The artists gathered at last month’s Tokyo premiere of “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury” were as eclectic as the film they’d all made: a 41-minute anime music video set to an entire album by the Grammy-winning Sturgill Simpson, a country music singer-songwriter from Kentucky.
After the screening, delivered in 7.1 surround sound so rich it enveloped like an aural duvet, Japanese and American anime luminaries including Koji Morimoto (“Akira”), Michael Arias (“Tekkonkinkreet”), Masaru Matsumoto (“Appleseed Alpha”), Shinji Takagi (“Steamboy”), Arthell Isom (“Strike Witches”) and Henry Thurlow (“Tokyo Ghoul”) stood shoulder-to-shoulder beneath projected images of scenes from the omnibus project. Standing tallest among them was a squinting Simpson, just in from the U.S. and still, he confessed, addled by jet lag.
But the mash-up doesn’t end there. The film’s overarching storyline was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic “Yojimbo,” about a ronin warrior for hire. Junpei Mizusaki and his CG studio Kamikaze Douga of “Batman Ninja” fame directed it, with character designs by “Afro Samurai” manga artist Takashi (Bob) Okazaki.
What’s more, the music is miles away from the country-western of Merle Haggard. Its razor-edged electric guitar riffs and insistent beats are from a genre known as alt-country, or alternative country rock, with melodic echoes of the late J. J. Cale — if his songs were amped up through ZZ Top’s distorting fuzz boxes.
Simpson’s lyrics are depicted in the film as the wayward musings of a loner navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape. They invoke a punk nihilism and disgust with corruption (“It’s ‘F—— all y’all’ season, don’t give me a reason/ to watch your house burn to the ground.”) The 10 song-episodes are sometimes brutally violent and bloody, sometimes erotic, but also often arrestingly inventive. Morimoto’s collaboration with hair sculpture artist Hidenori Nishimura for the song “Mercury in Retrograde,” with its metamorphosing gears and snaking lines, is especially stunning.
It’s the kind of crossover, transcultural anime collaboration with high-end production values that would have been unthinkable five years ago. And, of course, it’s streaming on Netflix.
The use of Western music in anime soundtracks itself is nothing new and has an admirable lineage. Veteran critic and industry analyst Tadashi Sudo notes that the “Lupin III” television series brought jazz to the medium in the early 1970s, and in Shinichiro Watanabe’s classic “Cowboy Bebop,” jazz and blues-styled backdrops form a slyly comedic commentary on the characters’ noir space-cowboy escapades.
But Sudo says that “Sound & Fury,” with its co-produced characters, narrative and imagery built around a full album of songs by a single musician is a landmark culmination. “‘Sound & Fury’ emerges from that history,” he says, “but I think it’s the final form of such unusual combinations of Western music and anime. The fusion is wonderful, but even more important, this is a production where both Japanese and American staff took part in its total creation. That could only be realized with Netflix, because cultural diversity is one of its core values.”
While the film was completed in under a year (astonishing, given its scope), its gestation period was much longer — spanning two decades.
Simpson was stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base from 1997 to ’98. On days off, he would trawl Tokyo manga shops for anime VHS tapes and watch them on his ship. He got hooked on dark classics like “Akira” and years later, after returning to the States, “Attack on Titan.”
In 2012 he revisited Tokyo as a professional musician to shoot a music video for his song “Railroad of Sin” (now on YouTube) from his first album.
“It was back then that I first started talking with my friend Shunsuke (Ochiai, co-executive producer) about this crazy dream,” he says. “How cool would it be to make anime videos for a whole album? So when I made (‘Sound & Fury’), that was the plan from the beginning. And when Junpei (Mizusaki) heard the album and told me he wanted to animate every song, for lack of a better word, it felt like kismet.”
Simpson was also driven by his love of another anime anthology, 2003’s “The Animatrix,” which features a contribution by Morimoto and was produced in Japan by American director Arias.
Arias’ haunting episode for Simpson’s song “Make Art Not Friends” is the film’s only live-action sequence, depicting a skateboarding female scavenger collecting forlorn-looking knickknacks from the streets of abandoned urban neighborhoods — Asakusa, Kawasaki and Marunouchi among them. He shot the footage on Sundays and Mondays between 3 and 5 a.m., when almost everywhere in the metropolis looked desolate.
“It was clear from talking with Sturgill that ‘Mad Max’ was a touchstone, so I tried to create some kind of post-apocalyptic atmosphere,” Arias says. “Given the budget and short schedule, I thought I could come up with something richer and more organic with live-action than with traditional animation.”
When he began filming, Arias had just one of Okazaki’s character sketches to guide him, and Okazaki himself says he was largely winging it: The “Afro Samurai” creator’s musical tastes lean more toward hip-hop and R&B.
“I never listen to country music,” he says, laughing. “At first I was a bit worried, since it’s a genre I’ve never been familiar with. But the soundscape on Sturgill’s album is so edgy and punk I was able to really get into it.”
Simpson made several trips to Tokyo during the making of the film to work with director Mizusaki and producers Ochiai and Hiroaki Takeuchi. But Mizusaki says that once he got here, “he pretty much green-lighted most of our plans anyway.”
For Netflix, “Sound & Fury” is another anime ace in its deck, “one of the most unique and ambitious projects our team has ever encountered,” says John Derderian, director of content at the company’s Japan office. While some hardcore anime fans bemoan its extensive use of CG technology and unconventional marriage with country music, the film expands the medium’s reach to a different demographic of viewers, the kind who, to cite one of Simpson’s lyrics, just might “carve (their) names in bar stools” somewhere in Kentucky.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.