Whether western or anime, animation is one of our earliest exposures not only to moving images, but to music. Often this music is either classical or jazz, a tradition which dates back to the earliest genesis of animation as an artform.
As with motion pictures and the entire movie industry itself, the origin of animation is an international affair, though its early roots run deep in the US. The very earliest forms of animation date back to the 1880s, with the first example ever printed on standard motion picture film following in 1906. Yet the first feature length animation – at least the oldest surviving example we have – is thought to be the 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed from Germany. During this period, cartoons were projected in theatres and accompanied by organ music. Often this threw together numerous different genres from opera and classical right through to jazz and pop while discarding the ideas of leitmotifs that would later come to define film scores.
That assumes that all animation at the time had purposefully created scores. Although some cartoons of the early 20th century may have indeed been delivered to theatres with specific scores, many were accompanied by an in-house organist. And animated films were often created back-to-front with the music composed well in advanced of the images rather than the industry standard today. Yet despite all that, it became obvious that classical music and jazz were both natural bedfellows with animation. In the 1923 periodical Motion Picture News, for example, the Pathe home office stated that “Jazz music goes well with Aesop’s Fables”, saying that was the “conclusion reached after a number of tests”.
Things changed in 1928 when the seven-minute Steamboat Willie was re-released in a sound version to make Mickey Mouse stand out from his cartoon competitors. In so doing, it became the first cartoon with a post-produced synchronised soundtrack including music, dialogue and sound effects. Then there was no stopping Disney and its dominance over animation, plying its innovation and aesthetic. In 1937, the company released its first feature-length animated film with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, fundamentally altering the relationship between animation and music forever, with the score becoming the first commercially issued film soundtrack. Fantasia, the company’s third animated feature film, followed in 1940, with its amalgam of cartoons and classical music becoming an important cultural touchstone that has echoed down through the annals of animation.
The history of animation in Japan is a little more complicated with its earliest roots in war propaganda and taking inspiration from Disney and the west. The Tale of the White Serpent, the country’s first colour anime film, was produced by Toei Animation in 1958 and by the sixties, anime songs had become a full-blown cultural phenomenon with the release of Astro Boy. It’s opening theme, ‘Atom March’, even features lyrics written by Shuntaro Tanikawa, a poet and recurrent contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. As in the west, jazz and classical music have gone hand-in-hand with anime.
The influence of western classical music in Japan dates back to the late 1880s (incidentally the same time animation was first emerging). Today, Japan is one of the most important markets for western classical music as well as home to several notable contemporary composers and musicians. This is often reflected in modern anime such as Your Lie in April, Nodame Cantabile, Sound! Euphonium and, most recently, given, where characters themselves play classical music in one capacity or another. Classical music often also informs the score, either entirely as with the charming scores of the Ghibli movies or Neon Genesis Evangelion, or just a part of the soundtrack with Mozart and Beethoven often cropping up. The latter’s ‘Ode to Joy’ is a particular favourite, even finding its way into One Piece.
As with classical music, Japan is an important market for jazz. This music was originally introduced in the thirties but, during World War II, became seditious as it was music of the enemy. But following its surrender and the occupation of American forces from the mid-forties, jazz exploded in popularity, as much for imports as its own domestic musicians. There’s anime like Kids on the Slope where jazz is inseparable from its coming of age story, or Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, where it’s part of the background of 20th century japan. Elsewhere it’s a fundamental part of the overall aesthetic, marrying music and animation together as in Cowboy Bebop. In Bebop‘s case, the music was composed by Yoko Kanno well ahead of the animation as had been the standard decades before. No doubt this influenced Shinichiro Watanabe and the overall look and feel of the series.
All of that isn’t to suggest that Japan turned it’s back on its own traditional musical forms, far from it, and that is likewise reflected in anime. Perhaps the most critically acclaimed example is Akira, with its mix of Buddhist chant, taiko drumming and synthesizers.
There’s a reason why anime pairs so well with jazz and classical music and that’s because animation is an exaggeration of real life, a kind of dreamworld that sparks the imagination and makes the fantastical tangible. When one accompanies the other it becomes obvious, at least to my mind, that animation is the visual equivalent of these musical forms.