Haruomi Hosono – 源氏物語 (The Tale of Genji), 1987

Another favorite from the Hosono canon. This was the score for the first animated adaptation of The Tale of Genji, a sprawling piece of 11th century literature written by noblewoman Shikibu Murasaki, considered by many to be the first modern novel in recorded history. (Isao Tomita later write his own symphonic adaptation of the story.) The anime was directed by Gisaburō Sugii, and while it only covers a small part of the epic storyline, the score is highly ambitious.

Scan courtesy of Kaleidophonics

Unlike much of Hosono’s catalogue, here synthesizer mostly acts as an atmospheric texture and instead puts traditional Japanese instruments, particularly koto, flute, and drums, front and center. What’s really astounding about this soundtrack is the layering of instruments, piling them up until they become unfamiliar: droves of fingerpicked strings sound like a hive of insects, waves of gentle hand percussion feel like the swells of inhales and exhales, processed flute suggests the shrieking wind. Despite a pervasive mysteriousness, and even ominousness, this is unmistakably gorgeous music, and structured in such a way that it will appeal to fans of more conventional synthetic ambient music–but retains a feverish futurist-classical elegance all its own.

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Tōru Takemitsu – Kwaidan, 1964

A watershed moment in the career of an avant-garde giant. Takemitsu composed several hundred pieces of music, many of them massive and orchestral in scope; scored over 90 films; and published 20 books before his death in 1996. Interestingly, much of his early output was marked by his contempt for traditional Japanese (and, more broadly, non-Western) music, colored by his experiences of the war, during which Japanese music was associated with militaristic and nationalistic cultural ideals. In his own words: “There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. Folk music in a ‘contemporary style’ is nothing but a deception.” So severe was his enmity with tradition that he famously destroyed several of his own works upon discovering that he had unintentionally incorporated “nationalistic” elements of traditional Japanese scales. An early proponent of musique concrète, his work has often been cast as in synchronicity with Pierre Schaeffer; however, neither were aware of the other at the time (though Takemitsu was an ardent admirer of John Cage).

Still, despite his fierce commitment to avant-garde experimentation, by the 1960s he had started to more deliberately incorporate traditional Japanese scales, elements of folk songs, the tones and modes of Gagaku, and, as evidenced in Kwaidan, ancient instruments like the biwa.

A quartet of heavily stylized supernatural vignettes rendered in intensely saturated color, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was the most expensive film in the history of Japanese cinema at the time of its release. Takemitsu turned out a score ambitious enough to match, channeling his ambivalence towards tradition into a mangled, strangled take on the folk sounds of his upbringing. Silence acts as a prominent texture, but in between the strained gaps are twisted shakahuchi lines, shrieking winds, ghostly metallic clangs, splitting wood, an occasional distant drum, Noh-style vocals recalling a storied mass suicide on a battle ship, and a whole lot of that biwa, played with such venomous ferocity that one can only wonder how many strings had to be replaced over the course of recording. Sparse, horrific, and very potent. Enjoy, and happy Halloween!

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Kenji Kawai – Ghost In The Shell, 1995

A few days ago, poor Steve Aoki revealed his remix of the iconic 攻殻機動隊 (Ghost in the Shell) theme for the forthcoming remake. The remix is the EDM equivalent of trying to embroider lace with a power drill, and incensed anime fans have flooded the comments with rage (as well as with links to the also-iconic theme from the Stand Alone Complex series). Rather than adding further insult to injury, I wanted to share the original soundtrack, as it’s one of the best anime soundtracks (and arguably one of the best soundtracks, period).

To make the aforementioned theme, scoring giant Kenji Kawai combined Bulgarian choral harmonies and traditional Japanese vocal techniques into a wedding song with lyrics in the ancient Japanese language Yamato Kotaba. The theme is repeated in three different variations, all of which should give you goosebumps. The rest of the soundtrack is gorgeous, murky atmospherics: submerged keyboards, sparse taiko, synthetic strings, ominous clanging, a lone (Spanish?) guitar. If you haven’t seen the movie, song titles like “Nightstalker” and “Floating Museum” should be able to paint a sufficient picture. The real curveball is the closer, sometimes listed as a bonus track, which is a bubblegum pop sung in Cantonese. Many reviewers complain about the inclusion of the jarring closer, but I think a slightly psychotic ending makes sense in the context of a movie about fragmented personhood in a cyberpunk dystopia. Bonus round: here’s a very beautiful live performance of the theme.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Symphonic Suite AKIRA, 1988

It was very moving that a handful of you reached out to check on me after a week of silence–I appreciate the concern! I’ve been a bit absent for two reasons, the first being that trying to do anything on the internet these days invariably gets derailed by a wormhole of endless bad news. The second (happier) reason is that my partner and I just moved into an apartment together last week, so I’ve been in heavy nesting mode, and now that we’re done fighting about whose duvet cover to use I can finally look around and feel funny about feeling this happy.

I’ve been holding off on a Geinoh Yamashirogumi post because I felt nervous about picking one record, but here we are. Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a massive musical collective, purportedly several hundred members deep, that emerged when a choir founded in 1953 began testing the limits of what choral music can do. Their study of world music and eventually digital audio techniques led them to release a series of records in which they covered an enormous amount of ground, culminating in a trio of records concerned with the cycle of life and death. Luckily, one of those three records happened to be the Akira soundtrack.

There are a lot of repeating motifs across the trilogy, both thematically and in direct sonic parroting. All three use choirs to astonishing effect: Balinese kecak aided and abetted by reverb and multiplication; individuals pacing back and forth and winding their voices around one another, frantic, fuming, barely even singing; Japanese Noh undercut by taiko; buzzing hives of thousands hulking thunderously; whispers volleyed back and forth for minutes on end; traditional spiritual chant gone off the rails–songs that are so intensely evocative of huge, folk-futurist environments that they’re uncomfortable to listen to in your apartment (though they work very well on the subway). They also all lean heavily on gamelan: interestingly, in the 1980s MIDI synthesizers couldn’t accurately replicate the tonality of the traditional gamelan ensemble, so the group had to custom-program their synthesizers in order to build the necessary micro-tuning tables.

I picked Akira from the trilogy because it hinges the three together: Ecophony Rinne (1986) brought the group to the attention of director Katsuhiro Otomo, who (as the story goes) wrote the group a blank check with which to make this soundtrack–meaning that this record enabled them to push their technical possibility forward and further develop the musical language that they had already been speaking for years. I love the case this album makes for what movie soundtracks can (and perhaps should) do, the way it refuses to be background music (or even conventionally cinematic) but instead dives into the movie’s messy chaos and bounces around and off of it, building and dying in time. The closing “Requiem,” as the title suggests, starts as a reverb-soaked Western mass, but the organ goes astray and eventually loops back into the opening “Kaneda” theme, at which point it becomes clear why Katsuhiro Otomo commissioned a score from a group obsessed with life and death cycles: the inhabitants of Akira are fixated on the past in a desperate attempt to avoid repeating their catastrophic mistakes in the future. The parallels extend further: the music of Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a splicing of traditional folk spirituality with advanced programming, and Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo still clutches to religion in spite of its pseudo-futuristic setting. Cleverer and weirder still is when a prog-pop song steps in after eight tracks. It’s jarring enough to make you wonder if you’re listening to a different record, until within seconds you pick up on the familiar jegog percussive backbone, which makes such perfect sense that you might feel more “in on the joke” than you ever have before. Brilliant from all angles.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that moreso than with most records, having a “preview track” here doesn’t make much sense, as this album is so diverse and can only really exist as a whole. Please take the track below with a big grain of salt, and if you’re at all interested, do consider a listen in its entirety in headphones.

Piero Milesi – The Nuclear Observatory Of Mr. Nanof, 1986

Guest post by Adam

I found this lurking at the back of a box of records in a charity shop in a nondescript part of north London. I’d never heard of Piero Milesi, but was drawn to both the title and the image on the sleeve, which turns out to be a still from the film to which this is a soundtrack. It depicts an enormous engraving outside a Volterra psychiatric hospital by patient Oreste Fernando Nannetti, who referred to himself as Nanof-11, an “Astronautic Mineral Engineer of the Mental System.” While I’m keen to track down the movie (which doesn’t even have an IMDB page!), in the meantime I make do with the music, which is characterized by lush synthesized themes interspersed with moments of meditative calm. Personal favourites are “The Presence of the City” and “Mr. Nanof’s Tango” (which really begins to soar about half way through, so stay with it). Originally an architect, Piero Milesi created musical installations as well as soundtracks, so you can see why the story of a vast stone book recounting life in a psychiatric institution appealed. Earth to Nanof-11, are you out there; can you hear us?

Masahide Sakuma – Lisa, 1984

Beautiful and diverse solo release from Plastics member Masahide Sakuma. The album traverses both mood and genre: ambient minimalism, modern classical, industrial, avant-garde, medieval, and…vaudeville? Acoustic guitar, synth, strings, electric guitar, synthesizer, vocals, samples, flutes and percussion. Some tracks have a sparse cinematic feel suggestive of Mark Isham’s Vapor Drawings, which came out the year prior. Lisa is so diverse and strange, it could take years of listening to fully unpack.

Produced by prolific avante-garde jazz composer Seigen Ono, the album is another entry in the phenomenal Music Interiors series released from 1984 to 1985, including a couple albums by Ono himself as well as Yoshio Suzuki. Worth exploring!

Yoichiro Yoshikawa – The Miracle Planet OST, 1987

As evocative and expansive as any soundtrack can hope to be. From what I gather, there have been two runs of The Miracle Planet (Chikyu Dai Kikou) series–one in 1987 and one in 2005, both co-produced by Japan’s NHK broadcasting corporation; although there’s very little information available about the earlier series. Technically, this release is a 1988 compilation which includes tracks from two of Yoshikawa’s other releases (including the instantly relatable “Nebraska,” which sounds as if it was heavily inspired by the Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence soundtrack. I’m always grateful for the full hour of music, so I’m including it as is).
Silvery synth pads, sleek pop arrangements, plump and wet percussion, traditional Japanese drumming, sentimental orchestral arrangements, and a few forays into fourth worldy nostalgia. I can’t say enough nice things about this. Ideal for fans of Yas-Kaz, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Joe Hisaishi, and Hiroshi Yoshimura.

Fumio Mayashita – Earth, 1984

Japanese keyboardist and composer Fumio Mayashita began his musical career as a vocalist on the Japanese cast recording of the musical Hair in 1969. From there he moved towards the outer edges of psychedelic experimentation, acting as producer and arranger on the legendary self-titled album for Far Out, a band he co-founded. The group changed their name to Far East Family Band, their sound moved towards progressive rock, and they officially became a supergroup after inducting such illustrious members as Akira Ito, Kitaro, and krautrock pioneer Klaus Schulze. 
In 1982, Mayashita began his solo career with the release Arion, a recording I haven’t been able to get ahold of (if anyone has it send along!). In the meantime, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Earth, Mayashita’s second release. His progression towards new age minimalism and early dance music is a pleasant departure from the fill-heavy, dense musicianship of the more “progressive” Far East Family Band and Kitaro. He still enjoys a good guitar solo and a few driving beats, but as a whole this is much more simply arranged and well, minimal. 
The album is surprisingly diverse in mood while being relatively consistent in its sound palette. 
Nods to Pink Floyd, Iasos, and Ashra throughout. So beautiful!

Joël Fajerman – L’aventure Des Plantes, 1982

Classic! The opening track of this record, “Flowers Love,” was used as the theme for the French documentary series L’aventure des Plantes–it’s unclear whether any of the other tracks were included in the series, though the whole record is excellent. Joël Fajerman is a classically trained French keyboardist who was apparently nicknamed “Flangerman” (no mystery why). Ranging from baroque organ lines to towering, sinister synth arpeggiations, L’aventure is cosmic, dense, and cinematic. For fans of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, or the beloved Plantasia! (Note: pictured above is the Spanish reissue; hi-res images of the original French cover don’t seem to exist).