Studio Ghibli films are my antidote to nihilism. They vary in tone and genre, but they all have the most breathtaking hand-drawn animation in history, deep themes about nature and humanity, strong female protagonists, and some of the best music ever put onto film. Joe Hisaishi has composed the soundtrack to nearly every Ghibli classic, meaning he’s probably made you cry at least once. I’d call him the John Williams of anime music, but I think that would be selling him short!
Born in Nakano in 1950, Hisaishi was a music and film buff from an early age – as in, he started learning violin when he was four and watched 300 movies a year as a kid! He studied music composition at the Kunitachi College of Music in 1969 and was influenced by minimalist composers like Phillip Glass, as well as popular music from Japan at the time.
Hisaishi did a few middling anime soundtracks in the 70’s, but his big break came in 1984 when he collaborated with director Hayao Miyazaki for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Although it came before Ghibli was founded, Nausicaä has all the hallmarks of the studio’s later heights: captivating landscapes, heavy thematic introspection, and one of the best scores in film history. The post-apocalyptic world uses a dark choir and electronic instruments to highlight humanity’s desperation to surivive. But the main theme is Hisaishi’s signature style: stirring violins and a melancholic piano that makes you feel wistfully nostalgic, even if it’s your first time seeing the movie:
But his score for Ghibli’s first feature film, Castle in the Sky, is even better. The steampunk fantasy setting was highly influential on Japanese pop culture icons like Final Fantasy and Fullmetal Alchemist, but with more melancholic atmosphere than bombastic action. The opening credits alone brings people to tears, as the mournful melodies highlight the heights humanity can reach with the tragedy of it all crashing down in a moment. Castle in the Sky‘s score is pure movie magic, and the fact that it only plays for about 40 minutes of a two-hour movie somehow just makes it more memorable.
Miyazaki’s next two films, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, are more kid-friendly, so they needed more lighthearted but still stirring OSTs. Joe Hisaishi more than delivered, with Totoro using new-agey synths to show childhood wonder, and Kiki doing the same with classical-inspired flutes. The music draws us into the worlds of these movies, and helps us empathize with our young female protagonists as they discover the joy, heartbreak, and beauty of the world all around them.
Studio Ghibli was living large in Japan, but they struggled to gain a wide audience internationally. But that changed with 1997’s Princess Mononoke, an anime blockbuster that was more ambitious, progressive, and emotionally impactful than any other action movie out at the time. Drawing from Japanese history and folklore, Miyazaki told a tale of war between the human and spirit worlds. Of course, an epic soundtrack was a must! Hisaishi tool influence from classical Japanese music, using traditional stringed instruments like the koto with clever references to Western classical music thrown in for good measure. Like the film itself, the OST is a beautiful blend of cultures and ideas. You don’t need to know anything about anime or Japanese culture to appreciate this as a movie, or just as a work of art.
And of course, I have to mention Spirited Away! It’s my favorite movie of all time. I have a hard time talking about it objectively. I put the soundtrack on at night when I can’t sleep and need to stop the gears in my head from grinding. The most famous scene has no dialogue or action – just the watercolor sunset, Chihiro’s longing look outside, and this wistful song that makes me see the same colors as in the movie. So many movies today try to fill every second with noise, but Miyazaki was always smart enough to know when to let Hisashi’s score speak for itself.
I could go on forever, and talk about Howl’s Moving Castle or Ponyo or Ni No Kuni or the 100+ other albums and scores he’s done, but you get the idea. Joe Hisaishi is a composing machine, capable of working in almost any genre in his own unique style. Miyazaki’s had to slow down his creative output with age, but all of his movies are legendary. (Well, maybe not Porco Rosso.) They’re meant for watching again and again, with family. So it’s only natural that their music makes us think about all the joy, melancholy, and wonder of childhood.