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Listen to This

The genius of Joe Hisaishi’s composition in Studio Ghibli films

I told you guys that I was gonna write about anime music

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Author’s Note: Listen to This is a bi-weekly column that serves as a listener’s guide to the world of music, with recommendations, reviews, and music-related stories.

If you know me, you know that I adore the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Like many of you, I grew up watching Studio Ghibli’s films and remember being simultaneously horrified and entranced by the mysterious, whimsical worlds that Miyazaki creates. I still hold all of these films extremely close to my heart.

I always suggest “Spirited Away,” or “Howl’s Moving Castle” during movie nights with my friends; I take inspiration from Miyazaki’s otherworldly, yet oddly clean airships for my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns; and I listen to the films’ music when it’s late at night and I need to go to sleep.

Mamoru Fujisawa, professionally known as Joe Hisaishi, has been the mastermind behind the music of Studio Ghibli’s more popular movies since 1984 with the release of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” 

But what makes Hisaishi’s music so calming? Why is it especially good at putting me to sleep?

Let’s take a look at some of his earlier work from 1989 with “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” The most recognizable track off the film’s OST is “A Town with an Ocean View.” The song opens up with a swell of strings that takes the listener through a swirling and calming ride on a flying broom. Each section of the song doesn’t really have a definitive end, and sections tend to flow into each other and act as continuations of the previous themes found throughout the track.

A lot of Hisaishi’s compositions hold this same theme of almost aimless wandering. This is especially evident in his composition for the 2001 film “Spirited Away” called “One Summer’s Day.” The song carries a light, simple melody coupled with a full, almost heavy accompaniment, but quickly shifts toward an overall grand variation of the original theme. The piece follows this back-and-forth motion through its entirety. This creates a strange dichotomy within the piece that shifts between emotions of success and hope, defeat and aimlessness.

The piece feels reminiscent of Claude Debussy’s work and is a prime example of impressionist composing. The composition focuses much more on the emotion that it’s trying to convey rather than trying to fit a specific form. 

None of the musical themes in this piece have a definitive end. Like “A Town with an Ocean View,” themes will start and end on the same note and change tone with each shift. This is especially apparent in the first five notes of “One Summer’s Day.” Listen to how the opening chords don’t seem to come to an end, but you can notice the definite shift in the tone and shape of the song.

It’s the focus on emotion and feeling that makes Hisaishi’s works so powerful and absolutely perfect for Miyazaki’s films. Let’s look at “A Journey (A Dream of Flight)” from the 2013 film “The Wind Rises.” As the name suggests, this song makes you feel like you’re flying. The piano melody in the beginning follows a rising motion, then there’s a sudden drop. It’s coupled nicely with a balance of soft, smooth flute and oboe accompaniment, then shifts into a slight variation of the original theme with the string section of the orchestra.

The piece is calm and contemplative in the beginning sections and shifts into an almost royal, triumphant waltz near the end. The emotions the song conveys are different, but when listening to the piece, you can follow the shifts in emotion. The song takes the listener on a comfortable ride from emotion to emotion without any discordant shifts.

Of course, it’s one thing to listen to Hisaishi’s music alone, but if you watch the accompanying film, you’ll begin to see how the musical composition only amplifies and complements the emotions of the films in a near-perfect way. 

Reach writer Kyle Bender at Twitter: @ATOMICpandaBOMB 

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