The Musical Dilemma


Yin no Piano — Darker Than Black

It’s no secret that music and film have a shared history. Since its inception, when film was only silent images juxtaposed to a piano player, music has been an integral part of the theatre-going experience. It should also figure that because dialogue is such a crucial part of storytelling, so too is music. In fact, as the tools used for making movies became more advanced, so too did music’s part in the overall presentation of movies become more elaborate and integral.

A while back, Tony Zhou, creator of the Every Frame a Painting series, did a video on the musical failure of the MCU. I won’t share my thoughts in too much detail, you can see my response on my personal blog, but, in a way, he did have a valid point about how a lot of modern films, particularly those of Hollywood, have a bad habit of using scores and musical cues in such a way that they feel invisible. It’s become epidemic, and it detracts from the overall experience. Recently, I even started contemplating how anime efficiently incorporates its music, to the point where even mediocre shows and movies still have memorable music, as a response. However, is it perhaps integrated too efficiently?

Let’s use two examples of where anime music might be overpowering, as well as why. The first is from Sailor Moon. The show is well-loved by anime fans, and with the recent re-dub by Viz Media it’s possible to experience the show in English in its truest form. Unfortunately, that also means that any flaws and silly moments in the original show, music, writing or otherwise, are now available uncut. Some of it’s charming, like when Usagi gets drunk and tries to explain The Theory of Relativity through pudding, but then you have moments that don’t work at all. The musical cues are no exception, and nowhere is this more apparent than this scene where Mamoru and Usagi decide to stop seeing one-another:

Bring on the pathos, baby! (Courtesy of Sailor ☆ Moon.)

The scene is quite powerful, and the dialogue drives home how the two feel at that moment. But there’s a problem: the score overpowers everything because it’s too loud. It’s hard to hear what’s being said because the piano’s so intense, and it almost ruins the moment. We don’t need the melodramatic score for it to work, or, if we do, it should be more subdued. By not doing so, the score is oppressive and overbearing.

Think of it like this: imagine if you were staging a serious scene in a play. Now, let’s pretend that your talented friend, whom you requested to play the piano to help underscore said scene, starts playing over it. You want to keep going, yet as you instruct the people playing the characters to speak up, so too does your friend play more furiously. In the end, no one can hear what’s said, only what they’re supposed to feel. But because there’s no balance of music to conversation, you’re left with a disconnect.

In other words: it doesn’t matter how nice the tune is, if it’s used poorly, it’s not helpful.

I’ll use another example, but because it’s not on YouTube, I’ll describe it to you: there’s a scene in Wolf’s Rain, aka my favourite anime series, where Hubb and Cher, two of the show’s human characters, are tied up inside a moving van. Seeing as they have nothing better to do, they begin reminiscing about their failed marriage, how they used to love each other, and how their love may, in reality, still be there. As Hubb pours his soul out to his ex-wife, some sentimental music starts playing. Except it doesn’t merely play, it goes full-out. And at an extremely loud volume too! I originally thought that raising the volume would fix the situation, but then I realized that the music was burned right into the sound quality and that the TV volume was loud enough to compensate for Wolf’s Rain already being such a quiet show.

Still, my frustration remained. I’m a firm believer that Wolf’s Rain has one of the best OSTs, and subsequent usage of said OSTs, of any anime, but this was the one time I didn’t want the music to play. Because it was drowning out an important and tender character moment, and that bothered me. Besides, why this moment? Why not wait until after the conversation, as opposed to its peak? I’d have preferred that!

You see what I’m getting at? I’m aware that the mixing of audio and music isn’t an exact science, and that there’ll always be places where drowning out dialogue with music is appropriate. But there has to be a balance of sorts if music and audio are to co-exist. Because they both should, ideally, work toward the same end-goal. And honestly, if the big problem with Hollywood is not shutting its characters up long enough to hear the music, then anime’s big problem is not shutting its music up long enough to hear the conversations. I think those are both equally bad, truthfully.


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