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Naohito Koike is Tokyo based music and film producer. He runs Modest Launch label. Koike worked on various projects with independed filmmaker Vincent Moon, French cellist Gaspar Claus, Japanese musicians Kazuki Tomokawa, Kakushin Nishihara, Otomo Yoshihide, Leonardo Eto and many others.  This interview mainly concentrates on Gaspar Claus’s and Japanese avant-garde musicians collaboration project called Jo Ha Kyu which was released as an album in 2013. Interview took a palce in Tokyo, August 2016.

Naohito Koike, Tokyo, 2016 August

G.D.: So, are you more like a filmmaker or music producer?


N.K.: I am actually running my own label, indie music label, which is very small. I worked mainly with three projects in the past. The first one is a documentary film about Japanese artist Kazuki Tomokawa and I made this film with Vincent Moon. This was my first project. The second one was the Jo Ha Kyu with Gaspar Claus. And the third one is a musical project of Kazuki Tomokawa. And also sometimes I distribute music or film from foreign countries to Japan. So mainly I am working as an indie music producer.  


G.D.: Do you also make music?


No, I don’t play any instrument. I use to play just as a high school student but nothing serious I am just mainly concentrated on production.


Of course that is understandable. Could you tell me more about your project Jo Ha Kyu with Gaspar Claus?


So yes, Gaspar Claus, he is a French cellist and he is a very good friend of  Mathieu Saura (Vincent Moon). Gaspar was following us for the film, the first project with Vincent Moon, and he was playing in  a duo with Kazuki Tomokawa for a few shows.  I found his talent very intimidating  and I asked him if he wants to make a project with me. So Jo Ha Kyu was his idea, he wanted to play with these - mostly underground - Japanese musicians. He composed the whole album. And we made this album in one month. The concept of this come first. Gaspar wanted to express the art between intuition and improvisation.  And he thinks that tradition always belongs to the moment.  So for example, if you say traditional arts or stuff, it looks like you are talking about the past. Tradition is not just about the past. It belongs to this moment. So this is a concept of the album. That is why he collected many avant-garde musicians.  But at the same time we use traditional instruments here too, like satsumake (this is great instrument from ages ago) and this was samurai instrument. Kaiji Haino and Kazuki Tomokawa keeps the vocal traditions. Hiromashi Sakamoto he is cello player but he plays in a different way, he always amplifies the cello as an electronic instrument. Leonard Eko is a great taiko player.  So these are traditional instruments used in this project.  Also, there is Yoshihide Otomo, quite a famous avant-garde noise musician who uses turntables, so he is from the modern side of music.


Is it all just avant-garde musicians or are there musicians who call themselves a traditional ones ? 


There are two musicians who play traditional instruments not just for this project, so it is Kakushin Nishihara with the biwa and Leonardo Eto with the taiko. But their background is not just from traditional music, they do all sorts of stuff so I don’t think they consider themselves as traditional musicians.


And could you tell me more about that new project called hibiki that you are doing with Vincent Moon ? 


So as you know Vicent Moon is traveling around the world to find some undescovered music. And he is really interested in primitive stuff.  He asked me if I know something that is undescoverded Japan music wise.  And it was not a new thing for me, filmmaker asking for traditional/spiritual music. But Vincent was concentraded on just a real stuff which is really hard to find nowadays.  And this project is right now a bit stuck because of money because as you already know it takes a lot of money to travel around Japan. So now I am trying to get support for it from people. This is kind of his personal project, he really wants to experience real, spiritual Japanese culture. 


What I felt during my time in Japan, that it is really difficult to find that real traditional music and not just a fake form of it.


So yeah, I have the same problem.  Nowadays Japan is completely civilized. For example if you go to Amazon there is still primitive culture which still lives in that tradition, not pretending, but actually living it. When I research same thing in Japan, there are some, but I am not sure if that is really pure spiritual/traditional things. But I think it is worth to keep looking.


Yes, I see what you mean. I looked up in few of those traditional music festivals, but when I went there it just did not felt real.


Yes, sometimes it looks that it is ritualistic kind of thing like entertainment.  But I heard some quite good, for example in Okinawa there I festival where you unfortunately can’t get it with camera or sound recording equipment and it is very closed spiritual ceremony where not everyone can get in, and also it is over for almost a decade. Okinawa is a center of traditional music in Japan and it looks very ritualistic nowadays.


Is it in temples/ shrines or is it separate thing from religion?  


Have you been to Okinawa? It is a small island near Thailand and it is very distinctive. And even for me, if I meet old people in Okinawa I can’t understand what they say even it they speak Japanese, because they have very strong dialect. And Okinawa use to be very unique and there was no Buddhism.  They also did not practice Shintoism, they believed in Nature. That is the reason, in my opinion, why they still have all ancient traditions. It is something like Native Americans in the USA. But I am not sure about Okinawa nowadays, because right now we have all of this technology and easy traveling and western civilization’s influences coming. So because of globalism, Okinawa’s uniqueness is fading out.  In my personal opinion, sometimes I feel that real traditional musical spiritualism from some musicians like ones in Jo Ha Kyu album, even though they do not call themselves traditional musicians.  So if I am interested in spiritual and traditional stuff I should not stick to just traditional instrument, at the end of the day an instrument is just an instrument. Like Heino Keiji, he’s a modern nowadays artist, but his performances are coming from his soul  which I think is way more spiritual and traditional then what you can see in those traditional festivals.  In Hibiki project, I want to mix everything up, same as in Jo Ha Kyu. It is not that I interested in traditional stuff, I am more looking for purity and spirituality. But I at the same time I want to discover connection how modernity and tradition is connected.  


It is actually very good point. As I mentioned before, in those traditional festivals they put on kimonos and behave in the way you imagined hat traditional cult, but it just does not feel true and pure.


Yeah, most of the musicians like that they just trying to carry out that tradition as a product without thinking. And I have no interest in this kind of spectacle.


So where do you think is a boundary between what is traditional and what isn’t traditional anymore?


This is my personal opinion; in general tradition nowadays they do not care about purpose of playing and about spirituality. They think if they just wear kimono and play the same instruments same repertoire it will be traditional and same as it was ages ago. Originally I think traditional music has a strong emotion inside, and as you mentioned that fake feeling of nowadays performances. But I am not saying that they are bad or something.


I had very similar impression in Kyoto. Everyone talks about it as a most traditional city, which has saved a lot of ancient things. But when I went there, I was highly disappointed, and it just felt as a parody of Japan. I looked like westerners decided to make a theme park about Japan.


I personally don’t like Kyoto that much.  And if I tell this to people, especially foreigners they also ask me why? It is so traditional and so nice. And yeah, Kyoto is okay, it is a beautiful city they try to preserve what it use to be.  And it is beautiful compered to Tokyo, but Kyoto is just 700 years old so it is not that old. For example, Jo Ha Kyu album cover is made by manga artist Daijiro Morohoshi, he is a legendary manga artist in Japan but not a major one.  He influenced Ghibli Studios’ Hayao Miyazaki, but Morohoshi is not famous at all. So he is a manga artist who is mainly interested in ethnology and I am big fan of him. And after long research I finally got his contact, and I asked him if he could make an album cover which would illustrate an album. And I send a musical file to him, and he drew this by listening to it. And inside of the LP, it is all the original art, and for me this kind of expression and drawing style looks very Japanese, or just somewhere in Asia, before civilization.  So my interest about traditional culture is like this, before religion and civilization.  For example, people say that Buddhism is our national religion, or one of them, but obviously it came from abroad as civilization and government try to control people through religion. So if Vincent Moon wants to do film about Buddhism, I wouldn’t join this. For me traditional is more ancient but of course it depends on person. Everyone has different opinion, but this is mine, tradition for me is something somewhere in east before different civilizations and countries started appear

© Daijiro Morohoshi, Jo Ha Kyu LP inner sleeve.

I have very mixed feelings about this cover art, I really like it, but when I look at it, I can’t familiarize anything with traditional Japanese culture or what I know about it, but it still feels very Japanese and very pure.  Also, is these beasts or demons or whatever you call them, are they completely created just for this artwork, or are they some sort of gods or demons or ghosts from Japanese mythology?


No, it is original and he created these beasts, they just might look a like ancient Japanese myths characters but it is just because of the drawing style. It is just Morohishi respond to the music, it looks like very old tradition but it actually is a very modern world fruit.  


Gaspar Claus, he is right now quite popular in France and Europe and he has new project about Japan coming up, and I am helping him again. Last year he did a big concert in the south of France and this project was called Kintsugi. Kinstugi itself is a name of traditional technique for ceramics in Japan, when you broke something and glue it together using gold or other expensive metal. And a biwa player from Jo Ha Kyu – Kakushin Nishihara was invited and there were three people in the band, so it was Gaspar Claus, Kakushin Nihihara and Serge Teyssot-Gay who is a very famous guitarist in France.

© Muga Miyahara, photo of Kakushin Nishihara playing satsuma biwa.

Kakushin Tattoo is traditional pattern of Ainu. Ainu is originally from Hokaido and they are native Japanese. We have some tribes which are very old and they are based on the north part of Hokaido. There used to be people called Ainu and they had their own language but now they assimilated to the Japanese culture and the tribe is almost dead. 


Does the way she sings come from this tribe?


It is traditional Japanese vocal. And there is tale about two regions called Haike and  Genji and they were always fighting. And in Kintsugi project Kakushin sings about this traditional Japanese tale. And blind monks play this story with shamisen on the corner of the street so this is the same song.  But also Kakushin used electronic stuff so it is very similar project to Jo Ha Kyu, and both of these projects were Gaspar’s idea. 


What is the instrument that Kakushin plays?


It is biwa, also called as Japanese lute and it came from Persia I think. And there is different types of biwa, it depends who is playing, for example monks plays in Uma style biwa and the style that Kakushin uses is called Satsuma biwa, Satsuma style came from kushiu region.  This style used to be played by samurai’s that is why the body of the instrument is very big and sound is strong and noisy.

                                                                                       2016 Tokyo

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