Studio Ghibli's Use Of Sound Remains Inspirational

Studio Ghibli's Use Of Sound Remains Inspirational

Exploring some iconic scores from the Japanese animation stable...

While many of us in the Western world grow up on a diet of Disney from a very young age. From 1985 however, those of my generation nearly 6,000 miles away in Japan, and indeed across Asia, were getting the fix of magic, princesses and pirates from an equally enthralling, though much less American, studio a little closer to home.

Studio Ghibli (a Libyan word meaning ‘desert wind’, chosen by founder Hayao Miyazaki because its assumed effect on the then current film industry), almost instantly felt a world apart from the saccharine sweetness of Disney et al, in which rehashed fairy tales were given a new lick of paint and given to the masses to devour, over the course of Ghibli’s 21 films, narratives couldn’t have felt more different.

From environmentalism (Nausicca: Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke), history (Grave of the Fireflies), coming-of-age sentimentalism (Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday) to fairy tale fantasy (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away), there really is something for everyone to love regardless of age or gender.

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Where Ghibli’s quiet introspection, conscience and thematic consistencies are arguably a far cry from that of their now Western counterpart, the two animation giants also share much in common.

Both provide unquestionable levels of escapism, young and often female protagonists, bold and brash colour palates and, perhaps most importantly here, strong and emotive soundtracks. In the latter however, Studio Ghibli seem far more understanding of the emotional gravitas a nuanced soundtrack can provide to a scene, or indeed an entire movie.

The understated Only Yesterday is a prime example. With its entire narrative hinged on memories, even the opening credits offer up a wistful sense of nostalgia, as a subtle piano is augmented through stronger swells of strings. Despite the understated nature of the film itself, music plays a strong role throughout. Childhood flashbacks are backboned by playful woodwind and an almost circus-esque refrain, while a dream sequence sees that from the opening credits return.

Elsewhere another flashback scene in which main character Taeko Okajima’s childhood love interest Shuji Hirota is playing baseball, offers up a soundtrack of duelling Spanish guitars, a playful nod to spaghetti westerns while suggesting the seriousness of this moment for the character.

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This duality of understated Eastern influence, and that of something much more westernised is something that appears time and again across the course of the studio’s catalogue.

Porco Rosso for example, harbours much more bombast than the aforementioned Only Yesterday. Something of a caper, its European setting lends much to its soundtrack, as sections of brass, string and woodwind take on a much more prominent role than in other films; a heavy classical Italian influence befitting of the Mediterranean locales featured feels a far cry from other Miyazaki films within the cannon.

Of course, Porco Rosso still retains a typical flare for the fantastical, but with its wartime narrative rooted in reality, a believable soundtrack only helps suspend one’s disbelief. A porcine pilot? Yeah why not!

Though different from a lot of other soundtracks across the films, Porco Rosso does share some similarities with Tales from Earthsea. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the founder, the film is loosely based on the fantasy novels by American author Ursula K. Le Guin, and as such has its foundations in Western high fantasy.

The result is a soundtrack that shares much in common with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Huge swells of strings and woodwind help evoke the sense of space and grandeur provided in the films opening moments, while a market scene makes use of typical European Medieval instrumentation.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Ghibli film without holding at least some similarities with other films. The use of string and woodwind to connote optimism are something it shares with Only Yesterday, though there are long occasions across …Earthsea that feature nothing in the way of soundtrack, putting it at odds with the almost constant sounds and soundtrack that backbone Only Yesterday’s scenes of everyday life.

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Of course, while realism is all well and good, those who want that from Ghibli probably aren’t best suited to Miyazaki Snr’s work. Though much of his messages are moral, the way in which they’re put across are magical.

Perhaps two of his most well-known films are Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. While both films share a target audience arguably much younger than that of other films within the canon, the soundtracks of each manage to set them apart from each other distinctly.

While the first of those manages to feel somewhat ‘Disneyfied’ at times, its soundtrack is elegant and understated; simple piano underpins moments of emotion where strings would rich swells of string or brass would have done likewise in those films of a more Western flavour. That said, these instruments do play a part, wrapping themselves around the core piano melodies, rising and falling effortlessly alongside character’s emotions. Only in moments fraught with tension do strings or percussion ever come in to their own.

With the film’s narrative entrenched far more in ancient Japanese folklore much more than those mentioned above, it allows the soundtrack to veer from the neo classical to the more traditional, each evoking feelings of mysticism that run riot throughout the film.

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In comparison, that of My Neighbour Totoro, while sharing in much of the same traditional influence of the former, feels much more upbeat, even juvenile in its soundtrack. ‘Hey, Let’s Go’ for instance, features a circus like brass a percussion duet that backbones simplistic lyrics designed to appeal to a younger target audience.

Similarly, ‘A Haunted House’ recurs throughout. An almost tropical motif that centres heavily around percussion, it’s upbeat and almost comical, employing a similar technique to that of Porco Rosso or Laputa, in which brass is used to symbolise the general buffoonery of the pirates, here this motif is used to almost as foreshadow to the soot sprites that play such a prominent role.

The soundtrack of My Neighbour Totoro is justifiably much more juvenile, but this only serves to bolster the charm and appeal of the film. And while Spirited Away employs its soundtrack to create a sense of traditionalism and mysticism, the sheer joy and child-like wonder of …Totoro is bolstered in turn by its soundtrack.

This is something that Studio Ghibli manage to do in each of their films, the above just scratches the surface. Whether it’s the understated emotion and sense of nostalgia effortlessly crafted across Only Yesterday or the huge swells of string and woodwind that create a rolling sense of space on Tales from Earthsea.

Despite their differences, each and every film shares the ability to create a believable world so matter how fantastical, aided by nuanced soundtracks that perfectly match a character’s mood or feeling. In doing this, Studio Ghibli have provided a crossover appeal that their American counterparts struggle to do so.

And while it’s not just the soundtracks that help this, the films wouldn’t be what they are without such a deep understanding of intrinsically linked nature of music and of emotion.

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Studio Ghibli's catalogue is coming to Netflix throughout 2020.

Words: Dave Beech

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