From Japanese Anime to Silent Film Scores

By Ren Scateni

An interview with BUMA composer Renán Zelada Cisneros

When I was a teenager, Saturday was a special day. Right after lunch, I would hop on my scooter and head to my grandmother’s apartment. At 2 pm, MTV would programme my favourite anime, Inuyasha, and my grandma’s TV was blessed with a strong and crystal clear signal. Anime – and manga – was how I first came into contact with Japan. Then came literature. And films. When I eventually approached film criticism it felt only natural that I would focus on Japanese and East Asian cinema, and what better festival than Rotterdam to discover fascinating talents hailing from these regions? I’m grateful and excited to have been selected to participate in the Young Film Critics programme this year and I’m determined to make the most out of this experience, despite the physical distance.

When I prepped my conversation with Chilean composer Renán Zelada Cisneros  I knew there was common ground I had to explore: Japan. Hints at an interest in the country’s culture pepper up his website and soon I would learn that, growing up, Renán watched a lot of anime too – a passion that later translated into a vivid interest in Japanese culture, which informed a few of his projects, including the score for Mizoguchi Kenji’s silent film Orizuru Osen (1935). Renán, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and a Master’s Degree in Composing for Film, has been invited to experience IFFR Pro as part of a collaboration with Buma Music in Motion. He works with a different array of media encompassing TV, film, and theatre. Most recently, he composed music for many multi-awarded films and documentaries, like Dylan Werkman’s A View From Above (2020), Thom Lunshof’s Harmonia (2020), and Saman Haghighivand’s Nicky (2020).

Tell me about your interest in Japanese culture and how it inspires you.

It all started with anime when I was younger and now I love reading Japanese medieval poetry. Generally speaking, I’m fascinated by their way of telling a story. For example, in Western storytelling, a tree would be just an object in the background whereas in Kawabata Yasunari’s The Old Capital, he spends the first couple of pages describing a tree, which is very much like in the foreground. Something similar happens in anime too, when the environment becomes a fundamental part of the narrative. And this happens with music as well. I find the way they use composition techniques extremely interesting and this is something that deeply inspires me.

Can you talk us through the stages from when you’re approached by a filmmaker until you start composing your music?

Depending on the project, the process can vary. In the case of Harmonia, it was the director, Thom, who approached me at the beginning of last year with the core idea for his film. He knew he wanted to make a film on mass hysteria, but it was very abstract at first. From there, we slowly worked on a concept while Thom was writing the screenplay. With Nicky, it was a completely different journey. When I contacted the director, he had already finished editing the film so he knew exactly what we wanted the music to do. In that case, I had to look for a certain sound, or a mood, and then after narrowing the options down, I landed on the desired language I wanted to use.

Do you think that your language changes depending on the project you’re involved with? I see that your most recent works include a documentary and a fiction feature.

Yes, I would say so. When I worked with Dylan Werkman, for example, whose documentary style is primarily observational, I realised that my music should match that particular observational approach too. On the other hand, when it comes to fiction films I noticed that, until now, my experience has been directed towards trying to underline the story or empathise with a certain perspective, or character. 

What happens when you work with a silent film in which you have no words, no sound? How do you make it all work?

For Orizuru Osen, I worked with two other people, an actress and another musician. Together with the musician, we sectioned the film and worked on separate 10-minute-long scenes and then went on identifying the mood of each section. Eventually, we also decided to have the actress narrating the film as a benshi (the Japanese performer who provided live narration for silent films) would do. So we ended up with Japanese intertext, English subtitles and Spanish live narration. A proper language mash-up!

Ren Scateni
Written for the Young Film Critics 2021