You recently scored Netflix’s new animated series, Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles. Being a Japanese-born composer now living in Los Angeles, what did this opportunity mean to you?
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be able to use Japanese traditional instruments in this series. I came to the US as an adult, so my sensibility is still and forever Japanese. I grew up listening to the sound of nature, temple bell sounds in the air, music from the local festivals (we call it “Matsuri Bayashi”) and music played for various ceremonies at the shrine that were part of everyday life. I was also fascinated by the music from traditional art forms like Kabuki, Noh, Jyoruri or Gagaku which have 500-1500 years of history. It was my honor to introduce many different types of music and sound from Japanese culture.
The music in the series is a hybrid of traditional Japanese and hip hop. How did this unique combination work for the series?
Producers of the series wanted to use traditional Japanese sound to show the traditional culture and add hip-hop for the main character, Yuichi Usagi, who is 16, and for his friends who have various adventures and quests together. This was a big challenge, because most hip-hop is not at a good tempo for fight/action scenes, and there are many fight scenes. For the Japanese traditional music, I found amazing musicians from all over the world who brought so much to each cue with their mastery. In addition, I had a great team here in LA of arrangers and music producers who helped me realize my vision.
You have written music for Fox, Lifetime, Hallmark, Audience Network TV shows, and worked as an orchestrator for ‘Leaving Neverland’ (HBO) and ‘District 9.’ What is the most exciting part about creating music on these diverse projects for you?
All of these projects have different responsibilities and were fun to score in different ways. But working on an animation series was a completely different beast from any of the projects I have done previously. I had to come up with the bigger vision, sound and themes for many characters and situations. It was super exciting and challenging at the same time.
You founded a Japanese Children’s Chorus. Could you tell us about this inspiring endeavor?
I started the chorus in 2019 in my daughter’s public elementary language school that has a Japanese Immersion program. I had no idea that working with children could be so addictive. It is sometimes hard to know what kind of impact my music has on adult audiences when I write music for films and TV shows, but kids’ reactions have no filter. If I don’t give 100%, they know – this is what I learned from raising my daughter. It is so rewarding to get to know kids (even on Zoom classes) and see them grow and shine. I love the moment that I find something precious in each one of them and their individual talent emerges. It’s hard to put into words and to describe how exciting it is to see a child who smiles or speaks up more as we get to know each other. It feels like I am finding treasures every time I see them. I am also discovering the power of music by performing with them in front of an audience. We were invited to sing at several events before COVID, including UCLA Terasaki Center’s New Year’s party that year. After each performance, some of the audience members came up to me in tears to tell me how touched they were by the performance. That was so striking and rewarding.
After this pandemic’s arrival and finding out that one of my best friends is fighting cancer, I have been thinking, “What can I do to contribute to the world and the future?” I hope to help kids discover something special in themselves that they can be proud of and carry to their future.
I truly enjoy working individually with children by helping them see their own gifts.
What does success mean to you and how do you measure it?
To me if my music can strike or tickle somebody’s heart or make them think of something, then it the success. My favorite artists’ music has that effect on me. It will transport me to different places or worlds and I can dive into that music. I want my music to be people’s background for their lives, like everybody is the main character in their own precious movie or story.
If I can surround somebody with my music and if that makes that person happy, that’s golden.
You are from Japan, lived in Vancouver and now call Los Angeles your home. What opportunities has living and working in Los Angeles brought you and how important is it for a composer to be close to Hollywood nowadays?
The “Samurai Rabbit” series came to me because I was taking an entertainment career seminar about five years ago in Hollywood with a bunch of entertainment creatives and met a writer/producer, Shari Ellis. After the seminar ended, she suggested to continue our monthly “check-in” meetings with four other women writer/producers, and we are still meeting every month on Zoom after five years. Shari happened to be working on the “Samurai” project as an associate producer and she introduced me to Gaumont Films, who created the animation series along with Netflix, and I had the opportunity to pitch for the project. So, in this case, being here helped!
Check out Aiko’s AWFC profile.
Interview by Thomas Mikusz.
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