Will The Real Joe Hisaishi Please Stand Up?
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Kiki’s Delivery Service underwent major re-scoring for its U.S. release.

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.

Porco Rosso hasn’t even been released on video in the States.

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.

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