Photo: Studio Ghibli

Joe Hisaishi – Asian sensation

On any given day, there’s quite a small group of screen composers that I find myself returning to more often than others; who have inspired me in my own composition. One of these is Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi (original name Mamoru Fujisawa), who is a little-known film composer in the West, but a household superstar across Asia. Along with the equally overlooked genius of the heavy rock band X-Japan, he is one of a small number of musicians to play before the Japanese emperor by invitation. 

In the West, Joe Hisaishi is known to select fans as the composer behind Hayao Miyazaki’s iconic anime films for Studio Ghibli, which have garnered a significant following in recent years. Like many in the West, I discovered Hisaishi when he shot to fame in 2001, following the box office success of the multi-award-winning Spirited Away – the highest grossing anime film of all time. His instantly recognizable style is compelling and easy to listen to, and the music tells the stories of exquisite fantasy worlds directly, with the charm and youthful wonderment of its lead characters – no mere wallpaper for action sequences here. Few would deny that these movies are actual works of art.

Hisaishi’s collaboration with Miyazaki has been compared to that between John Williams and Steven Spielberg in the West. His rich orchestral style, which is a fusion of Eastern and Western elements, evolved from cheaper electronic origins in the 1980s to become a natural counterpart to Williams in the Eastern hemisphere. Today he has left behind the electronic world, but has embraced and blended authentic Asian instrumentation in a way that few orchestral composers have been able to achieve.

Musically, Hisaishi’s music is both dramatic and romantic, with heavy use of piano at its centre to drive rhythm and melody. Steeped in the `cuteness’ (an Asian obsession) and romanticism, which pervades its animated tradition, the music bridges the East-West divide, just as Miyazaki’s films do. Some sources of inspiration seem to shine clearly from the popular music of the 1970s, albeit filtered through an Asian tonal palette. The result is something warmer and more heartwrenching than Williams’ music. It matches the `coming of age’ tradition in the anime stories. Yet, even in the tear-jerking tragedies of films like The Wind Rises (2013), it never becomes cheap. The music has integrity and soul.

Hisaishi’s style has arguably given anime some of its stylized cartoonish quality, even as the Japanese storytelling form reaches both panoramic and artistic heights, in ways that Western animation simply doesn’t. This is epic storytelling with big cute manga eyes.

Spirited Away (2001)

A few of the movies, including Porco Rosso (1992), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises, are set partly in European locations – in France and Italy – and Hisaishi weaves styles from these countries into his storytelling too. But the music never becomes cliché. There is a very particular stylistic thread that runs through the entire Miyazaki collection, whimsical and rich in leitmotifs, that bind the entire set into a particular fantasy universe.

The tragedy for Western fans is that Hisaishi’s music is famously difficult and expensive to obtain in quality formats. Original soundtrack CDs can sometimes be imported from Japan (usually untranslated) for up to a hundred dollars at a time in auction pricing. MP3 streamers may have better luck in finding some major works, but that makes it difficult to appreciate the music on a par with Western counterparts.

Luckily, there is a compilation, Hisaishi Meets Miyazaki Films (2014), of re-recorded pieces, as well as a live selection from the 25-year celebration of their collaboration 25 years in Budokan, the full video of which is readily available on YouTube (see below). The latter concert is a huge and riveting spectacle to honour a collaboration that has become a key part of popular culture in Japan, and part of the collective psyche across Asia. Hisaishi conducts a medley of works, some adapted from synthesized origins, for a full orchestra, and performed on a vast stage of orchestral and choral performers, plus soloists, who are sometimes palpably nervous to play in front of the vast arena.

Across Asia, it’s common to hear popular weekend performances of the well known hits, such as Laputa (1986), Castle in the Sky (1986) – which every piano student learns to play – and crowd pleasers like My Neighbour Totoro (1988), played by everyone from major orchestras to school marching bands.

Part of the joy of listening to these works lies in the recognition of melodies, many of which feel inspired by the pop music of the 1970s. Hisaishi’s themes are strong and memorable, perhaps because they seem to weave themselves playfully around melodies that are tantalizingly familiar. In Spirited Away, for instance, I have to stop myself from singing `I could face all the madness the world has to bring, but I won’t last a day without you…’ (The Carpenters) , or `The little lord Jesus lay down in the hay….’ («Away in a Manger» Christmas carol). You could almost make a whole pop quiz around guessing which songs the references resemble.

This echoing of hits is not like James Horner’s much more explicit citing of musical references (which could involve dropping in several bars of a work `verbatim’, including recycling his own), but rather a kind of romantic association, as if flying on the dreams of nostalgic fantasy. Only on one occasion that I noticed, in the Princess Mononoke (1997) score («The Demon Power»), does he cite quite explicitly the opening notes of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, almost as a footnote, as if to refer to a dark Stalinesque presence in the movie.

Joe Hisaishi has scored many films in Japan and China, and he wrote the ceremonial music for the 1998 Winter Paralympics in his home province of Nagano, Japan. My personal favourites are Princess Mononoke, Spirited AwayHowl’s Moving Castle, Porco Rosso and The Postmodern Life of my Aunt (2006) – but, if you want entire crowds to sing along, there is nothing to beat the song from Totoro.

Some recommended albums:

  • Castle in the Sky (Laputa)
  • Children of the Sea
  • Departure
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • My Neighbour Totoro
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Porco Rosso
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Spirited Away (Chihiro and the Witches)
  • The Postmodern Life of My Aunt
  • The Sun Also Rises
  • The Wind Rises
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya
  • Tokyo Family

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