Overview: When Joe Hisaishi’s name is mentioned, the first thing that may come to mind is his work with Studio Ghibli, and, more specifically, with Hayao Miyazaki. Hisaishi’s music has an immersive quality, one that draws the viewer into Ghibli’s gorgeous visuals and Miyazaki’s spellbinding stories, bringing the films to life. While his collaborations with Miyazaki make up the list of his better-known works, it unfortunately ignores a huge chunk of his anime compositions that much of today’s fandom may never encounter. We are, of course, referring to titles like Galactic Whirlwind Sasuraiger and Genesis Climber Mospeada (though they may be familiar to fans who got into anime during the 1980s).
The other dichotomy to consider when dealing with Hisaishi is his stylistic transition from synth, rock, and electronica to scoring anime using an orchestra. We will go a bit into that shift in the main article, but for the purpose of this synopsis, we can say that regardless of the medium in which he chooses to work, Hisaishi has done an excellent job, thereby forging a strong reputation that stretches across the past three decades. And there are still no signs of him slowing down!
In case you’re here to only listen to the soundclips and not read any of the text, below is the master list of all the pieces featured in this profile entry in order. It’ll save time if you don’t want to have to click through each and every track.
Unlike the two previous composers we’ve profiled, Joe Hisaishi’s career was consistently geared towards music, starting from a very young age. He started taking violin lessons when he was five and the passion that he developed for music would eventually propel him to enroll in the Kunitachi College of Music. There, he discovered the joys of composing Minimalist music and pursued that area of interest by majoring in music composition. To gather experience, he worked as a typesetter alongside other composers.
Upon graduation, Hisaishi found himself in a time where a wave of western influence in the form of electronica and new age was shaping the Japanese music scene. Hisaishi wasn’t immune to these tides. Though it would not surface in Hisaishi’s first commercial success, some of his later works like the appropriately-titled Techno Police would feature this blend of contemporary music.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. Hisaishi’s first success, Hajime Ningen Giatrus, was an anime set in prehistoric times. This soundtrack, released in 1974, features mostly quiet, mellow cues like “Yatsura no Ashioto no Ballad’s,” which features peaceful woodwinds and period vocals. As with most prominent anime composers’ first works, the music is enjoyable enough but wasn’t outstanding to the point that the signposts towards future greatness were clearly marked.
Hajime Ningen Giatrus – Yatsura no Ashioto no Ballad
Still, it was enough to get him more work. Hisaishi would go on to compose the soundtracks to Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982), an anime about a ninja academy, and Futari Daka (1984), which focused on motorcycle racing. Another of those early works, the aforementioned Techno Police (1982), was a collaboration between Hisaishi and a rock group called the Black Boat Band. The result of this joint effort was an intriguing melting pot of contemporary rock, disco-y synth, trumpet fanfares, and an occasional saxophone melody. Galactic Whirlwind Sasuraiger, released in 1983, would see Hisaishi continue exploring jazz music even further through tracks like “Let’s Spend the J9 Together.” Finally, the tail end of 1983 would see the release of Genesis Climber Mospeada where Hisaishi kept to the rock cues for the action scenes and smooth jazz for everything else.
Techno Police – Techno Police
Sasuraiger – Let’s Spend the J9 Together
Mospeada – The Betrayal
However, another 1983 project would prove to be something of a turning point for Hisaishi’s career when a record company recommended his works to a certain up-and-coming director. The project in question was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and that budding director was none other than Hayao Miyazaki. This partnership would prove to be a creative and commercial success. The way director and composer complemented each other was seamless; the music featured a blend of synth that matched up well with the scenes of a post-apocalyptic world, along with a symphonic theme that showed what Hisaishi could produce, given the resources. The wonderful results of Nausicaa’s soundtrack were a promising start that brought about one of the most enduring and successful director/composer partnerships in anime.
Nausicaa – Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa
Next up for the pair was Laputa: Castle in the Sky, released in 1986. The movie focused on two children and a band of sky pirates as they encounter the mysteries of an ancient flying civilization. Hisaishi’s moving score rose to the occasion, offering such gems as the theme “Carrying You,” whose melancholy, longing lyrics recall the quest of an adventurer to taste the nostalgia of a long gone but great past. While this score still contained some tracks utilizing well-executed synth, Laputa demonstrated Hisaishi’s movement towards ensembles for his compositions which was no doubt propelled by Studio Ghibli’s increasing fame.
Laputa – Morning in Slagg’s Ravine
In Kiki’s Delivery Service, released in 1989, there was an observable transition from the epic grandiosity of his previous works to more lighthearted and cheerful fare to fit the movie’s focus on a girl’s sojourn into the city. Kiki’s tracks are exemplified by themes such as “Helping At The Bakery,” which carries a waltz-like air, but perhaps nothing in that soundtrack captures the feel of the city quite like “Town With an Ocean View” where the staccato arrangement, combined with the upbeat tone, brings out an aura of curiosity, and evokes an image of the titular character exploring the town. The melancholy moments do crop up here and there to depict Kiki at some of her more downcast moments, but on the whole, the soundtrack brims with optimism and energy.
Kiki’s Delivery Service – Helping At The Bakery
This happy tone continued in My Neighbor Totoro, which features perhaps some of the most recognizable melodies to appear in an anime soundtrack. Here, Hisaishi painted the world through a child’s eyes. The fantastical imaginations of youth are captured through such tracks as “Catbus”, whose vivacious and sprightly atmosphere conjures up the sensation of taking a ride in the miraculous feline vehicle that adults can’t see. “Village in May” and “Let’s Go to the Hospital” both express the appreciation and joy children experience from almost any simple experience. And, of course, “My Neighbor Totoro” can’t be forgotten. The track is about as iconic in Japan as a Disney song is in the United States, and is a jubilant ending to a truly heartwarming soundtrack and movie.
My Neighbor Totoro – My Neighbor Totoro
The last soundtrack in this trend of cheerful scores was Porco Rosso, the story of a veteran World War I Pilot turned pig and bounty hunter. The music maintains an animated and lively atmosphere in such tracks as “Women of Piccolo” and “Mama Aiutto” whose use of band brass give the pieces a carnival-like feel and, once again, showcases Hisaishi’s effectiveness at creating a score which complements the mood of the movie.
Porco Rosso – Mamma Aiutto
Although the Ghibli scores are what brought Hisaishi to fame during the 1980s, there were also a smattering other works that are worth mentioning like 1984’s Birth Suite, which has a heavy emphasis on synthesizer voices. Arion’s soundtrack, released in 1987, would touch on this trend but ultimately drew most of its stylistic influence from Laputa the year before. With this, Hisaishi pays some tribute to his synth past, waves farewell, and takes strides towards symphonic compositions.
Birth Suite – Theme of Birth
Arion – Arion – Main Theme
Then, in 1997, Hisaishi once more returns to work with Miyazaki, this time, on Princess Mononoke. The score was noted for its capacity to bring out the epic scale of the adventure, made very apparent through “The Legend of Ashitaka” and “The Journey to the West” which are packed with a grandeur perfect for a rendezvous with destiny. While the bombastic, forceful orchestrals lie at the core of what carries the listener through this fantastic journey, the soundtrack brings out the best of Hisaishi’s gentler love themes, first through “Mononoke-Hime’s” heartfelt serenity, then the very uplifting “Ashitaka and San” which is infused with a sense of renewal and rebirth to bring a note of hope for what the future holds.
Princess Mononoke – Mononoke-Hime
As Princess Mononoke sought to convey the scope of the grand adventure, Spirited Away maintains the musical cues that conjure up images of a journey, but its focus is more on a personal one. What you get is a soundtrack that is quieter as it radiates a lonely mood through its reserved melodies, exemplified through the opener “One Summer’s Day” with its melancholy, reticent aura. There are moments of bombast here and there as well as a myriad of dissonant melodies that wind their way through the soundtrack to heighten this loneliness, but like Princess Mononoke, the hope that comes in by the end puts a positive note to Chihiro’s moment of self-discovery as she grows more confident going forward.
Spirited Away – One Summer’s Day
His next score for Ghibli, Howl’s Moving Castle, explored themes of both the warmth of love and the mysteries of the magical world depicted in the movie. Opening with powerful organ notes that foreshadow more ominous things to come, “Merry Go Round of Life” is a fitting introduction, meshing the enigmas of magic with the famous theme that is the trademark of the soundtrack. In the rest of the score, Hisaishi masterfully depicts the mysterious in tracks such as “The Secret Cave”, weaving together the beauty of the unknown with an undercurrent of uneasiness. Yet, the movie is just as much a story of the heroine’s growth. “Wandering Sophie” portrays Sophie’s first tentative steps out into the wide world, ending on a note of uncertainty indicative of hidden dangers. Nevertheless, she finally finds a place where she is able to forge strong bonds of love in Howl’s moving castle. Hisaishi truly captures the affections of the makeshift family of the castle in the tender and heartfelt melodies composed for the film.
Howl’s Moving Castle – Wandering Sophie
His most recent work, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, once more illustrates Hisaishi’s ability to convey the rich imagery of the movie through music to immerse the viewer in the movie’s environs. Tracks like “Deep Sea Ranch,” are particularly beautiful in this regard. Once the first notes sound off, one cannot help but feel surrounded by the dazzling array of colors and creatures that swirl around, backed by a symphonic delight that, while busy, captures the lively scene that opens up the movie.
Ponyo – Deep Sea Ranch
There are further tracks we could touch upon of course, but the works that remain tend to fall under video game music (we do recommend giving Ni no Kuni a listen!) as well as the memorable themes that he’s composed for live-action movies. Still, we do wish to continue opining, so check out page 2 for our individual staff impressions.