What may get overlooked, however, is that the reverse also applies: anime also add value to their respective OP and ED themes. And I’m not talking commercial value. (That may be topic for another day.) The element that arguably propels a merely enjoyable anisong into something great comes from how intimately the song is tied to the anime.
Spoilers to follow for Natsume Yuujinchou, Steins;Gate, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Very often, the anime ties the lyrical aspects of a song to a context, allowing us to form a mental picture as we listen. This cannot be more clearly articulated than in Natsume Yuujinchou’s first ending, “Natsu Yuuzora”. No doubt a gem on its own, the additional connection with the anime brings to life the imageries within the lyrics, particularly the association with summer (evident in the song title). Lines like “the scent of summer”, “the voices of my friends”, and how “even now, my heart smiles when I look back on that summer day” are more than just nostalgia. To someone who has watched the anime, they are heartwarming, conjuring up the many images of the time Natsume spends with his dear friends (human or otherwise), friends who mean the world to him after the loneliness and fear he went through in his childhood. And when you listen to “Natsu Yuuzora” after every single episode, the anime’s lingering feelings of warmth and friendship percolate into “Natsu Yuuzora”, making it more satisfying a listening experience.
Another choice example would be “Hacking to the Gate”, with its lyrics focusing on the overarching theme of the anime: time. The lyrics go further by helping us relive significant moments in the anime itself. Personally, the most impactful moment in the show was when Okabe acknowledged that he no longer felt any emotions when Mayuri dies, a sentiment that painfully depicts his helplessness. The lyrics closely mirror this by describing how one is repeatedly swept into the unfeeling loop of time as a lonely observer. The anime thereby allows us to tie lyrical references closely to the plot, giving the lyrics far more meaning compared to a standalone listen.
Beyond lyrical references, an anime can also add meaning to the musical progression and instrumentation of a song, which is arguably story-telling at its best. And for this, we turn to Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s “Magia”. Starting with the eerie chorus which sets the tone for the forlorn story about to unfold, the subtle entrance of the low cello notes depict how one is unknowingly sinking deeper into the darkness. Later, the entry of the tubular bells depicts the rendezvous with fate. For a while, the main melody and that of the bells move in unison, almost as if fate were bending to someone’s will. Before long, however, the bells take over, and swiftly move the melody back to its opening stanza, just like what happens in the anime.
Also interesting is how the lyrical aspect isn’t ignored, and reflects the deep irony in the anime itself. The stanza which speaks of courage and yearning, for instance, is accompanied by the dark cello line, which hints at how attempts to realise a wish only brings one deeper into the spiral of darkness. In the last stanza of the full version, the lyrics speak of how an ancient magic has assured one that she has the power to change the world, yet the violin melody accompanying that stanza is deeply ominous and sinister, seemingly suggesting that nothing comes without a price.
And with all that, I have probably done enough damage spoiling three awesome shows for those who have yet to watch it and foolishly chose to ignore my warnings. But for those who have, the imageries and parallels are deeply intriguing, and really remind us of how our appreciation of any anime song may not be complete until we have watched the series it accompanies.