Overview: When you think of Jun Maeda, sob stories that stir one’s heart (critics will label them melodramatic tripe) set in a world where at least some of the cast are dead are what often come to mind. Fair or not, Maeda’s reputation is built on these scenarios which he’s written as part of the visual novel company Key – his author credits include titles such as Kanon, Air, Clannad, and Little Busters! But though his written works are what often stirs the most discussion, Jun Maeda is quite an adept composer who excels at simple, but effective melodies that mesh perfectly with the visual novel’s scenarios, turning up the waterworks and ultimately rendering those moments absolutely unforgettable.
While the aspects of Maeda’s musical repertoire that remain most notable are the themes that he’s composed for Key’s visual novels, one shouldn’t underestimate his ability to write both the music and the lyrics for J-pop either. In the vocal music arena, Maeda’s collaborated with quite a few well-known names, ranging from Lia, to yanaginagi (formerly of supercell) where’s he’s delivered songs that are arguably as memorable as his BGM themes (though this entry will only cover his anime work or visual novels that have been adapted to anime).
So we embark once more (perhaps temporarily) in our composer series. 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.
Jun Maeda’s entry into scenario writing began around the time he was in elementary school, continued as he worked for the school newspaper in middle school, and maintained in high school. High school would also be when Maeda would start composing music, with the goal of becoming a video game composer for Japan’s larger publishing studios.
However, life didn’t go quite the way he envisioned. Maeda would go to college at Chukyo University where he graduated with a degree in psychology, perhaps using that knowledge of how humans work by applying it to his future career as he applied to game studios as a composer. None took him up on the offer though and he had better success when he switched over to becoming a scenario writer, landing him a job at Scoop, a startup game company. He wouldn’t stay for very long, leaving Scoop shortly after to work at Tactics where he did more scenario writing and contributed music on Moon and One: Kagayaku Kisetsu e. Both games proved to be successful and with a good work history under his belt, Maeda, along with important employees at Tactics, left due to creative differences to form Key, where they released Kanon in 1999.
Kanon would prove to be a success, selling 300,000 units across all of its incarnations and garnering two anime adaptations: one by Toei in 2002 and the arguably better-known Kyoto Animation version in 2006. Much of Kanon’s music was composed by Key stalwart Shinji Orito, but Jun Maeda was responsible for the game’s main theme, the unforgettable “Last Regrets,” sung by Ayana. The song instilled a melancholy nostalgia over the setting of the game, an aura further enhanced in the BGM version titled “Remnants of a Dream.” Other Maeda pieces contributed to the overall mood; “Winter Fireworks,” featuring a sound library made up of a piano and flute to carry the melody, augments that existing nostalgia while “Afterglow” uplifts with its sense of relief. None of Maeda’s pieces here are complex, but if there’s anything his contributions to Kanon’s music show, it’s that Maeda knows how to set the overarching atmosphere for the game as a means to connect the visual novel reader to the events on screen.
Kanon – Last regrets
Kanon – Winter Fireworks
This skill would become useful when setting the stage for Air where Maeda contributed a mere two themes which would end up overshadowing pretty much every other aspect of Air’s music. The first theme is “Aozora” (“Blue Sky”) where Maeda would collaborate with the artist Lia in a soul-stirring song that’s uplifting as it’s imbued by pleasant memories. As beautiful as “Aozora” is however, the heavyweight track on the album would be none other than “Natsukage” (“Summer Lights”). Here, Maeda cultivates the sense of magic that becomes Air’s centerpiece, starting with an ethereal-sounding introduction, then giving way to a poignant piano melody that’s nigh unforgettable. “Natsukage’s” slow pace and breezy feel work together to conjure images of a rural countryside summer and the bells which come in halfway through bring with it an aura fitting of a regal march from days long past. The piano work on display builds upon Maeda’s previous work on Kanon, especially in terms of setting the scene, making it far more evocative than his prior pieces.
Air – Aozora
This ability to bring out emotion will be crucial in Key’s next game: the almighty Clannad. Maeda continued his form by contributing the critical pieces that helped Clannad turn up the waterworks. Of those, the most important one by far is the iconic “Nagisa,” Maeda’s first character theme. The piece starts out slow, tentative, maybe even a bit fragile, but as it develops, it slowly blossoms once it hits the main theme and an aura of happiness and hope seeps in. More importantly, “Nagisa” would provide the foundation for many other tracks, from Clannad’s anime ED “Dango Daikazoku” and the chorus in “Chiisana Tenohira” (“Tiny Palm”). Another worthy track, “To the Same Heights” quietly lingers in its aura of contentment as Maeda weaves what may be his most complex melody to date. What makes it more memorable is its use as Clannad ~After Story’s~ OP theme “Toki wo Kizamu Uta.” Finally, Maeda proved he can do more than just soporific stuff as he channels the spirit of travel in “Country Train” which features a rushing train in the background while the lively piano and string sound libraries fill in the melody to bring about a sense of excitement for the road ahead.
CLANNAD – Nagisa
CLANNAD – To the Same Heights
CLANNAD – Country Train
For Maeda, the road ahead meant working on Key’s next project, the highly-regarded Little Busters! In continuing his musical contributions, Maeda’s compositions make up a larger portion of Little Busters’ soundtrack, proffering tracks ranging from the easygoing “RING RING RING!” with its upbeat synth, the heartfelt and uplifting “Boys Don’t Cry,” and the poignant “Lamplight.” Taken in sum, Jun Maeda demonstrates an ability to touch on a wide variety of moods within a single score beyond the melodramatic, even if the results are a bit mixed. Even so, it’s Maeda’s main themes which pull through, including the formidable, eponymous “Little Busters!,” “Haruka Kanata” (“Faraway”), and “Song for Friends” which drips with pain and regret.
Little Busters! – Little Busters!
Little Busters! – Lamplight
Little Busters! – Song for friends
After completing work on Little Busters!, Maeda tread further into the world of anison with “doll” and “human,” both of which served as ending themes to Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino-. Here, Maeda would continue his work with vocalist Lia as well as Aoi Tada whose voices are soft during the verses and sonorously beautiful during the chorus, establishing him as someone who can compose J-pop rather well.
Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino- – doll (Lia)
Also, given just how successful Key’s visual novel adaptations were turning out, Maeda got the chance to work on an original anime, releasing Angel Beats! with P.A. Works in 2010. Once again, Maeda took over the reins as scenario writer and composer, but this time, the results of both aspects were mixed; the writing was clumsy and much of the vocal music was a wash as it see-sawed between being wonderfully sentimental to flat and lame. The former examples include Lia’s smooth, emphatic performance of “My Soul, Your Beats,” Aoi Tada’s plaintive “Brave Song,” and karuta’s heartfelt delivery on “Ichiban no Takaramono” (“My Most Precious Treasure”), but those are undone by the awful vocals and uninspired instrumentals coming from marina and Lisa in “Crow Song,” “Alchemy,” and “Thousand Enemies.” If there’s anything these songs demonstrate, it’s that Maeda ought to stick to the more heartfelt, sentimental piano music and either drop any pretense of writing rock-ish melodies or pick better artists (yanaginagi, for example). That said, the arrangements of those vocal themes, once again, are superb and other tracks, like the eponymous character theme “Kanade” emanate warmth through a soothing and occasionally glimmering melody.
Angel Beats! – My Soul Your Beats
Angel Beats! – kanade
Angel Beats! – Ichiban no Takaramono
Beyond anime music and visual novel soundtracks, Jun Maeda has taken the time to collaborate with yanaginagi through his recent record label Flaming June, where the two have worked on a single, “Killer Song,” and a full-length album titled Owari no Hoshi no Love Song. He continues to work as a key member of Key, especially in writing the music to Rewrite.
Of Key’s musical triumvirate, Jun Maeda’s music tends to stick out most. His strength lies in writing main themes that either capture the entirety of a visual novel’s atmosphere (as in Kanon, Air, or Clannad), or inject a high dose of energy (as in Little Busters!) to capture your attention from the get-go, rendering them absolutely memorable. With tracks like “Last Regrets,” “Nagisa,” and “Ichiban no Takaramono,” Maeda’s ability to turn up the waterworks by meshing the scenes with the music is absolutely solid. That said, outside some of these main themes, Maeda’s synthy stuff doesn’t click too well; “To the Place Where Wishes Come True” from Clannad and “Let’s Return” from Little Busters! are rather lacking, and the repetitive nature of game music does them no favors.
So though Maeda’s music doesn’t get as much playtime from me compared to other composers, he’s worth looking up for all the occasions in which he’s paired up with a singer on the caliber of Lia (I still love “Toki wo Kizamu Uta” and “Chiisana Tenohira”). All that, and “Natsukage,” are sufficiently impactful for Maeda to carve out his beats that endear my soul.
CLANNAD ~After Story~ – Toki wo Kizamu Uta
Air – Natsukage