Joe Hisaishi, whose birth name is Mamoru Fujisawa, is a Japanese film composer who is acclaimed worldwide for his scores. He was a frequent collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano, in which he is most popularly known for. Hisaishi has a deep appreciation for music, and like many composers he is influenced by classical music and French romanticism. A key composer which seems to influence Hisaishi is French composer Claude Debussy. Hisaishi’s style and arrangement is similar to Debussy, as Debussy’s Clair De Lune features similar melodies to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away main theme regarding arrangement and tone. Hisaishi takes his position as a film composer as absolute. Hisaishi believes that music isn’t something to fill the silence in film, and in turn it is an element on its own which drives the story and can manipulate an audience’s response. In this essay, I will look at Hisaishi as a composer and see if he has any distinct trademarks in his style specifically by looking at his work for Kitano and Miyazaki.
One director whose primary genre is crime and the other who focuses on fantasy worlds, Kitano and Miyazaki couldn’t be more different in their genres and types of filmmaking. However, they have one big thing in common, their use of composer Hisaishi. Both were frequent collaborators with Hisaishi, until Miyazaki retired and Kitano parted ways with him. Despite the two different directors, Hisaishi has a sort of signature that he uses in his music. His arrangement of melody repetition is something that is replicated in a variety of his scores. Most often in the scores themselves, the melody is repeated in the song. An example would be his track “Summer” from Kitano’s Kikijuro, the track begins with a violin leading in the music with a four-note piece that has an adagio tempo. Then, the violin is followed by a seven-note melody played on the piano that is the melody for the track. The piano piece is played in minor to give a bittersweet and melancholy emotion which follows the emotive space onscreen. The song begins with the title credits, an animated sequence which at first follows the violins pace on an eye zooming in the see the vision in the eye. The piano plays as we see guardian angels over one child in bed, then cutting to an angel figure stood over a bed of flowers. The title of the film appears, followed by stereotypically oriental sounds and the melody played earlier on piano is now played on a synthesiser to change the sound of the melody. The oriental sounds are distinct as the bells and woodwind instruments convey an East-Asian sound, and this is something Hisaishi does quite often and it helps him stand out from other composers and is part of his signature. The seven-note melody from earlier on is now repeated but now it sounds almost different with the other assortments but instead of giving a sad emotion, it gives us context into the world we are about to be brought into.
As we see the young boy running onscreen in slow motion, the piano tune returns still in minor to convey a bittersweet emotion. He is alone and the angels on his back suggest he is the boy in the opening credit cartoon, but it’s the music that manipulates the audience to feel sympathetic for the boy as the notes are arranged so that they sound sorrowful. The violin continues steadily until the music picks up as we hear another seven-note melody on the piano followed by the violin which becomes allegro and matches the piano melody. The music begins to crescendo and suggests a prominent danger which is matched onscreen as the boys are running away from suspected bullies. An added cello to the sound makes the danger seem even more closer as the deep notes suggest something is lurking behind them. The piano melody turns into a five-note melody making it more faster in sound and highlighting the urgency even more as they run. As the music hits its heaviest moment, the music slows down and returns to the simple original seven-note melody and violin in the background with a harp as well. The notes sound isolated and far apart, they reflect the two main characters in the film and their emotions. This piece overall reflects the characters and their feeling of isolation and alienation due to their situations, Kikijuro (Beat Takeshi) acts with anger and Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) feels sad. The track “Summer” is one of Hisaishi’s most notable songs as it features many of his signatures, such as his melodies and style, and the way he manipulates the audience by using music to show the emotion of the characters in the films he scores. Many composers, such as Hans Zimmer, repeat melodies but it’s the distinct signature of Hisaishi using those seven-notes on the piano and violin that show us it’s his piece.
Hisaishi also uses the same melodies, or highly similar, in other tracks and not just in the same songs. The chord progressions are often almost the same, apart from one or two chords. The song entitled “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” from Laputa: Castle in the Sky starts off with a few chords played in an adagio speed and are articulated very legato. Almost identical is the “One Summer’s Day” track from Spirited Away, which starts off with the similar chord progression except this track has two less chords at the end of the melody, as the song from Laputa has two extra chords at the end of the opening melody. The arrangement of the chords that open the track are almost similar and this repetition is something that Hisaishi uses often but with a great strategic skill that makes the track into something completely different. The chord progression often descends and then uses a melody to complete the track. The same formula is seen for many his tracks, such as “Ashitaka and San” from Princess Mononoke and “Summer” from Kikijuro. Despite the similar traits and formula, his compositions are each unique and are effective in what they try to convey. Hisaishi’s compositions can stand alone and are visual in song, as the notes themselves provide an image alone. The visual accompaniments of the films provide a literal meaning but the music itself conveys its own meaning, “Ashitaka and San” is a piece on its own which is beautiful and moving. The track conveys both romance, adventure and a sense of conflict without the visual imagery showing that Hisaishi’s work adds to the films rather than simply providing a backing track or to fill the silence.
Another prominent similarity between many of Hisaishi’s pieces is his use of instruments, primarily strings and piano. Many of his traditional scores often begin with a piano melody, then are accompanied by a violin. In such compositions, “A Miraculous Recovery” from As The Sun Also Rises (directed by Jiang Wen), “Princess Mononoke” from the film of the same title (Miyazaki) and “Meet Again” from Kids Return (directed by Kitano) to name a few. To look in close detail, Spirited Away is an excellent example. The track “One Summers Day” begins with slow keys on the piano which are echoed, then a synthesizer is heard in the background with a steady note filling the silence. In a nutshell, the track begins slow and simple but soon it is then followed by the melody played on the piano and stringed instruments to add more to the song. The violin plays as an underlying part of the track, a background noise for the melody to play on top. These instruments are often played in together, as Hisaishi often goes for the distinct sound of the two together to successfully manipulate the audience’s emotion.
Hisaishi often uses the synthesiser too, and manipulates the sound to fit the film. Two of many examples are A Scene at the Sea’s “Silent Love” theme and My Neighbour Totoro’s “The Huge Tree in the Tsukamori Forest” both use the synthesiser in different ways. In My Neighbour Totoro, he uses the synthesiser to convey a mystical edge to give a magical feeling to the score as it follows two girls who find supernatural creatures hidden in the forest. The track “Silent Love” uses higher chords mixed with low ones to create a romantic feeling, the beat sounds sensual and emphasises a romantic theme. The guitar and the vocals hidden in the background, mixed with a drum beat adds drama to the sound. The story itself follows a deaf man who learns to surf for the girl that he loves, and the theme perfectly captures that alone. The synthesiser is an excellent tool that Hisaishi frequently uses to convey emotion in the films he scores, and the use of it is one of his signatures that highlight it’s his work.
Hisaishi has been known for his signature, and sometimes this can hinder his work. Kitano commented that “Mister Hisaishi as a composer is not very flexible, so I decided to use someone else”, after the two parted ways after Dolls and Kitano found another composer for his next feature Zatōichi. However, I disagree with Kitano’s comments as Hisaishi seems to adapt to whatever film he is assigned too. The way that he can jump from a magical score for Studio Ghibli to a yakuza gangster film. For Kitano’s Brother, Hisaishi used a saxophone amongst many other jazz instruments to convey an American sound and the loneliness by using a saxophone with a violin and a clarinet. Of course, the piano chords mixed with the violin give it the Hisaishi signature. In the title track in Brother, Hisaishi uses drums and saxophones to emphasise the American sound and in Kiki’s Delivery Service many of the melodies are played by accordions to give a European feel. Hisaishi’s music has a distinct signature at times, such of the use of chords and instruments, but none of his pieces of work are ever the same. Hisaishi plays with techniques for certain sounds, an example would be like pizzicato and staccato strings in major key to create effects like tiptoeing in films like My Neighbour Totoro, he uses the same instruments most of the time but orchestrates them differently. Hisaishi plays concerts by himself and can fill stadiums with just his music that he orchestrates. He is one of Japan’s most distinguished and respected composers who has worked with many great film directors from Kitano, Miyazaki to Yoji Yamada, a vast difference in styles but are connected by Hisaishi and his creative scores.