Yasunori Honda

From Analogue To Digital

Published in Cinesonic - The World Of Sound In Film - AFTRS Publishing, Sydney © 1999
Transcribed & edited by Philip Brophy from the talk delivered at the conference in 1998
Interpretation & translation by Tetsuro Shimauchi
Ninja Scroll © 1993


Rarely acknowledged in the West, the sound design in Japanese animation is arguably at the forefront of shaping and spatializing sonic ocurrences with narrative mechanisms and effects. The mood, style, tone and signification of most audio-visual moments in Japanese animation have great potential to realign and readdress the limiting naturalist/realist/modernist dichotomies which govern most Wester live-action sound design. Yasunori Honda is one of Japan's most accomploished designers in this field. His work covers many genres and styles, and is always exactingly crafted by his finely tuned rhythmic and spatial sensibilities.

Philip Brophy

Yasunori Honda in conversation

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be invited here tonight and to have the opportunity to show my work. My expertise covers aspects of sound post production in film and video and although I have a certain confidence and pride in my work, I see much room for me to develop -- technologically and philosophically. My ultimate goal is to reach an ideal in sound design through incorporating the work and approaches of other sound designers, both Japanese and international.

I have been designing sound for animation -- animated cartoons, mainly -- for nearly thirty-two years. Much of what I did for the first thirty years in this field was not very different from what one would do with sound for live action. However in the past few years there has been a drastic change taking place in sound design: the transition from analogue to digital. This change is repainting the whole picture of sound design. Every facet of sound designing from sound effects to dialogue to music to the mixdown -- everything from A to Z -- is radically affected by this change.

Since I'm a sound engineer rather than a scholar, I will not be able to speak academically, but I will discuss three movies I have worked on in the past fifteen years: Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1985), Ninja Scroll (1992) and Tenchi Muyo In Love (1996). I will focus on two segments from each movie: the introduction, which I as a sound designer think is a very important part of the movie, and the climax, which is of course the most important part of a movie.

Macross -introduction

The basic story of Macross is quite simple, and similar to many other Japanese sci-fi animations. This one has a cute girl -- Minmai -- who is a pop star performing her first concert on board a gigantic space battleship. War erupts, but the song she sings will eventually have the power to end the war due to its emotional effect upon the enemy.

The movie opens rather mysteriously by depicting the enemy. I intended to introduce the enemy at the very beginning, which may be disconcerting to an audience, yet nonetheless a fascinating way of starting the story. This enemy is a species of male giants engaged in a five thousand year long war against a species of giant females. Each species speaks a unique language, so the director Shoji Kawamori and I composed two distinctive languages -- one for the giant males and one for the giant females. The movie opens with this alien dialogue. Behind this strange-sounding language is the atmosphere of the interior of the alien vessel, for which I used biological sounds such as the beating of a heart because of the bio mechanical nature of the alien species. You then see the huge space battleship Macross floating in space, then a series of shots illustrating the interior of the ship. As the introduction to the film progresses, we shift from the military locations of the ship to the civilian areas. It is a very big ship -- big enough to contain a whole city. The civilian population is quite large, and we see many shots depicting their normal everyday life on the battleship. In this setting, Minmai is giving her first concert.

Macross - climax

In the climax of the movie, the enemy star fleet is ready to attack Earth and mankind is in great danger. Despite this devastating situation, Minmai is engaged in a love affair with the pilot Hikaru, the hero of the film. Minmai will be rejected by Hikaru, but because her song will affect the enemy giants and bring an end to the battle, she must sing the song even though she is deeply hurt by his rejection.

The sound design for this climax involved many arguments in post-production. Even though there is a war going on in space, Macross is basically a love story. To express this, we decided to make the most of the love song Minmai sings, so we designed the entire battle sequence in a way that its timing matches the structure of the song. To accomplish this effectively we disregarded any unneccessary sound, which resulted in using a minimalist approach. Minmai's song is broadcast so that it can stop the war, yet she is not only directing the song at the giants, but she is also singing the song to her lost lover who is the main fighter pilot. We employed two different approaches in the sound design: one for when the song is heard by the giants; another for when the song is heard by the pilot. Recorded using analogue systems but mixed in Dolby stereo, we used spatial effects and movement to enhance this dual perspective of hearing the song. The surround channels are active when the song is heard by the giants, while the song is placed in the centre channel when it is heard by Minmai's ex-lover. We also employed the surround channels for sound effects like the space fighters fly-bys, and of course when the enemy mothership explodes. Initially, we charted and track-laid all the sound which would be usually deemed necessary for such a climactic battle sequence, but we gradually removed more and more elements, until eventually we were left with the final lean soundtrack. Because Macross was made fifteen years ago when the surround system was still in its technological infancy, we had to conduct a lot of trial and error to ascertain what sounded right and what didn't. Due to this extensive experimentation and the complexity of the climax sequence, half the schedule of the mixdown of this one hundred minute film went on this final battle -- which on screen lasts for only seven minutes.

Ninja Scroll -- introduction

Ninja Scroll was produced as an OVA (an Original Video Animation for sale directly to the video market). We didn't use so much of the surround system for this movie, however it has very interesting aspects to its sound design. It's a creepy movie, best viewed in the dark. The opening sequence features elements typical of all Ninja movies. Just as every Western cowboy movie has tumbleweeds, cactus, horses, the desert and so on, every Japanese samurai movie has the wooden bridge over a river, reeds rustling in the wind, wind blowing across the river and so on. I tried to design the sound to accompany these obligatory and expected icons of the genre. I wanted the animation make it seem as realistic as possible.

The movie's visual style is realistic, but the actions and events in the story are extremely unrealistic. Ninjas belong to groups who are highly trained in specialist combat techniques for espionage. They are also trained in magic and trickery, so Ninja Scroll contains many weird moments. I tried to maintain a high level of reality while at the same time suggesting a certain surreal ambience behind all sound and dialogue in any scene. In the opening sequence we see the ragged girl say 'Everyone is dead', yet it is not her speaking but Ninja hiding in the forest manipulating her vocal chords. This is an example of the strange power of the Ninja in this movie.

Ninja Scroll - climax

The climax of the sound design to Ninja Scroll features Kagero, a lone kunoichi (female Ninja) fighting a large group of enemy Ninjas. In doing so, she sacrifices her life to save the film's hero Ninja, Jubei. In this battle sequence, the sound is designed to express the characteristic swift movements of Ninja. We employed traditional Japanese instrumentation in the music score which I feel enhances the Ninja's movement. In fact, because I thought that music was so important in this scene, I asked the composer Kaoru Wada to rewrite and rewrite his cues until finally the music truly matched the scene. Once the music was complete in this regard, I toned down the sounds of the Ninja's quick movements so that music and sound effects blended well together.

Tenchi Muyo In Love -- introduction

Tenchi Muyo In Love was the first Japanese animated feature whose post-production was entirely done in the Todd-AO studio in Hollywood. I went there to push myself further in terms of interesting sound design, and to experiment with hi-end audio technologies. DVDs (Digital Video Discs) are now becoming widely used in the domestic market, so in anticipation of this three years ago, I decided to mix the movie in DDS (6 channel Dolby Digital Surround). The film was mixed by Scott Millen (who won an Oscar for his work on Ron Howard's Apollo 13 in 1996) and the music was composed and performed by Christopher Franke, one of the founding members of Tangerine Dream.

The directionality of the DDS system is divided into 6 channels: front right, front left, rear right, rear left, and two in the front centre -- one of which is the sub woofer for generating ultra low frequencies. This low frequency generation and the very clear separation in sound directionality is in my opinion the definite advantage of digital sound technology. When we producing Tenchi Muyo In Love three years ago, there were only two movie theatres in Japan equipped with the facilities to replay the 6-channel DDS system. At the time we were looking to the future so we decided to go for it, and now there are triple the amount of theatres which handle DDS. Now I know that we were right then in pushing ourselves to explore the DDS system to this extent. Traditionally, Dolby Stereo involves only left centre and right, which means that the sound can only be manipulated sideways. But with the 6 channels of the DDS system we tried something unusual by having sounds come from top to bottom, as well as sounds start in the rear and move over the audience to the dead centre of the front screen. These spatial effects could only be done with DDS's 6 channels, and the introduction to Tenchi Muyo In Love demonstrates all of this.

Tenchi Muyo In Love - climax

In the climax of Tenchi Muyo In Love we really tried hard to express movement throughout the theatre space, and I think we did well in this area. Working with the Hollywood technicians at the Todd-AO studio we learnt a lot about 6-channel surround. In the film's climax sequence, the up-down sound movement occurs most dramatically when the girl Achika swings her laser sword down onto the monster Kain. The back-front sound is heard when the Kain attempts to suck everything into itself through its power to create black holes. These sounds are designed so that the audience can feel the movement flying over and around their heads. Once the battle sequence is over, we have a quiet peaceful sound which is monaural in comparison to these other spatial effects, so as to enhance the dramatic effect of the peace which follows the climax.


Macross: Do You Remember Love?, Ninja Scroll and Tenchi Muyo In Love are three movies which we were able to sound-design under better working conditions, both creatively and technically. Unfortunately, the working environment for sound designers is not as ideal as it should be due to the various time and money constraints. But recognizing this problem, we nonetheless wish to push ourselves harder to realize the highest possible level of sound design in the field of Japanese animation -- an entertainment form which recently has been well received around the world. I would like to thank everyone then for enjoying our work.


You said in the last few years there has been a big advance in the shift from analogue to digital in sound post-production. How do you think this will benefit, influence or make a difference to your work as a sound designer?

I don't think everything is fantastic with digital technologies, however -- whether I like it or not -- it has become an industry standard. In terms of post-production, digital processes and systems make everything easier to manipulate, but I don't think digital processing is infallible or almighty. I personally prefer the very delicate sound of analogue audio, and I will try to keep an analogue feel as much as possible. But now that recording in analogue and then transferring to digital for post-manipulation is so easy, I think analogue will find a way to be kept alive in this industry. In terms of post-production, digital gives us very spontaneous results. We can manipulate the sound and hear the outcome immediately, almost in real time. Therefore, we can work intuitively -- which is a very important contribution from the digital media.

Seeing that, for example, George Lucas recently remixed the soundtracks to the Star Wars films and remastered the images, would you ever consider remastering your work in the light of DVD releases?

A good question. We are currently in the middle of remixing one of the Tenchi Muyo movies. The advent of DVDs has now given us the opportunity to rework our old mixes because now everything is required to be in DDS. If the material is suitable for re-releasing, we will be given the chance to remix in a more sophisticated way things we completed before in simple fashion. Due to the 6 channels of the DDS system, we have to record more sounds, plus the lay-out of the sounds is more complicated. It usually takes three to four months to produce the sound design for a movie in Dolby Stereo, but the remixing of a film into DDS takes one whole year!

I wanted to ask about audience and industry appreciation. Because audiences tend to look primarily at the actors and the scenery and so on, do you feel as appreciated as the visual practitioners? Also, do you have to work harder, because good sound in a movie is not necessarily noticed by the audience when it blends in so well with the film.

Whether animation films are appreciated more than live action movies, I'm not sure. However, a definite difference between live action movies and animated movies is that animated movies are more controlled -- yet things tend to be exaggerated, such as facial expressions, etc. because they are not alive but animated two-dimensional drawings. To give them life and to help these animated characters appear alive, sound effects and music are extremely important -- much more so than in live action movies. Actually, it sometimes happens that we design the sound prior to the drawing of the pictures so as to define the movie from a sound point-of-view. It not only gives the movie a framework, but gives some necessary inspiration to the animators. This in itself is an indication of how important sound is to animated movies, and how different an approach it is from the live action sound design.

One of the most interesting things about animation sound is that you have to create sounds that don't exist outside of the animated world. Could you describe for us some of the tools, instruments or processes you use in creating these 'unnatural' sounds -- spaceship, monsters, etc.

The actual making of the sounds -- recording the sound effects or producing the foley tracks -- is done by a different department. I instruct the personnel to provide me certain sounds, but I cannot describe their exact techniques in recording some of those sounds. All I care about is the end results they produce according to my instructions. As long as it sounds good, I'm happy. I use Pro Tools on Mac to edit the sound and perform some simple manipulation. I used to use a specially designed interface called the Synclavier, designed by Ben Burt of Skywalker Sound in Hollywood. Actually, it is a very unsophisticated machine which I do not use so much now. Of course I also use synthesizers and a lot of 'non-professional' means such as fuzz-wah pedals and so on. Eventually, I transfer all these processed elements into Pro Tools to prepare for the final mix.

You said before that Dolby Digital Surround allows you greater flexibility with the directionality of sound in the final mix. I noticed one scene in Tenchi Muyo In Love has sound that remains at a fixed volume while the visual edit shows that the sound would be changing in level from shot to shot. Do you find that sharp changes in volume are distracting, or is there another reason why you chose to keep the sound at the same level across such shots?

The up to down sound design that accompanies the action of the girl striking the monster with her laser sabre is probably what you have in your mind. As you pointed out, the extreme changes in volume or shift can be very distracting. No matter how far away from the centre of the screen the source of the sound may appear, some of the sound has to remain in the centre, or it will sound odd and unnatural. That's one of the things we figured out as we mixed 6 channel surround, and we could only learn it by actually listening to the sound in the appropriate environment. This was one of many good things we learned from our trip to Los Angeles.

My question concerns music. Could you describe in your opinion the ideal relationship that you would have as a sound designer with a composer of an original sound score?

Actually I am not a very musical person. I'm a bad singer and I received dreadful marks in music classes back in school. But in filmmaking, I have a composer to take care of that. The relationship I would like to strike with a composer is to not pressure the composer with my ideas in the beginning, but to let the composer bring in a whole range of ideas so he can have creative latitude. As Howard Shore said at his presentaion for Cinesonic, I also try to include the composer in the process as early as possible, even though that is not how things occur in the making of Japanese animation. The music tends to be thought of at the last minute and it is really difficult to try to get the composer involved earlier, but that would be my way of trying to establish a good working relationship with a composer.

Text © Yasunori Honda & Philip Brophy 1999.