Monoral – Kiri (Ergo Proxy OP)

When anime studio Manglobe closed down, many were quick to cast their eyes back to their classic series Samurai Champloo as their irrefutable masterpiece. But for me, that status has to instead go to Ergo Proxy – a series that seems, even now, to divide people into those that love it, and those that see it as the epitome of mid 00s, post GITS SAC overly-thinky posturing.

 

In a way, I think, it’s easy to forget that the show *was* actually made in 2006 – it’s certainly aged better than most shows of that era. And while the animation quality across the show varies to shocking degrees, in its finest moments, it shows a level of visual realism miles above most other shows airing at its time. Director Shuko Murase has a few particular directorial quirks he likes to use, embedded deeply in the visual language of live-action cinema and Ergo Proxy builds on the style he laid out in Witch Hunter Robin to deliver a few classic frames that offer a real three-dimensional depth of field that few anime since have achieved in quite the same manner.

 

I could go on all day about Ergo Proxy as a show, and the thematic weight it tackles (or at least attempts to) – but this post is about the opening theme ‘Kiri’, by Monoral. The old joke always went that in a show that used Paranoid Android by Radiohead as its closing theme, it should only follow that the opening should sound so unmistakably like another giant of Western rock music: U2. The song feels part of a neat sub-lineage of English-language themes in anime, following on from the likes of the Lain OP – a world of greys and blues and transitory mediums between digital and human. A plunging, driving beat adds this constant sense of forward motion – nicely pairing with how the show spends the bulk of its length ‘on the move’, its core characters sailing out endlessly into the post-apocalyptic wastes of the show’s worlds.

 

Through it all, this constant plaintiff to ‘come and save me’ – offered up again and again, but seemingly without answer. And yet, for all its icy, tundric coldness, there is a warmth to the song too – a lovelorn paen to the one that ‘completes’ us as human beings. I’ve always felt that for a show so rooted in perpetual twilight and overwhelming grey, the chorus of the song remains one of the most uplifting in anime openings; this immense, empowering cry.

 

Just as the show itself is the story of a journey, both externally – in the real world – and internally, within ourselves, the song too represents a journey. When I first watched Ergo Proxy, I was between jobs – killing time endlessly over aimless summer days that never seemed to end. The only forward momentum back then was the progress of whatever given show I was watching at the time, and of all the series I watched over that endless summer, Ergo Proxy always seemed to sum up the ennui of that time best – introspective, deeply thoughtful and perpetually asking: what is our raison d’etre?

 

In that perpetual ‘come and save me’, there was comfort – in the show’s exploration of the self, there was comfort. And by the end, a self-enclosed story – tucked away at a certain point of time, but on hearing those same refrains of the song once again, perfectly recalled. Ergo Proxy itself isn’t a particularly nostalgic series – but its OP, for me, now always will be. I feel like it’s still out there, asking the same questions, always unanswered…

Yuki Hayashi – You Say Run (My Hero Academia)

I wrote yesterday about how Yuki Hayashi is one of the current rising stars in the world of anime soundtracks, and today I’ll shine the spotlight on arguably one of his greatest, most recognisable tracks – You Say Run.

 

At the core of Hayashi’s sound as a composer is a dynamic between powerful, driving percussion, strings and guitar work. I often note similarities between his style and the string-driven compositions for Final Fantasy 13’s iconic battle-theme – songs like Hayashi’s The Battle of Concepts, with its arching, Eastern-sounding string melody could even be Final Fantasy battle themes themselves.

 

The reason You Say Run stands as one of his strongest tracks though is that it builds on all his other work to create a composition that perhaps functions as a ‘song’ too – more than any of his other tracks. With that irrepressibly rhythmic crunching guitar riff that opens the song to the choppy, keening string lines, every part of You Say Run feels like it tells a story – one of impossible hope and ambition.

 

Paired to My Hero Academia’s themes, You Say Run positively bursts with the ‘you can do it’ message of the very best Shonen action series – it’s the kind of thing to have you leaping out of your bed every morning, pumping some iron and stepping out into another beautiful sunny day. It’s just SO uplifting, and really, when it comes down to it – that’s all we want a soundtrack to do. And You Say Run absolutely nails this.

Naoki Sato – Hiten (live action Rurouni Kenshin movies)

I talked before about how I feel Naoki Sato is one of the great unsung heroes of anime soundtracks, and for me, one of his most essential works is Hiten – from the live action Rurouni Kenshin soundtracks. Anyone who’s seen the Kenshin movies knows that this core theme occurs roughly two or three times per movie, generally at both the opening and close of each movie – as well as over key fight sequences – punctuating the movie’s highest moments of emotion and tension.

 

I’ve talked before about how Sato is a master at conveying a sense of epicness in his soundtracks, and Hiten perfects that with its swirling guitar lines, percussive, marching-band beats and that glorious, majestic choral melody. Such as the power of the tune, I’ve even seen it used on Japanese light-entertainment panel shows to punctuate ‘epic’ scenes when the presenters, for example, head out into the hills of Japan and try and scale a sheer rock face.

 

I’ll always remember the first time I saw the first of the three Kenshin movies and how Hiten so perfectly underscores the moment it’s first used – as we’re shown the unstoppable march of history and unfolding time, as feudal Japan gives way to the Meiji restoration and increasing Westernisation and modernisation. It’s powerful stuff, and Hiten serves its purpose perfectly.

Yuki Hayashi – Chimu no Jiriki (Haikyuu)

I’ve frequently seen Yuki Hayashi as one of the most promising current rising stars in the world of anime soundtracks, with many singing the praises of his work for series like Robotics Notes and My Hero Academia. He also worked on the soundtracks for Death Parade and Gundam Build Fighters, and you know he’s hitting the big time now as he’s been drafted in to do duties on the 2017 incarnation of PreCure.

 

Hayashi’s work is frequently characterised by this incredible sense of propulsiveness and flowing motion; fitting then that his background is in making music for dancesport (competitive ballroom dancing), and that most of his most iconic soundtracks have involved some kind of competitive, tournament style element.

 

Up there with his work on My Hero Academia, I feel one of his finest tracks is Haikyuu’s Chimu no Jiriki – which perfects what I call a certain kind of ‘liveness’ of sound; the drums feel ‘real’ and distinctly ‘played’, as opposed to some cheaply programmed drum machine. The track feels human, invested with muscle and strength and spirit – so crucial for a series about sport.

 

I remember I struggled for a long time to really get into Haikyuu, initially dismissing it as just another boys’ sport series – until, that is, I heard this track play over an iconic moment of the series – where the animation burst into full-on sakuga mode and everything came alive at once. The soaring string section, Moby-esque synth swells and undercurrent of strummed guitar add this ever-present surge to Chimu no Jiriki, drawing us ever onward and onward – a true testament to humanity’s constant strive to ever more impressive physical sporting prowess.

Naoki Sato – Destiny (X – TV Series)

Naoki Sato is a composer I feel deserves more respect within anime fandom than he perhaps gets. With his work split relatively evenly between anime and live-action works, it is perhaps this fracturing that means he’s relatively passed over in terms of anime music discourse. It’s worth noting though that he’s been nominated a number of times for his work by Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars, including for notable war epic The Eternal Zero. He’s also scored the live action adaptations of Rurouni Kenshin, Parasyte and Space Battleship Yamato – so clearly has form for a certain kind of material.

 

I’d like to take us back to what I believe was his very first anime score – from 2001 – for the TV version of Clamp’s X. Now, with the original manga as one of my favourite of all time, and Kawajiri’s TV adaptation being unfairly maligned in my opinion due to its age and use of digi-paint, I believe Sato’s score lies at the heart of the TV show – glowing everything together and adding bucketloads of heart and emotion to the series. Every time I hear the central refrain of core track Destiny, I can vividly remember key character deaths from the series and just an overwhelming, palpable sense of raw mortality and the inescapable fate of the world. A great deal of Sato’s scores operate on this vast, epic, almost militaristic scale, and Destiny is perhaps one of his best core themes – like many of the other songs from the X soundtrack, incredibly strong on melody above all else.

Sawano Hiroyuki – &Z (Aldnoah Zero)

These days, I feel like Aldnoah Zero is remembered in very mixed terms – not hated and not forgotten, certainly, but rarely with any kind of love. At best, perhaps a mild intruige of possibilities offered but never fully realised.

 

But in one aspect at the very least, I feel it excelled – Sawano Hiroyuki’s stellar soundtrack – in many ways marking a transition from his ‘gateway’ trademark anime soundtracks for Kill La Kill and Attack on Titan, to when his focus started to become increasingly ‘song’ centric as opposed to purely soundtrack-based. Arriving at similar junctures, the bulk of works from both Aldnoah Zero and Seraph of the End both ended up filling out his ‘O’ album – and of them all, &Z – the 2nd OP from Aldnoah Zero – is by far my favourite.

 

I always envisioned the song very much within the context of the show itself – this soaring, quasi militaristic anthem-like paen to humanity at its best and worst. Full as it is with its references to keeping your chin up, the pointlessness of war, and the simple question: will it ever end? Building to this chanted, almost gospel-like majesty toward the end, &Z is the apotheosis of Sawano in full-on anthem mode. These sweeping odes to celestial future-topias would return in his OP for the retweaked Gundam Unicorn, and for my money, while his bombast is perhaps better seen in material like Kabaneri and Thunderbolt fantasy, it’s the hope and optimism here that holds some of his greatest charm for me as a composer.

Claris doing ska is this season’s best OP theme

Of the anime series I’ve kept up with this season and haven’t dropped, Claris’ gloriously upbeat Hitorigoto (the OP to icky, but irresistible Oreimo clone Eromanga sensei) is coming out a country mile ahead of any competition. While I’ve come to generally favour the darker, more ‘epic’ OP themes over the past few years (ie. last year’s majestic Kabaneri OP), there’s something about the strut and brass-laden pomp of Hitorigoto that has me looking forward to it weekly more than Eromanga-sensei as a show itself, to be quite honest.

Because, basically, it’s ska-pop through and through – a genre you’d be hard pressed to say was common when it comes to OP themes. On one hand, Claris’ typical bright-hearted melodies and uplifting choruses are all present and correct, but there’s something in the presentation that lifts it above and beyond – a weird mish-mash of manic Specials-esque carnivalia with a soaring spirit that pairs perfectly with the floaty visuals of the OP. Much like the Oreimo OPs – I love the way characters are given a sense of three-dimensionality as they float past. Others have already talked about how Eromanga sensei seems to have had an above-average level of animation polish lavished on it, and the OP is prime example of that – a lush throwback to 2013 when Attack on Titan was airing alongside season 2 of Oreimo. Some things never really change…

I have to confess, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Claris’ sound since ‘Alice’ left the band and ‘Karen’ joined – and Hitorigoto is still some way from the majesty of their Madoka Magica-era singles. And yet… It grows on you, and grows on you.

Maybe, much like Sagari in the OP theme itself – it’s that sense that it’s a song you might secretly dance away to in your bedroom. But only when you’re certain no-one’s looking…