Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko on filmmaking, friendship and artistic fusion
With a history spanning two decades, the artistic endeavours of Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko have intertwined in numerous ways throughout the years – and their careers. Koyama, a Berlin-based filmmaker known for his forays through experimental cinema, and Noriko, an acclaimed, multifaceted musician, singer-songwriter, actor and filmmaker, are not only creative companions but firm friends, making their numerous collaborative efforts more than just joint work projects and something closer to a harmonious fusion of visions, brought to life via a shared trust and understanding.
Their 2017 film Kuro was written and directed jointly by the pair, with Noriko also starring in the film, and supplying the accompanying soundtrack. The film follows the character Romi, played by Noriko, living life Paris as she tends to her lover, who has paraplegia, and weaves between personal history and myths as she recounts a story of their time in Japan. The film was well-received and its soundtrack was later released via PAN’s soundtrack-focused sister series Entopia. As the two share here, speaking to Crack Magazine over Zoom, the film and its soundtrack inspired the next phase of their creative collaboration, too, with Norikio’s stunning double album Crépuscule I & II – released in January 2023 – born from many of the explorations the pair dabbled in while putting the film and its music together. The new record also saw them strengthening their bond as collaborators, with Koyama invested deeper into the inner workings of the release, having been involved in its eventual shaping behind the scenes.
Next month, the pair are set to present a new audiovisual project at Braga’s Semibreve festival. Commissioned by the event, the new show – formed largely around the aforementioned record – is yet another example of how the duo continue to grow their creative partnership, while also tending to their own individual pursuits. Ahead of time, they delve into how their work has evolved and merged over the years, and where they see their collaborative efforts heading in the future.
© Chloe Fabre
Crack: How did you first meet, and how did the collaboration behind your film, Kuro, come about?
Tujiko Noriko: I moved to France around a year after I started making music, and have lived here since then. [Back then], I did some concerts in Europe and I met Joji through another musician in around 2002. There was a point where I started making films – I had always made music, but there was a moment when I was a little bit… I wanted to get away from it for some reason, so I started to make films. I was working on a story and then I had a chance to make music for Joji’s animation. I then made music for two of your films, that’s right isn’t it?
Joji Koyama: Yeah, yes.
TN: So we had been exchanging our work and a while later, he proposed to me that we should make a story together. Aside from that, I had still been making music and singing. There was the opportunity when I made the film with Joji to make music without having to sing for the first time, for the soundtrack of the film. That really influenced the last album that I made [Crépuscule I & II], where I sing a little bit, but it was as if I was making music for a film. Joji gave me a lot of advice for the album because it was a long album. It was too long. And so to cut it and so on, he gave me advice on that.
JK: Like Noriko said, we met 20 years ago – wow, that sounds crazy. At the time, I was making short films and animations and also directing a lot of music videos. We met through mutual musician friends; I had a lot of musician friends in London, which was where I was based at the time, because I was interested in what was going on in the music scene there. As just a music fan myself, but also because I was doing music videos and things like that. Quite quickly after we met, we started working together on a couple of things. And then we made this feature film together, Kuro, which came out in 2017.
Crack: Can you speak more on the story behind Crépuscule I & II and how it feeds back to Kuro?
JK: This new record, Crépuscule, came through the same process we had for Kuro. While putting the soundtrack to the film together, I always felt that like Noriko’s music was pigeonholed as “electronic singer-songwriter” but, more often than not, she would often be described purely as a “singer”. I just thought her music wasn’t being appreciated enough. The soundtrack was her first instrumental record. The process was great because we literally just sat together and I watched her make music, and then she would just hand it to me and allow me to just shape it and take whatever bits I thought would work for the accompanying film; when it came to making the record, I could reconsider it as a series of pieces of music in its own right. Us doing that together led into this new one, where Noriko called me up and said, “I have about four hours of music, and I’m sure there’s an album in here somewhere. Can you help me sort this out?”
My son had just been born, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to have time to do this!’. But of course I did, because I would just be pushing my son along in the park while he was sleeping, and I’d have hours to listen to this music. I really immersed myself into those four hours of music. From there, it was just a joy to be involved. I was like a kid in a candy store saying, ‘OK, we could take this part and this, this can go here, and that could go there…’ So the way we worked together to make this record was quite similar in a lot of ways to how we worked together on the film and on the soundtrack.
TN: Yeah it’s true! I didn’t plan it, nor was I was conscious about all of this.
JK: I know, it was just very natural. It sort of happened naturally that way.
TN: Joji also made two pieces of music for Kuro as well.
JK: It was really new for me! You definitely encouraged me to do it. I remember the specific moment because Noriko had made all this music. And yet, there were a few little scenes that were missing in terms of some musical themes and whatever. And Noriko said, ‘OK, so now you need to make some music’ and I was like, ‘What!’ She just showed me a few things and then I was away. [It was] fun. Because of the nature of filmmaking and the collaborative process of filmmaking where individual roles aren’t so clearly defined – I often say this but for Kuro, I often don’t remember who did what in it. We were both doing everything together, and often sort of interchanging our roles. In whatever it is that we’re trying to make, we’ll approach it just as two people making something – it’s not like, ‘you do this and I do that’, it’s just completely working together.
Crack: Together, you’ll head to Portugal to present an audiovisual show at Semibreve next month. Is it Crépuscule I & II you’ll be sharing with the audience?
JK: The show is centred primarily around this new record. It’s great in that sense because I feel very close to the music, particularly on this record, due to my involvement (Noriko also asked me to do the artwork for the album). So to then sort of flesh this out a bit more via a whole audiovisual experience, it’s really exciting to do. But what’s funny is, when we first talked about doing this, I was like, ‘I hate concert visuals’ and Noriko agreed.
TN: It’s true!
JK: We tried to approach it how we would approach a film. The challenge, certainly on my part, was to try and make something that wouldn’t be… annoying. Because often, when I go to a gig – and you know, I get it. I get the reasons why people would want to put some sort of visual element to it – but most of the time, I feel annoyed that it’s there. I wish that I could just, you know, immerse myself in the music and not have to look at something and have those images be imposed on me.
TN: Yeah, that’s true, me too. But we just thought, ‘let’s give it a try’. It’s also because I make music as if I were making music for images. And when I’m singing, it already feels like there’s little story in it. So if I’m taking in an [actual] image alongside all of this, there are just a lot of things going on. But yeah, I thought, ‘I can try this time around because there isn’t really singing on this record’.
JK: Yeah, for sure. And I think it felt easier for me to do that, too, in, in some ways. I felt like I had more licence to do visuals on this occasion, because I felt much closer to the music than I would normally do. Because of my involvement, but also because of the discussions and the process that was involved in putting the record together. I don’t feel like I’m just slapping random stuff onto it, you know?
"I make music as if I were making music for images. And when I'm singing, it already feels like there's little story in it" – Tujiko Noriko
Crack: How did you work together to bring the show, and the album, if there’s more to expand on there, to life?
JK: It was quite similar to making a film. It was as if Noriko had shot all this footage and all these different scenes and moments [for the album], and I had the job of piecing them together to form some kind of narrative or shape. It was just a case of me splicing and chopping little bits from the music and putting them in certain orders, or songs – or suggesting little arrangement changes. Noriko would just interpret all of this on her own accord, and then send it back. We actually didn’t do the back and forth that many times. It was really quite quick in that sense! It was very fast. There was a time where you finessed a lot of things because, actually, I think the earlier versions of some of the tracks had absolutely no singing on them yet.
TN: Oh yeah! I added that afterwards… I couldn’t stop singing! But it’s true. Even though there are tracks that don’t have any vocals, it was nice because I asked Joji to write a small part of the lyrics too, for the ones we did add vocals too, and there is only one part that I’m singing in English.
JK: I forgot about that!
TN: That was interesting too, because I have only ever sang lyrics that I wrote and it’s really nice to sing a lyric that someone else wrote, it’s like I have more freedom.
JK: I think I was very conscious about the fact that this record could be a great mix between the instrumental work that you’ve been doing recently on soundtracks as well as your songwriting and singing. At the beginning, I thought it would be amazing if we could somehow bring both of those worlds together in one record – if somehow your singing could accent the record, but the the journey itself on the record was largely an instrumental. I don’t know, in the end, what percentage of it is singing and what percentage of it is instrumental…
TN: A very small percentage, the singing.
Crack: As longtime collaborators, what are the positive takeaways that feel unique to this particular project?
TN: Like Joji said, it was very fast. But then, I already knew how our collaboration functions because we’ve worked together before. Maybe with time sometimes our role will change and so on, but for the moment, I’m a bit speedier and I don’t have as much of an editing brain, and then Joji has more of a silent approach to making things. I tend to just talk a lot and [can be a bit] all over the place. I like Joji’s involvement because his approach to making work is a little bit more calm!
JK: I think that’s probably quite an accurate description of how we work together, because Noriko can produce and make things at such an incredible pace. I’m always the one that’s going. ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait. Let’s take this here. Let’s stop this one. Let’s think about this one…’ So I think in that sense, we know how we can help each other in a way. I don’t know what that has to do with our friendship, but it’s how we work together.
Crack: Was it the same way when you were working on Kuro?
JK: Kuro was the peak of our collaboration, because that’s when we really sat together and wrote a script.
TN: Yeah and we annoyed each other and everything.
JK: Yeah, that’s true. We went through so many things that now it’s like, ‘Yeah, nothing can break us’. We’ve actually almost finished writing a new film, which hopefully we’ll get to make.
Crack: Can you share more about that? Is that your next step together?
JK: That’s been the next big, big thing. But I’d also like to continue the musical collaboration as well, in all different shapes and forms.
TN: For the moment, this audiovisual performance is the main project – and also the film. But the film will take a long time, I think. That’s the long-term project, but it’s exciting.
"We went through so many things that now it's like, 'Yeah, nothing can break us' – Joji Koyama
Crack: Away from your own ventures, what’s been inspiring you recently – films or otherwise?
TN: Oh, man. During the writing session that Joji and I do, we sometimes talk about films but we talk a lot [more] about our private life. While writing, we’re inspired by daily memories and family stuff.
JK: I would say a lot of the material that we generate, in terms of themes or stories, come out of just us talking. That’s maybe our main source of inspiration. We just talk and talk and talk. And then stuff comes out and it generates ideas. It doesn’t make any sort of sense exactly, it’s not a linear process.
Crack: Is that the benefit of working with someone that’s a friend as well?
JK: Yeah. I feel like there aren’t as many barriers when we talk, so everything comes out and we allow each other to take from each other’s mess.
TN: Also if we go back to films, we talk about films as bad examples too.
JK: Yeah, that’s true. We are talking films that we don’t like – more than the other way around! We’re just constantly talking.
Tujiko Noriko, joined by Joji Koyama, plays Semibreve, Braga, from 26-29 October