Is music in anime special? What kind of music is it? Sometimes I know that what I’m listening to isn’t just one thing, but I can’t get my head around it… Does music in anime have a certain style? Why are there openings and endings? Can’t we just have the credits with ambient sounds in the background? I skip them anyway… Is the soundtrack different than that of regular movies? What’s going on?
Ochitsuke! [Calm down!]
What is film music…
Music is just… well, music. It’s sounds, it’s feelings, but it’s also a really useful tool. TV series, movies, games, TV ads, web ads, Western animations and anime. What do they all have in common? The use of sound. It’s simple. Let’s think of a sentence…
“This is my apple.”
So, depending on how you ‘color’ it, on how you ‘sing’ it, the tone and the meaning change, even though you’re saying the same thing. Try putting an emphasis on the underlined word and maybe make a little pause right after.
“This is my apple.” What I’m thinking is a person holding the apple high towards the sky and making a statement that it’s his/hers.
“This is my apple.” In this case, I am imagining someone holding the apple slightly below eye level, extending it in front of him/her and maybe making an outward gesture with the other hand. Let’s say that this imaginary someone is Chandler from Friends. You get what I’m talking about. Right?
“This is my apple.” Here, the statement is that the apple is clearly nobody else’s. So, it would make sense that the person saying it would point directly at himself/herself. It would fall right into Ross’ character (again from Friends); the crybaby.
“This is my apple.” In my mind, that would be plain weird. Reason being, you must really like apples and be really excited about that specific one you’re holding. It just makes no sense to me. Just think about it for a second through my eyes… The irony, the pain… Almost yelling about an apple.
Just for the record: I. HATE. APPLES. Especially the red ones. Daikirai! [I hate them!]
So within a broader context, the same individual elements can create different results. By combining flour, eggs and butter, you can bake cakes, brownies or cookies. It’s all in the quantity and in the process. In film music, you have the visual and the auditory parts. As with baking, the result will not be one and definitive. So, within this broader context, we can create three recipes. Shimatta! [Oops!] So, within this broader context, the role of music can be grouped into three uses.
What we hear is not necessarily what we listen to. The sounds within a scene may go directly to our subconscious. Our ears may hear the sound effects, the prolonged or alternating sonorities -something like the harmonies; think about a painter’s palette and how the colors are mixed together-, the rhythmic patterns that keep us on our toes, but our brains are meant to process this information only on a subliminal level.
Yes! No! Yes… No… Yes? I don’t know!
We can also use sounds and music to make a description and compliment what’s happening on the screen. “What kind of description?”, you may ask. A good example would be this. Let’s go a few decades back. Think of the Show White and the Seven Dwarfs and specifically “Heigh Ho”. The song is written around manual labor. The melody, the rhythm and the sound effects go along with how the characters move on the screen. So, it can be seen as a form of description. Indeed, in this case, the song is the star of the scene, but that’s not necessarily the rule. The music can be descriptive, whether in the foreground or in the background. We may notice it. We may not.
Tell me more…
Well, this can be quite demanding or extremely simple, depending on the scene. But the reasoning behind this is straightforward. We use music to make a statement that cannot be made only through the visuals. That statement either targets our psychological responses or our pure reasoning. Let me elaborate with an example. Think of one of the ‘classic’ scenes in thrillers and horror movies. There’s a child. A young girl would be a better choice. A white dress with lace would be the beeest clothing option. The girl is sitting on a swing that is in a playground without a single soul around. The shot is truly benign and you feel like your heart is going to melt away. Now, if the director decides to tweak the colors a bit, maybe put certain parts of the scene in slow motion, he/she is letting the viewers know that everything is about to change. And the best thing to top it off? A lullaby sung by a child or a children’s choir. You know exactly what I mean. You are starting to get nervous, aren’t you? In this case, some tiny details in the editing and the proper musical choice can turn into an ‘omen’. The viewer will have the feeling that something is about to happen. A jump scare, for instance. Or a change in the entire vibe of the movie.
Truth be told, stating that there are only three main uses is only part of the picture. ‘So, what’s the full picture?’, you may ask. Music can have all three roles in a single scene. Clearly, not at the same time, but consecutively. The use of music can have different approaches in different shots of the same scene. And frankly, this is what makes the combinations virtually endless.
Silence. No instruments, no music, no sounds. Nothing. Just think of a very intense scene. It can be one of the battles from the Star Wars franchise. It can be a really emotional scene from Requiem for a Dream. It can be Yukine’s purification ritual from Noragami. Any scene you may think with emotional stress, with a massive build-up. Then imagine the characters continuing to move, the wind hitting the trees in the landscapes, the camera slowly panning. Think how you would feel if you started hearing nothing. If all sounds faded out and away from you, forming an auditory nothingness. Absolute silence. The absence of sound is as powerful as a full symphonic orchestra smashing their instruments in fortissimo while accompanying a massive choir singing -nay, screaming- in fortississimo. It is as powerful as the amps of the biggest rock concert. It is what makes us feel like time has frozen.
A bit about music in anime…
Music in anime is not all that different. The basic principles, the concept and the strategy don’t really change. The soundtrack needs to convey the same information, the same emotions as it guides us through the show. It’s something like a walk-through, reminding us what to pay attention to, making us relate with the characters, kinda forcing us to engage with the situation at hand. All in all, it makes us respond to what we see.
What we get from what we hear
Yes, many people write about anime. There are many reviews out there. There are a number of analyses and speculations about how the story will evolve. I get it, I too get excited while waiting for the next season, the next episode, the next time I see the protagonists of my favorite shows. And, oh, the wait…
It. Seems. Endless.
Naturally, while we wait, we tend to talk about what has happened and what we think is going to happen. The music on the other hand, tends to remain in the background. But if you notice the music, you can tell if a series is going to be sad, romantic, if there is going to be a plot twist and how mind blowing it’s going to be. You can catch all these little details by a simple change in the rhythmic accompaniment, a certain track in the background or a sudden switch in the harmonic patterns. It’s like an entire new world is unraveling right in front of our eyes. It’s like we have only been watching anime in grayscale and suddenly, everything starts having colors.
From Astro Boy to Neon Genesis Evangelion to Boku no Hero Academia
As with everything else, music has eras, waves of sorts. What better examples to write about than the three in the subtitle. As our landmarks, I have chosen Astro Boy – the ojiisan [granddad], Neon Genesis Evangelion – the otousan [dad] and Boku no Hero Academia – the kodomo [child]. All I keep thinking is where to start. What should I tackle first? Let’s have a small detour, a small flashback.
* Insert imaginary dissolve here * (⊙_☉)
Once upon a time… cinema had fast paced scenes in black and white. It had a bunch of hired musicians perform the music live at the venue.
At another point in time… classical, classically-inspired and avant-garde influenced music were the stars.
Later on… electronic sounds were a must have. No ‘sane’ director would even think of a film without any electronic sound effects or electronic instruments. Even traditional instruments would be replaced with their electronic counterparts, and it was NOT always because of the budget.
There was also the time… where so many things were going on, there were sooo many notes, looong melodies and a buuunch of different instruments that were trying to steal the show.
* That’s it. Wakey-wakey… No more flashbacks. For now, at least… *
Now, we live in the time where ambiance, a change in volume, in texture, a slight change in the harmony makes all the difference.
Technology it is
Earlier in the article, I mentioned the Star Wars franchise. The concept behind the technology in that galaxy far, far away was that it was so advanced, things only looked different because of the trends. Because of what was ‘flaming hot’ at the time. That concept reminds me of the industry standards not only in film music, but in music in general. My point being that the musicians, the composers, the producers create trends, depending on the technology they actually have available to them, making us think that it’s just a new style, that it’s what’s hot right now. When thinking of the way we make recordings, the quality of the mics, the sampling techniques we have at this day and age in our disposal, the generous choice between analogue and digital editing make more things possible. The fact is that technology makes things easier. Or it can just make things harder but a lot cheaper. It can make the process seem easier and the end result seem more complex. Technology has given us the option to have more options. It has helped us create trends. A few years back, dubstep was a huge thing. And it still is. Well, technically speaking, its subgenres are. Right now, it’s what’s considered to be the ‘industry standards’ in advertising. If you don’t have a drone to capture nice panoramic views and the sound of spoons in a blender combined with the sound of cats fighting, you’re not cut out for it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Don’t get me wrong, I like dubstep. I don’t listen to it for extended periods of time, but I think that it can pair extremely well with a good shot.
Astro Boy, one of the first trends in opening themes
My views of opening themes in general are that they’re made to create a good first impression and intrigue the audience into sitting in front of the screen. The people who direct the OPs want to catch your eye, get your attention. Imagine being a kid in the 1960s, sitting in your living room and hearing the opening sequence of Astro Boy coming from the TV set. Immediately, you run towards the TV, probably take a seat on the floor, as close as you can in front of it and stay still while waiting for your favorite show to start. That seems to be the case, right?
Right off the bat, Astro Boy starts with an ascending sequence, letting us know that a show has started. It would only make sense that the intro/OP is responsible for letting the viewers know that something new and exciting is starting. Immediately after, without any further delay, we receive the invitation to sing along. The concept behind the song, the shape of its melody, the choice of the singers. Everything made something clear. The creators want to make it memorable. They want us to learn the lyrics and sing along with the introduction sequence. Takai Tasuo made an opening that was intriguing, interesting, memorable, new and yet made it sound familiar, all at the same time. The choice of the children singing and the melody go hand in hand and were proven a successful recipe. The recipe that would break the barrier between the big -or small- screen and the viewer.
Neon Genesis Evangelion, an audiovisual marriage
The first few seconds of the OP have a different approach than that of Astro Boy. We start directly with the thematic material, not with an introduction. The thematic material is what we hear during the first 14 seconds. It’s the ‘main theme’ of the opening. It has almost no accompaniment. It’s like an idea floating in the air with nothing to act as its pillar of support. It’s almost a cappella, with only the slightest notion of clean harmony that has the ability to evolve into something dynamic.
So, the first time we hear the melody, we hear it in its purest form. There are no intricate rhythmic patterns that could distract us. However, when the beat is introduced, it makes it a whole lot more dynamic. Contrary to Astro Boy, the viewer is not expected to sing. Our job is to remain seated and go doki-doki [onomatopoeia for heartbeat filled with excitement]. Despite the fast tempo, we still get a hollow feeling, a feeling that something is unfinished. The music makes us expect many things, it makes us anticipate an eventful series of episodes. The way the characters are introduced to us, the Evangelions, the Angels, the fast cut transitions in editing, everything is in harmony with the rhythmic patterns, the music bridges, the melody. This is what makes this OP memorable. It is one of the unskippable intros, in my book.
My Hero Academia, a contemporary anime increasing in popularity
One of the newest additions to a -hopefully- large list of must-see anime series. Boku no Hero Academia. It’s not just another shounen. You may think “Why didn’t you write something about Dragon Ball or Hunter x Hunter? They are shounen, they have recognizable intros and they have been around longer.” The answer is simple. I wanted to write something about this specific anime. It is increasing in popularity and the buzz is only getting louder. I won’t regret saying that it is one of the best anime the industry offered us during the past few years. I just said it and I’m not taking it back. *No regrets*
Back to our topic, then. Honestly, I was about to start writing about “Odd Future”, but I thought that although it is more successful as far as the YouTube views are concerned, it isn’t the original OP. So, “The Day” it is. We have a fast tempo. We have male vocals in the upper register. We have nice guitar riffs with distortion. And we have a yet another successful match between image and sound. What do we get from the opening? Clearly, it has a traditional, yet modern approach. We meet our hero. Our hero has a goal that seems unreachable. We meet the other characters that will be by our hero’s side. We have a small taste of his problems, his rival, his enemies. And… action. The fast paced editing that is in sync with the lively percussion makes us notice how stressful this situation must be for the characters, as well as their determination to sort things out.
I am stopping myself here, since I know that I am about to start writing everything that comes to mind about Boku no Hero Academia… and that’s a lot. I get carried away rather easily, so I’m ending this by promising to write another article about the music of this anime.
Music and Image, a love and hate relationship
The marriage between directing and music is something of an illusion. What do illusionists do? Magic? No. They direct the audience’s attention to a certain detail. The trick is not where they say it is. So, technically, the illusionists manipulate the audience’s attention. And that’s exactly what directors and composers do. What I’m saying is that if the director and the composer understand this principle, they can redirect the viewer’s focus to the right point, at the right time. This is what makes a film enjoyable to watch. This is what makes the viewer feel involved. This is what requires more brain activity. When I watch a movie, I want to feel involved. I want to feel that I cannot predict the plot twist, even though I’m following the storyline. I want to be enchanted. I want to be lured into the creator’s vision. Yet, I don’t want to be urged to do it. I don’t want to feel like I am forced to do it. I want it to seem natural. I want it to be consensual.
The point is that we are trained to understand the meaning of the directing, the acting, the music. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. It doesn’t matter if the industry standards change or if there is a new and optimized way to ‘say’ something without the use of words, body language or images. It doesn’t matter if we perceive certain sounds as accommodating or as stressful.
What I understand is that in each and every anime, the openings, the endings, the soundtracks make sense for the given setting. It may not make sense to someone who is not familiar with the story and the characters or it may seem weird, awkward, creepy, or even plain childish at times. However, it all makes sense once you assign each stylistic choice of the music to another stylistic choice of the visuals. Music becomes an extension of the fictional world. It is most likely what makes us feel like taking another dive into a favorable imaginary world and skip just a tiny bit from ours.