To complement Japanese director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s distressed and sweet vision for “Drive My Car,” which won four Oscars, including director and best picture, the choice of composer to create a melodramatic and delicate score was crucial.
Enter Eiko Ishibashi, an experimental Japanese multi-instrumentalist whose 2018’s “The Dream My Bones Dream” marked a turning point in an already decade-long career of scores for theater and short films.
Ishibashi’s 2018 album of haunting soundscapes and its electro-acoustic blend of noise, bizarre pop, improvisational jazz and minimalist modern classical music made her a cinematic force equal to Hamaguchi. The more textural and expansive aspects of Ishibashi’s bittersweet melodies matched Hamaguchi’s vision elegantly.
“It was a unique experience for me to be able to create music with relative freedom and pleasure,” Ishibashi says of his cinematic compositional scope.
Having been known for directing short films since 2001, Japanese director Hamaguchi’s 2018 romantic “Asako I & II” marked an aesthetic shift, a shift toward sweeping narratives with dark, yet tactile atmospheres. Such an expanse was needed for 2021’s “Drive My Car,” the story of a theater manager considering the finality of death while working on a stage production of “Uncle Vanya” on long road trips.
To that end, Ishibashi’s contemplative score for “Drive My Car,” re-released in February on major streaming services with bonus tracks, is as distant and off-putting as it is intimate and easily engaging.
“I don’t usually use a lot of music in my movies, but hearing Ishibashi’s music made me think for the first time that ‘it might work for the movie,'” says director Hamaguchi, who has discovered his music by “Drive My Car” producer Teruhisa Yamamoto just as filming was about to begin. “Hearing his work, I was struck by the beauty of his talent and technique. It reminded me of a band that I enjoyed in my twenties, Tortoise. It had a similar feel that really suited my taste, so I was very happy to work with Eiko.
The director says he and Ishibashi share similar backgrounds, generationally, as well as a common career trajectory. “I think it comes from listening to the same things around the same time. We also share similar tastes when it comes to movies. She watches a lot of films and loves John Cassavetes, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and all those filmmakers that I really appreciate. Our cinematic language was very similar.
Ishibashi – a movie buff who “spends a lot more time with movies than music,” with a love for John Barry scores such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Walkabout” – has spent the last decade at working with avant-garde composer-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke. A post-rock contemporary from Tortoise, O’Rourke is also a member of Ishibashi’s band for the recording of ‘Drive My Car’, and his duet partner for their recent ‘For McCoy’, a tribute album to the actor. . Sam Waterston’s “Law & Order” character, Jack McCoy.
“I’m very lucky because I’ve been allowed to make music for many films quite freely so far,” Ishibashi says, while noting past work such as a live-action narrative feature for ” 2019’s Blade of the Immortal.” animated. “Thanks to the wonderful talent of director Hamaguchi, I feel like all the hard work I put into ‘Drive My Car’ paid off with his good use of music.”
Giving credit where credit is due, Ishibashi notes how crucial O’Rourke and other musical collaborators were to his experimental aesthetic.
“Without O’Rourke’s support, I would have stopped playing music a long time ago. Listening to Jim’s music and mixed sound sources is like breathing delicious air. …Through my collaborations with Jim and Masami Akita [Japanese noise producer Merzbow] I have come to see sound itself as a living thing, that the intensity of sound is not a matter of volume or sound pressure.
After writing to “Drive My Car” writer Haruki Murakami with a detailed outline of his film’s plot, Hamaguchi and producer Yamamoto enlisted Ishibashi to create a score. Working with her ensemble in lines similar to how she crafts her solo projects (“not at all apart from what I do with my albums,” she says emphatically), Ishibashi and her team have crafted an intuitive score, “from scratch”, based on drum patterns and using synthetic and organic instrumentation. For a cinematic atmosphere that was both pastoral and sinister, Ishibashi wanted to faithfully reproduce the sounds that came to him from reading the script and watching the visuals that the director presented to him.
“It was very important to me to be able to experiment with anything that came to mind without any restrictions on the type of music to use, and to be able to hand over the results of my experiments to the director in full”, says the composer of free music without gender or borders.
“What I felt from the images and the scenario became the axis of the project. The director said to me, “I want the music to be like a landscape”, and “I want the music to connect the audience to the film, because it’s the images that separate them” and “For the theme song, I want a melody like Henry Mancini’s that people will remember even after they finish watching the movie.
Hamaguchi agrees with his composer’s assessment of events while adding that Ishibashi’s music, “very rich in emotion and very thick”, helped create another layer of catharsis and intellectualism.
“His music is compressed, and sometimes you could even say that it is so flat it is compressed”, notes the director. “At the beginning, I asked Ishibashi to make the music almost sound like the landscape – the landscape where this story takes place. With that, it just feels like it’s part of the environment, not so suited to the environment. emotion of the moment, but more like a natural part of that environment. When the performance got emotionally somewhat cold in the visual, we decided to emotionally expand that musical palette. I think we did it well and I think that she brought out this incredible flat and calm, but at the same time, very emotional flavor that is fitting for the film.
Hamaguchi and Ishibashi both agree that making “Drive My Car” music in spurts — before and after the pandemic shutdown, as well as during filming itself — was a huge help in making of his compositions for his cinematic vision their own life, breathing entity.
“Working on it step by step with director Hamaguchi during filming was very rewarding for me,” says Ishibashi.
The director continues, “We shot the first 40 minutes of ‘Drive My Car’ in its first track, around mid-2020, but we had to stop due to COVID. We first asked Ishibashi to work on this track – she would send us patterns from different times, and we would add those pieces to the edit as we went along. This process of combining the edit and the music worked really well. Based on the patterns she has found it, I was taking notes and she was recording a final version after some more back and forth. It wasn’t this abstract way of communicating an idea of what I wanted… it was visual to begin with. It turned out very went well and I will use this way of working with a composer in the future.