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.

Twelve Days of Anime #10: Much Ado About Kill la Kill

One of the weirder aspects of my engagement with anime fandom this year was the Twitter/Tumblr firestorm over Kill la Kill. The show began last year, but I didn’t really start watching it until the end of the fall season. I’d seen people go nuts over it on Tumblr, as well as get furiously angry at its fanservice and other perceived offenses. I figured there had to be something to this show to attract so much controversy, so I checked it out.

kill la kill ryumako

Kill la Kill is many things, among those being bombastic, weird, and certainly like nothing else out there. I mean, it’s a story about sentient pieces of clothing that threaten humanity, and the scissor-blade-wielding quasi-magical-girl who stands up against them. It’s been compared to everything from Gurren Lagann to Evangelion (but what anime isn’t compared to the latter in some way), but none of this really explains Kill la Kill. There are some things Kill la Kill decidedly isn’t, though. One of those is “deep”—despite any indications it may have been leaning there during its run, it didn’t make anything of them. All that was sacrificed in service of its fun-loving heart.

Another of those things is “feminist” or “anti-feminist.” Kill la Kill indulges in a lot of over-the-top fanservice, that made me feel a bit icky whenever I had to look at Ryuko’s cameltoe in her transformation sequences. It also has some moments of questionable use of sexual assault imagery, as with Satsuki being fondled by her mother—though, I never felt that they were outright tasteless, and they served a narrative purpose in showing how imprisoned and helpless Ragyo made her. Yet, the series still seems to fundamentally respect its female characters, and gives them equal development and prominence to the male ones. In fact, most of its important characters are female. This is certainly not a rule against an anime being sexist (as the “battle vixens” genre proves) and Kill la Kill plays a lot to the male gaze, but it rarely felt truly exploitative (or at least, no more than every other aspect of the show). I found a lot to enjoy from its portrayal of women as a feminist anime fan.

This girl was my favorite.

This girl was my favorite.

This series became a lightning rod for feminist debate on the Internet, and it was incredibly polarized. Either you thought Kill la Kill was the next Utena or a “female Evangelion,” or some sort of deep metaphor for female puberty (here’s where I have to stifle a laugh)… or you thought it was misogynistic, rape-apologist trash. It got pretty ugly and personal on both sides, with those who disliked it being accused of “looking for things to dislike,” and those who liked it in turn hearing that they were “just making excuses” and being unable to admit they “liked problematic things.” I thought there was a lot of confirmation bias on both ends—I know I was a little too quick to believe some of the pro-KLK theories I heard, and I’ll never for the life of me understand what some people’s big issue with episode 3 is—but also some intelligent arguments that it was frustrating to see so easily dismissed. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think it was odd to see so many people taking an anime incredibly seriously that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously.

kill la kill this is crazy

It was also a strange place for me to be since, then and now, I never really had a strong feeling either way about Kill la Kill . That goes for the series’ overall quality, not just in terms of its “feminism” and whatnot. It’s a very visually-inventive and entertaining anime, with a really fun cast of characters. Yet, it never really captured my heart the way it did others. I found the first half hard to get through (and I marathoned most of it), and even the more engaging latter half never made me feel as emotionally-invested as my friends were. However, I seem to be pretty much the only person (apart from Bobduh) with such a middling reaction to this show. For whatever reason, it draws strong opinions.

Which I find very interesting, as Kill la Kill certainly doesn’t seem to be made with that in mind. It’s like a non-stop party, meant to be a rollicking good battling time and little else. Yet, if you were following anime in the winter of 2014, you couldn’t escape hearing people discuss everything I’ve mentioned and more: Is Kill la Kill good or bad? Does it treat its female characters well or not? Does Mako belong with Ryuko or Gamagoori? And above all: what does it mean? The series appeared to answer the last one for us: it didn’t mean much of anything, and it didn’t have to. It’s not meant to inspire so much thought and reflection. It only wants to entertain you.

The finale also answered another of those questions, too.

The finale answered another of those questions, too.

The endless Kill la Kill debates were an interesting time in anime fandom for me, as they made me realize a lot of why I disliked the discussions around feminism in media online. Fandom is all about personal investment in media, and too often, that gets mixed in when those same people try to critique it. That goes both ways, too—plenty of the people I saw reading offensiveness into Kill la Kill in places where it wasn’t, seemed to be justifying other issues they had with the show (perfectly legitimate ones, I might add). Let those conversations be a lesson for 2015, to be more honest about what we’re trying to say when we talk about feminism and other fraught issues in media. And maybe consider whether the work we’re looking at is really engaging with these issues (or any) in the first place.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #1: The Endearing Simplicity of Kill la Kill

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Kill la Kill

I try not to think about organizing my favorite anime into lists. Blogs and websites alike love to make lists because fans like to categorize things from best to worst. My go-to answer for favorite anime for the longest time has been Revolutionary Girl Utena, but beyond that it’s hard to come up with a top 10 or 20 list of my favorite anime ever. It’s rare that I come across an anime nowadays that I would seriously consider putting on that hypothetical list of favorite anime. Yet after watching Kill la Kill three times in a single year, I might consider putting it on that list.

Kill la Kill began in 2013, but it solidified itself as a favorite of both mine and anime fandom when it concluded in 2014. To be honest, when I first began Kill la Kill I was apprehensive about it. Hiroyuki Imaishi is a talented director, but I’ve never been in love with his works. Gurren Lagann was fun but brainless, Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt was one of the least funny comedies I’ve ever seen, and I loathed Dead Leaves. His work is distinct for its manic energy and animation, something I really appreciate, but his stories and characters never came together for me. Kill la Kill started entertaining enough, but its use of fanservice did worry me. Would the novelty of good animation, crazy art, and fun action wear off on me like it did with Gurren Lagann?

 Actually no, it didn’t wear off. With each new episode, Kill la Kill improved and showed better writing than any of Imaishi’s previous works. The world and characters of Kill la Kill were far more interesting than Gurren Lagann’s. Ryuko was cool, but had more flaws than Kamina ever did and was able to show some more complexity for it. Mako was hilarious and the effective emotional center of the show, grounding Ryuko whenever she lost her way. The two made such a perfect couple that I’m surprised I didn’t think of them ending up together until the very end. Mind you, I rarely watch anime for shipping, but I did end up getting a little caught up in the Mako/Gamagoori shipping that the fans wanted and the show teased with Gamagoori developing a crush for Mako.

How can you not love this face?

How can you not love this face?

I’m a sucker for good character writing, and Kill la Kill has a treasure trove of likable yet distinct characters. I wouldn’t say they’re as complex as, for example, Gen Urobuchi characters, but they all fulfill their different roles and are oodles of fun to watch. My heart goes out to Gamagoori, who was always entertaining but solidified himself as one of my favorite characters after seeing him transition from antagonist to hero. The rest of the Elite Four goes through this transition as well, but for some reason Gamagoori felt the most developed out of them. Blame it on his crush on Mako, or blame it on him being the funniest, he became one of the most endearing characters in a cast that by the end felt like one big family.

Shonen action shows love to trot out friendship and family as themes, but I thought Kill la Kill managed to handle these themes in a way that didn’t feel rote. There’s a fierce sense of individuality in Kill la Kill. The day is won not by the hero proclaiming “because I have the power of friendship!” but “because I don’t make sense, but I’m okay with that!” Up until the end, the excitement of Kill la Kill came from seeing which new visual gags the show would have, what shocking new twist would be revealed, and generally taking pleasure in seeing the characters fight and interact with another. But by the end, all the threads both literal and metaphorical came together into something really special for me. Everyone in the end mattered, but not as a formless collective, but rather as a group of weirdos with their own independent personalities and quirks. The conflict between Ryuko and Ragyo is personal, but Ryuko succeeds by accepting not just the help of her friends, but her own strange existence. It’s a simple idea that’s been done before, but the crazy weirdness of Kill la Kill managed to package it in a new and endearing way that I hadn’t seen before.

Such a loving family. Also I just love how Kill la Kill uses shifts in art design for comical effect.

Such a loving family. Also I just love how Kill la Kill uses shifts in art design for comical effect.

There’s been a lot of debate among fans over whether Kill la Kill is a deep series or not. Personally, I have issues with describing a show as “deep”; it’s often used as shorthand for “I really like this show and want to seem smarter for liking it!” which can be annoying. To describe a show as being deep, I’d rather talk about why the show resonates with me and what I got out of it. I think that’s more revealing and more fun than arguing over vague notions of intelligence in a cartoon. Kill la Kill makes its ideas accessible to everyone by announcing them verbally and visually. The first episode invokes the Nazis while introducing the concept of superpowered uniforms to let the audience know that fashion is being used as a metaphor for authoritarianism. Kill la Kill is nakedly open about its intentions. It’s a series based on a pun; fashion is fascism. That it was able to get 24 episodes of nonstop creativity and excitement out of a dumb pun is really impressive.

It may seem odd to say that I love shows as artistically challenging and complex as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Wolf’s Rain and then say the same breath that I love the much simpler Kill la Kill, but Kill la Kill deserves to be uttered in that same breath because it reminded me of why I still watch anime. I watch it because of the medium can be a playground for creativity and stories that would not work in other mediums. Kill la Kill can only work as an anime, and is unashamed of its manic off-putting sensibilities. It’s by no means perfect. The fanservice still presents some problematic male gaze, and the use of molestation later in the series crosses the border of taste that no other part of Kill la Kill did.  But it brought anitwitter together in a way that few shows did. Every week, anime fans would tweet about the new episode and wouldn’t stop talking about it. That’s really damn cool, and the only other show where people were tweeting about it on that scale was Attack on Titan. For as divisive as Kill la Kill could be, everyone wanted to watch and talk about it. I’ve watched it three times, once with my little brother who doesn’t watch much anime but also really liked Kill la Kill. I’d gladly watch it again and spend time with those characters and their world of weird talking clothing.

Day 2 Preview: I talk about the other anime that reminded me why I love animation, Space Dandy!