An In-depth Interview with Composer Tanaka Kouhei on a 40 Year Long Career. From Behind the Scenes of Sakura Wars and Gravity Rush, to the Secret Story of that Famous JoJo Song!
From Famitsu.com 2/10/21
Written by Kobayashi Hakusai and edited by Sekai Sandai Miyokawa
Original interview appears here
In 2020, Tanaka Kouhei and Hidaka Noriko each reached 40 years of work since their debuts as composer and singer, respectively. Famitsu.com interviewed the two of them to commemorate this achievement.
Our first subject today is Mr. Tanaka Kouhei. He has been diligently nearing half a lifetime on the front lines of his field, in a 40 year career that has been at times shocking, and at times comical.
Composer of countless well known tunes, focusing on anime and games such as One Piece and Sakura Wars. Known as a big gamer, he’s playing a multitude of video games at any given time. (Text provided by Tanaka)
Smooth Sailing as a Composer for the Last 40 Years
Mr. Tanaka, you started your career composing music for anime with background music during the 1982 TV broadcast of [the Captain Harlock anime] Arcadia of My Youth: Endless Orbit SSX. After that you became involved in famous productions such as Kinnikuman, Esper Mami, and Dragonball Z.
I sure have been doing this for a long time. The stories from before I got involved in anime are really interesting too you know?
What kind of work were you doing before that?
TV music, commercials, also something like copying music for karaoke. I’d listen to the actual song and then transcribe it. Back then the composer was always in communication with the studio musicians, so as I produced my work the studio side of it would already be set. Having to start on the recording side from scratch is a pain. You’re up in front of 50 or so people and you’re thinking “They’re definitely making fun of me”.
So you were working for 2 years before starting in anime.
I probably don’t have the kinds of stories that you want to hear the most. Working at the bottom, struggling with work, things like that.
So it’s been smooth sailing the entire time? (Laughs)
I really have to take offense to that though (laughs). For the first ten years I was always going at the same pace. I’d work over 300 days every year. But once I went 1000 days in a row without a day off. I skipped New Years three times!
What an incredible level of vitality…
I was happy that the work kept coming. Fundamentally, I just can’t turn down anime or game work. Hidaka Noriko is the same way I think. If that’s how you are, you just end up always working without taking any time off.
The social standing of an anime composer now must be different from how it was in 1980, right?
When I entered the anime industry you had three people, Watanabe Michiaki, [his son] Watanabe Toshiyuki, and Kikuchi Shunsuke composing essentially all of the music for the entire industry, from theme songs to background music and anything else.
Mr. Kikuchi would often say to me, “Hey you, you’ve been taking all the jobs” and I’d say, “But Sensei, I haven’t taken Dragonball.” When I had begun to work in anime I got some work doing rearrangements for the Dragonball music, but I was never able to get an opportunity to compose for it. After that I started getting put in charge of shows like Esper Mami or 21 Emon, shows that before would likely have gone to him. Ever since then he’s hated me quite a bit (laughs).
So your relationship is as rivals?
I don’t know if you’d call it rivals, Mr. Kikuchi has been a great teacher to me ever since back then. Also, I still remember what Mr. Watanabe Michiaki told me. “Everyone in the industry is happy that someone like you has arrived. Thank you.” So I always try to keep that same attitude, and when newcomers arrive I tell them “Do your best,” and try to get them work. I helped out Kanno Yugo for example, and now I’ve lost a lot of jobs to him.
Ahahaha (more laughter). So history repeats itself!
History repeats itself (laughs). So it’s the same situation now as it was for those three when I showed up. I think of it as revitalization. When it came to background music back then it was an iron-clad rule of anime work that you’d have to record a lot of songs on a very tight budget. It was the same for Hisaishi Joe. When he quit composing for TV anime he laughed at me when he saw my face. After that I ended up buried in cheap work. I had to deal with handling a lot of work, but thinking about where things went from there it all worked out.
To be clear, the environment for recording background music back then wasn’t good. You needed to do a lot of recording for low pay, it was a hassle to book the studio for long periods of time, and it was hard to be particular about your work. So, the people around me suggested, “Why not sell your music?” At the time it wasn’t CDs, but records. If you create something that you have a financial stake in, it’ll definitely sell, they said. So then with Madou-Ou Granzort (1989) and Brave Exkaiser (1990) I did so under protest, and sure enough, they sold.
With the first sales I could establish myself as a business, and ever since then I sold my music. Well, it wasn’t just me, Wada Kaoru was doing the same thing at the time. Even Kawai Kenji was releasing his music for Mobile Police Patlabor (1989). After that they started giving us proper budgets. Up until just a bit ago they paid really well, so everyone was getting really good work.
“Until just a bit ago”?
It’s because CD sales have been steadily declining. I guess if you have something like Demon Slayer the budget is still there. One Piece is the same. It depends on the style, like the music in most late night anime is done by programming now, it doesn’t require a lot of spending.
Meeting Hidaka Noriko during Aim for the Top!
You mentioned Granzort, but at the same time you were also doing Aim for the Top!. Was this when you first met Ms. Hidaka Noriko, who’s also reached 40 years of work?
I was doing Top!, and I was in the third floor rehearsal room at Victor [Entertainment]. I had arrived first, and I was at the piano playing “Aim for the Top! ~Fly High~”. Ms. Hidaka and Ms. Sakuma Rei entered the room, saying “Good morning!” I remembered thinking, “Woah, it’s Hidaka.”
Ahahaha (laughs). Sort of like, “That’s a super famous voice actor!”
Of course I would have known who she was. I don’t think she knew me though. After that they started warming up. We were introduced after that when it was time to record her song for Top!.
You know, Ms. Hidaka is really amazing, and I’m not just saying that because she’s nearby. I’m always saying this, but just her arrival changes the atmosphere of a room. With Sakura Taisen too, just her arriving for practice suddenly brightened everything up. It’s another reason that she’s an incredibly valuable person.
So, you’ve always had a favorable impression of her from the first time you met.
No, even more than favorable. The only thing bad I could say about her is when everyone would go out drinking and she’d be talking too much (laughs).
I see (laughs). By the way, has there ever been a conversation with her about getting your start at the same time?
Yeah, there has been. I had a concert to celebrate my 30 year anniversary and I asked Ms. Hidaka to officiate it. And then, it turned out it was actually my 29th.
What!? You miscounted? (Laughs)
Ms. Hidaka was the one that pointed it out. She said, “Mr. Tanaka, aren’t we from the same time? This year is my 29th you know.” And I went, huh? Was my math off? This happened in front of 2000 people. “I’m very sorry, it’s my 29th anniversary,” I had to say, with “Tanaka Kouhei’s 30th Anniversary Concert!” written behind me. The entire audience was in disbelief (laughs).
So the next year I did it again for real. Isn’t that awful? This time I remembered that Ms. Hidaka and I have been doing this for the same length of time.
The 550 Songs of Sakura Wars, and Only Doing New Things
I’d like to move the conversation to Sakura Wars now. Mr. Tanaka were you involved at all in casting?
That was all Mr. Hiroi Oji. I didn’t have anything to do with casting. Well, I picked the auditions for the cast of the New Sakura Wars stage adaptation, but the voice actors in the game were all single handedly decided by Mr. Hiroi, so you’d have to ask him for more information.
I see, so you weren’t involved in the game auditions. Sakura Taisen has many attractive points, such as the characters or the world setting, but speaking as the composer what would you say is the biggest appeal?
Well, if you’re asking me, I’m going to say that the songs are the appeal. Although I’m making the songs to be able to match the fascinating world Mr. Hiroi has created. Around that time songs mostly focused on rhythm were increasing, and people weren’t writing songs with pretty melodies as much. So Mr. Hiroi and I wanted to create something with a musical component to be able to show younger fans the ballads of the Showa or Taisho eras weren’t outdated, that their melodies were very beautiful. That was the start of Sakura Wars.
So from the very beginning the idea of “conveying through song” was fundamental.
Also, there was the game system that the young people at Company Red (now Red Entertainment) had come up with. We took our ideas and combined it with their design. At that point Mr. Hiroi started acting like his work was done, and I said, “Hey, hang on. You still have to write all the lyrics.” He said, “I can’t write lyrics for a song”, and I replied, “What are you talking about? Nobody else has a better understanding of this world, you need to be the one to write them. I’ll teach you everything you need to know about songwriting.” After that I gave him super detailed instructions. I made the corrections to his work though. Back then it was all back and forth by fax.
When writing my music the thing I keep in mind is “not doing the same thing”. If you’re writing a lot, you lose your ability to adapt and it just turns into a routine. So I make absolutely sure that everything I write is something new. Because of that, I really had to study hard when doing Sakura. For instance, if the request was something like samba music I’d go to the record store and buy an entire shelf’s worth of samba records, everything that they had. Well, nowadays it’s more convenient that I can just find it online.
All of the image songs are completely different depending on the character aren’t they? It must take a lot of hard work to create so many songs with such an abundance of variation.
There are 550 songs alone. Plus 1500 background tracks.
For the [theme] song “Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan <New Chapter>” in New Sakura Wars you matched parts of the song to the nature of Ms. Sakura Ayane’s voice, but for Sakura Wars 3’s “Mihata no Moto ni”, sung by Ms. Hidaka, or for other songs did you take into account the qualities of the performer’s voice when you wrote?
I gave some thought to the voice types in “Mihata no Moto ni”, but before that it was about the Parisian setting. When Sakura Wars 2 ended, I was told in a meeting that the next setting would be Paris. When I asked “Are we going to do Gekitei again?”, Mr. Hiroi said, “No, please write a theme song that will succeed it.” He was like, “Something that will sell even better than Gekitei!”
What an outrageous request (laughs).
At that point it hadn’t yet been decided that it would be Ms. Hidaka. So, when I started writing it I didn’t have her voice in mind. The casting decisions for the other Paris Kagekidan members, Shimazu Saeko, Kozakura Etsuko, Inoue Kikuko and Takamori Yoshino came even later. After I had written the song I divided up the singing parts, and I didn’t think it would harmonize very well. Everyone’s voices were too unique. I didn’t write many harmonies for the (Teikoku Kagekidan’s) Flower Division either, but I had at least written duets for Sakura’s Yokoyama Chisa and Maria’s Takano Urara. But here, everyone was just too distinct, so more often than not I had them sing in unison.
In New Sakura Wars the cast member’s voices were pleasantly similar. Ms. Sakura Ayane and Ms. Uchida Maaya sound quite close. Ms. Hayami Saori is clearly distinctive though. However, with Ms. Yamamura Hibiku and Ms. Fukuhara Ayaka added, the five of them match each other very well, so they were able to harmonize very beautifully. So the songs in New Sakura Wars feature a ton of harmonies.
The Reason Behind Using African Music as a Component of “Mirai (Voyage)”
Speaking of Sakura Wars 3, that opening sequence is still talked about. Were you surprised when you saw your music attached to those visuals?
It’s legendary now, isn’t it. I was stunned. Like, “No way! That’s amazing!” I was even more surprised when I was told that the three dimensional sequences that I had thought were CG were actually hand drawn. Just as you’d expect from Production I.G. Even watching it now it still has an impact right? It might be the best opening in the history of video games.
The commercial that used the can-can dancing scene with “Mirai (Voyage)” over it had left a big impression too.
“Mirai (Voyage)” was a song that was able to be written as a result of actually going to Paris on a location hunting trip. Paris is a city of immigrants, and when we went to clubs there would be a lot of black people. We got to hear a lot of African music there. The can-can or the chanson were associated with both the common people as well as the well-off, and if those were the only musical styles I thought it would feel stereotypical, so I wanted to use music like we heard. Staff opinion was divided, but I held firm.
I didn’t know that! It’s a really great song!
But I told that story in an interview for Famitsu when Sakura Wars 3 came out! Like, “I bet you’ll cry when you see the ending.” And then I got a postcard that said, “I really cried.” Ms. Hidaka’s line there is really great. “The wind that stirs my heart is the wind of your love Let’s have our last dance with a smile Because we’ll meet again someday” Ms. Hidaka does that part so well (laughs). Listening to it at the concert I’d be praying as I watched, “this is the good part, so don’t slip up!”
Making Music for a Cutting Edge Game with Gravity Rush
If we’re talking about your recent work for game music, there’s also the Gravity Rush series. This series has a world that’s completely different from the “Taisho Romance” of the Sakura Taisen series, it almost feels stateless. I’m assuming the focus of your compositions must be different as well?
I actually love these sorts of settings quite a bit. But there was no way I could just write songs that left an impression of “mysterious surroundings” and nothing more, so I had them show everything to me. I got to look at design documents and storyboards, and had everything explained to me so I could get fired up and writing. When I did OVERMAN King Gainer (2002) Director Tomino Yoshiyuki took about two hours to explain to me what an “Exodus” was. With Gravity Rush it was the same sort of thing.
It’s easy enough to say that it feels “stateless”, but I needed to know why things became how they were. I wanted to show the uniqueness that set it apart. I think I was successful, but the people at SIE worked so hard on it, it would have been nice if it had sold a little better.
It took first prize at the 2012 Japan Game Awards, plus the people who played it gave it remarkably high reviews.
Well, Sakura Wars won that too.
That was back before they changed the name, in 1996 when it was called the CESA Awards, right.
In that sense Gravity Rush is the second thing I was involved in that received a first place award. I don’t think of myself as a game composer though. Games and anime have a lot of shared customers, but there are obvious differences too. In games you’ll hear the music repeated over and over, it’s said that the overworld music or during regular battles is the most important. If the music there is dull, the game itself will end up dull too. So, the battle music in Gravity Daze is super cool.
It’s grandiose and emotional.
It’s got Ms. Kawaguchi Senri on drums, and Mr. Eric Miyashiro on trumpet. It had the best people available in Japan participating. It’s not something that I could have imagined myself writing. I’d play [piano] in the live performances as well, and I’d think to myself, “Who the hell wrote this music, it’s way too hard!” (Laughs)
Ahahaha (laughs). Listening to the game, you’d hear the music from walking around in the field of play and as you approached an enemy it would seamlessly transition to the battle music. Was there a trick or something you used when composing the music to ensure that it changed smoothly?
So the battle music would load, and then be switched in by crossfading it. I had to think hard when I wrote the music so that for example, there wouldn’t be any dissonance when there was an enemy character BGM “A”, and an enemy character BGM “B” that ended up playing at the same time. I wrote 3 songs that would still sound pretty and not seem off when you cross faded them. It was a huge pain, like creating a puzzle. I said that if I could do it in surround sound it would be really amazing, but that didn’t end up happening.
In the very first stages of planning I brought up that the latest games in America were using crossfading and making it sound natural, and I was like, well, I want to give that a shot too.
Did that idea come from you yourself playing the latest games?
Yeah. Well, I was also thinking what I would find interesting as a player. Say if I wrote music in an RPG for example where you had a five player party, and everyone had a theme that stood out on its own but also the five songs blended together to create its own theme, that would be really cool right? I say that, but at the same time I also think about how annoying that would be to write (laughs). I’d still like to give it a try though.
A long time ago I did the music for a game called Paladin’s Quest (1992). I was asked to create a score where all the melodies for the individual instruments were broken up separately, and then they would be combined to make a symphony. That request came from Director Shibao Hidenori.
If you could further develop that approach with modern technology it would really be something.
Say there’s an event where the bass comes in, if the music just has [description of low monotone] it’s not worth it right? Even just the bass alone should be worth listening to. When you approach something like that, your education plays a part. You can still write music without thinking that deeply, but the things I’ve learned as a result of studying during past orders has really helped me out.
How Ridiculous are the Requests the Mr. Tanaka has Accepted, plus “A Sanctuary for the Industry”!?
In that sense, it seems that one of the reasons you’ve been on the front lines of this industry for so long is that you’re willing to take on all sorts of unreasonable requests.
True, they’re all unreasonable (laughs). Especially when they were making the anime for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It seemed that there were plenty of candidates to write the theme song, but Araki Hirohiko-sensei wouldn’t agree to any of them. Finally they came to me and said “Sorry! We need it in three days!”
So I said well, it can’t be helped, and wrote “JoJo ~Sono Chi no Sadame~”. They said “Alright, that’s good!” on the first attempt.
That song took you 3 days?
I’ve done work on an even tighter schedule though. I call myself a “sanctuary for the industry”. Please, bring me all of your poor and suffering jobs. I’ll handle them all.
I gained that sanctuary image from the first time I took a request to do background music, for the [anime series] Button Nose (1985). The recording was in one week, and the original composer fell through, so they said “Tanaka, can you do it? We need 76 tracks and the orchestra has to record in one week.” I got it all written and typed up in three and a half days. I slept very soundly the day before recording.
I see, so you’ve been doing it for that long…
2021 Is the Year of Giving Back to the Fans Who Have Supported Me
We’re reaching the end of the interview, but I’d like to hear about your current mental state.
The last 40 years have gone by in a flash. I haven’t done anything else besides anime and games, as I’ve turned down any other kind of work. As you would expect, this is my field. It suits me, this kind of work. I’ve really benefited from the feelings of all the people that have enjoyed my songs. These 40 years have been very pleasant for me.
It’s still the same way, whether it’s the fans who have always supported me, or the people just becoming fans now. I want them to be able to hear my music, and I was in the process of setting up a bunch of concert dates, but the coronavirus put all of that on hold. As of right now, I’ve announced a joint concert with Hayami Saori for 2021. There are other things I’m planning that haven’t been announced yet, but at any rate 2021 is going to be a year of giving back to all of the fans.
I’d like to ask if anything about the image of Ms. Hidaka Noriko has changed in your eyes, as you’ve both worked together for long stretches of time over these 40 years.
Ms. Hidaka is really like the sun. If pushed, I’d say I’m a person with the Sun Type Attribute too.
The Sun Type Attribute (laughs)
We’re both Sun Types, so talking together is a lot of fun, but it wears me out… So, we probably shouldn’t meet more than five times in a year (laughs). It’s already been happening too much lately.
Staff Member: A little while ago, you appeared for a guest discussion during Ms. Hidaka’s 40th anniversary concert, and before we even started recording the two of you had been talking for the entire time.
We don’t need to come up with anything ahead of time. You can leave us to ourselves for as long as possible and we’ll keep talking. Actually, it might be more interesting that way.
After this you’re having a conversation with Ms. Hidaka (serialized in Dengeki Online), and then after that’s done she’s having an interview with us. Hearing what you just said that I’m a little concerned that discussion won’t ever end.
No, no we’re professionals (laughs). It’ll be fine.
I see (laughs) Thank you for your time today!
The interview with Hidaka Noriko starts here