Celebrating the broadcast of the White Album 2 anime series! Special interview with Naoya Shimokawa
Continuing from our interview with Rena Uehara-san, we present a special interview with president and CEO of Aquaplus and founder of FIX Records, Naoya Shimokawa!
—Shimokawa-san, you founded FIX Records in 1999. Please give us the details regarding how you started up this game music label.
Naoya Shimokawa: Back then, bishojo games for the PC still didn’t have their own theme songs, so the discussion arose of starting to write theme songs for them. At the same time, I thought there might be people who would want to own recordings of those songs on CD. So, I started a label in order to market these CDs, and went with the flow of record distribution. It was a fairly simple process.
—What really caught my attention then was that, for example, you were very quick to bring in SA-CDs, and you always seemed to be extraordinarily sharp-eared when it came to sound quality. Have you always had that sort of fixation on sound?
Shimokawa: I believed that in the future, as data capacity grew, an age would come when audio of extraordinarily high quality was sought after. I wanted to leave behind an audio source that would still be of use in a time when a high-quality listening environment had become the norm. I also felt that, as the sound we hear during recording changes in the process of mastering, I wanted to give listeners the sound that we ourselves had approved.
—In other words, you wanted to deliver something that was as true as possible to the sound you could see in the beginning.
Shimokawa: I’m a fan of high-end audio myself, so I had the sense that if we wanted the songs we made to become an audio source, good sound was best. It’s only natural that audiophiles want a high-quality sound source, but I also think that that “good sound” is only really something you can understand if you’re an audiophile.
—By the way, what type of music did you originally listen to?
Shimokawa: I loved the sort of thing that was popular at the time, including J-pop. Of course, I also liked game music, so I really gave myself to Yuzo Koshiro-san’s tracks. I just didn’t want to be dyed too deeply in one color, so as a result, I listened to a bit of everything.
—When you produce music with vocals, do you do so with those sorts of 90’s artists in mind?
Shimokawa: The music that I make myself is very much in an early 90’s vein, but as a company, we work in a way that best fits the production at hand. With White Album, in 2 even more than in 1, we’re aware of a certain level of youthfulness, so we mixed in some more metropolitan components. On the whole, the vocal tracks in White Album 2 take their essence from the late 80’s and early 90’s. I believe that fashions and trends move in a spiral. You may circle around to the same point, but in a more evolved form, at a different height. To draw from the tastes of an era that teens and young twenty-somethings aren’t familiar with, bring that forward into a more modern sound, and create something that sounds “somehow nostalgic, but not outdated,” is a challenge point for me. I don’t pound that much “current” feeling into it, either, so I know it doesn’t exactly feel new. On the other hand, for people between thirty and forty, it’s easy to hit a perfect strike with the nostalgia. The people in the middle, in their late twenties, may feel a subtle sense of age in it.
—I see. Next, I’d like to ask about White Album 2. Was it after you confirmed the content of the story that you decided to work in the musical “essence” you talked about?
Shimokawa: At the planning meeting, I had a talk with [Fumiaki] Maruto-san about the scene and setting. It started with the premise of high schoolers saying, “Let’s start a band,” so the sound design needed to tend in a “pop” direction, with attention to modernity and the youthfulness I mentioned. The piano in White Album really leaves an impression, and I felt a very strong sense of winter imagery from that, so I used the piano as my base. Maruto-san left the songs up to me, so I was free to attach my own images to sound as I saw fit.
—The winter image really jumps out right from the start of White Album 2, and I think it may partly be because of the unusually strong impact made by the use of piano in the background music.
Shimokawa: From the standpoint of the fans, the sound already has an image attached to it from the original game, so naturally, the presence alone of tracks that they were familiar with would make the scenes into something special. On the other hand, for people who don’t know the original, the tracks are completely new, so I wondered whether I should use original songs according purely to image. While I was thinking about how to make that distinction, I didn’t want people thinking, “Wait, what’s this track?” or saying, “You’re not using the same ones?” The conclusion I reached was that, if I wanted people to feel like it worked well in the anime, the only way was to put forth something that captured the full impact of image, story, and music being linked together.
Shimokawa: And so, my eye was on how to make the original songs into something of truly fine quality. White Album 2 is an anime that depicts a human drama, so I decided to go after it almost entirely acoustically. To garnish that human drama by embracing something that sort of represented the variations and instabilities of humanity, maybe. My goal was less to create tracks that on their own would make people go, “This is amazing!”, and more to create a part of a whole that would have a great impact altogether—something that would give life to the anime. My hope is that people who watch it all the way to the end will find that the music sticks in their heads. So, with that part included, I added music to the absolute fullest extent that the anime would allow. I believe that one’s sense of hearing latches on especially hard when attention is paid to what will move the emotions of the viewers, so I worked to create something that would lead them along, in almost a pushy way.
—So, did you rearrange and re-record the vocal tracks, sung by Rena Uehara-san, to have the same themes as the background music?
Shimokawa: Yes. I used a largely acoustic band, while deliberately adding in a small bit of power in the sound design. White Album 2 is a story with particularly dramatic ups and downs in its composition, but as an anime, it has the same opening theme every week, so I boosted the power a little to make a more neutral sound, something that would work for both happy intervals and sad intervals. This may sound like the opposite of what I’ve just been talking about, but I actually did my utmost to make sure the opening theme didn’t feel too changed. Though, if you listen and compare the two, they do feel pretty completely different.
—Among the other vocal tracks, Setsuna sings a cover of Miyuki Nakajima-san’s “Akujo” within the show. With the inclusion of that, together with a world in which “White Album” was a hit ten years before, you really get the sense of a fully realized music history for the whole work.
Shimokawa: I guess you could call it sort of a game for me as a musician, trying to inlay the setting with something novel and interesting? But sound design has a meaning beyond that, so I decided chose something that would be okay for Setsuna to sing without throwing off the world of the anime. So why does Setsuna know “Akujo”? In my mind, it’s a song that Setsuna’s father used to listen to, so she learned it herself, and now it’s one of her specialty songs. Again, that’s just my personal take on it, rather than anything officially established by Maruto-san.
—There’s music laid out everywhere, including the background music, so looking at this as a “listening anime” brings its own sort of enjoyment.
Shimokawa: I agree, in large part because the voice actors did such incredibly fine work. Even the use of the spaces in between, the breath used for each expression, is constructed extremely carefully, so I believe this anime will give the viewers a powerful sense of total balance.
—I feel like there are a lot of different ways one can listen to the musical world you’ve worked with, Shimokawa-san—as an anime, or as a concert…
Shimokawa: To me, the most important thing is to think of things I wish I’d done, and then implement them. Maruto-san has said something similar before—it’s important to be your own biggest fan, isn’t it? If you look at it not as a creator but as a user, and create the sort of thing you would want, the sort of thing that makes you cry or moves you, then I think the finished product will naturally come out well.
—As a final question, what is your personal reaction to the execution of the anime version at this point in time, Shimokawa-san?
Shimokawa: This may sound like I’m singing my own praises, but at this point, I think it’s truly excellent. The music, the images, and the voice actors have all come together well, and the quality of the scenario itself goes without saying. To me, it has achieved a great degree of perfection. My criterion for buying software has always been whether or not the quality it merits is present. I believe it is present in this work.
Naoya Shimokawa is the president and CEO of the game company Aquaplus, as well as the founder of the music label FIX Records. In addition to having worked on a number of hit productions, including the ToHeart and White Album series, he also acts as composer and producer for the music in said works, as well as for artists such as Suara and Rena Uehara.