HomeIn SeriesHistoricalFrom Gagaku to Studio Ghibli: The Magic of Joe Hisaishi's music

From Gagaku to Studio Ghibli: The Magic of Joe Hisaishi’s music

The enchanting music of Studio Ghibli films has captivated audiences around the world for decades. In this blog, our contributor BP invites you to explore a brief history of Japan’s musical culture, the evolution of anime music, and the success of Studio Ghibli’s partnership with composer Joe Hisaishi. Through five of the Studio’s most iconic movies and scores, you can read what makes the music so captivating and how Hisaishi draws from different musical cultures to create a universal feeling of nostalgia and magic.

Gagaku: The Musical Precursor to Studio Ghibli Music

Japanese music has a rich and diverse history that spans centuries, rooted in traditional forms such as gagaku, noh music, and shamisen. Particularly, Gagaku, the ancient imperial court music of Japan, has a rich history spanning over a millennium, incorporating both native Japanese and imported instruments from neighboring cultures. There are three main types of Gagaku music: Utaimono (vocal music based on native folk poetry), Kuniburi no utamai (native imperial and Shinto Japanese music), and Tōgaku and Komagaku (music influenced by neighbouring cultures).Gagaku stands out among traditional Japanese music genres with its distinctive melodic and rhythmic qualities, formalized gestures, and restrained elegance, making it a notable presence in ceremonies and rituals and influencing modern Japanese works.

As Japan transitioned from the Edo period into the Meiji era, the country experienced a significant transformation. Marked by the Meiji Restoration in 1868, this transition involved the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and the end of the samurai-led feudal system.. Social, political, and economic reforms during this period laid the groundwork for Japan’s transformation into a modern, industrialized nation and a major global player. Musically, Western instruments and musical styles began to influence Japanese music, giving rise to a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions. This evolution laid the foundation for the unique sounds that would eventually accompany anime and the films of Studio Ghibli.

Hanging Scroll by Utagawa Kunihisa

A hanging scroll by Utagawa Kunihisa 歌川国久 (produced 1801-1818) shows a group of geishas and young attendant playing shamisen and kokyu, seated woman offering cup of sake, courtesan standing and holding fan and long metal pipe. Ink, colour and gold on silk.

The Evolution of Anime Music

The origins of anime can be found in Japan’s early experiments with animation, including works like Jun’ichi Kōuchi’s “Namakura Gatana” (An Obtuse Sword, 1917). These pioneering animations set the stage for the development of the medium, which eventually led to the creation of iconic characters such as Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom) in Osamu Tezuka’s manga and its animated adaptation in the 1960s.

The history of anime music in the 20th century is closely intertwined with the medium’s evolution. In the early days, music in anime often consisted of simple and repetitive melodies. However, as anime became more sophisticated and diverse, so did its music. The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of iconic theme songs and soundtracks that complemented the storytelling. However, the turning point came with the birth of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and the collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi’s exceptional talent and ability to blend traditional Japanese elements with modern orchestration ushered in a new era of anime music. His timeless compositions have become an integral part of Studio Ghibli’s magic, enriching the storytelling and deepening the emotional impact of each film.

Namakura Gatana (1917)

A scene from the oldest surviving anime: Namakura Gatana (1917), a two-minute animation of a samurai testing his new sword.

Joe Hisaishi: The Sound of Studio Ghibli

Joe Hisaishi, born Mamoru Fujisawa, is a Japanese composer and conductor who has enjoyed a prolific career. His partnership with Hayao Miyazaki began in the early 1980s, marking the start of a musical journey that would capture the hearts of viewers worldwide. What sets Hisaishi apart is his ability to create music that becomes an integral character within each Studio Ghibli film. His compositions are deeply emotive, and they transcend language, allowing the music to convey the subtlest of emotions. In addition to his work with Studio Ghibli, Hisaishi has composed music for a wide range of other films, television shows, and video games. Hisaishi’s compositional style defies conventional expectations of Japanese music, often weaving together influences from the Western symphonic tradition, pop, jazz, electronic and new age music, and minimalism.

In 2010, Hisaishi was honored with the Medal of Honour by the Japanese government and was appointed as a Professor at the Japanese National College of Music. During that remarkable year, he clinched his sixth Japanese Academy Award for ‘Best Music,’ adding to his impressive tally of eight Japanese Academy Awards. His exceptional success, recognition, and esteem have rightfully earned him the title of ‘the Japanese John Williams.’

Joe Hisaishi

Joe Hisaishi (centre) with film producers Hayao Miyazaki (left) and Toshio Suzuki (right)

Musical Experimentation: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a cornerstone in Studio Ghibli’s formation, was created during the establishment of the studio in 1985, reflecting a pivotal moment in Miyazaki’s career. Released in 1984, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows Princess Nausicaä as she navigates the toxic jungle, aiming to understand and coexist with the environment while preventing global catastrophe.

Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind contributed significantly to Studio Ghibli’s rise and marked the beginning of his enduring collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi’s enchanting score, seamlessly blends epic and emotional elements, whilst character themes, especially the uplifting melody linked to Nausicaä, create a profound emotional connection to the protagonist. Like Gagaku’s blend of musical influences, the score features traditional Japanese instruments for cultural authenticity and incorporates Late Romantic orchestration and electronica, offering a modern twist on ancient mythology. Hisaishi’s musical experimentation includes the use of Indian tabla and harp, along with synthesizer sounds representing machinery. The Yamaha Music Entertainment Holdings presents thirteen songs from the movie suited for beginner to intermediate piano.  

Musical Stasis: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Set in post-war rural Japan, My Neighbor Totoro’s significance lies in its ability to capture the simplicity and wonder of childhood, as well as its deep connection to nature. Its portrayal of the power of imagination and the bonds of family makes it a beloved and timeless classic in the world of animation. Totoro, the beloved forest spirit within the film (a charming blend of Japanese tanuki raccoons, cats, and owls), has even emerged as Studio Ghibli’s enduring mascot, symbolising the studio’s guiding motto: “Where Imagination Begins.”

My Neighbour Totoro

The magic of Studio Ghibli’s “immersive realism” derives much of its authenticity from Hisaishi’s evocative score. To understand this, one must grasp the essence of the Japanese concept of 間 “ma,” which directly translates to “emptiness” or “negative space.” Imagine it as the quiet moments in a painting, where what’s left unsaid speaks volumes. Hisaishi’s compositions skillfully emphasises repetition and the spaces between notes, inviting the audience to shift their focus from plot to place, from linearity to the landscape. This unique approach, blending visual and musical stasis, is the very essence of what continues to make the film and its score resonate so profoundly to this day. The official folio for piano presents the four theme songs from the movie arranged for easy piano: “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Hey, Let’s Go,” “Cat Bus and “The Path of the Wind.”

Joe Hisaishi performs “My Neighbor Totoro”

East Meets West: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki's Delivery Service

Following the success of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a charming coming-of-age tale about a young witch and her talking cat. Based on Eiko Kadono’s novel of the same name, the movie explores themes of independence, and self-reliance as Kiki establishes her own delivery service: she learns to accept herself, and her ability to adapt to change while pursuing one’s passions and maturing into young adulthood.

The whimsical and delightful score is characterised by its playful and enchanting melodies that mirror Kiki’s adventures, with Kiki’s theme being a memorable and uplifting melody that reflects her youthful exuberance and determination. Reflecting Studio Ghibli’s signature blending of Eastern and Western influences, Hisaishi used the accordion, mandolin and dulcimer to create a continental European musical atmosphere, as well as a Fairlight synthesiser, used earlier in the soundtrack to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Available for piano are fourteen songs from the movie, the easy and intermediate version, with English and Japanese editions available for both volumes.

Joe Hisaishi conducts “Mother’s Broom” from Kiki’s Delivery Service with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London

Music as Storytelling: Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away is a surreal and magical masterpiece that takes audiences on a transcendent journey into a fantastical bathhouse for spirits. Chihiro Ogino is a young girl who becomes trapped in a magical and mysterious world after her parents are transformed into pigs. To rescue her family and return to the human world, Chihiro must navigate a treacherous spirit bathhouse owned by a formidable witch, Yubaba. Along her journey, Chihiro encounters a variety of unique and often eccentric spirits, forming profound connections and undergoing personal growth, ultimately discovering the importance of courage, empathy, and self-discovery in a captivating and beautifully animated adventure. 

Spirited Away

Hisaishi’s score for the film is a hauntingly beautiful and emotionally resonant masterpiece, known for its evocative character themes, such as the opening theme, “One Summer’s Day,” which mirrors Chihiro’s personal growth throughout her adventure. Additionally, the music serves a multifaceted role in the film, confronting the theme of greed when No-Face embarks on a destructive rampage, capturing profound loneliness and melancholy during Chihiro’s train ride, and exploring the complexities of memory with the piece “Reprise.” Overall, Hisaishi’s music not only enriches the storytelling but also maintains an enduring connection to Miyazaki’s cinematic world. Spirited Away’s soundtrack is available for beginner and intermediate pianists in a folio containing thirteen of the movie’s most iconic songs. The score gives the possibility for the pieces to be performed either solo or in duos.

Hisaishi performs “One Summer’s Day”

Final Thoughts

In tracing the enchanting journey from Gagaku, Japan’s ancient imperial court music, to the magical realm of Studio Ghibli, the music of Joe Hisaishi serves as a bridge connecting historical richness with cinematic splendor. Gagaku, with its formalized gestures and restrained elegance, echoes in the essence of Studio Ghibli’s scores, where traditional Japanese instruments blend seamlessly with modern orchestration. Hisaishi’s collaboration with Miyazaki, starting with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, encapsulates this cultural amalgamation, infusing Ghibli films with universal nostalgia and magic. Notably, the enchanting sonic world created by Hisaishi for Studio Ghibli movies, which have captivated audiences worldwide, are available for various instrumentations and levels of proficiency by Yamaha Music Entertainment Holdings. Just as Gagaku resonates through centuries, Hisaishi’s compositions transcend borders, reminding us that the timeless language of music speaks to the core of the human experience and the power of music to invite us to dream and believe in mystic hope. 

Must Read