Last month, I did a review of Shirobako, an anime about working in the anime industry. In the course of writing that review, I did not touch on the music, which I usually do. There was a reason for that, and it wasn’t because I was planning this post at the time.
To put it simply, talking about the music in Shirobako would have taken up a hell of a lot of time. There’s too much to say, because we aren’t dealing with the music for single show, but for three. Shirobako, Exodus!, and Third Aerial Girls Squadron.
Yes, the two shows that the Shirobako cast works on get their own soundtracks, which end up blending into the main soundtrack for Shirobako itself, influencing it, and changing it. More than that, the soundtrack for Shirobako tends to be, well, all over the place.
There’s a reason for that, however. It starts with this.
That’s what a soundtrack is suppose to be about. That’s what it’s suppose to do. Make you feel. A good soundtrack draws you in, and makes you feel what is happening. Shirobako gets that. It gets that in ways many animes don’t.
The above scene is from the recording of the main theme for Third Aerial Girls Squadron, a series about a group of ace pilots fighting to save the world. As the series director, Seiichi, is listening to it, he feels the music, what it is saying, and is carried by it.
He flies to the music for a series about flying.
In only 28 seconds, Shirobako says all there is to say about what the role of music in anime, or really, any soundtrack at all. That’s what it’s suppose to do. Right there.
Its not really surprising that the music would be as good as it, though. It was composed by Shiro Hamaguchi, the guy who crafted the music for Final Fantasy: Unlimited, and everything related to One Piece. He is, at every turn, an out of the box thinker in terms of what music can, and should, do in a scene, and is never afraid to completely change the nature of the soundtrack to reflect what needs to be reflected.
Case in point, Seiichi’s journey to meet with the mangaka who created Third Aerial Girls Squadron, which completely changes not just the tone, but the very genre of the music used. Drawing on inspiration from Ennio Morricone, out of nowhere, we get a riff on The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. What’s amazing, is that it works.
An epic shonen style battle, for an anime director fighting publishers and editors, set to a distinctly spaghetti western themed piece of music. Nothing about that should work. Not one single thing.
Yet, it does, because it focuses on the heart of the scene. The music tells you how Seiichi feels in that moment, as he fights to just talk to Nogame-sensei. Because music is about our feelings. We don’t listen to, and love, music for any reason other than how it makes us feel. It’s that emotional connection it creates with us that makes us all love what we do when it comes to music.
Hamaguchi focused on that, the emotional core, and managed to convey in music how Seiichi felt about himself, and what he was doing, in that moment. That’s why it all works the way it does. It lets us feel it, too. It lets us forge that emotional connection with Seiichi, as he breaks the rules, and does what everyone at the publishing house is telling him he can’t do. He becomes an outlaw in his own mind, and forges ahead with that mentality.
It’s also a clever call back to earlier in the show, when the characters of Exodus are rescued by a cowboy. Both then, and here, is designed to give an inside look at Seiichi’s view of himself as someone who isn’t afraid to be daring, bold, and fearless. Which is at odds with how he really is, a frequently petulant whiner.
Between the two cowboy references, and the music, we get to see Seiichi as he wants to be. Something we could only understand fully because we all know what that music is. The reason Hamaguchi riffed on The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is because it is a universally recognized piece of music. It immediately speaks to us, to all of us, to anyone who hears it, on that emotional level.
We get it, because we know what that particular piece of music is saying, without having to be told. We feel it, and in doing so, feel what Seiichi feels.
Shirobako isn’t all grand orchestra scenes and riffs on classic westerns, though. It does actually have its own specific motifs that are built into much of the music. There’s two pieces of music that recur frequently, varying slightly as things change, and events influence the characters, and what is happening in the show.
The first big on is, of course, the Donut Quintet piece, a theme that revolves around Aoi and her friends, and their promise to work on an anime together after high school. This one piece of music comes up a lot, but there’s a more subtle reason why it wanders in and out, sometimes appearing as a section of other pieces of music for the show.
That reason was all to prepare the viewer for a very specific scene, towards the end of series, when that promise comes to pass.
This is another thing a good soundtrack does. It prepares the viewer for the big moments, the scenes that matter the most. It trains our brains to know what the music is saying, so when we hit those high points, we react the way the show wants us to.
Which actually sounds a bit like brainwashing, now that I think of it. It’s good brainwashing, though, so it’s totally okay.
The above scene is the moment Shizuka, the only one of the group who wasn’t involved in the making of Third Aerial Girls Squadron, records her lines for an anime original character, which Seiichi and Nogame agreed needed to exist after their meeting. In recording those lines, the promise Aoi and the others made is kept, and for Aoi, it’s a powerful moment.
The recurring use of the Donut Quintet piece all through the show prepares us for this moment, by tying the music to Aoi’s feelings about that promise, and her friends. Again, we have that emotional connection, because we associate that piece of music to Aoi, and what drives her.
It’s musical foreshadowing, really, and that’s just such a neat thing to do, I can’t help but love it.
The other piece, I wasn’t able to find the actual name for, but I’ve always called it the Deadline Theme. It’s a piece of music that frequently shows up when the crew is facing a looming deadline, one they aren’t sure they’ll make.
It really is probably the piece of music that speaks most loudly to what the creators of Shirobako wanted to say with this show, and is one of the most well thought out pieces of music in the series.
The urgency at the beginning, followed by the first notes of change, to hopeful, culminating in a triumphant score. That is what working in anime is like. That’s what the creators of Shirobako wanted to tell us, and what they wanted us to feel.
They wanted us, very simply, to feel what they do, when it all comes together, for better or worse, and they get across the finish line. When they can say, we did it.
We finished it.
More than any other piece of music in Shirobako, this one is speaking to us, the audience, directly. It is the animators, the director, the CG compositors, the voice actors, and everyone else who makes an anime happen, putting their feelings into music, and sharing that moment with us. The dread, the exhilaration, and the triumph.
In one piece of music, we are told what it is to work in anime, and that is brilliant. Not just because Hamaguchi manged it, but because everyone involved in Shirobako dared to try it.
Music is about forging an emotional connection, and more than most anime series, Shirobako nailed it at every turn. The music does more than compliment a scene, it explores it, adds emotion to it, and helps tell the story with it. Then it goes a step beyond, and speaks to us, like no other soundtrack ever has.
That’s fucking art, man.
And they know it, too.