Are You Listening?
I submit to you that it is possible that composers and musicians responsible for anime and video game soundtracks may be an underappreciated contingent.
In fact, I did so a few days ago in a tweet.
I’ve been thinking about this since then and I’ve considered a number of different tracks but the primary one is the theme to One Punch Man. The theme is a striking instrumental piece with a lot of energy, especially in the bass line, and gorgeous, exciting strings that sort of duel back and forth with a satisfyingly grungy guitar. I think it’s a fantastic piece of music which isn’t long enough on its own and keeps me listening to it over and over. However, when I listen to it, I do recall a scene I found to be particularly powerful. If you haven’t seen episode one of One Punch Man –What the holy hell is your problem you call yourself an anime fan get off your a– You should watch it, and the whole series. Do yourself the favor. And skip the next paragraph.
In the scene in question, our hero, the One Punch Man himself, Saitama, is awoken by a ruckus outside his apartment and springs into action to take on the encroaching literal uprising from the underground to claim the surface as their own. He finds in this new enemy the thing that his life is lacking: a worthy opponent and in that, a reason for being, which is something he hasn’t had for quite some time. The theme, it’s no coincidence, perfectly embodies this sense of renewed wonder and purpose with its rises and swells and overall kinetic nature. Right there in the first episode I think is one of the strongest moments and messages of the series. And I think about it each time I hear the song.
I don’t have access to the scene sans music, so my supposition comes by way of little more than a feeling, but I believe this scene is made significantly stronger by the inclusion of good, pleasing, congruent music. Similarly, the song is still amazing, but is yet enhanced by its connection to the idea put forth in the scene.
In this way, songs contribute emotional energy to situations, seemingly just as much as they become infused with it by the situations they accompany. When I can tear myself away from a constantly looping One Punch Man theme fugue state, I’m drawn to the Nier: Automata soundtrack. To my mind, and ear, 2017’s NieR: Automata has one of the best soundtracks of the year or indeed in my recent memory.
Notably, many of the pieces come in as many as six parts, with each growing in intensity and complexity to three degrees, and then each version either coming with lyrical accompaniment or not. For example, one of the most prevalent themes – City Ruins – comes in the Rays of Light and Shade variants (that’s two), each of which have their “Quiet”, “Medium”, and “Dynamic” versions (2×3 is 6) and then each of those six comes either instrumental or with vocals overlaid (6×2) actually totalling 12 distinct versions of one song. Granted that is the most extreme example. This variation is an incredibly effective means of offering a through line of auditory experience with a same core melody, while at the same time escalating in time with the action appropriately.
The music of NieR: Automata is more subtle and atmospheric, by comparison, and more of the tracks have a contemplative component than one would expect from a video game. This of course is almost a requirement for the likes of NieR, which calls into question the concepts of good, evil, individuality, humanity, love, loyalty, sacrifice, and probably several other heady subjects I should not be forgetting to include. In case you’re unaware, this is not a typical role playing game. As have many fans, I’ve enjoyed my time with it, and its impressive soundtrack offers me opportunity to return to the desolate, pensive future it depicts, with its mysteries and wonders, even as I must press on through the mundane day to day. And good as the soundtrack as a whole is, I admit I’m not sure how much attachment I’d have to it had I not spent so many hours roaming a strange world as a pair of beautiful, angsty androids to its orchestral strains. However, I was there with them as they struggled to come to terms with what they are and the place they have in their world, and the spirit of the journey is carried through the music that was there with them.
As a point of comparison, I call to mind two tracks, both of which are set against heartbreaking scenarios: one is Introduction from the 2002 movie “Voices of a Distant Star” and the other is “His Theme” from Undertale.
The Introduction track (best title I could locate) I actually call to mind only the first three notes of the song from Voices of a Distant Star because, having seen the movie, I cannot tolerate hearing its music for more than those first three notes lest the heart wrenching woe and sadness and sense of loss it engendered in me come rushing back and I find myself reduced to fetal position ugly crying for much longer than I have time for today or any day.
It’s like that.
Having mentioned this to a close friend, she responded by submitting “His Theme” from Undertale, which she guaranteed was one of the saddest game experiences she’d had to date. I listened to this piece and found it to be a gorgeous piece of music with an obvious sorrowful bent, however, there was an issue: I am one of the twelve people who has not played Undertale. Familiar with it through the cultural zeitgeist, I do not doubt it would be an emotionally affecting experience, whatever scene “His Theme” accompanies doubly so, but the track alone did not cut to my core, which I chalk up to the missing portion of the experience which is the experience itself. Just the same, I expect that anyone could listen to the theme from Voices of a Distant Star and feel the major and minor notes and sense the tone but would likely not be reduced to more tears than their own body mass by just four notes, let alone the entire song. Thus the data set, all two points of it, concludes that the music on its own stands, but not to the degree of effectiveness as music accompanying dramatic event.
On this topic, another friend had mentioned that it is entirely possible that when a soundtrack is doing its job well, or perfectly, it may have a tendency to not be noticed, or at least be less acknowledged in the scheme of the experience as a whole. I don’t disagree, I think when caught up in a moment presented by a piece of media, the visuals and the situation are certainly the most prevalent components, which is leads directly back to the idea that we are definitely aware of the music, and indeed will go back and listen to key songs, sometimes until we’re sick of them, but aren’t considering them to the same degree as what’s more in our faces. It would not be incorrect at all to recall the scene from One Punch Man for its striking visual style, amplified by bold outlines and incredible choreography as well as the very significant change in Saitama’s expressions as he fights the fight of his life. But, I don’t find it too hard to imagine that scene with perhaps a less soulful, energetically equal metal action bit, or even with no music at all, just sound effects, and to feel that it would not have had quite the same impact without this particular piece of Makoto Miyazaki’s work. Similarly, I think there is plenty to snap to when NieR comes to mind: a world beautiful in spite of its distress, wonderful character design, and haunting dialogue and decisions made, but that’s what was placed in front of us. What surrounded us and pulled us in was the music. And on that carefully considered composition, immersion may be made or broken.
Now, the trouble is, I don’t exactly know how to give proper credit to these artists but I assume it should be just about the same as with other mediums. When we like authors or directors or actors we follow their work and seek out more things they’ve done. That’s not a big stretch to do with musicians and composers, but it simply doesn’t happen as much as with musicians like [insert your favorite recording artist here] where, arguably, the song or the album is the complete package. Best thing I can think of is just know who they are, and tell friends about them. I had to go look up who did the One Punch Man soundtrack and had to also for NieR (Keiichi Okabe), but now I have and I know who they are. Support the works they are attached to. And just. Enjoy.