Interview: Anime soundtracker Yoko Kanno

November 17, 2014

Anime has steadily grown in popularity since the ’90s, and Yoko Kanno is one of the most famous musicians working in the genre. The career of the producer who “changed the history of anime music” became widely recognized in 1994 with the score to Macross Plus. Her splendid orchestrations in combination with vocals, tribal, techno, and breakbeat elements were original to say the least, and garnered accolades from many throughout the Japanese music scene.

She followed up with the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop (1999) which utilized elements from funk, soul and jazz, as well as the digital soundscapes from the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002), and the music for Macross F (2008) which swept Japanese music charts.

Her latest work for Terror in Resonance (2014) was recorded in Iceland, mixed in England and mastered in New York, speaking volumes about the lengths she takes to find and create sound that accompanies her subject matter. As a music producer, she has overseen the career of Maaya Sakamoto as well as providing music for Kyoko Koizumi, YUKI, and SMAP among others, while also producing scores for NHK’s TV novel Gochisosan (2013).

Musicians who are familiar with her work often give polarized characterizations of Kanno as either being witch-like or extremely innocent. These descriptions are both accurate, as it speaks to the complex and multi-faceted nature of the sounds which she creates. In this rare interview, Akihiro Tomita goes in-depth on the many projects of her career thus far.

Ms. Kanno, it is said that you won multiple awards at composition contests in your younger years. How do you see yourself looking back?

Well, I started becoming a “contest bandit” after the second grade of elementary school. My first musical memories go back to hymns during church. My kindergarten was Catholic, and the teacher was not very good at playing the organ, so I did. [laughs]

You were able to play a keyboard even back then?

There was a piano at my house and I was like “What is this?” I simply played when I felt like it and made original music. So hymns were the first “existing” music I ever played. Having these foundations, my heart has returned to Europe recently, in a way. To a very sort of primitive emotion. This is because I feel religious music, to Europeans, is one of the first forms of music they come in contact with – music that becomes the foundations for their beliefs and life. The lyrical content of hymns are usually in praise to Christ, which I feel is also a very primitive expression. I was a fan of Christ when I was in kindergarten. [laughs] I used to see him in picture books and was like “How wonderful!”

People say my music sounds “vast” or “religious,” so I wonder sometimes if maybe my childhood experiences have permeated my music.

So you were drawn to his... looks?

He was definitely my type. Very sculpted features, he was all-round good looking. Hymns were songs that gave praise to Christ which I saw in this way, but they also say, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” so being a small child I thought, “Oh, I’m not supposed to sing these songs too much when I’m not at church…,” but of course I wanted to, so I’d hide in the closet and sing very quietly. [laughs] Well, that was how I was drawn to Christ, but this feeling of yearning towards offering music to an all-powerful, all-creating God or natural force is, I feel, the most primitive human impulse. Respect and awe towards an imminent being or force. People say my music sounds “vast” or “religious,” so I wonder sometimes if maybe my childhood experiences have permeated my music, but it’s not like I go out of my way all the time to create a sound that makes people feel that way.

You said earlier that you used make original songs when you were little. What kind of songs were they?

Just songs about impressions from very basic natural observations such as “Oh, it’s a beautiful morning” or “Spring is so wonderful.”

I heard it was around this time that you were given advice by Yasushi Akutagawa? [Ed. Note: The third son of literary master Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a talented composer and creator of famous movie scores and children’s songs.]

I was very young at the time and my memory of the incident is sparse. I really didn’t know who he was or what kind of person he was or any of that, but… In those days I used to knowingly create compositions that would appease or gain favor from the judges of the competitions. [laughs] I knew what they were looking for, so I would be like, “Ooh, adults would dig it if I put a key change here.” At one of the contests Akutagawa was one of the judges, and he told me, “You don’t have to do that, create what you like.” Back then I was in a mindset that would pull out all the stops I had to become first at those competitions, and I did have skills that wowed the judges but, when I look back at myself then, I kinda think, “This precocious punk!”

Are his words still alive in you today?

I think very much so. He set me free by letting me know that it was OK to be myself at a time when I was constantly on my tiptoes to prove to the world that I wasn’t a child.

You told me in a previous interview that when you were a child your parents forbade you from watching TV, reading manga, or listening to anything other than classical music. In that interview you told me that the first book you asked your parents to get for you was The Flowers of Evil by Baudelaire which surprised me to say the least. [laughs] How do you feel now about your environment growing up?

I think all children at one time or another are struck with an instance where they realize the fear of living and dying. I was particularly drawn to this concept. Also, kids become interested in sexuality, and in my case these urges were more pronounced. Because talking openly about these concepts were not allowed, I read The Flowers of Evil like an adolescent would discreetly look at a porno mag.

Sounds like a 19th century French girl. [laughs]

Exactly. [laughs] I liked church because life and death had such a draw for me. I actually still think about it sometimes.

Living and dying?

Yes. What it means to live and what it means to die.

After spending your childhood in this way, you continue on to Waseda University and major in literature and not music. Why literature?

I started really going off the rails as I moved from middle to high school. [laughs] It was not obvious deviance like coloring my hair or things like that, but I thought with earnestness and passion about how I wanted the world to end. It’s a cliché of adolescence in a way, but I definitely had the extreme version.

A curse towards society. [laughs]

Yes. The magnitude of that curse was unparalleled. [laughs] I didn’t speak to my parents for three to four years in those days. I used to turn those thoughts that were oozing out of me into writing, and was beginning to be interested in becoming a novelist. I thought that writing novels was better than music as the way to express what I was feeling back then.

So you enter the literature department at Waseda, but end up playing in bands and creating video game music?

When you’re a freshman, older kids will use you in all sorts of ways. I could write and transcribe sheet music, so seniors would be like, “Hey, can you have this song written up by tomorrow?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, sure thing.” Seniority in university is like that, right? I’d transcribe whole sections of Al Di Meola guitar solos. [laughs]


You begin to learn musical mannerisms doing things like that. I had only known classical up until then, so I had zero understanding of rhythm. Like “Rhythm, huh? What is that?” It was really that bad. So after seeing a friend’s drum set for the first time, I was like, “Woooow! What is that?!” “Hold on, what are you doing? What is this? How do you play it?” I was shocked, so I ended up joining the friend’s band elective. I later found out that drums aren’t things which are extremely rare. [laughs]

So, in your eyes, this friend was a prodigy. [laughs]

I thought my friend was a genius. I had heard drums on the radio before, but it was like I had never really noticed them. Then I see drums performed live, and was able to experience a beat for the first time. I started to take heavy interest in music that wasn’t classical and joined the band elective. At the electives, I would memorize music I heard and naturally began analyzing it. You begin to learn the relations between the bass and drums and then the electric guitar. “Hmm, this isn’t a regular bass guitar, this is a synth bass. How are they making this sound?” This was the type of thought process I was putting myself through. In hindsight, though, that experience really meant a lot to me. I was able to learn through trial and error what a beat was by putting myself in that environment.

What kind of songs did you play back then?

The elective performed at beer gardens and such, so we’d be forced to play what was trending at the time like Michael Jackson and Madonna. At the time, I couldn’t understand why those songs were selling, but by performing them and analyzing them I began to understand the habits of a hit song. Like, “Oh, if I do this, to this here, I guess people feel good.” I think the fundamentals of pop music were bestowed upon me in this way.

While you were at university, you were approached by Koei [now Koei Tecmo Games] to create the game music for Nobunaga’s Ambition. How did this transpire?

It was probably because I was known for being “convenient.” Koei was still a small company at the time and I didn’t expect Nobunaga’s Ambition to be a hit series. I think it fell in my lap because they heard I was a person that could write songs quickly.

So this was the first job where you created music to a set environment or plot.

Yes, but game music back then only had three sounds, and because one of them will be utilized for rhythm, you really only have two sounds, so you can really only do counterpoint, a bit like Bach. That’s the sense I had when I was doing it. Also, when I was doing themes for the princesses of the various daimyou [feudal lords], there would be episodes where strategic marriages would result in profits and I would think, “She’s only 14 and she’s forced to go get married to some old dude she doesn’t even know? How sad…” So I would come up with these real sad themes for the princess scenes. [laughs] With only two sounds. I mean, I should be making really cute, princessy themes, but yeah, I kinda did something I wasn’t really supposed to, I guess. I myself don’t understand what I was thinking at the time, but I know I should’ve just made something that could be understood sonically as “princess.” [laughs]

That sort of creativity and sensitivity must have come from your literary childhood.

It could be. The game Uncharted Waters had me writing songs with ambiance originating from countries I had never visited, so creativity was definitely key for that project. Even with anime, I try to create a mental picture or draw from footage already available before I compose.

In anime, the Macross Plus project was the one that put you on the map. By incorporating tribal, techno, trance, and ambient elements you did something that was new and exciting. Can you tell us about the project?

When I was first approached about the project, I was immediately drawn to Sharon Apple as a character and a concept. Since she was a virtual idol who used music and singing as mind control weapons I was like, “OK, let’s brainwash some people!” I thought deeply about what kinds of music might be trending in the world during the time she inhabited it, and made music accordingly.

Music tends to trend in cycles, so I thought in the world of Macross Plus the trend would probably be two cycles ahead of the current trend. I kept what I thought would still be a part of music in that era, as well as adding bits from here and there when I started making the music. I also wanted to “brainwash” listeners, so I put a lot of reverb on the low ranges of the beat and looped sections which I thought would create an uneasy feeling. I also added reverb to sections, like in church music when the sound of an organ will make you feel like there was a light shining down from the sky making you acknowledge and subject to a divine presence.

I agree there were many tracks that had a hypnotic effect.

Now that I look back on it I probably overdid it a little bit. [laughs] Back then I didn’t know how to control myself very well, so I did everything I could to make the music suggestive and hypnotic because in my mind I was really trying to make a sonic weapon. It was only afterwards when I started to receive feedback from fans of the series who said things like, “I heard that song, joined the Air Force and went to Iraq” or “I contemplated suicide while listening to Sharon Apple,” when I noticed the effect music has on people and became afraid of myself and the power of sound.

The “divine” acoustics and chorus of “Wanna Be an Angel” really sounds like what religious music might sound like in the future.

When I really go deep to concentrate and layer my imagination, I begin to see all kinds of images as well as sounds. When the fighter jet shoots through the clouds and gets up to where the air becomes thin and hard to breathe, you hear Balgarska singing in the distance and… these are sonic images which I actually saw.

From Macross Plus to the environments in Genesis of Aquarion and Macross F – which required sweeping chart pop music as part of the plot. It seems director Shoji Kawamori creates situations which bring out the best in you.

That could be true. Kawamori-san has a way of creating a beautiful mythic world and even brings out mythical clichés as elements for his stories. Also, his sensitivities for things in Japanese culture which are primitive like his ability to love kabuki are both qualities which I don’t possess. However, I like creating music within the confines of a world like Macross F where this idol lives in this environment with these types of musical trends and looks up to these types of people. Or I’ll expect the character already has the second single planned and would like for it to be like this, so the first single will probably come out sounding like that. Or I’ll think five singles down the line and think how each single can add to the actual story being created. I like thinking and working in these ways. I like thinking about the character’s life in a sense. I think it all relates to how I wanted to become a novelist when I was younger.

Then, it was this type of thinking and imagination which created the mainstream pop debut “Interstellar Flight” for Ranka Lee [an idol singer who appears in Macross F].

When I read the script for Macross F, I knew it was “gonna sell.” [laughs] Because I had been making music for commercials, I had a pretty good nose for knowing what kinds of ideas or products were going to trend. I think this goes back to an instinct I had from back in my “contest bandit” days. The skill to “appease adults” through music. [laughs] Although I do know it takes way more than that to get the ball rolling.

Music for ads is a world which requires a spirit of good service.

It requires you to come up with a hook that takes only a few seconds to express the notable qualities of a product. At times, they will literally ask you to make a song to make a person cry in seven seconds. The fact that I was able to transfer these skills to anime was pretty big.

Cowboy Bebop was an anime which garnered global acclaim, and I felt the use of funk and blues and other forms of black music was very radical for the scene.

The seeds for that score were sown in middle school and high school when I was a member of the brass band. I’m not sure how it is nowadays, but back then all the songs kids were taught weren’t at all cool, so I made and performed originals. But a part of me was always frustrated because I couldn’t understand why everybody else was content playing the uncool music. I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil, and made you lose it.

This yearning became “Tank!” which was the opening theme. I wanted to make music which would light a fire in me when I played it. Also, when I was “convenient” during my university years, I transcribed a lot of black music. After I began to grasp and understand rhythm I thought, “How is it that they play the drums the same way, but the rhythm is so different between black people and white people?” So I took a trip to New Orleans to listen to jazz and funk.

You went to America while attending university?

Yes. I went coast to coast on a Greyhound bus. I didn’t have money to stay in hotels, so I usually slept on the bus. It was something that was possible because I was young at the time. [laughs] There was a person playing a banjo on the street in Los Angeles, which I thought was cool but I began to notice as I kept moving East the groove of street musicians would swing harder. There were kids the age of high school students playing fantastic funk grooves on just one snare drum. It was through this trip I learned that even within a genre there are differences in the style. This was really exciting for me. I learned that the beat is a form of language. However, back then I didn’t want to come off as a person from Tokyo doing a poor imitation of the Osaka sound, and so even though I respected and revered how cool black music sounded, I was annoyed that I was not able to be close to it. Recently I’m like, “If there’s white funk, let there be yellow funk.” [laughs]

You played keys for a funk band called Tetsu100% while at university, right?

Yeah, but we were never able to create an authentic black groove. Because Japanese people respect the music so thoroughly, they usually overdo it and it comes out deformed kind of. I still think when it comes to the beat, I’ve only reached the entrance. When I went to Brazil and heard samba and bossa nova, I thought, “Wow, this beat is yet another language!” People in South America are so in tune with the rhythm that it can make them cry. I have never been able to get that far or I haven’t arrived at the “truth” that is within the beat yet, so I feel I can still dig deeper.

As far as directors go, Yoshiyuki Tomino from Gundam is one who has his own unique philosophy. How was it working with him?

I wondered how I was to bring music to a person like Tomino-san, who exudes this atmosphere of difficult vocabulary being shot up in the air like clouds of flak composed of logic. Music is a right brain creation, so when it’s overloaded with words coming from the left brain, it’s hard to stay creative in a sense. It was difficult to transmit my thoughts through language to him, so I felt that talking to him stifled my creativity. It took me about half a year until I understood this. But after that I just tried to blow up all the jargon that was crippling me creatively.

This resulted in the creation of music which deeply moved Tomino-san.

I just wanted to give Tomino-san “real” music. After half a year of going back and forth with him, I simply decided that what he was telling me was “Just give me the ‘real.’” I believe there is a big difference between Japanese anime music and Hollywood film music. Hollywood needs its music to be background music which assists in the climax, but anime music is required to become a part of the film – and add to the emotions of the scene and the characters. Whether it’s climactic or not is simply a byproduct and not the goal.

Do you like talking with directors and producers?

I do, because most of them aren’t easy to deal with or understand. [laughs] It’s invigorating. We just touched on Hollywood but Japanese anime is really not vast and parliamentary like Hollywood films. There are a small number of people with exceptional talent that carry the whole piece, and I think that’s what makes Japanese anime so great. “As a result of our council meetings, we have come up with a piece that’s positively above average.” These types of projects rarely interest me. It may not be democratic but I’d much rather be asked to provide music for crazy people who come up with crazy projects. Works which express taboos within the human psyche outright, or works which express thoughts and habits of the producer. I think these are characteristic of Japanese anime.

Kenji Kamiyama was still a relative newcomer for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. How do you recall your involvement in this project?

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex was a follow up series of sorts to the movie that came before it (Ghost in the Shell), so it’s really difficult to join these projects that have become very famous midstream. It’s like you’re also responsible for upholding the notoriety of the previous piece. That’s why I don’t like joining projects part way. But after meeting Kamiyama-san, he was a person who didn’t let up but was also a soft sort of flexible person. Kamiyama-san is also a literary person, so I would go to a Ghost meeting and he starts talking about Catcher in the Rye. It was episodes like this that made me feel I could go the distance. Apart from that, I’m really bad with mechanical stuff so much of the things discussed at Ghost meetings would go in one ear and out the other. [laughs] But I understand Salinger, so this was one of the turning points.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex saw you use even more techno, house, and drum & bass elements in comparison to your previous works. What was the concept behind its composition?

As I recall, I had an underlying theme which I devised myself which was to “be human.” There was a song with that name as well, but generally for a working person “be human” means to want to be more human. To a robot, it means to want to be a human. In an age where machines are able to think for themselves… Today there are entities like Hatsune Miku, but at the time I was thinking, “How far does a machine have to go in order for it to become a human?”

Motoko Kusanagi [one of the characters] is a female cyborg which presents the philosophical question, “Is she a human or a robot?” So the music for that project is generally melancholy, because she can’t become ever become purely human again. I was thinking of her and the cute multi-legged tank, Tachikoma, when I was creating the music. “Be Human” was a theme that basically sought to express identity.

I felt a lot of love for Tachikoma in the music as well.

Yeah. [laughs] I think problems like this will start occurring in the near future. The problem of identity and the interaction with robots and androids. Back then it was really just sci-fi.

With projects spanning anime, film, and advertisements, I expect in your work there are limitations with the deadline and theme among other things, how do you see these limitations and how do you deal with them?

I welcome limitations. I have very few boundaries regarding the world outside, so without these limitations I feel like I might just melt. [laughs] I absorb things just as quickly as they leave, so it’s comforting sometimes to know I have parameters. That’s why I love making music for advertisements. I’m more at home when I’m given a sandbox to play in. It doesn’t matter if the sandbox is big or small, I just need some sort of form or else I just drown in my own thoughts and it doesn’t amount to anything tangible. Limitations help me a lot actually.

Your work has created a network of Yoko Kanno fans worldwide, however you have never really released an album that bears your name outright. Why is that?

I really don’t know what to say… I had never really thought of something being distinctly my own, just that I have been fortunate enough to be involved in projects which help to give me that distinction. As for an album bearing my name, well, it just seems a little too conceited for me.

So you’ve been the producer for Maaya Sakamoto since her debut. Was this possible also because she was a “vessel”?

Probably. Recently, for about the last three months or so, I’ve really like Beyoncé for some reason. A couple years ago she released an album under the name Sasha Fierce, which made me think about why a person so talented would want to give herself a different name. I came to a conclusion that even a person as talented as her needed a different container, and felt a little sympathetic towards her. Even if an artist were to present themselves as who they are with great skill, there seems to be “something” which can be only expressed through a different personality. I guess it’s hard to view yourself objectively.

So as an entity, “Yoko Kanno” exists as a denizen of many different works and artists throughout the world in a way.

That’s why I’m always interested in which “me” my clients have brought a proposal for. I deal with many clients, some of whom know me through my film work, but don’t know of my anime work. Or vice versa. For example, I did music for the NHK television novel Gochisosan and there are people who think that is all I have done like, “Oh, Ms. Kanno I was not aware you did work for anime.” [laughs] Depending on which door a person came through to reach me determines how differently they view me and my music.

Recently there are probably people who have reached you through your theme song, “Hana Wa Saku,” for the NHK Disaster Relief Project.

Yes, the elderly seem to know me from that.

It has become a staple for middle school and high school choruses and is cited in textbooks for music classes. There may be many people that singing the song that don’t know that you composed it.

That is something I’m really happy about, because people approach it as a song that’s existed for a long time. Sometimes I’ll pass by a school that’s practicing the song or I’ll overhear old ladies saying how the song is hard to sing. [laughs] It’s a first time experience for me, and the fact that the song is loved for being a song is a testament to the benefits of being a musician.

When I wrote the song I was filled with anger, sadness, and despair towards the disaster and there were many artists that expressed those feelings through music. I, for one, really didn’t want to hear how people felt besides the people who were directly affected. The people who were directly affected were still in no position to express their feelings through song at the time. I didn’t understand how what a person who was not affected felt would do for the situation. I was really on the fence as to whether I was going to participate or not.

I think Shunji Iwai who wrote the lyrics to the song felt the same way. So, instead of writing a “disaster” song, I decided I would like to write a song which would be loved like “Akatonbo” [a children’s song about a red dragonfly]. So I spent about a week trying to get myself to feel like a four year old before I wrote the song. I always keep the feelings I have in a freezer somewhere within in me, so if I ever feel like I want to write a song as if I was 14 year-old I could do that. But it was the first time I ever went as far back as being four years old. It wasn’t all pleasantries and nostalgia though, because it was a song for charity and I wanted everybody to be able to relate to it, so they would feel like they wanted to be a part of the charity. Overall I hope that it was a success in many ways.

I would like to ask about your most recent work for Terror in Resonance. The fact that it was recorded at Sigur Rós’s studio in Iceland became one of the points of interest. The music seemed to reflect the desolate landscape. How was Iceland in person?

I went in with the goal of putting myself in that desolate landscape, and it was very sparse indeed. There were no trees and there were people living in a place that was hardly hospitable. What I noticed when I talked to the locals was there were many visionaries. They survive long harsh winters indoors in their imaginations. I was left with the impression that they were people with much grit.

Grit, you say. [laughs]

Yes. For example people in tropical climates worry far less about nature killing them if they were to fall asleep outside. However in colder climates – if you were to fall asleep outside – you’d die. I think it takes a very hardy spirit to be able to live in such harsh environments. The fact that they possess a mind which enables them to survive long winters without ruin gave me the impression they were very poetic. They have very few people that live there, so musicians play in different bands, they have other jobs, and their equipment is old, even broken sometimes. It seemed like the music they made was the product of necessity and passion more than anything else.

There were of course very loving and beautiful tracks, but they all had an underlying sadness. There was also a track with very violent guitar, which left an impression.

As if I was viewing the world with a cold stare? [laughs] Being angry at a world you can do nothing about, but at the same time having to accept that fact… A feeling of resignation perhaps? Like digging up a place in between despair and resignation, uneasiness and hope... all mashed together. I guess that’s what it sounds like. I think many people in modern society live with emotions like that bottled up inside them. People can’t live like that with all those emotions pent up inside them. So they play video games or look up stuff on the web. I dug maybe ten centimeters under the surface of that facade to create this music. It was a big deal that I was able to feel the harshness of the Icelandic environment as I was recording the tracks.

I have a good understanding now that music isn’t simply created through imagination for you, but also due to actual experiences.

I think dealing with sound on a tactile and sensory level is very important. So what I want to do most is to take a trip to find the roots of rhythm. I really want to go to Africa, but it’s hard with the Ebola outbreak going on now. I’ve heard from many people that the roots of rhythm comes from Africa, so I want to go to the place where the animals that became human beings first banged on something to make a sound. If I go there I may be able to find the reason for why the sound was made in the first place, and what they wanted to express through that sound. Was it for dance? Or was it for something else? I want to know and feel these things. If I can, I feel I can find a new way to express rhythm and in turn create more new music. I want to feel the music live with my body – and not through a CD.

There are still many places I would like to go. I feel there are still many undiscovered beats and rhythms which will sway the hearts of people. I want to find those sounds and play them. Finding a rhythm that makes me or anybody else feel like it’s totally OK to be alive, finding that sound is probably what I would like to do from now on as a musician.

Photos: Yosuke Torii

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