Eiko Ishibashi: Finding a new direction after the Drive My Car soundtrack

The Japanese composer on how prog rock and TV crime drama inspired her new album

Japan has proved doggedly resistant to the charms of Drive My Car, the first film from the country to receive an Oscar best picture nomination. “People aren’t used to that kind of deep human drama. It’s three hours long. They’re not used to staying [in a cinema] for three hours,” says Eiko Ishibashi, composer of the devastatingly understated soundtrack that accompanies Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 180-minute meditation on life, love, loss and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. “They are used to films based on Manga – the more commercial films.”

Movie snobs are even harder to win over, she says. Within Japanese film criticism circles, international acclaim is a red flag. In Ireland, we might call it “Bono syndrome”.

“Cinephiles are very reactionary to anything that is liked overseas,” says Ishibashi, speaking from Florence, where she is spending several days before coming to Dublin for her first-ever Irish concert, at the Workman’s Cellar, on Friday.

“They have a sort of attitude that it can only be something they know about. If something becomes known to other people, they just reject it outright. It was hard to get support from either side: commercially or cinephiles.”

Whatever about cinema-goers in Japan, for Ishibashi Drive My Car has brought only positives. Audiences globally have responded to her wonderfully melodic score – which whips up a quiet storm via piano and jazz drumming – almost as enthusiastically as to the movie itself. Indeed there was some controversy when it failed to be nominated for an Academy Award for best original soundtrack – an accolade ultimately won by Hans Zimmer for Dune.

“For Japanese films, usually music is the last thing considered. Even after editing is done they haven’t begun to think about the music,” offers Jim O’Rourke, the esteemed avant-garde musician and a fixture on the 1990s Chicago indie scene, where he was associated with groups such as Tortoise and the Sea and the Cake. Fluent in Japanese and based in Tokyo, O’Rourke tours with Ishibashi and helps out occasionally as translator in interviews – and is seated beside her as she talks to The Irish Times over Zoom.

“In this case the director thought about the music when he was writing the script. And was already in touch with Eiko before shooting even began. Which is very unusual for Japanese films. Hamaguchi had a very clear sense of the role of the music in the film. Eiko wrote the music with that in mind.”

Cloistered upbringing

As a child growing up in Chiba, some 40km from Tokyo, Ishibashi was not allowed to listen to pop stations on the radio. A cloistered upbringing encouraged her to think of herself as an outsider. And that perspective carried through as she started her journey in music in the 1990s with experimental band Panic Smile. The only way she could make a career was by not fitting in.

“In Japan most everything is done in a vertically-aligned way, where the record company owns the managers, who own the clubs. There are no antitrust laws. For almost everybody, they have to have a manager. Most importantly they have to [have an agent]. Eiko was lucky. She never involved herself in that world,” says O’Rourke.

“Most people think that’s what you have to do. Ninety-nine percent of the people do that. She was lucky : from an early age she was able to find musicians she was interested in who were outside of that world [such as acclaimed “noise” musician Masami Akita]. They also felt the same respect towards Eiko. She was able to find a way outside that [way of doing business] that supported her. And who were disconnected from the usual way things are done in Japan.”

One surprising fact about Ishibashi is her passion for 1970s prog rock. She namechecks Genesis, in particular their howlingly uncool 1972 opus Supper’s Ready. It goes on forever – 23 minutes that feels like 23 weeks – and features Peter Gabriel delivering lines such as, “I know a farmer who looks after the farm/With water clear, he cares for all his harvest.” Something is presumably gained in translation?

“In Japan, prog music never went out of style,” says O’Rourke. “Even ’til now, it isn’t that there’s a special prog section in the shop. There’s a whole other shop. So, there’s that context. Inside Japan, it didn’t have that albatross that happened in the West [of becoming massively naff].”

Yet music is only one of the influences on her work. From a childhood spent watching Japanese cartoons to later obsessions with the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ivan Passer (his 1981 thriller Cutter’s Way is her all-time favourite), she has been influenced by the screen as much as by other musicians. That carries through to her most recent record, For McCoy – inspired by the character of Jack McCoy, played by veteran actor Sam Waterston on crime procedural Law and Order. (Waterston’s character, Jack McCoy, reminds her of her childhood love of Peter Falk’s Columbo).

“Film has a long period of gestation,” says Ishibashi, who likens recording an album to making a movie. “The initial idea, writing the script, thinking about how do I turn this script into a film? Or, in this case, music. And the idea of structuring it into a whole. Approaching making music as not so much wanting to play music as to make works that come together over many steps, involving research, thinking over the material for a long period of time.”

Post-rock

Drive My Car is a wonderful introduction to the Ishibashi expanded universe, which draws on jazz, minimalism, contemporary music and 1990s post-rock (in concert, she plays keyboard and is typically accompanied by guitarist and drummer). What she brings is an intensely personal perspective: here is avant-garde music that comes from a place of lived experience and which often taps her own family history.

A case in point is her haunting 2018 album, The Dream My Bones Dream, about her father, who was born in the historical Chinese region of Manchuria during’s Japan’s brutal occupation leading up to the second World War.

As is often the case with imperial powers with a bloody legacy of colonisation, in Japan a veil is often drawn over the sins of the past. However, for Ishibashi the connection to Manchuria ran too deep to ignore. Her grandfather had overseen the creation of the Japanese railway there. And her father spent his early childhood in this conquered territory.

It was a part of his life he was always reluctant to discuss. After he died, Ishibashi came to see her family’s history in China as unfinished business. But when the album was released, she discovered that many in Japan shared her father’s outlook. Manchuria, what Japan did there, was a closed book never to be opened.

“It’s not taught about in schools. Almost all the books about that period are written in foreign languages,” says O’Rourke. “There are very few Japanese language books about that period. The books that are written about that period are right-wing propaganda.”

The narrative that Japan was “civilising” China endures.

“Many [Japanese] people who were in China, they thought they had good culture in Manchuria,” says Ishibashi. “There are many books [pushing that perspective].”

“It was like Drive My Car,” continues O’Rourke. “It registered more overseas than in Japan. Even though she tried in interviews in Japan to speak about the subject directly, it’s so far removed from people’s experience and knowledge. They shrugged their shoulders.”

For McCoy is out now. Eiko Ishibashi plays the Workman’s Cellar, Dublin Friday May 27

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