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de-VICE #1

ghost in the shell (1995)

Soundtrack specialist Kenji Kawai: most in the retell

Andrez Bergen / Special to The Daily Yomiuri / April 2006

Names like Fumio Hayasaka, Keiichi Suzuki and Chu Ishikawa may mean nothing to you, and fair enough.

But to Kenji Kawai, they're gold. "Excellent composers!" he says. "I respect them all."

If Kawai's moniker is also one you're unfamiliar with, readjust your seat belt. His soundtrack scores (along with those of his abovementioned Japanese peers) would sit quite comfortably on the same shelf as those of Lalo Schifrin, Vangelis, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, Goblin, Philip Glass and Neil Young.

Film soundtracks are more than just an aural shadow to a visual light source; it's often the music--rather than the cast, director or script--that renders a movie memorable. Even Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954), while masterful on all counts, boasts an appropriately moody backing score by Fumio Hayasaka to lift the telling of the tale.

Similarly, Chu Ishikawa's pounding industrial music is the lasting legacy of Shinya Tsukamoto's crazy cyberpunk experiment "Tetsuo" (1988), and three years ago Keiichi Suzuki almost perfectly underscored Takeshi Kitano's take on "Zatoichi".

Last week, renowned Japanese director Mamoru Oshii unveiled his new film "Tachiguishi Retsuden", and the man behind the music behind the movie was Kenji Kawai.

His soundtrack is an insightful assessment of post-World War II Japan, from MacArthur to McDonald's, beginning with 1940s swing, and on into '60s jazz-funk (a la Schifrin), with a touch of the psychedelia that hallmarked the music of Hajime Kaburagi and the "Stray Cat Rock" films of that period.

Then it careens on a flamboyant tilt reminiscent of '70s jidaigeki-style samurai dramas that Quentin Tarantino would be proud to spin. Later there's even a brief glimpse of drum 'n' bass thrown in for good measure.

Kawai explains the grand design quite simply.

"It's modeled on the music that symbolizes each age," he says.

It's vital to note that this isn't just some rookie making the tunes. Kawai, who calls Oshii his mah-jongg partner, has been tucked away in his studio tweaking filmic soundtracks for years--in particular for Oshii.

"His outlook on the world matches my own like a charm," Kawai enthuses. "There's a peculiar tension and a mysterious emotional feeling in any of Oshii's work, and his imagination is easy for me to understand because he always gives a clear vision regarding what musical instruments he would prefer, the atmosphere, and so on. Then he leaves it all up to me."

Kawai cut Japanese animation's best soundtrack (for Oshii) on "Ghost In The Shell" a decade ago. It was an indelibly influential body of music subsequently remixed by techno deejay-producers like Derrick May, Dave Angel, Adam Beyer, Umek and Joey Beltram.

Kawai worked with Oshii on live-action movies like "Stray Dog" (1991) and "Avalon" a decade later, and he upped the ante on his own score for "Ghost In The Shell", when he composed an outstanding soundtrack for that movie's sequel "Innocence" (2004).

The 48-year-old composer has also worked extensively with Japanese horror/thriller director Hideo Nakata. He produced the soundtracks for "Chaos" (1999) and "Dark Water" (2002)--not to mention the original, ground-breaking 1998 version of "The Ring".

"I was really worried about how to compose that one, because it was my first experience making horror movie music," Kawai admits. "But he [Nakata] helped to put me at ease. He's great to work with; his style is very characteristic."

Kawai--who cites Burt Bacharach, Carole King, the Carpenters, Earth Wind & Fire, and Quincy Jones as his favorite musicians--recently had his first taste of acting in "Tachiguishi Retsuden". He appears as a bizarre hamburger-rustling grifter.

"I had a great experience," Kawai recalls, with a laugh. "But we weren't paid!"

The Tachiguishi Retsuden soundtrack is out now on Victor Entertainment.

(Apr. 13, 2006)

avalon (2001)




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