56. Composing for Film and Games with Tsumugu Misugi

March 2, 2024 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art, Life, Faith Podcast, and I’m your host Roger Lowther.

I want to give y’all a brief report from our relief trip to Ishikawa Prefecture last weekend, responding to the needs from that enormous 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck the region on January 1, 2024. I led a youth team of 3 adults and 7 junior high, high school, and college students from my church, Grace City Church in Tokyo. It was basically a mini-missions trip, which for many of them was their first experience to do anything like this in their entire lives.

Man, it was a really long day. We left the cabin where we were staying in Nagano just after 4 AM and drove just over 3 hours through the sleet and slush, actually kind of dangerous conditions, to get to Uchinada Bible Church, the church in Kanazawa City that is serving as the largest base for Christian relief work in Ishikawa. This Christian effort is called NOTO HELP, which is a combined effort from Christians all over Japan. Noto is the name of the peninsula in Ishikawa where the earthquake damage is the worst.

After receiving a short orientation, we received special shirts marked NOTO HELP, which proved essential for getting by the roadblocks into the peninsula where the damage was worst. I guess they don’t want people traveling up there just to see the destruction. From there, we drove to the city of Nanao, where NOTO HELP has their warehouse with all the supplies people are sending from all over Japan. From there, we split into three different teams.

The job of Team 1 was to organize the warehouse. NOTO HELP's warehouse in Nanao City has been receiving supplies from churches all over Japan. We created an inventory of the new donations and organized them: blankets, blue tarps, adult diapers, toilet paper, and so many other things. One youth commented, “I counted 5,418 masks! Just in the regular size! Not including small size, sort of small, or oversized…I've never seen so many masks in my life!”

The youth also made 122 variety bags full of essential items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, wet towels, soap, little heating pads to warm your hands, and these bags will be handed out later at shelters. They also made small cards for each of the bags with the NOTO HELP logo and messages like “We’re praying for you!”

Three of us headed to the largest shelter in the region, which housed over 750 people after the quake. Now almost two months later, 173 people still live there waiting for temporary housing or to find another living space. We received permission from the director of the shelter to give a concert and set up in the lobby just outside the doors to the main room where everyone could hear us. My 14-year-old son, Coen, played the koto, the traditional Japanese harp, and I played the grand piano. Many people stood in the hallway or sat on chairs to watch and listen. Those who walked by paused for a bit to listen or comment, “Beautiful!” or “I wish I could play like that” or to just wipe tears from their eyes. One woman told us the music was so deeply moving that it gave her peace. “Thank you for today,” she said. “Because of you, I’m going to sleep well tonight.”

Outside the shelter, there were 20 temporary toilets lined up next to a big pool. You were supposed to fill a bucket with water to flush afterward. One of the youth was carrying a bucket up the stairs to the toilet when an older woman began to come down. Afterward, she remarked how she just couldn’t imagine living that way. She couldn’t imagine how they expected older people to carry a bucket of water upstairs, somehow hold it in one hand while opening the door, and then somehow get in without spilling any. Even the simplest things like using the toilet are challenging after an earthquake, she realized. We learned how many older people don't drink water often enough to keep from having to use the bathrooms much, which leads to other kinds of health problems. Anyway, the plan is to shut down this shelter at the end of March and move everyone into temporary housing that is currently being built.

The third team from our youth group went to Suzu City, another 2.5 hours north up the peninsula. Most of the buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged by the earthquake and the 6-foot tsunami that followed. We brought 60 cases of water to a medical clinic, a shelter in a school, and a private residence. Many sections of the road were impassable due to landslides, requiring the trucks to frequently use hastily made alternate routes.

On the way back, my 18-year-old son Eastin found a clock in the destruction. It stopped at the exact time the tsunami had hit at 4:49 PM. He stood there and looked around, trying to imagine what it was like on that day. It was very moving. It’s much different seeing the destruction on TV and seeing it in person, you know?

By the time we all got back to the cabin around midnight, we were so tired I can’t even tell you. But God really blessed that trip. During our worship time together the next morning, on a Sunday, it was great to hear the youth process their time. One youth commented on how everyone knew we were Christians by what was written on our shirts, and on the jacket of the guy from the Salvation Army as well. He wondered aloud what that would look like in Tokyo. How do we make our identity known as Christians in Tokyo? How do we show the presence of God in Tokyo? That led to a very interesting discussion as well.

Quick story: In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake 13 years ago, we became good friends with a local family participating in our relief efforts. Their daughter, then in third grade, is now 21 years old and recently became a Christian through their ongoing relationship with our family and the church community. She joined us on this recent relief trip to Ishikawa, excited to help as her parents did 13 years ago but also to share her new faith in a God who is with us even in disasters.

It was a really powerful trip, and there's a lot more I could share about it. You know, March 11, the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the northern part of Japan is right around the corner. There are events planned up north to remember that day and the people lost, so I’m going to make the ebook versions of my books Aroma of Beauty and Pippy the Piano absolutely free through Amazon on that day, March 10-11. This goes for the Japanese version as well as the English version. These books tell the stories of how God worked after those terrible disasters. If you’ve already bought a copy of the paperback, hardcover, or audiobook, thank you! That means so much to me! Well, this is a great time to pick up the ebook as well, completely free. If you’re studying Japanese, it might be fun to pick up the Japanese version as well and try to read some of it. If you do get one, it would be a great help if you would rate it and leave a review on Amazon so more people can find the books.

In our last episode, I told you a little bit about the trip Tsumugu and I took to Fukushima for Christmas concerts. Tsumugu played the “tsunami violin” made from debris from the tsunami. The sound post of that violin was made from one of the most famous trees in Japan, the Kisseki no Ippon Matsu, the “Miracle Pine Tree.” In one of the concerts, I played a piano famous in that area, the Kisseki no Piano, the “Miracle Piano.” And then, right next to the broken nuclear power plants, I played what is now known as the “Fallen Organ.” It was such a powerful trip in so many ways, and I think I will never forget the people or events from that trip. If you want to hear more about it, you can listen to the previous episode, Episode #55 of the Art, Life, Faith Podcast.

This episode, I would like to share with you a conversation I had with Tsumugu just before our trip to Fukushima, which I already told you about in the last episode, so here you’ll hear us talk about our feelings going into it. It is also just before the Art Life Faith event in December.

I first met Tsumugu when he was only 15 years old. He had just entered high school and was volunteering in Ishinomaki in the area where the earthquake and tsunami had hit. I heard him play, and was like, oh man, I need to bring him down to Tokyo to perform in our next conference. He did and did an amazing job. Well, he recently graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, which many Japanese consider the best jazz school in the world because of some very famous Japanese jazz artists who graduated from there, and he moved to Tokyo where we reconnected just a few months ago.

Here is our conversation.

Roger

So I'm sitting here with Tsumugu Misugi, who is going to be doing an Art Life Faith event for us tonight. Thank you so much for sitting down for this podcast.

Tsumugu

Thank you for having me here. I'm very excited to be here today.

Roger

Yeah, well, you're not the only one. I mean, I've been getting emails from a lot of people from far-off places that are coming tonight to hear you and hear you're going to have to share.

Tsumugu

Yeah, I heard that people coming from faraway places. And I'm very honored to be given this opportunity to share. And I hope that I make the trip worthwhile for them.

Roger

I'm sure. Well, I mean, you live this dream life, I would say, for so many. You're, what, 26 years old, and you are accomplished in composition, writing scores for video games, Korean dramas and Japanese films, live performances with orchestras… I want to hear from your own words. It's pretty cool.

Tsumugu

Yeah, I would say it's not a normal life for sure. I'm very blessed to be able to live just writing, making music. I write music for video games. I write music for TV, drama, films, and mainly for orchestra context. But yeah…

Roger

I remember you showed me a picture of your home studio that you had to live a little bit outside the city in order to be able to get a place where you could record. It looks sci-fi with all these monitors and equipment. And there you are, recording yourself on the violin. It looks pretty cool.

Tsumugu

It's a really cool space that I'm very proud of. I'm very blessed and honored that I have the opportunity to work in a space like that. It's also a space that I'm in more than 10 hours a day. So I just wanted to make sure that I am the most inspired when I'm in that space. So I had to go a little outside of the city to find a place where I could make music 24/7. When a composer, you don't have office hours.

Roger

It's very project-based, right?

Tsumugu

Deadline-based. Yeah. When you're working on a couple of projects at a time, that means you're writing overnight and sleeping during the day. It depends on where the client is in the world because of time zones and everything. You have meetings at like 3:00 in the morning. So yeah, I'm very happy about my studio currently.

Roger

You said you didn't always... We were talking before we started recording, that your very first recording space was an abandoned church.

Tsumugu

Yeah. I got into this line of work. I mean, I've been playing music my whole life, but I started writing music for film and video games during COVID. And at that time, I was looking for a space that I could make into a studio without getting disturbed by my dogs at home.

Roger

Oh, yeah. That would be a problem for recording.

Tsumugu

Yeah. I found a church that was abandoned because they had to stop service during COVID and couldn't get enough money to last through COVID. It was an abandoned church, abandoned floor in a building with just a bunch of chairs for the congregation. I set them up. I stacked the chairs to make it look like an acoustic panel Looking back, it's definitely not the best sound, but it worked. I'm still very fond of the music that I wrote in that space. It was a very strange working environment, but that's where it started.

Roger

I imagine you having these bedsheets over it as well. Or some soundproofing blankets?

Tsumugu

Yeah, I would try to pull the curtains from the windows. Imade it work. But yeah, I recorded violin, I recorded cello in that space. I wrote probably my first few scores in that space.

Roger

That's really cool. All right, so what projects are you working on now that you can tell us about, that you're allowed to?

Tsumugu

Currently, I'm writing music for a video game that's being produced in Singapore. We are targeting to release a beta version for Tokyo Game Show next year in September and a full release to the public at the end of the year. I'm not allowed to say the name of some of the projects that I'm working on, but I'm writing currently for a couple of Korean dramas. And I also did orchestration and violin recording on a movie called My (K)Night that came out in Japan two days ago.

Roger

Awesome. I can't wait to see it.

Tsumugu

Yeah, it's in theaters right now. So if you have time.

Roger

Very cool. All right. So a lot of people try to imagine what video game music is like with Mario Brothers. Is that what you're talking about, or what music are you writing?

Tsumugu

Yeah, I think that's what a lot of people grew up with. I think that's… It's really cool music. A lot of that came because of the limitations of the gaming consoles and devices that they had, the technology at that time.

Roger

It was analog, right?

Tsumugu

Yeah, but now we have the technology to basically put in audio files and program them into the game. A lot of the music that I write for video games is orchestral or hybrid orchestral, so a mix of electronics and orchestra. That's where you get huge, epic, orchestral scores for music. That's the, I guess, the genre of gaming music that I write.

Roger

That's awesome. You said that there's a little clip of something that we could play.

Tsumugu

Yeah, this piece of music, when you first start out, I think a lot of people have this question, “How do I become a film composer? How do I become a game composer when there's no game or a film?” I went through the same questions and I realized that the first thing I had to do was to prove to people that I could write music. This piece of music was really what started everything for me. It's called She Comes From the Stars. It was a random name that I came up with because I had no film, I had no game. But I just thought I just had this image after I wrote the piece. I didn't have to title before, but just of this heroine just zooming through the cosmos. I think we can play a little bit of that.

Roger

Great. Let's have it here.

[PLAY: “She Comes from the Stars”]

All right, so now might be a good time to jump back when we first met up in Ishinomaki in the disaster area soon after the tsunami had hit, and you were working up there. And then I invited you to come down and perform in one of our conferences. And what, you were 15 at that time? Is that right?

Tsumugu

I think so, yeah.

Roger

You played the guitar in a style that I have never really heard someone play, at least live before, in that way. It was pretty darn cool. So anyway, I just want to play a little clip here for our listeners.

Man, it's so awesome. I love hearing it again. I think it was the highlight of the conference. To have this... Well, you appear to be this child prodigy, slapping away the guitar and just not playing the way normal people do. You were saying you were just having fun with it, right?

Tsumugu

Yeah. I mean, growing up playing classical violin and music was always an extremely serious business. Going to church as a kid, my friends would be like, “Hey, let's go to dinner after service.” I would ask my mom, “Hey, can I go to dinner with this friend?” She would be like, “You can make a choice. You can play or you can go home and practice for your competition next week.” That was the childhood that I had. So guitar, I picked up way later than violin, but it was my escape. It was where I learned that, “Hey, music can be fun.” I think that's why I gravitated towards that side of playing guitar, which was just slapping the strings and slapping the body and things like that.

Roger

Yeah, I'd love to hear you do it again sometime.

Tsumugu

For sure. I would have to practice. I'm a little rusty now.

Roger

So after that, you graduated. You went to Berkeley in Boston.

Tsumugu

Yeah, I went to Berkeley College of Music. Singapore is where I grew up, so there's a two-year mandatory military service right out of high school. I did that. And then I went to Berkeley, and I actually just graduated this year.

Roger

Congratulations. Then, you moved to Tokyo to work here?

Tsumugu

I moved to Tokyo with no plan. But I'm very glad I came, and I'm gradually getting connected to the community here.

Roger

Yeah, we're really glad you're here. And I'm looking forward to... So listeners, Tsumugu and I are going to head up to the disaster area for Christmas this month and give a bunch of concerts, which I'm really looking forward to.

Tsumugu

Yeah, we're going to be, or I'm going to be playing the tsunami violin. Do you want to talk a bit more about that?

Roger

Definitely. Yeah. So just before we started recording, the two of us went to go pick up this instrument, and it was made by a violin maker who wanted to do something to bring healing in the disaster area and help people remember and to bring hope to bring life. And so we went and talked to the company a little bit. There were two tsunami violins you got to try. Tell me what your impressions were of that.

Tsumugu

Yeah. Initially, when you proposed the idea that we do this concert on this violin, I was a little afraid. Violin is a very complicated instrument. It's made out of wood with no nails, none at all. And so every single instrument is slightly different. And so your intonation, how you play, really changes according to the instrument. I have never performed on an instrument that isn’t mine. So this is the first time, and I was slightly like, “Am I going to be able to adjust to this instrument?” But once I played it, it's like everything fell in place. I was telling you that the violin had tonal qualities that I look for in a violin. I think we're going to be okay. I think I'll be able to get used to it pretty soon.

Roger

Yeah, I heard you asking the staff, you're like, “Is it okay if I record some things with this?”

Tsumugu

Yeah. I've not said this to you, but it's just been in my brain that on top of being a violinist, I'm also a composer, and I don't know if anything has been written for the instrument. Since I have three weeks with the instrument, I thought maybe it might be cool to write something and record it. If that leads to anyone getting hope from that instrument, even if they're not able to make the concert, I think, yeah, But I'll have to start working on that soon.

Roger

I'd love to see what you come up with.

Tsumugu

Yeah. She told us that there's a quartet of a tsunami instruments, so it might be cool in the future if I could write something for the tsunami instruments as a quartet.

Roger

Yeah, definitely. So not with organ, hunh?

Tsumugu

Okay, the solo violin will be with organ.

Roger

I guess there is no tsunami organ.

Tsumugu

You could make one.

Roger

But yeah, I found it interesting. Their project was to have a thousand performers of this violin. And what number was it she said that you were going to be?

Tsumugu

I am the 833rd performer.

Roger

That's so cool.

Tsumugu

That is really cool. Yeah.

Roger

And they were saying how there's been thousands of concerts because each performer does quite a few concerts with it.

Tsumugu

I was telling you before that because so many people have played it before me, you can really sense the thoughts and the heart behind every single performer that has performed on the instrument. I could immediately tell the moment I picked up the instrument that I was playing something special.

Roger

It's definitely special. And there's quite a history, too. She was telling us how Yo-Yo Ma has played the cello, and the Emperor himself herself has played the viola.

Tsumugu

I think it's pretty awesome that our current Japanese Emperor is a violist. Yeah.

Roger

Definitely gives a better image to the viola. All those viola jokes, you can't tell them in Japan. That's now a rule here.

Tsumugu

Or you'll be offending the Emperor of Japan. That's right.

Roger

Yeah. So we are going up. Actually, it's going to be a special a couple of days in Iwaki because that Saturday is the very first church that we had connected to after the earthquake and tsunami in order to bring up supplies, and we still have that relationship today. Then the next day, we're going to be giving concerts with First Baptist, which is a church that was right next to the nuclear power plants, and some of their church members worked at the nuclear power plants, and then they had to leave and were migrating all over, trying to find a new home and settled in Iwaki. So first we're going to give a concert with them. But then we're going up and giving a concert right next to the nuclear power plant. It's just three miles away to the chapel that they had just built. They had just dedicated their organ. And now we're going to be going back into that space, which at first I was a little bit fearful of whether this is a good idea or not.

Tsumugu

I remember you sending me the email like, “we're going to be really close to the power plant. Do you still want to do this?” I called my mom. I was like, “hey, I just got this email from Roger. What do you think?” And she was like, “You know, if it's meant to be, if this is God's plan, he'll protect you.” And I was like, “Okay.”

Roger

Yeah. I mean, because I remember back when the disaster happened, I thought they were saying, you have to wait 50 years before you can go back into the area. But now it's only been 12, and they reopened that area this year. And so they wanted to have a rededication of the building and of the organ, and to be able to bring the tsunami violin into that space and give a concert, I think, it's going to be really special.

Tsumugu

Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. Thank you so much for having me on this such a special event, not just for myself. I think it's going to really make a mark on my journey as a musician, and hopefully, I can bring some hope to the people coming for the concert.

Roger

Yeah, it's an amazing story, too, about this violin. I probably shouldn't talk about this now, but I'm playing in my head with an idea for a children's book. We've put out a children's book about the tsunami piano before, Pippy the Piano. And now I'm having an idea for this Vivi the Violin, and just her seeing the story of living a happy life, and then this disaster comes, and her life is completely torn apart, and how she thinks it's the end. She thinks she's in despair, that there is no hope, and then this violin maker comes in and gives her new life and new hope. It's just helping kids know how to respond to disaster and really dark times, and despair, and to see it through the eyes of this little girl who's a violin, I think, would be a powerful story if we can bring it to completion at some point.

Tsumugu

Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. I think it will be... It is a very difficult concept and feeling to explain in words, and especially to children. And I think art, like the drawings in the book and music, can help to... Even if children don't fully understand, I think it is one way of connecting with them and helping them resolve some of these feelings.

Roger

Yeah, definitely. I guess that's all the time we have. We really need to practice a little before this event tonight for all these concerts. So thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me on the podcast.

Tsumugu

Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I think maybe I can mention my SNS.

Roger

Sure. Okay.

Tsumugu

Because we'll be traveling with the violin, and I'll be updating my social media with all the information and what we're doing with the tsunami violin and everything. The best place to find it would be on my Instagram, which is @hellotsu. For my other work, you can find it on my website, which is tsu-music.com.

Roger

Great. I'll list those on the program notes, the show notes for this podcast, so people can find it on the website as well.

Tsumugu

Thank you.

Roger

Thank you so much.

Tsumugu

Thank you, Roger.

Roger

You can read the show notes for this episode at my website, www.rogerwlowther.com. Thank you so much for listening. As we say in Japan, ”Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”

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