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Text Interviews » Yuki Kajiura and Ryo Takahashi Princess Principal interview at atmafunomena

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Princess Principal was an action-adventure highlight of Summer 2017, and a big part of this resonance with the fandom was undoubtedly the high-octane musical identities afforded to the production by its arranger/composer duo of rising star Ryo Takahashi(ACCA: 13-ku Kansatsu-ka, Classroom of the Elite), and prolific veteran Yuki Kajiura (Kara no Kyoukai, Fate/Zero, Sword Art Online, ERASED).
The following is a translation of the interview conducted with the two composers by Natalie Music.

The two heresies brought together by Princess Principal

(Translator’s note: This interview was conducted in early August, following the broadcast of episode 4.)

In his career thus far, Ryo Takahashi has demonstrated his talents not only through the music for ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. and Classroom of the Elite, but also in writing music for and even producing a range of other artistes. Now, he has started another project, Void_Chords. The project’s first single, ‘The Other Side of the Wall‘, is the opening theme of Princess Principal, which began its broadcast run in July. Featuring MARU, a singer whose prowess has even been showcased in the Broadway musical RENT, this jazzy number with a steampunk feel has created a sensation in the world of anime theme songs.

To celebrate the launch of Void_Chords, Natalie Music has brought Ryo Takahashi and Princess Principal composer Yuki Kajiura together to talk about their work. We proudly present this cross-talk that delves deeply into the styles of these fellow musicians, both so deeply involved in the world of animation.

Interview and text: Hideyuki Mori | Photography: Rui Satō

Interviewer: So this is the first time you are meeting each other.

Yuki Kajiura: That’s right. In the first place, having two composers at the same studio can be pretty awkward. It’s incredibly rare for people like us to meet or become acquainted with each other. So I’m glad to have gotten this valuable opportunity today.

Ryo Takahashi: Since I’m someone who’s had the honour of listening to and learning from Kajiura-san’s music, I actually can’t quite get my head around what’s happened to me now…like, is any of this actually real? (chuckles)
Kajiura: Oh please. (chuckles)

Interviewer: We’ve just seen the fourth episode of Princess Principal, the anime that you’ve both composed music for, broadcast on TV. What are your thoughts on what you’ve seen so far?

Takahashi: It’s a show that’s cool and heavy. Like, the developments in the story are pretty serious. It exudes a feeling I’d never have imagined when I first received the character visuals.

Kajiura: Agreed. When I first saw those visuals, I thought it’d be a show about champions of justice or something along those lines. I figured that it’d be about female spies going “Let’s go girls!” and “Alright! Leave it to me!” (chuckles). But when I received the scripts, it turned out to be a cool but tumultuous story. To match that, I had to change the musical image that I originally came up with. But it really is an interesting show. This might sound rather snobbish given that I’ve only had a hand in the BGM, but looking through all the comments on Twitter brings a big triumphant grin on my face (chuckles). Since I was granted the opportunity to read through all of the scripts, I’m kinda like “hehehe, it’s gonna get even more interesting from here on!”

Interviewer: With the opening theme ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ – accredited to Takahashi-san’s Void_Chords, featuring MARU – raising the curtains with a flourish, and the episodes themselves brimming with the ‘Kajiura sound’, this has become a show with an incredible musical richness. The synergy between the animation and the music is just staggering.

Kajiura: I do hope that’s how everyone feels about it. But in the end, I think that the opening theme really is fantastic. The arrangement is so cool, just superb, so when you add the animation to it, it’s like a complete short movie in its own right. Those who watch it will feel their blood heating up. And after that, they’ll cool down a little and the story will start: it’s such a fine balance to get that flow right. As a viewer myself, I was completely drawn in.

Takahashi: On my side, I did quite consciously aim for the opening theme to convey the tension of a curtain being raised on the work. I figured that they’d be able to strike a balance by adding Kajiura-san’s heavy music to that serious story. Based on watching all of the episodes that have been broadcast so far, I do feel as though I’ve really made a contribution as the opening artiste.

Interviewer: That said, this opening number feels completely different from the average “anisong,” as we call them. Though that’s incredibly cool.

Takahashi: You normally wouldn’t see this kind of song as an opening to an anime (chuckles). In truth, at the time of the first meeting, the production team told me that they were thinking of making the opening theme an instrumental piece. When I heard that, I thought “Oh, I might be able to be a bit adventurous with this one. Perhaps they’ve asked me to do this because they’re after those spiky parts of myself.” Hence, I made the song by vigorously cramming my own understanding of what spies are, the steampunk atmosphere, into as spiky a form as possible. This is especially true this time around, but I do get the sense that I’ve lately been entrusted with making music outside of what you’d typically hear, music that’s a little edgy. Like, I’ve come to the position that I now find myself in (chuckles).

Interviewer: Like, as you advance in your career as a composer, your individuality becomes more obvious, so you get more work offers asking for that individuality. Kajiura-san, I believe you experienced that, too.

Kajiura: You could say so. But with this particular anime, I thought that it’d go better with something that wasn’t exactly like the so-called ‘Kajiura sound’, so I tried to do things a little differently. So when people tell me that they knew at once that it was me, I’m like “What happened with all the things I did differently?” (chuckles)

Takahashi: (Laughs) But in watching the show, I feel that it’s got a tempo that your music helps create. Like, there are minimalist pieces that are used multiples times in a range of different scenes.

Kajiura: Well, that’s true, I guess. Though I believe that’s all thanks to the sound director’s strategy (chuckles).

Takahashi: This is just a pet theory of mine, but I think that shows where the same music can be used numerous times in a whole range of scenes are classics. Like, no matter how many times you hear the same piece, you don’t find it irritating – in fact, it gives birth to a nice tempo that makes me happy as a viewer. Each episode is like 30 minutes long, but the music makes you forget the time as you are watching. Though of course, it all depends on having great music in the first place.

Interviewer: Speaking of how the music is used, do you leave it up to the staff of the show?
Kajiura: In my case, yes. I don’t involve myself in the sound mixing process, so I generally don’t know where my music has been used until I watch the show on TV. And it’s interesting to find out—I’ll sometimes be like “You’re using this piece here?!” (chuckles)

Takahashi: I hear you there! (chuckles) But on the other hand, sometimes you’ll find yourself really getting into it. That’s one of the draws about the soundtracks of TV shows and the like.

“I was asked to create something not ‘anime song-like’”

Kajiura: The lyrics for ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ are in English, aren’t they? I was quite surprised by that – I remember going “Oh! It’s in English! That’s brave….but it sounds good!” Whose idea was it, if I may ask?

Takahashi: This was a request from the production side. In the first place, it seems like they were originally thinking that they didn’t want something that was “anime song-like,” and that’s why there were discussions over making it an instrumental piece. But then they decided to go with a vocal piece, and then it was like “if we do it normally then it’ll be that” so they decided on having English lyrics.

Kajiura: And of course, the worldview of the song matches that of the anime. It’s incredibly cool.

Takahashi: I can’t write lyrics, like not at all, so I always leave that to the lyricist. But I want the music to have a certain drive, so I give them some instructions about the parts that I want to be catchy. As a result, the lyrics were a perfect match not only for the music, but also for the show that this song was to be attached to, and that made me really happy.

Kajiura: Do you hand the lyricist a demo that you’ve sung yourself?

Takahashi: Yes, I do. I basically put together some pretend English, matching the music and the words such that you can sense the energy of the song that they give rise to. But how they take it in is something I leave up to them.
Kajiura: Indeed, there are some things that you can’t completely convey with the written music alone. Making a demo is also important for avoiding situations like “Oh, so you’ve put a phrase in here, huh?”

Takahashi: Agreed. Basically, it’s difficult to convey what you mean in a discussion, so it’s like “Just singing it would be quicker.”

“Void_Chords is a place where I can detonate my musical desires in their raw state”

Interviewer: You’ve announced that you’ll continue Void_Chords as a unit without one designated singer. And for this first single, you’ve featured the female vocalist MARU-san.

Takahashi: That’s right. Around the time I felt that I wanted to make a place where I could detonate my musical desires in their raw state, that’s when I was approached about the edgy music that was being sought for Princess
Principal. So that’s when I decided to start something under this new name. And because I wanted it to be a project that, musically, is interesting and a little strange, I figured that I could be flexible with the vocalists.
Kajiura: MARU-san has performed in the musical RENT, hasn’t she? She’s got an incredibly powerful voice, so I feel that she really clicks with the impressive song that you’ve come up with this time. Her singing is very, very cool.
Takahashi: Well, this song is, you could say, pretty full-on, what with the number of sounds it has, the tension running through it, its energy (chuckles). So I wanted someone with the power to oppose and overcome that. There were many candidates, but the moment I heard MARU-san’s singing, I was like “She’s the one. She’ll knock them all over!” (chuckles).

Kajiura: Indeed! She does have the power to do that.

Takahashi: In that maelstrom of sounds running amuck, she seemed to be someone with the vocals to mow them all over, so I made the offer to her just from hearing her voice. And it has really worked out well.

Kajiura: It’s really important for opening themes to garner a sense of excitement in the audience. On that front, I feel that ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ is ideal, both in terms of the sound and the tune. After all, no matter how realistic the story they tell, anime worlds are, fundamentally, not real. As something that serves as the door into those unreal worlds, opening songs have to generate a thrill that makes you forget reality. In contrast, the ending serves as an outro, one that gives you an aftertaste of the show and then returns you to reality. When I write songs that are meant to serve as openings or endings, I’m quite conscious of having them fulfil those two roles.

Interviewer: It sounds quite different from the approach that is sought when creating background music.

Kajiura: You could say that. It seems obvious, but a lot of background music is something that viewers must not notice – it’s bad if they do. On the other hand, if openings and endings don’t grab your attention, then you have a bit of a problem. In that sense, they’re completely different in terms of the level of self-assertion.

Takahashi: I completely agree. As with you, that line of thought is also what drives the way I work.

‘The void’ and ‘lawless zones’

Kajiura: In choosing the name ‘Void_Chords’, was there some kind of meaning you wanted to capture?

Takahashi: The universe is made up of stars, galaxies and ‘the void’, where there’s nothing at all. Spaces with absolutely nothing at all. But there’s actually a lot of energy accumulated there, and it’s a place from which a whole range of things can be born. When I tried overlapping that idea with myself, the part of me that doesn’t follow tradition, that part that’s a little bit twisted…I felt that there might be something interesting born from that part that isn’t sparkling away in the distance. So I figured that, should I begin a new project by myself, then I’d use the word ‘Void’.

Kajiura: Oh, how interesting.

Interviewer: So although you’ve written a lot of popular songs already, Takahashi-san, you also have this intuitiveness that belongs to the minority.

Takahashi: Right. On the one hand, I do have a yearning for things that are popular and mainstream, but it’s like I’m not completely dyed in those colours…like, there’s definitely a muddled minority part that exists in parallel inside of me. And so, in addition to being able to put out my range as a musician in songs and soundtracks, I figured that I’d create a channel where I could put out that muddled part as well. So Void_Chords covers pretty much the range of my tastes (chuckles). I don’t really feel like it’s something I’m doing as part of my work. More like, it’s the product of me pulling together everything that I find cool. Actually, I’m pretty grateful to be able to do something with so much freedom.

Kajiura: I totally understand what you mean. In my case, that’s what happens with the collaboration singles that I produce. Those collaborations are basically ‘Kajiura’s lawless zones’ (chuckles). Of course, I do love writing the bright pop songs that are characteristic of singles, but having that ‘lawless zone’ around at the same time allows me the certainty of being able to do my work without accumulating any stress.

Takahashi: Oh, so to you, Void_Chords is something like a place for collaborations. Someone might get mad at me for saying this even though I’ve been entrusted with writing the show’s opening theme, but ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ is like the B-side of a single to me. It’s the kind of song that you should not be doing for the A-side (chuckles). At least, this time it’s something that the production side requested of me.

Kajiura: That’s true (chuckles). Personally, I’m no good when it comes to writing cool, edgy songs like this, so I’m seriously mesmerised just listening to it. To the point where I just want to hear more of it. So if you say this is a B-side song, then please make a whole album of them!

Takahashi: Thank you! But to tell the truth, if I just do one thing, then a whole lot of stuff just piles up in me. I really feel that being able to spew what’s inside you out through a whole range of channels is the way that I can keep my sanity as a musician.

Kajiura: Right? When you’ve written about 30 instrumental pieces, you start feeling like “Write something with vocals, dammit!” (chuckles) And then when you’ve been writing just vocal stuff, it’s like “Write some damned instrumentals, you dolt!” We’re pretty self-indulgent, huh?

Takahashi: You said it. (chuckles)

“Individuality is nothing but a result”

Interviewer: Both of you have quite a body of work thus far, both in terms of background music and vocal songs. But I think that all of them are dyed completely in your individual styles. When composing, are you always conscious of that ‘individuality’ that you have as a musician?

Kajiura: In my case, I don’t really like being told that my work has ‘the Kajiura sound’. Because it’s not like I go in with the intention of creating ‘the Kajiura sound’. Instead, I’m always trying to create music that breaks out of my shell. When I look back at what I’ve done in the past, when I’ve spoken of ‘songs that are characteristic of me’, that was just my excuse for not doing anything other than what I can do. Now that I think about it, I really want to punch myself for that (chuckles). What’s important is for you to do your absolute best to create the music that the current you wants to create for the sake of the show that you’re involved in. Individuality is but the result of that process. I’m always conscious of wanting to do my best not to forget that.

Takahashi: ……wow, that’s a good take-home lesson for me. Your music has this unshakeable colour to it, so I’m stunned that that’s how you think about it. In my case, I became more aware of my own individuality around the time that I was first asked to compose background music. I figured that if I couldn’t put my own individuality out, then it would basically be like “it doesn’t matter who you ask, it’ll be the same.” But this notion of not being conscious of your own colours, with them showing up as the result of your work, that’s something I can get behind.

Kajiura: For me as well, up until the third anime that I worked on, I thought that I simply had to put out something showcasing my individuality. But when I thought about it later, the “individuality” that I had at that point really was quite stunted. Following that realisation, with advice from those around me, I tried challenging myself to create something that wasn’t like the me at the time. And as a result, I felt that the range of the sound I created had broadened ever so slightly. When I look back at it now, it all seems to have been part of my nourishment. And so now, I want to refrain from constraining myself within certain boundaries, and just think about how I can do my absolute best in my work.

Takahashi: My word…I’m nodding along to this so hard that my neck may well break (chuckles). Honestly, I completely agree. Thank you so much for this fantastic discussion.

Kajiura: Well, same here, really. And my apologies that it became something of a sermon (chuckles).

The funding of this interview translation was a collaborative effort between me and three prominent anime content creators.
Commissioned by: Nachi-san
Co-funded by: The Canipa Effect, Under the Scope, The Pause and Select Community
Translated by: @karice67

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