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Helen McCarthy on the music of Kamikaze Girls

Yoko Kanno is composer, keyboardist, vocalist, and mistress of a whole range of musical styles form the laid-back piano jazz of Cowboy Bebop to the heavy vocal basslines of Vision of Escaflowne, from the driving pop/rock of Macross Plus to the more questioning tones of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Not bad going, for someone who never planned a career as a composer and is largely self-taught on piano. She went to university to study Japanese literature, planning to be a novelist, but lasted just a week.

One of Japan’s busiest composer/arrangers, Kanno crosses media from film and pop music to games and ads. Her first game score, for Romance of the Three Kingdoms on the PC-8801 and Sharp X1, was recorded in 1985, when she was just 21. Seven years later she arranged the ending theme on Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Porco Rosso. Long before that, her work in advertising ensured that millions of Japanese with no interest in anime or games hummed her catchy commercials.

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er advertising work also linked her to another Kyushu native who was directing commercials and dreaming of making it big in movies: Tetsuya Nakashima, five years her senior and now an internationally renowned director of hits such as Kokuhaku (Confessions, 2010) and Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuga Monogatari, 2004.) Interviewed for a French website in 2006, he said:

“We’ve known each other since we were very young, the time when we were both unknown and she wrote the music for my advertising work. That’s why I can tell her what I want; on this film, for instance, I was the one who insisted she make this kind of music… Normally, she’s so famous that directors trust her with the music and she does what she wants … That’s really why she doesn’t like working with me, because she has to listen to me and give in to my demands.”

Since Kamikaze Girls was his third film scored by Kanno, she obviously takes Nakashima’s demands in good part. They made beautiful music on 1997’s Natsu jikan no otonotachi and 1998’s Beautiful Sunday, Happy Go Lucky. In the same year they made Kamikaze Girls, Kanno also provided the music for Nakashima’s spoof sentai short featuring Japan’s perennial pop idol boyband SMAP.

Kanno initially turned down Nakashima’s offer to work on Kamikaze Girls because of scheduling conflicts. But once he persuaded her to look at the completed footage she was lost. “I just thought “Who else but me can compose for this movie?”… there are not so

many composers who can squeeze all the essence of this film… and the director’s sarcasm into 2 hours.” And despite Nakashima’s renowned pickiness, he didn’t give Kanno any specific direction, except that she should make the music sound “like a yakuza movie.”

More recently, Nakashima has worked with rising Italian star Gabriele Roberto on a number of movies – which causes some confusion with Kanno’s vocal/lyricist alias, Gabriela Robin. But these two old friends have made some interesting music together.

Kamikaze Girls is out on UK DVD from Third Window Films. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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