Since I’ve Been Gone…

Hey blog followers!

I know that most of you follow me somewhere else on social media or on ANN, so you are likely updated on my recent projects. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to post a list of what’s kept me so occupied since I last posted on this blog.

First of all, I just finished the first year of a Ph.D. program in musicology at the University of Texas. That’s kept me busy with classes and all the writing and research that goes with them. If you want to read up on my academic work, I have an Academia.edu account where I post most of my papers when I am finished with them. Some recent highlights include:

More importantly and more excitingly, though, I am writing a book! It is a part of the 33 1/3 series published by Bloomsbury Press; you might have seen their guides to famous rock albums in bookstores. They’re launching a new “33 1/3 Japan” series, and I will be writing one of the first titles in the series: a guide to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack!

You can read more of the details of the series on our editor, Noriko Manabe’s website here. There is also a form for submitting a proposal if you know a lot about Japanese popular music (including other anime soundtracks) and are interested!

With all that plus teaching a rock history class this week, I have a busy summer! But a very fruitful one. I hope to produce more for the blog soon, but in the meantime, please enjoy what I have written in my absence!

Sound Worlds, Hyperrealism and Disorientation in The Hunger Games

Note: This is an assignment for my course “Action Film and the Soundtrack.”

The first Hunger Games film occupies an interesting place in the history of young adult film adaptations. It’s such an obvious choice for one, given its focus on teens battling to the death in a dystopian future America. Yet, from the start, it’s not directed at all like an action film. It feels like a period drama or documentary: It opens on an explanation of the titular Games’ founding, then dunks us into a news report with the host and gamemaster discussing its history. It has a distant, faded look to it over mysterious, minor-key music, giving the impression of the exotic and otherworldly. Then, it flashes to Katniss comforting her sister in District 12, with no explanation for the new viewer how the two images are related. This juxtaposition is important, however. It sets up clearly the two very different worlds in the movies’ Panem: the luxury of the Capitol and the abject, rural poverty of most of the Districts, which is also simulated in the Hunger Games arena.

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The disorientation is visual, too — here’s how we first see the Cornucopia through Katniss’s eyes.

This is reflected in the sound landscapes for the respective environments of the film. While the plot structure of The Hunger Games could be debated, the settings divide the film into roughly three sections: the District 12 portions, the ones in the Capitol where the Tributes are paraded before the ruling classes and train in luxury, and the actual battle in the arena that takes up the bulk of the film. After the film’s very memorable and unusual opening sequence, where lilting folk-like melodies and drone score sounds dominate, it was strange to me that once Katniss and Peeta arrived in the Capitol, there was hardly any memorable use of sound in the film. The exceptions were usually diegetic (sounds the characters are hearing in the film), like the triumphant fanfares for the characters as they appeared onstage for their interviews and showed off their costumes. This immediately changed when the film dunked the characters into the arena for the opening bloodbath.

This is built up to with Katniss’s entrance into the arena. The sterile white of their plane, and then in the room where Katniss meets with Cinna for the last time before entering her tube, are closer to the Capitol’s removed luxury than the wilds of District 12. We know the stakes are different now because of the role of the camera and, especially, the soundtrack. There are several key moments when the sound effects drop into a sort of “hyper-realism,” when their volume is amplified beyond how they would in real life in a way that feels much more immediate. In these scenes, this especially comes with the closing of doors: to the plane taking them to the arena, and to the tube finally dropping them in it. The latter involves a close-up of Katniss’s face, showing her panic as she’s separated from Cinna, and realizes how soon she will be in danger. It happens at the exact same moment as the thud. The Capitol scene has other close-ups of Katniss’s face, and moments when the sound zooms in and out, to emphasize her perspective, but the confluence is never that striking until the moment she’s about to drop into the arena.

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As the games begin, the sound effects zoom out for more emphasis on the drone-like musical score, similar to the sounds we heard as the film opened. It brings the viewer back to that world through sound, as well as visuals, with the interesting tricks it plays with perspective: jumping back and forth between different tributes, following Katniss’s eyes. The lack of emphasis on the actual sounds for an overarching soundtrack puts us in Katniss’s mind, overwhelmed by the larger proceedings rather than zeroing in on specific events or people. As people jump into action and Katniss realizes it’s time to run away, the music changes to percussion and strings in the style of minimalist phasing, emphasizing both the character’s movements and the whooshing, rapid change of perspectives. It also adds to the disorientation, with how phasing works by slowly moving the different instruments’ voices apart and together. It messes with the listener’s sense of time, and works in The Hunger Games to put them in Katniss’s mind. It combines urgentness (percussive timbres, repetitive rhythms) and helplessness (the uncontrollable time shifts of the phasing).

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

Disorientation is a strange tactic to use in blockbuster action films, designed to be crowd-pleasers. Yet The Hunger Games is hardly alone in this, with it also marking a key feature of post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road. A huge chunk of that film’s opening sequence uses sound and cinematography to put the viewer in Max’s mind, and visually depict his desperate life. It adds to the urgency of the situation in a way that’s more exciting, but also makes the viewer more uncomfortable. It immediately signaled to me when I first saw Fury Road in features that this experience would be like no other action film I had seen. Still, Fury Road later fits into genre conventions in a way The Hunger Games do not.

The Hunger Games uses those effects in a different way, one that doesn’t feel like “action film” directing. The emphasis is consistently on the main character’s psychology and the despondence of her situation, not on exciting fights. Mad Max does at least make action sequences viscerally thrilling, panning out in those moments to show us the scope of the battle, or focusing on characters wielding weapons and how they do it. The Hunger Games plays it all close to Katniss and other important characters’ heads, which makes the action viscerally upsetting and disgusting. This is through the sound’s focus on her perspective, whether she’s hallucinating from wasp stings or just looking for a way out of a tree. We feel her discomfort. Nowhere are we more immediately aware of it than the first scenes in the arena, dunked into this sound world in a way that feels disorienting coming from the restrained world of the Capitol. And yet, there’s some déjà vu (or déjà entendu), with the sonic callbacks to the opening scenes in District 12.

Part of why Katniss wins is that, unlike some of the other tributes (such as the Careers), her daily existence in impoverished, rural District 12 is not that different from life in the arena. (As they’re coached during training, survival skills help far more than weapons.) This is reflected in the sonic atmospheres of District 12/the Arena compared to the Capitol. Many dystopian worlds paint their false idylls as lacking music, the language of color and fun. (The most obvious YA example of this is The Giver–the book, not the film.) The Hunger Games is not among those: the people of the Capitol have culture and amusement aplenty. They even visually resemble the aristocracy of the late 19th-century Gilded Age. Still, there’s a huge difference between their sound for entertainment, and the sounds of survival, of existing out in nature and relying on its unpredictability. This is something The Hunger Games goes out of its way to explore, with its focus on Katniss’s perspective as she navigates these different worlds. We not only see but hear the stark divide between Panem’s different classes, sounding the cue for rebellion.

Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 2

As the long-awaited follow-up to the first post, here are my top five favorite musical soundtracks of all the anime I saw in 2014.

5. Space Dandy

Composers: various

Space Dandy was a hard anime to place here, because it had such a huge team of people handling its music, to wildly varying results. The show was an anthology series in the truest sense, with the creative vision changing from piece to piece, and that included sonically. Some musical moments in Space Dandy are truly sublime, like those scored by the ever-reliable Yoko Kanno (who shows up again a little higher on this list), or any embracing the show’s love of all things funky. Others are…well, there was that weird “High School Musical” episode. Overall, though, I don’t remember many truly bad music choices in this series, and it always paid the close attention to musical placement that you’d expect from a Shinichiro Watanabe series. And it was fantastic enough times to earn its place on this list at number 5.

4. Tokyo Ghoul

Composer: Yutaka Yamada

Tokyo Ghoul’s composer seems like a newcomer to the anime-scoring biz, only 25 years old and with no other credits to his name in the ANN encyclopedia apart from this one and its sequel. What a debut it was! Tokyo Ghoul has a richly varied score, servicing the show’s many tones from the gentle slice-of-life scenes in the Anteiku café to, of course, its gory battles. It gets extra points from me for doing so much of the stuff I really, really love in horror scores: ominous chanting choirs (but not in the over-the-top way that Death Note ruined for all future anime), atonal piano and string flourishes, and punctuated low-string ostinatos. Consider how many different timbres, moods and harmonic progressions the above-linked track explores, and that’s just the battle music. Yamada’s score alone is enough to get me to watch his name on future shows, but the way the show uses the music adds even more to its greatness. The show knows just where to place each weird little cadence, and many of its best scenes wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his energetic music (up to and including Kaneki’s psychological torture sequence in episode 12).

3. Ping-Pong The Animation

Composer: kensuke ushio (various episodes of Space Dandy)

Ping-Pong itself left me a little cold, and I didn’t end up finishing it. But it was hard to deny how good its music was, and how well it fit with Yuasa’s unusual direction. Heck, most of the time I found I was watching more for the music than for anything else in the show. Sports anime can live and die by their soundtracks and how much they do or don’t match the energy of the action on-screen. That appears to result in more and more of them, from Free! to Haikyuu, embracing music that’s heavy on the electronic beats to match their high-intensity matches. Ping-Pong does this, too, for much of its soundtrack, but its much more ambient and minimalist than its brethren, with its tracks slowly building as gradual processes rather than rushing at you head-on. It’s like this even in its non-electronic tracks, like the one I linked above. I use the word “minimalist” to describe film scores a lot, but few go so far as to make you ask “are you sure Steve Reich didn’t write this?” Ping-Pong does, and in applying techniques like phasing to the click-clack of its plastic balls, it takes the trends of sports-anime scoring to their logical and transcendent extreme.

2. Terror in Resonance

Composer: Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex….need I really go on?)

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that if Yoko Kanno composes the music to something, I’ll probably enjoy it on at least some level. Terror in Resonance was a muddled mess that I, nevertheless, still mostly enjoyed. It can’t just be excused as “not being what people wanted it to be about” like I saw its fans say; Terror in Resonance made it clear it wanted to say something about terrorism, and was way out of its depth in doing so. Yet, its smaller moments exploring the psychology of lost, abandoned children were powerfully resonant (hehe) in their grasp of the loneliness and ennui that comes from society leaving you behind. I don’t want to dismiss them because its larger aims failed.

Either way, though…those Watanabe production values! Especially the music!

Terror in Resonance is a little harder to categorize than most of Kanno’s scores. While she always traverses all over the stylistic map, there are certain trends that dominate one work or the other, from Cowboy Bebop’s jazziness to Wolf’s Rain’s orchestral heaviness. Terror in Resonance has its own distinct character for sure, but in a way that can’t be so easily summed up with a particular style. You’ll get the ballad linked above, in the style of Simon and Garfunkel or Pet-Sounds-era Beach Boys, or you’ll get gentle instrumental lullabies like this track. And then the steadily-creeping dread of this. And then…whatever this is. In general, it’s more atmospheric, less full of easily-hummable “tunes” than many of her other scores, but it sifts through a lot of different atmospheres. It shows the same great attention to detail, to episode, to moment that Kanno always does.

1. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Composer: Yuugo Kanno (Psycho-Pass, Birdy the Mighty Decode)

Hopefully this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, with how much I’ve gushed about how I adore the music for Stardust Crusaders on all my social media platforms. Maybe a surprise that I ranked it above a Yoko Kanno score. But now, you know…I really love the music in this show. Probably what I love about it is it’s just as weird, and wild, as the show itself. I talk about “variety” so much with music, but man, does Jojo’s score really show a lot of it, even though the series doesn’t vary much in tone from episode-to-episode. And it’s that variety that sells it so much for me. While none of the tracks alone are particularly bizarre or particularly “Jojo’s”—except for maybe the one I linked above—taken together, they’re a colorful rollercoaster of different instrumentations, moods and styles. It matches with the show’s own funhouse of Stands, environments and challenges as the characters make their way across Asia to confront Dio in Egypt. What’s more, the show has the bonus of bettering even the fantastic score and music direction of the 2012 series: not an easy feat!

Jojo’s is a music-obsessed series even in its silent manga form, so it deserves a killer soundtrack when transferred to film. From the unsettling dissonant strings of its tenser moments, to its characters’ distinctive leitmotifs, to the funky guitars of its sillier bits, Yuugo Kanno’s fun score more than delivers. It’s far from the most original music featured in anime, but it was the most entertaining and memorable for me. I was always aware of it when watching the show, but never in a way that pulled me out of the action on-screen. At the end of the day, there’s not much more I can ask for from an anime soundtrack, so I can’t help but give it no. 1.

Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 1

Music is a very important part of how I experience anime, and film media in general. It’s something that I find is often underdiscussed among fans, and as a musicologist who focuses on film scores, I find that a shame. It’s a very key part of any film work’s emotional experience, just one that succeeds too well to the point that it slips under our noses. It’s usually subliminal, and on top of that, a lot of people don’t know how to talk about music. Well, I do, and since I already wrote up a top five favorite series of the year post for ANN, this one covers my favorite TV anime soundtracks of 2014.

I’ve been promising this post for a while, so here it is in the first of two parts. I kept getting delayed partly because choosing my favorite background music is such a difficult endeavor. There’s so much to consider: not only the quality of the music itself, but how it fits with the atmosphere of the show, and how the show uses it. (I should note: this is purely judging on stuff that was in the runtime of the episode, not OPs and EDs.) There were about four shows that I floated that didn’t make the list (that I might discuss in the second post as “honorable mentions”). Here are the ones that did, and why, starting with #10-6:

10. Your Lie in April:

Composer (of original material): Masaru Yokoyama (Arakawa Under the Bridge, Rolling Girls)

As a show about classical music, it’s predictable to put Your Lie in April on here, I suppose. Of course it has good music, with all the classics in its repertoire, and of course it uses them well, since the characters are performing them and usually picked them for highly personal reasons. (One such example in the above clip, where Kaori plays a piece by Beethoven. Both her and Kosei choose Beethoven pieces early on, representing their tortured paths to and forms of artistry.) Yet, the show’s original score also shines brightly, full of ambient minimalism as a backdrop to its many personal and psychological scenes. Even beyond the Beethoven and Chopin, Your Lie in April’s music is worthy of a standing ovation.

9. Mushi-shi: The Next Chapter:

Composer: Toshio Masuda (Naruto)

A lot of Mushi-shi is an exercise in “less is more,” and that’s as true with its music as it is with anything else. Mushi-shi is very minimally scored, preferring to let the sound effects of nature do its talking for it a lot of the time. So when it does have music, it can be quite striking, even if it’s just a quick motif on a solo instrument. The dissonant chimes that come in whenever Ginko starts explaining the mushi-of-the-week are jarring, shaking awake the viewer and the feature character to listen to his explanations for the cosmic-horror-of-the-week. Yet, its music can also gently sing you to sleep again, as in the lullabies that drift into the ending credits. The track I picked is one that falls somewhere in the middle, usually coming in as the mushi works its magic. Mushi-shi’s score is pure leitmotif, only coming out sparingly for a very singular idea or mood, like the shy mushi themselves.

8. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun:

Composer: Yukari Hashimoto (Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma Arashi, Toradora!)

The slice-of-life comedy genre rarely climbs to the top of OST lists, since so much of it leans toward the predictable. It’s the same gentle piano flourishes with maybe a bit of bouncy pop when things get silly. Nozaki-kun had some of this, but it was always memorable and original in its own way. This was especially true in its choice of instruments. The tuba is the best comedy instrument, and it was the perfect accent for Nozaki, the deep-voiced stoic with a silly streak. Why don’t more comedy anime use the tuba? Why don’t more everything use the tuba?

7. Rage of Bahamut: Genesis:

Composer: Yoshihiro Ike (Ergo Proxy, Tiger & Bunny)

Like everything in Bahamut, its music sounds like a big Hollywood movie: from the frantic strings for rising action to the ominous choruses for big reveals. It’s the sort of epic fantasy scoring you’d expect in your Lord of the Rings and other movies about long journeys to fight CGI dragons or orcs, because that’s the sort of beast that Bahamut is. I think my favorite and most memorable part of the score is all the weird little western flourishes whenever Favaro did something badass, like trumpet fanfares. It’s not as creative as I initially expected it to be, which is why it isn’t higher on this list, but there’s a lot to love about Bahamut’s music anyway.

6. Kill la Kill:

Composer: Hiroyuki Sawano (Attack on TitanAldnoah.ZeroBlue Exorcist)

I didn’t do a 2013 list, so I decided to include shows that started then but continued into the next year–and with those parameters, I couldn’t not include Kill la Kill. It had some of the most memorable and fun OST tracks in a long time, the kind that fans download right along with the OPs and EDs. Personally, I wasn’t always a fan of the way the music was used in the series’ first cour, but it picked up steam by the time January rolled around. The musical styles fit the series like a glove: They could range in mood from silliness to pumping you up, but the score was always as bombastic as what was happening on screen. Like a lot of Kill la Kill viewers, my favorite track by far was Ragyo’s leitmotif, “Blumenkranz” (linked above), the singer’s clumsy German pronunciation aside. Hiroyuki Sawano sure has a knack for bringing the musical energy to battle-centric popular favorites.