Yoko Kanno: The Greatest Composer You’ve Never Heard Of

One of the finest composers of the modern age, Yoko Kanno is a legend to fans of anime. To the rest of the world, she is practically unknown.

In late 1998, the journalist Oliver Barder found himself sitting down to talk music with one of Britain’s finest conductors, Anthony Inglis. In a career that had seen him work with everyone from the Two Ronnies to the Royal Philharmonic, Inglis had become recognised the world over as a master of his art. Barder’s interest that day, however, was in one particular aspect of Inglis’ career , an aspect that few people even knew existed: his work conducting orchestral scores for anime.

“She is a genius”

In particular, Barder wanted to hear about Inglis’ experiences with the score for Macross Plus, for which Inglis had conducted the Israel Philharmonic in 1994.

“The orchestra loved the music and had a ball doing it.” Inglis commented. “Everybody liked the music, it was inspiring stuff. The Israel Philharmonic were in awe of the music. Make no mistake, the Israel Philharmonic are a world class orchestra, so it takes a lot to impress them.

“It also made a change from the usual ‘squeaky gate’ music that I have had to conduct, which is music written by a composer for a select group of his friends. Music like that annoys me, because I want the listeners to enjoy the music and go through motions while listening to it.”

“Which is where this type of music,” Inglis continued, with enthusiasm, “where you have challenging rhythms and harmonies, is exciting and it plays on your emotions. I would love to conduct more music like this.”

Was this, Barder asked, the first time Inglis had encountered Yoko Kanno?

“Yes it was.” Inglis replied. “It was also apparently the first time she had ever orchestrated for an orchestra. Which if it is true, I have no reason to doubt it, she is a genius.”

Composing from an early age

In the world of anime, there are a few individuals whose name alone is enough to guarantee that a series will be worth watching. Composer and arranger Yoko Kanno is a member of that small, select group. In a career that has so far spanned almost thirty years, she has written, performed and arranged some of the most iconic and memorable soundtracks the world of anime has ever seen.

Born in the Miyagi prefecture in Japan in March 1967, Kanno discovered music at a very young age. Indeed in interviews she has claimed that she first began composing at the age of just two and a half. She quickly discovered that through music she could express her feelings and emotions better than through words. Despite this early interest, however, the world Kanno grew up in was surprisingly music-free. With no television, radio or record player at home, it was the household piano on which she focused her attention, teaching herself how to play.

That music might be something on which she could base a career, or even that she might have a particular talent for it, seems not to have crossed her mind until university. Although there to study literature, she agreed to play keyboard for a band looking to enter a music competition — a competition they promptly won, releasing a record as a result. It was this, she would later claim, that made her realise there may be a future for her in music.

The video game years

By 1985 Kanno had begun to carve out a career as a composer — not for anime but for video games, beginning with Romance of the Three Kingdoms for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The game marked the beginning of a long partnership with developers Koei, and with the industry itself, to which Kanno continues to contribute. Indeed fans of her music would do well to seek out Napple Tale: Arsia in Daydream. Released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, it remains one of her best — and least known — works.

The move to anime

It was Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso that saw Kanno cross over into the world of anime for the first time, with her taking arranging duties on the film’s closing theme. Two years later in 1994 the producers of the OVA Please Save My Earth were so impressed with one of her audition pieces that it became a key theme and more work with them soon followed.

Working with Kawamori Shouji

It would be her work on the score for Macross Plus, though — the compositions that so impressed Inglis — that would see her star truly begin to ascend. It was here Kanno’s ability to weave complex emotions into intricate melodies first began to shine through. Macross Plus, though, also revealed a more impressive talent. Kanno’s ability to translate feelings into music wasn’t just confined to her own. She possessed an almost unique ability to place herself into a character, scene or era and produce a sound that helped the viewer do so too. On Macross Plus, with relatively little input from series creator (and anime legend in his own right) Kawamori Shouji, Kanno produced a score that perfectly captured the spirit of his creation. Sweeping orchestral arcs mixed with haunting lyrics in mysterious pseudo-languages, Kanno’s music, with its mix of the familiar and the futuristic, still sounds wonderful today.

It is perhaps no surprise then that she was soon reunited with Shouji again — this time for the 26 episode The Vision of Escaflowne in 1996. Working with husband and fellow composer Hajime Mizoguchi, it was on Escaflowne that Kanno demonstrated the ability to slip smoothly between genres and musical styles that would soon become another of her trademarks. Throughout the series her music would move comfortably and easily between modern, classical and even Gregorian chants, always complementing perfectly the scene. Again, her ability to capture the feel of both character and series was there for everyone to hear.

Bebop

If both Macross Plus and Escaflowne had begun to truly unlock her talent, however, it was with 1998’s Cowboy Bebop that she truly ascended to greatness. That it stands as one of the greatest anime series ever made is of little doubt. That Kanno’s score is just as much a contributing factor to its brilliance as director Shinichiro Watanabe’s carefully crafted tale of the triumphs and tragedies that face an interstellar crew of bounty hunters is something that Watanabe himself has frequently proclaimed. Indeed in Watanabe, Kanno seemed to have found her perfect foil. Her ability to convey feeling and emotion through music was matched by Watanabe’s desire to do so on the screen. No other director had worked so hard to bring a diverse range of feelings and concepts — from existentialism to ennui — to the world of anime, and few believed as strongly as Watanabe that the aural experience was just as critical to the final product as the visual one.

In Watanabe, Kanno had finally found a director who was arguably as interested in the way anime sounded as she was. For Watanabe Bebop was a world filled with Jazz and Blues and though this was a world with which Kanno herself was initially unfamiliar, her willingness to see music as an open language, rather than as something to be viewed through the perspectives of genre, meant it was a world she was happy to embrace.

“Director Watanabe is extremely detailed.” She latered explained in an interview. “Detailed, detailed, detailed … He listened to a lot of jazz himself, and since I don’t have a lot myself, he brought many over. He is very skilled at collaboration and combining music with visuals.”

There can be little doubt that for Bebop Kanno created one of the greatest soundtracks that anime — that television — has ever seen. Its eventual release as a complete box set was almost as eagerly anticipated by fans as the recent release on Blu-ray of the complete series itself. From Kanno there was — and indeed is — still more to come.

Ghost in the Shell

In 2002 Kanno took on composition and arrangement duties for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Kenji Kamiyama’s series based on the classic Manga about policing and counter-terrorism in a near-future world where the lines between humanity and computers have become blurred.

“I had this image of a formal and rigid ‘manly’ world for the original comic.” Explained Kanno in an interview after the series’ release. “So I tried to think of ways to destroy that world. The theme I had in mind was, ‘be human.’ It represented the sentiment of ‘why don’t we take it easy and be more like a human being?’ instead of being a workaholic salaried man working for his company. Or be it Tachikoma [an android] wishing to become human. I wanted to express these ‘tangible fuzziness,’ sort of.”

The resultant score would do all the above and more. Deftly switching genres once again, Kanno produced a soundtrack that moved from electronica to classical orchestration, interspaced with bursts of digital noise and foreign language that helped give colour to Ghost in the Shell’s semi-dystopian future. Over two series and a sequel (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex — Solid State Society) her music became just as much an integral part of the world Kamiyama created as the animation. As with Bebop, her ability to control the viewer’s emotions meshed perfectly with Kamiyama’s desire to tell a tale in which high concepts of philosophy, loneliness and humanity were all explored.

Stand Alone Complex proved that Kanno’s work on Bebop was not just a case of being the right composer, in partnership with the right director, at the right time. She could now rightly claim to have produced two of the finest soundtracks in the history of anime, and her frequent work on other series such as Darker than Black and Wolf’s Rain was consistently of a high quality as well.

Working with Watanabe again

That she remains the queen of the anime score was underlined by the score for Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope). Based on the long running Manga of the same name, the jazz-fueled coming of age drama set in the 1960s unsurprisingly attracted the eye of Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe. He took on the job of bringing it to the small screen and, perhaps equally unsurprisingly, Kanno was soon on board with the project as well.

“I heard Watanabe was making a new series,” Kanno explains in an interview that can be found on the Blu-ray release of the series, “which made me wonder what it was, so I approached him and demanded that he tell me.”

Their partnership was renewed, and the result, yet again, is a series and soundtrack that captures perfectly the emotional rollercoaster of growing up. As with both Bebop and Stand Alone Complex it seems destined to be remembered as a classic.

Master of the mundane

This, then, is the brilliance of Kanno. The reason she deserves to be better known. Most composers and arrangers would be happy to have created just one of the works for which she has so rightly been acclaimed, yet the quality, creativity and diversity of her music shows no sign of slowing down.

She has been described, in some musical circles, as the “Master of the Mundane” but this is not intended as an insult. It is an attempt to convey her incredible ability to take the viewer (and indeed listener) out of their own world and place them comfortably into a world of her choosing. To make them feel like a bluesy space cowboy, an android moving to a digital beat or a jazz-angry teenager. All without them even noticing that she’s doing it.

She is a musical chameleon whose ability to switch genres and mimic a particular sound is unsurpassed, although there are some who have questioned whether she can occasionally sound too close to the original source. If that’s the case, then it seems almost certainly unintentional. In interviews (rare, sadly, in the west due to her limited English), concerts and frequent appearances at anime conventions, Kanno consistently comes across as a musical sponge. She is someone who is eternally open to new sounds, beats and melodies. For Kanno, music is just another way of communicating one’s thoughts and feelings, just as useful as a laugh or a smile.

Indeed this is something that goes a long way to explain why she still insists that she rarely listens to music for pleasure at home — for her, music is an act of sharing, of communication, not an activity to be engaged in alone.

Like what I write? Then help me do more of it. Back me and London Reconnections, my transport site on Patreon. Every penny helps me tell a story.