In recent years, anime has grown increasingly popular and has attracted audiences from all around the world. Consisting of an infinitely nuanced collection of masterpieces, the art form has garnered a global appeal due to its invaluable contributions to the history of animation. An integral part of anime is the injection of music which elevates the animation and curates a completely immersive experience.
A true pioneer in this field, Yoko Kanno commented on the fundamental difference between anime and big-budget American productions, stating: “Japanese anime is really not vast and parliamentary like Hollywood films. There are a small number of people with exceptional talent that carry the whole piece, and I think that’s what makes Japanese anime so great.”
Adding, “These types of projects rarely interest me. It may not be democratic but I’d much rather be asked to provide music for crazy people who come up with crazy projects. Works which express taboos within the human psyche outright, or works which express thoughts and habits of the producer. I think these are characteristic of Japanese anime.”
In order to understand this unique relationship between music and anime, we take a look at some of the best soundtracks ever used in the history of the art form.
10 greatest anime soundtracks of all time:
10. Attack on Titan (2013)
Attack on Titan is probably the most popular anime in the world right now, and there’s a good reason for that. It is an incredibly engaging story featuring alternative histories and morbid fantasies, told through an action-packed narrative involving the residents of an isolated island.
For an anime like Attack on Titan, the soundtrack plays an important role in maintaining the cinematic tension during crucial scenes where narrative revelations and power visuals overwhelm us. Hiroyuki Sawano’s composition does just that, generating a terrifying sense of impending doom for the things to come.
9. Berserk (1997)
Berserk was thrust back in the mainstream consciousness recently after the tragic demise of its creator – the brilliant Kentaro Miura. Set in a medieval world, the anime follows the rise of a lost mercenary who finds refuge under the leadership of a strangely alluring leader.
The world of Berserk is truly depressing, an atmospheric quality that is amplified by Susumu Hirasawa’s music which becomes the heartbeat of the anime. Critics have compared Berserk’s vision to accomplished Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi but Miura exists in a realm of his own.
8. Mushishi (2005)
One of the greatest modern anime masterpieces, Mushishi is an exceptionally tender exploration of the endless mysteries of the world we inhabit. It follows the adventures of a man who called Ginko who travels from place to place in order to study supernatural entities called Mushi.
Toshio Masuda’s beautiful score is an essential part of the magic of Mushishi. The music comes in waves of melancholic reflections, urging us to shed our prejudices and learn to empathise with the tiniest of creatures who co-exist with us.
7. Hunter x Hunter (2011)
Another extremely popular entry on this list, the 2011 edition of Hunter x Hunter is a reboot of the anime adaptation of Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga. The anime revolves around a young boy who discovers that his dead father is actually alive and is a member of an elite group of people called Hunters.
Yoshihisa Hirano’s composition is the perfect fit for Hunter x Hunter’s unique energy, contributing to the curation of a perfect fantasy experience. An essential part of any anime diet, Hunter x Hunter holds a special place in the memories of those who have gotten lost in its sprawling world.
6. Samurai Champloo (2004)
Samurai Champloo is a bonafide masterpiece by one of the greatest anime directors of all time – Shinichirō Watanabe. A postmodern recreation of Japan in the Edo-era, Samurai Champloo is an unexpectedly poignant chronicle of the fading relevance of the samurai.
Watanabe is known for his brilliant use of music in his works and Samurai Champloo is no exception. The infusion of hip-hop tracks into a reconstruction of pre-modern Japan is a fantastic artistic choice, especially when it features the works of artists like Nujabes.
5. Ping Pong the Animation (2014)
In recent years, Masaaki Yuasa has been garnering a reputation as one of the most promising directors in Japan who has elevated anime to the domain of the avant-garde. Ping Pong the Animation is proof of Yuasa’s innovative spirit, conducting a fascinating exploration of the fallibility of talent and human ambition through fluid visuals.
Composer Kensuke Ushio has worked on celebrated projects like Space Dandy but Ping Pong remains his finest achievement. Yuasa always likes to play with accepted conventions and the synchronisation of electronic music with constantly shifting animations makes the audience feel as if we are trapped in a sad but beautiful dream.
4. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
A true cult classic, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 neo-noir masterpiece is a striking investigation of modernity. Following the story of a cyborg who embarks on a quest to find a hacker called The Puppet Master, Ghost in the Shell ranks right up there with other influential cinematic examinations of the question of individual identity like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another.
Kenji Kawai’s composition forms an indispensable part of the cyber-punk atmosphere of Ghost in the Shell. ‘Making of a Cyborg’ remains one of the most iconic opening theme songs in the history of anime, a masterful rendition where Kawai combined classical Japanese notes with Bulgarian harmonies to create a haunting effect.
3. FLCL (2000)
Even after all these years, FLCL is still regarded by many as an incredibly important step in the evolution of anime even though almost everyone agrees that it’s truly indecipherable. It tells the story of a 12-year old boy whose life completely changes when a mysterious woman shows up.
A major reason behind FLCL’s enduring appeal is its chaotic energy which is dangerously contagious. That energy is sustained by the song of the popular Japanese alternative rock band The Pillows, resulting in a voyeuristic experience where each moment threatens to explode with volatile force.
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
Probably one of the greatest works ever made in not just the history of anime but animated films as a whole, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a deceptively complex incursion into loaded themes like philosophy, religion and post-humanism. It is an existential masterpiece which manages to effectively silence us with its grand visions of life and death.
There can be no doubt that the soundtrack by Shirō Sagisu is actually magical, transporting us to an apocalyptic nightmare where we can no longer tell the difference between angels and demons. The opening theme, titled ‘A Cruel Angel’s Thesis’, gives the audience a glimpse of the anime’s tragic sensibilities right from the start.
1. Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Shinichirō Watanabe’s timeless magnum opus, Cowboy Bebop changed anime forever. Structured as a collection of misadventures which progress slowly towards a nihilistic void, Cowboy Bebop draws on film noir aesthetics to tell the story of a disillusioned bounty hunter. Yoko Kanno’s unforgettable jazz tracks make us understand what it must feel like to be lost in the dark emptiness of outer space.
Yoko Kanno reflected: “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.”