Sample: Ashitaka Sekki (Legend of Ashitaka)
A project like Princess Mononoke must surely be among every film composer’s list of dream projects – a story with a truly grand scope, several overarching themes, powerful ideological conflicts, and several interesting, recurring characters. Such content would certainly provide an endless stream of inspiration for bolder musical themes, motifs, and avenues for development within a score as opposed to the more intimate, personal works Hisaishi had scored for Ghibli leading up to the mid-90s. The work most resembling Mononoke in scope is Nausicaa, unofficially regarded as Ghibli’s first work, and though Hisaishi’s original 1984 score for that film peaks at several moments of beauty, it is also restrained by liberal use of electronics and relatively simple orchestration, resulting in a slightly dated quality. With Mononoke, both Miyazaki and Hisaishi finally had the opportunity to tackle a film of this scope once more.
Sample: Tabidachi, Nishihe (Departure to the West)
It should be plain to most that film scores remain in the public consciousness primarily on the strength of their main melodic theme, with the projects of John Williams (who doesn’t recognize the Star Wars theme?) being the most obvious examples – and so it is with Princess Mononoke. Even discarding the other components of the score, the primary theme for the film, which both opens and closes the film (Ashitaka Sekki) and also serves as the theme for its central character Ashitaka, renders the soundtrack worthy of a purchase alone. Performed predominantly by either string orchestra or by woodwinds, the theme captures both the heroism and the lingering sense of frailness central to the the film’s two primary characters, echoing the bravery of Ashitaka at its boldest renditions while presenting a sense of introspection in the quieter ones. The theme is likely Hisaishi’s most powerful contribution to any of the Ghibli films as far as a musical identity is concerned, and remains one of my personal favourite melodies from any film soundtrack. Every time I treat myself to another screening of Mononoke, the sound of the central theme introducing the story always pulls me straight back to the film’s rich, layered world.
Sample: Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)
The strength of the score is in its lyrical portions, with the aforementioned main theme being the highlight but with several other recurring melodies also presenting strong support, the first being a general theme first heard in ‘Tabidachi, Nishihe‘ (Departure to the West) as Ashitaka departs from his home village with suppressed regret, and the second being a delicate melody (Mononoke-hime) more closely tied to the love between the central characters. The latter is first presented by flute in an instrumental form, then reappears as the core vocal song for the film, sung by Yoshikazu Mera. The descending harmonic patterns of the song are relatively familiar to some of Hisaishi’s other work, but the instrumental backdrop is lovely in its simplicity, and the vocal rendition is enhanced by beautiful lyrics by Miyazaki himself, gracefully evoking the moonlit scene in which it appears in the film. And while the vocal theme receives the greatest amount of priority in the score after Ashitaka’s theme, the Departure theme also lingers throughout, presenting itself in the more sensitive moments as a consistent element of the score’s fabric, anchoring the film to its beginnings, and contributing to a sense of cohesion in the score’s tender sections.
Sample: Kodamatachi (Kodamas)
The remaining core components of the film’s score are its representations of the fantastic creatures of the ancient Japanese forest, ranging from friendly sprites to deranged demons, and Hisaishi’s compositions here are generally a good fit. Playful pizzicato exercises play alongside the comedic Kodama sprites of the woods (Kodamatachi), while the strange and mystical Deer God of the forest is hinted at with gentle, sustained notes on strings – a simple approach which works perfectly within the film and remains pleasant outside of it. A theme of loose structure for the Deer God is present, consisting of descending notes of a mildly chromatic inflection. The score’s primary weakness is in the material for scenes of action and tension, which, though adequate within the film, does not quite have the depth of the remainder of the score, relying heavily on repetition of similar ingredients throughout (rhythmic bouts of percussion, liberal use of staccato).
Sample: Shi to Sei no Adagio(Adagio of Life and Death)
Though the latter portions of the score begin to revolve predominantly around such action material, there is a rather lovely string motif which evolves gradually from the tension of the climax – a tinge of hope rising from the surrounding tragedy – which appears in “Shi to Sei no Adagio” (Adagio of Life and Death) and develops to a stirring climax in its counterpart track (“Shi to Sei no Adagio II“) . The motif makes use of rotating string chords in the upper registers with slightly discordant intervals, a technique often used by one of my favourite composers, Thomas Newman, to give a slightly mystical emotional resonance. Here it is used to provides a tender and vaguely hopeful accompaniment to the central characters as they progress towards an uncertain fate in the climax of the film.
It would be excessive, perhaps, to claim that the score for Mononoke-hime represents the peak of Hisaishi’s from the standpoint of pure compositional ability (there is nothing, for example, that matches the musical depth, complexity of orchestration, and clarity of the “Deep Sea Ranch” from Ponyo). Yet, as a package, I do not feel it inappropriate to label Mononoke as the most accomplished of his scores, as it is his certainly most interesting and varied work, his most cohesive, and also contains some of the best thematic content he has produced in his career. There are points of monotony in the action cues, but Mononoke is otherwise also the work that is most easily translated into a self-contained listening experience outside of the film.
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