Musical Moments in Anime (Diegetic Edition)

Shizuku and Seiji Whisper of The Heart.jpg

Another trip down the memory lane with a bunch of personal favorites.

So, here’s the companion piece to my last post. Finding examples of diegetic music in anime isn’t hard: there’s a good number of shows about musicians, while a school festival storyline, which oftentimes includes stage performance scene, is pretty much a given for a show set in high school (which is like, every other anime). It also helps that a lot of VAs are great singers on their own right. In any case, a memorable scene of music scene doesn’t necessarily have to be a big concert/stage performance; as can be seen in some of my entries below, smaller-scale moments could yield great impact and stronger sense of intimacy. Staging and narrative context matter, just as much or perhaps even more than the relative quality of the music produced.

“Are You Ready? I’m Pretty Sure You Know This One…” (from Whisper of The Heart)

Diegetic Whisper

Song:                                     Country Road

Context:                              When visiting her new friend and aspiring luthier Seiji, Shizuku urges him to play his violin. Seiji agrees, with the condition that Shizuku has to sing along. They end up performing a Japanese rendition of Country Road, soon joined by Seiji’s grandpa and his friends.  

Damn magical sequence. Country Road (the original John Denver version) is a song that will always have personal significance for me, and it’s neat to hear an alternative take on it (that violin intro!). Shizuku doesn’t necessarily give a vintage vocal performance here, but it hardly matters; if anything, it lends great authenticity of the whole thing. Watch as she starts out all rigid and awkward, then relax and smile as she grows into it (superb facial art and animation, as per standard of Ghibli movie). Anyone who’s ever had an impromptu jamming session would know that the most important thing is to have absolute fun while playing, and this sequence is an embodiment of that. Joy all around, and the chemistry between our two leads is downright electric.

Whisper is the first Ghibli film I’ve seen, and still one of the absolute best romantic movies, anime or otherwise.

You Are There… (Beck)

  Diegetic Beck

Song:                                     Moon on The Water

Context:                              After performing together in a (rigged) festival contest, Koyuki follows free-spirited Maho to the local school’s swimming pool. Maho spontaneously sings Moon on The Water (a song from the show’s fictional band), and Koyuki follows suit into the pool as they sing a capella together under the moonlight (Episode 5).

Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat, since I haven’t actually watched the anime. I read the manga, and this sequence is an early highlight—the twin panels where Maho and Koyuki looks at each other while singing their part of the lyric are permanently seared in my brain. I did look up the clip from the show, and yeah, the execution there blows me out of the water (*sorry). Great vocals, great atmosphere, and I love the little additions they made such as having Koyuki smiles before jumping into the pool. Similar to Whisper above , it’s a sequence of future sweethearts bonding through their mutual love of music, a deeply sincere and romantic moment.

A Memory Regained (Kaiba)

Diegetic Kaiba

Song:                                     Melody of Chroniko

Context:                              Chroniko, an orphan girl living with her aunt and cousins, sells her body (literally) in order to help her family. As her memories (for all intents and purpose, her ‘consciousness’) are gone forever, she’s effectively dead. In the aftermath, Chroniko’s aunt plays a tune on a piano, and the suppressed memories of her niece come flooding back. (Episode 3)

Gotta admit that this confused me the first time around—Kaiba can get very complicated with all the body swapping and memory trading. It still hits hard though, and moreso as you start to wrap your head around what happened. The whole Chroniko storyline is about dehumanization and ruthless willingness of human beings to sacrifice one of their own for their own (and child’s) sustenance, themes rooted in both Kaiba’s deeply shitty universe and real life. The piano scene itself is superbly executed, as the tune the aunt plays shifts to reflect her mind state; slow and steady at first, then frantic and furious as she recalls all the times she had with Chroniko and the horror of what she’s done dawns on her. Brilliant use of sound and visual, closing out with an anguished howl.

My Favorite Moanin’ Princes (Kids on The Slope)

Diegetic Apollon

Song:                                     My Favorite Things, Someday My Prince Will Come, Moanin’

Context:                              After a power failure cut off Sentarou’s performance with his Beatles tribute band, Kaoru (at the time was having a petty dispute with Sentarou) improvises by hitting up the piano. Sentarou follows suit with his drumming, and the two entertain the crowd with a wicked medley of legendary jazz songs. (Episode 7)

Finally, a school festival scene, and in my mind it’s hard to top this spine-tingling duet of jazz medley. Kids on the Slope delves into bromance, romance, and family issues, but it’s the musical sequences that delineate the relationship between the characters so wonderfully, and it’s no exception here. Kaoru takes the lead as Sen matches up perfectly with his every move, and just like that, the  ego and whatever silly problem they have against each other are reduced into triviality. Top song choices too, each of them is wonderful in its own right and carry unique significance to the show’s narrative.

We could as well go with the church reunion scene, Kaoru’s proposal performance for Ritsuko,  Sentarou showing off his drumming to Kaoru for the first time, or… er, literally any jamming session in the show. Look, go watch Kids on The Slope;  just like top-notch jazz music tends to, it should seduce and mesmerize you.

The Trumpeter’s Defiance (Sound Euphonium)

Diegetic Euphonium

Song:                                     From The New World

Context:                              As club practice is canceled due to an issue with the new adviser, the enigmatic Reina Kosaka practices by herself in the afternoon.

The school band’s competitive performance of Winds of Provence is the show’s climactic point and would be an obvious choice, but I’ll go with this moment of individual showmanship instead. Thing is, to that point I was close to drop Euph, as the early going felt awkward and curiously flat to me. Then, this scene seized me. There’s an understated substance in this (as per the show’s standard) beautifully composed sequence,  in the way the Dvorrak’s piece parallels the band club’s current plight, and how main character Kumiko had a contentious smile as she listens to the whole thing. Above all, it’s how Reina follows up the solo with a frustrated yell. A mark of true prodigy, for better and for worse: it’s not merely about wanting or liking to play, it’s that she must play.

Kyuun Kyuun…Kyuun Kyuun (Super Dimension Fortress: Macross)

Diegetic Macross

Song:                                     My Boyfriend is A Pilot

Context:                              At the peak of war for Earth, the Human and allied Zentradi pulls off their trump card against ruthless enemy force: the megastar prowess of pop idol Lyn Minmay. (Episode 27)

Occasionally goofy and always lovable, SDF-M hits its heaviest stretch midway through, as the war intensifies and some endearing characters bite the dust. While there are still nine (important) episodes left, this rousing episode and sequence truly feel like the show’s true climax. And of course, they have to pick that song for Minmay’s incredibly important role. My Boyfriend… is a song that used to make me think to myself, “Do they have to play this in, like, every episode!?”, and as time passed without its presence, all I could think here was, “Thank God they’re playing this again.” A testament to the (quite literally) universal reach of a simple pop ditty, sang with maximum earnestness.

The Sun is in Your Hand (Perfect Blue)

Diegetic Perfect Blue

Song:                                     Angel of Love, followed by Cherish These Memories

Context:                              The idol trio Cham performs in an outdoor venue event. It’s the last gig for the group ace Mima, who announces by the end of the performance that she has ‘graduated’  (=ditch the j-pop industry and pursue acting career) .

Another idol performance, but this one can’t be more differently framed than the above. Of course you gotta open a psychologically oppressive film with peppy J-pop tune about the power of love, and in this case the dark undercurrent reigns. The dissonance persists between the  manufactured ‘heartfelt’ vibe of this performance and the highly toxic atmosphere that surrounds it, which includes the intercut images of hapless Mima as her management people argue over her future, snide remarks and routine exchange of gossip, troublemaking crowd, and some unnerving sign from a superfan. As I recall the film and this particular sequence, my mind immediately went to the severe real life issues in Japanese celebrity industry (especially the very recent idol stabbing incident), and a shiver went down my spine.

I Wonder Where You Are Tonight (Ping Pong)

Diegetic Ping Pong

Song:                                     All Alone on Christmas Eve

Context:                              A Chinese guy spends the Eve with his Japanese teammates in a karaoke party. Elsewhere, people are working, stumbling around drunk, and er, fapping. Someone skips a romantic date to train, while another one skips training to have the saddest Christmas celebration ever. (Episode 6)

Masaaki Yuasa has done great justice to Taiyou Matsumoto’s terrific source material in his adaptation, and even elevated it in a few instances. The karaoke segment is a new material in the show, fleshing out former stuck-up Kong Wenge and making him an even more endearing character. The rest of the sequence is a masterclass of montage, showcasing brief but effective character snapshots. Multiple layers of irony are at play here, not least of which the contrast between Kong (the ‘loser’) and Smile (the ‘winner’), culminating with the killer touch of final shot and fade out from Smile’s perspective.

The Rock Goddess (Nana)

Diegetic Nana

Song:                                     Rose

Context:                              In the attempt to re-boot their band, Nobu visits Nana and coaxes her into an improvised performance for their drummer Yasu through the cellphone, as the other Nana (aka Hachi) watches on. (Episode 9)

Nana Osaki is both smokin’ hot and ice cool: this is a fact. The song is  practically the character theme for Nana, and this improvised performance demonstrates what she’s all about: her vigor, her showmanship, and her very easy likability. . Never mind the rather gibberish Engrish, she makes it work. This moment is the stand-out for the show’s early goings, and an important one to our main character Nana Komatsu. Just splendidly executed throughout, from the way it’s lit to the awestruck look on Hachi’s face, leaving us with a burning desire to see the full band in real stage with Nana as the frontwoman and to discover just what would happen between both Nanas in the future.

Encouragement to Soar (Sket Dance)

Diegetic Sket Dance

Song:                                     Funny Bunny

Context:                              After their plan to enter the school band competition with their respective band failed, the three Sket Dance members formed a new band called The Sketchbook, spurred by Bossun’s desire to perform a rendition of The Pillows’ Funny Bunny for his troubled violinist friend (Episode 17)

It’s a wonderful feeling to dedicate a performance to someone, and to be someone for whom a performance is dedicated. Sket Dance, a primarily zany comedy starring three complete dorks (with more past baggage than they let on), oftentimes moved me through the remarkable sincerity and sweetness of its many storylines, including this one. While I think its comedic style probably works better in manga pages, the adaptation of this sequence is faultless. It’s effective enough to make one feels for a one-time character and underlines the philosophy of kindness that defines the entire series.

As an aside, that’s also a great song choice from a legendary band. The Pillows has been around for over two decades, and while they did contribute a lot to anime OST (most notably FLCL), their musical legacy extends beyond the medium.  A hearty recommendation for those still unfamiliar with them.


That’s all for now!  Had a lot of fun compiling these two lists and re-visiting so many cherished memories. It’s not an anime, but let’s have a spirited wrap with a clip of Bae Doo-na singing her heart out in a great Japanese film Linda Linda Linda:

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