The composer who turns Hayao Miyazaki’s human touch into music

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Steven Spielberg and John Williams: Some of the greatest filmmakers have cultivated lasting and mutually rewarding relationships with musicians. The decades-long partnership between Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and composer, pianist, and bandleader Joe Hisaishi certainly belongs in that hall of fame.

Hisaishi first worked with Miyazaki on the eco-sci-fi feature “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, released in 1984. He has scored all of Miyazaki’s feature films since, composing wonderfully evocative soundtracks for favorites such as the family fable “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988); the tale of a young girl’s independence “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989); the period epic “Princess Mononoke” (1997); and “Spirited Away” (2002), an Oscar-winning gem about a headstrong little girl that was number two on The New York Times’ list of the 25 Best Movies of the 21st Century to date.

This week, longtime fans and newcomers alike can hear excerpts from those scores and more, when Hisaishi, 71, conducts the American Symphony Orchestra in “Music From the Studio Ghibli Films of Hayao Miyazaki,” a series of concerts at Radio City Music Hall from Saturday. (Performers will also include the MasterVoices choir and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, as well as singers Amanda Achen and May Fujisawawho is Hisaishi’s daughter.)

While clips from the films will be shown on a giant screen, Hisaishi’s concerts are self-contained and are not meant to be mere compilations of classic scenes backed by a live ensemble.

“Watching a movie is a whole different thing from hearing the music in concert, which gives the audience a different experience,” the composer said through a performer in a recent video chat.

Indeed, Hisaishi constructed the set list as if he were composing a single large composition, citing Mahler’s symphonies as inspiration. “For example, the first movement is ‘Nausicaa’, the second movement is ‘Kiki’, the third is ‘Princess Mononoke’, and so on,” he said.

Hisaishi (who was born Mamoru Fujisawa but has a stage name) is also known to make slight adjustments for concerts. “The images are projected so that you relive the emotions you felt while watching the film,” Marco Bellano, who teaches animation history at the University of Padua, Italy, said in a video chat. “But at the same time when Hisaishi plays these compositions in concert, they are not exactly in the same form, the same arrangements that they have in the films. There’s a piece of ‘Porco Rosso’ called ‘Madness’ which is identical in the soundtrack and in one of the concert versions, but many other tracks are completely different. It’s truly remarkable how much he really cares about providing a new experience.

Rest assured that the changes are not drastic and that the concerts retain the Hisaishi touch. Excerpt from “My Neighbor Totoro”, “The Way of the Wind” (reminiscent of another great Japanese musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto) retains its tender melancholy, while “Days Gone” of “Porco Rosso” (1992), is still just as melancholic live, halfway between jazz and French song.

For James Williams, managing director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, Hisaishi’s contributions fit perfectly into Miyazaki’s universe. “When you see these films, there’s a certain humanity to the stories, and that absolutely reflects in Joe’s music,” said Williams, whose orchestra recently recorded an album of Hisaishi’s compositions. “He connects with people, regardless of their culture, and that’s really powerful. What Joe did was kind of keep that integrity of Japanese culture, brought in that Western tonal system, and found a way for the two to keep their identity in perfect harmony.

A distinctive appeal of Miyazaki’s films is that they trust viewers, regardless of age, to figure things out for themselves. In part, that means not using the music to reinforce character traits or telegraph expected responses from a viewer. Luckily, this suits Hisaishi. “The music doesn’t have to match every character,” he said. “It’s more about emotion, something the character might be feeling. And deep down in a movie, the music doesn’t have to say anything related to the character or even the feelings,” said he continued, “There’s already something that audiences could feel just by watching the movie.”

“Castle in the Sky”, released in Japan in 1986, perfectly illustrates how the Miyazaki-Hisaishi approach – which also involves knowing when not to score a scene – is different from that commonly found in the American entertainment. In 1999, Hisaishi not only reworked his existing score for the American release of this film, by Disney, but he expanded it considerably, adding music in scenes that previously had none.

Hisaishi also refrains from recycling catchy musical phrases over and over again in the same film. “From ‘Howl’s Moving Castle,’ you find more of this idea of ​​a leitmotif, but it’s different from the Hollywood style, where the leitmotif comes out very clearly and is very easy to remember,” Bellano said. “With Miyazaki and Hisaishi, this melody appears when it is needed and is not repeated many times.”

Hisaishi writes stand-alone pieces, including symphonies, and has worked with other feature film directors – most famously Takeshi Kitano, for whom he scored such 1990s high points as “Sonatina,“Fireworks” and “The children are coming back.”

“I started my career as a minimalist composer,” Hisaishi said, “and I use my melodic side more in Miyazaki films and my minimalist side in Kitano films – they’re closer to what I think. originally attracted to music, in terms of style.”

Yet it was his work with Miyazaki that put him firmly on the international music map.

Over the decades, the two men have developed a complex working method involving many round trips. Early in the production process, Miyazaki gave Hisaishi an idea of ​​the story, a few sketches, sometimes just a few words. Based on these meager elements, the musician would come up with a so-called picture album (which would receive a commercial release down the line). “For ‘Princess Mononoke,’ one of the first words Miyazaki-san mentioned was tension, like in the tension of an arrow,” Hisaishi said, using the Japanese honorific. He added that it inspired him to write a piece that “eventually became the title theme”. Once the film was ready, Hisaishi would write the score, which could also be released in a symphonic suite version.

The composer did not slow down. In fact, being home during the pandemic further boosted his creativity — and led to a sort of epiphany that Hisaishi referred to in terms that sounded like Miyazakian.

“It took me seven years to write my first symphony, but in 2020 and 2021 I finished two,” he said, referring to “Dream Songs” and “Songs of Hope.” This experience “made me realize that I had a mission as a composer. People watch this world change and are so disappointed: where is the happiness? What’s going on? Look at what is happening in Ukraine,” he continued. “It’s not something we expected to happen again in the 21st century. As a composer, I need to see the world as it is, but I can’t be either. disappointed: we need hope for the future.

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