Perfect Sound Forever

Geinoh Yamashirogumi and the Music of Akira

By James Paton
(June 2014)

In 1988, celebrated manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo unleashed an animated feature film upon an unsuspecting world. It was a mesmerising fusion of cyber-punk aesthetics with deep philosophical and scientific theories, brought to life with the most astounding and mind blowing animation ever witnessed. It was, of course, Akira. Being arguably the most important animated feature created since 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Akira ushered in a new era of film making techniques and showed the true potential of animation as an effective medium for communicating a mature narrative to an audience alienated by the perceived childishness of Western animated features. Putting both its glorious visuals and strong writing aside though, one of the most important aspects of its success came in the form its breath-taking original score, created by none other than Japan's own Geinoh Yamashirogumi.

The group was born from an assemblage of students attending various universities who came together for mixed choir in 1953, though it was not until 1966 when Shoji Yamashiro assumed control of the group that they began to expand, to challenge the recognised limitations of choral work by studying and implementing aspects of world music into their repertoire. In 1974, the group changed their name to Geinoh Yamashirogumi, and set to work studying a vast array of ethnic music and digital audio techniques, which resulted in a slew of album releases between 1976 and 1986, when the album Ecophony Rinne brought them to the attention of Otomo himself, who promptly commissioned them to create the soundtrack to his debut animated feature.

There are striking similarities between Ecophony Rinne and the score that they would later produce; musically, it features a heavy emphasis on choral work and percussion, while thematically, the album is based around four movements that depict a life cycle from birth, through death, to eventual rebirth. The film, on the other hand, is based around the possibility of latent knowledge, or power, residing with the very cells that give us life, a remnant of the various stages of the evolutionary process that brought us here; an energy within us that even after death does not dissipate, but rather evolves into an alternative form in another space and time. Evidently, Otomo saw them as a perfect accompaniment to his artistic vision, and unsurprisingly, he was correct.

When Geinoh Yamashirogumi accepted to proposal of creating the soundtrack, they were delighted to discover that the only restriction placed upon them was that of a time constraint, they were given just six months to create the music for the film, but no budget was allocated, they were instead given a blank cheque to pursue whatever artistic vision that they saw fit-though Otomo himself requested that they create a Yamashirogumi style of music, rather than a dramatic one. The film was to be anything but by-the-numbers, and its score should also reflect this.

The group utilised their experience and knowledge of the latest technical innovations in the music industry, primarily creating their music on computers and employing the micro-tuning facilities that electronic music accommodates to accurately replicate the tonality of the Indonesian gamelan, with the indigenous Balinese jegog assuming centre stage. The track "Kaneda" opens with a deafening clasp of thunder before the roar of a 1929 Harley Davidson motorcycle propels the listener towards the spritely gamelan arrangement that comprises the bulk of the composition. A cycle of notes spread across multiple instruments takes the listener on a journey into their own inner-space, the combination of alternating high and low register notes thought to infer the process of breathing, or the beating of a heart, perhaps indicating the young gang in question to be the lifeblood of Neo Tokyo? This is beautifully complimented by soft, yet lively, vocals that perfectly encapsulate the essence of the famous Nebuta summer festival. Here, a float of a great warrior is carried through the centre of Aomori, while dancers surround it and sing "rassera," its use in the film could appear to indicate to the viewer that Kaneda is in fact that noble warrior, though floats can often depict mythical characters or Gods as well.

This theme is reprised in "Battle Against the Clowns," which mixes the upbeat and hope filled theme of "Kaneda" against a dominant track of dark, heavy breathing which finds its influence in the Balinese Kecak, a form of dance based upon an old ritual of exorcism. These two themes clash as they cycle between one another, until Kaneda's theme appears to emerge victorious, his rival gang finally bested. "Winds Over Neo Tokyo" is a gentle, yet downbeat composition based around rising and falling chromatic synthesiser based runs, which gradually builds up to reveal the unsettling sense of hopelessness that pervades the track and indeed the fictitious city as a whole, it is a place fearful of a future doomed to repeat the past. Its place in the film seemingly signalling that Tetsuo's fate has been sealed, powers beyond his imagination have been awakened, and he is destined to be consumed by them, as Tokyo was by Akira himself.

The city of Neo Tokyo itself is experiencing something of a rebirth, having been almost entirely annihilated by the Akira incident, it has been rebuilt upon the ashes of the past with a goal of long term regeneration, including the construction of a stadium within which to host the Olympic Games, this being the final piece of the area's economic and social development. However, this progressive outlook is something of a ruse, disguising the government's obsession with the past, and their attempts to unravel the mysteries of Akira, through which they hope to gain mastery over the destructive powers that come with it. Ultimately, the powers that Akira and Tetsuo both have are within all of us, unlocking them is said to be the next stage of human evolution, so whilst the Japanese government gaze back into the past, they are in actuality attempting to mould the future, to prevent the present succumbing to the same mistakes that blighted their own history. Though, ill prepared for the reality of the situation, they sow the seeds of their own downfall as they encourage the development of the Akira project, and the awakening of Tetsuo's own potential.

The theme of the film's antagonist-if one can refer to him as such-is a remarkable composition with the opening measure mostly comprised of just two notes from the gamelan, before Geinoh Yamashirogumi gradually build up its rhythmical complexity, incorporating some strange time signatures as the composer's introduce church organ and choir elements to add a dark edge to the track. In the film, the increasing density of the composition is a reflection of Tetsuo's growing powers, his mocking laugh is even said to have been represented by some of the composition's polyrhythms. In the full version of the track, the composition is stripped back once again to present a warmer, more beautiful variation of the theme, one that would perhaps sound more at home within a music box of some description. The composition as a whole seems to construct a three dimensional view of Tetsuo's character, he is at once both vibrant and child-like, until he is ultimately consumed by the darkness, corrupted by powers which take more from him than they ever gave back. It is quite similar, in this regard, to the theme that accompanies his fantastical delusions, as he observes stuffed toys traverse the floor of his room, before ascending his bed; the initial childishness giving way to something more menacing, as the toys re-emerge in larger forms to attack Tetsuo. This particular composition, "Dolls' Polyphony," begins with a shifting, heavily altered, female vocal, before it finds company with the surge of a warm, backing synthesiser line. A deep male chorus emerges and the tone of the music, much like the scene that it accompanies, changes rather dramatically in tone and texture before fading away to silence.

Despite living in a slightly more technologically advanced period of time, the people of Neo Tokyo still turn in droves towards the embrace of religion in the hopes of finding purpose or peace. In Akira, Buddhism does not appear to be the most common faith, but rather the emerging Miyakoism, which worships Akira, and ultimately Tetsuo too, as gods. To complement the emerging belief systems found within the narrative, Geinoh Yamashirogumi opted to employ a form of Buddhist chanting in its composition, "Shohmyoh." The syohmyoh, as it is called, is a hypnotising and confusing chant, presumably chosen to illustrate the condition of the people within the city, unable to comprehend the scientific phenomena that they witness, they instead turn blindly into the arms of faith, and like many others, they too fall victim to Tetsuo's rampage of destruction in his search for answers. This composition is split into two parts, the second filled out with a pulsating, sinister guitar line and the ever increasing presence of drums and percussion that build up towards an explosive finale.

The composition "Mutation" is the musical accompaniment to Tetsuo's transformation- it is a dark and eerie track, punctuated with heavily gated and processed drums that punch through a deep, male chorus that perfectly encapsulates the ominous tone. A modified vocal track murmurs Kaneda, Kaori and Tetsuo repeatedly, but this is almost indecipherable as it has been speed up so much. This half of the song encapsulates the self-destruction of Tetsuo as he is finally consumed by his own power, before giving way to a more mournful second half of the composition. Here, a startlingly pure sounding female vocal introduces an authentic Bulgarian chorus to usher in the more sorrowful tone, this style of choral work has almost been lost under the weight of the Russian influence that spread throughout the majority of Bulgarian Orthodox music, yet it is represented here in all of its glory, and to wonderful effect.

"Escape From the Underground Fortress" is a far more upbeat piece of music, based around a variation of the jegog arrangement that powers forth Kaneda's theme, it is superbly backed up with drums, synthesisers and some excellent guitar work, resulting in the most easily accessible composition featured in the film. It was employed at several points by the director, Katsuhiro Otomo, to add a sense of urgency to the proceedings, which it does so with aplomb, and demonstrates the diversity of the Yamashirogumi sound. It is disheartening to know that this ground breaking group, which had released nine albums prior to the arrival of Akira, are still relatively unknown throughout the world, their ability to combine traditional musical styles with a modern influence-without sacrificing the feel of its musical foundations-is second to none. The Akira soundtrack being the perfect example of this.

In terms of traditional musical styles, there are few as well established as the Japanese Noh, a type of musical drama that dates back to the 13th century, and features masked performers who can assume several parts in the performance. Interestingly, in a Noh, the cast practice individually, with the group only coming together for a single full cast rehearsal merely days before the actual performance. Many narratives employed in Noh performances make mention of the formation of demons, and this could evidently be why Yamashirogumi chose this specific style when creating this composition, which is indicative of the great sorrow that Tetsuo carries with him. It is a traditional Japanese feature to depict demons as fallen humans, whose great powers come at the cost of their humanity, which is reflected in the masks that they often wear in Noh performances; on one side, it may be both fierce and frightening, while another will be blighted with the agony of the character's loss. The track opens with a gorgeous synthesiser part that accompanies Tetsuo's recollections of his childhood, including his first meeting with Kaneda, but this, like the on screen illusion crumbles, and gives way to something more menacing. The composition is split into several movements, possibly as many as seven, which propels the listener towards the great crescendo that climaxes it, as the vocals, gamelan, synthesisers and Kundu drums (native to Papa New Guinea) unite for a final flourish.

The final composition, "Requiem," opens with thunderous drums soaked in reverb, it is the sound that opens the film, following the destruction of Tokyo, a mere crater left in its wake. Soft, heart-warming vocals shimmer with the notions of a dhara?i, an ancient, elongated form of mantra derived from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. In the mythology behind them, some forms of dhara?i are said to imbue immortality, and therefore life beyond the destruction of the world, or even the universe as a whole. An especially fitting accompaniment to Tetsuo's transition from our world into another, his physical presence destroyed, but his spiritual energy having moved on to somewhere beyond our understanding. There is a marvellous section of church organ that segues the composition between its pure mantra, and the introduction of the Balinese jegog that sees Geinoh Yamashirogumi reprise Kaneda's theme once more, a recollection of the festival that powers the track towards an astonishingly beautiful finale as faint, whispered vocals urge both Akira and Tetsuo to sleep, to rest and to one day return to the planet that is their home. The "Requiem" then closes exactly as it opened, the elongated reverb of a heavy drum crash fading out to meet the silence of the universe, at once both cold and desolate, yet full of the hope of life.

There can simply be no denying the impact of Akira, its visuals and its soundtrack are almost indescribable in their beauty and power, it was a perfect symbiosis of artistic talent coming together to create something timeless, a testament to the potential of film, and of art in general. It is quite frankly unfathomable that Geinoh Yamashirogumi were never commissioned to create another score following this one, as it stands as one of the finest examples of soundtrack music ever witnessed- their understanding of the imagery was flawless, and their music complimented it perfectly.

Since the release of Akira in 1988, Geinoh Yamashirogumi have released a further two albums, Ecophony Gaia (1990) and Ougorin Sanyo (2000), while the group's leader, Shoji Yamashiro has founded his Institute of Science and Culture and helped to establish the creation of the dynamic Hypersonic audio effect. This is based upon studies into acoustics and psychoacoustics, wherein it is believed that whilst the human body cannot hear frequencies above 20kHz, the presence of such frequency content still affects the listener in some way, and it has been employed in the Bluray release of Akira to imbue a more emotional response to the film within the viewer. The result of which, is that the feeling of witnessing Akira for the very first time is recalled, its power renewed, and its ability to overwhelm future generations with the collective artistic vision that crafted it, is now assured. With Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo and Geinoh Yamashirogumi's places within the annals of history have not only been justified, but rather, they have been made necessary.

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