2011 wasn’t just a very solid year for anime. On the anime music front, we were treated to a considerable number of soundtracks and opening and ending themes that left an imprint upon our collective subconscious. While heavy hitters like Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s soundtrack rocked our world with haunting, memorable themes, this year also saw quiet efforts from other composers bubble forth, leaving us enamored with their compositions. Opening and ending themes also saw a mix of old and new artists make their stamp upon the year, with a fine example of both being Triple H’s (new artists) and Etsuko Yakushimaru’s (established artist) work on Mawaru Penguindrum. With so much in tow, we at Anime Instrumentality would like to present the first of three articles looking back on 2011 by talking about the best 2011 had to offer musically.
Soundtrack of the Year – Chihayafuru
Intensely moving, yet so unassuming in its execution, Chihayafuru’s OST is perhaps the most touching out of all the soundtracks released in 2011. There are no fateful battles, no dark conspiracies, not even any tears of absolute despair. No, it’s just the background music of a show following a group of friends striving to be the best they can be.
Nevertheless, the music overflows with the countless sentiments these friends experience as they fight to achieve their goals. In “Karuta Biyori”, a carefree tune striding on clouds, we hear the happiness and high-spirits as they enjoy their time practicing karuta together. On the other hand, the pensive mood of “Osananajimi” shows them quietly reflecting over the physical and emotional challenges that they must face. If there’s any track that sums up the stirring story of the growth this group of classmates experiences, it would have to be, unsurprisingly, “Chihayafuru Main Theme”. Not purely melancholy, joyous, excited or triumphant, perhaps the only way to characterize it would be to describe it as depicting the ebbs and flow of “life.” Perhaps this is the reason why Chihayafuru manages to be so poignant: after all, isn’t “life” something we all can relate to?
Composer of the Year – Yoshihisa Hirano
While last year’s composer of the year was fiercely fought out between Ooshima Michiru and Takanashi Yasuharu, this year’s saw an almost unanimous decision. Hirano Yoshihisa’s works for 2011 were solid to say the least, and stellar if you are all for composers going out of their comfort zones.
Hirano’s works with the Break Blade movies showcased his usual orchestral grandiosity. For an anime that was arguably one dimensional, it is impressive how Hirano managed to conjure up a deceptively rich setting through his scores. While the six soundtracks were sufficiently loaded with the sober themes of war and its consequent loss, tracks like the folksy “On the Street” or the humourously-scored “The Fools” added much colour to the OST as a whole. Few Hirano followers would be disappointed, which in itself is a tall enough order, considering that longtime fans use his past works like Death Note and Ouran High School Host Club as benchmarks.
But Break Blade alone would not have made Hirano as impressive as he was in 2011. What propelled him above and beyond expectations is his soundtrack for the 2011 remake of Hunter x Hunter. The addition of uncharacteristically lighthearted tracks like “Kijutsushi no Baire” and “All I Need is Money!” to his usual repertoire of orchestra and piano, and his exploration of genres such as rock, Latin and even Celtic is what brought new dimensions to Hirano’s music, making him a composer who is definitely worth keeping our eyes and ears on.
Opening Theme of the Year – The Mystic Archives of Dantalian – Cras numquam scire
Mention Yucca within the context of Japanese music and you’re most likely to be met with blank stares. Not too many know of her, which is a shame, because in Dantalian no Shoka’s opening, her vocals are absolutely sublime, with a beautiful quality that’s very much reminiscent of Kumiko Noma’s performance of “Lilium” from Elfen Lied.
Indeed, it’s tempting to compare the two based on the sopranos who feature prominently, but where “Lilium” draws one in by being seeped in sorrow and tragedy, “Cras numquam scire” simply offers a mournful atmosphere that isn’t distraught as much as it is nostalgic. This all stems from Yucca’s vocals, which have a longing, distant quality to them. Her deftness in navigating the lyrics, exemplified in her vibratos and flawless upward movements in pitch, are stirring and touch the listener deeply, urging them to reflect upon the memories of days gone by. The instrumentals, particularly the violin, add to the disconsolate air and together, both voice and instruments mesh together to give “Cras numquam scire” the strong emotional impact that makes it a clear standout among the opening themes that graced 2011.
Ending Theme of the Year – Hourou Musuko For You
If you’re unsurprised by “For You,” it’s probably because you were expecting no less from Rie Fu. Of the recent artists to have an OP/ED presence, Rie Fu is among the most consistently excellent. She’s been featured in the ending themes for Bleach, D.Gray-man, Darker than Black, and Gundam Seed Destiny, and has impressed every time. Her fifth and latest ED, Hourou Musuko’s “For You,” is our pick for the number one ED of 2011. Though there were tracks that were flashier and more exciting last year (coughRPGcough), few songs could match the clean, honest, old-fashioned songwriting “For You” exhibited. Fu’s voice is simply beautiful; the way she cuts across octaves and flutters in vibrato at the ends of phrases is a talent too infrequently heard in these waters. What this track lacks in pomp and circumstance is made up in spades by good, straightforward singing ability. What a concept.
Another thing we have always appreciated about Rie is her English. She is fluent in both English and Japanese, and, to our ears, perhaps more so in the former. This shows in her singing, and her English is among the best we have ever heard from a Japanese artist. This, along with everything else, makes “For You” our best ED of 2011.
Note: As always, this feature is but a starting point. So stay tuned for those upcoming articles and like always, we hope you’ll stumble upon a few gems in the anime music world worth checking out.