What should the phrase "sound design" bring to mind? Lots of speakers, cords and microphones? Melodramatic sound effects of rain and thunder? For professional sound designer Kai Harada, the answer is nothing.
"The best compliment is no compliment," said Harada, who specializes in musical theater sound design. "I'm in charge of how a show sounds, but it's also my goal to make that sound invisible."
Based in America, Harada is currently in Tokyo for the rock musical show "Million Dollar Quartet," currently playing through Sept. 17. The musical is based on a famed 1956 recording session that brought together rock icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
The show is the second musical, following the Broadway revival of "West Side Story," to be performed at the newly opened Tokyu Theatre Orb in the Shibuya Hikarie, a new multipurpose urban complex in the Shibuya district. The innovative, 1,972-seat theater was designed specifically for musicals, with hopes of making it Tokyo's go-to place for musical theater and big-name concerts.
"Theatre Orb is beautiful," Harada said. "No matter where you sit, the show sounds the same."
An expert in the field of sound design, Harada has spent 14 years on Broadway, working on shows such as "A Christmas Carol," "The Sound of Music," "Wicked," and "Follies," which brought him a nomination for Best Sound Design of a Musical at this year's Tony Awards.
"I'm very excited that 'Million Dollar Quartet' is playing in Japan," said the half-Japanese Harada, who has visited Japan several times for personal reasons, but has never had the chance to work here.
Born and raised in southwestern Connecticut, Harada's background makes him particularly well suited to his chosen profession.
His father, Sadao Harada, is a world-renowned cellist and founder of Tokyo String Quartet.
"My father being a musician and working very, very hard to get where he is today, that influenced me a lot," Harada said. "I do think that the hard-working ideal that the Japanese culture embraces has influenced me, first to work hard to get into a good school, then work hard at my career. I'm happy with where I am career-wise."
According to Harada, his understanding of music is also a huge advantage in the business. "It establishes a good trust between the musicians, which is very important," he said.
As the son of a world-famous musician, Harada naturally studied music as well. He started piano lessons at the age of 4 and performed in numerous student recitals. But pursuing a career as a musician or a composer wasn't his dream.
"I do like playing the piano, but I don't have the interest that some people have to make my own music," Harada said.
He passed on the glamorous life of stage musician to engage in the more behind-the-scenes work of melding technology with music. "I was always interested in electronics," Harada said. "I would take a Walkman and go to Akihabara when I was in Japan all the time."
In his younger years, he had vague notions of becoming a recording engineer, but participating in a school musical show in junior high led him to pursue a career in theatrical sound design. The dynamics of working with people intrigued him, he said.
"So much of what we do in theater is working with other people and figuring out how best to work with them. I think that's a perspective that not everybody has in this business," Harada said. "I do think that having an international background helped a lot, gave me perspective on people as a whole."
Part of that perspective, Harada said, comes not only from being bicultural but also from traveling the world since childhood to accompany his father to various concerts and recording sessions.
Moreover, the delicacy required for sound design, in which the tiniest change in sound can result in huge expressive change, is a natural part of his character.
"It's the actors' responsibility to make the emotional changes, but it's my responsibility to make sure everybody hears it," Harada said.
Behind the glitzy and glamor of musicals, which often features actors and actresses belting out flamboyant songs, is Harada's acute attention to the smallest details.
"I do like those times when you get to a subtle moment in the show," he said. "I like to find the little things you can do with sound design, when the audience isn't really aware that we've done something, but they feel something different."
There are signs that musicals are making inroads in Japan--Japanese actress Ryoko Yonekura landed a lead role in the Broadway musical "Chicago" in July and the newly established Tokyu Theatre Orb is putting on world-class shows, for example. But Harada remains uncertain as to whether Japanese audiences are willing to fully embrace the art.
"Musicals are a very American and Western idea, and I think it's getting there in Japan, but it's still going to take some more time," Harada said.
Until that happens, Harada is more than happy to do his part in building a bridge between the two cultures he knows.
"I would like to work here more and bring what I know to Japan," Harada said. "I also want to learn from the Japanese as well, because I've seen very specific ways of doing things--in terms of how systems are put together and how they're laid out and installed--that are very organized, and that I think we can use in other countries."
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Ayako Karino is a translator and writer specializing in movies. She is a regular contributor for Asahi Weekly.
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