Totoro goes electronic..?

The title of this post is a bit misleading. Totoro has always been somewhat electronic.

Joe Hisaishi

My Neighbor Totoro is an 1988 animated film from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Nearly all of Studio Ghibli’s films have been musically scored by the same man, Joe Hisaishi (久石 譲). Hisaishi is a titan in the Japanese music world. For one, he has won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Music eight times already in his musical career. You might recognize his Studio Ghibli musical works, often performed in sweeping full orchestral renditions (see below for the Studio Ghibli collaboration anniversary concert).

If you watch even just a few minutes of this two-hour plus anniversary concert, it is hard to fathom that this tuxedo- and bowtie-wearing maestro, conducting a 100+ musician orchestra, is also an electronic musician. I don’t know what you think of when you think of electronic music—maybe clubbing, EDM, and Vegas—I am going to bet film score is not part of that list. But Hisaishi did in fact start out as an electronic musician. In the early 80’s, he made minimalist electronic music relying on, for example, minimal synthesizers and percussive arrangements. Don’t believe me? Let’s listen to three of Joe Hisaishi’s early Studio Ghibli musical scores, starting in reverse chronological order with My Neighbor Totoro.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro narrates the adventures of sisters Satsuki and Mei. The film focuses particularly on their encounters with an “animal” named Totoro, who lives in a camphor tree in a mystical forest. (I am purposely leaving the description of Totoro vague to leave room for personal interpretation and to keep suspense for readers who have never watched the film).

Early on in the film when Satsuki and Mei move to their new home in the countryside, they encounter susuwatari or soot spirits while cleaning their new house. This chance meeting between humans and spirits is accompanied by the track “A Haunted House.” In the film, the small, black, dust-like house spirits move around in scuffles from light to dark places upon discovery by Mei, the younger sibling.

“A Haunted House,” replete with synthesizers, is a track with a simple, fun, and bouncy beat. The track continues like so for about a full minute. Regardless if you have ever watched Totoro, the track easily connotes an image of a child running around and up and down a house, chasing after imaginary (or not-so-imaginary) soot spirits!

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Hisaishi infuses similar electronic elements in the film score for Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Without giving the plot away, Castle in the Sky is a 1986 fantasy-adventure animated film in which there is a scene when Sheeta, the main female lead, falls from an airship. Yet, instead of falling to her death, Sheeta descends safely, floating down from the sky, protected by a mysterious crystal-like amulet. This scene is accompanied by the track “The Levitation Crystal.”

Right away, the track opens with sounds that “sound” like crystals. Interestingly, Hisaishi actually scored Castle in the Sky largely on synthesizers. But to meet studio demands, the film’s entire score later changed to include live orchestration. “The Levitation Crystal” is a good example of a track that fuses the two musical styles. It opens with minimal electronics. Then, additional layers of classical symphonic sounds quickly emerge, fusing to present a track that merges both electronic and orchestral sounds.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Finally, Valley of the Wind is a 1984 science fantasy animated film that takes place in a world in which human civilizations were destroyed and many of the remaining humans are threatened by the vast Toxic Jungle and its gigantic, mutant-insect inhabitants. These giant insects are known as Ohms. In the opening scene, the female lead, Nausicaä, the princess from the Valley of the Wind, explores the Toxic Jungle. Soon, however, an enraged Ohmu is disrupted from its peaceful rest in the Jungle and Nausicaä attempts to calm down the insect with an insect charmer. This scene is accompanied by the track “Stampede of the Ohmu.”

Regardless of whichever version of this track you hear (it has been re-recorded in many different renditions), the track starts out rather whimsically. Chime-like sounds that open the track evoke images of peaceful Ohms bumbling about. Then, about 30 seconds in, that whimsical imagery is interrupted by the entrance of a wailing guitar. Fast electronic rock takes over the track, representing a peaceful Ohmu’s sudden eruption into anger, scuttling about in fury. But then, at about a minute in, it seems like Nausicaä successfully charmed the insect as the track reprises to its whimsical beginnings.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Hisaishi’s early musical works!

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