We sat down with one of anime's most interesting music composers for an exclusive interview
Music is the backbone of every anime, but rarely is it so deeply incorporated into the fabric of a movie or series than in the way that Kensuke Ushio crafts his soundtracks. Composers working in anime tend to create all of the music in one go and then hand it off to the director and sound director to score each song to a scene. Contrast that with Ushio’s work with director Naoko Yamada, where he helped shape the storyboards and themes of A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird before animation even started. Through these and his collaborations with Masaaki Yuasa in Ping Pong the Animation and the hit series Devilman Crybaby, Ushio has displayed a remarkable talent for not only working for, but collaborating with directors on their projects.
Masaaki Yuasa’s newest work, following up the joyful Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is the ten episode series Japan Sinks 2020. Tonally distant from Eizouken, this new series offers a more thoughtful, difficult, and intimate experience. It also offers another fascinating collaboration between the director and Ushio.
I had the pleasure of talking with Ushio over a Zoom call where we talked about his working relationship with Masaaki Yuasa, the building of themes through the soundtrack, and how conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp embodies what he finds most important about his work. Kensuke Ushio finds deep joy in making things, and I hope at least some of that joy can be taken away by all who read this.
So How did you become involved with Japan Sinks 2020 in the first place? How were you approached for the project?
So, after Masaaki Yuasa and I finished Devilman Crybaby, he told me that he was working on a new title and invited me to be a part of it. That was maybe … two years ago? One and a half, maybe. I was there from the very beginning of the project.
You’ve worked together with Yuasa on a few different projects before like Ping Pong the Animation and, like you mentioned, Devilman Crybaby. Could you describe what it’s like working with Yuasa compared with other directors you’ve worked with?
Well, he’s one of my teenage heroes, you know? Before I first worked with him, I loved his work, like the Tatami Galaxy, that’s sort of my evergreen title, I love that series. When I think about doing a soundtrack with Yuasa-san, it’s sort of like challenging the king. When I worked with [Naoko] Yamada-san on A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird, we’re part of the same generation, there’s a bond there. If we were in a band, it would be like I’m the keyboard player and Yamada-san is the vocals, you know? It’s a really friendly working relationship. But with Yuasa-san, I had this built up respect for him, so it really did feel like I was challenging the king.
That’s so interesting, I never thought about the generational differences. You were saying Yamada’s your generation but Yuasa is like a legend. That’s a really interesting dynamic.
So, your work with Yamada was very collaborative. With Liz and the Blue Bird you worked together on shaping big parts of the movie together. Was that the same with Yuasa or were you working as more of a response to what he was telling you to do?
In general, there’s two phases to making music for a film. One is composition and the second is combining the music and the film together. Timing the music to scenes. That’s the final mix. So, I started my challenge to the King on Japan Sinks with the composition of the music. I did a lot of things with Yuasa-san in the studio. This was completely different than our previous work with Yuasa-san. When we did Ping Pong the Animation, when we did Devilman Crybaby, that was a very different process. I composed the music and handed it off. But with Japan Sinks, I worked on the final mix with Yusasa-san. Yusasa-san and I did the timing together — we decided this sound happens exactly with this scene. This part where the music peaks should fit with this big scene, and so on. We worked together to fit music to specific scenes. It was really nice to collaborate like that.
That sounds like a really wonderful experience.
So, there’s not just film composition but also film arrangement, you know? I already composed the songs but then I arranged it with the film Yuasa-san made. So, it’s really interesting. It was really challenging! I messed up sometimes. It was a confusing process! Really hard!
Yeah, it sounds like it. It sounds like normally a composer creates all of this music in one go and then hands it off to the director and maybe the sound director, and they’re the ones who do the final mix.
It must have been a big challenge, but also a special opportunity to collaborate like that.
Yeah, and it takes a long time! And we needed 5.1 channel surround sound. So every week we created the arrangement and then mixed to surround sound and then fit it to the film. It was really challenging, and so hard.
Yeah. Complete nightmare!
[laughter from both]
The Tatami Galaxy (2010)
Well, I have to say, listening to the final soundtrack, even separate from the series itself, it’s really, really special music.
It’s really interesting to me that some parts of the soundtrack are just so beautiful and sad and intimate, but some parts of it are scary and loud, especially the song “earthquake i.”
That one’s so scary. It feels like you’re in the earthquake and you have this feeling of dread and like you don’t know what’s going on. I wanted to ask, how did you balance the melodic beauty with the noisy, scary parts?
To explain this, I need to take a long time. First of all, in the early, first stages. I composed one image song for the series called “Rising Suns.” That song represents the theme. So with that, I needed to express the feeling of general, everyday life. I needed to establish the balance between everyday life and then the collapse that happens — both of them together. So I composed with field recordings. I took a portable microphone and recorded different sounds. I went to the park and recorded sounds like footsteps, voices from the children playing at the garden — that made up the feeling of usual daily life. After that, I synthesized and broke these sounds down to use in the scenes. I took these sounds and used them in the big earthquake scene and the sounds of society collapsing too. So, in the earthquake songs, it really is this scary, huge track, but the sounds in it are the same field recordings used in the calmer, everyday life songs. I really tried to compose with the idea of gradation in mind. On one end of the scale is the intensity of the collapse and on the other is the calm of everyday life, but the same sounds link them. So even with the earthquake songs, you still have the memory of everyday life buried in it.
That’s amazing! I’m thinking a lot about when we talked before about Liz and the Bluebird. You talked about the concepts of disjoint and co-prime and how those concepts tied the movie and the soundtrack together. It sounds like what ties Japan Sinks together is the concept of everyday life. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning?
Yes, yes. First of all, Yuasa-san told me that this is not supposed to be a big, epic story. This is a story about one family. About one household, you know? So there was this concept of praying and reincarnation. Some kind of cycle or sense of leaving something. In the series, Japan is breaking down and collapsing, so there’s many, many things that express this theme, things like kintsugi (Japanese art of repairing pottery by mending the broken areas with gold lacquer). This idea of reincarnation was a really important concept for the series. I imagined the concept as a loop, so I decided to use looping music samples for this title. Yuasa-san also said that this is a tiny, small story, so it is loop music, but not like, EDM. Not trance or EDM or big room techno music. It’s small room music. I thought to myself, this is sort of like house music [laughs]. Yuasa-san said this was a story about one family, one house. That was just a joke, but I used this house music as the jam. When I first came to that realization, I used the field recordings, the small, tiny sounds, to make the music loops really natural sounding.
We could call it neo-house music.
[laughs] Yes, yes, yes!
That’s so special! I noticed you brought up the term kintsugi, and, as I understand it, that’s when you have pottery that’s broken, but you fill the cracks with gold, right?
So, is that also a big theme of the series — things that are broken and put back together?
Exactly. We needed a title, and that’s how we came to “Rising Suns.”
That’s fantastic. I’m really interested in that sort of idea where, when things are broken, that lets them become more beautiful than they were before.
Mhm. Yeah, yeah.
And it sounds like that’s something that Yuasa-san wants to portray with the series.
I did want to ask — working with Yamada, her animation style is just so pure and clean and very refined, where Yuasa’s animation can be so expressive…
Yes, yes, yes!
And there’s so much emotion.
And it’s full of fun!
Right, right, it’s really full of fun! I wanted to ask, does Yuasa’s animation style influence the way you compose when you’re working with him?
Yes, a lot. With Yamada-san’s films, they’re focused on really tiny things. They really zoom in on these intimate things. A very subtle storyline is huge for Yamada-san. But Yuasa-san has an animation style that is full of fun. I needed to touch that fun aspect, you know? So, we needed to have a pumped up beat or hip-hop tracks. The animation style really inspired me.
After we finished Ping Pong the Animation, there was this big afterparty. So, maybe it’s 5 or 6 AM, and everybody looks like zombies. We were sweating and dancing all night, but even in the early morning, Yuasa-san was still dancing! [laughs]. He was really, really dancing hard. He’s really interesting. It was really powerful and everybody was having a lot of fun. We all know he's some kind of legend. The feeling is like … even if he’s a difficult person it would be okay, because he’s this legend, but he’s a very gentle person. But there’s something powerful, some sort of primitive pleasure in his dancing, or in the way he shows a ping pong match, or tells an epic story through animation. It’s all filled with fun. These days he uploads his drawings and animations to Twitter, and it’s really fun and interesting. He tweets, “oh this is really fun to draw!” It’s that … feeling that really inspired me. That primal passion.
He’s had this long, long career as a Japanese animation director, and for most people working that long, it’s hard to keep that primitive, early passion, but he can do that. He’s kept that initial impulse to animate. He’s maybe over 50 now [laughs], that’s amazing! It’s really super.
I loved hearing the story about him dancing at 5 in the morning! It’s just so perfect because you can tell that he has this joy about life that shows up in his work.
I have to say that it’s really special hearing your music that’s written for that sort of animation, because, even in the parts that are sad or the parts that are painful, there’s still this sense of joy and happiness.
Exactly. Yeah, exactly. I think so, too.
There’s this chanting that shows up in the background of the track “eruption,” and in some of the other songs, too. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the decision to include that sound.
In Japan Sinks, there’s a really primitive religion. Yuasa-san said that there’s this religion so try to express that. It’s not a European religion, not an Asian religion, it’s not American. It’s a really, really primitive religion that’s at the root of everything. This religion shows up after the collapse of Japan. That’s when the religion starts, and that’s where the chanting comes in. But it’s a mix of Japanese traditional sounds … and the Asian tradition … and the European … and the American … it’s a mix of those sounds. It’s supposed to be very primitive. I can’t create an entirely new religion, you know? [laughs] But I can mix them up — that’s very interesting. When I did Devilman Crybaby, that was when I first incorporated chanting, so this is kind of the next level.
Yeah, definitely. It reminds me a little bit of A Clockwork Orange, where you have the characters speaking a mixture of different languages.
Yeah, that’s this complex mixture of cultures.
That’s so interesting. Even with small details like that, it’s like you’re weaving together parts of the story with music.
I want to ask again about the idea of the small intimate story. A lot of people might think that this series is going to be about a huge, big event, this huge disaster, so it was really interesting when you said that Yusasa-san told you, “no, it’s a small story about a family.” How does looking at a big disaster through a small family create a special story? And how did that affect the music that you were writing?
Hmm, let me think … That’s a big question! [laughs] When we made Devilman Crybaby, there was this really epic story, you know? The big plots. But this time, we focused on the really small, tiny family in order to focus in on the small emotions of the individuals. There’s a dynamic between the mother and daughter, and the person she loves. It was a tiny, intimate love story. A small love story. Along with disaster.
It’s completely different from the epic, dramatic story because you initially have the feeling of this being a normal thing, a normal situation. And then there’s this huge change from that situation. But the focus is on the tiny changes and modulations of emotion within that huge situation. I’ve never been in that situation so I had to think–imagine myself in a situation where I really want to help other people, but I only have one bottle of water … should I provide it to another group of people or to my family? It’s a really serious question, right? In everyday life, you never have to think about that, but in this extreme situation, you have no food, no water, no house to live in. It’s a really hard story. It’s really interesting.
And now, question two! [both laugh]
So, as I said before, through the gradation of these songs, through daily life and the collapse, there’s a balance there. Everything focuses on human emotion, not the huge disaster. For the “earthquake” tracks — this is a gaming term but — this is not a third-person story. It’s a first-person one. You feel the collapse from the first-person. So, that is different from the other soundtracks in that way.
That makes total sense to me.
So, I don’t know if you remember, but back in our Liz and the Blue Bird interview, I mentioned that the very beginning of the movie made me cry, but I couldn’t say why — when Mizore and Nozomi are just walking with music. I had a moment like that with this soundtrack with the song “the way we were.” There’s something so warm about it that made me think of sitting down in a quiet room and looking at old pictures. I wanted to ask just because it’s so beautiful, what significance does this song have to the whole series?
[laughs] Thank you so much. So, it’s like … daily life after the collapse of society. We can hear the field recordings from the park noise. In the series, the heroine’s name is Ayumu, which means “to walk” in Japanese. After the earthquakes, our heroine has to walk forward, even after the disaster. We keep on walking. If anything happens, she just has to keep on walking, even in a disaster, even if the worst happens. Because of that ... [laughs] maybe you cried, Cayla. That’s what I think. It really expresses how people keep on walking. That’s what the track means.
It feels like that song isn’t just for one moment, but it’s a big theme for the whole series. You just have to keep going.
Well I only have one more question, and it’s a bigger question. [laughs]
Yes, yes, yes. OK.
I used to think, when I watched anime or films or anything, I thought that the most important thing was the visuals. All of the music and the sounds, they’re just secondary — there to back up the visuals. But the first time I watched A Silent Voice, something switched in my brain and I realized that these two sides can work together and communicate with each other. It feels like that sort of communication between sound and visuals has been a big part of your career. You’ve been able to work so closely with creators, and it results in such amazing music. With all that in mind, what do you want when you’re composing a soundtrack? What’s your biggest hope, your biggest desire when you’re creating music?
[laughs] That’s a really huge question!
Okay, so … This is a question for my entire life as a musician, not just as a soundtrack composer. You know that I’m also a solo artist as well, so, to be honest, as I am a musician, I can’t … I really hate the word “express,” everyone uses “express” for … like when you’re playing guitar and you always express something with the lyrics and [imitates an annoying singer-songwriter], I really don’t like it. I don’t want to express.
I want to make something solid.
When I compose a soundtrack, as you said, I always try to cross-over with the creators. My goal is to work with the creators to make a world that’s really solid. We make fiction, but we need to make this fictional world as if it were non-fiction. So … Ah, it’s so hard to explain! Let me think about it…
But this is the reason why I want to collaborate closely with creators. It might be. So … why am I composing so conceptually? ... Why? [laughs]
So … my hero is Marcel Duchamp. He was an artist who, in the ‘20s, put a urinal in a museum as an art installation. He’s really my hero, but … what is his purpose? It’s hard. Cayla, I’ll answer this question next time.
But, I need to think about that. Maybe … maybe I want to make something. This is a really important term for me. To make something. Make. Not express. I want to make the world. I want to make the music solid. I want to make revolutionary music. I want to make something, not express. So, I need a really solid root of the concept, I need a really strong concept of the world I want to make. I want to make it real. This is the reason, and the goal, I think. Does that make sense?
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp (via moma.org)
It makes total sense. 100 percent. Yes.
Thank you so much for answering such a difficult question. I really, really, I love that answer.
Yes, it’s perfect. I think a lot of people try to make these big explanations and use these big terms about what they’re doing. And I think, sometimes, that’s just because they want to sound smart. I really respect that your answer is just, “I want to make something real.”
That’s so nice. So, maybe my hero, Marcel Duchamp, made something real. Made something different. Maybe he made art different. After Duchamp, the art world was completely different. He made a revolution. That is why I love him, his work. Ah, Cayla! That’s it, this makes sense. Okay! [laughs, sighs with relief]
Thank you so much, that was so good! I don’t want to talk too much about myself, but …
When I was in college I studied poetry, and it was something really close to my heart. I love writing and reading poetry. There was this one poet, Gertrude Stein, from the early 20th century …
I’ve never heard of her!
Yeah! She’s brilliant. Beforehand, everything was very formulaic and adhered to all of these rules. Then she and the Modernists came along and broke all of those rules. She would write things that didn’t have rhyme or rhythm. She would write just … lists of things and call it poetry. After her, the whole world of English poetry was broke wide open. So I relate to your feelings about Duchamp a lot, I think.
Yes, yes, yes. They’re the same, I think.
And it’s, um, it’s really honorable to just want to create something where you don’t care about following rules and making everyone like you and your work. It’s just about creating something.
Yes. That’s really important for me. I wasn’t a good music student, so I needed to make a revolution for my sake. [laughs] To compose is really fun. It’s the same with Yuasa-san. It’s really fun to make something.