Yoko Kanno – Wanna Be An Angel (Macross Plus OST)

I’ve avoided talking about Macross Plus’ stunning soundtrack here until now, as I’m currently writing about the film in depth for my MA thesis. But now I’m near to completion, I’ll spend a little while selling you on the majesty of its OST – in my opinion one of Yoko Kanno’s greatest works to this date, and one of the finest anime OST ever created.

 

While for ages I was initially swayed by the pop energy of tracks like Information High, in recent times – after many re-watches of the film for my MA thesis – I’ve found myself coming around more to the angelic choral power of Wanna Be An Angel, a song that in many ways serves as Sharon Apple’s elegy and central ‘theme’. Reoccuring in snatches throughout the film but occupying a key role in the second concert sequence in the film, this is when Sharon really ‘goes wild’, drifting across the city in a dizzying storm of feathers and digital effects – the crowds and unlookers gazing away in soporific adulation. All under her spell.

 

But returning to the track itself, sung as it is in Kanno’s invented language for the film, I love how it weaves between almost recognisable phrases (maybe English at times, maybe Spanish at others) but remains utterly undefinabe and alien to our ears – as does the melodic structure itself, which seems to fit itself naturally to simply what will sound most utterly pleasant to the ears. A hymnlike opus for the ages themselves – this soaring melody which reaches back into antiquity and away into the distant future. Just as the film itself is dedicated to future pioneers, so to this song – which , like many of Kanno’s other compositions for the film, like *something* that might really exist as a musical form in the future – pan-human, -pan-nation, a new transnational ode that speaks to all humanity and races as one.

 

And as it drifts away on an instrumental outro, this twinkling piano and guitar line intertwined as one – bells twinkling in this soupy production that reminds me of Madonna’s Into The Blue era, I’m reminded of how much this song really is this uber-idol paen to the power of music and the way it speaks to the very essence of our emotions. The key change in the final stages uplifting the song even further to newer heights, a melody that seems to touch the heavens themselves. It goes without saying that Wanna Be An Angel is a beautiful song, but something in it speaks to a beyond-beauty that perhaps only comes because the lyrics are unknowable and alien – it is the great unknown, but also the truest essence, the simple truth that music – in any language – can speak to our very hearts.

Yoko Kanno – After, In The Dark (Macross Plus OST)

This 9-minute-long mega-opus from the Macross Plus soundtrack is perhaps the truest signifier for what I’ve come to see as a Pacific Era ambience for the film. This idea that in the film’s utopian future dream, the world exists as this humanist transnational paradise of people coming together in mutual adulation for the power of popular song.

 

Produced as it is to emulate the sound of a live concert, I’ve long come to love the general ambience and feel the song has – this visage of burnt umber sunset skies graced with the lens of neon lasers shooting away into the airy darkness of a modern metropolis. Cresting on powerful guitar riffs and sharp percussive drumming, this propulsive acoustic guitar line carries us away into the sweep and swell of the utterly alien lyrics – like other tracks from the soundtrack, invented by Kanno for the movie itself.

 

In its central refrain of ‘I’ve been waiting for you’ we have all the sultriness and unbridled desire of Sharon Apple set-loose, this siren call of irresistible sinuosity. It creeps into our ears, winding in and *in* – deeper over the 9 minutes, becoming this trancelike drug of auditory command – a lapping ocean of sonic desire. The outdoor-stadium, open-air feel continues into the song’s second movement, the lengthy, minimalist trance-synth sweep that soundtracks Isamu’s ‘final’ flight in the movie’s conclusive moments – as he flies toward the heart of Sharon’s digital projection. Away and away, into the clouds – mind and body seeping into one.

 

If Macross Plus is a movie about the power of music – of its almost drug-like ambience and capacity in its purest state, then After, In The Dark is the epitome of that manifesto – an illusory masterpiece that stands as a multi-genre exploratory journey into a universe of sonic delight.

Karen Aoki & Daisuke Hasegawa – Great Days (Jojo’s OP)

When Jojo’s part 4 started airing, did we really think, that in its final part, it would greet us with the greatest of all Jojo’s OPs to date? Yes, even greater than Bloody Stream. But the thing about Great Days is that every listen unveils newness to the song’s many depths. It is the *ultimate* of pure pop bombast, a rich duet of tones – from Aoki’s rich, sultry jazziness to Hasegawa’s boyish Duran Duran-esque pomp. The strut of the drum beat, the brassy stabs of sunny joy and *that* harmony line – it’s a timeless anthem for the ages that allies itself to the ultimate payoff all Jojo’s series hold at their core – that good will eventually, even in the direst of times, ultimately succeed. In many ways, the track reminds me of other contemporary pop song greats like Take That’s Shine – anthems that feel like they’re installed in the future of MOR radio, all throwback to the 60s halcyon era of radiant optimism. It’s about aiming higher, going higher – bettering yourself and basking in the sheen of humanity’s potential. And what could be more of a ‘get up and go’ unbridled optimism than this track and Jojo’s core essence – taken hand in hand?

Sawano Hiroyuki – 1hundredknight: M (Seraph of the End OST)

I always think of Seraph of the End as the moment Sawano Hiroyuki truly ‘arrived’. Of course, he’d had big hitters before, but it was with Seraph of the End and the launch of his NZK project that he seemed to become a truly essential, ubiquitous part of the current anime landscape. Inescapable, but always top class – firing out the smashes with every passing season.

 

And what a smash his soundtrack for Seraph was – a bestial roar at the heart of WIT’s rough and ready background art style for the show. 1hundredknight: M (utilising his trademark code-style track names) contains the core leitmotif for the series, one he would refashion in the series ED theme. Displayed here though, in the original OST, it achieves full majesty – the scale and bombast characteristic of all Sawano’s work reaching peak epic-ness. Building and building with this almost hip-hop like swagger. All brassy horns and aegis of ages – so full powered in its essence and majesty. From piano to strings, swelling and rising gently in the opening – applying gently more and more force, this track feels pliable and tactile to the extreme, so involved with the body and touch – like a flow of blood swelling and cresting in the bleakest of snow-blown nights.

Sawano Hiroyuki – Next 2 U -eUC- (Gundam Unicorn ED)

Another absolute gem from Sawano’s NZK vocal-led project – I love how while the OP to the Gundam Unicorn TV re-edit is sung entirely in English, this one opens with Japanese lyrics before shifting into English later on the song. Like the OP, it is so utterly redolent in hope and energetic optimism. A trailblazing anthem of pure power. Working in some of Sawano’s flirtations with country-rock and the kind of strutting soft-guitar lines you can imagine backing a Taylor Swift track, the pop purity of this song is another bitesize proportion of Eurovision worthy excellence. A flag-waving anthem to all of humanity, telling us to strive toward better, cleaner, purer excellence – a world where humanity is all. Refrashinging the melody line from Sawano’s own core orchestral movement from the Gundam Unicorn OST, this song feels like it ties together, glues together, everything the series represents in one cohesive piece – which really, is everything an ED theme should do.

Sawano Hiroyuki – Into the Sky (Gundam Unicorn OP)

Of all of Sawano Hiroyuki’s NZK tracks, I find myself returning to this one the most often. There’s a subtlety to it, a pure beauty in Tielle’s vocal line that echoes the optimism and utopian dream that I’ve talked before lies at the heart of what Gundam Unicorn is about. It’s about letting light shine through into your life – about putting an end to human sacrifice. It’s about, hope, eternal, through and through.

 

Those sleek Euro-dance synths, and Sawano’s trademark pounding piano lines – Sawano’s NZK music has always been heavily Western in sound, but this is perhaps more so than any of his other NZK tracks, this uber-anthem of Eurovision-esque proportions, all silver-lined mellifluousness. It’s star studded, sparkling away in the crystal blackness of space. A trailblazer of hopeful energy.

 

It’s only you that can fly this mystical unicorn into the sky…

Sawano Hiroyuki – UNICORN (Gundam Unicorn OST)

Part of me wonders if released in different circumstances, Gundam Unicorn might have been a bigger hit. While it was certainly by no means a flop, its unique release strategy, first as expensive individual OVAs and then, years later, as a compendium two cour series that ceremoniously chopped said OVAs up into 20 minute segments always felt like it spread out the hype for what could have been a glorious wholesale revival of Gundam in perhaps the same way Jojos exploded in popularity after its latest anime incarnation. Not to say that Gundam isn’t big now – but I still feel it could be even bigger.

 

Central to the pure pleasure of Gundam Unicorn though is, for me, this gorgeous Utopian feel it has – like Star Trek. All clean lines and white majesty through the blackness of a star-studded space. The dirt and grittiness of the earlier UC series has cleaned the way for an end-game, a finale of magisterial proportions where the hope and optimism the series has been hinting at all along is so close, so utterly within sight.

 

And Sawano Hiroyuki’s central orchestral movement for the series is right at the heart of that. So full, so powerful – like an anthem to a real-world state power. All choral bombast and ever rising grandeur, two intercurling themes that go away from the out and out rawness of some of his other work (Attack on Titan springs to mind) to offer a cleaner, richer kind of power. I always imagine this song playing out at the Olympics or something like that, this utter ode and paen to the potential of humanity as a race – what we might achieve if we put aside our differences. That beauty is so special, so optimistic – and I find myself returning to this piece again and again as the ultimate in inspiring ‘let’s do this’ energy.

Hunter x Hunter and the art of aesthetic intellectualism

Hunter x Hunter is back in Weekly Shonen Jump and I’m loving it. Whereas previous staggered returns of the manga from its endless long hiatuses have become the stuff of infamy, and arguably plunged the reader back into material that requires a Wiki-level knowledge of the series to parse, this time round I’ve found the current arc to be relatively breezy, with one of the singular best chapters I’ve seen in WSJ attracting plenty of Twitter attention thanks to its mindblowing Junji Ito-esque monster designs.

But what I want to talk about today is something I’ve come to develop an uneasy love for in Hunter x Hunter. Its (excessive) love of words. Manga, of course, is a visual medium, and you’ll find many excellent discourses and YouTube videos on artists that master panel flow and the ‘shape’ of reading a page – a golden ratio like arc of how to direct the reader’s eye across the page and its composite panels/action.

Hunter x Hunter often seems to feel like the very opposite – the infamous ‘wall of text’ (Google ‘hunter x hunter wall of text’ for an idea of what I mean here) – a veritable deluge of heavy handed info dumping that’d have most readers rolling their eyes in dismay. But I’ve come to wonder if there’s a certain irony, or design in how Togashi uses pages like this, namely – what if his walls of text are his equivalent of modern art? Maybe his wacked out info dump pages are the literary equivalent of a Damien Hirst print or shark tank – a statement that is not so much meant to be parsed as words, but an object or container, of which words are a component?

One of the things I love most about Hunter x Hunter right now is that Togashi’s position in WSJ is unassailable. He can take these lengthy hiatuses because he *can*. Other than One Piece, pretty much no other manga sells as much as Hunter x Hunter does *when* it does actually release a new volume (ie. once a year). People have often lambasted Togashi for returning to WSJ just long enough to pen enough new chapters for a new volume, before going on hiatus again – imagine trying to read a work of HxH’s complexity at this pace – holding *all* that info in your head for a year at a time, before picking up right where you left off a year down the line?

But in this protracted experience, I’ve started to wonder if this becomes part of the ‘art’ itself? Many fans look to HxH’s message – the one about life’s true meaning being far more about the journey than the end goal, and perhaps it holds true here too. What we understand HxH to be as a narrative work increasingly becomes subservient to its themes – and in much the same way, its overly intellectualised ideas (which sometimes read like something culled from a textbook on game theory or psychology) are part of this cut and mix pastebook of ideas. A kind of David Bowie approach to manga – constantly shifting genre, shifting thesis, shifting drive – pulling in all these aspects into a singular vein that becomes increasingly introspective and ‘thinky’.

As Hunter x Hunter becomes more and more an ‘art piece’ (as the ‘quality’ of the art consequently descends into the barest of sketches) – perhaps we come to understand it in a different manner. Just like techno, tribal music or the works of Philip Glass or Brian Eno – its cluttered textheavy layout encourage a new aestheticism, one in which the colour, shape and flavour of ‘information’ achieves the artistic liberalism of what other artists might achieve purely with their pens. Togashi is operating less in our eyes, and more in our minds – forcing our brains to fill in the dots, creating our own palate of understanding. If Hunter x Hunter is about the core of the human psyche and condition – maybe operating on this more cerebral level is the truest route toward that?

Early impressions and the dangers of ‘passing’ on quality anime

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the series the fall between the cracks of anime fandom, or perhaps more accurately, ‘quality’ shows (if we’re to pretend for a moment that the notion of quality isn’t simply a margin of subjective taste) that end up slipping below the radar for a while, or even permanently.

As anime streaming has meant we consume shows more and more within a heavily discourse and hype driven weekly basis, the first three weeks of any given season become a heady period of The Unknown. What’s good? What’s worth spending your precious time on? Three episode test. Dropped. etc etc. We’re ruthless now. We burn out easily, we consign shows to the trash within one episode – no more than a click of a button on MAL and its a relic of a ‘poor season’.

And it got me thinking about shows that either lingered in this zone of low to average mass interest, and how some manage to claw their way out to become real cherished gems. Recent examples include Tsuki Ga Kirei and Rakugo Shinju – especially in the latter case and its triumphant second season, its easy to forget that when the first season of Rakugo aired, many initially passed over it – dismissing it as obscure, overly intellectual or simply not hyped enough. It was only in time, and as discourse spread that it was a ‘work of quality’ that its MAL rating began to creep up and its status established as a modern classic. Likewise with Tsuki Ga Kirei, many initially binned it off after episode one as a by the numbers romance series – only returning to it later in the game when people began to rave about its masterful, naturalistic style. The show is now sitting pretty with an impressive 8.4 average rating on MAL.

There are also shows that fare less luckily. There are some, like The Great Passage, which are a victim of circumstance – consigned to an ill fate on Amazon, unpromoted and unloved, this series – another naturalistic, low-key masterpiece – never got the attention it deserved when it actually ‘aired’, and by the time US fans started covering it, it felt like the hype was already gone, further compounded by Amazon’s paywall strategy.

And as for this season? Allow me to present the case of 18if, a bizarre stylistic exercise helmed up by Koji Morimoto of Macross Plus, Project Eden intro and Studio 4C fame. I’ll be the first to admit the show has its flaws – inconsistent in both animation quality and tone. But its also one of the most adventurously and visually interesting shows this season. And yet it currently languishes with a 6.2 MAL rating and was so unpopular it didn’t even get picked up for weekly reviews on ANN. The consensus is evidently out – this show just plain isn’t worth watching. And yet, it continues, a new episode released every week – and especially in a ‘portfolio’ style show like this where every episode takes on a different style, and mini narrative (like Flip Flappers), every episode feasibly has the potential to be a knockout, even if the bulk of the show is poor.

Time will tell if 18if picks up in terms of long-term discourse – but I think for the time being, it – and shows like it, which suffered to lesser degrees – present an interesting example in how fandom gravitates (or rather, doesn’t gravitate) around certain shows in the current streaming climate.

fhána – Hello!My World!! (Knight’s & Magic OP)

From releasing one of the singularly best OP themes of the past year or two in the form of Kobayashi-san’s Dragon Maid, fhana are fast emerging as one of the most continually excellent purveyors of OP themes operating in the industry right now. And they’ve delivered up another gem in the form of Hello! My World!! (all those exclamation marks!) – a first rate pop effort that sounds like their take on a Fairy Tail OP.

I’ve started to think of fhana as a kind of Japanese version of Alphabeat (remember them?!) – and while their styles aren’t overtly similar, they have that same thrillingly poptastic optimism, mixed male/female groups with a spirit of Nordic pop bliss. The chorus lines and harmonies are just so ‘perfect’, slipstreaming through this barely containable optimism and joy at the essence of life. I love it.

ps. Will we ever work out the issue with that rogue apostophe in the title of Knight’s And Magic? And will every fhana OP song now contain the word ‘communication’?