Jazz Luminaries Strike the Right Note in Anime ‘Blue Giant’

©2023 BLUE GIANT Movie Project ©2013 Shinichi Ishizuka, Shogakukan
A promotional image for the movie “Blue Giant”

An anime adaptation of the jazz-themed manga “Blue Giant” hit theaters on Feb. 17, featuring music by the acclaimed pianist Hiromi Uehara.

Until the film’s release, fans of the manga have had to rely on their own imaginations to hear the music played by the story’s protagonist, saxophonist Dai Miyamoto, and the members of his jazz trio.

The anime has succeeded in prizing the music from the pages of the comic, with a powerful score featuring giants from Japan’s jazz scene.

The story centers around the exploits of Miyamoto, who moves from Sendai to Tokyo to realize his dream of becoming the world’s best jazz saxophonist. After an encounter with the talented pianist Yukinori Sawabe, Miyamoto decides to form a band with him and a school friend named Shunji Tamada on drums.

>The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiromi Uehara

The movie “Blue Giant” is based on Shinichi Ishizuka’s manga of the same title, which has been a huge hit since its launch in 2013 — the series has sold more than 9.2 million copies.

In the manga, Ishizuka used dramatic lines that resemble heavy rain to depict music, with the expressions on the faces of the musicians and audience members helping to evoke the emotions of the scene.

For the anime, the music played by the band is handled by pianist Uehara, tenor saxophonist Tomoaki Baba, and drummer Shun Ishiwaka, who has been described as the “busiest drummer in Japan.”

The score is one of the highlights of the movie, which features punchy performances by musicians at the top of their game.

The Yomiuri Shimbun talked with Uehara, Baba and Ishiwaka about what it was like to create music for the film. The following is excerpted from the interview.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Did you feel pressure to try to reproduce sounds that readers have formed in their imaginations?

Tomoaki Baba: A lot of courage is what was needed. I think there were arguments for and against any approach. I’m prepared for whatever criticism comes my way. But I don’t like to lose, so I didn’t want anyone else to play Dai’s parts.

Hiromi Uehara: Rather than pressure, it felt like a huge challenge. The sound each person has in their head is different. As the person who created the manga chose me, I couldn’t help but take on the challenge. All I was thinking was, I have to give it everything.

Yomiuri: The protagonist Dai is a saxophonist with a special charm. Even though his technique is unrefined, people are drawn to him. What kind of sound did you imagine when creating and performing the music?

Uehara: I imagined the sound coming at you with a tremendous amount of power and passion. What made it easier for me was the fact that in the story, the pianist Yukinori composes the music. If a saxophonist had been the composer, it would’ve been a completely different situation. The manga features an episode in which Dai works hard to compose a song, but it wasn’t used in the movie.

>The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tomoaki Baba

Baba: Dai is very compelling when he plays a single explosive note. It’s one of his main characteristics. In the recording, I didn’t perform as Tomoaki Baba, but as Dai Miyamoto, as if he was inside me.

Shun Ishiwaka: Tamada, the drummer in the band, is supposed to be a novice, but someone told me I was still showing signs of myself when I played the music. So I intentionally held the sticks awkwardly and used things that professionals don’t use. It was a process of trial and error.

Uehara: Yukinori is a teenager, so I intentionally played with youthful enthusiasm. As he has experience playing different pianos at various clubs, I imagined that some of them probably wouldn’t be tuned well. I brought in three types of piano for the recording — an upright, baby grand and a full concert grand piano — and asked for them to be tuned in a way that made it sound like they weren’t tuned often.

Yomiuri: What aspects of the characters do you think will most appeal to viewers?

Uehara: Yukinori’s kindness. When I read the manga, I thought Dai was mean.

Yomiuri: That seems to be contrary to the general view.

Uehara: I’m talking about Dai when he’s performing. In the original story, during the trio’s first live performance, Dai didn’t care that Tamada, a novice, couldn’t keep up. He asked Tamada to join the band but was inconsiderate during that performance. That wasn’t kind. But maybe Dai was thinking, it’s best to get back up on your own if you fall.

On the other hand, Yukinori is very sensitive. He’s always looking out for the group, and if one of them stumbles, he thinks he has to give them a hand. That’s probably a good balance for a trio. For one scene, in the back of my mind, I was keeping an imaginary eye on Tamada while I was playing.

>The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shun Ishiwaka

Baba: The best musicians have the power to lure people in. Their mere presence can change the atmosphere. People naturally gravitate toward them and offer support. Dai meets Yukinori shortly after arriving in Tokyo, and an owner of a jazz bar offers him a place to practice. I think that’s indicative of Dai’s charm. Music isn’t just about great technique.

Ishiwaka: [As for Tamada,] it’s his frenzied, hard-working attitude and honesty. I think the most important thing for drummers is to think, “I’m on your side” — it’s the nature of the instrument, perhaps. It’s something that can also be seen in the communication among members of the band.

Yomiuri: What are the main points of the film?

Uehara: The importance of getting wrapped up in something. Whether it’s for a lifetime or just a moment, there is nothing more beautiful than that. The coming together of the trio is also a highlight. We grow through encounters with people who are more talented than us.

Sound is a remarkable expression of a person’s personality. The emotional development of the three members is woven into the music in the film. As a musician, I’m looking forward to finding out what nonmusicians think about the movie.