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Despite an enthusiastic cult following, the talents of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki have yet to gain the sort of mainstream acceptance regularly afforded American feature animation in the artist's own country. But Hollywood sponsorship of Princess Mononoke and this new Miyazaki anime masterpiece is an encouraging sign. To create the musical soundscape for his phantasmagorical adventure, the director has again tapped Mononoke composer and longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and the results are another distinctive triumph. Effortlessly blending ancient Japanese modalities and percussion with Westernized influences (pastoral string and piano flourishes, snarling brass, and gentle woodwinds), the composer evokes the gentle lyricism of Sakamoto in one movement, the pulse-quickening action and suspense of Williams the next. The collection ends on the warm note of Youmi Kimura's gentle, neo-baroque song "Always with Me." While American feature animation scores have frequently been preoccupied with pop star career burnishing, Hisaishi has again reinvented and refined an instrumental language that powerfully evokes all the magic of Miyazaki's fantastic images. --Jerry McCulley
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A few words about the movie: it's a true classic. I know very little about anime, so I can't make much of a comment on how representative the movie (or the score, for that matter) is of its genre. But I will say that I have seen few better animated films during my lifetime; it's as good as Pixar's stuff, as good as the very best of the Disney films, and that puts it in an elite category indeed. Beautiful animation and backgrounds, a story that evinces the highest degree of imagination, and (if you listen to the English dub) top-quality dubbing.
The score is another element that contributes greatly to the film. It is a mix of music that sounds highly influenced by (but NOT derivative of) American and European composers and of music that sounds more traditionally Japanese. I'd love to know who some of Hisaishi's influences were, so that I could check out any of them I wasn't already familiar with. The performance quality of the score is impeccable, and together with the quality of composition, what we have is a score that sounds closer to something created for a concert environment than for a film. I can't think of very many film composers, past or present, who have managed to pull that off very often: John Williams, of course, and possibly Philip Glass, maybe Herrmann and Korngold, or Goldsmith when he was at his very best. Otherwise, though, this is heads and tails above what you typically hear for movies.
It definitely makes me want to learn more about Hisaishi. Oh, and he is the featured pianist on the score; he's quite good, too.
His work on Spirited Away is his best yet. His themes and orchestrations are varied and powerful. As this is Miyazaki's most strongly Japanese-themed film, the use of Japanese instruments and vocals, combined with traditionally Western harmony, themes, and orchestrations, along with uncharacteristic dissonance in places, suits the movie's needs perfectly. The performances and recording are letter-perfect; I cannot recall a better recording for clarity of sound, balance, or technique.
Soundtrack recordings often show that sound editors and mixers have misused a composer's work or allowed the best of a soundtrack to go unheard in the theater. This is not the case here; the use of Hishashi's soundtrack in Spirited Away is about as good as it gets. This film is a masterpiece on all levels, including the music.
Hisaishi turned his scores for "Totoro" and "Mononoke" into symphonic suites; is it too much to hope for similar treatment for "Spirited Away"?
The real gem is "Always With Me", the final track. It's sung in Japanese in a simple Western style with a solo acoustic guitar accompaniment, and is a lilting lullaby. A very beautiful and slightly exotic piece of music, and makes it worth buying the CD.