According to Tom Smith
From bringing the funk to Cowboy Bebop and helping to make it one of the coolest anime, ever; to creating the haunting, cyber-punk soundscape of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex; Yoko Kanno has not only cemented her place into Japanese animation history, the famed composer is also one of the most versatile, influential and biggest names in the industry. Here are seven reasons why.
- Kanno was one of the first virtual idols
Step aside Miku Hatsune and chums, long before the famous digital diva was selling out arenas in Japan (and gaining Daily Mail page space), anime fans were introduced to their own virtual idol courtesy of 1994’s sc-fi classic Macross Plus. It featured a computer-generated hologram by the name of Sharon Apple, who, along with supposedly having artificial intelligence, had become one of the biggest names in entertainment in the year of 2040. She could also control minds with her music – a bit like Taylor Swift.
Focusing on the idea of mind control, Kanno set about creating music for Ms. Apple that would have a ‘brainwash’ feel to it, using plenty of reverb, low ranges and a Church-like elements to create an uneasy feeling. Her idea worked so well that it eventually led to her re-evaluating the power of music when fans wrote to her expressing feelings of suicide when listening to Apple’s songs. Listen to this at your own risk.
- Kanno is the international face of anime composition
Just check out her latest project Terror in Resonance as an example – it’s out now on Netflix. The soundtrack to the Shinichiro Watanabe series was recorded in Iceland, mixed in England and mastered in New York. How’s that for international?
It’s not that uncommon for Kanno, even in the early days she was jetting around the world in the name of music production. Her third ever anime project, Macross Plus, saw all but one of its tracks being recorded in Tel Aviv with the Israel Philharmonic. As for the remaining track, Dogfight, that was done in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. And that’s not even covering a fraction of the work she’s done outside of Japan, let alone the band she formed with members from all over the planet.
- Kanno formed a band just for Cowboy Bebop – and they were awesome
Yes, and not just any band. Probably the coolest damn band that anime has ever experienced. Her band helped define Cowboy Bebop as the funkiest, freshest and most stylish anime in decades.
Named Seatbelts – because its members are advised to buckle up for safety during their hardcore jam sessions, if legend is to be believed – were created solely for the anime, and featured a massive ensemble of saxophonists, trumpeters and various other musicians from across the globe, including Rudy Van Gelder, who Jazz.com dons as ‘the dean of Jazz’. No surprise, Seatbelts were awesome, and I would that their first theme song from Cowboy Bebop, Tank!, is probably one of the greatest tracks to hit animation since the Pink Panther theme tune.
- Kanno beat nuns at her Catholic Primary School
In a recent interview with Red Bull Academy, Kanno divulged into her past growing up in a Christian school in Japan. As a young child, Kanno was extremely competitive when it came to music, especially the piano. She became crazed about entering competitions and even won the 1974 Yamaha piano competition – she was only ten years old at the time, the competition’s youngest winner. She was even competitive in Church.
As well as noting that her first exposure to music was in fact hymns (which may well explain the ethereal and grand nature of some of her work). She also mentioned that her teacher was not very good at playing the organ, and Kanno would often take over on the keys and perform the required holy songs instead.
- Kanno had her own concert at a super arena
In 2009, Kanno held ‘The Super Dimensional Star Festival Sonic’, or ‘Tanasonic’ as fans quickly shortened it to. That wasn’t even the full title. It also came with the subheading ‘~Next Performance is planned on the 22nd Century~’ – thanks Kanno, I’ll get it in the diary.
This three-hour extravaganza celebrated all things Kanno. It took place at the massive Saitama Super Arena on 7 July, starting at 7pm, and costing exactly ￥7777. The huge setlist included some of her most popular work, ranging from Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne, to Gundam and Ghost in the Shell.
Of course, she was also accompanied by a sea of special guests, which included members from Seatbelts and various other musicians she’s worked with through her varied career, to some of the famous vocalists that have sung her tracks, including the likes of May’n, Maaya Sakamoto and the late Origa.
How many anime composers can say they’ve pulled such a show off?
Here’s a quirky Japanese / English advert for the performance.
- Kanno started out by writing chiptune
Before making a living writing anime tunes, Kanno was hired by video game company Koei. Her first project was 1985’s turned-based strategy RPG Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which would later spawn the popular Dynasty Warriors franchise. Though, limited to a total of three sounds, and one of those being the rhythm track, her compositions were not quite as epic as they would later become, but thanks to 1993’s KOEI Game Music Works album, she was able to return to her chiptune beginnings and re-record them how they were meant to be, with a full orchestra instead of a PC-88’s puny sound chip.
- Kanno has worked on over 35 anime projects, all of them huge
Her C.V. reads like an essential list of anime to see before you die, and Helen McCarthy hails her as “the best anime composer” of her time in the book 500 Essential Anime Movies. Kanno has even help establish other big names through her music.
In the iconic soundtrack to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Kanno not only created an otherworldly, futuristic audio world, but she also established one of the career highlights for the late Origa with series tracks such as Inner Universe (click the link, it’s had over 11 million plays so far!) and Rise.
Kanno has also worked with the much loved voice actress Maaya Sakamoto, establishing her with debut single Yakusoku wa Iranai from Visions of Escaflowne, to later working together on songs from Macross Frontier, Wolf’s Rain and RahXephon. Plus, singer May’n states that it’s because of working with Kanno that she could find herself as an artist, and make songs suited to her voice. Nice one, Kanno!
Ultimately, after 23 years creating music for anime, Yoko Kanno is still as relevant now than ever. If you don’t believe me, just take a listen to her latest work in Terror in Resonance or Space Dandy, out now from Anime Limited.