AKIRA OST Anime Soundtrack Review
AKIRA has always been and still is one of my favorite anime ever. To me, that movie is nearly perfect in almost every way (even I wouldn't go so far as to say absolutely every way), but one part of it that does jump out at me as absolutely perfect is the soundtrack. By the renowned group Geinoh Yamashirogumi, it is the soundtrack more than any other part of the film that encapsulates the true feeling of Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece.
Although there is more than one soundtrack, this review is for the official JVC "AKIRA: Original Soundtrack." The CD is nicely packaged with a cover depicting the famous gun-toting picture of Kaneda from the poster and containing a wonderful little booklet with comments by Katsuhiro Otomo and Shoji Yamashiro, notes on the music in general, more detailed notes on each song, a brief synopsis of the film and a history of the Geinoh Yamashirogumi. This booklet is very interesting to read if you're a true AKIRA fanatic or just have an interest in how the music was composed. Some art would have been nice, but you can't have everything.
The CD itself has 10 tracks on it. The first is one of the two main themes from the film--"Kaneda." This is easily the most upbeat track on the soundtrack and all fans will know and love it--it's the clashing percussion theme that they play during the ending credits. This is immediately followed by it's primary accompanying tune, "Battle Against Clown," a violent, chaotic, clashing piece of music. Although it contains excerpts from "Kaneda" to signify the battle between Kaneda's gang and the Clowns gang at the start of the film, it is still a completely different song. The third track makes for a complete change of pace. "Winds Over Neo-Tokyo" starts off so quietly that at first you won't be able to hear it unless you have headphones on. In the movie this was just a mood piece rather than a set piece like the first two and is an eerily empty song which is just perfect for a bleak film like AKIRA.
Track 4 is the other major theme from AKIRA and is, apart from the Requiem, my favorite piece of music on the soundtrack. "Tetsuo" starts off with a flat drum beat accompanying a eerie clashing rhythm on the gamelan and soon goes into an organ, before settling down into a strange little pattern on the gamelan again. This part of the track was rather poorly used during the film as it constantly faded in and out, making me think the tinkling chimes of the gamelan were actually sound effects rather than part of the soundtrack. Here you get it in its full and unedited version and the effect is stunning. Following a brief reprise of the main theme, "Tetsuo" launches into the most famous piece in the entire movie soundtrack--the choir. This bit is straightforward, in-your-face and frankly awesome to listen to. This part is the core of Tetsuo's theme and most strongly describes his powers. The rest of the song reprises this pattern again before coming to a very cool finish. By now you'd be getting into the real meat of the album--if you think my devotion of a whole paragraph of this review to one song was a bit much, "Tetsuo" is just a bit over 10 minutes long and every second of it's eerie mood and primal fury is worth it.
Following "Tetsuo" is a quirky little piece to help cool off--"Doll's Polyphony." This track is almost fully vocal apart from some background sounds and sounds very strange, but is surprisingly enjoyable. It's the theme from Tetsuo's hallucination with the dolls and sounds just as weird as it is meant to. Unfortunately, this was used even worse in the film than the gamelan line from "Tetsuo" and when I first watched it (in fact every time I watched it until I got this soundtrack) I was sure that it was the dolls singing. That may have been the impression Otomo meant to create, but this is a real piece of music, not sound effects. Track 6 is the first track that will cause some serious "love it or hate it" decisions to be made--"Shohmyoh" is a song composed almost entirely of chanting and percussion effects. If you like chanting, you will love "Shohmyoh" If you hate chanting, then you'll hate it--it's nearly as long as "Tetsuo" at 10:11 in length! Despite it's length it was only used very briefly in the film--about a minute or two of this track was eventually used in the scene when Nezu was talking to Ryu. Personally I love this track, but it's definitely not for everyone.
If you can't guess what part of the movie track 7, "Mutation" is from then most likely you've never seen AKIRA before in your life. This track was well used, although in the film they amputated the second half and attached the beginning of "Requiem" instead, using the end of "Mutation" elsewhere in the film. As in the film, it still sounds cool. Unfortunately, I can't say quite the same thing about "Exodus From the Underground Fortress." Unlike a lot of the other songs on this soundtrack, it was used perfectly in the film, but just doesn't seem to pack the same punch without the scenery whizzing past at high speed. That's not to say it's not a cool track, it just doesn't work at full potential on its own.
The final two tracks on the album are the longest. "Illusion" (nearly 14 minutes long) is a strange piece of which only the first few minutes were actually used in the film at all. It's like "Shohmyoh," only more so. You have to like Japanese Noh music or you're guaranteed to skip this song every time. Even if you do like Noh, it still drags on a little too long, but if it's your thing then it's a great track to listen to when you're lying around at home on a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do--it kind of gets into your head in an almost therapeutic manner. Track 10 is the "Requiem." As the name suggests, it is the requiem to the film AKIRA. Crossing multiple genres and styles of music in its 14 and a half minute length, this is my favorite track. "Requiem" is beautiful. It was used several times in the film, most recognizably during the opening and ending. It begins with a series of drum beats interspersed with chimes from the gamelan, then moves into an extremely quiet choral section of near-heavenly beauty. An organ takes over the theme, before bursting into a fantastic melody which instantly brings to mind the Akira Phenomenon scene it accompanied at the end of the film, although this rendition contains a set of bamboo chimes and a choral soloist which weren't present in the film and, in my opinion, obscure the stunning organ line a little too much. After the organ winds down there is a short, concentrated burst of chant which will affect even people who usually hate that sort of thing, followed by a reprise of Kaneda's theme which eventually turns into an almighty choral triumph. The gentle unwinding from this reprises the beginning of the track with the most beautiful singing I have ever heard in my life, exceeding even "Torch Song" from Macross Plus. This eventually closes with several deep, hollow drum beats which brings a sense of empty closure to the album and is far more appropriate than a warm ending could have been.
Keen listeners will probably notice that these ten track are not the exact same ones as the ones recorded for the film. The instruments on some, especially the gamelan and voice in "Tetsuo" sound slightly different, although only trained musicians will be able to detect this. More noticeable is the presence of some instruments--usually percussion--that weren't in the versions used in the film. This is not only noticeable during the organ line of "Requiem" but also at the very end of "Kaneda" and at a few other points. This is interesting, but not really relevant.What is relevant is the fact that the soundtrack is not entirely complete. One track--the percussion and electric guitar piece used when Tetsuo is tearing the Akira capsule from out of the ground--is missing from the soundtrack. To be honest, this is no major loss as it wasn't the most important track in the film and sounded very different from all the other songs on this soundtrack, but it would have been good to have it anyway, if only for the sake of completeness. When it comes to the crunch, the Akira Original Soundtrack is a masterpiece. I've watched a lot of anime and have heard a lot of cool music, but this soundtrack is undoubtedly the best of the lot--probably the favorite CD in my entire collection, anime soundtrack and conventional music both. Get it immediately if you're a fan of AKIRA--and who isn't? Even if you're not (???), get it anyway to experience the finest soundtrack of our time.
Available in the US from JVC, and later reissued by AnimeTrax under the title "AKRA Symphonic Suite. Both are out of print, but easy enough to find used; Amazon also has samples of the tracks: Akira OST.