So, I’ve been absorbed with anything anime related for the past… probably six months, now. I love watching the really notable stuff, Cowboy Bebop, Death Note, Studio Ghibli, etc. the classics, like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, as well as some strange and obscure stuff (although still somewhat popular/notable, else I wouldn’t have found them to begin with). Instead of blabbering on about them like countless other fanboys have done before me, I’d like to highlight some of my favourites by their soundtracks.
1) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
This is hands down my favourite Studio Ghibli film. Considering some of their films are reputed to be the best anime films around, I’ve given this quite a lot of thought. This film marks the beginning of Studio Ghibli, coming out in 1984, it is directed by Hayao Miyazaki and the soundtrack is done by the man that would go on to do the music for all of Miyazaki’s films. Part of the reason why these movies are so good is because of Joe Hisaishi’s music. This soundtrack is not my favourite by Hisaishi, but it’s got a wonderful ’80s flair to it that his other soundtracks don’t. The blend of orchestra and synths works surprisingly well. This song gives that blend a light pop music feel, where other songs combine the classic and the ’80s synths to create some great retro battle music. And the rest is straight up classical.
I watched this series not too long ago and I loved it. I was pretty well addicted from an early point. And the music is fantastic. It changes with the pace of the action. There are some brilliant pieces of electronic music, including the one above and the main battle song, a dynamic trance track called “Salva Nos.” There’s also a nice variety of classical tracks, some piano, some acoustic guitar, even an electric guitar a few times. It branches from peasant song type tracks to classical to some variety of electronic styles, but it always feels rich and organic. There are many awesome songs in the soundtrack, and a fantastic variety, it’s hard to pick a favourite, and it’s so easy to listen to.
3) Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
Words can’t describe how thrilled I was the first time I watched this film. The second time I watched this film it was phenomenal. Not only were the visuals ridiculously high quality, the soundtrack is like riding a flaming carriage through the gates of hell with the intention of killing the devil and kidnapping his daughter, and the story. It’s like if Van Helsing were a super freaking rockstar from Mars. The music reflects the plot, a nightmarish future dystopia, with all the adrenaline of an animated epic. It’s wild, it’s dark, it’s exciting. It’s got balls. It’s got all the action of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, but without the constant narrative disappointments. This shit is BIG.
4) Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is a surreal techno-fantasy. It’s cyberpunk through and through. While there’s a lot of action going on, chasing down a cyber-crminal/ghosthacker, there’s a lot of philosophical and political issues being raised regarding the line between man and machine. The soundtrack, by Kenji Kawai, reflects this duality, featuring heavy percussion that is mechanical in its timing and rhythms, yet organic in sound. The other instruments are mostly mellow background ambience, setting a sombre tone, sometimes it feels like the electrical humming of machines. And that haunting chorus, the vocal chants that send shivers down your spine. I love how the percussion and the ambience and the vocals layer over each other and pull out a rich soundtrack that is quite peculiar and quite brilliant.
5) Princess Mononoke
Joe Hisaishi is back with my second favourite Studio Ghibli film. It’s a fantasy epic with plenty of action and plenty of exciting music to go with it. This is Hisaishi circa 1997, and this is all classical. Especially with this film, I get the vibe he’s a Japanese John Williams. His music is full of energy and charm. As Miyazaki’s films are beautiful to watch, Hisaishi’s music is beautiful to hear. As a complete orchestral soundtrack, I would say this is probably Hisaishi’s best, as even the softer moments are a thing of beauty. He has done better individual songs for other films (particularly with his music for piano), but the soundtrack to Princess Mononoke is the easiest to just turn on and bliss out.
6) Death Note
I went through a phase a little while ago where I went a bit Death Note crazy. I read the manga in six days or seven days, loved it. Then I watched the anime and loved it. And the soundtrack they put together for it is pretty awesome. There’s a bunch of guitar and percussion heavy tracks, a few electronic tracks, contemporary compositions, and then there’s a bunch of classic soundtrack compositions, big orchestral pieces with big chanting choirs. There are a few songs that I don’t really fancy much, but as with most soundtracks, there are some background songs that don’t really work well on their own. But still, I listened to this soundtrack a lot. It’s exciting. And I love the balance of big epic orchestral pieces with songs with a more contemporary rock/electronic vibe.
7) Samurai Champloo
This is Shinichiro Watanabe’s second TV series after Cowboy Bebop (below), and this show is all about blending the old and the new, mixing Edo period Japan with contemporary hip-hop culture. Hip-hop in its nature is like this, taking something that already exists and remixing it, giving it new life in a different context. This soundtrack is like nothing else on this list (except for perhaps Cowboy Bebop, in terms of how the soundtrack compliments the anime). For me, it’s all about Nujabes, bringing the instrumental hip-hop, blending beautiful instrumentals with chilled beats. It’s fairly repetitive stuff, but it still feels fresh and interesting. It’s so easy to listen to. Nujabes destroys nothing of the music he uses, instead, harvesting the energy to drive his beats.
This soundtrack was done by a British electronic music duo, Plaid. This soundtrack is great. The music is captivating. At times it’s very ambient, at times it’s got loud, steady percussion, and there are plenty of strange synths and such throughout. The music is easy enough to just put on in the background, it gets a bit slow at times, but each song has its highlights and for the most part, they work on their own. A solid soundtrack album. I’ve got this CD in my car at the moment, I’ve been looping it for a little while now and it hasn’t got old yet.
9) Serial Experiments Lain
I’ve only just recently come across this series. I’m about half way through and loving it. It came out in 1998, and you can tell by watching stuff like this and Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, they just feel different to more recent anime. This one’s a cyberpunk anime that’s way less extreme than Ghost in the Shell, but it’s got a strong emphasis on real world technologies taken to extremes. As with Ghost in the Shell, there’s the question of identity in an increasingly virtual world. I’m yet to have a thorough listen through the soundtrack, but there’s a lean towards lo-fi rock music. Melodic guitar, simple drum beats, nothing too complex or busy. It’s catchy and easy to listen to and it reflects the strange mystery that hangs about the series, even though, if it had been made in more recent times, you would expect a more techno/electronic soundtrack to fit it.
10) The Secret World of Arrietty
This is another Studio Ghibli film, but it was directed by HiromasaYonebayashi, with Miyazaki providing the screenplay. In lieu of Joe Hisaishi, this film’s soundtrack was composed by French-Breton musician, Cecile Corbel. As such, the music has a bit of a bohemian vibe, with a strong emphasis on acoustics. There instruments are what sounds like harp, guitar, violin and light percussion with vocals, but could easily be any variety of regional ethnic instruments. I don’t know, I haven’t looked into it that far. The compositions have a raw simplicity to them, and the arrangements are catchy and intricate and have a wonderful folk charm to them. It suits the mood of the film perfectly, which, after Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films. Beautiful music, regardless of the context.
We go back to the ’80s again for some old school cyberpunk sci-fi. This was a landmark film when it made its way over to America. It’s way less cyberpunk than Ghost in the Shell, but it’s got the aesthetics of a dystopian techno-future there. The music is very strange. It feels strange listening to it without the film, as a lot of the music is very dry ambience, long spaces where little happens, and long, repetitive phrases with little development. There’s lots of unusual percussive sounds, the soundtrack is very percussive, not very melodic, some synths, and some choral chants. It’s got this earthy tribal feel to it, which reflects the whole dystopian nature of the future. It’s run-down hi-tech, lots of gangs and graffiti and such. A few songs are pretty captivating, it’s an enjoyable listen, definitely one for the Akira fans.
12) Spirited Away
Joe Hisaishi is back again. Spirited Away is the definitive Japanese family animation. It’s a great movie about a child moving to a new town and trying to adjust to leaving her old friends behind and making new friends. It lacks the action of Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke, but the intensity is there. And that really comes through with the music. It’s beautiful and delicate. The main themes are fantastic, and I wanted to post the original opening track, “One Summer’s Day”, but I couldn’t find the orchestral version, only piano covers. This song is similar, it shares the same melody at some points, but in my opinion it’s not quite as good. There’s plenty of great songs, and while it’s not as solid song-for-song as Princess Mononoke, it’s got its captivating tunes, its fanfares and such.
13) Cowboy Bebop
When I started watching anime, this was what I started with. Because it had a decent reputation, and the whole space western, intergalactic bounty hunters, crazy jazz aesthetics thing was just too cool. There’s no two ways about it, the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop is outstanding. The Seatbelts are freaking amazing. The Seatbelts is Yoko Kanno’s brainchild, an insane jazz band that so frequently flies so far off the handle it matches the loose-lying, yet hard-hitting Bebop style perfectly. And they mix up the pace so well. There’s so much to love about this soundtrack. There isn’t really anything out there quite this wild and original. Or quite this entertaining.