Caitlin posted the slides from our joint panel at this year’s Otakon, covering female creative staff in anime. Check it out! We could use some feedback, as we had 20 minutes left and would like to make it longer for future panels.
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
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.
So Space Dandy was easily one of my favorite anime of the year. It had its ups and downs, but the ups were extremely high and the downs were still rather good compared to most other anime. Shinichiro Watanabe had yet to make a bad show as far as I was concerned, so when Terror in Resonance was announced for the summer, of course I was hyped. Everyone was hyped. The show had high production values, music by Yoko Kanno, and had the potential for a strong politically-charged message. So what did we get? “These are no ordinary terrorists. These terrorists have something to say!”
Maybe it’s because as a American who’s spent most of his life living in a post-9/11 world, but if you’re going to have a show be about terrorism, I expect it to say more than just “terrorists have something to say!” Because all terrorists have something to say. In fact, the entire point of terrorism is to use extreme measures to get a message across. 9 and 12, the boring teenage genius protagonists of Terror in Resonance, are no different from other terrorists. The show wants to be critical of Japanese society’s treatment of children, but all it gives us is a cliche child experiment plot with no actual critical analysis to speak of. 9 and 12 are not interesting or developed characters. The show goes out of its way to make them as moe as possible and refuses to give them any darkness or humanity. They blow up buildings and airplanes, but no one gets hurt or killed! 12 falls in love with a girl who’s there just to be kidnapped a lot. The show introduces American villains to give us more reason to root for 9 and 12. The show ends with 9 and 12 being gunned down by Americans just so we can feel sad. Terror in Resonance is more concerned with us liking its protagonists than it is with giving us anything to critically think about. By having the Americans act as villains, the show shoots itself in the foot. It does what many post-World War II Japanese movies and TV shows have done: shift the blame to the American government, not the nationalist Japanese government.
The growing nationalist sentiment in the Japanese government has been terrifying. This year, we got two different anime with the potential to criticize the nationalist movement, but ultimately they both backed down from saying anything truly critical. The Wind Rises originally was going to end with Jiro’s death and with more remorse for his involvement in World War II, but was changed to a happier ending with him living. Terror in Resonance might have been more effective had it cut out the Americans entirely and focused more on the Japanese government’s involvement in 9 and 12’s development, but ultimately holds off saying anything that would piss them off. As a result, Terror in Resonance is limp and ineffectual.