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.

Eitetsu Hayashi – Messenger Of The Wind, 1983

Experimental work and first solo album from Eitetsu Hayashi, musician best known for taiko, traditional Japanese drumming.

Messenger Of The Wind is a perfect example of the rich history of experimental and ambient music of Japan. From an outsider’s viewpoint, it’s evident that experimental music was the natural evolution of the country’s traditional music in the 20th century, making use of new and non-traditional instruments as well new recording techniques. On this album, Hayashi nods to his taiko background, using a wide array of Japanese drums and other traditional instruments such as janggu, gayageum, koto, gong, stainless balls, and Mokugyo. Elsewhere, he uses synth, marimba, thunder sheet, and an airplane. Things get interesting when he employs tape looping on “Cosmos” and when he plays with natural reverberation on “Karabinka” (below).

If you’ve enjoyed our previous posts like Midori Takada and Mkwaju Ensemble, you might like this too–it’s a little more challenging but possibly more rewarding!

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Mkwaju Ensemble – Mkwaju, 1981

This group of Japanese percussionists, led by Midori Takada and Yoji Sadanari, only released two albums, both in 1981. They’re joined on their first release by Joe Hisaishi (more from him soon), who’s credited as keyboardist and producer, as well as Hideki Matsutake (of Logic System, though he’s often referred to as the “fourth member” of YMO) as computer programmer. With such forward-thinking musicians, Mkwaju (the Swahili word for tamarind) takes you for quite a ride. African rhythms and instrumentation combine with synth sounds in a repetitive but ever-evolving flurry stopping just short of cacophony. More information here; listen to the expansive proto-house “Tira-Rin” below. 

Mariah – うたかたの日々 (Utakata No Hibi), 1983

Mariah was the brainchild of saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, who is most well-known for his solo performances of Bach’s cello suites in acoustically interesting spaces (he recorded in a mine, he did some work with Ryuichi Sakamoto, we love him, etc.). His work with Mariah was a far cry from the rest of his career, though–Utakata No Hibi, the band’s fifth and final LP, is loosely woven, big and wide open and facing skyward. The album is built around percussion, which ranges from traditional Japanese to tribal to Talking Heads-y, pencilled in with simple synth textures and spikes of brass. The songs are mantric, with vocals in both Armenian and Japanese that act more as an instrument than as a focal narrative. The definitive high is “心臓の扉” (“Shinzō No Tobira/Door of the Heart”). No filler, though–all the less poppy moments are a joy, and manage to simultaneously feel futuristic and medieval.

Maria gave me this record years ago, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since. We’re really excited that it’s being reissued on Palto Flats, a label run by personal DJ hero Jacob Gorchov. It’s an important record that speaks to a wide range of people, and the attention it’s attracting is well-deserved. The New York release party is tonight, with vinyl for sale. Sample the remasters below, or listen to “Shinzō No Tobira” in its entirety here.

(Side note: watch Yasuaki Shimizu’s “Human Cuckoo Clock” installation, in which he did hourly performances of saxophone renditions of Bach’s cello suites for eight hours in the Tokyo International Forum, here. A really beautiful, playful use of acoustics.)

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