For more than two decades, acclaimed composer Yoko Kanno was a force of nature in the anime industry. Garnering attention as an anime soundtrack composer in 1994 with her futuristic score for Macross Plus, it was immediately apparent that she was a world-class artist with a unique and creative vision. From that point onwards and with little exception, Kanno churned out one or two anime soundtracks a year. During this period of prolific output, she became the go-to composer for the likes of Shoji Kawamori and Shinichiro Watanabe, with stints working for sci-fi legends like Katsuhiro Otomo and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Directors came to rely on her innate abilities to bring nuance to the fictional worlds they were creating, while composers were left scratching their heads at her versatility. But in 2014, after finishing some of her most interesting work yet on Terror in Resonance, her two-decade-long career as an anime composer came to a pause. Aside from the odd OP and insert song, Kanno’s continued her main work outside of the anime sphere.
But it seems we’ll once again be seeing a lot of the beloved musician, as Netflix announced this past June that Kanno will once again be taking up the composer’s baton in the upcoming live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop. And so in anticipation for another jazzy romp through the solar system, let’s get up to speed with what Kanno’s been doing since 2014.
Yoko Kanno‘s most notable work in 2015 is her score for the Japanese Academy Award-winning film Our Little Sister. Based on Akimi Yoshida‘s manga Umimachi Diary and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, the movie takes place over four seasons and follows the story of three sisters who adopted their half-sister after the passing of their father.
Music is used sparsely in the film, which relies heavily on dialogue. Kanno’s cues mainly highlight important scenes and transitions, acting in counterpoint to the film’s tension. This soundtrack also sees Kanno delve deeper into contemporary film scoring sounds. While this is a stylistic departure when compared to some of her other work, the results are much more familiar. Each track is a delicate and complicated beauty bursting with emotion while simultaneously keeping its cool, mirroring the reserved inner feelings of the four sisters coping with the hardships of family dynamics. The score features tracks mainly led by Kanno’s soft piano playing and the lovely textures of the Kōichirō Muroya Strings section. This smaller ensemble creates an intimate sound which feels right at home with the smaller cast and coastal community of Kamakura, the film’s quaint backdrop.
2015 also saw members of the Japanese music industry come together in celebration of Yoko Kanno and Maaya Sakamoto‘s music with the release of REQUEST. The tribute album features covers of Sakamoto’s music, almost all of which are songs Kanno wrote. While Negicco’s cover of the third Card Captor Sakura OP is truly nostalgic, The Band Apart’s cover of The Vision of Escaflowne OP is particularly impressive. Their progressive 2000’s era J-Rock style is surprisingly well-suited for the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of the song and they succeed as custodians of the song that began Kanno and Sakamoto’s musical relationship all those years ago.
Kanno’s love for orchestral music goes back all the way to her first experiences with music as a young child. Among the most grandiose of her orchestral works can be seen in the 2017 NHK historical drama Naotora: The Lady Warlord, which tells the story of daimyō Ii Naotora during Japan’s Sengoku period. This soundtrack pairs Kanno up with Chinese pianist Lang Lang, a piano prodigy with rock star-like status within the classical world. The opening theme – as performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and led by conductor Paavo Järvi – oscillates between fantastical, whimsical, and strong, perfectly encapsulating the titular character. It’s a clear example of how polished Kanno’s skills are as an orchestrator and what she’s able to accomplish with a huge ensemble.
2018 saw Kanno receive a membership invitation into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was joined by Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda among others, in a move that many would argue was long overdue for the Japanese artists. These invitations proceeded policy changes within the Academy aimed at diversifying its membership following the backlash in 2016 over the lack of diversity among its nominees.
2019 was a big year for Yoko Kanno, indeed. On November 9th, she conducted “Ray of Water” at the enthronement celebration for Emperor Reiwa, which she composed with lyrics by screenwriter Yoshikazu Okada specifically for the occasion. The title was so named in part because of Emperor Naruhito’s expertise on the topic of water, having published a book on the subject that same year.
This piece wasn’t the first time Kanno composed music for her country. In 2012, she released a charity song called “Flowers Bloom” which was composed for the NHK Great East Japan Earthquake Project. The piece is well-known among the Japanese public and is even cited in music textbooks for school children.
Last year was a particularly busy year for Kanno. She was one of the recipients of the 15th Watanabe Shin Award, which recognizes producers who have made significant contributions to the entertainment industry. She also lent her skills as composer to the “Silk Road: Thieves and Jewels” stage play by famed all-women troupe Takarazuka Revue. But arguably her most notable endeavor was the Session Starducks website/YouTube page.
Session Starducks is an online project by the SEATBELTS, the band Kanno (the self-titled “Captain Duckling”) put together to record the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack. For the project, the band performed live renditions of their hits from Bebop. Each member of the band recorded their parts at home while self-isolating, all the while looking like they were having an absolute blast. Kanno also opened up auditions so that fans could collaborate with them. Most recently, they put on a live concert: the Online Tanabata Festival, which was crowdfunded through the sale of t-shirts. While time will only tell if the project continues forward, it’s nice to watch these musicians come together, make amazing music, and find ways to support their art despite the heavy toll the pandemic has had on performers.
So what can we expect from Kanno’s involvement with the upcoming Cowboy Bebop live-action series? Outside of her involvement, nothing has been announced. Considering their importance and association with the Bebop brand, one assumes the SEATBELTS will reprise their role as the main session musicians. With any luck, we could see some re-recordings and possibly rearrangements of old classics like “Tank!” and “The Real Folk Blues”. But the real question on many fans’ minds is if such a reunion will produce new material. Kanno was just 32 years old when she produced the show’s original soundtrack, one of the most famous anime scores in history. What would she produce today, a 54-year-old industry veteran with years of experience? In an interview with music critic Akihiro Tomita, Kanno said of her motivation behind the “Tank!” composition, “I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil, and made you lose it.” If that’s the kind of passion she’s bringing to the new soundtrack, it’s safe to say we’re in good hands.
Disclosure: The author of this article was a featured musician in one of the Session Starducks videos.