December 22, 2016
Feeling what you hear
As I discussed last week, Popular Mechanics recently explained "Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like." My first reaction to the implicit challenge in that question was that I can sure remember what Chihayafuru sounds like.
I'm not just referring to an anime's opening (OP) and ending (ED) themes, though they are integral to the anime soundscape. The job of the OP and ED isn't just to keep your attention during the credit roll. They are key elements in marketing and promoting both the artist and the anime.
And perhaps most importantly, the OP establishes a mood and ambience that can fine-tune the genre before the story even starts. Think of how the Law & Order theme, together with the famous "doink-doink/thunk-thunk" sound effect, ties the whole franchise together.
In the Non Non Biyori OP, "Nanairo Biyori," Nano Ripe sounds just like Kotori Koiwai, the voice actor who plays Renge. Renge is a kind of Calvin & Hobbes character whose off-the-wall approach to life establishes the goofy yet endearing tone of the series.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Kalafina's dark and gothic "Magia" for Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The message is clear: this is not going to be just another cute magical girl anime.
And as far as ending themes go, Katsu Hoshi's arrangement of "The Rose" that closes out Only Yesterday revisits Bette Midler's Grammy-winning song (performed by Harumi Miyako) with a heartfelt interpretation quite apart from its original use in the 1979 Hollywood movie.
It's a perfect ending with the perfect musical accompaniment.
Chihayafuru does have a memorable OP ("Youthful" by 99RadioService), and an OP you like listening to is a nice reward when you're binge-watching a series. But when I say I remember what Chihayafuru sounds like, I mean the actual soundtrack.
First of all, though I'm sure the whole thing is rendered digitally, composer Kousuke Yamashita goes for a traditional classical orchestral sound (it's getting hard to tell the difference). Second, he develops a simple theme that comes to represent the entire emotional spectrum of the series.
Now, themes can go wrong. "The same only different" is the goal, not endless repetition.
Hikaru no Go suffers a bit from this. The "competition" theme is played on an electric guitar fed through a harmonizer with some backing percussion. That's not the problem. The problem is that the exact same riff is simply repeated in every big scene with no variation.
I suspect this was a budget thing, as it's a fairly low budget production (still a great story!). But it gets samey after a while, not evocative. (The matches of veteran players get more classical-sounding tracks, which are more effective.)
However, when done right, that "same only different" can really bury itself inside your brain. In a good way! The classic James Bond theme is a good example of a musical theme fully integrated into the cinematic narrative and all the more effective because of its familiarity.
Consider the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Or the five notes from Close Encounters that John Williams builds into the soundtrack. For Chihayafuru, Yamashita starts with five notes too. By the time he was done, I was feeling like one of Pavlov's rats.
In a good way!
These five notes, revisited in hints, whispers, and variations, with different arrangements and instrumentation, trigger our brains to automatically recall the emotional cues we've already associated with them and prepare the brain for more of the same.
(The soundtrack is available from CDJapan.)
Yes, this is "cheating," as Patrick Doyle's score to Kenneth Branagh's Henry V was described by one critic.
Except movies are all about manipulating the senses. The question is whether we enjoy being fooled or end up feeling conned. Every time we hit the play button, we are giving the director the same challenge Penn & Teller make every week to their magical contestants: Fool Us!
A good movie soundtrack is a magic wand that makes the fooling all the more enjoyable.
Hearing what you see
Puella Magi Madoka Magica