What goes into sound production when making an anime? In October, famed animator Osamu Kobayashi (BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, Ani-Kuri) tried to answer this question when he hosted the latest in his series of talk events, Osamu Kobayashi no Anime Michi (Osamu Kobayashi’s Anime Roadway) as part of the “Kichijoji Anime Wonderland” series of activities in Musashino City in Tokyo.
The panel included a variety of musicians, producers, and voice actors. Also joining the discussion as a last-minute announced guest was the world-famous Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, character designer on Neon Genesis Evangelion and Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise.
The structure was very loose, and the topics covered were illustrated with some brief clips that Kobayashi would play from his laptop. Hearing the guests’ approaches and attitudes to music and its effect in accentuating and enhancing visuals was extremely insightful. It opened up a world normally closed off even to some production staff, who usually are not involved in the post-production process. Here are five things which came up during the event, which I found to be fascinating.
Background Music in Early Anime Was Done by Regular Musicians
These days, the anime industry is quite dependent on soundtrack tie-ins, with music playing a major role in the so-called “media mix” of intellectual property. This trend has given rise to the popularity of “anime musicians,” anime idol and DJ events, and an expectation of what “anime music” sounds like. This also has given rise to the term “anison,” short for “anime song.”
Back in the olden days, however, anime soundtracks had not established such an image, and so the staff simply just got available musicians to play on the soundtrack. Therefore looking at these anime now in retrospect, they sound more mature. As Kobayashi played a clip of Ganba no Bouken from 1975, the entire panel agreed that the soundtrack (by the late Takeo Yamashita) was fantastic and adult.
Ganba has a mix of cute animal characters and mature music, formulating a serious undertone throughout the show that contributes to a feeling of looming danger throughout the show.
Similarly, Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion featured Isao Tomita’s masterful score with a grand chorus that gives a grandiose sense of scale to the jungle setting, painting it as a great, sprawling “empire.” Kobayashi commented that the opening sequence, with hand-animated birds flying as the choir sings, gives it a very cinematic touch.
Directors Commission Freaky Sounds to Match Trippy Visuals
Sound effects for anime today are produced through a mixture of foley techniques (recording sounds like footsteps and other background noises in a studio) and sound effect libraries (which is why you many often recognize the same effect used in a variety of anime). The background music is usually also composed as a series of themes and tunes in various moods. Rather than score each individual scene, the composer would traditionally provide a catalog of stock BGM tracks for the director to select and use for whichever scene felt most appropriate.
However, an interesting example of a strange juxtaposition can be found in prolific director Rintaro’s Genma Wars–its original electronic soundtrack by the legendary Keith Emerson. Veteran eclectic musician NARASAKI noted at the talk event that there was grating, uncomfortable music during the opening, which gave the entire scene a creepy vibe. Kobayashi then pointed out that Rintaro is a music otaku, and sometimes he had used musical instruments as sound effects, giving an almost psychedelic flavor.
Young composer, producer, and DJ Noriaki Kihara chimed in with his experience of strange music for visuals. He mentioned how the weirdest order he ever got for an anime soundtrack was from Kōji Morimoto–he was told to simply “make a silly song.” Anyone familiar with Morimoto’s style is aware of his trippy visuals and how he likes to play with color. Take a look at the opening of the Dirty Pair movie or the Sharon Apple concert sequence in Macross Plus for some good examples.
Animating Musical Performances Has Come a Long Way
Originally, limited animation budgets meant that the number of keyframes had to be minimized, so scenes which featured guitar playing or such actions would often try to avoid showing a lot of the performance itself. For example, they may be framed from the shoulders up (see older series such as Macross 7).Today, new techniques and technology allow us to seamlessly enjoy realistic portrayals of bands and musicians. See the currently-airing Sound! Euphonium for some brilliant, realistic brass band movements during the concert sequences. But it was not always like this.
According to NARASAKI, the motion-capture guitar animation in 2014’s feature Expelled from Paradise was all based on his own playing. When the character of Dingo is seen playing the guitar, therefore, it is partly NARASAKI acting.
Kobayashi explained that his own directed work, BECK, was the same, even back in 2004. It was done in CG, but drawn over by hand, and Kobayashi did a lot of that himself.
Directors and Designers Sometimes Perform as Voice Actors
As hinted at earlier, the world of anime production and post-production are quite separate. The animation studio and the recording studio themselves are invariably different locations. Therefore, animators and voice actors rarely get to see each others’ workplace and mingle. So while it is fair to assume that few, if any, voice actors are given the opportunity to draw animation frames, it is surprising to hear that sometimes you will come across production staff rather casually dropping in to the sound studio to lay down a couple of lines.
An eye-opening tidbit that was shared at the event was Sadamoto reminiscing that even he once played the role of “band man C” in one scene of Hideaki Anno’s His & Her Circumstances. He and Makoto Kamiya (special effects director on the Gantz movie) and Shinji Higuchi (who most recently worked with Anno as co-director on Shin Godzilla) all did background voices. This highlights how the atmosphere is primed for these creative minds to meld together and allow for sparks to fly as they have fun in a common space of mutual exchange. In fact, it should be not be forgotten that Anno himself surprised everyone with his performance as the lead in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.
Approaches to Directing Vocal Performances are Undergoing a Major Change
As I mentioned earlier, the sound recording step, as it is essentially post-production, is quite a separate process from the animation production itself, and as such, one may assume there is not much interaction between the people in both camps. Readers may be aware of the title of “onkyō kantoku.” This is the industry name given to the sound director. He/she is in charge of overall sound design and its elements: effects, music, and vocal performance.
Kobayashi notes how, usually, the chief director of an anime has to give instructions to the sound director and he/she in turn will give directions directly to the actors, because the sound director is the one who knows the actors the best. Still, the chief director is usually present at the recording. Sometimes if the intention of the chief director is not getting through to the actors via the sound director, then the chief director will actually step into the recording booth. Kobayashi himself said he very often steps in and directly instructs the actors, but in his usual, lively way.
More intriguingly, it was revealed that recently, there are many cases where there is no sound director at all. Instead, the episode director or chief director will take charge of the voice acting completely. This way, the intentions of the creators can get through to the actors in a more direct fashion. Perhaps you may have noticed that voice acting is becoming more ranged and nuanced in recent anime, compared to older works? It may be an effect of this trend. This, again, highlights a sense of intimacy between all those involved.
Overall, the Osamu Kobayashi no Anime Michi event went almost a whole hour over time, but the passion and camaraderie shown highlights a strong sense of close-knit community within the animation industry. These creative minds feed off each other as they laugh and joke–and it gives rise to some wonderful contents enjoyed all around the world.
Anime is not just visual, but also an aural experience. But very often we overlook the importance of sound design, even though it is half of the content. Clearly, things have changed a lot in terms of visuals over the years, but we should also recognize the evolution of that which is not so obvious: music, effects, and performance. This event helped me see the invisible in a new way.