A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell

(Page numbers are below the ‘related articles’ section. Please excuse its odd placing, as WordPress doesn’t allow me to alter its position.)

Note: this publication is a highly extensive and lengthy endeavour that invite readers to refer back to for analytical ideas. In other words, it is written with a sea of wiki-style links to additional readings, clips and videos, endless subject matters, tangents and covers a lot of ideas. I recommend that you bookmark this page for future reference, whenever you feel the need for some creative writing ideas, or just some music-based observations you find difficulty in analysing or putting your ideas into words. I hope my efforts help you in that regard.

A few months ago, I went on a tweeting rampage:

(You can find the entire tweet thread by clicking the time & date stamp.)

What was originally just some random thoughts I had to rush out of my then-overloaded brain, became an continuous string of connected logic and observations that I made throughout the years as a fan of film and animation. You see: I was a fan of film and western animation since I was a child. I became interested in film music not long ago, and even more recently, JAPANESE animation. So inevitably, this jumble of interests in somewhat connected mediums would eventually combinate into one massive melting pot of artistic observations, as I strive to understand how multiple human sensories combine to enhance the experience of the picture.

I discovered the gimmick that was film music back during the wee hours of some random day in 2012, upon listening to the track ‘A Way of Life‘, which I found whilst browsing YouTube. It was from Hans Zimmer’s score for The Last Samurai (a film I remembered watching a long time ago, before 2012, even). And it was a beautiful piece of music: atmospheric, densely orchestrated and lyrically colourful. However, I am not a stranger to symphonies, piano concertos or other classically-inclined musical pieces, so what truly hooked me about the concept of film music, is the idea of music accompanying the picture to form a storytelling whole: my mind was literally replaying random scenes from the movie, as the 8 minute suite played. I was nearly in tears by the time the track ended, having almost involuntarily recalled some pretty bittersweet scenes from the film. Somehow, even with my blurred memories of the film, Zimmer’s music was able to trigger my lingering appreciation for it. Naturally, I wanted to understand: how, and why?


Advocating for a Music ‘Genre’ That’s…Not Meant to be Noticed?!

(Beyond this point, expect minor spoilers from How to Train Your Dragon 2, Nausica and Laputa.)

“Film music exists only to enhance the on-screen footage, nothing else” is a phrase I hear and see all too often from mainstream movie-goers and film critics: to them, non-diegetic music shouldn’t be noticeable whilst watching a film, otherwise it would be accused of being emotionally manipulative and insincere with its thematic elements. In other words, a tragic death scene or emotional funeral send-off shouldn’t (mind you, this is one of my most hated words when it comes to discussing art and creativity) be accompanied by violins, bagpipe-led and/or choral undertones or lonely woodwind solos, because that would be emotionally manipulative. A passionate romance film shouldn’t feature grandiose symphonic overtures, because that would just be hamfisting the romance and going overboard with passion. (isn’t passion ALL ABOUT going overboard?)

Well, considering that the ENTIRE MEDIUM of film is emotionally manipulative anyway (it’s practically BUILT with the intent of conveying messages and stories that affect audiences), I see no merits in such arguments. To me, film music exists to tell a story, alongside all the working and tangible elements that make up a film: its underlying personalities and the composer’s creative angle during its inception are paramount in determining the nature of the final product. In other words, film music has as much to contribute to a scene as a cut, or an actor’s performance. And since film music has such a impactful role in a film’s ability to convey its ideas, it wouldn’t hurt for the creators and audiences to pay extra attention to what *other* effects and roles film music can create and contribute to, other than just existing to ‘fit the show/film/scene’.

So…if film music isn’t meant to be emotionally manipulative…then why was Star Wars’ plain TEXT opening crawl accompanied by a goddamn fanfare? Is reading words in a film ‘epic’ to begin with?

In order for me to provide some observable examples of how film music can be utilized to not only enhance a film, but also define and elevate its very essence, I decided to hand-pick some animated films from both sides of the world, and analyze their respective soundtracks’ artistic endeavours, uncover the less obvious tonal developments they each go through throughout their run-time, and highlight how different approaches can change the role background music plays in a film, and the differing impacts that they may have on the audience. And no, I don’t intend to swap Death Note’s music with K-on!’s to make the point that film music can convey different feelings. Its certainly ‘true’, but I’m dealing with far more complex ideas than this.

After some hotly self-debated hand-picking, I decided to pick the six films:

  • How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2, both scored by renowned animation composer, John Powell.
  • Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Ponyo and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, all scored by the Japanese maestro, Joe Hisaishi.

In some ways, these film scores can be considered similar: they are mostly orchestral,  obviously (which is by far the best medium for film music, no matter the film’s genre. But that’s an opinion I will have to defend in a later post) and they all accompany some pretty well-liked animated films. However, the similarities end there, as both composers approached their respective films in both subtly and wildly different ways. By comparing and contrasting the intricacies of these film scores (While also delving into A LOT OF tangents), hopefully I can produce an intense, tightly phased but extensive narrative that can better prepare you to notice film music, enhance your enjoyment of films and perhaps even give you more things to talk about, if you happen to be an anime or film blogger, reviewer, YouTuber or medium analyst.

Landscapes, Motifs, Tone and Thematic Depth

Composers tend to have…creative habits that they repeatedly come back to, every time they helm a new project. So before I dive into each composer’s above-chosen works in detail, I will provide some ‘extension’ opening insights into their musical styles and what, when and how they typically utilize their music for certain scenes and films, and why.

Alright people, please do the honours by turning on your stereos and raising your volumes, or dig out your best pair of headphones.

Joe Hisaishi | Building a Landscape With Melodic Textures


Joe Hisaishi wasn’t always a ‘character themes’ kind of guy (something I will touch upon later). Like any multi-medium creative practitioner, Hisaishi’s musical career has well-defined roots in multiple facets of the music industry ever since the late 70s, having produced and published his own solo albums; all of varying electronics, rock, jazz, instrumental minimalist, experimental symphonic, traditional western and Japanese orchestral styles, while also finding work composing for lesser known anime titles, such as Hajime Ningen Giatrus, Sasuga no Sarutobi and Techno Police, before taking on the position of lead composer for Hayao Mizazaki’s adventure animation feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Evidently, this mark on his resume gave birth to a blooming creative composer-director relationship that has invited positive comparisons between similar instances in Hollywood; creative partnerships that received much acclaim, such as legendary film maker Steven Spielberg and his almost perfect track record of continuously working with maestro John Williams for almost all of his films. A simple web search would conjure up examples such as the ending scene of E.T; whose accompanying background music was universally considered to be unconditionally irreplaceable and integral to the picture, as well as other countless iconic musical identities that has defined Hollywood culture, such as the Indiana Jones march, Jaws‘ two-note motif, Jurassic Park’s main theme and Schindler’s List’s brutal violin-led soundscape; a score that accompanied a film that is still considered to be one of the best of all time.

Another more modern comparison can also be drawn with the collaborative ventures embarked on by relative newcomer director Christopher Nolan and experimental musician, producer and film composer Hans Zimmer. As a film maker whose deliberately complex creative voice has united the usually divided public of critics and casual film goers in praising his works for massive entertainment value,  intelligent and relevant explorations of the human condition, Nolan’s working process with Zimmer’s highly experimental, gut instinct and largely unsubtle musical style has garnered much praise (and some criticisms). But there’s little denial that Nolan and Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight (with additional material by Zimmer’s friend and fellow film composer, James Newton Howard) franchise, Inception and Interstellar were iconic, influential, individualistic (before they were cannibalised by less creatively inclined film makers and composers) and acted as the podiums that defined the 2010s Hollywood ‘sound’: for better or worse. Hollywood producers’ rush to replicate this creative relationship’s success has resulted in a surplus of unimaginative musical copycat efforts that failed to evoke the same level of unashamed grandeur achieved by Zimmer in both his earlier and modern works. Nevertheless, the creative pioneer should never take responsibility for his failing imitators.

The working nuance between auteurs and film composers is certainly not something to scoff at, as the above examples may have shown you.

Now that I’ve provided the comparisons with some extended commentary, I invite you to form your own personal and internalised narratives on why Hisaishi’s music work so well with Miyazaki’s imagery. Let’s compare our notes on why these two are the perfect artistic couple that has drawn comparisons with TWO of Hollywood’s most influential collaborative relationships.

The Function of Setting

Ignoring Hisaishi’s live action ventures (which…you really shouldn’t outside of this discussion, since he has done plenty of great stuff outside animation), it is interesting to  observe how his musical voice slowly evolved to favour the organically symphonic when scoring animation films, before they eventually morphed into a series of signature compositional ideas and styles that gave Hisaishi his unique sound. In truth, these signature touches are rather easy to spot, if you know what you are looking for.

If one were to identify a single common thread that defines every Hisaishi soundtrack for a Ghibli film; despite their slow transition from films such as Nausicaa, Laputa (its original, Japanese mix at least) and Totoro’s largely synth-based soundscapes to the massive orchestral ventures that defined films such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo’s musical identities, it would be the function that the music serves in the picture’s overall presentation.

Joe Hisaishi world-builds with music.

(I wonder what the readers think of the environment built by Joe Hisaishi’s score for Princess Mononoke?)

A simple enough answer, right? Miyazaki’s films are prolific in their utilisation of dense background art, diverse framing, shot compositions and vast landscapes: conveying the setting through the environment. In other words, the story is told through non-verbal world-building. Hisaishi composes with intentional focus on the overall frame of the setting, simultaneously informing the audience of the atmosphere that envelops the film and building it as well. In many ways, this is a step above the notion of music supporting the agenda of the on-screen footage: Hisaishi’s music inhabits the setting through its melodic personalities, acting as ingrained building blocks that populates the film, thus creating the ‘illusion’ that Miyazaki’s worlds are alive. But how so?

6 thoughts on “A Melodic Comparison: Film Music’s Many Invaluable Personalities | Joe Hisaishi, John Powell

  1. Oh.my.gosh. This is really extensive. Wow. Impressive. Well done. I must confess that I’m not familiar with a lot of the composers you mentioned here, but of course I’m a fan of both Hisaishi and Powell. I love listening to Hisaishi’s Ghibli collection whenever I’m doing household chores because his music put me in a semi-meditative state where my mind is relaxed while my body automatically cleans the house. So instead of feeling tired after doing chores, I actually feel relaxed, even energized. Excellent post, as always. Thanks for sharing this with us at my blog carnival. Keep it up. Cheers!


    • Thank you.

      As per usual, like I wrote in the post, this is a publication meant for extensive revisits, also, I implore you to explore the composers you’re not familiar with. Watch the films, listen to the music, note how they tell their story. As always, this post will be here for you to return to, if you either have problems finding words to describe what you found, or you just need interesting ideas to start exploring.

      I hope this post is a useful eye-opener to perhaps look beyond the purely reactionary reasons as to why you like the film music written by a certain composer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable read! The musical pieces were fantastic and the writing was smooth.

    Despite having maybe two hours worth of musical training (I tried), I could follow most of the post, which is great. But needless to say I was taken through an emotional journey through this post and all the musical pieces. I’ve only started to listen to more soundtracks. Now I’m starting to notice and understand a little–of why these great pieces are so effective, and how each of them are unique. It’s certainly fascinating to read and listen to how HIsaishi has evolved (and also returned to his roots). He is one of my favorite composers and that Budokan concert is sublime. How I wish I was there!

    And to answer your question re Deep Sea Pastures, and having not actually watched Ponyo (yet), I actually felt like I was exploring a shiny and colorful world under the sea, filled with diverse sea creatures moving around me, and I was filled with curiosity and excitement like a child. One alternate image I had was being a kid walking through a huge toy store (lots of shiny and colorful things as well)…like…Home Alone 2 sort of, I think. And nearing at the end of the piece, it was as if I was surrounded by something majestic, powerful beyond my control, but benign. Like being surrounded by magnificent, crashing ocean waves. And somehow I still retained that kind, childlike curiosity till the end. If that make sense.

    …Damn, now I just remembered how coral reefs are going to get bleached….polluted…killed off… T_T

    Anyway! Having watched a lot of anime, I really like Yoko Kanno’s works, except people has been saying she just takes other people’s works and modifies it? I don’t know. Hmm…ReLife’s soundtrack is unconventional but I liked it a lot as far as I can hear from the anime. More jazzy piano. Samurai 7 soundtrack is cool, lots of traditional Japanese instruments! But my personal honorable mention goes to Nobuo Uematsu’s “Cloud Smiles” as the first piece of music I’ve ever truly listened to – and what got me into music. Every time I hear woodwinds played so beautifully, I die a little. Also worth the mention I guess is MCU Captain America Winter Soldier’s Theme, which is effectively disturbing. Arcade Fire’s (?) piano pieces for Her are also my favorite – that and Lullaby of Pi!

    Thank you so much for writing this post and sharing this with us. You must’ve put an incredible amount of time and effort into this! I love this post and all the music, and I will definitely return to this post again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment alone already made this 6 month project worth it. Interest in something can only turn to love if you understand what and why you liked it in the first place. I’m glad that the little questions I popped in the posts were responded to so wonderfully by you, and I agree! The ability of music to transform the experience is almost impossible to describe at times.

      From your list of film music you like…Hmm…regarding Yoko Kanno’s plagiarism: every single composer does it one way or another. It is practically a part of the medium, taking ideas from around you and reinventing it. Kanno’s just a lot more guilty of not trying hard enough to hide her inspirations and making them uniquely hers. Remember what I said about Hisaishi taking inspirations from Ravel and Menken’s Mermaid for Ponyo? Also…you have a really diverse canvas of examples from film music. I love that!

      I’m glad this was a great read for you, if this piece made you love film music more, then my job is satisfyingly complete.


  3. Having already seen Ponyo, the mental image I got from this scene might have been a little biased by knowing where this theme comes in. Nevertheless it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film so I’ll describe what I imagined.

    The strings and choir softly starting up before getting louder almost seemed like a sunrise. The vast sea is slowly waking up and emerging from some sort of sleep. Then when the sound starts to pick up, the scope of the scene hits me. We are in a vast space, and the ocean IS vast. But the flutes that come in give a sense of detail-they’re the fish flitting about reef, and there are alot of them. The track feels extremely filled out (not sure what musical jargon describes this feeling), I just feel life brimming from every note of the piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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