Composer of the Month – Yoko Kanno


Jen’s Thoughts:
Writing about Kanno is no easy feat for me. While I have heard a small collection of her works, including those for Escaflowne, Darker Than Black and Uncharted Waters, I have yet to find a common trait running through Kanno’s works. Listening to every new soundtrack by her makes me feel like a Kanno noob, though I would say that’s actually the best part of it.

I especially enjoy her more action-oriented pieces, such as ‘Dance of the Curse’ from Escaflowne, which expertly utilises vocals, glisssandos, running notes and supporting bass instruments to bring about the tense and dangerous atmosphere. Her grand pieces know few rivals, as she is able to weave together something so powerful and so complete you can never think of an area where it falls short.

In terms of songs, the collaboration which caught my attention is not the usual Maaya Sakamoto (though I do enjoy a few of Kanno’s works for her) or May’n fare, but AKINO. AKINO’s pieces feel as though they were tailored specially for her, and her dexterity fully brings out the character and complexity of Kanno’s compositions.

Even though I don’t know enough about Kanno to say anything else, I can still confidently say that Kanno will always create an unforgettable experience for listeners every single time.

Escaflowne – Dance of Curse

[audio:Escaflowne – Dance of Curse.mp3]
Aftershok’s Thoughts:
There’s not much to be said about Kanno that hasn’t already been expounded on to the point of cliché. Her work across the board is so varied and diverse while maintaining a level of quality so high that it almost seems Faustian.  When a composer is confronted with a genre or style outside of their “comfort zone,” there is often a distinguishable amount of unfamiliarity or discomfort that can be heard in the resulting score. This is (almost) never the case with Kanno; every genre is in some way her “comfort zone.” Conversely, and perhaps more realistically, Yoko Kanno has no comfort zone that she truly excels at, which, in my opinion, is likely her greatest weakness.

Kanno’s songs, in general, are always great, which, for any composer for any medium, is something to be proud of. But it’s the delightful and rare occasion for me (read: Cowboy Bebop) when one of her pieces transcends “great” to become something masterful. The old adage goes that the jack of all trades is the master of none, and that is loosely how I feel about Kanno. It seems that her hardcore fans are almost more impressed by Kanno’s consistency than her actual music. Kanno has yet to have her own “Bohemian Rhapsody” or her “Hey Jude,” so to speak. Nothing says “Kanno” quite like Symphony No. 9 says “Beethoven;” nothing makes me sit down with a knowing, contented disposition and say “Ah, this is Yoko Kanno!” Yeah, these aren’t the most apt comparisons, and I know I’m being a bit unfair. Nonetheless, her diversity is simultaneously her greatest asset and most glaring liability.

Consider someone like Yuki Kajiura who is an expert at what she does but rarely does anything else. Kajiura has such an ardent core fanbase because the people who found themselves enjoying Kajiura in one show are pretty much predisposed to liking the OSTs of other shows she’s worked on. As for Kanno, her fans aren’t as likely to enjoy all her work; they often embrace a few select OSTs they really like from her that just happen to fall in a genre they enjoy, while they’re indifferent to her other stuff.

It raises the question of what is more admirable: an artist that consistently churns out excellent works in a way you’re pretty much sure to like or one that is just proficient at many things while taking brave and wonderful chances but may not always be what you’re looking for.

Faced with the choice, I’d take the latter any day.

Cowboy Bebop – Rush

[audio:Cowboy Bebop – Rush.mp3]
Yu’s Thoughts:
That Kanno is called the John Williams of anime music is no surprise (Someone has even drawn a comic about it). Her music, while frequently quoting the work of others, does not become a stale copy. She manages to turn it into something of her own, dabbling in genres that Williams has rarely, if ever, touched.

Being the jack-of-all-trades that she is, it’s difficult to write about everything I think about Kanno in a condensed space. Consequently, I’ll just talk about what she does that I like the most, namely, her orchestral work. The pieces that she writes possess a sense of largeness, for the lack of a better word, that I haven’t heard many other composers pull off. The vastness is there in both Macross and Escaflowne, two of my favorite works that she’s composed. Perhaps it’s her use of trumpet fanfares or maybe it’s the size of the ensembles that play her music. In any case, there’s an epic feeling in Kanno’s orchestral stuff that’s hard to beat, almost to the point where I have to put down her music for occasional breaks. Kind of like eating only so much of a rich dish at once.

Then there’s the vocal work that makes up half of what Kanno has accomplished. She’s one of the few who have actually worked with English-speaking singers to perform the songs in anime like Ghost in the Shell. That said, I’m also very fond of her J-pop styled compositions, especially in Macross. Even though I haven’t watched the anime, I can hear its essence through the songs.

While I like Kanno a great deal, she does have some flaws. Occasionally she will experiment with an uncommon genre, resulting in an outcome of mixed success. Then there’s the issue of originality. Her orchestral stuff, while undoubtedly hers and masterfully put together, doesn’t have a style that clearly sets her apart from the film music giants of the West. Sometimes I suspect that she lives in the shadow of Williams. While Kanno’s always being compared positively to him, she’s still being compared to him. The two coexist in my mind as some sort of linked entity. Therein lies the problem; it is her skill and not her style that sets her apart.

Macross Frontier – Test Flight Delight

[audio:Macross Frontier – Test Flight Delight.mp3]
Final Notes:
As an anime blog, we are unable to cover her game music in much depth, and believe us when we say that we do enjoy the bounciness of Napple Tale and the music to Ragnarok Online 2 (Jen even mentioned her Uncharted Waters above). The same goes for her movie scores since some of us did find the Honey and Clover soundtrack to be enjoyable (despite not seeing the movie. heh).

And if you haven’t noticed, this is more of a chronological journey through their anime compositions. We do hope that, by taking the time to listen to the samplings, that you find another soundtrack to check out.

Sources are always hard to find, especially in Kanno’s case. The Gabriela Robin fansite provides a lot of useful information as well as a set of links to work off of. There are also two interviews worth reading and English-translated interviews with Kanno are damned hard to come by as it is. Finally, for biographical stuff, you can always check out James Wong’s site and a bio.

This post is dedicated to Aftershok, whose face exploded and whose mental well-being suffered after he foolishly volunteered to draft this mega-article. We commend him for not crying “uncle” when given the chance to surrender.

Anime Instrumentality Staff

A collaboration between the staff members at Anime Instrumentality to bring you the best of all the anime music out there! Or silliness, whichever it is that happens to come first.

31 thoughts on “Composer of the Month – Yoko Kanno

Leave a Reply