Interview with Kenji Kawai: Patlabor 2 & Burt Bacharach

This is from the September 1993 of Kinema Junpo, Japan’s major movie magazine, in anticipation of the release of Patlabor 2, which came out in August of that year (much like magazines in the States, the September issue probably came out sometime in July). I wanted to shout “more Patlabor, less Bacharach!” a few times while reading it, but it does have some interesting tidbits, like what Kawai thought of Oshii when they first met and some Kawai work I didn’t know existed, like the film Seirei no Sasayuki and the Oshii-penned Nintendo game Sansara Naga. Anyway, enjoy.

Kinema Junpo
September 1993
Interview by Takuto Kaku
Translation by Matt

It’s safe to say composer Kenji Kawai is known and respected by anime fans. It’s also safe to say his career is firmly intertwined with that of genius director Mamoru Oshii. The relationship between these two artists has only gotten stronger since they first worked together on the live-action Red Spectacles seven years ago. We had the chance to interview this fascinating composer just as he was finishing up work on the new film Patlabor 2: The Movie. We started by talking about Kawai’s greatest influence, Burt Bacharach.

Bacharach’s influence: putting the melody first

Kawai: I watched Bacharach on TV when he came to Japan. I was a total audio freak, so I recorded it on tape. I played it back and thought, “man, there’s just nothing else this good.” He played melodies and arrangements that were totally new to Japan. In any case, I was shocked to the point of pain.

What were you doing musically back then?

Kawai: I was playing some guitar. Kind of folksy, “janjakajan”-type stuff. I bought my first electric guitar when I entered high school, but mostly just because it looked cool. Bacharach was my biggest influence back then too. He still is. Actually, I think a lot of Japanese composer’s arrangements are influenced by his. I’ve also heard there were plenty of people who quit music after listening to his stuff. If I were confronted with someone as good as him now, I might quit too.

What about film music?

Kawai: I love film music. Back then I was really into the soundtrack to Sunflower by Henry Mancini. I love the sweet melodies from that period. That must’ve been when I was in junior high. A little earlier, in elementary school, I was into the soundtrack from Moulin Rouge (1952). I listened to a tape of that my dad made hundreds of times. The influences from back then still haven’t worn off. Same with Bacharach. You can find the same values in both.

What do you mean by that?

Kawai: Simply put, the way they touch you emotionally. In that way, you can say they share a lot of common elements.

When you say Bacharach is still influencing you, you could turn it around and say you’re still chasing after him.

Kawai: That’s exactly right. I’d like to write a piece as epic as one of his someday. I don’t mean writing an album. I mean fitting that kind of Bacharach-esque piece into a movie or show I’m working on. In that sense, I’m not really what you’d call a “hired hand.” I mean, I have to do boring work stuff like everyone else, but I end up sneaking my own musical dreams and desires into other people’s movies. Making music from the perspective of a dispassionate third party isn’t my specialty. Basically, I’m selfish (laughs).

You have strong preferences when it comes to your own music, basically.

Kawai: Yes, but not about the kind of work I take on. Of course, I feel stressed out about it sometimes, but in the end, the kind of music I make is the only kind I can.

Your debut was Mamoru Oshii’s Red Spectacles. What did you think about Oshii the first time you met him?

Kawai: I thought he looked like a nice, earnest guy. He’s a genius. In every sense of the word. He’s on a different plane. He simply thinks differently. Everyone else is back here, but he’s already onto a whole new thing. It sounds a bit rude to put it like this, but he’s an “interesting guy” [laughs]. In a way, he’s kind of scary.

What was it like to actually work with him?

Kawai: I wasn’t sure what kind of person he was at first. He doesn’t talk that much. He’ll talk like a machine gun for half an hour and then not say a word for one or two [laughs]. I’m weak when it comes to awkward silences, so I’ll just end up interjecting. But when we’re working, he gives very clear directions, so it’s easy. For example, he’ll say, “let’s go for jazz here.” He starts from genre. Or he’ll say, “let’s use a strange instrument for the lead.” Our meetings are well-structured too, so there’s never any real problem writing songs. Basically, he knows where he wants to head, and if I can see in the same direction, I know I’ve got it.

Deciding on the instruments sounds like a key point.

Kawai: Indeed. It can be hard to decide between all the different variations. But we figure it out. Oshii will say something like, “I want something with a soft metallic sound,” and I’ll go, “how’s this?” We search and search until we finally get it.

And you’ve got to play them all until you do.

Kawai: Exactly [laughs]. But it’s fun, honestly. And if there are hard parts, I don’t write about them in the liner notes [laughs].

You also did the music for Seirei no Sasayaki the same year.

Kawai: The director (Yoshiharu) Ueoka is a pretty quiet person. He asked for “some kind of weird music.” I imagined the kind of music that might come from the perspective of adults looking in on a world of toys. First I wrote the music in so-called modern style, but when I went to visit the set in Yasugatake, it totally changed my mind. That’s how I ended up with the melody in the film.

It was a beautiful melody. The rhythm and beat were very central – quite a contrast to Red Spectacles.

Kawai: For me they’re the same, though. No matter how strong the beat is, there’s a melody on top. But that doesn’t mean it automatically becomes melodious if you remove the beat, either. In the end, you have to have a good melody.

It sounds like you’re very focused on melody.

Kawai: Yes. So it seems (laughs). It must be because I like old movie themes and Bacharach. Not sound. Melody. Strip everything away from Bacharach but the piano and vocals and it’s still great. If you’ve got that great a melody, you’re set. I’m not sure if I can be called a melody maker, but I’m trying.

A Heavier Patlabor

Do you feel like anime music has a lot of limitations?

Kawai: There’s a certain difficulty in getting your music to match the images and the timing, but that’s what the music is designed for, so I can’t really complain. If I’m told to change something, I do it. Basically, I try to think of the best thing I can do within the limitations I’m given. I actually have a lot of trouble if someone tells me, “you can do anything you want.” I’m basically not an artist.

But not a hired hand either.

Kawai: Right. What I am, exactly? [laughs] But I realized recently I’m just increasingly following my own tastes. I’m not adroit enough to change my style too much from film to film. I look at the images and think, “ah, I see.” Call me a movie composer, an anime composer, it all works. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m quite comfortable being called a “pure musician.” Well… as long as I can do what I want, you can call me what you want. There are some tough things about this business, but I’m basically cracking jokes every 30 seconds. I like to laugh while working.

What do you think of the anime world?

Kawai: Before doing anime, I’d always composed instrumental music, so more than lyrical music, I thought the world of anime music really fit my own style. I’ve basically only done instrumental. At one point I tried to join a fusion band, but I didn’t see eye to eye with the other members. Rather than worry about the minor details, I’m more interested in what the music sounds like as a whole. In that sense, I’m really thankful for the work I’m doing now.

How was writing the music for Patlabor 2?

Kawai: It was tough. The main sound this time around is the “gon gon gon” sound of the contrabass. It’s inspired by the film’s theme of war. It’s a much heavier sound than what I’ve done before.

There are parts similar to the OVA episode “The SV2’s Longest Day.”

Kawai: Probably. They both feature a kind of fervent lone wolf character. That’s the first thing Oshii told me. Rather than flowing gently, the music should be heavy and filled with a sense of coming dread.

The popular Patlabor series just keeps generating sequels. How do you feel when a new one comes your way?

Kawai: “Oh man, not again” [laughs]. No, actually, it’s a title I really love. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Are there any composers you like working now?

Kawai: There are tons of great people. I really like Otoko wa Tsurai yo, so I’m a big fan of Naozumi Yamamoto. I also think Isao Tomita is wonderful. I don’t really watch movies as a composer. I just really think Yamamoto hit the bull’s eye with that Otoko wa Tsurai yo melody. I hope they never change it.

It feels like your style is one of comfortably accepting things that come your way – work included.

Kawai: Not really… at the moment my schedule is just packed. I’m like a duck on the water, just constantly churning my legs. Right now I’m in the middle of making the music for Oshii’s Nintendo game.

All while aiming for Bacharach.

Kawai: Right. I want to become like him. It’ll be a struggle, but I’ll try my best.

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