Composer, Conductor, Dreamer
There’s more to Joe Hisaishi than the wide-eyed, symphonic-melodic splendour of his Studio Ghibli scores. Musically he transcends what we might typically associate with Japanese music, indeed while Hisaishi’s art honours his country’s musical heritage (both ancient and modern), it also draws inspiration from the western symphonic tradition, pop, jazz, electronic and new age music, not to mention minimalism.
Tha latter was an early interest for the composer in his youth, still known then by his birth name Mamorou Fujisawa. He had studied with esteemed anime composer Takeo Watanabe, graduating from the Kunitachi College of Music in the late 1960s. Growing up, he studied the violin, played brass and was a big movie fan, so it seems it was written in the stars that music and film would go on to play an important role in his life.
He began his professional life as a music-score engraver, before establishing himself as a composer in the mid-1970s. Animation figured early in his career, with scores for anime series’ such as 1974’s Hajime Ningen Gyatoruz (Gyatoruzu: The First Human) and 1976’s Robokko Beeton (Robot Child Beeton). Musically, he found inspiration in jazz, the music of Japanese electro-pop pioneers the Yellow Magic Orchestra (which featured composer Ryuichi Sakamoto in its ranks) and American composers like Steve Reich, all key influences on his style in those early years and beyond.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Mamorou Fujisawa adopted the professional name Joe Hisaishi, keen to establish himself as a commercial musician and artist. He drew inspiration for the new moniker from another US musician he admired greatly, Quincy Jones – Jones’s name roughly translates as ‘Joe Hisaishi’ in Kanji.
With a new name and a new decade underway, Hisaishi released his first solo albums, MKWAJU (1981) and Information (1982). The former was an electro-percussive statement, and the albums – both brilliantly experimental and visionary – would serve as great calling cards for the composer’s dynamic (and dramatic) approach. It was on the back of this solo work that Hisaishi found himself recommended, by producer Isao Takahata, to an emerging director called Hayao Miyazaki who was working on a new feature film. That film was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and it’s poetic beauty inspired the composer to dig deep. Indeed, his score laid the sonic foundations for what would prove to be not only one of the most important creative collaborations of his career, but also come to define the sound of Japanese feature animation.
Feeling more estbalished following that first project with Miyazaki, Hisaishi set up his own studio in 1985 called Wonder Station. From there he embarked on further projects with Miyazaki’s newly established Studio Ghibli, namely Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke.
As the 1990s approached, Hisaishi released a new solo album (Pretender) and embarked on another winning director partnership, this time with Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi). Their work together proffered a more cerebral style of music from the composer, for adult dramas like A Scene at the Sea (1991), Hana-bi (1997) and Kikujiro (1999). Hisaishi was asked to compose music for the 1998 Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano, another mark of just how highly esteemed he was becoming in his own country.
The new millennium, though, would see Hisaishi spread his wings even further, creatively speaking, and his star rise exponentially. Not only did he dabble in film directing (2001’s Quartet, which he also wrote and scored), but he wrote the music for his first non-Japanese production – Le Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb) for director Olivier Dahan. That same year he would reunite with Hayao Miyazaki for Spirited Away, Japan’s highest-grossing film, followed in 2004 by the film that would proffer Hisaishi’s most beloved music: Howl’s Moving Castle. The massive success of those films led to further international film work, including the 2008 Oscar-winner Departures, not to mention further solo albums and concert projects. His 2008 concert at Tokyo’s Budokan arena, celebrating 25 years with Hayao Miyazaki, was a massive undertaking featuring some 1200 musicians, and formed the blueprint for sell-out concert appearances that would follow in France and the US.
In 2010 Hisaishi was lauded further still, receiving the Medal of Honour from the Japanese government as well as being made a Professor at the Japanese National College of Music. That same year he was awarded his sixth Japanese Academy Award for ‘Best Music’ – his first win was in 1992 in recognition of his work on four 1991 films, including Takeshi Kitano’s A Scene at the Sea. He so far has a total of eight Japanse Academy Awards, a level of success, honour and esteem that has seen him dubbed ‘the Japanese John Williams’.
Certainly his success is on a par with Williams, but it’s not just critical acclaim and popular appeal that ties them together. Like Williams, Hisaishi has come to symbolise his country’s great musical tradition and its power to move, through film scores and concert works – indeed, he has written a handful of symphonies to date, the last two of which were completed during the 2020/21 pandemic lockdowns. It was a fertile composing period for Hisaishi which was followed by a run of sell-out concerts across the globe, not least of all for five consecutive days at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in August 2022. And the show goes on well into the future, with a hotly anticipated Studio Ghibli concert at London’s Wembley Arena, not to mention performances of his Second Symphony and a new work, Saga for Viola and Orchestra.
Joe Hisaishi might have become a global star, but he remains a man of great integrity and humour at heart, and an artist with a vast emotional range whose wildest musical dreams have become the soundtrack to our lives.