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A Weekly Song: Episode 8 - Joe Hisaishi

Spirited Away - “Image Album” and soundtrack

Spirited Away - “Image Album” and soundtrack

A Weekly Song: Episode 8

Joe Hisaishi – Procession of the Gods

“When’s he going to do a movie composer?”

“He’s always going on about film soundtracks.”

It’s true, I am, I do. The reason is this – I listen to a hell of a lot of them. I’m an aficionado. When you’re writing and drawing all day and night, whether it’s writing articles for magazines or scripts for other artists, or just drawing your own comics and illustrations, you listen to a lot of music.

About five years ago, other than corporate work, I changed my professional emphasis from both writing and drawing to predominantly writing (largely because I make more money from writing than from doing both. Making comics and graphic novels is slow, hard work where you do about ten jobs for the price of one. Plus, anyone in comics publishing will tell you how little most artists make, but that is not the purpose of this essay so I’ll leave that story and observations on same for another time).

I’ve always found that I can’t listen to music with lyrics or indeed a human voice of any kind while writing – I find it distracting. This leaves instrumental music – Jazz and Classical, sure, Ambient definitely, but most often – soundtracks. Film and TV scores.

Perhaps the reason for this is that the part of my brain that I use to create stories and voices of characters is also the part that listens to and processes speech and singing. I don’t know that for sure, but whatever the reason, because most of my time is now spent writing, there’s much less time to listen to listen to podcasts, talk radio and the like.

When I was doing the more “automatic” tasks in the creation of a page of comics, like lettering, inking or colouring, I always found myself listening to something with a human voice – a play, a podcast, radio documentaries. My inking was actually better, both looser and slicker, if I was slightly distracted by listening to radio plays or discussion of some kind. (Hi, BBC Radio 4, NPR and Big Finish. I miss you.)

Correspondingly, my appetite for soundtracks has increased, but they’ve always been an important – nay, essential part of my creative process. They are both mood setters and emotional emollient, both starting points and helpful compositional markers in the creation of a story.

It goes something like this: you think of a scene, what the purpose of it is, how you want it to play, what the characters are saying and doing and you choose a piece of music that sets the temperature of that set of incidents. I think every book and every comic I’ve ever written has had a temp-track of sorts, a tracklisting that serves as a guide for the mood and atmosphere I’m looking for.

In many cases, this temp-track evolves and changes as the story does, with some pieces of music being dropped in favour of others as the shape of the narrative develops. I imagine it’s a similar process in an editing suite; as you revise and modify the focus of different elements of a story, the linguistic accompaniments necessarily change too. In film or TV, it might be the Foley sounds, a change of emphasis in lighting via colour grading; in comics it might be the layout, the way the guttering of a page affects the pace at which a reader scans it, and where their eye is led; the tempo at which it subtextually guides a reader to the turn of the page and an emotional turning point, all the while preserving a sense of immersion. Every small detail the author employs affects everything else, and everything has to be right and constantly rejigged to create the illusion of the real world within the story.

This is the kind of constant balancing act common to all forms of visual storytelling. While comics don’t have the luxury of sound and motion, it is still a supremely nuanced and sophisticated language in its own right. What I always liked about comics as both art form and means of expression is how accessible they are and that they can be created relatively cheaply in comparison to film or TV. Anyone can make a comic; you really can be a sole creator, whereas film and TV are collaborative media. A graphic novel really can be one person’s creative vision, unlike a film, which although it may be steered by one overall captain, the authorship really is shared by many (despite what the director’s credit would have you believe: “A Film By…”)

I digress. The point is, one art form and means of cultural expression runs into the next; none of them stand alone. Everything influences everything else and in my case, I’d go so far as to say, these days, music probably influences me more in terms of the kinds of stories I like to tell than many other comics do. Storytelling is a free-flowing activity that inhabits every possible mode of human expression.

Obviously, all this means I have a lot of favourite soundtracks and film composers. How to pick one, and just one track from so many, for this week’s song?

Well, first time around, I’m gonna do the easy thing. I’m going straight to someone who supplies music for one of the greats in a related field: animation. The greatest living animator, in my humble opinion, is Hayao Miyazaki. One of Miyazaki’s constant and most consistent collaborators is Mamoru Fujisawa AKA Joe Hisaishi, who has composed scores for every Miyazaki movie but one. Not to compare Miyazaki to a Spielberg or a Lucas, but Hisashi is Miyazaki’s John Williams.

It’s really difficult to pick a favourite Miyazaki film, and equally difficult to pick a Hisaishi score. He is, predictably, a composer who can match the depth, vision and moods of Miyazaki, one who seems as comfortable with experimental electronica as he is with the orchestra.

My admiration for Hisaishi is a fairly usual reaction to his music; sometimes it’s interesting to look at exactly why a composer is beloved. His association with one of the best storytellers in the world is partially the reason, but composers are of course storytellers in their own right. There is a line of thinking that viewers shouldn’t really notice movie music – that it’s a subtextual support to the emotion and action of the story being told onscreen. While there’s an element of truth in that, there are just as many examples to the opposite. What I think a good film score should do is complement and highlight the story, help make it an immersive emotional experience; be textural as opposed to specific. It should help you, the viewer, get caught up in the characters and story without necessarily calling attention to itself, which calls for a lot of nuance and is a very neat balancing act. You can still notice it – I sometimes do, but what’s fascinating about it is that, when it’s working well, I often don’t do it consciously. The opposite is true also – I notice it when it’s intrusive or overly sentimental, signposting emotions rather than being an integral part of them.

Something that interests me is that Hisaishi is on record as thinking many modern Hollywood soundtracks don’t have enough “space” or silence in them – that quiet is as much a tool of the composer as loud is. This is a man whose comprehension of emotional colour and silence as a tone in his palette is second to none. I love his work in film and beyond it (which is why I’m also going to cheat a bit and also recommend his Minima Rhythm series, the first of which you can listen to here).

That’s not today’s pick though, which I agonised over. I almost went for the opening of Princes Mononoke, Attack of the Tatari-Gami, which is both great action music and one of the most sinister themes in animation history. In the end, I settled upon a piece from Spirited Away, which is possibly one of Hisaishi’s most sweeping, yearning scores. 

Variously known as Procession of the Gods (on the US pressing of the soundtrack I have), Procession of the Spirits and The Procession of Celestial Beings, the cue is actually seriously truncated in the movie and not allowed to fully bloom the way it does on the soundtrack album. You’re going to have to take my word for that, because unfortunately there is no official Studio Ghibli channel that I can find on YouTube that showcases Hisaishi’s work, but you can do a search and find several cover versions that attempt to recapture its ominous majesty. Here’s a link to how it sounds in the film, but I’d encourage you to seek out the soundtrack album and listen to it in all its pomp, 

The scene it accompanies is shortly after the main character, a ten-year old girl called Chihiro, finds herself stranded in a magical world. Her parents have turned into pigs (yes) and she attempts to find the tunnel that is a gateway back to her reality, only to find that she is now separated from it by a newly-appeared river. A boat begins crossing the water towards her and this music begins to play, all string-plucked notes and magical portent. There are no visible passengers until the boat hits the shore, where Chihiro stands watching. Doors open, the music swells, heralding the arrival of beings that no human child should witness. They appear as masks that float around head height and, floating above the deck, file off the boat one by one. As they disembark, cloaks flow from the masks, like paint tipped from a bucket, flowing down to describe the shapes of their intangible bodies…

…And Chihiro flees, the music fades. On the soundtrack album it reaches a magnificent crescendo and ends on a playful note, punctuated by human voices. It’s a scene that goes from a foreboding menace to awe and wonder, from fear to celebration and back again.

If you’ve never seen the film, see it. It is far, far from being merely a children’s entertainment and occupies a place among the most visionary films ever made.

I have another version of Procession from the Spirited Away Image Album, which I think might be a demo rather than the more usual “song in character” pieces you get on those kinds of tie-ins (but I can’t read Japanese, so I might be completely wrong about that. Feel free to correct me if so via Twitter or email or if you have any further information about this particularly sumptuous film score).

To get a flavour of Joe Hisaishi’s imaginative brilliance, you can watch and listen to a whole concert here.

More info on Studio Ghibli (n English) available here.

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