[We talk to acclaimed Japanese film and game composer Kenji Kawai about his work on soundtracks spanning Folklore for PS3 in the game space, through Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and The Sky Crawlers in the film domain.]
Among anime film composers working today that also write music for videogames, Kenji Kawai is among the most internationally recognized. For instance, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, for which he wrote the score, was the first animated film to be a finalist for the Palme D'Or award.
The film is one in a series of collaborations with director Mamoru Oshii, which includes the anime motion picture The Sky Crawlers. A game adaptation for the Wii, titled Innocent Aces, has recently been localized by Xseed, featuring a game score by sound studio MoNaca.
Kawai's contributions to videogame soundtracks include 2007's Folklore for Playstation 3, a collaboration with Hiroto Saitoh and SuperSweep musicians Shinji Hosoe and Ayako Saso. His most recent film Assault Girls, which opened in Tokyo last month, takes place within a virtual reality game environment.
In this interview following the reception of Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces in North America, Kawai offers his perspectives on the intersection between music for Japanese animated films and videogames, based on his own experiences writing scores for both media.
Kawai-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion. When compared with your experience as a film composer, what challenges would you say are unique to writing music for games?
Composer Kenji Kawai: Technically it's not that different from making music for films, but I'd say the hardest part is finding where to situate the loop. You generally have to write much more music for a game than you do for a movie.
Previously it's been rare to see a recognized film composer enter the game industry, although that appears to be changing. Some critics have said that movies are a form of art and games inherently are not, but what is your opinion?
It can be difficult to determine what's art and what's not, but I do think that medium aside, art is something that brings enjoyment to the audience. I treat any production the same. For Folklore, the director went out of his way to request my participation, so that's why I joined.
Over the years you have had a very productive working relationship with the film director Mamoru Oshii, leading to The Sky Crawlers film. How did you two first come to collaborate together?
I met Oshii for the first time on The Red Spectacles. I was an unknown back then, but he asked me to work on the film. I think he was intrigued by the little recording system I had installed in my house and thought it might save the production some money. They had a very small budget for the film. Luckily he was happy with the results and I've been working on his films ever since.
The Sky Crawlers film animated by the studio Production I.G. is based on a series of novels by Hiroshi Mori about a group of immortal fighter pilots. It is said that the writer only gave his consent to the adaptation upon learning that Mamoru Oshii was involved. As a composer what interested you most about the story of The Sky Crawlers and the director's approach to the adaptation?
The feedback that I received from director Oshii was that he was interested in hearing a harp performed on the soundtrack. However, the challenge of just how to implement that idea was left up to me, and it was a puzzle to solve. As soon as I saw the images of the sky and clouds prepared for the film, it inspired me to write the score.
Your most recent film with Mamoru Oshii is Assault Girls, set in a futuristic virtual reality game. Did having events unfold within a game environment in any way influence your choices as a composer on this film score?
It was difficult to find the right sound for the film because of its minimal use of dialog and numerous abstract images. One particular scene features a close-up of a snail that lasts over 40 seconds. I told the director the shot was too long. “But it's acting!” was his response. Well, respectfully, it looks to me like it's just taking a long time to move.
Concept art from Folklore for Playstation 3
One thing that is often mentioned about your academic background is that at one point you were studying nuclear engineering at Tokai University. How did this experience lead to a career composing music?
I did go to college hoping to get a degree in nuclear engineering. It turned out to be harder than I expected. My home was far from the university and I began cutting classes more and more frequently. Sure enough, my grades turned out poorly. I remember one of my professors took me aside one day and said, "I'm sorry to have to put it to you this way, but this isn't for you." So I dropped out of college after just a year and a half.
When later you joined a fusion rock band, did you feel that you were further along toward accomplishing a goal more within your reach?
Muse wasn't formed in an attempt to accomplish something in particular. Some of us were at a rehearsal studio one day and happened to see a poster advertising a contest where the first place winner received a car and a cash prize. Those of us there spontaneously decided to form a band. We were hoping to win, and as luck would have it, we ended up placing. To this day I still have a fondness for fusion.
After having struggled for some time to discover a calling, when did you first get the sense that you had broken through as a musician?
That would be when I was working on the video series Patlabor. Around that time I gradually began to articulate my own personal style.
There is a haunting female chorus that appears in the intro of both Ghost in the Shell films. Was there a particular motivation behind finding this sound that so many viewers associate with the films?
At first the director had requested primitive drum sounds. I felt it would be even more effective if there were a chorus on top of it, something in a Bulgarian style. There are folk singers with very distinctive voices in Japan, and that's who we found for the vocal roles.
It turned out to be quite different from my original concept of a Bulgarian style. This vocal section was extremely challenging to get right because Japanese folk songs traditionally do not have a chorus. They aren't set to these particular rhythms, either.
Directly after the movie was released I noticed no one mentioned the music. That made me a little worried. Now that I think about it, I guess no one could critique it because it was such an unusual kind of music that no one had ever heard before. Innocence was basically a direct continuation of Ghost in the Shell, so I retained almost the exact same style.
Innocence has a dreamlike sequence which takes place in a mansion fashioned after a music box. This is one example of many from your films in which music is bound together with the storyline and visuals.
Oshii asked me to create the sound of an "enormous music box," but obviously such a thing doesn't exist. We actually had to go about creating a disc-shape music box and record the sound of it. We then added the sounds of cylindrical bells and a Thai gong. Rather than relying on electronic reverb for the vibration and echoing effects, we went to a huge stone quarry and played the sound of the music box from the speakers, then recorded it. It was a lot of work and the weather was bitter cold, making it quite an ordeal.