In the Limelight

Kaoru Wada is an accomplished composer and arranger who has worked on numerous anime series, including InuYasha, Ninja Scroll, Princess Tutu, D. Gray-man, and Casshern Sins, among dozens more. He is known for his extensive usage of traditional Japanese instruments and blending different genres to give his series a unique sound.

Scoop’s Carrie Wood chatted with Wada at Otakon 2019 to discuss the intricacies of composing music for anime. The following interview was conducted with assistance from Otakon’s translation services.

Scoop: You were an accomplished composer before even breaking into anime music. What drew you to compose for anime specifically?
Kaoru Wada (KW): When I was in my 20s, I released my work to the Japanese and European market. I was actually in Europe at that, and I came to the U.S. once in a while as well. I returned to Japan in 1988. Back then, they used to produce a type of anime aimed a bit more at children – short stories – for OVA outlets, not for television. So a friend of mine was working on OVAs at the time, and he said to me, “Why don’t you come and work on a few songs for us?” He worked on the same production team that the famed [Osamu] Tezuka worked on.

Back then, although it was OVAs only, the people on the production team were all very talented and had a lot of work under their belt. While they were making OVAs aimed primarily at children, they also had some original works that were a bit more serious planned out as well. That’s where I met lots of other folks, and how I got into the business.

Scoop: What kind of difficulties do you encounter when composing for anime that you might not run into when working on other genres of music?
KW: One different thing about anime especially when compared to, let’s say, live-action television shows – live-action stories don’t typically have soundtracks. Anime has a lot more. In anime shows and movies, a much larger part of the story has music in the background. It might be a Japanese thing, because I know in the U.S. you have a lot of stories like Star Wars where there’s music playing in the background! But in Japan, just to explain the ratio for you – a Japanese live-action movie, a full film, might have 20 songs on a soundtrack. Compare that to InuYasha, which is much shorter, might have 60 different songs. That’s actually a good thing for me, since it means I can have more concentrated ideas inside those songs – even if I do have to compose more music, that allows me to have more ways to express those ideas across that many songs.

Scoop: How do you go about giving each series or film its own unique feel? InuYasha obviously does not sound the same as Princess Tutu, so how do you give everything its own vibe?
KW: I have to say, first, that there are many different styles that I go to. There are comedy shows in Japan that I work on, which sound very different than D. Gray-man, which has a more serious, classical sound to it. With all of the stories that I work on, there’s something about them that I can relate to, and I enjoy them all.

So what’s important, the question arises about what those shows need from a song. In professional terms, you call that dramaturgy. Depending on the dramaturgy, I change the feel I give to a song. At the baseline for me, though, are Japanese traditional instruments and classical songs. Of course, there’s lots of other songs that I like! I enjoy country, rock, folk – those also resonate with me. When I was in high school, I loved the band KISS! I really like Gene Simmons.

Scoop: Can you describe your creative process when it comes to composing for anime? Do you try to create a cadence or recurring motif that’s carried throughout the series? How do you begin?
KW: Each composer will have their different skills, but for me, for animation, I look at the character designs and the setting first. I gather as much as I can from the anime to reference. I get the character’s side shots, their expression lists, so I can get a good idea of what their feelings are. And then I start dreaming!

Say, for example, InuYasha. Every character has their own type, but for the series as a whole, I used Japanese traditional instruments like shakuhachi and koto. If I were to use a koto, it sounds a bit more feminine. So what I dream about is what kind of sound fits best for each character – let’s use Inuyasha himself. That’s where I begin; the melody, the tempo, the motifs, that’s all later. For Inuyasha, the iconic melody that I wrote for him actually wasn’t the first thing I came up with. I tried all sorts of things and ended up settling on what I felt worked best for his character. That’s my process.

Scoop: You also worked on the Ace Attorney anime. Was it more difficult to compose for an anime such as that, one which was based on a video game series that already had a somewhat iconic soundtrack? Was it restraining at all to work within what was already written for the series?
KW: There were no real constraints, per se, but there were things that the game production companies told us to use – they said, use these songs and orchestrate them. In Ace Attorney, since we’re following the story from the games, we want to make sure that people watching it have that story resonate with their experience from the games. So for example, the Silver Samurai has his own theme, which we used. But the main theme for the anime was original, from scratch. I also know the original composer from the Ace Attorney soundtrack too, [Noriyuki] Iwadare-san – he’s a friend of mine. So I got the raw data from him!

Scoop: You’re known for your usage of Japanese traditional instruments, but is there any other instrumentation that you enjoy arranging for?
KW: I particularly like the djembe, an African drum. I also enjoy Arabian and Pakistani percussion. There’s a Turkish instrument called a saz, which is kind of like a guitar. I seem to have a knack for different ethnic instruments!

Scoop: Is there any instrument that you tend to avoid because you don’t enjoy writing for it?
KW: Hmm. Let me think… There are difficulties in composing, but those tend not to lie in the instruments themselves. So I can’t really think of any! Everything fits in its own way. For example, the djembe that I mentioned – it’s an African instrument, but it fit really nicely into the D. Gray-man soundtrack. It’s difficult to mix in an African instrument into that soundtrack, which is heavily influenced from European classical music. But it’s that much more rewarding and fun to do. I don’t really have a personal dislike for any instruments though.

Scoop: Do you have any upcoming work we can look forward to?
KW: Right now, there’s Puzzles and Dragons, a game which is getting an anime adaptation in Japan, and I’m working on the soundtrack for that. The director told me to go a little old school with it and make it sound like something from the Showa era – it’s really hot-blooded! One more you might be interested in is a movie that’s a joint project between Japanese studios and Saudi Arabia. That will show at a 2020 film festival. We have the teaser done, so please look forward to it.