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In 2018, my local movie theater hosted Studio Ghibli fest. Up until then, I hadn't experienced any of Hayao Miyazaki's masterpieces. I wasn't deeply entrenched in anime culture, yet I was aware of their iconic status.
Each month, a friend and I embarked on a journey through Miyazaki's creations - Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and my personal favorite, Porco Rosso. With each
film, the magic unfolded. Post-movie discussions in the parking lot would stretch for hours, delving into the intricacies of the storyline and our immersion in these mystical worlds. This feeling persisted even after watching Miyazaki's latest, The Boy and The Heron.
Watching these films made me ponder: How could an animated movie, replete with odd and bizarre characters, make me feel like I'm glimpsing a world that existed long before my time and will endure beyond the story's conclusion? Yes, the animation and art style were striking, but what truly struck me, and initially went unnoticed, was the soundtrack that seamlessly tied it all together.
My quest to understand how this music effortlessly interweaved with these fantastical worlds led me to uncover the mastermind behind it all: Joe Hisaishi.
Often hailed as the "Japanese John Williams," Hisaishi stands as the musical architect behind Miyazaki's works. He's a recipient of numerous awards, including the Japanese Academy Award for Best Music eight times, and his compositions grace four of Japan's top 11 highest-grossing films.
But what makes Hisaishi's soundtracks so unique?
Unlike the bombastic, orchestral scores synonymous with big-budget films—take John Williams' grand compositions in Star Wars or Jurassic Park—Studio Ghibli's music follows a different path. To illustrate, let's contrast John Williams' Hedwig's Theme from Harry Potter with Hisaishi's Spirited Away theme.
Williams' track builds layers upon layers, culminating in a grand crescendo of instruments, while Hisaishi takes a divergent route:
Simple yet enchanting arpeggios on the piano evoke the magic. Strings gradually join, enhancing the melody. With just the piano, Hisaishi effortlessly transports you to the Spirit Realm, whether you're seated at home, driving, or simply lost in thought.
And yes, Studio Ghibli's music encompasses grand orchestral moments, playful tunes, and romantic melodies, but the piano remains its cornerstone. It fluctuates from somber, resonating with depth, to lively, brimming with upbeat melodies.
The magic lies in how these soundtracks maintain a serious undertone, irrespective of on-screen events. They steer clear of exaggerated, childlike tones often found in animated films, allowing viewers of all ages to remain immersed.
Hisaishi's mastery lies in the space between notes. Listen to the end theme of Grave of the Fireflies, "Two People." It's in these pauses where the true emotion resides, where simplicity gives way to profound meaning.
He can convey intense emotions with minimalistic notes, fostering a unique sonic identity for Studio Ghibli, much like the three simple notes that capture the essence of The Boy and the Heron.
Sometimes, he chooses silence, urging viewers to listen to the world around them. These subtle sound effects ground the scene, making it relatable and prompting contemplation of Miyazaki's underlying questions.
Studio Ghibli merges simplicity with emotion, fostering belief in Miyazaki's worlds. Even when not watching the movies, just listening to the soundtrack carries powerful messages, resonating beyond the screen. I learned this when I reacted to the entire soudntrack of The Boy and The Heron. To see how that turned out, check out the video below: