Nearly Three Decades Later – A Look Back at a Philip Glass-esque Akira Soundtrack

(By Gene Yraola)

Considered by many to be a historically significant moment in film-making, Akira, a groundbreaking Japanese anime, was known not only for its neo-apocalyptic story-telling and vivid art style, but also for its wildly-imaginative music score. Released in 1988 and later reissued over a series of multiple remasters, Akira and its epic soundtrack composed by Shoji Yamashiro and recorded by music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi were vastly ahead of its time.

Dramatically dark and unworldly with little cohesion, Yamashiro’s composition was perhaps too drastic and unique of a score to appreciate for the intended market of male adolescent anime viewers in 1988. However, as years passed, Akira became more accredited as a turning point for not only the anime film genre, but as a crowning achievement in cinematography for all animated films. With the artistic acknowledgement beyond the confines of a cult classic, now a deeper comprehension and love has grown in fans and music critics for its distinct soundtrack.

Worthy enough to be compared to a Philip Glass composition like Aguas da Amazonia, Yamashiro’s masterpiece is a thunderous atmosphere of charging bells and rapid xylophone keys accompanied by repetitious winds and piano notes resulting in an electric, jungle sound. While Glass’ Aguas da Amazonia is obviously South American-inspired, Yamashiro’s work does not wholeheartedly have a Japanese influence, but a worldly sound full of industrial, tribal, and spiritual themes.

Unlike anything heard before in anime films or cartoons such as Speed Racer or Voltron or even in Disney animation, Yamashiro’s work on Akira was complex and dynamic consistently evolving into sounds ranging from feudal chimes to jungle rhythmic beats. A consistent clash of taiko drums against a blitzkrieg of xylophone keys with a mix of bamboo winds and cryptic intertwining of chamber organs, all topped with buddhist monk-like chants, the Akira score was every bit of a chaotic frenzy as the film’s art style. Yet even with the entropy throughout the score, it was “ordered chaos” similar to how Bjork’s erratic vocal ranges always seem to come together in destined harmony.

Risque for its time the soundtrack held its climax in an unlikely spot – found right from the start in the opening piece “Kaneda,” an angry, adrenaline fused overture with a stark contrast from the somber themes heard through the remainder of the score. Ask any fan what makes this soundtrack so special and “Kaneda” will be their response.

Much like many of Glass’ acclaimed compositions for film, the strength of score is able to stand on its own merits regardless of the movie it was arranged for. Will we ever hear another animated soundtrack so sophisticated like Akira? More than likely, no. A score such as this is too risky and daring in today’s budget conscious studio and too unorthodox for any film maker to take a chance on.

A live-action film for Akira has been in a pre-production standstill for well over a decade (at one point being helmed by Leonardo DiCaprio). If production finally moves forward (rumors point to 2017), don’t hold your breath to hear a soundtrack as unworldly and unique as the original.

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