The Anime Greats: Joe Hisaishi

Welcome to another edition of “The Anime Greats”, where we discuss legends in the anime industry. We started this series with Hayao Miyazaki and moved to Isao Takahata, so it seems fitting that we end the Studio Ghibli trilogy with another individual. And no, I’m not referring to producer Toshio Suzuki, but rather the great maestro himself, Joe Hisaishi:

Born Mamoru Fujisawa, on December 5th, 1950, in Nagano, Japan, Joe Hisaishi has garnered a reputation during his tenure as being “The Japanese John Williams.” Though little is known of his family history, Hisaishi was influenced heavily by music as a child. At the age of 5 he began taking violin lessons, eventually attending the Kunitachi College of Music in 1969 and majoring in musical composition under the tutelage of legendary anime composer Takeo Watanabe. His earliest work can, therefore, be found in the 1974 anime short Gyatoruzu. Hisaishi would use his legal name for his early works before adopting his current pseudonym from the Japanese transliteration of African-American musician Quincy Jones.

In 1983, Hisaishi was approached by Tokuma Shoten to score an upcoming film by Hayao Miyazaki, which’d later be known as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Hisaishi took up the task with ease, and to say the end result was a success is an understatement. It also helped him develop a long-term friendship with Miyazaki, one that’d ensure him scoring the remainder of the director’s work. Some notable highlights include Castle in the Sky, which he’d re-score in the 90’s for the film’s Disney dub, Princess Mononoke and, most-recently, The Wind Rises. Hisaishi would also compose Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in 2013, making this the only time he’d do so.

Despite their collaborations, Hisaishi didn’t limit himself to one director. In nearly 42 years, Hisaishi’s also done work for various shows and films, anime and non-anime alike. Amongst these are 1983’s Mospeada, 1986’s Arion, the 2005 Korean film Welcome to Dongmakgol and 2001’s Brother. Hisashi also recorded medleys for his now-famous album Piano Stories, from which the main theme for Howl’s Moving Castle originated. Yet Hisaishi’s work is well-renowned outside the anime community, earning him seven wins at the Japanese Academy Awards and an invitation to join The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s voting committee in 2013.

Perhaps Joe Hisaishi’s most-noticeable trait, even before his transition to a full-orchestra in the 90’s, is his fondness for the piano. Ignoring Piano Stories, Hisaishi is famous for his piano solos. There are clear instances in his compositions where he’d stop his orchestra and play the piano, or even have a piano track to himself. It’s a weird quirk that highlights his dedication to the craft and showcases his multi-musical talent.

Another distinct trait of Hisaishi is his ability to reuse tracks and make them feel fresh. This is especially apparent in Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises. In the case of the former, the entire film’s soundtrack, save one or two exceptions, recycles The Merry-Go-Round of Life. And with the latter, it’s worth nothing the constant usage of the same two or three tracks to contrast the highs of Jiro Horikoshi’s life with those of his crushing lows. On one hand, this reuse of leif motifs is easy to criticize as “laziness”, something I’ve, regrettably, done in the past. On the other hand, it’s executed so well that it’s hard to criticize without feeling guilty.

Perhaps the real testament to Hisaishi’s career is the knowledge of his existence outside the anime community. Like I said, Hisaishi’s no stranger to classical music enthusiasts. It’s ironic that both anime fans and non-anime fans know he exist, yet neither group knows he’s worked in the other’s field of interest. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof of his diversity:

Summer - Kikujiro

First Love

The Wind of Life

Impossible Dream - Etude

Nostalgia - Piano Stories

Ashitaka and San - Princess Mononoke

Main Theme - The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Overall, Hisaishi’s influence is undeniable; after all, not only has he composed some of the best anime film scores, he’s also composed some of the best scores period! And he’ll most-likely continue doing so in the decades that follow. So domo arigato, Hisaishi-san! May your talents continue gracing the world of music for years to come!


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