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Will The Real Joe Hisaishi Please Stand Up?

With the imminent release of the newly re-scored anime Castle in the Sky, Andrew Osmond profiles Hayao Miyazaki's musical partner, Joe Hisaishi.

Hisaishi has brought music to many of Miyazakis masterpieces.

Hisaishi has brought music to many of Miyazakis masterpieces.

In Joe Hisaishi's two-decade composing career, he's produced orchestral music, electronic music, exercises in minimalism and avant-garde, a prodigious amount of piano work and plenty of rock and pop (with both Japanese and English lyrics). He also has the more-than-incidental distinction of working with the two most world-revered filmmakers in contemporary Japan: Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine, Hana-Bi, Kikujiro) and Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaa, Totoro, Princess Mononoke). He's scored six films for each, and is already confirmed for their upcoming ventures. (Miyazaki's seventh Ghibli film is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi.)

As Hisaishi commented to the on-line magazine Scorelogue, "I just happened to start out as a modern composer who was immersed in severe dissonant sounds for the longest time. I also happened to be allowed to compose some melodic pieces as well. In terms of being allowed to achieve this range, I believe Mr. Kitano and Mr. Miyazaki just pulled it out of me."

His Body of Work

In the anime arena, Hisaishi has scored such TV series as Sasuga no Sarutobi, Two Down Full Base (both 1982), Sasrygar (1983), Futari Taka (1984) and Honoo no Alpen Rose (1985). He also scored the sci-fi adventure Mospeada (1983), which was later reworked into the third segment of Carl Maceck's compilation Robotech. In other formats, Hisaishi wrote the music for the original animation videos (OAVs) Birth (1984) (dubbed under the title World of the Talisman in 1987) and Pharoh's Seal (1988). Then there are the films Techno Police (1982) and Toho's Wizard of Oz (1986), the latter directed by Fumihiko Takayama, not to be confused with either the TV anime or the 1991 puppet show. If this criss-crossing baffles you, you may not want to know Hisaishi also scored Maison Ikkoku (1986). Ah, but this isn't the fan-beloved anime, it's the live-action film, directed by Shinichiro Sawai from the same Takahashi manga!

Anime has a history of hauntingly beautiful scores like Grave of the Fireflies.

Anime has a history of hauntingly beautiful scores like Grave of the Fireflies.

Hisaishi is best known in anime, however, for nine long-form works -- eight theatrical films and one OAV. The movies, in order of appearance, are Nausicaa (1984), Arion, Laputa (both 1986), Totoro (1988), Venus Wars, Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Porco Rosso (1992) and, after a relative gap, Princess Mononoke (1997). Of these, Arion and Venus Wars were directed by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. The other six are Miyazaki films, officially produced by Studio Ghibli ("officially" because Ghibli didn't actually exist at the time of Nausicaa). Bar Venus Wars, all were produced by Ghibli's parent Tokuma Publishing. Laputa has been titled Castle in the Sky by Western rights-holder Buena Vista; the reason should be obvious to Spanish speakers. Also, as explained later, the music for Kiki was substantially altered for Buena's English-dub release, while Hisaishi himself re-scored the new version of Laputa/Castle.

To forestall confusion, Hisaishi did not work on any of the other Ghibli films, some of which boast excellent scores of their own, especially Grave of the Fireflies by Michio Mamiya and Whisper of the Heart by Yuji Nomi. Of the songs, Hisaishi wrote the music for the closing number in Laputa, the pair in Totoro and the haunting Mononoke. The ones in Kiki (Japanese version) and Porco Rosso were by Yumi Arai (Kiki), JB Clement and A. Renard (Porco's 'Le Temps des Cerises') and Gina voice actress Tokiko Kato (Porco end-tune). Miyazaki's Ghibli "music video" On Your Mark (1995) was composed and sung by pop-duo Chage and Aska.

As well as the eight films already listed, Hisaishi also wrote most of the music for the 1987 OAV anthology Robot Carnival (the big exception is the 'Cloud' sequence). Recommended to readers who want a better idea of Hisaishi's repertoire, the score slides easily from rock and synthesized pieces (check out the pulpy 'Deprive' and inventive 'Tale of Two Robots'), to orchestral music (the brassy opening fanfare) and delicate piano for the poetic 'Presence,' a brilliantly directed segment by Yasuomi Ometsu. In contrast, the theatrical Venus Wars merits little further mention. Hisaishi provides an efficient, generic score for a well-made generic film. The music's two points of interest are the inclusion of some Hisaishi rock numbers, and the suspicious resemblance of the climactic battle music -- the best in the film -- to a track in Arion as the forces of Poseidon and Ares clash.

Similarities and Strengths

That leaves seven Hisaishi-scored anime: the six Miyazaki entries plus Arion. (Arion, while it doesn't overly resemble Miyazaki's work, has some interesting commonalties: a fantasy theme, a gentle heroine with hidden powers and a hubristic plot foreshadowing Mononoke.) The scores for these films have a fair continuity, which isn't to say they all resemble each other, but they share overlapping similarities and comparable strengths. One useful starting-point -- and a contrast with Disney -- was provided by Hisaishi in the Scorelogue interview.

"In Disney films," says Hisaishi, "in order to explain the type for each character, specific cues are married to their appearance. When I composed for the English version of Laputa, we actually did this Hollywood method so I understand the mechanics very well. The way I [normally] compose, however, is that none of my cues are necessarily married to any character. What I do instead is discern what the director is trying to convey in a scene and try to do the same with the music thematically."

Kikis Delivery Service underwent major re-scoring for its U.S. release.

Kikis Delivery Service underwent major re-scoring for its U.S. release.

The most obvious thematic element is the sense of gentle innocence, especially in films like Laputa, Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Think of the (Japanese) Laputa soundtrack as the children share a meal underground; when Lesphina tends to Arion; the sisters' race through the house in Totoro; and on the hilltop at the start of Kiki. The methods vary -- the "pitter-patter" beat in Totoro is the most inventive -- but the child-perspective is always the same: naive without being cloying. Ironically, Hisaishi once told Animerica, "I'm not much of an innocent... When it comes to a melody that's supposed to be aspiring and gentle and embracing, I have a hard time of it."

Porco Rosso hasnt even been released on video in the States.

Porco Rosso hasnt even been released on video in the States.

The second element of Hisaishi's anime music is its sense of the magical, the holy. The examples here include Mononoke's startlingly beautiful 'Encounter' theme as Ashitaka first sees the feral, trans-human San; then there's the evocative "New Age" chimes as Porco Rosso encounters a ghostly fleet of planes. Child visions of the holy are suggested by the burst of music announcing the angelic Sheeta's "landing" in Laputa (Japanese) and the introduction to the bus-stop scene in Totoro, when the awesome woods and darkened shrine are seen through the eyes of a nervous child. Indeed, all the melodies in this paragraph have a lullaby quality. Two of them -- the appearance of Sheeta in Laputa and of San in Mononoke -- combine synthesiser and harp music playing up the ethereal, dreamlike qualities of the story.

The "holy" tag also applies, in different ways, to the poignant melody as Kiki sees the drawing Ursula has made of her -- a more central moment than it sounds -- and to the child's song when Nausicaa communes with the Ohmu. Child choruses also figure importantly in Laputa and Arion, making the connection between innocence and purity. Not that "childish" themes are always used with such serious intent. A favourite anime song is the Hisaishi-scored 'Sanpo' opening number in Totoro, sung by an adult (Azumi Inoue) but an open invite for every junior (and senior) in the audience to join in. One mark of a true Miyazakiphile is to be able to sing the lyrics -- in Japanese. Now, no cheating!: "A--ru--ko, A--ru--ko, Wa ta shi wa gen ki..." The words are by Rieko Nakagawa, but Hisaishi's infectious melody is the main thing.

Another Hisaishi trait can best be described as his elegance. This is especially true of his more elegiac passages; think of the wanders through Nausicaa's cleansed underworld and the ruins of Laputa, or the piano pieces underlying the forlorn relationships in Porco and Robot Carnival's 'Presence.' The loveliest instance is also from Porco, as Gina recalls her first flight, a wonderful marriage of sound and picture. A close second is the requiem for Nausicaa, just before the Ohmu's final miracle, though this particular music causes controversy; several observers note it starts - exactly -- like 'Somewhere' in West Side Story.

The "elegance" description also applies, oddly enough, to two action set pieces in Miyazaki's films: the train-chase in Laputa (Japanese) and the river take-off in Porco. Both work so well in context that it's only afterward one thinks how un-Hollywood they sound. Or to put it precisely, how unlike modern Hollywood; both feel closer to silent movie accompaniments than today's actioners. This applies especially to Porco's runaway piano theme, another of the film's highlights.

Creating Environments The aforementioned tours through Nausicaa's underworld and Laputa's ruins exemplify Hisaishi's strong sense of place. The pervasive electronic score -- an example of Hisaishi's minimalist music - after Nausicaa's title does more to establish the alien world than a dozen pages of dialogue. Particularly effective is the way the soft notes blend with the chirps and cries of unfamiliar creatures, creating a complex soundscape.

A very different alien environment is expressed by the slashing, dissonant introduction to Zeus' fortress in Arion, a film that also makes use of a "minimalist" track to underpin the hero's flashback. In Mononoke, the striking theme when Ashitaka first enters the kodama-haunted forest is the fruit of Hisaishi's experimentation with the "pentatonic" scale, a five-note scale characteristic of traditional Japanese tunes and Irish folk-music.

More cheerful, human environments are represented by graceful orchestral pieces. Think of the music for Nausicaa's valley home; dawn over Pazu's village in Laputa (Japanese); the jovial drive to the new house in Totoro; the flight to the city in Kiki; and the industrious female factory in Porco. As for Mononoke, the brief passage following Ashitaka's welcome to Irontown has strong echoes of all those frontier towns in Hollywood Westerns -- interesting, given Miyazaki is a fan of John Ford. The snatch from the forge-women's song, extended on the soundtrack CD, helps establish a sense of female solidarity.

Hisaishi truly captures the mood of the kodama-haunted forest scene in Princess Mononoke.

Hisaishi truly captures the mood of the kodama-haunted forest scene in Princess Mononoke.

Beyond these categorizations, there are many pieces of music that are just plain good on their own terms. My own favourites include the dynamic theme as Nausicaa escapes from the Pejite ship, dodging enemy bullets; Arion's sky-battle over the valley of Tartarus; all of the Japanese Laputa "rescue" sequence, from the powerful robot theme to Pazu's catching of Sheeta; Mei's pursuit of the Totoro (listen for the mini-melody with the butterfly); Kiki's metronomic bicycle; the martial music when Porco comes ashore from Gina's island; Mononoke's spine-chilling distortions as the headless god arises; plus the majestic main themes for Arion, Laputa and Mononoke.

All the soundtracks have strong individual identities, though there are passing similarities between Nausicaa and Arion, and Venus Wars' debt to the latter is mentioned above. However, there are complaints that Hisaishi's live-action work reflects his animation scores a little too closely. This is borne out by the Hana-Bi soundtrack, a beautiful, elegiac score in its own right, but one with echoes of Porco and definite borrowings from Mononoke. (Watch the Hana-Bi sequence with the disabled character outside the shop and the montage of Kitano's flower-drawings; then compare Mononoke's 'Adagio of Life and Death' where the deer god takes the life of the boar.)

The same is reportedly true of other Hisaishi-scored live-actioners. Parasite Eve (1997), directed by Masayuki Ochiai, is also said to be uncomfortably close to Mononoke, while the earlier score for Drifting Classroom (1987), directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, allegedly echoes Nausicaa. These limits are surprising, given Hisaishi's varied work outside film. That said, there are traces of his anime tunes on some of his non-film albums. For example, the first volume of Universe Within is reminiscent of at least three Ghibli scores.

Even in Hisaishis non-film work, many sounds and melodies are reminiscent of his anime scores.

Even in Hisaishis non-film work, many sounds and melodies are reminiscent of his anime scores.

Upon Export

The American treatment of Hisaishi's anime music is intriguing, to say the least. Totoro and Venus Wars are available on video; Robot Carnival came out some years ago, though it's presently unobtainable. All these scores were unchanged, as was the music for Mononoke in its recent theatrical outing. Apart, that is, from the song; it may have been the replacement of counter-tenor Yoshikazu Mera with 'Trance Opera' artist Sasha Lazard that led to some critics dismissing the song as a "power ballad." However, that was minor compared to what happened to Buena's Kiki release, with its musical "adaptation" by Paul Chihara.

Buena's subtitled "collector's edition" video is unchanged, allowing for direct comparison. Briefly, the dub keeps Hisaishi's main melodies. However, there are such extensive reorderings, additions and "enhancements" -- such as Titanic-style wordless vocals -- that the score is really a separate entity. Most obviously, the additions cover the deliberate silences that typify Miyazaki films (and much other anime). Elsewhere, passages are split into shorter pieces, with old or new music pushed in between. Whole sections of the film sound different. The sequence in which Kiki makes her first delivery, encountering geese and crows (accompanied in the dub by a cheesy Mountain King) is almost entirely altered.

For Hisaishi purists (myself included), these changes are often clumsy and ill-advised, leading to clashes and repetitions. (Indeed, there's a moment just before Osono appears when two tunes are heard fighting each other.) Then again, newcomers may not find any problem with Buena's score. As Ghibli publicity head Stephen Alpert told Animerica (Vol 7, No 11), "The differences have to do with what Buena feels is a Japanese audience's tolerance for silence. U.S. audiences apparently feel uncomfortable if they don't constantly hear music on the soundtrack. I personally don't agree, but I've often been told I may not be representative of the typical U.S. audience."

Hisaishi made an equivalent point in the Japanese magazine Keyboard (August 1999) regarding the new Laputa/Castle score: "According to Disney's staff, non-Japanese feel uncomfortable if there is no music for more than three minutes. You see this in the Western movies, which have music throughout. It's the natural state for a (non-Japanese) animated film to have music all the time. However in the original Laputa, there was only one-hour's music in the 124-minute movie. There were parts that don't have music for seven to eight minutes. So, we decided to redo the music as (the existing soundtrack) will not be suitable for markets outside Japan."

Of course, the upside to this is a new Hisaishi anime score. How will it measure up to the likes of Arion, Totoro and Mononoke? For once, we shouldn't have long to wait. The re-scored version of Laputa has been premiered in New York, and a video should hopefully follow this year. The possibility of more cinema screenings has yet to be confirmed.

Would you like to read more about anime? Animation World Magazine has published numerous articles on all aspects of Japanese produced animation. Just visit the Animation World Magazine Archives and use the keyword: anime.

Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.