Ghibli’s unsung hero

Carissa Liberatore

Ghibli’s unsung hero
July 25, 2020 Carissa Liberatore

Studio Ghibli are a powerhouse of storytelling and masterful artwork. Their films often have sweeping vistas of painted backgrounds that would look right at home in gilded frames, and their story pacing is unhurried compared to many American animated films. But the true, unsung hero of Studio Ghibli films is the music and soundscapes. 

Many of my favorite Ghibli soundtracks come from movies for which Mamoru Fujisawa (also known as Joe Hisaishi) was the musical director and composer. Going in-depth into Joe Hisaishi’s brilliance would be another article by itself. Desiring to take a larger view of the music, I re-watched several films such as Whisper Of The Heart and The Secret World of Arrietty, and watched When Marnie Was There for the first time.

I only remembered Whisper of The Heart because of its use of Take Me Home, Country Roads, originally by John Denver. The film opens with the Olivia Newton-John cover. Yuji Nomi was the musical composer for the film, which is about a middle school girl, Shizuku, attempting to find herself as high school entrance exams force her to start thinking of her future. She becomes inspired by an unlikely individual to find and follow her own passions. Many viewers’ most enduring memory of the film is the beautiful instrumental arrangement where the violin starts Country Roads and is shortly joined by a cello, tambourine, and various wind instruments. Country Roads is a brilliant song to evoke feelings of journey and homecoming, so it was the perfect selection for this film — and I’ve not heard many instrumental covers for it that I like better than Whisper of The Heart’s version. I’ve often looked online for a version of this arrangement without any vocals for the pure pleasure of listening (Shizuku admits she’s tone-deaf before she sings), but I’ve been unable to find anything other than what you’ll hear in the movie. Still, it was a pleasure to re-watch Whisper with Country Roads as the background theme as Shizuku struggles to find her future. 

The Secret World of Arrietty marked the first time a non-Japanese composer had been tasked to score a Studio Ghibli film. In an interview with the LA Times Blog: Pop & Hiss, Cecile Corbel discussed how difficult it was to stick to her more acoustic-sounding folk style, instead of trying to fit into a film score sensibility. To get the gig, all she had done was send a fan letter with a CD of her music to Ghibli. She had landed only the theme song for Arrietty at first, but soon found herself asked to score the entire film. 

The Secret World of Arrietty is based off of Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers. Borrowers, like Arrietty and her parents, are five to six-inch tall people who live in a large house and secretly borrow what they need from humans. The film opens with a lonely human boy, Sho, going to his mother’s childhood home and, within minutes of arriving, catches a glimpse of his very first Borrower. Arrietty, meanwhile, prepares for her coming-of-age first “borrowing” venture into the house with her seasoned father.

The sounds of Arrietty branched out widely from previous Ghibli films in terms of instrumentation and vocals. In fact, this film was far heavier on vocals during the movie itself, rather than the usual practice of vocal performances being relegated to the credits. I can still see the sun shining through the rustling trees as the theme’s harp begins its wandering dabble in the film’s opening scenes. I can smell the damp earth when it rains and the flowers of the meadow where Sho relaxes. My breathing changes as I take in the audio experience. The music is for the most part light and springy, much like the film’s heroine, Arrietty. The artistic, visual backdrop is enhanced by the music; and particularly the soundscape. Sounds are louder and more detailed, allowing the scaled environment of the Borrowers to be viscerally felt as well as seen. It makes for an immersive experience as Arrietty listens to the loud crunch of Sho’s footsteps in the grass. I enjoy listening to this soundtrack when I am working on a project or driving. In particular, Arrietty’s Song (Instrumental Version) takes me far from my current reality and across the world. For me, it evokes images of crossing a desert, on a journey, paralleling the themes of the film. I am often searching for my own place in such a vast world that I hardly know where it will take me, only that I have to have the courage to keep going. The drumbeat in this particular track is the timing of my feet, crunching in the sand as I trek up a dune and down the other side.

As much as I appreciate the various composers throughout Ghibli history, no one’s music fills me with more emotion than Joe Hisaishi’s score for Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke). Mononoke Hime was the film that made me truly fall in love with Studio Ghibli. It was the first time I’d encountered a film that took its time to tell a story in which visuals and sound worked so well hand in hand. Even when I listen to the soundtrack on repeat, it always evokes the images from the film, and I remember it almost exclusively through sound. I can tell the difference between the sound of the apes throwing rocks at San and the clatter of Yakul’s hooves striking the boulders as he bounds along.

Mononoke Hime begins in a small village where Ashitaka lives. It’s a remote culture, one thought to have gone extinct. A demon’s curse in the opening scenes will send Ashitaka and his red elk, Yakul, across the land to far flung places to find the demon’s origin and perhaps a reprieve from the curse’s effect. 

Having been new to Japanese feature animation when I saw Mononoke Hime, what struck me most profoundly was how well The Demon God track introduces the viewer to Japanese folklore and culture from the very beginning. Never having seen a curse like the one attaching itself to Nago, a boar god turned demon, I was intrigued by the opening chords that stop in a gasping drum breath. The drums strike again as another breath is held and the danger draws closer. Suddenly, it becomes clear that evil is coming. I may not understand exactly what I’m seeing, but I’m caught along for the ride with string instruments frantically scurrying me along. The music brings me into an unknown world, and I’m excited to see what unfolds.

After the panic of the opening and the beginning of Ashitaka’s long trek, we’re met with a time period and geological location which is new and fascinating. I’m ever grateful for Joe Hisaishi’s lyrical introduction to this new experience. He takes his time gracefully elongating and building the melody as the visuals take Ashitaka further from what he has known and into a new world.

Ashitaka’s journey takes him far to the Forest of the Gods, where he meets San, the ‘Wolf Girl’, and her unusual family. There are different musical styles that build the world of Ashitaka and San and each track is powerfully emotive, considering how stoic Ashitaka is. We feel for the tragedies that befall the forest and humans alike as the strings weep and the drums provide the war march’s tempo. It is a film I have returned to time and time again, as the story is so good and the music moves me still. 

Studio Ghibli has a unique visual style all its own; some of it the best I’ve ever seen in animation (does anyone else drool when they show food on the screen in Spirited Away?), while at other times the animation can seem static compared to the slick, action-oriented films by the likes of Disney. Where Ghibli are unparalleled is in their score. For me at least, distinctive scores from American studios are far less common, though I easily remember the music that has lyrics set to it. What I do not tend to remember are the instrumental scores in most American animated films, whereas I often sing to myself entire scores from the Studio Ghibli films. This shows the power of their music to emote a story versus simply telling it through dialogue and masterful, static backgrounds. 

I invite you the next time you need a break from reality to pick a soundtrack from a Studio Ghibli film, close your eyes, and listen. Immerse yourself in the world that evolves in your mind. You might just feel refreshed after you return from your journey.