Shout-outs to some outstanding pieces of musical execution that have left its mark on me.
You know, when you’re immersed in a show or film, there bound to be a few moments that last. There’s good chance that music is involved in that kind of moment, syncing with the visual sequence to produce heightened atmosphere and/or emotion. They could be as basic as “this is a sad scene. Feel sad!”, but these are the kind of moments that you may remember even more than the whole of the show itself.
For my selection of such moments, the qualifier is simple: any visual sequence accompanied by a piece of music shall work, regardless of frequency, length, or presence of vocals. The only distinction I make for now is it has to be non-diegetic; I have a separate list for the diegetic examples, since cramming all of them in a single post would be a bit much. The examples here are literally the first ones that come to my mind once I start thinking about this, so it’s mostly just about personal lasting impact rather than any sort of technical criteria. In no particular order, here we go:
A Deadly Farce (from Stink Bomb)
Song: Nobuo’s Groove
Context: From Stink Bomb, the second segment in anthology film Memories. Lab technician and an otherwise average guy (if a bit dense) Nobuo Tanaka mistaken an experimental biological weapon as cold medicine, and subsequently killed everyone in his workplace through deadly body odor. It gets worse.
Might as well start with something light-hearted, as this space will gets sappy real soon—granted, ‘light-hearted’ might be a peculiar choice of word to describe a narrative where a man is literally transformed into biological weapon of mass destruction and inadvertently committed nation-wide genocide. However, this whole segment is a comedy, a morbid and endlessly jaunty one, and nowhere it’s more clearly expressed than through the use of Nobuo’s Groove. Jun Miyake’s jaunty tune is played numerous times throughout, most notably as the eponymous character flails around the corpse-strewn lab (“I guess this isn’t flu medicine after all…”) before making his grand escape with a pink bike—a sequence that highlights the comical absurdity of the whole thing.
Memories as a whole has ridiculously strong audio execution (Yoko Kanno’s operatic grandeur in the first segment, Magnetic Rose, is the big stand-out), and this funky and strangely endearing moment is the one that got me the most.
On The Brink (Samurai Champloo)
Song: Obokuri Eeumi
Context: In the 14th episode of Samurai Champloo, the shady past of crass vagrant Mugen came back to bite him in the ass, leaving him to sink into apparent demise. Teetering in-between, his life flashes before him.
Truth be told, Shinichiro Watanabe could’ve filled up this list by his shows alone. There’s arguably no one better in the industry than him at marrying striking visual composition with excellent choice of music, and even my least favorite show of him (i.e. Terror in Resonance) isn’t short of audiovisual highlights. For Samurai Champloo, I picked Mugen’s drowning as its definitive musical sequence, a deeply symbolic scene that you’d likely never forget once you watch it. Carried by the ethereal melodies and voice of veteran shima-uta singer Ikue Asazaki, it’s pictures of a life full of betrayal, senseless violence, and weary resignation, juxtaposed with beautifully haunting nature shots. Impossible not to feel for the young man, someone I thought I wouldn’t going to care about at first impression.
Parting Ways (Hunter X Hunter)
Context: By the end of the penultimate (147th) episode, Gon has finally reached the initial goal of his journey (catch up to his father), accompanied by his best friend, rival, and comrade Killua. Their paths diverge from there.
On the face of it, this is just a standard (temporary) farewell scene with a montage, as well as a past OP/ED song being re-used to evoke a nostalgic feel. But, man, it’s such a long, arduous, journey and Gon/Killua is such an incredible embodiment of traditional shounen ethos of camaraderie that my eyes sure aren’t dry when this happened. As for the song, Reason had always been one of my favorite songs since its use as the ED for Greed Island Arc (not coincidentally, where Gon and Killua strengthens their connection through the most universal bonding activity for boys—playing games), and in this instance, you actually get to hear its wonderfully poignant intro hook.
In a way, the parting also represents the audience and the show itself (okay, technically there’s still a final father-son reunion episode, but Killua matters a whole lot more than Jing here). With Yoshihiro Togashi’s long hiatus issues, there’s no telling if we actually get to see these two boys re-united again, which only adds to the melancholia.
Savior in Freedom (Gundam Seed)
Context: Gundam Seed, Episode 35: the Earth Alliance’s and our main protagonists’ warship, Archangel, has its backs against the wall as it’s being left behind to be decimated by the enemy forces. Just as the crews are staring death right in the faces, a familiar figure, thought to be dead, descends.
As I understand it, Seed (and especially its sequel series Destiny) isn’t rated highly by the Gundam fanbase, but I enjoyed many aspects of it at the time, especially the sweet Gundam design and soundtrack. It has its share of moments too, and this one takes the cake: a sequence where the main character finally returns to take care of business in a shiny new suit, just after a major narrative shake-up and as the plot intensifies. Plus, who (at least those watching anime in the 90s) doesn’t love some T.M. Revolution tunes? Meteor is a kick-ass insert song, and coupled with the above majestic shot of the Freedom, it makes for an awesome spectacle.
Apocalypse Now (Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Song: Absolute Destiny Apocalypse
Context: The leitmotif for Tenjou Utena’s entrance to the duelists’ arena. Cue roses, spiral staircase, ‘end of the world’, and more symbolism than you can shake your Freudian stick at.
ZETTAI. UNMEI. MOKUSHIROKU.
Typically, special musical moment is a one-time occurrence, not something that happens roughly every three episodes or so. But we’re not talking about any random normal show here, it’s freaking Utena, where constant recycling of stock imagery have been transformed into an art form. Tenjou taking determined steps, the panning of purposefully shaped architecture, and the epic tune with its nonsensical gibberish of a lyric remain as hypnotic as ever no matter how many times I watch it. There is one individual example that stands out to me though, and it’s the first time they used the second variant of this sequence—at first it just looked the same as always, then the subtle differences were showing here and there, and I let out a surprised gasp as Himemiya was shown waiting at the entrance. Then, she and Tenjou ascend together, and the significance of this shift can’t be overstated.
The Girl with The Dragon Friend (Spirited Away)
Song: The Name of Life
Context: As Chihiro copes with the new reality of being stuck in a strange and scary world (on top of her parents being transformed into pigs), her newfound buddy Haku shows up to provide some nourishment and a peace of mind.
Ah, Spirited Away: a true masterpiece that’s almost entirely composed of wonderful moments. It’s certainly not short on big fantastical set-pieces, but this grounded scene in the garden really struck a chord in my heart. Just a terrific moment brimming with intimacy and warmth, showcasing wonderful character animation that conveys Chihiro’s mental state exceptionally well (look at the cut where she devours the rice ball while choking back tears) and Joe Hisaishi’s great composition (as always). The Name of Life is a great fit here, its soft melody lends a gentle uplifting vibe to the proceeding. Haku’s kindness will eventually be repaid by Chihiro, which makes it even more poignant.
The Wanderer Takes Leave (Rurouni Kenshin)
Song: Departures, followed by the Intermezzo of Cavaleria Rusticana
Context: The assassination of visionary Toshimichi Okubo by anti-government sociopath Makoto Shishio had forced Kenshin’s hand, which means leaving his surrogate family and home for the eventual bloodbath in Kyoto. He only had time to say farewell to one person (Episode 31).
What is it with shounen action and farewells? Anyway, Rurouni Kenshin’s Kyoto Arc is among the very best of story arcs in the genre, and it opens with a bang and a dose of melancholia. The obvious highlight here is the farewell scene between Kenshin and Kaoru, but the preceding segment—set to the tune of the fantastic Departures—is nearly as important. It nails the sense of apprehension and inevitability before a storm, with an appropriate shot of ticking clock for good measure. Then, the farewell, and they really want us to remember this scene: the somber lighting and atmosphere,a highlight piece from the Cavaleria Rusticana opera, fireflies everywhere, and impactful close-ups with revamped art style. In essence, it’s Shounen Protagonist bidding farewell to his Love Interest before he departs to fight the Big Bad, but the gravitas and thematic weight come through thanks to strength of execution.
A Boy, A Woman, A Man (Moribito)
Song: Nahji no Uta
Context: As they prepare for the winter and arrival of mythical creature La Lunga, Balsa, Tanda, and crown prince Chagum hole up on a mountain, embarking on the daily routine of training and housemaking (Episode 22).
I’m a sucker for Eastern folk song, and Naji no Uta is a terrific one, the lilting melody of gentle children voice matches up perfectly with the depiction of seasonal shift in the narrative. The sequence itself is a simple montage, wordless and completely lacking in visual ornament. But, oh, how much they convey though! It has the emphasis on main narrative thrust (Chagum maturing), the subtle reversal of household gender roles, and in general the continuation of incredible character work that Moribito’s been doing all along. The makeshift family structure, as ephemeral as it is, is a heart-warming and bittersweet sight to behold.
That look on Tanda as he pauses and gazes at Balsa and Chagum from slightly afar breaks me.
See You Cowgirl, Someday, Somewhere (Cowboy Bebop)
Song: Call Me Call Me
Context: Following a reunion with his father, savant girl Ed decides to “go some place far, far away” and leave the crew behind. Everyone’s beloved corgi Ein is right on her heels. Elsewhere, Faye is thinking about home, and Spike and Jet eat boiled eggs.
Picking a sequence from Cowboy Bebop was a Sophie’s Choice-level of difficulty. Fans would be quick to point to the sublime Space Lion to close out the Jupiter Jazz two-parter, and I’m also partial to the boat chase in Ganymede Elegy accompanied by my favorite song in the OST (ELM). Yet, it’s this scene, with its resounding sense of finality, that came first in my mind. The song’s lyric, composed by Yoko Kanno and sang by Steve Conte, doesn’t really match the on-screen narrative, but it’s an excellent tonal companion regardless. It’s telling that the scene still got me in spite of not really caring for Ed as a whole; it’s really a sign that fun times are over, and we’re now heading to a bleak finale that doesn’t have any room for two of the sunniest members of main cast. Love the egg-munching frustration of Jet and Spike, too.
Childhood Nostalgia (Shirobako)
Song: Yama Harinezumi Andes Chucky
Context: In the middle of stressful workload, the downbeat production assistant Aoi Miyamori takes a visit to the old bankrupt animated studio that produced her childhood favorite, Andes Chucky. The episode (19nth) closes with the ending sequence of the show.
There are reasons why, in spite of my numerous misgivings for it, Shirobako still ends up as something I outright love. This sequence is the one that completely won me over, a meta-reminder of how even though you may have grown to hate parts or even entirety of the anime industry, you stick with it just to experience wonderful, sublime, moments like this. Everything in here just works; the framing narrative context (“Are people still able to make interesting anime today?”), the joyful tune of the ending song, and the brilliant re-creation of the fake show itself. On a more personal level, it’s also something that has led me to reflect and re-visit what inspired me to take my career path in the first place, whenever I’ve become tired and jaded by the grind.
There we go! I haven’t mentioned a bunch of other deep cuts (which included stuff from Digimon, Haibane Renmei, Boogiepop Phantom, and numerous movies) and it’s likely that I’ll write additional post along this line at some point as I discover (and re-dicover) stuff. For the meantime, stay tuned for the diegetic variant of this list, and do sound off in the comment if you want to share your own favorites. I’d love to hear them.