INTERVIEW: BELLE's Composers On Creativity, Virtual Meetings And Working With Mamoru Hosoda



All images courtesy of GKIDS


Mamoru Hosoda's latest film BELLE is now in theaters for American audiences and we had the opportunity to discuss the intricacies of creating a soundtrack that deals with a dual-faceted world that takes place in both actual and virtual reality with composers Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, and Yutah Bandoh. How did they come together as a unit to create the film's soundtrack while navigating virtual meetings due to COVID-19? Let's take a look at what they had to say about their creative process and the new challenges they had to face.




Taisei Iwasaki


What were some of your responsibilities as a composer, producer, and director of music for BELLE?


Iwasaki: In addition to composing "Lend Me Your Voice," "A Million Miles Away," and the score, I also invented the concept of a "Composition Village” — selecting several composers, deciding which songs they would be responsible for, discussing the images of these songs with Hosoda-san, and then communicating to them the meaning that the songs should have.


“Memories of a Sound/遠い音色” lays the groundwork for the bombastic “A Million Miles Away/はなればなれの君へ” near the end of the film. How do you approach creating a song that can be used in different ways throughout a story?


Iwasaki: When I started composing for this film, I first went to Kochi Prefecture where the story is set. I took my keyboard to the "Asao Sinking Bridge" where Suzu walks in the story and composed the motif on it.


It was a very meaningful experience for me to walk along the path Suzu walked and composed while feeling the atmosphere of her town.


The climax of the film sees Suzu sing “A Million Miles Away/はなればなれの君へ,” a track that transforms as Suzu herself changes back into Belle for the final parts of the song. What were some of the difficulties with creating a song that maintains cohesion and flow throughout Suzu’s transformation?


Iwasaki: "A Million Miles Away" is nine and a half minutes long in total in the film. (The soundtrack cuts out some of the acting, so it's only 8 minutes.)


I came up with the idea was to divide the song into four parts, taking the fact into account that Suzu's emotions, the emotions of the "U" audience around her, and the emotions of her friends in the real world, all change throughout the song.


Each part had to have its own color but also had to be integrated into one big song, so it was difficult to connect them seamlessly.

I composed the last two parts with the hope that the climax of this song would make not only everyone in the movie but also the audience feel as if they were watching a live performance of Suzu/Belle, and sing "Lalala” in their hearts, and composed Part 4 with the intention of blessing everyone watching the movie.

This song also contains the hope that people who have been divided by Covid-19 will feel like they can connect with each other in the world of "U."




One part of the score that I picked up on was the use of Kaho Nakamura’s humming as a leitmotif in other tracks. How did you come up with using that as a kind of leitmotif instead of a more traditional one found throughout the score?


Iwasaki: The idea of Kaho Nakamura's humming being used in another song was basically decided based on Hosoda-san's concept. Since Suzu is a singer as well as a composer, both the song and the score are presented with humming themes in accordance with her emotional changes and her memories. Specifically, it is as follows.


As I discussed with Hosoda-san about "Faces in the Rain," we came to the conclusion that the vocalized part of "A Million Miles Away," which Suzu sang in the previous scene, gave her one of the impetuses to go save Kei and Tomo. Then, Hosoda-san asked me to use "Lalala" in the scene where "Faces in the Rain" is played.


About “Lend me your voice,” I didn't actually use her humming as a leitmotif. But after I had fully composed the song, I told her, "I want you to sing this song as if you were writing it for the first time, preferably while walking to your favorite riverbank. She is also a composer, so she immediately understood my intention and gave it a try.


I wanted to make a scene of the moment when the song was born, so that's how I used it.


And based on that humming, an actual animation was to be made.


Quite a few of Belle’s songs utilize softer music in the beginning to really show off her voice, before eventually building up as she begins to sing louder. Did Belle’s voice become its own instrument for you that the rest of the music should follow when composing her songs?


Iwasaki: One of the factors that I considered important in Belle's songs was the change in her emotional state. I thought it was important that Suzu/Belle's emotions change during the songs, and that they are expressed musically as well.


In this respect, I believe that her voice guided the music itself in many ways.




Ludvig Forssell


The track “Digital Ripples/電網鼓動” is used when the girls are attempting to find out the identity of The Dragon. In my opinion, it really embodies the idea of trying to search through the internet for someone. What was the thought process behind trying to create a digital-sounding piece of music for this scene?


Forssell: I actually think that I might have completely disregarded the original direction I got for this scene, if I remember correctly it was originally described to me as a “briefing” scene, meaning that I could have taken more of an “espionage” type of approach. However, instead I started this piece with the idea in mind that I wanted this scene to feel like a montage; I wanted a constant drive and for a simple idea or melody to be present throughout linking all the parts and characters of the scene together.


The scene itself deals with how the internet and media, parts of our daily life, that in a sense aren’t real life, depicts individuals and draws conclusions about the motives behind their actions and the repercussions of this type of clickbait-style of almost predatory make-belief that drives the online machine. My goal was to have the viewer get sucked into this wild goose chase that the girls dive into as they search the internet for answers that they’ll later find out aren’t as simple as they might have thought. The synths and digital sounds used in this piece were the glue to connect Suzu and Hiro in their real world to the world of the web.


At one point, Suzu has to calm down a horde of girls due to an interaction with Shinobu that leads to an entertaining board game scene. “Social Warfare/手のひらの戦乱” plays in this scene and it has a different feel as it’s unlike a lot of the other music in the soundtrack. How did it feel to create a song that essentially showcased Suzu going to war?


Forssell: Though the scene — in a way — deals with social media bullying, it tackles it in a very, I guess you could say, “literal way.” Which is why "Social Warfare" was most definitely different, in many ways.


I actually had something completely different in mind and had tried out a few things when I got the first round of picture for this scene. I then quickly realized what Hosoda-san had in mind when he had said he wanted something that sounded like a “mobile game.” At one point I was even unsure whether we’d be recording orchestra for this track because Hosoda-san was so in love with the idea of it sounding somewhat “cheap,” haha. In the end, it was one of those pieces where the scene itself just called for something fun where I got to play around and be sort of silly. I even got to direct the distinguished choir of “London Voices” to sing a few lines of easter egg lyrics in Japanese.


I noticed most of your tracks have their own distinct style or genre when listening to the score on its own. Is this emblematic of how you create music?


Forssell: I think that’s just how things turned out for this film; I was probably the composer on the project who, other than my main songs like “Gales of Song,” had the chance to work out “everything in between.”


The film that plays out in multiple “worlds” and has its main characters depicted in multiple ways, both visually and state of mind, and that meant that we needed to go between several different approaches (which is also partly why Iwasaki-san wanted more than one composer on the project) and to tie all of that together I had to be sort of a chameleon and jump between genres so that it in the end all made sense.


Even though I’m someone who’s previously worked mainly on video games, that will often have you doing a wider array of types of music for one project than you usually would for a film, there were still many “firsts” for me on BELLE.  




Near the end of the film, we see Suzu and Kei meet face-to-face through the internet for the first time, but Kei is still very apprehensive about trusting Suzu. The track “Distrust/不信” plays, which gives viewers a sense of dread. How did you attempt to tackle trying to bring out that kind of emotion in viewers for this particular scene?


Forssell: “Distrust” was probably the first bit of music I wrote for BELLE that was right in my wheelhouse, closer to something I have experience doing before. So for me, the ambient, dark mood came rather naturally, and at the time of writing it, I honestly didn’t overthink it too much.


However, it was only later when discussing the piece with Hosoda-san that I came to understand how important this non-musical approach was in depicting a scene dealing with such a serious subject as domestic violence and the state of mind of a child who’s been let down by people he thought he could trust over and over again.


I think that what I felt necessary for the scene was for it to not be a conversation, because it never is; Suzu reaches out to Kei, but at this point, he has no reason to even listen to her, let alone trust her. The “music” is supposed to convey the anger, feelings of betrayal, and turmoil inside of Kei. It’s not telling a sweeping story, it’s just giving you the picture.


The final song we hear before the credits roll is “Skies of Song/辿り着いた空” which does a brilliant and beautiful job of supporting two different scenes at the end. Was creating this song more difficult with how it had to tie into both of Suzu’s emotional moments at the end of the film?


Forssell: The two parts of “Skies of Song” were actually written completely separately with the first part actually only being added during the film’s final mix. Though it does start right after the final conflict of the film, the idea is that we have already landed safely and so the first part lets us build on this newly found confidence and feelings of happiness/belonging into the natural conclusion of Suzu’s personal emotional development.


Hosoda-san’s films all end with a shot of a cumulonimbus cloud as a symbol of personal growth, and for me, it was one of the most rewarding parts of the film to be able to work on. To have the film’s title screen start with the leitmotif from "Gales of Song" and end with it fully “grown-up” really encompasses the growth that Suzu goes through throughout the story of the film. In a way, this motif signifies both how Suzu is able to realize her own potential as Belle but also how she always had that strength within herself; that her alter-ego isn’t a mask to hide behind but rather the cocoon that lets her blossom on her own. This track is supposed to symbolize the warm feeling of relief and peace of mind at the end of a journey where we have ended up better versions of ourselves. 




Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, And Yutah Bandoh


What was your reaction when you were given the opportunity to work with Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu on this project?


Iwasaki: I had seen most of Hosoda-san's works, so I was simply happy to be able to work with him. However, when I was contacted by the producer, I felt a lot of pressure because it was a time when most of the departments involved in the film, including the music department, were facing complicated problems.


Forssell: So, I was at home doing nothing — as we all were, this was six months or so into the pandemic — when I got a call from Iwasaki-san out of the blue. We had previously talked about working together at some point, so my mind quickly jumped to conclusions, haha. So, before even knowing what the project was, I had already accepted the job in my head. Not in my wildest dreams had I thought it would be Mamoru Hosoda’s next film and as a huge fan of his previous work — my personal favorite being Summer Wars. Not to mention getting the opportunity to write for a project where music is such a core part to the story, needless to say, I was ecstatic.


Bandoh: I’ve seen Director Hosoda’s works from long ago, and I was very honored!


With the spread of COVID-19, were there any major differences or added pressure when trying to compose the score for BELLE compared to other works either of you have worked on in the past?


Iwasaki: It was difficult to meet many people directly through COVID-19, and this time I was in the position of organizing several composers, so I felt a lot of pressure at first, but since the four composers who participated this time, Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, Daiki Tsuneta, and Miho Hazama, were originally friends, I was able to make many contacts with them. The actual collaboration was not so difficult.


Another important factor was that we were able to have quality online meetings due to the development of technology.


In fact, it was COVID-19 that gave me the idea to gather more than 3,000 "Lalala" from all over the world for "A Million Miles Away." I think this was a good thing for the project.


Forssell: We’ve all had our lives turned upside down by the pandemic, I know many friends who’ve had to rethink their entire approach to writing music and recording it over the last two years. However, my personal experience wasn’t only negative … actually, thanks to the changed conditions, I was able to finally set up a new place to work out of my home and as I left my previous employer half-way through working on BELLE, this really helped me a lot.  


Bandoh: In terms of COVID, this was my first experience with meetings being held online — of course, I think the film was doing the same! Also, when recording the orchestra portions with Ensemble FOVE, it was a new experience, as we had to take measures against COVID that I had never experienced before.


In terms of the compositions, it was my first opportunity working with both Taisei Iwasaki and Ludvig Forssell, so I faced the challenge of having to demonstrate my artistry while also collaborating musically. As a result, I think that each of us were able to make music in a very good way.




As the story of the film progresses, there are quite a few homages to Beauty and the Beast. Did you face any challenges creating a score that is influenced by such a classically known story?


Iwasaki: What I was most conscious about was composing music that was truly necessary for the film. I thought that if the music was truly good and not influenced by the times, it would naturally become sustainable music.


As for Beauty and the Beast, I tried to be as unaware of it as possible and never mentioned the live-action film, the animation, or the original story. They are all wonderful, so I did not want to be too influenced by them musically.


Forssell: If anything, I find it better to completely disregard any previous renditions. Especially with something like Beauty and the Beast; people tend to forget that the Disney film isn’t the first or only version of this story so I’d like to think of the parts that reference that classic fairy tale as “our version” of it.


Bandoh: In terms of the music, I was not trying to give too much of an homage to Beauty and the Beast. Both Studio Chizu’s animation and Director Hosoda himself created a very delicate and spectacular story that I was able to add music to naturally. 


One aspect of the score I enjoyed was its subtlety. There are quite a few times where it softly plays in the background of scenes. Was this a creative decision throughout the film to have the score more as a nuanced addition?


Iwasaki: The score for this film was composed by several people and I think they all understood the story well and composed songs that fit the scenes.


A score should not be a good piece of music on its own. The most important thing for the film is that it works well in the scene, so we had a lot of discussions about that when we were composing.


Forssell: As someone who definitely wrote a few of those less flamboyant parts to the score, I’d say that with something dynamic and colorful as a film like BELLE, you definitely need the quieter bits so that the bigger parts get to stand out more. It’s easy to overdo it when you are trying to convey so many things and you also have songs being performed throughout, so while giving room for the extravagant parts while tying everything together, I think this was the right decision for this film.


Bandoh: As far as I can remember, the word “subtlety” was not exactly an order from Director Hosoda. Perhaps it was an inevitable consequence of the animation, as far as this film is concerned! While we had very detailed on the score (laughs), I think the music was certainly born more out of a response to the performances in the film.




Since the film deals with the idea of virtual singers in the alternate reality of “U,” was there a conscious effort to make Belle’s songs more in line with current pop music instead of something more symphonic?


Iwasaki: Of course, some of the songs were composed with the current pop music in mind, but overall, I was more conscious of the fact that I wanted to compose songs that would not be affected by the times and that would last for a long time.


Forssell: I have hours and hours of text messages between me and Iwasaki-san discussing the approach for the songs of BELLE from the months leading up to actually writing anything for the film. We talked about basically any and all films that we could think of that feature actual “pop artists” and their music. If anything, I don’t think we even discussed typical musicals at all beyond confirming that that was NOT what BELLE should be.


I will say though that it’s a very fine line to walk. Pop music doesn’t become popular only because of how it sounds, there are so many unquantifiable aspects such as the artist, social trends, mere chance, etc. And as for the musical approach, the music still needs to represent the film and its story so we needed to land somewhere in between. Somewhere where we’d have songs that were strong enough to stand on their own as pop songs while also being part of telling an overarching story. We also tried our best to make the music feel modern while not leaning into any specific current trends so that we’d have something that would not only age well but also be more accessible to an international audience.


You can stream the BELLE soundtrack at the following links in Japanese and English.




Jared Clemons is a writer and podcaster for Seasonal Anime Checkup and author of One Shining Moment: A Critical Analysis of Love Live! Sunshine!!. He can be found on Twitter @ragbag.


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