Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 animated film Akira is, by and large, considered to be among the greatest animated films ever made. Set in the year 2019, in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo populated by marauding motorcycle gangs, shadowy paramilitary organizations, student protesters, and corpulent oligarchs, the film was immediately hailed as a narrative and visual masterwork.
But before a single frame of the film was drawn, Katsuhiro Otomo wanted to make sure the music, or as he and the score’s composer Dr. Shoji Yamashiro called it, the “sonic architecture,” was in place. For Akira, the visual material was built around the sonic components, and not the other way around. The film as we know could not exist without the score. Now, after a new vinyl reissue by Milan Records, one of the most important suites of filmic music in Japanese cinema history is available for the first time in 29 years.
Yamashiro was the leader of a Japanese music collective called Geinoh Yamashirogumi, and the group was comprised of a rotating crew of hundreds of amateur musicians, academics, college students, and other non-music professionals. Trained as a molecular biologist, Yamashiro considered Geinoh Yamashirogumi to be more of a think tank, and the score for Akira, specifically, was a testing ground for some of the collective’s most far-fetched and ludicrously ambitious ideas.
For one thing, the score was most often referred to as a “Symphonic Suite,” and Yamashiro specifically cites symphonic choral works like Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and Shostakovich’s “Song of the Forests” as close antecedents. Though, he also drew inspiration from Noh (a form of Japanese theatrical music), Indonesian folk traditions, prog rock, and more. The reissue also features remastered audio (taken from a DVD re-release of the film), which punches up the sonic frequency of the recorded material to 48khz as opposed to the original 22khz threshold, in order to create what Yamashiro called the “Hypersonic Effect.” In the 26-page liner notes, Yamashiro goes on at length describing the neurological studies he conducted to prove that sound at the 48khz level could elicit more vivid psychological and physiological responses in a listener. Indeed, the sound on the reissue is rich and at times terrifying. (Though, the science behind the Hypersonic Effect has since been contested.)
Otomo only asked Yamashiro to follow very loose conceptual “pillars” for composing the score: one-half should correspond to the idea of “festival” to represent the bacchanalia and violence of the film’s opening acts, and the second-half should be a “requiem” that is the complete opposite of that chaos. This afforded Yamashiro an immense amount of freedom to dictate the film’s pace and feel. This is immediately clear in the first scenes of the film.
The score begins in earnest, when one of the film’s protagonists, Kaneda, the leader of a teenage motorcycle gang, enters a song into the jukebox of an underground dive bar. He and his crew, the Capsules, are gathered right before they are set to meet a rival gang called the Clowns, to engage in a bloody street fight. Right as they rev up their motorcycle engines in a seedy alleyway, the needle of a record player hits a vinyl disc in the bar, and the first moments of music enter the film. This moment is boisterous, deafening, and unforgettable, courtesy of a melody of the Balinese Jegog, a percussion instrument formed from an array of bamboo trunks “aligned in a manner similar to a battery of bazookas.” The Jegog was one of the compositions’ consistent leitmotifs, and its power was brutal and immediate.
This first song “Kaneda” makes clear the fastidiously designed aspects of the film’s score. The thunderclap from its opening seconds was lifted from a field recording taken at the Golden Triangle in Thailand, and the motorcycle rumble was sourced from a 1929 Harley-Davidson engine. A chorus of festival chanters that come towards the back-half of the song is frightening and celebratory all at once. As Kaneda and his gang speed through the streets of the decaying city, Otomo’s dystopian vision is given life by the highly precise, yet emotional compositions Geinoh Yamashirogumi provided.
This feeling of pitched intensity and churning disorientation is something Geinoh Yamashirogumi achieves time and time again. In the following song, “Battle Against Clown” blasts of guttural chants and polyrhythms could likely cause virtigo if listened to loudly enough. The choral work is especially skillful, and the way the members of Geinoh Yamashirogumi manipulate and make magical and alien the human voice is a highlight of the score. On “Dolls’ Polyphony,” they create a sense of nightmarish weirdness using only a mix of childlike voices and baritone grunts. In the score’s grand finale, “Requiem” they perfectly create a sense of megachurch rapture with angelic hums and a pipe organ.
As the product of an unlimited budget and six-months of composition and recording, the score for Akira was never meant to be utilitarian or incidental. It aspired to greater heights, to immerse the listener in the world of Neo-Tokyo and stir the emotions without once dropping you out of the film. But on its own, the craft, care, and technology that went into the 70 minutes of the soundtrack are intense enough to place you right beside Kaneda without ever opening your eyes.