It’s one of the most iconic scenes in modern Japanese animation. Three young friends converse near a wall that’s protected their homeland for a century, when a colossal monster appears before their eyes, smashing through the wall and putting an abrupt end to their peaceful lives.
This moment from “Attack on Titan” has been reproduced, parodied and even turned into a statue. But it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact if it hadn’t been accompanied by a haunting piece of music from composer Hiroyuki Sawano.
“Attack on Titan” is just one of the many anime series and films featuring music by Sawano, 40, who has also composed for live-action and released multiple albums as a solo artist under the moniker SawanoHiroyuki[nZk]. Starting Feb. 12, a selection of the composer’s anime discography will become available for digital purchase and streaming worldwide for the first time. Among them are the soundtracks for “Blue Exorcist,” “Kill la Kill,” “Promare” and “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
Sawano, whose debut as an anime composer came in 2006, says that his initial gateway into the world of music came not from soundtracks, but pop. He was especially inspired by the chart-topping duo Chage and Aska, and later the uber-producer Tetsuya Komuro, who wrote hits for TRF, Namie Amuro and his own band TM Network.
In high school, however, Sawano encountered the music of two legends of the anime soundtrack world: Joe Hisaishi, the composer behind the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and Yoko Kanno, whose work runs the gamut from the funky jazz of “Cowboy Bebop” to the cyberpunk beats of “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.”
“I was struck by the variety of Kanno’s musical approaches, which led me to become interested in creating music in many genres,” Sawano says.
And create music in many genres he has. His anime soundtracks span sci-fi (“Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn”), fantasy (“The Seven Deadly Sins”) and zombie horror (“Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress”). He’s worked on video games and live-action TV and films, too. At the same time, regardless of genre, each soundtrack is almost instantly recognizable as Sawano’s. When asked about what makes his style stand out, however, the composer demurs.
“I’m not very conscious of my own style, but I think that my pursuit of my favorite sounds, chord progressions, rhythms, etc., may be what makes people feel that way,” he says. Aside from Hisaishi and Kanno, he also cites noted composers like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer as major inspirations.
One adjective that seems to pop up whenever fans discuss Sawano’s music is “epic.” Whether he’s evoking despair (see the aforementioned “Attack on Titan” scene) or hope (the uplifting swells of “Aldnoah.Zero”), his best pieces pack an in-your-face punch.
“In the case of Japanese animation,” Sawano says, “there are many works that are larger in scale, so I try various approaches to sound, such as large orchestral recordings, vocal music and so on, which I find very rewarding.”
Another aspect of the Sawano sound that’s easy to identify is his frequent use of English-language lyrics.
“Personally, when I’m working on a song, I almost always have English lyrics in mind,” Sawano says. “I believe that groove and sound are important in a song and I feel that English lyrics emphasize these aspects the most.”
One memorable example of this English-generated groove comes on the soundtrack to “Kill la Kill,” the Hiroyuki Imaishi series about a high school girl and her sentient school uniform. The soundtrack’s opening song, “Before My Body is Dry,” features a rousing duet between the two lead characters that had me pumping my fist every time it appeared in the series.
To the joy of “Kill la Kill” fans, Sawano and Imaishi reunited for the 2019 hit “Promare,” which also features several inspiring English anthems. (Vinyl nerds will be happy to hear that in addition to digital, the soundtrack is coming out as a double LP this April.)
“Every time I work with Imaishi, I am greatly inspired,” Sawano says. “His worldview, direction and characters are all very energetic, which motivates me a lot.” He adds that he appreciates how Imaishi tends to push his music to the foreground, which gives him a sense of their significance in telling the story.
Repeat collaborations is a recurring theme in the Sawano discography. Another frequent partner is “Attack on Titan” director Tetsuro Araki: Their working relationship stretches from the 2011 series “Guilty Crown” to the 2019 film “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.”
Those human connections, the composer says, are a big part of what draws him to projects.
“Since the creation of a work involves working with a variety of staff members, I think it is important to have relationships with people who are enthusiastic enough to need you and that you want to work with,” he says.
How exactly does such a collaboration work?
“Basically, the director gives me an image for the music in the film, and I use that as a hint to create my own music,” Sawano says.
“The films I work on tend to be highly entertaining, so I try to create music to emphasize that. The project starts with the main music, including the main theme and the songs in the film. Before the production, I make a composition list and assign which songs will be orchestral, which songs will be vocal and so on.”
As with most creatives (and, indeed, most people around the world), the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things for Sawano. Live performances were canceled or postponed, as was “Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway,” the latest film in the “Gundam” franchise, which features a Sawano soundtrack. Originally set for summer 2020, the film’s release has been rescheduled to May 7.
When it finally becomes safe to travel abroad, Sawano says, “I’ve heard that people overseas also enjoy my music and the projects I’ve worked on, so it would be fun to perform at a big venue for them someday.”
In the meantime, the composer says the pandemic has given him “a stronger desire to propose more interesting soundtracks for the works I have been involved in and will be involved in in the future.”
“I would like to provide new ways for fans to enjoy music by performing and recording it in various ways,” he adds.
What might this new direction involve?
“I’d like to work on a piece that requires experimental music that focuses only on the sound approach, without any obvious melodies,” he says.
Something tells me even an experimental piece by Sawano would sound uniquely, well, Sawano.
A selection of Hiroyuki Sawano’s discography is now available worldwide on music streaming platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.
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