Classical Music Anime - The Role of the Narrative Score

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Film as a medium has wonderful ways of depicting classical music, for today’s film journal I will be looking at classical music as depicted in classical music anime. There are three key ways music anime communicates additional information to the viewer I wish to examine. In the following paragraphs, I have three different anime, with three different means of communicating these dramaturgical ideas through the use of existing classical music as a score.

Nodame Cantabile: Diagetic Narrative

In the series Nodame Cantabile, I will be examining the commitment to accuracy or inaccuracy of tuning and performance in classical ensembles in anime. The series revolves around pianist Nodame and aspiring conductor Chiaki. To illustrate this point I have chosen an excerpt from Series 1, Episode 5, "Lesson 5: Chiaki the S Orchestra's Conductor" (千秋Sオケ指揮).

00:14:38 Lesson 5: Chiaki the S Orchestra's Conductor, Kasai, Ken'ichi. Nodame Cantabile,. J.C.Staff, 2007.

In this scene, Chiaki has his first opportunity to conduct an orchestra. He identifies errors in the performance, such as ‘a dirty sound’ or a violin being ‘out of tune’ or an instrumental entry too early. What struck me was that the professional orchestra that would have been hired to record this series, replicates those errors exactly. As corrections are made and as Chiaki is eventually replaced by the lead conductor, the ensemble echoes the required amendments. This dedication to accuracy in music, not only in the score but in the visual depiction of accurate instrument performance is in sharp contrast to the rather, less accurate modern Hollywood allowances for inaccurate musical practices in film. An example of this inaccuracy is the now infamous depiction of oboe technique in The Mission for the scene ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, where the character Gabriel fails to even mime correct embouchure and the fingerings for the notes supposedly produced do not reflect the notes heard in the score. While in this instance music serves as a diegetic form enabling plot development, there are also times when music in a classical music anime can use the selections to illustrate the character’s emotional state through effects added, not to be found in the original composer’s score.

Your Lie in April: Distortion as Narrative

In Your Lie in April, I will be examining the use of classical selections, filtered and edited in such a way as to reflect a character's emotional or mental state. The clearest example of this occurs in Series 1, Episode 4, "The Journey" (旅立ち).

00:12:45 Episode 4, The Journey, Ishiguro,Kyōhei. Your Lie in April,. A-1 Pictures, 2011.

Passionate violinist, Kawori (Kaori in subtitles), has pressured the timid pianist Kōsei, into accompanying her at a local competition. However, Kōsei has a complicated relationship with the piano and is currently suffering severe performance-related trauma at this point in the series. Thus, when he attempts to accompany Kawori he suffers an attack illustrated by filtering of the piano’s line and complete disappearance of the violin line. The piano drifts away and is muted. A bandwidth filter takes the higher frequencies away, equalization is applied to further warp the sound, and a de-tuning plug-in is used. This continues until the loudest sound becomes the sound of the pianist’s fingers hitting the keys. As the performance continues and Kōsei becomes more enveloped in his distorted reality he stops playing. Kawori initially continues, but stops and turns to Kōsei to start again. The violin starts alone as Kōsei attempts to gather himself to play. This time, although the same distortion occurs, Kōsei is able to hear the violin line. This use of corrupted score from classical composition repertoire to illustrate a character’s emotional state also occurs in the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange with the various incarnations of Purcell’s “Funeral Music for Queen Mary”. At the beginning of the film, as the main character Alex is at his most violent but also his most natural state, the music is era-specific (as in Kubrick's era, rather than Purcell) with synth textures, the theme is presented in a complete form if somewhat ‘wrong’. As his emotional and mental state erodes so does this theme. The theme then continues to appear in ‘broken’ orchestration as more and more is altered and taken away. This use of the altered score to reflect the emotional state of Kōsei works the same way, showing his own emotional trauma within the performance. As he starts again with Kawori and attempts to play with her, the violin line remains through the altered piano music and he is able to complete the performance by following this violin line. This allows the violin to lead both the character and the audience through to the next scene, as we change perspective from Kōsei to the audience hearing the music in an unaltered form. Sometimes, this alteration is used not to illustrate emotional states, but rather to create an extra-musical reference as is the case with the next anime I will be examining, Classicaloid.

ClassicaLoid: Trope and Parody as Narrative

In ClassicaLoid, I will be looking at the use of classical music and the synthesis of popular music to convey extra-musical meaning for the purpose of parody. To illustrate this point I have chosen an excerpt from Series 1, Episode 17 "Mandarins! Mandarins! Fried Mandarins?" (みかん!みかん!焼きみかん?!).

00:26:08 Episode 17, Mandarins! Mandarins! Fried mandarins?, Fujita, Yoichi. ClassicaLoid,. Sunrise, 2016.

“ClassicaLoids” are depicted in this series as a form of scientific reincarnation/clone of famous classical composers. In this episode, the series parodies horror film tropes. After a zombie-like plague affects various characters, the main parody theme becomes clear as a parody version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Mozart’s Piano Sonata no.11, third movement, the ‘Turkish March’  enters on trumpet as the bass line mimics that from Thriller. Then Mozart’s theme reappears in a piano line in counterpoint to the newly composed vocal line. By the use of Thriller, the anime becomes a parody of stereotypical score setting for horror films. This use of audience expectations for a humorous effect is incredibly well balanced in the series overall.

In this instance, the repurposing of a classical composition echoes the opening scene to The Minority Report. It is a re-scoring of an existing classical composition that is pitch-shifted to match other orchestrations and blend it into the score. Indeed, it is possible that the choice of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is being used to subtly imply extra-musical connotations as well. Used in such a way, the score becomes an amalgamation of one or more styles to allow for more blended stings. ClassicaLoid follows suit with the scoring of this episode before all is resolved.

Classical music anime would not be possible in live-action production, even though this has been attempted with live-action versions of successful anime reproduced in the past. This is due to a key element of what makes music anime so effective; the use of visuals to illustrate how the audience ought to interpret the sound produced. There is typically a commentary by ‘audience’ or background characters via voiceover that could be replicated, but it is the stunning visual interpretations of the music, often as near abstractions, that allow for an even more dynamic appreciation. Sounds produced on a piano are not only described as being light, but there will also be visual lights onscreen as the comment is made. Thus, this makes classical music anime an excellent example of the ‘music and image as equal partners’, as seen in the film Jaws. The tasteful application of these techniques allows anime to have an additional layer of narrative and thus is a worthwhile topic for the film musicologist to examine.