Think about your favorite animated show of all time. The emotion, the action, the memorable characters. How would you sum it all up? How would you encapsulate everything that the show means to you, in as short a time as possible?
I don’t know about you, but to me, the only way this is possible is through music. Words are a bit too clumsy–meaning gets lost in transit, our personal experiences of the stories just…aren’t done justice. Some strange, untouchable quality about the music of a show, and how it relates to the full experience of an anime, is undeniably special. When you hear the signature chord, the epic brass, the quiet piano, your mind is whisked away to that special anime, to that moment that reminds you, “Yeah, this is gonna be something great.”
So, how exactly does music do that?
How Does Anime Work?
Anime as a medium, is made up of several key components that make it…anime. From the actual animation style, “limited-animation,” to the presentation of characters and specific stereotypes, anime is fundamentally different from Western Animation in many, many ways.
Tofugu’s “Anime’s Great Deception,” is a FANTASTIC article on the technical aspects of what makes anime unique in the world of animation. I highly recommend you take some time to read that article, as it really does a wonderful job of tying the technical realities of anime’s animation style, to the ultimate experience that we, as viewers, perceive.
That being said, upon looking at how music in particular adds to this experience, we need to know just a little bit of how anime presents itself, and what that results in for us.
Anime is in many ways, a surrealistic experience. It presents a picture of the normal lives we enjoy, in ways that somehow cut beyond that, speaking straight to the meaning of the everyday. I’ve written an article, The Beauty of Daily Life, about the ability of anime to do just that–express meaning beyond just an emulation of real life.
From a technical standpoint, this is made possible through the implementation of simplistic, standalone images, and rare bursts of fluid animation that emphasize character designs, expressions, and words, rather than presenting “realistic” movements. This style allows for EXTREME diversity in the content anime is capable of. It gives life to the fantastical, fast-paced, and magical action, that shows like Fairy Tail and One Piece are renowned for, as well as the normal, everyday moments that Clannad and Anohana pull off.
This sort of style is what leads to the well-known, still image lip-syncing, which distinguishes many anime. Allowing for cheap, quick animation choices, as well as an ability to emulate manga more easily, this style has led to many, many iconic images. By focusing on specific images that define a character, these still shots allow for very specific moments to become ingrained in our head.
That limited-animation style allows for anime to portray a casual surrealism–one that speaks, not to how life really is, but how the viewers perceive the meaning from life. We can know that a romantic confession, or a crazy action scene is happening on screen, but this focus on the individual character allows us to perceive a meaning beyond just what is happening. It defines a character, a theme, a special MEANING beyond how life is presented.
This being said, that meaning is carried very much by character design, dialogue and…what else?
Well, that’s where music comes in.
The Role of Music in Creating A Consistent Story
Now, imagine if anime had no music.
It’s an odd thought, right? You’d hear people talking over still images, but wouldn’t something be lost? For however emotional an event is, there’s only so much a still image, character design, and dialogue can convey. Of course, in a realistic setting, there would be no music–and it’s why, in many live-action movies, western animations, and other such western works, music is rarely the focus during times of dialogue.
In Western series, the most prominent usage of music is often during action-packed, or dramatic scenes, not during emotional, or dialogue-filled ones. Musicals flip that rule slightly, but then again, they’re MUSICALS, what do you expect? Anime, then, is distinguished by its usage of music to give meaning to basically everything–from the dramatic moments, to the casual ones.
Music is a complex beast, and can be used to create many, MANY different feelings. Whether there’s a triumphant, loud trumpet fanfare, or a few soft notes on the piano, music can create a LOT of feelings. Energetic, somber, tender, dramatic, exciting, upbeat atmospheres can all be created through music–it’s basically an infinite template for technical and emotional expression.
What anime does, very well, is make use of that infinite template, to add atmosphere to any, and all scenes. Due to the moments which are spent with relatively simple animations, the music is used, almost as a necessity, to add a bit of flair to moments which would otherwise be rather…odd, due to lack of action.
This is why, when we think of “that” anime, we can so easily remember parts of its musical score. The music becomes an integral part to the emotional experience of an anime, providing a stimulus, an emotional direction when normally, there wouldn’t be much to consider.
When we hear the soft notes of a piano, we know that an everyday, emotional moment is happening. When we hear the heavy, percussive bass that punctuates an orchestral soundtrack, we know that a truly epic moment is going to happen. And if you make these moments consistent, with similar musical cues, then you end up creating a soundtrack that gives personality, individual character to an anime.
And, combined with narrative, you can, just maybe, create something great- an anime with “soul.”
Music Is The “Soul” of Anime
So, knowing this, what comes to mind when you think of your important anime?
When I consider an anime to have a special kind of meaning, a special kind of presence, I very often find it to be correlated with the soundtrack, and how it’s used in regards to the story being presented. We can be very attuned to the meaning of a story, tracking the thematic significance of an anime through animation, dialogue, and character development, but that’s all just the writing on the wall. What happens when the music has its own life, its own development, its own consistent themes that match up with the events of the anime…well, that just becomes art.
It’s all too easy sometimes to pick out when music is composed for the sake of having a general, uninspired need for action and tension. You know–the general electronic background music you can only really describe as… actiony. Or the general piano trills that are meant to be emotional, but only really accomplish being sensory white noise, to convey a vague sense of…melancholy? Sadness? Emotionality? Who knows, really?
This just makes the times when the music is used right, so much better.
For just one example, we can look at one of the most popular anime in recent memory, Attack on Titan. When you think of the show, technical excellence and adrenaline-pumping drama was a staple, something Attack on Titan made sure to show off at every opportunity. However, its music, I believe, is what allowed it to so consistently convey a sense of tension.
Short, irregular electronic sounds mixed with ambient orchestral undertones to create a truly unsettling feel to the Titans. That same orchestral feel was bumped up to eleven to create some truly epic, awe-inspiring music, and combined with some fantastic choir in the background, you ultimately get this immense sense of…importance, to every event.
Throughout the series, once you hear a musical cue, you KNOW what’s going on. The electronic music represented something important, yet unnatural, with the Titans. The orchestra was associated with the grand scale, the epic events that happened in the story, and when you hear that choir-rock mix, man, you know that humanity is emerging victorious. Thematically speaking, the soundtrack of Attack on Titan hit all the nails on the head, creating a soul of its own, breathing life into the series in all the places that mattered.
Heck, the “No Regrets” OVA was even able to utilize acoustic guitar and piano to create its own, entirely unique tone, that was emotional and dramatic in its own right.
All this is to say that I LOVE it when an anime’s soundtrack actively adds to a story, rather than just complements it.
From anime like Cowboy Bebop, which actively makes use of different genres entirely to create a sense of real-world immersion, or Toradora, which in my mind, uses very specific tracks at VERY specific moments to create exceedingly emotional experiences…it can be easily seen that music does a lot more for anime than I think most people realize. It adds a sense of personal investment, an involvement that, oftentimes, can’t be done by simple still frames and storytellling.
And that, is why I think music is the “soul” of anime.
Music is a huge part of why anime in particular, is among my favorite mediums to experience. No other medium actively uses music in the same way, and some anime realize this. They place their songs in such a way where every emotion can be reached, not just one or the other.
Not to say that other mediums don’t make good usage of it, but…man, something about anime just makes it so, so, SO good. What do you think? Any great soundtracks, music, that stands out in your mind? Leave a comment down below!
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