Eiko Ishibashi on “Evil Does Not Exist,” “Gift,” and the Relationship Between Sound and Image | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

Eiko Ishibashi on “Evil Does Not Exist,” “Gift,” and the Relationship Between Sound and Image

Films Are Like Music

May 07, 2024 Web Exclusive Photography by Jim O'Rourke Bookmark and Share


It’s been quite a busy year for Japanese composer and musician Eiko Ishibashi. Perhaps best known in the film world these days for being a (now) frequent collaborator of Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy), the newest fruits of the two’s collaborative labor—Evil Does Not Exist (check out our review here) and Gift—are just beginning to premiere, release and reach wider audiences in the United States. Not only would these works not exist without Hamaguchi and Ishibashi’s collaboration; they wouldn’t even exist without Ishibashi first asking Hamaguchi to make some visuals for her music.

Ishibashi and Hamaguchi’s collaborative resumé is short yet powerful. They first worked on his 2021 film Drive My Car—the film which shot Hamaguchi to a new level in the cinema world, winning Cannes’ Best Screenplay Award and becoming the first Japanese film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s difficult to imagine that film without Ishibashi’s levitating, dynamic score backing its complex dialogues, meditations and analyses of human connection. From here, the two could have easily parted ways, using their rapid rise in the film scene to pursue other projects. Instead, they chose to collaborate on a project completely unlike Drive My Car.

That project turned out to be two projects: a feature film, Evil Does Not Exist, and a silent film, Gift, both backed by Ishibashi’s incredible music but in two different contexts. Evil Does Not Exist functions more commercially. The 106-minute-long eco-thriller follows the tensions that arise when citizens of a rural Japanese town learn about a firm’s plan to build a glamping site in their village, threatening their environment and way of life. While the film includes dialogue, there are few moments where conversations are at the center of the story. Instead, the film’s tension rises through the consistences and alterations of characters’ habitual routines. It premiered at last year’s Venice Biennale, where it opened to critical acclaim and won the festival’s Silver Lion (Second Place) prize, and it finally released this past Friday, May 3, after months of anticipation

Gift is somewhat similar to and wildly different from Evil Does Not Exist. The film—intended to be Hamaguchi and Ishibashi’s only project at first—is a 74-minute silent film whose narrative is similar to that of Evil Does Not Exist but is much more focused on the fusion of sound and image. It’s no coincidence that the film, which premiered last year, is only permitted to screen with a live, improvised musical accompaniment from Ishibashi. Last week, Ishibashi played three sold-out shows over two nights at Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. This writer was lucky enough to attend one of those three shows

While the imagery of Gift is fascinating, even though much of the footage is similar to that of Evil Does Not Exist, what’s most compelling about seeing the film’s live performance is watching Ishibashi go about her work—calmly navigating the controllers spread along the table in front of her, or playing her flute when necessary. The auditorium’s 268-seat capacity made the experience intimate, and Ishibashi’s placement on the side of the film’s screen—posing as the literal link between the audience and the screen—made it easy to see how her sounds and Hamaguchi’s images were related or purposely misaligned.

To talk more about Evil Does Not Exist, Gift and the connections between sound and image—among other topics—we sat down with Eiko Ishibashi to discuss her processes of composing music and collaborating with Hamaguchi.

Kaveh Jalinous (Under the Radar): What was your process of composing the music for Evil Does Not Exist and Gift? Did you instantly know what you wanted the scores to sound like, or was it a more gradual realization?

Eiko Ishibashi: It’s a bit complicated how everything worked out. At the end of 2021, I asked [Ryusuke] Hamaguchi to make images for a live performance of mine. At the time, he was promoting Drive My Car, so we only communicated via a disordered, incoherent email exchange. This back-and-forth—talking about our thoughts and the themes we wanted to create—took about a year.

I’ve always been interested in land and the memories of land. I did an album about it as well. Around the summer of 2022, Hamaguchi and I started talking about that idea and settled on the theme of dust. Using this idea, I created about five different songs as a demo. Following that, Hamaguchi came to the village where I live to film a jam session between myself, Jim O’Rourke, and some of our friends, using that footage to edit a classical movie. He created a demo and asked for my thoughts. I found it to be too much on the musical side, and thought it would be better if he stuck to his typical narrative style of filmmaking. He took that advice and began working on a script.

When we started filming the project, it was intended to be a silent film. But at the time, Hamaguchi thought that the actors’ movements and performances were wonderful. He had written a script (regardless of the film being silent) to help dictate their moods and performances. When he began filming, he felt a reaction to the way they performed their lines and their voices. In April 2023, he told me he wanted to make a feature film: Evil Does Not Exist. While he worked on finishing the film, I concentrated on creating the music for the film.

I used the previous demo that I had mentioned, with the theme of dust, and I also created two songs that had strings as a theme. By the time Evil Does Not Exist was finished, I was so focused on the project that I didn’t have time to focus on my live performance (Gift). So, I took a break for about two months. At that time, Hamaguchi and Azusa Yamazaki edited the footage for Gift together. It was about August when I saw the edited version of Gift, and began thinking about its music.

Credit: Shuhei Kojima
Credit: Shuhei Kojima

How did this collaborative process with Hamaguchi differ from your first collaboration on Drive My Car?

There were a couple of differences. Drive My Car was a more structured project—we had source material, there was a script, and we were on more of a schedule. Working with Hamaguchi on the project was a lot of fun, and it was based on that experience that I asked him to create the visuals to accompany my live performance. With Evil Does Not Exist, we mutually had no idea what we were going to do. It was almost as if we were completely walking in the dark together. However, we had a strong relationship of trust. Based on that and Hamaguchi’s talent as a director, I knew whatever he would make would be amazing. It was very enjoyable to go back and forth, talking about the film’s images and music. Not only was the sense of collaboration great; the fact that we had the time to have these thought processes contributed to the depth of the work we were able to produce.

I want to talk about Gift–particularly its reliance on a live musical accompaniment. Can you speak on the process of performing in the cinematic environment?

Every venue is very different. Sometimes, I might be somewhere like a multiplex, where the audience is drinking beer and eating popcorn. Other times, I’m in huge venues, with a thousand people on each floor. It is a different experience in terms of how the sound reverberates, depending on where I am positioned, the actual physicality of the venue, and the screen’s size. All of these things influence my improvised performance. Of course, during the preparation stage for Gift, I saw the film’s images countless times. However, I don’t always remember the order in which the scenes appear—so I don’t necessarily know what’s coming next. For me, every time I perform, it’s like I’m facing the screen anew each time. That’s something I really enjoy.

One thing I can say is that when I first saw the edited version of Gift, it felt like the events that happened in Evil Does Not Exist were happening in a far future, maybe even something reproduced by AI. That was how I felt when I was doing some performances—almost like myself and the audience were in a spaceship together.

How do you perceive the relationship between sound and image–whether in these films, in your film scoring work or throughout your entire career?

The relationship between music and film, or images and music, is something I’ve had a chance to think a lot about—especially since working with Hamaguchi on Drive My Car and these new works. In terms of how Hamaguchi thinks about using music, he’s very strict—he thinks about it with a lot of depth. In some cases—I’m saying this as a composer, as a musician—I don’t think you necessarily need music for film. So, if this is the case, if you’re going to add music to something in a narrative, you have to consider what sound would be appropriate, how you know, and where to put it. I think going forward, this is something I’m going to continue thinking about. In a sense, I think that might be the meaning of this project—it gave me the impetus to think about these things.

During the interview cycle for Drive My Car, [Hamaguchi and I] were often asked about the relationship between music and film. One thing we agreed on was that the films of [Jean-Luc] Godard are like music, they’re sort of musical in themselves. As a musician, that’s someone who I really admire, and as a director, Hamaguchi felt the same way. I feel like that was a starting point for Evil Does Not Exist

One of my favorite parts about Evil Does Not Exist’s score–but also Drive My Car’s and your solo music—is your ability to capture and contextualize an emotion within your music, whether that be desire, melancholy or sorrow, among others. How do you perceive emotions in your music?.

Music is something that can be used to control the emotions of the audience very easily. But, that’s not something I want to do. Of course, when you’re performing, you’re performing from your heart, so it has to be emotional. But I have no interest in controlling the audience’s emotions. If anything, I would rather distance myself from what they’re feeling. So, as much as possible, I want anything that I’m feeling, any emotions that are in the images themselves or any emotions that could potentially be felt from the film to be separate.

In terms of the theme song for Evil Does Not Exist, it’s quite emotional, on purpose. I knew that Hamaguchi would do something interesting with it, like cut it off in the middle of the recording, so for that reason I proposed to him one very emotional track.

How does your film scoring process differ from your regular process of crafting music (with and without lyrics)? Do you find the sources of inspiration to be the same?

In terms of my projects, I’m ultimately the one who has to judge the quality or decide when they’re finished. There’s no deadline, though. As a result, it takes longer. In terms of working with other directors, you don’t have that luxury of time. If it’s a production, they have a production timeline; if it’s a company, they’re not gonna allow you to be leisurely. That’s a realistic issue that I have to face.

However, with Hamaguchi [and these projects] we had a very long period where we could communicate back and forth. I think that, in itself, really contributed to the depth of the work, and is something I’d want to do going forward. I’m not saying I necessarily want to do more music for film, but if it was for a project where I had a relationship of trust with the collaborator and that luxury of time, I would like to work on it.

Note: This interview was conducted with a translator and has been edited for clarity.



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