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This Just In: Joe Hisaishi, A Symphonic Celebration

Joe Hisaishi, dressed in black formal attire, faces forward with arms crossed and a determined expression on his face. The album cover of Joe Hisaishi, A Symphonic Celebration is in the background, but visually blurred.

Joe Hisaishi’s film music finds new life in "Joe Hisaishi, A Symphonic Celebration" on the Deutsche Grammophon label, joining the ranks of legendary classical musicians including Leonard Bernstein, Max Richter, and John Williams.

Joe Hisaishi, composer, pianist, conductor, and longtime collaborator of animated filmmaker auteur and Studio Ghibli director/co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, is something of a legend in the film scoring world. An iconic pairing as inseparable as Steven Spielberg and John Williams or Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Miyazaki and Hisaishi have established themselves as a definitive artistic partnership, as seen through their more than 40 years of collaboration (primarily as a part of the Studio Ghibli franchise), including films such as Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and the recent Academy Award nominee The Boy and the Heron.

Though perhaps not as immediately recognizable to American film audiences as a figure like John Williams, you would be hard pressed to find any fans of Japanese animation who aren’t at least familiar with (but more often enthralled by) Hisaishi’s work - and this is because there hasn’t been a Miyazaki film without Hisaishi’s musical signature since their first collaboration in 1983.

What is most important to me is to compose music. The most important thing in life to Mr. Miyazaki is to draw pictures. We are both focused on those most important things in our lives.
Joe Hisaishi

Elaborating on their collaborative process, Hisaishi keeps a surprising distance from Miyazaki. Per the New York Times:

“We don’t see each other in private . . . We don’t eat together. We don’t drink together. We only meet to discuss things for work.”

Hisaishi continues, “People think that if you really know a person’s full character then you can have a good working relationship, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true . . . What is most important to me is to compose music. The most important thing in life to Mr. Miyazaki is to draw pictures. We are both focused on those most important things in our lives.”

And in these collaborations, Hisaishi historically has been brought in once the majority of storyboarding was complete, with sometimes very little to work from. From Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Times:

“Over the decades, the two men developed an intricate working method involving a lot of back and forth. Early in the production process, Miyazaki would give Hisaishi an idea of the story, some sketches, sometimes just a few words.”

But for this artistic duo, the results speak for themselves:

Hisaishi’s musical language is defined by several key facets: his melodic gift, adaptable sense of harmony, mastery of orchestral color, and his superhuman ability to perfectly set a scene to music. But his touching tunes and deft orchestration, brought to life in A Symphonic Celebration by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s baton, do not require visual stimuli to pull on your heartstrings, and this album is proof.

Exhibit A: One Summer’s Day (The Name of Life), from Spirited Away (2001)

Hisaishi One Summer Day Excerpt.wav

To my ear, Hisaishi’s sparse piano opening (performed here by the composer) immediately evokes a deep pastoral beauty, not unlike the opening to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. A simple, understated arpeggio lulls the listener in, but shortly after, abrupt chromatic alterations imply that all is not well or as it seems – and this is only in the first 30 seconds of the track.

Exhibit B: The Demon God, from Princess Mononoke (1997)

Hisaishi The Demon God excerpt.wav

If One Summer’s Day is a masterclass in subtlety, The Demon God is a Mahler hammer over the head with its intensity of orchestral gestures. Hisaishi wastes no time in setting the tone; a deep uncertainty and anxiety is instilled with roaring and rattling percussive hits, while eerie dissonant strings shimmer over an almost medieval lower-voiced choir. This music is primal and warlike; perfectly fitting given its title.

And for something completely different . . . Exhibit C:

Hisaishi A Town with an Ocean View excerpt.wav

Radically varied in tone, A Town with an Ocean View, as heard in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), begins with an orchestral flourish, and is quickly pared down with a quirky theme introduced by pizzicato strings alone. As the track continues beyond this excerpt, Hisaishi builds out that theme, making it more boisterous as it evolves in an almost baroque fashion. Even without the visual component of the film, Hisaishi's score builds a world of its own and invites the listener to explore it.

Above all else, this album succeeds most in its polished display of the profound range of Hisaishi’s compositional voice. His music never fails to meet the moment, from inspiring joy and playfulness, to invoking wrath and doom, and everything in the middle. As presented on A Symphonic Celebration, it is music that stands firmly on its own, offering vivid vignettes into fantastical worlds – no movie ticket required.

William Peacock is a Lead Music Programmer for WCRB.