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Photo: Wayo Records

Michiru Ōshima – Jewel of Japan

Try searching Google for Michiru Ōshima and you won’t find too much to whet your appetite in English. Yet, no film music enthusiast’s knowledge of the genre is complete without having heard this talented and prolific Japanese composer.

大島ミチル, Ōshima Michiru, born March 16, 1961, is a multi-award winning composer of film, television, computer games, and concert works, popular in Asia, but less known in the West. Some months ago, I wrote a little about Joe Hisaishi, perhaps Japan’s most internationally celebrated contemporary composer (Ryuichi Sakamoto notwithstanding), alongside his seminal and magical works, I have a highly unique set by Ōshima on my frequent playlist — and yet she remains tragically unknown here in the West.

There are surely few high profile female composers in the world at large, but Ōshima is not only prolific, web sources cite her as one of the most productive living screen composers of any gender in any country. And her sheer output and technical prowess dwarf that of many of the more familiar names in the West. Like all aspects of Japanese pop culture, her music is fluent, highly melodic, and swathed in coming-of-age romance and adventure — in marked contrast to the more auspicious `respectable classical’ Japanese composers who verge towards experimentalism and the avant garde.

If you didn’t know much about Japan, you could be forgiven for not associating the country as a major force in music, yet music is a serious business in Japanese culture — and the level of both musicianship and composition is almost unparalleled in its quality. Whether in pop music (J-pop), or in Heavy Metal culture, Japan doesn’t do anything by halves. The complexity of every composition, alongside the understated skills of the players, creates layers to Japanese culture that are generally overlooked by the mainstream West.

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Moreover, there is a strong connection between popular songs and anime. No animated film or series would be complete without an opening and a finishing song. These songs are major hits that draw stadium filling events (every Japanese kid could sing along to the songs from Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), or Demon Slayer [Kimetsu no Yaiba] (2019) etc.). In a sense, Japan’s riches are denied Western listeners and viewers by a regrettable language barrier. Only in recent years have some of the more successful anime series been translated and even dubbed with horrendous American voices that leave out the most important part of Japan: Don’t mess with Asian Cuteness culture!

But, back to the composer! Trying to list Ōshima’s accomplishments would be a hopeless task, and of little interest to readers here, since her music is hardly known. With scores across wide areas, such as anime, film, television, video games and concerts, she is reported to have written scores for over 100 movies, over 200 television titles, video games, various types of events, concerts, theatres, among others. It’s claimed that Ōshima is one of the most prolific living composers for film, anime and video game. She has released over 300 CDs.

Ōshima arguably came to wider fame as the composer for three Godzilla movies between 2000 and 2003, followed swiftly by the soundtrack to a highly successful television series: Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) – a touching action adventure about two brothers who vainly attempt to reverse their mothers’ death through alchemy, but in the process create monsters instead. The proximity of these works, during what was apparently a busy period for the composer, can be heard in some of the cues and military themes used. If the Godzilla films are filled with marches and militarized drama, then Fullmetal Alchemist is broader, more subtle, and less wall-to-wall coat of many colours — lurking sometimes meekly and sometimes powerfully throughout a complex story with many strong characters. There are no leitmotifs for the characters, as in some stories, but rather a basic canvas of suspense and emotional support for the dialogue-rich story.

Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)

But these popular pieces are perhaps not the compositions that draw me most to Ōshima. More interesting is how her music uniquely recalls an era of sweeping romance — like the movies of James Bond, Doctor Zhivago, The Thirty Nine Steps and all those cinematic classics that feel lost today to the CGI banalities of the present day action thriller. For example, the theme from Toei’s Pride: The Fateful Moment (1998) – sometimes translated as The Moment of Destiny. The movie is a drama from the Japan’s involvement in the second world war. The theme begins by recalling associations to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, before erupting into what could almost be a John Barry classic.

Similarly, the soundtrack for the highly successful mainland Chinese movie The Message (2009) mixes percussive instruments (great and small) with big band jazz, disco, electronica (hints of Eric Serra?) and Shostakovich-like symphonic styles (think The Gadfly and Jazz Suites) into an action thriller extravaganza. At times, her arrangements are luscious like the cascading strings of Mantovani, echoing a lost style of 1950s-1960s big-band jazz. Echoes of John Barry and Maurice Jarre race alongside echoes of Shostakovich film music.

By contrast to these massive scores, the more recent and touching love story Bloom Into You (2018) is a score for a beautifully understated small chamber ensemble, featuring piano, cello, and a particularly sonorous A-clarinet. In spite of her wide musical range, there is an unmistakable style to Ōshima’s orchestrations and textures. Racing strings punctuated by flutes and woodwind runs that accent tension for action, sweeping romance for drama, intimate and anecdotal playfulness for characters. As with Hisaishi, romance is always at the heart of the music.

Bloom Into You (2018)

Given the paucity of Japanese music available on CD and streaming platforms, it’s hard to point readers to any particular source for Michiru Ōshima’s works. If you have the patience and temerity to order CDs from Japan, you’ll be able to obtain some works, without being able to read anything about them. It’s all very frustrating, but it would still be well worth the effort. Two nice anthologies may be still be found with English translations, with some effort: her film scores in Best: Film Music Collection, and TV collections in Michiru Oshima: TV Music Best. These capture some of the scope of her talent. More recent albums like Bloom into You are being advertised, for a pretty penny, but given the time and expense of ordering from third party importers, streaming or YouTube renditions are probably your best bet.

But, all that said, I do encourage you to Google your way to what you can find, even on YouTube. It’s well worth the effort — and it’s a doorway into a different musical storytelling experience than Hollywood’s. Indeed, there’s a clear style to Japanese film music, which contrasts with contemporary Western state of the art, not merely in an attachment to the pentatonic scale. It’s seductive and intimate, even when infused with Soviet-inspired menace, where big Western scores can feel studied and sometimes clinical, grinding through the commercial machine. Like Joe Hisaishi’s music, Ōshima feels firmly rooted in the pop music and melodies of the 1970s, with both melancholy and warmth, which is uniquely Japanese anime.

After listening to her music, one can’t help but feel like a rounder, kinder, and better human being. And regardless of the composer’s relative obscurity, I guarantee that these are compositions that you’ll want to come back to again and again.

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Here follows a Youtube playlist of her work:

Hits: 177

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