Pursuing new sounds: Creators of music as media arts No. 5: SAGISU Shiro, composer (Part 1)

FUWA Ryozo

This is a series of interviews, entitled “Pursuing new sounds: Creators of music as media arts,” with artists who have pioneered the expression of sounds in the world of media arts, including the fields of animation, tokusatsu (special effects), and video games. This time, we interviewed SAGISU Shiro, a prolific composer and music arranger. His father was the founder of P-Productions, an animation and tokusatsu production company. SAGISU went into music and released his debut album at the age of 21. In this interview, he talks about his life and career, and the future of media arts from his unique perspective of growing up with a firsthand view of the animation, tokusatsu and music industries.

Index of Serials

The LP jacket of his first leader album EYES – SAGISU Shiro with Somethin’ Special

A childhood filled with entertainment

Can you talk about your earliest memories of music?

SAGISU My father, USHIO Soji, was a manga artist and a tokusatsu creator. He headed video production company P-Productions. It was a very unusual environment to grow up in. It may seem strange today but in those days children were not allowed to read manga or watch TV for more than one hour a day. It was widely understood that they were bad for children. But entertainment was the family business. I could read manga, watch TV and listen to music as much as I liked. What’s more, I was not only a viewer or a listener. As our house was an animation and tokusatsu studio, I could see how those works were created. There were even a cel photography room and a recording booth in our home. It was an unusual set-up. I grew up with professionals constantly in my home, even though they were no relation. As far back as I can remember, our house was filled with every form of entertainment. I felt as if I was swimming in a torrent every day whether I liked it or not. Music was one of those currents.

The local neighborhood also had a good musical environment. Caritas Gakuen had a convent school near my house and I used to visit to sing hymns with others and learn how to play the piano. At that time, KUBO Yoko, who later became a world-famous violinist, lived in the Caritas girls’ dormitory and she taught me violin personally. She had just won third prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962 despite still being in high school; it thrust her into the limelight. I was only a preschooler and my memories are hazy. Still, even at that age I remember feeling grateful to be taught by such a talented violinist. At this time almost anyone could attend music classes as part of Japan’s evolving focus on emotional education. But the professional world of TV and movies and the discipline of the church ensured music was part of my life from a very young age. In other words, I was incredibly lucky.

What kind of music did you like listening to in those days?

SAGISU I guess I was precocious. After I entered elementary school, I gradually developed a love for jazz. This was because from the time I was four or so my father took me to see lots of movies. He had to see various genres of movies for his work and always asked me “Shiro, do you want to come?” Some of the movies were obviously unsuitable for 4- or 5-year-olds. I was attracted to seductive music expressing the allure of an adult woman, or more bluntly, erotic music. People usually develop a taste for jazz at a rather older age and after collecting records and going to concerts, I think. However, I know I chose jazz as my favorite because I heard it in the movies my father took me to and came to like it.

So, your father’s work had a major impact on you.

SAGISU TV played a much bigger role in kids’ lives back then than it does today. Since home recording didn’t exist yet, we would sit in front of TV whenever the broadcast began, staring with wide eyes. Then the next day we’d go to school and argue about what we’d seen. When I was 7 or 8, my father’s company helped Mushi Production with the animation series Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) broadcast in 1963–1966. When I was 10, the company was filming the tokusatsu drama Maguma Taishi (Ambassador Magma) broadcast in 1966–1967. These works were drawn and shot in my own house. One day, when I was talking with my friends about a TV program we’d seen the day before, I blurted out that it had been made in my house. The whole class and even the teachers’ room were thrown into a commotion. I must have been such a smart-ass (laughs). I was probably already seeing things from the perspective of a creator, not a viewer or a listener.

I hear you assisted P-Productions’ work from an early age.

SAGISU I started to help out when I was around 8 or 9. Obviously a small child moving around in the workplace must be annoying and dangerous. Not to mention having the president’s son stare at you would make it difficult to focus! (laughs) Because I recognized this, even then, I thought of what I could do and I started out as a gofer. Everyone was so busy they didn’t even have time to eat delivery soba noodles. So I’d be sent out to buy food they could eat with one hand while working. Obviously, there were no convenience stores back then. You couldn’t get onigiri rice balls or sandwiches anywhere. So I bought koppepan bread rolls at a bakery or yakitori chicken skewers at a butcher’s. Croquettes or other fried food were no good because they would make hands greasy. Buns were no good either if they were individually wrapped, because you needed both hands to open the wrapper. They insisted it had to be something they could hold with one hand, and wouldn’t dirty their hands. I tried to be creative and often asked the baker to stuff the rolls with other food. This was one of my first jobs.

Another was drawing pictures. I was already an animator when I was 10 or 11. When I was 2 or 3, I used to sit on my manga artist father’s knee, copying his work as he drew. I was so confident, I thought no other kid in the world could best me at manga. I was put to work straight away. My main job was to draw on cels. Everything was done by hand then. From tracing lines onto cels to adding color on the other side once they’d dried. Although animation was monochrome, we had to use various shades of gray to express differences in color. I gained experience through the work, of course, and ended up an elementary schoolboy teaching grown-up newcomers (laughs). At that time, the company was working on TV animation Donkikko (1967–1968) and Chibikko Kaiju Yadamon (Little Monster Yadamon) (1967–1968).

By the time I turned 13, the staff didn’t seem to mind at all. I guess they thought “The president’s son seems to be serious about the work.” I became friends with the younger staff. When I entered high school at 16 I was given partial responsibility for one of the departments. It handled kigurumi (suit acting) shows staged on department store rooftops and in amusement parks. I wrote scripts, did the costuming, and recorded voices … all these had to be packaged together. My father told me to write music too, so I wrote and recorded music for the shows too. Because I had seen my father and staff making TV programs, I knew the process included choosing music. I was already familiar with the system of hiring a composer, or choosing music to fit a scene. In other words, I got hands-on experience as a high-school kid most people could only access after university or senior high.

USHIO Soji (SAGISU Tomio) Pi-puro zenkyokushu (USHIO Soji – P-Productions complete music collection) (2017): CD box containing all the theme tunes and insert songs of P-Productions’ tokusatsu and animation works, together with newly recorded music by SAGISU Shiro

An adolescence of composing and arranging music

Your talents flowered early. When did you choose to pursue a musical career and why?

SAGISU Growing up in that environment and handling the kind of work my father did, I knew early on that I wouldn’t want a regular job. I was still in junior high when I started looking at unusual options: “Should I follow in Dad’s footsteps?” or “Is there another path I want to follow?” I had a sense that music might be a possibility.

The musical context at the time was part of that. After the Beatles’ concerts at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1966, a stream of US and UK bands came to perform at the Budokan. As my junior high school was near the venue, I went to see most of the concerts after school. Of course the school had forbidden it, but it felt like the arrival of the US ships that ended Japan’s centuries of isolation. I had to see for myself! (laughs)

I went to a combined junior and senior high school. When I was in my first year of junior high school, WATANABE Kazumi, who later became a jazz guitarist, was a junior at the same school. I heard him play guitar at the school festival, which was held jointly by junior and senior high school sections. It was simply stunning. Soon afterwards, he released a leader album while he was still in high school. Seeing his performance, I realized I would have to be as good as this if you wanted to pursue jazz as a player. That’s when I decided, I would engage with jazz as a composer or an arranger, not as a performer. I joined the school brass band and played the organ, flute and sax. However, my focus gradually shifted toward writing music. I was often reading music theory books behind the teacher’s back in class. So I didn’t really start or join many bands in high school. Instead I helped my friends who were in bands, by transcribing Western music by ear, or writing scores for them.

Having said that, I felt that as a musician, acquiring basic performance skills were a matter of courtesy. I put a lot of dedicated practice into the alto saxophone. Seniors in high school were not allowed to participate in club activities because of preparing for university entrance exams. I therefore took lessons from NAKAMURA Seiichi, a jazz saxophonist, during that year. This school boasted leading jazz musicians of the day as instructors, such as HONDA Takehiro for piano, WATANABE Kazumi for guitar, IKEDA Yoshio for bass, and George OTSUKA for drums. When NAKAMURA Seiichi was not available, OHTOMO Yoshio taught me instead. A little later on, I learned jazz arrangement from SATO Masahiko,1 a jazz pianist, composer and arranger, and orchestration from SATO Somei,2 a contemporary music composer. I asked them to teach me programs that should take years to complete in a matter of months. I had a lot of nerve, didn’t I?

Was your first music-related job writing music for kigurumi shows at P-Productions?

SAGISU No, it wasn’t. I started another musical job about the same time. I was still in high school when I became a “hakoban no tora.” If a band member didn’t turn up to a live performance at a club, I would get a phone call to say, “Go to so-and-so in Shibuya tonight” and I would go to the club with my saxophone. I was a backup performer, basically. Sometimes I worked with big bands, which played in an orchestra pit, and others were ensembles. I made personal connections through this work and picked up new jobs, like writing arrangements. Someone would say “You can score music? Then, will you do this one?” In those days, pop idols were always backed by big bands at concerts. When they covered Western music, the songs needed to be arranged to suit their style. I arranged many songs for TAKADA Mizue and ISHINO Mako.

I also performed music for commercials. The recordings for those only took an hour. For example, if I was asked to be at Mouri Studio in Meguro at 10 a.m., I would do the recording in the morning and only go to high school in the afternoon. I was already putting the job first. So, I had a lot of money for a high-school student. I’d take a taxi to go to school from the studio (laughs).

Creating incidental music while releasing a debut album

The time had finally come to make your debut as a composer and music arranger.

SAGISU I had already done quite a lot of jobs and I thought it would be a waste of time to go to a music college. But, the high school I went to was reputed to send all its students to universities. My teacher pleaded with me, “Sit an exam for a university, any university, please!” I eventually went to university for only one reason: the Yamano Big Band Jazz Contest hosted by Yamano Music. One of the judges was jazz maestro MAEDA Norio.3 I wanted him to listen to music I’d composed or arranged and recognize me, you know? I didn’t attend a single class but I joined a big band and a pop music club and I arranged so much music – even for bands at other universities. A rumor emerged that you’d win a prize if you asked SAGISU to write your score. I transcribed music which appealed to judges, like the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. I coached bands to make sure that they won prizes. In a word, I was doing my best to tip the scales! (laughs) Our big band entered the contest in my second year at university, and won the judges’ award. Only a handful of schools entered with original scores at the time, and they usually asked professional arrangers to write the scores. We won the award with all the scores written by me. Maestro MAEDA Norio said “They are very good scores that will put professionals to shame.” Once I received this endorsement from MAEDA, my goal was achieved and I quit university.

At the time there was an institute and music school called Victor Music Plaza on the top floor of BIGBOX Takadanobaba. It held a monthly jazz concert sponsored by Swing Journal magazine.4 The sponsor was a very respected magazine and landing a spot as a regular band for that concert was a big deal. The Square (now T-SQUARE) played as regular performers for one year, which led to the release of their first album Lucky Summer Lady the following year (1978). I’m on that album as a keyboard player and music arranger. My band Somethin’ Special became the regular band the year immediately after The Square.

I had never had my own band before. This band consisted of really wonderful musicians. ITO Takeshi of The Square also played for my band. Guest artists included SASAJI Masanori 5 and HONDA Toshiyuki (also a saxophonist), who are now in the same profession as me, guitarist AKIYAMA Kazumasa, and singer MIYAMOTO Noriko. It was really an amazing year. The band had a female vocalist and that helped us stand out. We gained popularity not only for our jazz and fusion music but also pop. Talent agencies and record companies often came to see us, and we signed a contract with one of them. Just one month later, we were already making a recording. Everything went smoothly and our debut leader album, EYES – SAGISU Shiro with Somethin’ Special (1979), came out. I was 21 years old then.

About the same time as you released your debut album as a performer, you also went into music for video works.

SAGISU Soon after the release of the debut album, I got a job to write music for a TV drama from Myrica Ongaku Shuppan (now Myrica Music, Inc.). It was a subsidiary of Mainichi Broadcasting System, Inc. (MBS) that owned a part of the master license of the album, EYES. The drama was Tabidachi wa aika (Is it love to depart?) starring WAKAO Ayako (1979–1980 on MBS). We were able to watch some of the filming and even say hello to the lead actress, WAKAO. The producer spurred me on, saying, “You’ve got to write music that will make her even more beautiful, you know?” and WAKAO said to me, “I am counting on you.” They were so nice to a 22-year-old newcomer ([laughs]). So, my incidental music debut was for an adult drama about infidelity that aired at 10 p.m. I was delighted and so excited to at last tap into that indefinable feeling I’d had when I saw grown-up movies with my father. I was also very happy that I could record the drama music with my usual colleagues, pianist SASAJI Masanori, drummer AOYAMA Jun, and saxophonist ITO Takeshi. Some people might find it demeaning to accept an incidental music job just after making a debut as an artist. As I told you earlier, I grew up surrounded by TV program makers and knew very well how hard the job was. Whether it was a drama, animation or tokusatsu, I didn’t have slightest hesitation. It never occurred to me to discriminate between working on my album and writing incidental music.

We were preparing for our second album when the record company asked if I’d stop work on the album and do something else first. That job was the Japanese-version of the soundtrack for Italian movie Pole Position 2 (1980, directed by Mario MORRA). I loved the music written by SORYO Yasunori,6 my colleague at the agency, for the first Pole Position movie. So I was thrilled to write music for the second movie and immediately put the album on the back burner. About the same time, I was arranging the theme song of Saraba waga tomo – Jitsuroku omono shikeishu tachi (Goodbye my friend – True story of big condemned criminals) (1980, directed by NAKAJIMA Sadao). These two were my first movie soundtrack jobs.

The LP jacket of the Japanese-version soundtrack of the Italian movie Pole Position 2


1 SATO Masahiko is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Tokyo in 1941. SATO distinguished himself as a student at Keio University. SATO, OHNO Yuji and SUZUKI Hiromasa were called Keio’s three great jazz pianists. After he graduated, SATO studied at Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music). He was awarded Swing Journal magazine’s Nippon jazz sho (Japan jazz award) for his first leader album after returning to Japan. SATO has been active in various fields as a jazz pianist and composer ever since.
2 SATO Somei is a contemporary music composer, born in Miyagi Prefecture in 1947. He taught himself composition and began working as a composer in the early 1970s, receiving a National Arts Festival award from the Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1980. In 1983, he spent a year in New York at the invitation of the Asian Cultural Council. His works are performed across the world.
3 MAEDA Norio is a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor, born in Osaka Prefecture in 1934. He began his career as a jazz pianist straight out of high school, and taught himself composition and conducting skills. In 1955, he moved to Tokyo and joined SAIJO Konosuke & Westliners. He went on to compose and arrange pop songs, TV music and film scores. He died in 2018.
4 A jazz magazine first published in 1947 by Swing Journal. This magazine led the jazz culture of postwar Japan, publishing reviews of various jazz records and audio equipment and sponsoring the NANRI Fumio award. This was given to people who contributed to the development of the Japanese jazz world. Publication was suspended in 2010.
5 SASAJI Masanori is a keyboard player, composer, arranger, and music producer, born in Gunma Prefecture in 1955. SASAJI made his major-label debut in 1979 as a member of Mariah, a fusion and prog rock group he formed with SHIMIZU Yasuaki and others. He went on to work as a studio musician, composer, and arranger. He is also well-known as a producer, working with such artists as Princess Princess, SHOW-YA, Unicorn, PUFFY, Spitz, and Kobukuro.
6 SORYO Yasunori is a composer and arranger, born in Toyama Prefecture in 1949. In 1969, he joined Sing Out, a band performing regularly in NHK’s music program “Stage 101,” as its band leader and guitarist. In the same year, Sing Out entered the first Nemu Popular Festival ’69 with Namida wo koete(beyond your tears) and won the composition grand prize. The song was released as their debut single. SORYO has gone on to be an active composer and arranger of pop songs, TV music, and film scores as well as a being a member of his own band SORYO Yasunori & Jim Rock Singers (later renamed to Jim Rocks).

Born in Tokyo in 1957. SAGISU Shiro is a composer, arranger, and music producer who works under his birth name. He’s been an industry leader throughout his extraordinary career, working on the front lines for over 30 years since he participated in The Square’s debut album in 1978. SAGISU has created thousands of pieces of music and worked extensively with numerous artists, from pop idols in the 1980s to instrumental artists and more recent singers and artists. He is also active in the field of soundtrack music, including movies and TV. He’s produced a constant stream of astonishing hits over the decades. He has also been active in Europe since the 1990s, running a club in Paris and working with UK and French artists. He became the first Japanese composer to serve as the music director for a Korean movie. Artists he has recently worked with include MISIA, HIRAI Ken, CHEMISTRY, Elisha La’Verne, SMAP, The Gospellers, and HAKASE Taro, and he participated in such works as the Evangelion series, MUSA, CASSHERN, BLEACH, Shingeki no kyojin (Attack on Titan), Shin Godzilla, and Shin Ultraman.
http://www.ro-jam.com/ (in Japanese)

*Interview date: July 4, 2022
*URL links were confirmed on February 1, 2023.

No. 6: SAGISU Shiro, composer (Part 2)
No. 7: SAGISU Shiro, composer (Part 3)


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