Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles is available on Netflix and we had the opportunity to speak with Aiko Fukushima about her work on the project.
Aiko Fukushima is a classically trained LA-based composer born and raised in Japan. She studied at Berklee College of Music and also attended the prestigious Henry Mancini Institute, BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship, and Sundance Institute Composer’s Lab. In 2022, Aiko scored Netflix’s animation series “Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles” based on Stan Sakai’s beloved comic book “Usagi Yojimbo.”
BSCKids: Aiko, please let us know how you got the opportunity to score Netflix’s Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles? Were you familiar with Usagi Yojimbo before getting the gig?
Aiko Fukushima: I took an entertainment career seminar about five years ago in Hollywood with some entertainment creatives and met a writer/producer, Shari Ellis. After the workshop ended, she suggested continuing our monthly “check-in” meetings with four other woman writers/producers, and we are still meeting every month after five years. Shari happened to be working on the “Samurai” project as an associate producer, and she introduced me to Gaumont Films, who created the animation series along with Netflix. I had the opportunity to pitch for the project. They went through different composers with different types of music and asked me to incorporate traditional Japanese instruments/sound but didn’t want the typical ten men Taiko/Hollywood Action music. I recorded three different Taikos played by the amazing Isaku Kageyama for the initial pitch.
I was not familiar with “Usagi Yojimbo,” but as soon as I heard about it, I bought a few comic books and read them. I was so impressed by the beautifully detailed work of Mr. Sakai. I also found that many friends who grew up here knew about it.
Authentic Japanese music and Hip Hop sounds amazing for a score, was the merging of the two types of music difficult? What was the biggest obstacle?
Producers of the series wanted to use traditional Japanese sounds to show the traditional culture and add hip-hop for the main character, Yuichi Usagi, who is 16, and his friends, who have various adventures and quests together. Using hip-hop was a big challenge because most hip-hop is not at a good tempo for fight/action scenes, and there are many fight scenes!! Eventually, I found a way to make that possible after many tries & errors.
Learning/mastering traditional Japanese instruments takes a lifetime, and it is, in a way, far from technology. But for this project, I needed to find musicians who could record at their studios in professional quality due to the pandemic. That was hard to come by. Luckily, I found amazing musicians who brought so much to each cue with their mastery.
How were you able to keep the traditional Japanese music true to the culture as you worked on the project?
I came to the US as an adult, so my sensibility is still and forever Japanese. I grew up listening to the sound of nature, temple bell sound in the air, music from the local festivals (We call it “Matsuri Bayashi”), and music played for various ceremonies at the shrine that were part of everyday life. I was also fascinated by the music from traditional art forms like Kabuki, Noh, Jyoruri, or Gagaku which have 500-1500 years of history. It was my honor to introduce many different traditional instruments and sounds from Japanese Culture. I used the usual suspects like Taiko, Shamisen, Koto, and Shakuhachi. Then lesser-known instruments like Biwa, Kokyu, Taishogoto, Hotchiku, Sho, Hichiriki, Binsasara, Horagai, etc. We also recorded Musical Saw for ghosts. I had terrific musicians in LA, NY, Spain, Switzerland & Tokyo. So, I was recording around the clock!
How much of the story do you get before you start to work on the music?
I received the scripts right away when I got the job and, luckily, I had locked pictures before spotting sessions on every episode.
What was the most fulfilling song you have done so far for the show?
The theme I wrote for Miyamoto & Yuichi Usagi when I pitched for the project. I scheduled to record Taiko that day, and I couldn’t come up with anything I liked. I was watching this particular scene hundreds of times but still nothing good. Finally, I had 10 minutes left until I needed to leave for the recording. I decided not to watch the scene anymore and just closed my eyes and played something that came to me – I knew I had something. When I finished writing that theme I was in tears, which had never happened to me before. I was so relieved and excited at the same time!
What instruments do you play yourself versus using samples?
My primary instrument is the piano, so I needed to rely on the masters of traditional Japanese instrumentalists heavily!
What does a day look like when you are working on the show?
Just work, work, work until l collapse, then repeat the next day. It was a challenge to work with tight deadlines! At the end of the project, I was working on three episodes at a time.
Who are some of your musical influences? Were you able to watch Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts? What did you think of the music and animation mix in that show?
I grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies, and Joe Hisaishi’s music was in my daily life. I respect his musical sensibility. I also listen to many classical music composers like Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. I imagine them being rock stars of their generations. And my ultimate musical heroes are Pat Metheny & Yo-Yo Ma.
Composer Daniel Rojas for “Kipo” is a friend of mine, and my score producer also worked on the show, so I am familiar with it. Daniel has created an amazingly unique musical universe for the show. And he’s one of the nicest human beings I know.
What does your current playlist on your favorite music platform look like?
I tend to listen to the same songs repeatedly for a while when they initially hit me. My current YouTube obsessions are recent recording of “Angela” by amazing Bob James, “Freedom” by Jon Batiste & “On Her Way” by Pat Metheny. Those songs make me dive into the music and remind me what music does to me.
Tell us something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I was in a Latin band playing the keyboard before I came to the US. Is that interesting enough?
What else are you working on that you can tell us about?
I will be working on shorts with Disney soon. I am currently working on some commercials and a short film called “Chicago Resettlement” about Japanese American families trying to recover from the war. I can’t wait to find another project as meaningful as “Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles” soon!
You can find Aiko Fukushima on Instagram: @aikoaikogogo and Twitter: @fukushima_aiko