Today, she’s a professional singer, who is returning to Melbourne in February for two concerts centred on her father’s music for Studio Ghibli, following up a recent Australian tour.
Fujisawa grew up with Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, which range from complex science fiction epics like Nausicaa to outwardly simple fantasies such as My Neighbour Totoro and Ponyo. But Nausicaa, the only one in which she sings, remains her favourite — though her memories of recording Nausicaa Requiem, as her song is known, are not entirely pleasant.
Although she was happy to sing, she says, going through the actual recording process at that young age was a struggle. “My mother was with me, because I was crying,” she says. “Because in a recording booth it’s very, very tiny and dark. And then, you know, that scene was kind of sad.”
In fact, she says, she had little idea what to make of the scene she was accompanying, which was all she saw of the film at the time. “Nausicaa was very difficult for me, I couldn’t understand what it was all about. Later on I saw the film when I was 10 or something, and now I understood it.”
Although Fujisawa didn’t sing on the soundtrack of subsequent Ghibli productions, she was always aware of her father’s work as a film composer, and later became involved in another capacity. For Miyazaki films such as Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, she recorded what are known as “image albums” — tie-ins released prior to the films themselves, allowing fans to familiarise themselves with the music.
Did she hope that she would sing again in the films themselves? “I was always hoping,” she admits, mentioning that Miyazaki listened repeatedly to her Ponyo image album while animating that film. But ultimately, she says, it was up to her father. “I cannot really decide anything. If my father asked me, I sing, and if my father doesn’t ask me I don’t sing.”
In the meantime, however, she had set out to become a singer in her own right. At the age of six she joined a children’s choir associated with a Japanese television station, which toured as far as Europe. Later, as a young adult, she founded a choir of her own. After a stint studying in America, she launched her solo career, focusing on Japanese traditional song and Western classical music: Beethoven and Mahler, she says, are among her favourites.
More recently, she’s returned to film soundtracks, performing the theme song for the final Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. ““It was my dream to sing in a Hollywood film,” she says, although she was struck by the number of people involved. “In Japan my father decided everything about the music. In Hollywood, everything is divided.”
The concerts she is giving now bring things full circle by paying tribute to the music of her father who, in his late 60s, remains a vital and active figure in Japanese cinema, with a legacy that goes well beyond Studio Ghibli or animation in general. (Another of his key collaborations, especially in the 1990s, was with actor-director Takeshi Kitano, who would sometimes use the sweetness of Hisaishi’s themes to offset moments of ghastly violence.)
Asked about the significance of her father’s work with Miyazaki, Fujisawa hesitates. “His music is very special. Mr Miyazaki and my father have been working together for over forty years. They need each other — Mr Miyazaki needs my father and my father needs Mr Miyazaki. So that’s the great thing, their creative collaboration is perfect.” This is not, she adds, a matter of personal closeness. “They are not best friends. Of course they have good communication, but they don’t really drink or go to dinner together, they are just creative co-workers.”
Is her father, perhaps, the sort of artist who prefers to have his work speak for him? Not exactly, Fujisawa says, although from an English speaker’s point of view it might appear so. “In the music field it’s really hard to explain details in English, I think. He’s not so shy. He can talk very well, actually, in Japanese.”
‘Mr Miyazaki and my father have been working together for over forty years. They need each other, their creative collaboration is perfect.’
Looking forward to returning to Melbourne, Fujisawa speaks proudly of the large audiences at her previous concerts here. This is evidence that Studio Ghibli films have become widely beloved in Australia as in many parts of the world, and that Hisaishi’s music — which draws on Western as well as Japanese influences, both pop and classical— likewise has the ability to cross borders.
Bringing together different cultures is an important goal for Fujisawa, one reason she took such satisfaction in her work on Harry Potter: Even as a child, she watched Hollywood films alongside Japanese ones: her favourite of all, which she has seen many times, is The Sound of Music. She keeps up, too, with modern American popular culture: she watches Netflix and Amazon Prime, and recently saw Joker, though she admits she wasn’t a fan.
Fujisawa is planning another series of concerts under the banner “Mai and Mai” (her name, she explains, sounds the same as the Japanese word for dance), which will combine the music of Philip Glass, a sometime collaborator of Hisaishi’s, with performance by traditional Noh dancers. “Noh dance is very very beautiful,” she says. “It’s very difficult to see, even for the Japanese people.”
Does she plan to come to Australia with these concerts too? “Of course,” she says. “I want to introduce Japanese culture and Western culture together, all over the world.”
- Mai Fujisawa performs Music From The Studio Ghibli Films of Hayao Miyazaki at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl on Sat 29 Feb and Sun 1 March, 2020.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.