Behind the Music interview: Mirai’s Takagi Masakatsu

Still from Mamosu Hosada's Mirai (2018). Credit - Studio Chizu and GKIDS.
Still from Mamosu Hosada's Mirai (2018). Credit - Studio Chizu and GKIDS. /

The weekend is creeping up and Hidden Remote starts it off with a lovely chat with veteran Studio Chizu-approved composer and accomplished musician in his own right, Takagi Masakatsu, over his newest musical score for the latest Studio Chizu film, Mirai!

For this edition of Behind the Music, we take great honor in talking with musician and trusted composer for many Studio Chizu films, including this year’s Mirai, Takagi Masakatsu. Studio Chizu has been the exclusive home to some of Japan’s most recent (and successful) animated releases, Wolf Children in 2012 and The Boy and the Beast (2015), both directed by acclaimed director, Mamosu Hosada. While the name may not be as immediately recognizable as something like Studio Ghibli, Chizu has left an impressive mark on the world of animation nonetheless, praised for their magical tales of adventure and emotion.

Mirai, the latest from Hosada and Chizu, looks to continue that trend, focusing on the enthralling story of four-year-old Kun, who discovers a wormhole in his yard that lets him travel through time and meet his many family members from the present and future, including his teenage (but technically younger) sister from the future, Mirai. It is the third Studio Chizu film from Mamosu Hosada, along with it being the third film to feature Takagi Masakatsu in charge of the musical score.

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An accomplished musician and filmmaker in his own right, Takagi Masakatsu has created music and worked as a video artist for the better part of over 17 years now. His work on the Studio Chizu releases has received critical acclaim for its magical and whimsical atmosphere, which is incredibly present in Mirai, mixing in a dreamy aesthetic with a contemporary sound that feels deliciously old-school and classical. Takagi has this going for him, along with the release of his newest album, Marginalia, waiting in the wings as well.

Takagi, despite a busy schedule, is more than gracious enough to have a talk with Hidden Remote, where he discusses the creative process behind scoring Mirai, the universal appeal of the film, the importance of nature in his music, the impact of anime in the American market, and more here with this Q&A!

Still from Mamoru Hosada’s Mirai (2018), credit – Studio Chizu and GKIDS
Still from Mamoru Hosada’s Mirai (2018), credit – Studio Chizu and GKIDS /

Hidden Remote: To start things off, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to do this! Your schedule must be all over the place with this and your new album, Marginalia. How do you feel about the album now that’s closing in on release?

Takagi Masakatsu: Thank you for your interview. For the Marginalia release, I’ve been working on this project since April in 2017, so the time has finally come.

Marginalia is a kind of unusual style of music, recording the piano together with the sound of nature. Usually, musicians record their sound in a closed space like a studio. But here in my studio, I open all the windows and welcome the sound from the outside. My studio is in mountains, so it’s like playing the piano in nature.

HR: For anybody who might not be familiar with your music, how would you best describe what you do with your music? People who watch Mirai this month could be curious to hear more!

Takagi: I’ve mainly played the piano since the age of 12. I’ve always been searching for how I can communicate the feeling of people interacting with nature through my music. So I traveled a lot to the countryside around the world. Now I’m living in a small village in Japan, where many traditional people and things still live.

I hope my music can be related to traditional ethnic folk music by people who hear it. I would like to tap into traditional feelings stemming from the old yet coming from a “new” instrument, the piano.

HR: What would you say were your strongest influences on your overall musical style? There’s a dream-like serenity to how your music flows, so naturally, I’m a little curious as to what brought that on.

Takagi: When I was in junior high school, I watched a beautiful movie titled The Piano directed by Jane Campion. I was shocked by Michael Nyman’s soundtrack. The soundtrack itself was perfect, and I really loved the piano playing by the actress in the movie. She played the piano with a traditional Scottish feeling. Usually, that kind of music is played on other instruments like guitar and violin, and via singing and footsteps. But she played it only with the piano. I really loved that idea.

HR: While researching your discography, it occurred to me that you’ve been making your own music for over 17 years now. With such a storied career in 2018, I’d like to know if you feel you have grown as an artist over the years and if so, how?

Takagi: I’ve really loved to play the piano and compose music from the beginning.

However, I started my career as a video artist, and for the first 10 years, I thought of myself as not a musician. My main place in the art scene was in an art gallery or museum. It’s difficult to say but my video works were like music videos, always together with my own music. Yes, I could make music too at the point but I felt like I wasn’t a professional musician yet. Because I never felt like equals with other musicians. They were more like stars for me.

Although I released several albums, for me they were just something I did for fun. Over time, I gradually was asked to compose music by movie creators and for other video projects. One of these offers came for an animated feature from director Mamoru Hosoda, from Studio Chizu.

We made a beautiful movie, Wolf Children, and audiences loved it. Stemming from that success, I estimated that I’ve composed about 100 pieces of music for commercials films.

In my music, I always feel I’m walking step by step toward what I’m needing in life. Especially with the Marginalia project, I’m really quite satisfied with what I’ve been doing here while living amongst nature. It’s not virtual. It’s really real.

I play the piano while listening to nature singing, and it listens to my piano playing and sings back. I catch it and playback again and again. Wonderful conversation.

For a long time, I’ve been looking for a way to communicate with nature.

HR: With your score for Mirai, this will mark your third collaboration with Studio Chizu after Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast. How did you first get involved in this collaboration?

Takagi: The director, Hosoda-san contacted me after finishing up Wolf Children. Hosoda-san kept giving me chances to collaborate on his wonderful movies.

In terms of how it first started, he explained that he had listened to my music a good deal, and I remember he specifically mentioned one of my pieces called Niyodo.

HR: Out of the three films you’ve scored for Studio Chizu, what makes Mirai stand out from the other two films in your eyes?

Takagi: Every time it’s really different. Wolf Children was a story about a family and the theme there is, maybe, ‘mother’. Each piece was based on the feeling of a mother taking care of somebody. The next movie, The Boy and the Beast, was a fantasy-action movie. So we needed a more powerful score, more percussive music for a big scale.

Mirai originally started as like picture book for kids, smaller in size.  It goes from inside a house to a garden that shows magical visions to a boy. It evolved a lot from what it was in the beginning. Little by little, Hosoda-san building up to more wider vision.

For me, Mirai is a movie of therapy. Curing the broken mind with many visions. It’s like a vision quest or an initiation of ancient people.

Still from Mamoru Hosada’s Mirai (2018). Credit – Studio Chizu and GKIDS
Still from Mamoru Hosada’s Mirai (2018). Credit – Studio Chizu and GKIDS /

HR: Your musical score for Mirai has a childlike innocence to its atmosphere, which I’d say is appropriate given the film’s story. What did you feel was the most important aspect of your musical score to emphasize for Mirai?

Takagi: First, I wrote a more pop-oriented score, more fun, lots of instruments, lots of voices. My musical theme was ‘strange garden’. So I used more strange harmonies because this movie seemed to be focused on the magical garden. However, in the middle of creation, we changed the direction to a family, with a more personal feeling.

During the creation of the score, I opened a photo book called Children by photographer Sebastiao Salgado. That book inspired me a lot.

Additionally, angel paintings from artist Paul Klee really got me connected to deeper vision in Mirai as well. I cared a lot for pureness.

HR: The music for Mirai is simple in tone, but musically layered and complex, hinting at something else happening beneath the surface. What aspect of the film motivated you to craft the score in such a specific way?

Takagi: They were more complex in the beginning. However, I had to make everything smaller and simpler because Hosoda-san preferred simplicity this time. This movie should allow for the audience’s choice of how to see it.

Still from Mirai (2018), dir. Mamoru Hosada. Credit – Studio Chizu and GKIDS
Still from Mirai (2018), dir. Mamoru Hosada. Credit – Studio Chizu and GKIDS /

Also Hosoda-san never gave a concrete direction for scenes this time around, so I had to interpret that entirely by myself. The music just followed my thoughts without words but with music tone.

HR: While you have been in the music industry for a long time now, there are people who say that one never stops learning something new every day. Is there something new that you learned during the creation process for the score that you feel will be useful to remember in the future?

Takagi: Of course, yes. Working together with somebody teaches me more about the wider world. With Hosoda-san’s movies, oftentimes I have many ideas that aren’t used so after finishing up my work, I start a new project by myself based on some of these unused ideas.

My new album Marginalia is also a kind of spin-off from Mirai actually. Many tracks are originally written for Mirai, so I learned how to touch strange harmonies on the project and now I keep pursuing them on the Marginalia project.

HR: Mirai has already been released in Japan, but it will be getting a release in the United States on Nov. 29th. Why do you feel American audiences should take a chance and check the film out?

Takagi: I hope they can enjoy the film and have fun with the comedic scenes. The story is like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Japan watched this movie in summer but I think, wintertime will actually be much more suitable. I hope this movie may remind you that there may be something above us, something wonderful around us.

HR: The film may not be the strongest sell, seeing as how it is a foreign animated film for Americans. Apart from Shonen Jump and some Studio Ghibli films, anime still doesn’t feel entirely mainstream in the American market. Do you feel there is a stigma attached to it at all?

Takagi: Before, I also thought animations and manga was just for kids, and that I must grow up without them as an adult. However, we all can find many wonderful works in these creations. It’s worth it to take the lead and discover marvelous works by yourself.

Still from Mamosu Hosada’s Mirai (2018). Credit – Studio Chizu and GKids
Still from Mamosu Hosada’s Mirai (2018). Credit – Studio Chizu and GKids /

HR: What do you hope audiences learn from Mirai the most?

Takagi: It’s difficult to say. I also don’t know how to watch this movie. *laughs*

Every time I watched this movie, it causes me to remember different things from life. So I really hope your hidden memories may come into you when you watch it.

HR: You’ve had a rather steady job with your work for Studio Chizu and your own personal music as well. Do you feel satisfied with where you are now or do you hope to venture into something new and experimental in the future?

Takagi: Now I’m happy with my daily life in the mountains. So for my own project, I think I want to keep doing more in these surroundings.

But working for a soundtrack, I do want to try out some other way, something unknown to me. I prefer a more experimental situation and working outside a studio.

HR: Before we end things, I’d like to ask you about some of your favorite aspects of art. You’ve crafted music for anime films, but are there any other anime films that you personally enjoy?

Takagi: I love all the works from Yuriy Norshteyn. My favorite animation is Why, Charlie Brown, Why? I’m looking forward to upcoming animation by STUDIO 4℃, Kaiju no Kodomo, an original manga written by Daisuke Igarashi.

HR: Are there any filmmakers or studios you’d like to collaborate with in the future?

Takagi: Any, many. I want to see new worlds.

HR: Lastly, I’d like to leave you off with some words for the readers. Many of our readers are American with dashes of international appeal sprinkled in there. Is there any advice for our readers you’d like to bestow? Many of them have an interest in the arts and some may even want to have a career in an art form. Is there any advice you feel would be vital to them as they move forward?

Takagi: Be a space for others (not only for human beings). Then they may come into it and help you.

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Mirai will be receiving a special limited release in North America starting today, Nov. 29th. Are you interested in seeing Mirai? Are you a fan of Takagi Masakatsu’s music or not familiar? Using the comments below, sound off on your favorite anime films!