Overview: As we move beyond the first three composers in our monthly series, the composers’ names become gradually more obscure, but the impact their works have had on anime fans remains strong, regardless of whether they are known by name or not. Taku Iwasaki falls within this group, as his works far precede his reputation. Anime fans are no strangers to titles such as Gurren Lagaan, Katanagatari, Witch Hunter Robin, the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs, Soul Eater, and Getbackers, but when they learn that all of these works are composed by the same man, they’ll find themselves surprised by the power and emotion of his work, all scattered across a range of diverse genres. Be it Getbackers’s jazz, Gurren Lagann’s fusion of opera and hip hop, or Kenshin’s blend of synth and orchestral, Iwasaki’s music continually evolves. Though his experimentation with mixing genres doesn’t always meet with success, if one thing’s for sure, one should never write him off as long as he continues to dazzle and amaze fans.
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.
An aspiring composer since high school, Iwasaki attended the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. There, his talents already distinguished him from the rest, winning him the Newcomer Prize from the Japan Society for Contemporary Music. After his graduation in 1992, he worked as an arranger like most other budding composers, but not before scoring the relatively unknown video game Mercury – The Prime Master. A few other jobs came and went, including the theme songs to Romeo and the Black Brothers and the notorious/infamous Cho-Aniki series of games. Despite this experience, Iwasaki still hadn’t made a name for himself in the music scene. However, when he did appear on the radar, he hit the ground running. 1999 saw him suddenly join a group named “Smart Drug” as the group’s keyboardist and arranger. In the very same year, he announced his entrance into the anime music sphere with two highly regarded scores.
Iwasaki’s first true anime score was that of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen (Trust and Betrayal), the acclaimed OVA entry of a franchise he would soon revisit. Establishing him as a master at coaxing a wide spectrum of emotions from an ensemble, his contributions here succeeded in demonstrating for the first time the diversity and depth of passion with which he could infuse his melodies. In tracks like “Quiet Life,” a warm and touching atmosphere is created with a harmonized string ensemble that does well to capture the moments of peace between conflict. This is contrasted sharply by the requiem-like gravitas of “The Will,” and the militaristic drive in the memorable “Wars of the Last Wolves”. In any case, the sentiments that the Kenshin Tsuiokuhen score expressed were a more than solid beginning that predicted great things to come from the newcomer composer.
Rurouni Kenshin Tsuiokuhen – War of the Last Wolves
His score for Now and Then, Here and There, which aired in the latter half of 1999, is comparable to Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen in that the atmospheres are fairly similar. NTHT’s music, filled to the brim with melancholia and despair borne from tragedy, is, not surprisingly, fairly heavy, making it a perfect fit with the themes that the film delves into. But that’s where the similarities end. NTHT’s music definitely has a more modern edge to it, with more dabs of synth to be had. Strings still dominate much of the soundtrack, but it does foreshadow the kind of music that Iwasaki will be producing a few years down the line, especially since many of the themes will find a spiritual successor in his soundtracks to the R.O.D. franchise.
Now and Then, Here and There – Run Up
The soundtrack of Witch Hunter Robin was a drastic stylistic departure for Iwasaki, who added hard rock into the mix. The combination of rock with other stylistic elements, such as mysterious chanting, does well to express the atmospheres of an anime filled with intrigue, mystery, and action. Yet, while this soundtrack utilizes stylistic elements that may be considered overused today, it can safely be said that Iwasaki’s music is anything but generic and redundant. The protagonist’s theme, titled “Robin,” immediately demonstrates that WHR is no ordinary soundtrack, embodying the opaque enigmas that surround the main character while capturing the angst that would eventually engulf her. However, the main highlights of the album are the action tracks , which are represented most beautifully by “Flame.” The piece brings forth an intensity which starts with a grim but determined air, proceeding to unleash a torrent of pure conflagration. “Badass” barely does this unholy matrimony of heavy guitar and turbulent strings justice.
Witch Hunter Robin – Flame
After that successful (to say the least) enterprise, Iwasaki went on to work on the music for Sadamitsu the Destroyer, an anime set in intergalactic space. A testament to his fondness for experimentation, the music he wrote to accompany this space action series is reminiscent of old wild west films, complete with cheesy whipcracks and all. While we can’t comment on how well the music meshed with the animation, we can say that Iwasaki’s bold experiment with this score is certainly not a failure. The rustic Old West bent of tracks like the main theme, “Hakaima Joujou no Tema,” does well to conjure up the image of adventure in new and lawless frontiers. The more melancholy aspect of life for a loner in the unruly hinterland is also portrayed, such as in “Joukou no Shousin,” where a doleful electric guitar solo wails along to reserved strumming. These tracks are an unusual and enjoyable listen compared to the average anime soundtrack, proving the success of Iwasaki’s unconventional approach.
Sadamitsu the Destroyer – Hakaima joukou no Tema
As if 2001 were not already a busy enough year for Iwasaki, he returned to write music for another OVA from the Rurouni Kenshin series. His score for Rurouni Kenshin: Seisōhen was in many respects even better than that of the previous Kenshin OVA, showcasing Iwasaki’s improvement as a composer in the span of just two years. In Seisouhen, an improvement in orchestration is apparent, with the melodies sustained by fuller accompaniments and harmonies. This is clear in tracks like “Pie Jesu,” whose tender oboe melody serenades to stirring crests of sound. Of course, one can’t forget “Eclipse,” where a melancholy, brooding horn solo escalates into a powerful string rendition of the main theme. All in all, Seisouhen contained some of Iwasaki’s most poignant melodies of all time, even to this day.
Rurouni Kenshin Seisouhen – Eclipse
At some point between 2001 with Go! Go! Itsutsugo Land and the Read or Die OVA, Iwasaki showed signs of deviating from his usual repertoire. There must have been some motivating force from within that pushed him to experiment even further. GetBackers provided a good canvas for this surge in creativity, given the anime’s swings in tone that ranged from crazy and eclectic to deadly serious. To match this overall mood, Iwasaki would dip into jazzy tones, which is most apparent in the eponymous “Get Backers,” which carried with it a style fitting with the wacky situations in which the anime’s two protagonists would often find themselves. But there are serious moments too, which usually come about when the characters explore the mazy urban dungeon. Tracks like “Bloom” and “Awakening and Rage” depict the suspense to be found deep within that labyrinth. Although these two tracks are more traditional Iwasaki fare, what they do do is demonstrate Iwasaki’s skill at cultivating the atmosphere of the anime through his music, making him second perhaps only to Yuki Kajiura.
Getbackers – Getbackers
Later in 2002, Iwasaki would have the opportunity to work on a 2-shot OVA series that is arguably the pinnacle of the iyashikei (healing) genre. That work would be Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō OVA ~Quiet Country Cafe~. Though much of the compositional legwork for this easygoing series was done by the Choro Club, Iwasaki still played a vital role in orchestrating many of the OVA’s memorable themes. Here, the Choro Club exercises their brand of relaxing choro melodies, exemplified most wonderfully in the main theme for Cafe Alpha. With Iwasaki at the orchestral helm, the meandering qualities really come out in the piece; as he adds a whimsical, wandering clarinet and serene strings to the mix, he captures the protagonist’s inquisitive nature.
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou Quiet Country Cafe – Cafe Alpha – Main Theme Orchestration
In 2003, Iwasaki would reprise the compositional role that he played with the R.O.D. OVA (which preceded the TV series by about 2 years) by composing the music to the new TV series. The OVA was an enthralling experience, with its crisp visuals and a nice even blend of jazzy tones, orchestral delights, and some solemn synth-based atmospheric tracks. Of those, the jazz tracks stood out the most and none moreso than the main theme, which delivers a James Bond-esque vibe to the OVA as a whole. The TV series would follow suit in reprising many of those themes. For fans who were looking for something a bit different, this was a disappointment, but the new tracks that did appear brought unto the TV series a grim atmosphere. Iwasaki excelled in adding dark, ominous tracks such as “A Body Without a Soul (God Save the Queen)” which, if you took a clue from the parenthetical, is a very grim arrangement of our favorite British national anthem.
Read or Die – Read or Die no Teema ~Long Version~
But starting with Yakitate!! Japan in 2004, Iwasaki began to stumble just a bit as the awe-inspiring melodies that marked his previous works never materialized here. The problem with this soundtrack isn’t really anything overt and it’s actually still decent compared to everything else that’s out there. But within Iwasaki’s discography, it’s a noticeable drop. When you watched the anime, the atmosphere that Taku Iwasaki weaved was one that ushered a sense of free-flowing creativity as new baked delights are born from endless amounts of experimentation. While that sense of fun was packed through the very enjoyable “Yakitate!! Japan,” the later tracks never stand out quite as well on a standalone basis. Tracks like “Daybreak Symphony” seem bereft of the energy and came across as being overly repetitive and uninspiring, lacking the audacity that featured so prominently in the anime.
Yakitate!! Japan – Yakitate!! Japan
But if you really wanted Iwasaki’s lowest point you needn’t look far to stumble upon Iwasaki’s totally uninspired effort in Black Cat. The music initially sounded promising, with the main theme in “Konoyo no Uta” which just drips of sentimentality, but as you explore the disc, the music is compounded by a dullness that descends into lethargy. “ACCETAMI” does bring out a bit of operatic flair (something that’ll be a major factor in a late soundtrack of his. You know which one it is, right?) and it does an excellent job in bringing out the antagonist’s villainy, but that’s about as best as Black Cat is capable of delivering. Beyond that, it’s a dog of a soundtrack, something that’s best forgotten because it doesn’t do much to stand out aside curing you of insomnia.
Black Cat – ACCETTAMI
His score for Angel Heart succeeded in being a bit more engaging, taking a more jazzy approach with noticeable success. The tell-tale signs of jazz are apparent from the beginning; the opening theme “Utsuru na Kokoro” is led by a saxaphone that embellishes the melody with the off-the-cuff flourishes characteristic of the musical genre. Iwasaki even graces us with a soppy love theme dripping with forlorn sentimentality as jazz love themes are wont to do. Unfortunately, while most if not all of the jazz tracks are catchy, the rest of the soundtrack falls prey to such common flaws as ambience and repetition. Consequently, the soundtrack never transcends being more than an average Iwasaki work, with enough sub-par tracks to cloud its overall impression.
Angel Heart – Utsuro na Kokoro
If any remnants of his past stagnation still lingered considering the recent streak of mediocre scores, the music for Origin – Spirits of the Past dissolved them with aplomb. Perhaps it also helped that the movie gave him a larger budget to work with, allowing him to compose music with an entire orchestral ensemble in mind. Whatever the case, the end result was a wonderful score that truly captured the scope of the epic tale it accompanied. Iwasaki covers all the bases, effectively setting the scene with a selection of tracks that proffer an exotic world different from ours. As this world is increasingly drawn into conflict, the music becomes more agitated to match the battles that the characters find themselves embroiled in. However, nothing quite compares to the piece that ends the soundtrack with triumphant confidence. The trumpets in “Bokutachi no Mirai no Tame ni” resound with a grand and soaring melody borne aloft by precipitous runs of strings, climaxing in a monumental ending that fittingly ends the album. With this score, Iwasaki proved himself without a doubt one of the best orchestrators of anime music.
Origin Spirits of the Past – Bokutachi no Mirai no Tame ni
Binchō-tan was a far cry from Iwasaki’s work with Origin. Unlike any other anime that Iwasaki had scored previously, Binchō-tan is a slice-of-life series and the music captured the slow and easygoing atmosphere of the show without sacrificing any of his signature styles. This time around, his experimentation manifests in the use of a saw (of the instrumental kind) in several of the tracks, including “Sora no Ue”. The warbling, otherworldly sound of the saw is nothing short of daydreamy and fantastical, lending a hazy sort of atmosphere to the piece and the soundtrack. On the other hand, a more lively side of life is explored in tracks a little less out to lunch – the woodwinds in “Oshigoto” create a brisk and perky atmosphere that aptly describe the work that the title takes its name after.
Bincho-tan – Sora no Ue
He hasn’t scored another slice-of-life since. Instead, he made Oban Star Racers his triumphant return to action music. Oban Star Racers doesn’t disappoint, most notably offering some intense tracks that accompany the adrenaline-filled races of the anime. Rhythm plays an important role in maintaining this atmosphere, imparting into the music a lively sense of velocity and drive. “Molly’s Theme – Action” is a prime example. The airy strings rollick on a spirited beat while a joyous melody soars above it, creating a piece of music that rejoices in its own movement. Similarly engrossing, “Aikka’s Theme” adopts a more ethnic sound with an obvious Eastern influence. The drums push the melody onwards relentlessly, resulting in a track that could pass off just as much as a song for battle as a race. To be sure, Oban Star Racers succeeded in capturing every bit of velocity a space marathon could possibly offer.
Oban Star Racers – Aikka’s Theme
In Kekkaishi however, Iwasaki’s experimentation is actually fairly minimal. If anything, this soundtrack tends more towards the style used in Iwasaki’s earlier works, with a melancholy pall dominating much of the music. And of the experimentation that does surface, most of those tracks portend at the Iwasaki fare that is to come rather than making their stamp upon this particular soundtrack. For example, “Magic Mushrooms” offers the sort of dissonance more commonly associated with Soul Eater. And then there’s Iwasaki’s partnership with the rapper Tarantula, who makes an unforgettable impression on anime fans through Gurren Lagaan, though the impact he has here is more along the lines of silly than inspirational. But then again, it is kind of hard to surpass ROW ROW FIGHT THE POWER, so maybe he can be forgiven somewhat.
Kekkaishi – Take over destiny
009-1 is another of Iwasaki’s scores that delves into the genre of jazz in addition to his typical strings and beatwork. The tracks characteristic of his usual fare are rather run-of-the-mill and are not very notable, neither presenting a memorable theme nor offering anything novel. The real attractions in this soundtrack are the pieces in which Iwasaki goes for the all-out jazz sound. “Theme of 009-1” starts off the soundtrack with a beat that’s hard not to move to. It’s soon covered by some laid-back strings and suave brass that make for an easygoing theme that’s rather addicting. The more dreamy and nostalgic kind of jazz usually associated with bars on a late night can be found in the lulling wandering in “Suddenly, Last Night”, a soothing track if there ever was one. Although not one of his most stellar works, these tracks and others are a nice sampling of Iwasaki’s talent when it comes to playing around with jazz.
009-1 – Theme of 009-1
Anime fans who’ve been obsessive enough about anime BGM to have scouted out and enjoyed Iwasaki’s numerous past works were probably eager to listen to this next soundtrack. For everyone else, his score to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann would be his magnum opus as he placed his stamp upon the series. To call Gurren Lagaan big is to make the biggest understatement of 2007. In its execution, the anime pierced barriers and appealed through its sheer scope, a scope that Iwasaki was more than capable of delivering upon through an audacious effort that has yet to be duplicated since. The sheer epic magnitude brought about through tracks as “‘Libera Me’ from Hell,” which would be remembered for years to come as a sterling example of how to combine rap and opera. To imagine Gurren Lagaan without Iwasaki’s epic score borders upon unthinkable since the grand scale of the anime’s narrative is captured so fluidly through this Iwasaki effort.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann – Libera Me From Hell
Persona -trinity soul- would prove to be a much less groundbreaking score than TTGL. The majority of the soundtrack is made up of ominous ambience – a flaw that a soundtrack enthusiast comes to know well and fear. Tracks like “Old Wise Man” simply continue on without direction as it offers little beyond a dull mixture of synthetic noises and strange voices heavily smudged with an echo effect. Nevertheless, there are gems to be found scattered throughout the monotonous atmosphere. Iwasaki makes another foray into opera in “Der Mond Zeigt mir meine Eigne Gestalt” with the well known Kasahara Yuri as vocalist. The result could very well pass off as a piece from an actual opera, though Iwasaki’s character is never lost from the music. The soundtrack is also graced with a beautiful main theme, “Trinity Soul”. There is a wistful feeling in its melody, but the notes also glow with a warmth and bucolic hope that makes it a pleasure to listen to. This theme is performed with Natalie Gudziy’s pure voice in “SOMEWHERE,” which leaves listeners in awe through its captivating rendition.
Persona Trinity Soul – SOMEWHERE
Iwasaki’s successful efforts did not mean that he was done experimenting. Soul Eater, released in 2008, would see him try blending together such diverse genres as electronica, rock, R&B, and, of course, his standard bits of piano and symphonic music. The big takeaway from this melting pot is how well it brings out the ominous setting of the anime and the characters’ disposition. The former is characterized by a lot of dissonant tones; nothing quite matches the chaotic, surreal world quite like “DEATHCITY.” As for the characters, while Black Star’s prima donna tendencies gets played through a heavy rock track and Death the Kid’s R&B brings out a calm and cool demeanor, it’s Soul’s theme in “Soul-Eater (so scandalous)” that’ll tend to come out on top with smirking attitude also set to R&B.
Soul Eater – DEATHCITY
Iwasaki follows this up with a slightly more orthodox effort in Kuroshitsuji’s soundtrack. Though the music doesn’t quite hit as high a standard as some of his previous works have reached, his skill in nailing the atmosphere does shine through with a competent effort. The first disc is effectively all setting, with a few ominous waltzes, a few Baroque-styled tracks that depict the aristocracy, and a grandiose operatic delivery that reeks only slightly of pomposity. These themes all work together to convey all of Kuroshitsuji’s facets, from its supernatural, Gothic bent to its high and mighty air of snobbery. As enjoyable as the first disc is, much of Iwasaki’s excellence comes in through the second disc, which is far more diverse, especially through the inclusion of the Indian-themed tracks to cover Kuroshitsuji’s curry-related story arc and add a bit of spice to the listening experience as a whole.
Kuroshitsuji – Si deus me relinquit
But if there’s anything that can be considered a bounceback into fine form (the finest since Gurren Lagaan at any rate), Katanagatari would be it. The anime’s main theme, heard in the epic “Bahasa Palus,” literally screams epic as vocalist Yutaka Fukuoka gives it an air of badassery through his intense delivery. But that’s not all it holds, because after Lotus Juice’s rapping subsides, the piece goes through a period of melancholy as Fukuoka’s voice grows soft, bringing a somber mood to it all. This track, and others, reflect Katanagatari’s ups and downs, from the bombastic battles, to the more tender, emotional moments seeped in doubt and uncertainty. But there’s no doubt in grading the quality of Iwasaki’s music as he fires off his best work in the last 3 years.
Katanagatari – Bahasa Palus
His latest work is none other than the soundtrack to the currently-airing [C]: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control. So far, the music has made a return to the sort of dissonance that most people will associate with Soul Eater and much of the music playing during the battles are fairly standard as far as Iwasaki’s music goes. That said, there’s some caution to be had. Prior to the anime series airing, Iwasaki was complaining a lot on his personal blog about scoring this project and so, seemed pretty unhappy at the deadlines that were looming. Whether this will translate to a lackluster effort has yet to be determined, but it’s something to be wary of in any case.
Page 2 offers our staff’s impressions of Iwasaki’s music and career progression to date in the anime industry.