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Still from "Spirited Away." Julia Alexander. polygon.com. Accessed February 14, 2017.

Picture a conductor and orchestra working in a crowded studio, repeatedly attempting to perform in sync to a time-coded video projected overhead. It’s a method practiced since the golden days of Hollywood, but Studio Ghibli has a different technique.

The London Symphony Orchestra records Star Wars Episode III. Classic FM Staff. classicfm.com. Accessed February 14, 2017.
You don’t need to be a member of London Symphony Orchestra to know that playing the Force theme 500 times in a row can get old quickly.

Founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in Tokyo in 1984, Studio Ghibli has created a phenomenal legacy of filmmaking that continues to influence animated films worldwide. The composer responsible for much of Studio Ghibli’s musical majesty is Joe Hisaishi, one of the most prolific composers in Japanese cinema. Hisaishi has worked closely with leading director Hayao Miyazaki on all of his major releases with Studio Ghibli, similar to the partnership between John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Established with their first project together in 1984, Miyazaki and Hisaishi’s process is a tried-and-true tradition that demonstrates what’s possible when the music works with the movie.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro. "These Real Totoro Catbuses Will Delight You." Kotaku.com. Accessed on February 14, 2017.
From cat-buses to teen witches, the films of Hayao Miyazaki have brought characters and worlds to life that are unlike anything else in animation today.

During the pre-production stage, Hisaishi is given character descriptions and concept art to compose music with the basic ideas of the film in mind. By the end of the first year of production, Hisaishi completes his initial collection of music. This collection, called an “image album,” is sold as promotional material for the film and is used as a pre-soundtrack for Hisaishi and Miyazaki to work off of.

Hisaishi and Orchestra. Soundtrack Fest Staff. soundtrackfest.com. Accessed February 14, 2017.
In addition to being a composer, Joe Hisaishi (pictured above) is often the orchestrator and primary conductor on his projects.

With the completion of the image album, Miyazaki continues to work on the movie while listening to Hisaishi’s music, which influences the movie’s direction, writing, and rhythm. In Hollywood, it’s common for directors and producers to talk about the score with composers, but it is exceptionally rare for the music to alter the making of a movie.

Nausicca Album Covers. Joshua Figueroa. 
Cover art for the image album (left) and official soundtrack (right) of Nausicca and the Valley of the Wind (1985).

Without scene durations and visual cues to base the music on, tracks on the image album have no restrictions in terms of tempo, rhythm, and length. As a result, Hisaishi’s image album compositions are often too dense in material to simply throw into the soundtrack. Musical ideas are fragmented, rearranged, or joined together when it’s time to form the song cues and the official soundtrack of the film.

Knitting in Spirited Away (2001). tumblr.com. Accessed February 14, 2017.
In regards to snappy musical cues, these movies aren’t always action-packed.

While it doesn’t always mimic the visuals of the movie, Hisaishi uses the music to narrate the emotional context of a scene instead. The compositions are free to be more lyrical and developmental, and are even enjoyable independent of the movie. Hisaishi’s compositions are right at home in any concert hall.

"One Summer's Day" from Spirited Away.


The musically-infused storytelling of Studio Ghibli needs to be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. Thankfully, Austin’s own Alamo Drafthouse is playing films by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli all throughout February, including some of Miyazaki’s greatest hits: Princess MononokeSpirited AwayMy Neighbor TotoroPonyo, and more. Tickets are going fast, so be sure to visit the Alamo Drafthouse website for further information and precise show times.

No-Face in Spirited Away (2001). tumblr.com. Accessed February 14, 2017.
It'll be a cinematic feast!