A month ago, in the throes of feeling ill and in the dumps, I turned not to Netflix but my old DVD collection. After wiping away the dust and sifting through the selection, I found, tightly tucked at the back of the drawer, a bunch of DVDs all created by the most celebrated Japanese animation studio.
At some point in your life I’m certain you will have seen or heard about a Studio Ghibli movie, most likely Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. They are incredibly well-crafted stories with exceptionally beautiful visuals and characters you’re immediately invested in. I still remember being dragged along to a showing of Spirited Away by my dad and becoming hooked.
I pop in the first DVD, the title comes up and it hits me like a train. That melancholic feeling in my chest warms just from the music in the title screen. As the movie goes on I realise that despite it being years since I’ve seen it, the music is still burned into my memory. At one point I even muted the TV just be sure, the moment the music left the feeling did too.
The mastermind behind the studio’s scores is Joe Hisaishi. He’s had a lifetime of awards for composition and musical influence, including winning the Japanese Academy Award for Best Music seven times.
The beauty of Hisaishi’s scores stems from the motifs he crafts and their constant appearance at just the right moments. The motifs always manage to perfectly match the theme of the story and change in their intensity and tone as the characters go on their journey.
If it’s a story about a woman breaking past the exceptions society has of her, then the score is a waltz – perfectly representing the dance she is stuck in where she does not lead. Then in her most powerful moments the score swells with a full orchestra behind it demonstrating her newly found strength. Or a story about a boy having to triumph over an evil he doesn’t understand. Start with the motif being dark and sinister and as the movie progresses have it become light and triumphant.
I’ve specifically not mentioned any names of the films I’ve seen because they are all exceptional. This is just my opinion so I encourage you to go watch one for yourself, and you may even feel melancholic despite never having seen one before (true review from my mate Liam).
I watched all the movies I had on DVD and by the end, the warm melancholic feeling was almost like a burning. So much emotion is packed into so few melodies and themes. The simplicity and power is exactly why over a decade from my first viewings I still remembered every last note, and I’m sure that another decade from now, I still will.