Pursuing new sounds: Creators of music as media arts No. 7: SAGISU Shiro, composer (Part 3)

FUWA Ryozo

A prolific composer and arranger, SAGISU Shiro’s diverse career includes animation and incidental music. The first and second parts of this interview featured his debut at 21, and work in animation music, incidental music, and other genres, as well as his work with ANNO Hideaki. This third part focuses on his activities outside Japan. He also looks back on the path he has taken and reveals his thoughts on the future of media arts.

Index of Serials


Firsthand experience of the international entertainment industry

You are based in Tokyo, London and Paris. Have you noticed any changes?

SAGISU When I work in London and Paris these days I’m very aware of the decline in young people coming from Japan. In contrast, the number of young people from China and South Korea has increased sharply. The next generation to steer Japan is no longer traveling abroad, and I am very concerned about this. China and South Korea’s entertainment industries have grown rapidly in a completely different way than Japan. In the past, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s, Japan experienced a number of movements and maturation processes in both music and movies at the same time as the West. However, during the same period, China and South Korea experienced very little of them, partly for political reasons. So, it is very important to consider why they are one or two steps ahead of us in the 2020s. This is also the reason why I am constantly traveling back and forth between Japan and other countries.

The reasons young Japanese musicians stay at home are complex and interconnected. The long recession means people can’t afford to travel, and many are fans of J-Pop, not Western music. J-Pop did surprisingly well in the 1990s and 2000s. In the incidental music industry, too, there is a large pool of Japanese composers. People may be able to get by without listening to work by international musicians. Japanese entertainment can produce good work because it is turned entirely inward. Animation is often considered a typical example of this. But that is about to become a story of the past. Online society has matured and everything is automatically placed on a global stage. There’s no real advantage to closing out international influence anymore. If anything I believe that the need to go abroad has increased. Searching for reasons for failure is how we find the clues to victory. I would like to make this very clear to the younger generation.

Drawing on your own experience, what do you think are the ‘reasons for failure’?

SAGISU Simply put, “inconvenience is what makes people grow the most.” With the advent of the Internet, society has become exponentially more convenient over the past 30 years, but convenience can also be the beginning of stagnation and degeneration. For example, you have Japanese athletes who are active and greatly respected in other countries, and who display the charisma, commentary, and leadership that politicians really should have. I think that’s because they have experienced the inconvenience of living abroad, including a language barrier, and have been exposed to the public eye in other countries. They have unknowingly acquired the ability to cooperate in service of their goals. The ability to communicate what you’re thinking and realize your goals only grows when exposed to difficult environments. Soccer, table tennis, skiing, F1, and e-sports are all played around the world. This means, of course, that you have to manage everything yourself, including accommodation and transportation. Even if you outsource that work, in many countries’ arrangements will fall apart unless you also check up on them yourself. You are working in a country where your expectations don’t apply, and if it is a competition, you have to win. Even if you don’t understand the language, you learn something there.

The entertainment business is always about “trends.” The most important thing to remember is that “time is change.” Everyone is at risk of becoming Rip van Winkle. The biggest danger is the mistaken belief that you are evolving, that you are on the cutting edge. Since Japan is an island nation, it is insensitive to the evolution of other countries. To give an example, it is easy to think that Korean films had reached the point of winning Academy Awards before we knew it. No such thing. It is just that Korean films were more advanced than Japanese films. Those who don’t want to believe that, tell themselves they couldn’t have known, and turn away from a vital lesson.

Another important point is that evolution is not only technological, it’s also psychological. Athletes already know that even if your technique is the best in the world, you can’t win gold medals without a strong mental attitude. This is also true in entertainment. South Korea has dedicated itself to thinking, learning, and working very hard on what it takes to make really good movies. If you think that Japan is still stronger in animation and video games, you are mistaken. China and South Korea are pressing us with the determination to catch up and overtake Japan. They have perhaps already surpassed Japan in spirit. This evolution of spirit is invisible and therefore not easily visible on the Internet. We are overconfident that the changes of the last 30 years are evolutionary, when in fact we are mired in stagnation and degeneration. This applies not only to technology but also to our psychology. This has become a major risk and is now plaguing the Japanese entertainment industry. I think we are not even able to observe and analyze each of these issues.

Originally, musicians were a profession destined to move, even classical musicians in Europe hundreds of years ago. More to the point, for thousands of years, professionalism in music has been “mobility” itself. It was a matter of course to move across the country. This kind of mindset was natural in Japan in the past. There was a lot of recording done in other countries, and people worked with international musicians. There were many Japanese musicians living in London and New York, and there were more people who wanted to study music abroad, at Berklee, for example, than there are now. This kind of practical work abroad has fallen, especially in the last 20 years. Instead, the number of Chinese and Koreans is increasing rapidly. Fifty years ago the Beatles were granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth, and received the Order of the British Empire. The main reason for that was because they earned foreign currency. That is one of the major missions that we commercial musicians have. We have to move around for that, we have to cross borders. China and South Korea are now burning with that spirit, and that is why they are strong. On the other hand, the flame that once burned in the hearts of Japanese is dying out. Life on the move is a mass of inconveniences. By leaving your home ground in Japan, you face language barriers, are surrounded by people of different races and religions, and pay a large emotional toll. But the ability to get by anywhere will improve whether you like it or not. This is what I mean when I say that “inconvenience is what makes people grow the most.” I feel that this kind of experience is what is most lacking among Japanese musicians today.

So we should go abroad to grow through the ‘inconvenience of mobility,’ as well as to analyze the reality of our own ‘evolution and degeneration’?

SAGISU Yes, that is what I mean. It is often said that foreign countries are societies that are assertive, but that means that they are societies that have “something that compels them to be so.” Japanese people are taught that not troubling other people is a virtue. However, when you step outside of Japan, you will find that society is full of “nuisances” and “hindrances.” It is a society where being bothered and disturbed is the norm. Trains rarely run on time, vending machines and ATMs are nowhere to be found, even banks and post offices frequently close with no warning, and neighbors engage in long conversations when you are in a hurry. Nothing goes as planned. That is the norm. People who work in other countries, or who travel around the world develop coping skills, endurance, and eventually an immunity to a society full of such inconveniences. What we have in Japanese society is the opposite. A society that does not bother others is beautiful. But it runs the risk of stagnation and degeneration. I am not saying that we should return to an inconvenient Japan. I am saying that we should not hesitate to venture out to inconvenient places.

Tuning inconvenience into a weapon in Paris

Do you have any episodes where you felt that inconvenience helped you grow?

SAGISU I ran a club in Paris in the 1990s, but there was no Internet back then, so I walked around on my own to find a property. As a result, I bought a furniture store with five floors above ground and one basement and converted it into a club. In France, if you want to run a bakery, you acquire the business rights to a bakery; if you want to run a shoe store, you acquire the rights of a shoe store; if you want to run a bookstore, you acquire the rights of a bookstore. Usually only people who want to run furniture stores buy a furniture store. However, since I wanted to open a club, I faced a towering wall of restrictions. I first had to obtain a business permit to serve food, and then I had to obtain at least four of the five types of business permits to be able to serve alcohol until late at night. In addition, the permit holder must be a corporate representative of French nationality, and there must be no schools within a radius of several hundred meters. It’s so absurd and inconvenient that it would be unthinkable in Japan, right? But after careful investigation, I realized that I could buy the permits from a broker. That is also absurd, isn’t it? (laughs) Taking advantage of this absurdity, I hired a French CEO, while I was still the owner of the company, bought the permits from a broker, and finally managed to open the club. I also headhunted popular American and English bartenders in Paris and became the owner of a multinational company at the age of 33. It is one example of using difficulties to reach new heights. I am very glad I did it while I was young. It really opened up my world, and at the same time, it opened up my horizons as a musician to an extraordinary degree. I had already had a certain amount of success in Japan and made several international recordings, but I realized that this was really only a very limited experience.           

I said that I want people to go abroad more and grow in the face of inconvenience, but I’m not just talking about studying music. What matters is broadening your horizons and developing the ability to overcome absurdities and difficulties. I hope you understand that I am not simply saying that people should take international jaunts because they’re young, or bone up on world music.

I want to convey the importance of exploration

Do you have anything to say to the next generation who will lead the media arts industry?

SAGISU What I would like to say to young creators, not only in music, is that first of all, “You cannot study after you’ve begun working. It’s too late.” It’s considered polite in Japan to appear humble and say we learned a lot from a job, or that we’re grateful for the lessons. This is simply a turn of phrase. Before you start a job, you need to have studied all you can about that field. The younger you start learning, the better, of course. I talked about how lucky I was, given how I was raised, but that is not why I am saying this. For example, ANNO Hideaki is the King of Otaku, but he did not simply consume animation and tokusatsu in a mindless manner. He memorized and stored details that he learned with his own eyes and ears to an extraordinary degree. He can do that because he tried to learn and make the most of it from an early age.

If you are just a movie fan, you can watch a movie a few times, and that’s fine. If you want to work with movies, the more you watch, whether 20 or 30 times, the more you understand it. The same goes for music. Trace back the “strings” that are attached to any creative work. If your favorite band or group is made up of three people, each of them has their own background. Each of them has different musicians who have influenced them, and each of those influences had musicians who also influenced them. There are things that can only be gained by going back that far. It is impossible to pull the future closer, so we have to pull on ties to the past. It is important to pull on all kinds of strings and explore all kinds of pasts. You need to go back that far to learn. It is far too late to do that after you get out of high school or after you start working.

The world of entertainment is like a game of rugby that has been going on for ages. You are running forward, but you can only pass to the person behind you. Throwing a pass backwards means entrusting something to those who come after you. The person receiving the pass must know where it came from to catch the ball properly and then pass it on in turn. If you want to learn the game, you need to know who started it, who shaped it, where it was created, what kind of people did the work. Pulling on those strings to trace the past is an important way to learn about entertainment.

Whether or not Japanese entertainment can go global is not simply a matter of opportunity. When the words “chance” and “opportunity” are translated to Japanese, they’re both expressed by the same word, “機会 (kikai).” But they mean very different things. “Chance” means something that happens unpredictably. An “Opportunity” is something you prepare for, wait for, and seize by yourself. Opportunities to go out into the world have become more abundant than in the past. In order to get one, you have to be prepared, wait for it, and seize it firmly.

Thank you very much for your time today.

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. 5: SAGISU Shiro, composer (Part 1)
No. 6: SAGISU Shiro, composer (Part 2)


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