Note: I’m not an expert on music theory of terminology
These days, I doubt many people leave their house without their phone and a set of earbuds. This is an essential part of our routine alongside tying our shows and putting on a jacket in the winter. Walk down the street and you’d be hard-pressed to go a few blocks not seeing someone with earbuds in their ears jamming out to their favorite song. The modern convenience of taking music with us has been around since the Walkman in the 80’s and 90’s and possibly even earlier, my dad always tells me that he loved that device because the fact that you could bring your cassettes with you on the go was an innovation that would shape the world. Unlike radio’s, these portable music players let you listen to what you wanted where you wanted and not have to worry about the inevitable comment from your friend saying “bro, can you change the station I hate that song” or walk down the street blasting Super Driver and getting weird looks.
In the midst of the portable music phase, we often gravitate towards listening to music that sucks us in the intricate instrumentals, lyrical genius or a catchy pop tune that we can easily consume. However, this kind of music is quite different that what is used in cinema and anime scores since those tunes are not usually designed for the average listener to jam to on the way to the train station. These are the heavily atmospheric and background pieces found in the Original Soundtracks (OST) for their respective series.
(Please note the difference between a soundtrack and a score; a score contains tracks composed uniquely for the show or movie while a soundtrack might contain preexisting songs in pop culture or from another artist.)
Heavily atmospheric tracks and background music is the key to mapping a scene in motion picture and animation, as is silence. Sound in entertainment is one of the most important aspects of the experience and can sway the emotions of the audience if applied correctly. The common example for this point is the 1979 Ridley Scott film, Alien. In terms of sound design, it does an amazing job at heightening the tension with the harsh and repetitive sounds which makes the audience scoot to the edge of their seats. Music and sound design is the key to grabbing the audience’s attention and emphasize the emotions the director wants them to feel. What I will be focusing on in this discussion is the importance of music in anime as well as the way music can be used as a crucial tool in the experience of the show.
One of my recent favorite animated movies of all time in Koe no Katachi, the new directorial work from Naoko Yamada working at Kyoto Animation. This movie has received immense praise, and rightfully so considering the touching story, excellent direction and stunning animation. I will talk about this movie another time but for now, I want to focus on one of my favorite aspects of the production- the OST. This score has been given much praise for the wonderful use of atmosphere and sound design, but I want to discuss how it is important for the overall narrative. The tracks are simple in their own right, short and subtle and that’s what is important here. Koe no Katachi is a movie about those who communicate, and this OST communicates a lot in unconventional ways. Large stretches of animation contain no dialogue, with a heavier focus on the character’s body language and expression. These tracks are added in to amplify the emotions of the characters, often structured with a soft intro and a climax towards the end of the track that is aligned with the emotional climax of the scene. One of the ironic tracks is “lit” which is used a few times during the run time but most notably at the most emotional scene at the end of the movie. The way the steady buildup of the track is structured is then timed with the actions on-screen creating a huge rush of emotions that the audience feels as a result of that track being used. Without it, the scene would have not have had nearly as big of an impact on us as when it has the song. I’m sure all who have scene knows exactly what I’m talking about, and we all shed a manly tear.
Now I want to switch gears a bit and discuss a different approach to sound design in anime with a focus on the OST of Made in Abyss. Every anime fan that was conscious during 2017 most likely heard everyone talking about the brilliance of this show with beautiful animation, background art and music. The latter is what my primary focus will be considering how wonderful the OST is by itself, but can it add more depth to the overall production?
One of the strengths Made in Abyss has that allows it to stand above the rest in it’s genre is the amazing world building. Over the course of one episode we find out the basic premise of the Abyss and we’re filled with the same wonder the characters have, to find out the truths of the Abyss. With the introducing of the premise and seeing the map in the ED made me excited to find out the mysteries that lurked miles below the surface in the Abyss.
A major contributor to how the atmosphere was mapped in Made in Abyss is the music itself, composed by Australian composer Kevin Penkin. The beautiful melodies that meshed so well with the soft colored backgrounds and overall mysterious vibe created a sense of discovery and curiosity. The more upbeat songs played with the idea of the overall optimism of the young explorers while the downcast ones created the sense of dread they had as they proceeded further down into the Abyss. These string and percussion tracks contained within the OST creates a somewhat adventurous feeling lined with curiosity and awe at what lies ahead but still manages to maintain the darker elements that can be applied to those types of scenes that required it. One of my favorite songs from this show is Hanezeve Caradhina, one of the most iconic songs that really captures the essence of atmosphere created in this wonderful show and is a reoccurring insert song first introduced in episode 1.
After completing the series, I tracked down the OST to listen to on the high seas, but found that it was available legally on Spotify, same goes from the Koe no Katachi OST so I highly recommend to listen to those scores on the legal platform since they’re so readily available.
All in all, don’t take the music for granted when watching an anime or live action movie, the composer worked with the director to create a piece that would compliment the emotions they were trying to make the audience feel. Consider the importance of including that particular song there, and appreciate it when a scene comes together in a beautiful symphony of animation and emotions that makes you remember “damn, I love anime.”
Thanks for reading, have a great day!