Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bakemonogatari: Exploring the OP-Leitmotif

As perhaps some of you can gather from my recent visual update to this blog, I've been on somewhat of an anime roll of late. While I've been enjoying the clever plot lines and quirky, characteristic animations of the shows I've watched, the musician/composer in me has kept open a keen ear for the shows' music. I've been intrigued by the well-written scores, both similar to and unique from scores for Western media, and have been particularly fascinated with the opening credits and ending credits themes (OPs and EDs, respectively), their significance to the show and importance to the anime genre as a whole.

I've enjoyed the majority of the music I've come across in my anime-watching spree, but I've been particularly taken with the music for the show Bakemonogatari, translated (rarely) in English as Ghostory. While I wouldn't call Bakemonogatari one of my all-time favorite shows -- though I did enjoy it -- the show's music was phenomenal, and I like it even more now that I've gone back to appreciate its genius in more detail. Written by composer Satoru Kōsaki, also known for the soundtracks to a number of other Japanese anime shows and video games, Bakemonogatari's soundtrack is a diverse collection of fairly sparsely-scored tunes, whimsical and lighthearted at times, tender and touching at others, with excellent rhythmic interplay and percussion scoring throughout. The whole soundtrack is well-written, but what makes it stand out most is Kōsaki's clever integration of the show's OPs into the body of the soundtrack.

As is perhaps suggested by the images I've included, Bakemonogatari falls into the category of harem anime, which typically features one male character supported by a larger cast of female characters. Specifically, Bakemonogatari features five main female characters, each of whom (along with main character Ararararagi-kun) is the focus of her own several-episode story arc. Each girl also has her own unique OP (also composed by Kōsaki), sung by the voice actress of the character in question. Typically presented in the second episode of each character's story arc, each OP presents a glimpse into the character's motivations and feelings -- an "image song," according to esteemed website TVTropes. This forms a strong association between the musical idea and the character, and Kōsaki masterfully weaves these musical ideas into the soundtrack tapestry, creating effective character leitmotifs.

Time to slip in a bit of music history: the term "leitmotif" refers to a musical phrase, typically a melody (though sometimes a chord progression or rhythm), that recurs during the course of a work in accordance with an appearance of a person, place, object or idea. Made (in?)famous by composer Richard Wagner back in the late 1800s, leitmotifs now see fairly frequent employ in TV and film scores as musical ties to particular characters, events, or locations (a trend that noted Wagner critic Theodor Adorno scorned). A very famous example of the use of leitmotifs in film is in Star Wars; musical motives tied to key characters or events, including Princess Leia, Yoda, and the forbidden Anakin-Padmé relationship, recur numerous times over the course of the six films. For example, the Yoda leitmotif, presented below, shows up in many a scene starring our diminutive green friend.

In Bakemonogatari, these leitmotifs manifest themselves as instrumental variations of the more pop-style opening themes, presented during significant scenes involving the associated character. Because these scenes tend to be of the more dramatic or romantic variety, the variations are typically slow, poignant works scored for expressive solo instruments like piano and acoustic guitar. These references are so strong and deliberate that even the OP's original key is preserved. Let's take a look at a couple of examples; in each video pair that follows, the one on the left is the character's original OP theme, and the one on the right is the in-scene leitmotif. (Warning: some spoilers follow.)

"Staple Stable", theme song of the character Senjougahara Hitagi (and my personal favorite of the bunch), is the leitmotif that recurs most often throughout the course of the anime. The in-scene leitmotif is one of the longer of the bunch, spanning the entire verse and chorus (0:07 to end of the OP) -- and is positively gorgeous, if you ask my opinion. This same variation returns in the beautiful starry night scene, one of my favorite scenes in any show.

The over-the-top, technoy "Kaerimichi" is the theme for character Hachikuji Mayoi, a cute, headstrong grade-schooler. For the leitmotif's in-scene appearance, the upbeat, sugary-sweet chorus (0:54 in the OP) is transformed into a soft, touching acoustic guitar passage that provides the perfect tone for her departure scene.

Ah, the appearance of the classic "pop" I-V-VI-IV chord progression. :P The overdriven guitars and drum sets of Kanbaru Suruga's rock-style "Ambivalent World" OP yield to the soft timbre of the solo electric piano. Like Senjougahara's leitmotif, this one spans an entire verse and chorus (0:11 in the OP).

Sengoku Nadeko's character theme, "Renai Circulation," appears again during a flashback scene starring the girl. The instrument of choice here is the celesta, its "music box" timbre contributing a nostalgic, reminiscent feel to the reimagined chorus (0:41 in the OP).

All about heavy stuff like unrequited love and inner devils, Hanekawa Tsubasa's theme "Sugar Sweet Nightmare" is the darkest of the five OPs. The deep tones of the lower piano keys sounds even more ominous than the bass and guitar of the original theme, and the higher, more hopeful passages are considerably more moving. The additional suspensions and applied chords in the piano leitmotif add a great deal of emotion to the variation. Another longer leitmotif, this one covers the verse, chorus, and even introduction (0:12-1:23 in the OP).

The aforementioned scenes are the most obvious cases; these character leitmotifs also show up in places one might not suspect -- namely the background music for the preview snippets that appear at the end of each episode. Ever faithful to his theme, Kōsaki elected to write short guitar riffs based on the harmonic progressions of each character's theme song. As perhaps expected, the leitmotif used during each preview corresponds to the character featured in the current arc. See if you can recognize the harmonic references to each character theme in the video below. I've included times to better distinguish where each new riff begins.

0:00 -- Staple Stable
0:14 -- Kaerimichi
0:29 -- Ambivalent World
0:43 -- Renai Circulation
0:58 -- Sugar Sweet Nightmare

My favorite musical passage in the Bakemonogatari soundtrack comes in the final scenes of the show, shown in the video below. Beginning with a melodic pattern already encountered in the anime, the music soon makes way for a reference to "Sugar Sugar Nightmare" at 0:43, as Hanekawa dominates the scene. Note that the "Sugar Sweet Nightmare" motif has been transposed to its relative major (D major compared to the original B minor -- see diagram above); this musical resolution symbolizes the resolution of Hanekawa's turmoil from earlier in Bakemonogatari. As Senjougahara enters the scene at 1:07, the music shifts to the beginning ostinato of "Staple Stable," which lingers until the final "Oshitoyoshi" theme at 1:45. These beautiful passages represent the pinnacle of Kōsaki's masterful use of these leitmotifs, and really show just how much music can add to a scene.

In the world of great anime soundtracks, Bakemonogatari certainly doesn't stand alone, but Kōsaki's clever use of OP-leitmotifs in his score lends the soundtrack a sense of unity that makes it stand out above the rest. It's clear that not only imagination and creativity, but also careful planning, went into the composition of this soundtrack, and for a logical, pattern-loving musician like me, that represents some of the very best qualities of music.

That's all for now. Until next time!



1 comment:

  1. you are such a music nerd, David. haha, but genius.