Culture | CULTURE SMASH

When Japan strikes the right chord

by Roland Kelts

American composer, arranger and violinist Chad Cannon’s first encounter with Japan came via a Nintendo video game called Ninja Gaiden, which he and his fellow childhood gamers in Salt Lake City, Utah, mispronounced as “Ninja Gayden.” Later, an older sister, also a musician, would return from a tour of Japan bearing a gift shop special: a Hokkaido-shaped clock that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Now 33, Cannon is an accomplished artist immersed in Japanese culture. He has toured with the renowned violinist Midori Goto, and performed solo concerts in schools and evacuation centers throughout the devastated Tohoku region after the March 11, 2011 disasters. In 2016, he composed the original score for the award-winning Hiroshima documentary, “Paper Lanterns,” whose recording features shakuhachi flute player Kojiro Umezaki and vocalist/lyricist Mai Fujisawa.

Fujisawa’s father, veteran composer and conductor Joe Hisaishi, best known as the man behind the music of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s films, is why Cannon was back in Tokyo last week for two long days of studio work. Since 2017, the duo have become musical collaborators, and Hisaishi asked Cannon to create the arrangements for his latest score: the soundtrack for “Ni no Kuni,” an anime feature film based on a Studio Ghibli-inspired video game series, developed by Level-5. The film will be released in Japan on Aug. 23.

Cannon says he was tasked with enriching the music in some of the film’s fight scenes, adding drums and other instrumentation to raise the aural intensity.

“I haven’t played the game,” he admits, “but I’ve watched the film a few times and it’s classic anime. This contrast between aggressive violent scenes and really cute sentimental stuff in another world. You don’t usually see that in Pixar movies.”

Equally striking are Cannon’s credits on both sides of the Pacific. Based in Los Angeles, he has orchestrated with top-shelf Hollywood composers Conrad Pope and Timothy Williams for the soundtracks of “The Hobbit” trilogy, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” the upcoming “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” and the monster of transcultural franchises, “Godzilla.”

He recently scored Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory,” a documentary film that explores the conflict between Chinese management and American workers, after an abandoned General Motors Co. factory in Ohio is bought by a billionaire from Fujian province and revived as a Chinese company. The film will be released on Netflix later this year.

Fluent in Japanese and now studying Chinese, Cannon founded the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI) in 2014, a nonprofit organization that brings together composers and musicians from both regions, using music as a bridge to mutual understanding. The AANMI has staged concerts and presented workshops and outreach programs in cities as far-flung as Shenyang, China, and Salem, Massachusetts, and some of its members performed across Japan last summer.

“My passion for cultural exchange is about bringing people together face to face,” Cannon says, emphasizing the importance of actual presence and the intimacy of music. “When people come face to face, it’s a lot harder to reject someone.”

His adult introduction to Japan was serendipitous. As a Mormon undergraduate at Harvard, Cannon was assigned to two years of missionary work in Kagoshima Prefecture, southern Japan. The first six months were rough, though he was under no illusions. Being in a country whose population remains only 1 percent Christian, he says, “I knew I wouldn’t be baptizing the masses.”

While in Japan, he became enamored with the country’s traditional aesthetics, particularly the sounds of Okinawan sanshin (three-string instrument) folk songs, which he heard while attending a conference in Naha. When Cannon returned to Harvard, he enrolled in a Japanese language course and wrote his senior thesis on Okinawan court and folk music.

He later earned a master’s degree in music composition from The Juilliard School, the prestigious arts conservatory in New York. But it was at Harvard that he caught the attention of “Paper Lanterns” producer Peter Grilli, former president of the Japan Society of Boston.

“Paper Lanterns” documents the 2015 meeting between Shigeaki Mori, a Hiroshima survivor who helped preserve the memory of 12 American prisoners of war killed by the 1945 atomic bomb, and two of the Americans’ next-generation relatives. (Mori was famously embraced by former U.S. President Barack Obama at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2016.)

“The inherent spirituality of (Cannon’s) music, linked to his feeling for Japan, made him the perfect composer for our film,” Grilli says from his home in Massachusetts. “Film music works best when it doesn’t try to illustrate, but instead enhances a scene like incense. His score illuminates the protagonists’ obsessions and pathos without preaching.”

“Paper Lanterns” combines two languages and cultures against the backdrop of history’s horrific consequences. For the recording, Cannon brought in a Japanese koto player to accompany Umezaki’s shakuhachi and perform with an orchestra in Los Angeles. The haunting, mystical soundtrack, with echoes of Philip Glass and Aaron Copland and sounds from a Buddhist temple, can be heard on the composer’s website. It remains a signature work for Cannon.

“I was trying to give representation to both sides of that story,” he says. “It was really sincere music. Every second of that score was heart and soul for me.”

For now, Cannon’s focus remains on Japan. His symphony for the film “The Dreams of a Sleeping World,” a collaboration with Brazilian-Japanese artist Oscar Oiwa and nine international poets, was played in Tokyo in April. And he plans to return to the city in August to polish work on another anime offshoot: an arrangement of the music from Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” to be performed at Suntory Hall by Hisaishi’s World Dream Orchestra.

For a final chat, I call Cannon in Israel, where he is attending a friend’s wedding. As he describes the religious dichotomies, rich history and physical beauty of Jerusalem, I ask whether he ever considers living in Japan again.

“Are you kidding?” he says. “Every day.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.