Eiko Ishibashi is a Japanese composer and musician known for her chameleon approach to genre and polymath playing abilities. Using the piano as her primary mode of expression, Ishibashi works at the intersection of jazz, experimental, and pop. She has released over a dozen albums, and her rich musical world has been incorporated into the visual realm with installation, theatre, and cinema collaborations.
Ishibashi’s recent work on the Academy Award-winning Japanese drama-road movie Drive My Car has brought her wider attention, although she remains humble in light of its success. “As far as the soundtrack is concerned, I honestly don’t feel I have succeeded. But if the people who saw the film enjoyed it, I’m very happy,” she says.
In 1981, Czech filmmaker Ivan Passer directed Jeff Bridges in the neo-noir thriller Cutter’s Way, the soundtrack of which is Ishibashi’s all-time favorite. “[It has] a truly beautiful score by Jack Nitzsche. It’s music that makes you think about the background and history of the story, and you can relate it to your own life,” she notes. The same can be said for Ishibashi’s music in Drive My Car.
Centered on the friendship between a theatre director with a troubled past and his equally complex driver, there are many themes at play throughout the movie’s three hours; fables, human ability, and loneliness being just some. Ishibashi internalized the script in her own profoundly philosophical way, “I thought it was like a long poem based on numerous testimonies from the tragedies of history. It was as if the words of the characters were spirits borrowing bodies to speak out.”
Drive My Car has a lot of silent moments that give the viewer space to digest the compounded mood, and Ishibashi’s soundtrack is used conservatively, to great effect. Speaking with Variety earlier this year, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi said, “Something that I asked of Ishibashi early on was that the music feels almost like the scenery.” It does, and Ishibashi instinctively knew what Hamaguchi was talking about: “When the director first told me his request for ‘music like scenery,’ I really understood. I didn’t want the music to control the way the words were received by making it emotional.”
The film’s opening section is virtually musicless, with a jigsaw family drama unfolding through long dialogues and hushed physical intimacy. It’s not until the belated title sequence, 30 minutes in, do we hear the score. Ishibashi’s music washes over you when it comes, allowing the seeds planted by Hamaguchi to germinate and grow without drowning you in sentimentality.
Ishibashi is a well-regarded musician and chooses her projects carefully. “In the Japanese system, the budget is very low for soundtracks, and I’m not interested in producing a soundtrack record because the music is made for the film,” she explains. “But the film [Drive My Car] was fantastic, and thanks to [foley artist] Miki Nomura, the sounds of the cars and boats were wonderful. So I decided to make an exception this time.”
When asked about what stage in the production she was involved in, she notes that “I wrote a few songs when I read the script, a few songs when the images were being made, and then I finished all the songs before the final scene where Misaki is driving in Korea.” About scoring this final scene, Ishibashi says the idea came naturally, “I was worried because I don’t think much about the audience. But it came to me smoothly when I thought of a song that the audience could go out to — a song that would connect the film and the real world.”
“My initial interest was not so much in the story itself but in why the director chose to script the film in this way,” she notes after being asked if she feels a connection to the characters or story. “It is a quiet film, but once the characters open their mouths, they go out of their way to talk about things they dare not say, and it’s up to the audience to take it or dodge it.”
Ishibashi’s prolific output and touring schedule demonstrate her compulsion to make music. However, she tells me that she can become absorbed in the process and that her frequent collaborator, American musician Jim O’Rourke, who played on the soundtrack, can remind her not to stray too far into obsession. “I have a habit of getting lost in the energy and time that go into making my scores. Jim is very objective about that. So even if he doesn’t say anything, I can think, oh, maybe I’m overdoing it. Jim is also very encouraging as a person who does a lot of singing, experimental work, and film music.”
“For me, he is more of a teacher than a collaborator,” she elaborates.
Another musician on the soundtrack is drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, who Ishibashi says played an integral part in the process. “I wanted the songs to have an impressive drum score, so I asked my good friend, drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, who is a very good driver, to play some drum patterns. I have my own rhythms that I like to listen to when I drive, so I chose some of those and wrote some of the songs from there.”
“Music helps me concentrate on driving,” she notes when asked if there’s a connection between the two. “I thought I was not a good driver because I get lost in my thoughts easily. However, I moved to the country and was forced to drive. After a year of searching for music that would help me concentrate on driving, I found that the music of Autechre was the best at helping me concentrate on driving without making me think about unnecessary things.”
Although Drive My Car has found an audience abroad, Ishibashi says the same can’t be said for its home market. “I was surprised by the reaction in Japan. I heard that the audience has been increasing since it won the Academy Award, but when I went to see it in the theater when it was first released last year, there were not many people there. The world of Japanese cinema is almost the same as the world of television and entertainment, and unrelated songs by famous singers are in the trailers, so I think it didn’t have much appeal to audiences who are used to that kind of film world.”
Despite it being awarded Best Picture by all three major US critics groups, Ishibashi explains that it hasn’t found the same critical acceptance in Japan either, describing it as “a film that is shunned by Japanese cinephiles. People in the Japanese subculture easily dislike films that are very carefully and honestly made, and that have received a fair amount of recognition. They treat it as if it were a film made by an honour student. I think it’s mostly due to childish jealousy.”
At the start of this piece, Ishibashi noted that they didn’t feel like they had succeeded with this soundtrack. When pressed as to why, Ishibashi muses that “Perhaps, I think, it is about what constitutes success. Maybe I don’t consider it a success because I don’t think the work I have made is perfect yet.”
Self-critical assessments aside, Ishibashi is currently “preparing for solo gigs in Dublin, London, Brussels, San Francisco and New York in May and June”. The success of Drive My Car will see her play to audiences who are also fans of the movie and who were, undoubtedly, moved by its jagged tenderness and enchanting score. Whether or not Eiko feels that she has succeeded, everyone else knows she has.