaki: I don't want to call any soundtrack "the best" or anything, but to provide an example, there's Parumu no Ki (A Tree of Palme). Takashi Nakamura, who directed illustrations for Akira, directed the anime. It didn't sell well, but one of the things I liked about the production was our use of an instrument called the Ondes Martenot. The instrument is kind of like the grandfather of the synthesizer. Even though it's an older instrument, the sounds it produces sound state-of-the-art. I talked about using it with the director, and we used it with the Warsaw Philharmonic.

Justin: Is it a tape loop?

Sasaki: It is powered by electricity, but gauze and cymbals are attached to the speakers. So the sound is really bizarre.

Justin: So it sounds like a theramin?

Sasaki: A little bit. The Ondes Martenot is still taught and used at the Conservatoire de Paris. As to why we used it, the world of Parumu no Ki features a lot of things floating around. So to produce that kind of light, floating feeling, we decided to use the Ondes Martenot. There's only one professional Ondes Martenot player in Japan, named Takashi Harada. We used him for the movie.

Special thanks to Florence Ang of Red Dawn PR and the staff of Animation Asia Conference '09 for arranging the interview. Translation by Evan Miller.

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