Feb 7, 2015

The Diverse Genius of Yoko Kanno

I’ve compiled some of my favorite Yoko Kanno compositions to showcase the remarkable diversity and flare that typifies her music.
Yoko Kanno

Chances are that if you asked people to name their favorite anime composer, most would give you a shrug and/or a blank look. From those few people who would know what you were talking about, the response would likely, and understandably, be Joe Hisaishi, due to his long-standing relationship with Hayao Miyazaki. Joe Hisaishi’s work is incomparable — just thinking about the Princess Mononoke soundtrack gives me chills. However, if I’m honest, there’s one anime composer whose work I find more exciting, and more importantly, who I listen to with greater frequency: Yoko Kanno.

Which is why I was excited to find this in-depth interview with the generally secretive Kanno. The interview covers a wide range of subjects: Kanno’s earliest musical experiences (playing hymns in her Catholic kindergarten); her impressions of Jesus (“I was a fan of Christ when I was in kindergarten.”); her first exposure to pop music; and her experiences working with different anime directors like Shoji Kawamori (Macross Plus) and Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex). She even discusses Beyoncé and Iceland.

I was particularly fascinated by Kanno’s earnest desire to learn about different forms and styles of music, such as funk and jazz when she was working on the Cowboy Bebop score.

The seeds for that score were sown in middle school and high school when I was a member of the brass band. I’m not sure how it is nowadays, but back then all the songs kids were taught weren’t at all cool, so I made and performed originals. But a part of me was always frustrated because I couldn’t understand why everybody else was content playing the uncool music. I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil, and made you lose it.

This yearning became “Tank!” which was the opening theme. I wanted to make music which would light a fire in me when I played it. Also, when I was “convenient” during my university years, I transcribed a lot of black music. After I began to grasp and understand rhythm I thought, “How is it that they play the drums the same way, but the rhythm is so different between black people and white people?” So I took a trip to New Orleans to listen to jazz and funk.

[…]

I went coast to coast on a Greyhound bus. I didn’t have money to stay in hotels, so I usually slept on the bus. It was something that was possible because I was young at the time… There was a person playing a banjo on the street in Los Angeles, which I thought was cool but I began to notice as I kept moving East the groove of street musicians would swing harder. There were kids the age of high school students playing fantastic funk grooves on just one snare drum. It was through this trip I learned that even within a genre there are differences in the style. This was really exciting for me. I learned that the beat is a form of language.

It’s a fascinating interview with a fascinating musician who is probably the greatest soundtrack composer you’ve never heard of. To help fix that, I’ve compiled some of my favorite Yoko Kanno compositions to showcase the remarkable diversity and flare that typifies her music.

No discussion of Kanno’s music can occur without talking about “Tank!,” the opening theme to Cowboy Bebop. It’s one of the great opening themes of all time, anime or otherwise. Full of punch and swagger, it immediately amps you up and primes you for the wild and woolly world of Spike Spiegel and his fellow down-on-their-luck bounty hunters.

As an added bonus, here’s a live performance of “Tank!” by Yoko Kanno and her band, Seatbelts. The epic sax solo that starts at the 1:50 mark is the cherry on top of this kinetic performance, which looks like it was an absolute blast for everyone present, the performers as well as the audience.

My introduction to Yoko Kanno’s music came through Macross Plus; her score seamlessly blended techno/electronica pieces with melancholy orchestral compositions (performed by members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). “Information High” is of the former, and while it may get a bit over-the-top (thanks to Melodie Sexton’s diva-like vocals), its pulse-pounding beat and soaring synths are a perfect accompaniment for one of Macross Plus’ greatest action sequences. (Note, this fan-made video contains possible Macross Plus spoilers.)

While Macross Plus is filled with awesome mecha action, it is, at its heart, a rather affecting melodrama about three former best friends attempting to live with a horrible trauma that destroyed their friendship. So it makes sense that the gentle, melancholy “Voices” is a repeated musical motif throughout the show, culminating in this gorgeous Kate Bush-like version that plays during the movie’s end credits.

The opening theme for the first season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, “Inner Universe” works because it’s both a brilliant techno/industrial piece and because it borders on the operatic, thanks to the soaring vocals of Russian singer Origa (who sadly died earlier this year) and a boys’ choir. The song’s blend of cold electronic music and soulful human voices is so much more than its parts, and the union brilliantly underscores Ghost in the Shell’s philosophizing on the blurry lines between machine and man.

Despite having an interesting premise and solid opening episode, Terror in Resonance was, in the end, rather underwhelming; it simply didn’t deliver the emotional oomph that it was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it had a gorgeous opening theme, a lush, dreamy ambient pop song titled “Trigger” that also works as a showcase for Yuuki Ozaki’s lovely vocals.

Obviously, Kanno’s done a lot more than these (here’s her discography). While I often pay attention to who’s directing an upcoming anime title, if I find out that Yoko Kanno’s working on the soundtrack, it becomes a must-see for me. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the anime’s going to be good — Space Dandy, anyone? — but it’s still a pretty safe bet that the music will swing like nothing else.


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