A Musical Celebration of Studio Ghibli

A blog post created by Youth Roving Reporter Naomi Margolis.

Throughout the last few decades, Studio Ghibli has not only made a name for itself, but has put Japan on the world stage in many categories including music, art, and animation. Studio Ghibli is led by Hayao Miyazaki (head director), Gorō Miyazaki, and Toshio Suzuki. 

Studio Ghibli has produced some of the greatest, most recognized films of the 20th and 21st centuries. This includes blockbusters such as Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and most recently, The Boy and the Heron (2023). These films have received global acclaim because of its ability to speak to audiences of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. 

While Studio Ghibli has made waves throughout the international film industry, Studio Ghibli has made just as much an impact on movie score production. Composer Joe Hisaishi has provided almost all of the soundtracks for Studio Ghibli, composing world-famous pieces like “One Summer’s Day” and “A Town with an Ocean View” which have now entered into major orchestral repertoire. 

Hisaishi’s Process and Style

Joe Hisaishi has been working alongside Director Hayao Miyazaki for around 30 years. In order to compose complete soundtracks for a movie, Hisaishi often starts with using storyboard images provided by Miyazaki to create an image album. Hisaishi then draws from these images to complete the soundtrack for the movie. 

Hisaishi is known for combining a variety of different styles in his scores, borrowing from Baroque counterpoint music, jazz, and modal music. This helps Hisaishi create music that is unique to only Studio Ghibli and the storylines of the films. In the early years of Studio Ghibli, Hisaishi composed music that had an eclectic sound from synthesizers. Later, Hisaishi transitioned to writing more melody-driven music. 
A common characteristic of Hisaishi’s music is that the movement of the piece relates to the images and stories being told on screen. However, this was not always the case, as Hisaishi would often not have the music relate to the plot in his earlier years. Another unique element in Hisaishi’s works are his use of leitmotif, which is when a motif is created and played throughout the film with different variations depending on the scene and context. His first instance of using a leitmotif in a Ghibli film was in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).

Exploring Some of the Masterpieces

Movie: Spirited Away 
Title: One Summer’s Day
Year: 2001

Joe Hisaishi – One Summer’s Day

This is one of Hisaishi’s most famous compositions, as well as perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in all of Studio Ghibli history. The theme is introduced at the beginning of the movie when protagonist Chihiro is moving to her new home with her family, departing memories and friends from her old home. The second time it is played is when her spiritual friend, who is also a dragon, reminds her of her real name (after having her name changed by her boss at a bathhouse) and gives her her old clothes back. The motif is finally fully developed at the end of the movie, demonstrating Chihiro’s emotional journey in the fantastical world. This motif represents confronting reality and the real world, as every time the motif appears, the protagonist is forced to accept some kind of difficult change or transition, such as letting go of something. 

The soundtrack received awards at the 56th Mainichi Film Competition Award for Best Music, the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2001 Best Music Award in the Theater Movie category, and the 17th Japan Gold Disk Award for Animation Album of the Year.

Movie: My Neighbor Totoro
Year: 1988

My Neighbor Totoro

“My Neighbor Totoro” has a grandiosity that is unmatched to other films. The music featured in the movie was performed by the New Japan Philharmonic. The full orchestration and choir, as well as the march-like tempo and instrumentation truly reflects some of the biggest themes throughout the film, environmentalism and youth. The piano solo in the middle creates an ambience that leaves audience members feeling nostalgic, as the piece shows the dynamic aspects of growing up and maturing. The loud orchestra is a counterpoint, uplifting audience members. The powerful orchestra is also a reminder of the vital role of nature in our lives, which is one of the central points of the movie. 

Movie: Kiki’s Delivery Service
Title: A Town with an Ocean View 
Year: 1989

Joe Hisaishi – A Town with an Ocean View

“A Town with an Ocean View” is one of the most popular film soundtracks of recent years. The introduction is grand and uplifting, helping Miyazaki paint the image of Kiki flying over the idyllic town. The music is very lighthearted through flute solos and soft string backing, which perfectly illustrates the quaint seaside town adorned with multicolor houses and small bakeries. The music also emphasizes one of the central themes of the movie: maturity. This theme is first played when Kiki reaches a completely new town that she will have to learn to survive in through interaction, adaptation, and learning manners. The melody foreshadows a shift in Kiki from a shy girl to a girl who can wield her courage to help others in her community. The music shows how Kiki’s personality is blossoming as she becomes more independent and willing to take on new opportunities. 

Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle
Title: Merry-Go-Round of Life
Year: 2004

Joe Hisaishi – Merry-Go-Round of Life

“Merry-Go-Round of Life” has recently made a big comeback into popular culture, especially among teens. Howl’s Moving Castle was a film based largely off the novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Howl’s Moving Castle explores pacifism, a common theme for Miyazaki’s movies. “Merry-Go-Round of Life” truly illustrates how characters, such as Howl, have complex identities that are more dynamic than cookie-cutter or black-and-white personalities. The piece also has a circular motion, reflecting how Miyazaki wanted to paint aging in a positive light. The chord progression always trends towards relief and resolution, demonstrating that while things may look bad, there will always be silver linings in life, just like how protagonist Sophie is able to more freely express herself despite having been cursed with old age. The profound composition’s swells of fantasy and wonder are matched with minor chords, acknowledging the passage of time and inevitable change.

About Naomi

Youth Roving Reporter Naomi

Naomi Margolis is a cellist currently studying with Diane Chaplin. She has participated with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony since 2019 and performs in their Symphony Orchestra and the MYSfits String Ensemble. Naomi also participated in the Youth Orchestra of the Los Angeles National Festival in July 2022 under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. She previously participated in masterclasses with Norman Fischer and has performed alongside professional musicians and ensembles, such as the Oregon Symphony and members of A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra.

Naomi is the founder and president of Lincoln Chamber Orchestra, her high school’s student-led performing group. Outside of music, Naomi is involved with language study initiatives and is currently serving as an exchange alumni ambassador for the US Department of State. She enjoys learning languages like Mandarin, Spanish, German, and Hindi.