Chihiro, and Haku with Day of the River sheet music.

Memories Return, The Music of Joe Hisaishi

Hello and welcome back to My Geekology! I’m Ash and today we will talk about the remarkable work of composer Joe Hisaishi! For many, the films of Hayao Miyasaki share a special place in their hearts and often ornament the memories of their childhoods. One consequence of that is that the remarkable, sometimes subtle, sometimes bombastic compositions of Joe Hisaishi are the ambiance of that ornamentation. Today, we will explore the things that make Hisaishi’s music not only special but so remarkably resonant to so many. We hope you have fun, see you on the other side!

A little background

studio Ghibli water spirit.
Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away

I have been lucky to have been in orchestras and bands all of my life, from playing guitar in punk bands, hip-hop groups, and flamenco duos, to playing viola in orchestras and symphonies. Music has been a constant in my life very early on. The skills that continually astonish me are those employed by film composers. It is a remarkable thing to think about. Often, they are given no more than a description of a scene or even an emotion. To turn that understanding into fully-fledged music was something remarkable to me.

Before studying anthropology, religion, and history, I studied music in college. My only goal was to equip myself with those skills. I thought it would help me in writing more music for my flamenco project and get out of my lizard brain (what musicians call the same patterns we play each time we pick up our instruments). Music theory, oral skills, and other courses built upon the education I had already developed throughout the years.

However, perhaps the most important thing I learned was that at the intersection of composition and film is feel. The creation of this music wasn’t so much about a skillset as it was about self-reflection and access. Once you had the tools (which I refined in school) it was about making the prompt personal to you. A scene about a character going through pain was about your pain as far as you were concerned. If you could get to the emotional heart of the story, you were equipped to create pieces that reflected that core and washed through the film in an authentic way.   

Joe Hisaishi & Hayao Miyasaki

Joe Hisaishi & The World Dream Tour 2021.
Joe Hisaishi & The World Dream Tour 2021

Mamoru Fujisawa, known in the film industry as Joe Hisaishi, is one of the most prolific Japanese composers in the history of film. He has scored over 100 movies and produces his own music. His pieces ornament films such as Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008). At 72 years old at the time of this article, he still tours, sharing his musical gifts with audiences around the world. Some of Hisaishi’s most resonant and wide-reaching pieces are featured in Hayao Miyasaki’s landmark film, Spirited Away (2001).

The films of Hayao Miyasaki have connected many to the world of anime. His influence is immense, and his visions are ones explored, loved, and shared throughout the world. In an article titled “The Film That Captures Millennials’ Greatest Fear” for BBC, Arwa Haider explores why the film’s magic endures. Haider notes the film “taps into something elemental.” Haider, while elaborating on the film’s environmental themes, notes that the film’s “spell and earthly message remain multi-generational.”


John Cage in The Hague, Netherlands, 1988.
John Cage in The Hague, Netherlands, 1988

There is a piece by American composer John Cage titled “4’33” that is unique because it demands nothing from its performers besides silence. The audible music is created organically, through the natural ambiance created by the audience. In place of orchestral flourishes are people fidgeting in their seats, and in place of storming timpani drums are people clearing their throats. Although controversial, the discovery of this piece helped teach me an important lesson in music composition.

Silence (in music called tacet) is very much music. The effective employment of silence can enhance a music composition’s poignance tremendously. Rather than moving from motif to motif, allowing the listener to feel and experience on their own, can be very effective.

Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away florals.
Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away

Perhaps the most well-done analysis of Joe Hisaishi’s contributions was done by the remarkable pianist and YouTuber Nahre Sol. In her video titled “What Makes Studio Ghibli Music SO GOOD??!!” One of the things she brings attention to is that so many of these orchestrations allow for, account for, and celebrate space as an element of music.

One Summer’s Day” is marked by short staccato piano lines with a lush orchestra rising behind it. The piece is incredibly effective as it builds because of the space Hisaishi leaves for the listener. The gaps in sound create anticipation. The melody breathes. The creation of a bed of silence later to be filled with beautiful chords allows the listener to engage and participate in the journey of the music. The early strikes of quartal harmony are as if the spirit of the song is saying “Let me show you something” and its barren surroundings inspire intrinsic wonder that is filled with beauty.


Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away in the water scene.
Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away

Another fabulous analysis was done by well-known jazz musician and YouTuber Charles Cornell. In his video titled “Why Spirited Away’s Soundtrack is SO Iconic” Cornell digs into what is happening in the music from a music theory perspective. He brings attention to Hisaishi’s usage of harmony and how it creates instantly recognizable themes we associate with the film.

In graduate school, I became very familiar with lo-fi hip-hop and ambiance YouTube channels as a means of simulating an environment in that I felt I could successfully work. I discovered quickly that Studio Ghibli was one of the most common “vibes” that were emulated by these channels. The combination of swelling, swirling strings, and bouncing piano are intrinsically linked to the films.

Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away and the water spirit.
Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away

This is beautifully on display in the piece “Day of the River.” In this piece, the piano is mixed so it stands as an equal to the rest of the group and almost speaks in a dialogue with the spirited, harmonious symphony. It is almost a leader through a space lined with musical color and a vibrant, warm atmosphere. Hisaishi’s music gets to the heart of the emotion in the story. The pieces subsequently when experienced on their own, are like specters of feeling, they conjure joy, sadness, and wonder because they were crafted from them, authentically.

Thank you for coming on this journey as we explored some of the elements that make Joe Hisaishi’s work so special! We hope you had fun, and we’ll see you here next time at My Geekology!