Interview with Akira Miyagawa, 2011

Space Battleship Yamato becomes ever more legendary as the years pass, but the inevitable corollary is that its legendary creators are steadily lost to us with increasingly tragic regularity. Perhaps most painful is the loss of almost the entire music contingent. Composers Hiroshi Miyagawa and Kentaro Haneda, lyricist Yu Aku, and some of the key performers are now beyond our grasp, a combination of talent that can never be equaled.

Fortunately, Maestro Miyagawa left behind more than a body of work; he left a son to carry it on. Akira Miyagawa made his own contributions to Yamato music, helping to arrange portions of his father’s score for Yamato III and Final Yamato as a teenager, then moving on to his very successful career as a performer, composer and conductor.

In October 2011, he was interviewed by Sean Robbins, producer and host of The J-Pop Exchange website. Sean graciously offered us the entire text of that interview for reprint here. So without further ado, we bring you the words of a musician named Miyagawa who is thankfully still among the living.

Akira Miyagawa: J-Pop Exchange Radio Show Exclusive Interview

Conducted by Sean Bird on October 15, 2011
Edited (for brevity) by Tim Eldred
See and hear the unedited interview here.

Interviewer (Sean Bird): Let me start by asking how you first became interested in music. Did it begin in your childhood?

Akira Miyagawa: My father was one of the most successful musicians in Japan. He passed away a long time ago, but I was born when his career was starting to surge and I grew up seeing him work very hard every day. I watched him play piano and create music for TV shows and concerts all the time, and I had not a single moment to think about working on anything other than music.

At left: The Miyagawa family in 1981, when Akira assisted on Yamato scores. At right: 1991

Interviewer: Then, your mind was already set when you were born…or the moment you had self-consciousness?

Miyagawa: Oh, yes. I wrote an essay in 1st grade about my dream to become a songwriter and arranger. I was only 6 years old then.

Interviewer: Then it was very natural for you to become a songwriter?

Miyagawa: Yes, it was certainly natural with the environment that I grew up in. I had nothing other than “songwriter” in my mind, and I never had a doubt about my dream. Actually, after deciding “I will become a songwriter,” and seriously starting to study music and working in the music business, there were numerous moments when I needed to break through the stone walls. Time after time, I noticed that to take the same job as my Dad was a very tough decision. However, that was the moment I learned how famous and successful he was in this business.

Interviewer: Your father was famous for writing songs for the legendary anime Space Battleship Yamato. Did you learn songwriting tips from him?

Miyagawa: My father was rarely home, and I never had a once-a-week, or once-a-month song-check type of lesson from him. I learned mostly on my own. My Mom was very supportive and I was encouraged to take lessons, and she found my teacher, so my mother guided me more than my father.

Later, when I became a junior high school student, I formed my own band with my classmates and I started to write songs. My father came home late at night and I heard from my Mom that my Dad had gone through my music and said, “Is this the piece Akira wrote? This bass line is good.”

At left: The Miyagawa family, 2002. At right: Hiroshi Miyagawa and his wife shortly before his death in 2006.

My Mom kept telling me what he said about reading or hearing my piece. Sometimes it was like, “Your Dad said this melody isn’t good” or “Your Dad said that orchestration is wonderful.” My Dad and I were in that kind of relationship.

Interviewer: Then it was more like learning from his example than being taught by him directly.

Self-portrait of Akira with his father, 2002

Miyagawa: Yes, that’s right. I watched what he was doing very closely. I even went to his workplace and watched his recordings and stage rehearsals sometimes. One day, I started playing the synthesizer during a recording, and sometime later I got a chance to arrange some songs. And soon, I started thinking, “If I were the person in charge of this project I wouldn’t make it this way” or “maybe this is the bad part of my Dad.” But most of the time I was amazed. “What a great melody he created! He really is a great man.” In short, I learned a lot from my Dad by watching him closely as I got older. It was a great joy for me to see both his pros and cons; his good teacher part and not-so-good teacher part.

Interviewer: Would you mind talking about your songwriting process? How do you create and write your original songs? When you compose music, how do you progress from inspiration to creation?

Miyagawa: In any type of project, I start out from the script. I don’t have much experience writing songs for animation, but when I do, to hear the cute or evil voice of the characters doesn’t help me to visualize the image of the song. I’d rather read the script and know what kind of line that character said, and imagine what kind of voice that character might speak in and let inspiration grow inside my head. The script is both a scenario and a book for me, and by watching those words and lines, I start to see my original vision. My imagination grows and I start thinking, “maybe the face looks like this” and “the situation can be like this.”

Then the vision gets clearer and I start to feel the atmosphere of it. I can see the place, I can even imagine the air floating in this vision, and then naturally I hear the music at the same time. This vision starts out from the written words or sentences.

I think it’s also important to see the actual illustration and faces of the character. For example, there was a character named Count Brocken in the anime Mazinger Z. He was the character with his own head in his hand. His head was separated from his body, and when I first saw his illustration I didn’t have a simple horror-image reaction. He had many, many experiences in his past and had deep wounds in his heart. This was what I read and knew from the script. Then the music followed from my vision.

When I synchronize my feelings with the vision or when I see it I can hear the music. I think this is the beginning of my songwriting process.

Interviewer: Is the music that follows only melody, or a fuller sound, something like orchestration? Or maybe even both?

Miyagawa: I’d say both at the same time. And after hearing them, there are many times that I think back and find, “ah, it was the sound of an orchestra” or “that was played only by piano.” Most of the time it comes to me generally in one sound.

Interviewer: So you start sketching those sounds?

Miyagawa: Yes. To write down the notes exactly the way I hear them is the technique of songwriting. What I learned at music school and studied over 10 or 20 years during my training period was the very basic and important skill of writing down the music that I heard, immediately.

Interviewer: In contrast, are there ever cases where you write a song without any script or basic lyrics, in complete freestyle?

Miyagawa: Yes, of course there are.

Interviewer: Can you tell me how you write on such an occasion? For example, while you’re taking a walk…?

Miyagawa: I’m not the type of person who can suddenly come up with a melody that was God-given from the sky. The sound that I come up with is a melody that means something. It can be a taste of emotion, or in the case of free song writing, there are some options I have to follow like, “write a song from zero any way you want, but in a composition style that fits my concert band, and the due date is September 30th.” Something like that.

First, I start by thinking up a title for this new creation. And I ponder what kind of song I’d like to create. Of course, I don’t write a script, but I try to come up with a song that can make people want to write a script.

Interviewer: You mean something that contains a story?

Miyagawa: Yes. I try to come up with a title that can inspire a whole story. It can be the title of the song, or it can be a keyword. For example, I wrote a song named Nariwai [Calling] last year. The reason was simple; I liked the word “calling.” This word means “work for living,” “earn money for living,” or “irreplaceable work.”

Interviewer: Each person has their own calling…

Miyagawa: Right. My calling is to work with music. I thought this word “Calling” is wonderful, so I started writing songs, and at the beginning of this writing process I saw many visions. Once I came up with the inspiring sentence, “this place was certainly here since a long time ago.”

Interviewer: May I ask what you mean by that?

Miyagawa: The cities keep changing and there aren’t any places exactly the same as they were 40-50 years ago. Tokyo for example, even though it looks very similar it’s not exactly the same as it was in the past, right?

Interviewer: Yes, the buildings might be different, and the people who live there might be different also.

Miyagawa: That’s right. Maybe the tree has grown taller. After all, it’s different from the past. There was the time when Samurai with a topknot and wearing a sword were walking the same street where I stand today! On THIS road! Exactly the same road that curves to the right today! That guy should have turned to the right, just as we do today. In an older age, maybe somebody wearing a grass skirt was cultivating a field. A long time ago, there might have been somebody walking with a wild beard and wearing an animal skin. Peking man might have walked this same road many years ago.

Nobody knows about the past, but the scenery changes dramatically and probably we can say that exact same scenery will never come back. But THIS PLACE was surely here many years ago. When I think, “this place was really HERE since a long time ago,” then people who were HERE in the past could have some kind of work or occupation to make a living.

This is a very romantic thing to imagine. Though the image starts to grow…this kind of image is very difficult to put into words. So, in my case, the only way to express this image is through music. I start feeling the urge from deep inside, and by that time I already hear some kind of music; “maybe I can express the mysterious feeling with this tone or that sound…” When I start writing a song from scratch, I look for the keyword like this. This is how I work.

Interviewer: So, after finding a script or a keyword, you start reading the image and…

Miyagawa: Yes. But in the simplest way, there’s a very useful keyword I can use for any kind of work, and that is “life.” To write new music can be interpreted as the birth of music. It can’t be separated from the word “life.” Whenever I think about life, this word can be the most useful and powerful keyword.

Interviewer: And life is HERE–a long time ago, and today.

Miyagawa: Yes, it’s something we all have in common. Life was in the past and is today, and all over the world…

Interviewer: In Japan, and in America too.

Miyagawa: And even if we have different religions. We do have a lot of differences, but we have one common thing, that we live this life just one time and the end of this life comes only once. When I think about this, an image can grow freely and I can hear the music easier.

Three wildly different TV anime titles for which Akira has written music: Kirby of the Stars (2001),
Emily of New Moon (2007), and Shin Mazinger Shogeki! Z-Hen (2009).

Interviewer: For the next question, I’d like to ask more about creating music for anime. Let us hear the song writing process for Kirby of the Stars. [English title: Kirby: Right Back At Ya!] As a songwriter, when do you start getting involved in the project? Do you watch the animation before you start writing songs? How different is it from when you write songs for TV shows and musicals?

For example, the song titled Pop Star. This song expresses both disappointment and hope in a very dynamic way. And I think it was significant that this song was used in the very first episode of Kirby. When Kirby’s world broke down, this music expressed the serious danger drawing nearer in a very effective way. I think this song offered a perfect tone for the scene.

(Listen to Miyagawa’s Pop Star on YouTube here)

Miyagawa: Oh really! I’m very happy to hear that. I’ve been in this business for quite a long time, but still I’m searching for the best way to work on anime projects. In an anime project the most important thing is the image that the director has. If I didn’t follow and work with this image, my creation would be useless. Even if the music itself was brilliantly good, if it didn’t fit, it would just become crap.

From a different point of view, animation is created and supervised by one…and that’s the work of the animation dictator. For example, all the animation projects from the world famous Studio Ghibli, every title is directed by Mr. Hayao Miyazaki and unless he says, “yes…”

Interviewer: Nothing starts and nothing ends.

Miyagawa: That’s right. However, in the case of stage works, like musicals, it’s very different. There’s a book or script before the songwriter, lyricist and producer can start the music. Usually, we start by selecting the producer together with the songwriter and lyricist. But in an anime project, the music team can’t ignore the image of the producer or director and all the other staff. That’s why I’m still trying to find the best way to work with anime.

But I think the song you mentioned, Pop Star was…I wrote this song a long time ago, so I’m sure there are many parts I don’t remember well…thinking about the image of Kirby, I thought, “maybe he is lonely.” “Is he a prince of a star?” And sometimes I thought, “maybe he is strong but reckless and someone who just eats a lot?” “Is he a fool?” I thought many, many things. In some parts, he is out of his mind and it is one of his adorable points. But to me, he seemed to have some kind of heavy sadness on his shoulders.

The part of the story when he came to Earth all by himself on a spaceship from a faraway star reminded me about the world famous story, The little Prince written by Saint-Exupéry. So I started digging through my vision of Kirby so that my own sound could be heard. And the producer perhaps liked it. I don’t know what he really thought, though. I think he thought the song was suited to that scene. I just want to be true and honest to the sound that I hear inside of myself. But at the same time, I have to write songs the way others want me to. So to let both of these stand out is very difficult, and in that way, I feel a restriction on song writing.

The Hit Parade by Hiroshi & Akira Miyagawa and family
(Columbia Music Entertainment, Inc, 2002).
Contains a suite of
Yamato tracks.

Interviewer: You told me about how you create music for a musical, and how the process starts between songwriter and lyricist…

Miyagawa: Of course we also talk with the producer. But, you know, the word ‘musical’…the main thing in this is music. So the most important thing is the song we can perceive from the script. We can’t select or write songs just from the ‘what’s hot’ type of fashion sense. A musical is more down to earth and it’s something that musicians should be in charge of. If the musical is boring, that’s the responsibility of the musician, songwriter and lyricist.

In other words, there’s a part that a singer or producer can’t do anything about. I think this is how music is important in musicals and how music stimulates the dreams or ideas and designs, the plan of the producer and everyone’s vision for it. This is a slight but essential difference from animation.

An anime or movie is something that starts and ends with the producer, so the staff and musicians work for the producer. In any project, and no matter if the producer I work with is famous or not, I want to be the parent of the piece. I’d like to be the originator of the musical; this is how strongly I hold my pride when I work on a musical.

Interviewer: As well as your work as a composer, you are also known for your performances. For example, as the music director for the Osaka Philharmonic Pops and for the Akira Miyagawa & Ensemble Vega. Please tell us more about these experiences.

Miyagawa: You know the Boston Pops Orchestra usually has concerts as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but sometimes they become a Pops Orchestra with a special set list and play songs from movies and stuff like that. I’ve been blessed with chances to be involved in those kinds of Pops Concerts in Japan, and I’ve been working on their orchestration and being involved as a conductor for over 16 years.

But I’m not like other songwriters who can accept the offer without hesitation. To tell you the truth, I hated the Pops Concerts. What I didn’t like was something that starts with, “here comes a famous song, the theme of Star Wars” or something. And everyone knows this medley of Disney songs, Snow White and Dumbo and Bambi and–what else? Pinocchio, and maybe Aladdin, and then Beauty and the Beast fades in? Yeah, we can do every song and squeeze them into a medley. But I never liked this style. So I wanted to do the pops concerts in my own style, and over the past 16 years I changed the overall approach or order of the concert itself.

I think this idea is quite theatrical, but I wanted to express my original taste as a person who has experienced many musicals and stage performances. Though it’s not really storytelling, I try to put each piece in the right order to tell a story or message throughout the concert by using the In (negative) and Yo-u (positive). Or maybe I can have an effective order of major and minor songs. I believe the audience can feel the core enjoyment of the music if it is played in the right order so they can imagine, “What kind of interesting point lies beneath or within this concert?”

With this strategy, there is less chance to get bored throughout the concert. While a happy song is being played, the audience can enjoy that bright and happy sound. Then, suddenly a sagging song shakes their heart and some might even cry. After that, maybe a joyful song can follow and warm their heart. I write songs and create a new orchestration as if I’m composing songs for the stage.

Acoustic Yamato by Akira Miyagawa and Makoto Hirahara
(Columbia Music Entertainment, Inc 2005). Contains
score rearranged into an easy listening style.
Read more about it here.

Interviewer: Then one concert itself becomes…

Miyagawa: As if it were a two-hour musical. What I aim at is a concert that is like one song over two hours. I talk between the songs sometimes, but that is to enhance the charm of the song. I carefully choose words to stimulate the audience and have an enjoyable moment, so the listeners can be well-prepared for the next song.

To be more specific, when I do the orchestration–say there was an Oboe and Clarinet in the group–I write notes for each part as if I’m writing a script for actors. This is because there are quite a lot of cases where, say the Oboe only has two notes in the intro part and does nothing for over 85 bars. In most cases this happens just because of the ego of the songwriter, and this is a bad example.

Interviewer: You mean there are songs in which some particular instrument is used only for one or two bars?

Miyagawa: Yes, I think this is not good. Even if an instrument has a minor role, every role can have a chance to read the striking line. The role can phrase the main theme from the side, or interlude. It should have a chance to be in the spotlight at least once or twice. Even when there is only a musical performance on stage, I write songs with the reliable knowledge I learned at the theater.

Interviewer: That’s why your career is described as both songwriter and stage songwriter. It was interesting how you said instruments on stage take part as an actor. Sometimes he talks and then he goes back and waits quietly until his next scene.

Miyagawa: If orchestration wasn’t organized in that way, can you imagine how the minor role, the Oboe player for example, would feel during a badly-written song? At the beginning, he comes out just to say “Tattarara~” then takes a nap during the song, and at the end he wakes up just to say “the end.” Do you think you’d love to take that role and play this instrument with your heart only for those two parts?

Interviewer: No, not at all.

Miyagawa: Then, what if after saying “Tattarara~” at the intro and then resting for a while, the Oboe comes out at the climax and says an important line like, “oh yeah, I think so too” and then the main actor will say, “oh yeah? You think so too!? Then let’s sing together.” After singing in unison for a while the Oboe says, “Okay, I’ve got to go. You can do it by yourself now, right? I’m heading off… bye,” and he goes again.

In such a case, I think the Oboe player will play his instrument with his heart. He can keep his pride throughout this song because he knows he is also one of the important parts of this story. You know a good orchestration is performed with really good sounds and is rich in emotional expression performed by good players. And so, I think that’s a good orchestration.

Interviewer: I believe you have also done some acting, for example in the television programs Quintet (shown above) and DoReMiFa Wonderland, for which you also serve as the composer. How do you feel about your acting experiences? What was it like to be involved in both aspects of these productions? Do you find the roles of both composer and actor to be easily compatible?

Miyagawa: I didn’t really learn how to act, but I had an interest in acting. When I was a high school student, I chose to take an acting class and learned about acting and drama. For the cultural festival in high school, we did a puppet show. And naturally, I took part as a songwriter. In my Junior high school years, there was also an annual festival and I wrote songs for the play. I played instruments and also set up the equipment.

I think acting is something quite different from song writing, and there aren’t many songwriters who really understand acting. Maybe from that perspective, I might be a very rare entity. Because I had an interest, I tried to act by taking on a role, but I didn’t speak much on stage. I’d rather be behind the scenes and support the actors on stage.

Interviewer: Okay, then let’s move on to the last question. In regards to your entire body of work, are there any particular pieces that stand out as favorites or have a particular significance for you? How many songs have you created or arranged so far?

Blackjack & Space Battleship Yamato by Akira Miyagawa &
The Osaka Symphony Orchestra (King Record Co. 2009).
Contains the same suite of
Yamato tracks
The Hit Parade in a symphonic arrangement.

Miyagawa: If I include the songs I arranged, it would be a really big number. I guess over 5,000. My most favorite is one I wrote for a musical about twelve years ago. The title is Tomorrow morning the god will arrive. I felt as if the god really came down to me while I wrote that song and I still feel the same when I listen to it today. I wish I could write every song like that one! We are planning to record the song, so I hope you can hear it. It is like a hymn. I’m very interested in what Americans will hear when they hear this song.

But my number one song…maybe that’s something I can say after twenty years when I have decided to stop writing. I can’t say, “this song is good and the rest are no good.” I’d like to keep my attitude high and think the next song is the best one ever.

Interviewer: That’s great! You’re thinking you might stop writing songs in twenty years or so. Do you plan or wish to work on a particular type of project? What kind of feeling or vision do you have toward your future?

Miyagawa: Well, in our lives, there are times that things won’t happen in the right order. I’m sure there are people who have experienced things in the right order, from small to big, but in my case everything happened in quite a messy way–a variety of incidents–and of course there were times that I was rewarded. But things could be linked up a few years later, and only then I understood, “Ah! That resulted in this!” and the reasons and the meaning followed.

Of course, I have several hopes and wishes. I think a musician like me, who was born in Japan and never studied or lived abroad, can have my music be accepted and loved by people all over the world. It can be either loved or recognized or accepted in any way. I don’t think a person who never studied or stayed in America can’t write songs with an American taste. Even if you are living in Japan, you can create a song that Americans like. Nobody knows what happens in our future. Someone somewhere might like my music and accept it. It can even be in the middle of a fashion trend, or create a new trend.

There was a DVD that did over 500,000 in sales. Its title was Matsuken Samba which I wrote for Mr. Ken Matsudaira, for his show 15 years ago. (See a 2005 performance on Youtube here.) Ten years later, a person from the record company asked me, “Do you still have the master tape of this song?” And the DVD was created.

Interviewer: After 10 years? Wow…

Miyagawa: Maybe it was 11 years ago. It happened only inside Japan, but that song became a big hit. That was the first time I received big royalties and I was surprised. “Wow! I can receive this much?” This kind of thing can happen in the future again. But if possible, I want to create a song that can amaze people all over the world and surprise them with music by a Japanese person. And let someone say, “Among numerous musicals, there’s a great Japanese one.”

Many people know American musicals. For example, if you hear the name Sound of Music, everyone around the world knows, “Ah! That’s a musical American people created,” right? And also West Side Story. Everyone knows, “that’s the story of New York,” and “American songwriter Leonard Bernstein created it.” I’d like to create one like that. Just one is fine…and stop creating songs when I achieve this goal.

Interviewer: Then what about the songs you create now being accepted by the public after decades…

Miyagawa: Even after I stop writing songs, things like that can happen. A creator can’t make something from complete zero without a dream or hope. We want certainty that something that came from ourselves was God-given. We want to believe, “what I heard inside my head was good” and, “my interpretation of the sound was correct.” “That song was sent from heaven.” I want the confirmation that what I created was a good piece.

And admitting the reality, that kind of thing can happen after my death. I don’t mind if someone sings my song after my death. I don’t mind even if my death comes first, before my pieces are accepted by many. I’ve been living for over 50 years, and that’s what I think after my half-century of life.

Interviewer: Thank you very much.

Miyagawa: It’s a great pleasure to be here like this today. It’s a limited time, but to have my music heard by the listeners in America is wonderful. Thank you very much.

The End

Related Links:

Akira Miyagawa’s homepage, “Goo Village”

Akira Miyagawa piano performance on YouTube

Akira Miyagawa onstage with his father and Kentaro Haneda

Akira Miyagawa’s credits page at Anime News Network

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