Composer Shiro Sagisu scores songs to be devoured to on 'Attack on Titan' soundtrack

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

During one scene in Shinji Higuchi’s recent film “Attack on Titan,” soldiers leap from building to building battling a carnivorous giant with nothing but swords. The horror is heightened by the music: razor sharp synthesizers accentuate a foreboding orchestral melody. It’s hard to imagine the action being as intense with only the grunts of the actors to listen to.

When it comes to the basics of making a movie, the director, producer and actors are all essential. The person that takes the experience to a higher level of quality, however, is the soundtrack composer — and Shiro Sagisu is one of the best in the business.

“Directors have told me that a film’s composer holds a very trusted position and that it’s an unfair one,” Sagisu tells The Japan Times during an interview at a restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood. “They point out that music can be enjoyed as a stand-alone product, but a film cannot.”

It’s a good point — it’s hard to imagine Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” being as effective without Vangelis’ score, but it’s easy to imagine listening to that soundtrack on your home stereo.

Born in 1957, Sagisu began his professional career arranging the music for the 1978 album “Lucky Summer Lady” by jazz-fusion band T-Square (who at the time were known as The Square). From there he worked with several pop artists, including Juju, Misia and Ken Hirai. But Sagisu’s impact has been greater in the world of anime, where he has composed scores for a number of influential titles, such as “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water” and “Bleach.”

Despite the influence he has had on Japanese culture, Sagisu is only in this country for roughly a quarter of the year — in fact, he arrived from Europe a few days before our interview. Coincidentally, he was here just as “Attack on Titan,” which he composed the music for, had hit cinemas. The film, which tells the story of a walled community and the man-eating giants that terrorize it, is a live-action adaptation of a manga series of the same name that has published more than 50 million copies. Divided into two parts, the first film has been in cinemas nationwide since Aug. 1. The second chapter, “Attack on Titan: End of the World,” is set to be released Sept. 19.

Sagisu says he received the offer to score Higuchi’s film via an email from the director himself, whom he has known for more than 25 years. It may seem unusual for a man in Sagisu’s position to take care of his own correspondence, but the composer says being a freelancer — with no attachment to any management agency or corporation — is often beneficial for him, especially when composing soundtracks.

“There would always be an extra barrier if we spoke through a management agency,” Sagisu explains. “There’s a risk of it becoming a telephone game. Even if I just want to submit a demo recording, it would take time to receive the simplest of feedback.”

The first step in creating a film soundtrack is to decide on a main sequence, or phrase, that will define the entire project. For example, Jane Campion’s 1993 drama “The Piano” features Michael Nyman’s “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” as its main theme, but the piano sequence from that song can be heard throughout the film in various forms. Using similar phrases and chord progressions helps create a sense of unity.

In the case of Sagisu’s “Attack on Titan” score, the track “Rise Up” contains the central melody. Played by a string section, it’s a loop of descending notes in a minor key that effectively ratchets up tension when paired with a scene.

“If a film requires 50 tracks, I usually make three times as many, so about 150,” Sagisu says. ” ‘Rise Up’ was only one of them and, at first, neither Higuchi or I considered it as a candidate for the main sequence. However, as we went on discussing the music we realized we were missing a highly conceptual core sound that would be needed for the film’s climax and its second chapter. So we decided to rearrange ‘Rise Up’ in order for it to be used throughout.”

One example of “Rise Up” appearing in a different form is during some of the battle scenes in which it is performed digitally. Nao Shimada, who goes professionally by the name Chokkaku, was the music arranger for the film and decided on an industrial and heavy metal vibe for the tracks that include the word “metal” in their title: “Masterplan, Metalopera,” “Rise up, Rythmetal” and “ATM, Rythmetal” are characterized by distorted lead and backing guitars, synthesizers and electronic drum beats.

However, Sagisu points out the term “metal” in these cases isn’t a reference to the genre of heavy music, but is meant to describe the “sharpness” of the visuals he saw when he watched an early cut of the movie.

“Rather than magnificence, I felt a sense of sharpness in Higuchi’s filmmaking. Rather than being defensive, it’s offensive, and rather than being conservative, it’s very avant garde,” Sagisu says. “After discussing with Chokkaku how to express that sharpness through music, we came up with the idea to incorporate guitar riffs in a sharp tone.”

Though the “metal” series of songs are used in battle scenes and for the film’s climax, it doesn’t mean Sagisu’s signature orchestral style is overshadowed — metal and classical often go well together, as any Metallica fan knows.

The orchestra featured on most of the soundtrack is the London Studio Orchestra, which is known for its involvement in blockbusters such as the “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” series. The track “Orchestre, geant a l’est” was recorded in Poland and features the 104-member Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra. It may seem a bit daunting for a Japanese composer to waltz in and take to the podium with such ensembles, but Sagisu says presenting them with a good musical score is the best way to earn their respect: “Scores transcend linguistic barriers and doing them right is a great testament to a musician’s skill,” he says.

Sagisu explains that the classical music created for film soundtracks is composed differently from the kind that stands on its own and is usually performed by orchestras. However, he believes that both styles have essentially the same purpose in that both are “a supreme form of background music.”

“For example, ‘Pachelbel’s Canon,’ is the best song to be played in a grocery store,” he says. “(This scenario is) likely not what the composer had in mind when making it, but classical music is always going to be heard in that way.”

Instead of seeing this way of experiencing classical music as a negative, Sagisu believes it pushes the art form beyond its intended purpose, thus broadening its scope and making it part of the soundtrack of everyday life.

“When you’re running late for an appointment, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ might reflexively play inside your head. Which means it’s the best music for that moment,” Sagisu says. “That’s the exact job of a soundtrack composer, to create whatever sound captures the moment you are watching.”

“Attack on Titan (Original Soundtrack)” is available in stores now. For more information on Shiro Sagisu, visit