Makoto Shinkai Image Album -Promise-
Makoto Shinkai Image Album -Promise-
December 9, 2009
Buy at Eminence Online
After just a few film projects, Japanese anime director Makoto Shinkai apparently has become anime’s next big thing, with several critics hailing him as the new Miyazaki. In how far this is justified in the case of a director who was born in 1973 and arguably still has to reach his full artistic potential remains debatable, but there’s no denying that Shinkai has made a splash with his visually distinct tales of young lovers separated by circumstances beyond their control. The fact that he created his breakthrough short Voices of a Distant Star all by himself on his personal computer and a variety of software programs certainly helped creating an auteur persona around Shinkai and raised interest in this self-taught filmmaker.
One of Shinkai’s closest and most regular creative collaborators has been composer Tenmon, who scoed almost every single one of Shinkai’s works so far: She and Her Cat (1999), Voices of a Distant Star (2001), The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) and 5 Centimetres per Second (2006). Tenmon and Shinkai met while working at Japanese software producer Falcom, where Tenmon — as a lead of the Falcom Sound Team J.D.K. — had been involved in creating music ranging from Brandish to Zwei!!. His work for Shinkai’s movie output has frequently met with praise and has been credited for enhancing the films’ emotional impact. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of this creative partnership, CoMix Wave Studios released Makoto Shinkai Image Album -Promise-, bringing together original arrangements of compositions from all of Tenmon’s works for Shinkai. Arrangement duties were handled by an illustrious team comprised of Shiro Hamaguchi, Akifumi Tada, and Yasunori Iwasaki, while Australia’s by now ubiquitous Eminence Symphony Orchestra performed the works.
The arrangements on Promise Project put less emphasis on renditions by a full orchestra, but instead adapt Tenmon’s material in a number of cases for chamber music ensembles or just one solo instrument (in this particular case, the piano). And even in the case of those compositions that are performed by a bigger orchestral ensemble, a comparatively high number of instrumental solos are incorporated skillfully into the larger orchestral texture, giving the pieces a welcome feeling of intimacy and variety of timbres. On first sight, this approach fits the material that the arrangers had to work with very well: given that most of Shinkai’s works deal with the sorrow of being separated from one’s love, and the resulting melancholy and yearning, it is not much of a surprise that we don’t find any large scale outbursts of orchestral power or galloping allegros on this record. Instead, most of the compositions are soothing and relaxing, expressing an emotional spectrum ranging from careful, tender hope to sorrow and longing, without ever descending into despair or exploring more extreme emotions in general. And while this may sound like a recipe for monotony, the arrangement team varies the size and composition of the ensembles performing the works enough to avoid boredom.
However, this showcase of how to change a comparatively small ensemble’s size and composition to ensure an intriguing listening experience over the course of the whole record also has one drawback. The pieces featuring fuller orchestration are usually able to conceal the fact that, quite often, Tenmon’s melodies are charming, but relatively simple and repetitive, but this is not the case when the instrumentation is paired down to a single piano, for example. In these cases, the chamber music approach taken by the arrangement team exposes melodic material that is sometimes touching, but ultimately too slight to carry a composition all by itself.
Before moving to an analysis of single tracks, one observation regarding the recording quality needs to be made: in short, it’s somewhat underwhelming. All of the instruments have been recorded with a considerable amount of reverb. This fact alone isn’t necessarily a problem and actually fits the album’s overall artistic vision, considering the album cover shows a couple beneath a starry sky — obviously, a more spacey sound fits this image better than a drier, closely miked recording. And while I personally find the reverb during the violin solo in “Sayuri” a bit too much, this is really a matter a personal taste and I’m sure a great number of listeners will enjoy the same piece for exactly that sound. However, the reverb becomes problematic in a number of cases: the piano pieces suffer from an overly booming sound when the left hand accompaniment consists of expansive deep chords, to such a degree that on “She and Her Cat Theme (Piano Version)”, one can spot audible distortions at 2:03 and 2:10 — something that really shouldn’t happen on a professional studio recording. In other cases — particularly on the pieces performed by a larger ensemble — the recording doesn’t provide enough clarity to successfully balance the solo instruments performing against the backdrop of the orchestra. This generally muddled soundscape is particularly disappointing on an album focusing on instrumental solos chamber music, which relies so much on the perfect audibility of each solo instrument and each melodic line. It certainly doesn’t ruin the album, but it remains a major annoyance and prevents several compositions from making their full impact.
The arrangements can be grouped into three categories: orchestral performances, piano solos, instrumental duets. Of these three, the orchestral performances hold the greatest interest. The opening piece “One More Chance, One More Time (Instrumental)”, based on a pop song that played over the last sequence of
“The Place Promised in Our Early Days Theme” is largely similar to “One More Chance, One More Time (Instrumental)”. Its delicate beginning leads into the first statement of the track’s melody (this time on solo flute) — again a simple theme, but quite catchy, with an almost lullaby-like quality. In the following bars, the melody is passed around within the orchestra and among more solo instruments. Interestingly enough, despite their different origins (orchestral soundtrack vs. pop ballad), the two tracks’ melodies are quite similar in their focus on short, simple phrases that are repeated with slight variations. This is certainly not a disadvantage, but it highlights the fact that Tenmon’s compositions rather rely on their catchiness and the mood they create, not so much on melodic invention.
The aforementioned problems regarding the recording quality rear their ugly head repeatedly during some these tracks. “Kimi no Koe (Instrumental) [Your Voice]” evolves from a beautiful and intimate beginning — a guitar intro followed by a section where the melody is passed between the solo violin and the piano — to a full-blown romantic orchestral composition, featuring rich counterpoint and a successful compositional integration of the acoustic guitar into the orchestral texture, especially when placed against a moving violin solo towards the end of the track. But the piano is placed too forwardly and dominates the soundscape too much during the composition’s second half, the acoustic guitar chords around 3:00 are just too loud to sound natural, and the lower strings — as on all of the orchestral arrangements — would greatly benefit from recording that provides greater clarity and doesn’t turn the celli and double basses into a mushy wall of sound that’s placed somewhere in the background. Certainly, it’s a major challenge for a sound engineer to successfully balance several solo instruments playing simultaneously against an orchestral backdrop, but that’s no reason to not expect a polished recording. Adding to this problem, this is one of the very few tracks on which the Eminence Symphony Orchestra’s playing is less than top-notch; most notably, the viola entrance at 1:30 sounds quite a bit out of tune. It’s still a beautiful piece, but it doesn’t fulfil its full potential due to the sound recording problems.
To a lesser degree, this is true of “Through the Years and Far Away” as well. It’s another ravishing arrangement, showcasing both the album’s most fluid orchestration and most catchy piano theme. It climaxes in a violin solo set against tinkling piano, rhythmic accompaniment by some light percussion and a countermelody played by the oboe — certainly the album’s emotional highlight, but slightly marred by the fact that the solo violin’s passagework between 3:35 and 3:55 sounds muddled, especially at the beginning. It’s difficult to judge though if this is due to the violin placed too backwardly, or technical insecurities on the side of the soloist.
“Futari no Keikaku / Kibou to Akogare [Their Plan / Hope and Aspiration]” and “Futari no Kattou [Their Differences]” provide some much needed variety in regards to the range of emotions the album’s music expresses. “Futari no Keikaku / Kibou to Akogare” takes a much livelier approach than the other arrangements, opening with unisono strings reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s soundtrack for The Draughtsman’s Contract, before light percussion and a twinkle-toed piano melody add to the cheery atmosphere that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Miyazaki’s lighter movies. Later on, the violins sound somewhat muffled during the track’s expansive climax. “Futari no Kattou [Their Differences]” goes the opposite way: it’s by far the album’s saddest track — at least initially — with its almost dirge-like opening of slowly plodding piano chords. The sorrowful mood is heightened by a yearning viola solo, before the piano accompaniment becomes more flowing, the orchestra joins in, and the viola and the violin engage in a dialogue that provides the album’s most richest example of counterpoint. Again, the listener is left somewhat wanting when the passionate violin solo in the track’s second half drowns out the other solo instruments and the orchestral background too much — it would certainly be nice to able to distinguish the single notes the celli and double basses are playing.
Moving on the second group of arrangements, which happens to be the smallest in number, we first find “Kanae no Kimochi [Kanae’s Feelings]”, an arrangement for two acoustic guitars. Once again, it’s nothing complicated or overly elaborate, but the piece exudes an effortless, breezy charm. Like most of the compositions on the album, it’s not particularly dramatic, but this approach works well with the inherent gentleness of the acoustic guitars’ sound. The instruments’ interplay is quite straightforward: one guitar plays a melody that is quite similar to other melodies on the record structure-wise, while the other guitar strums some rather repetitive chords that provide rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment. However, the deeper chords are too resonant and veil the soundscape, and the overabundance of reverb robs the song’s melody of some of its clarity, although this gets better during the track’s second half.
“Sayuri” showcases the arrangers’ most creative choice in regards to the composition of the music ensembles being deployed. After a rather standard, non-descript guitar intro of the “calm and charming, but not quite touching” variety, the solo violin makes its entrance with a lyrical solo that enhances the piece’s emotional impact tenfold. The track continues to change between solo passages for the guitar alone and duo sections for both instruments, each time engaging the listener anew once the violin continues to sing. As hinted at before, this is one of the pieces where the amount of reverb on the album becomes most obvious, yet this doesn’t result in the same problems as in other pieces and the two instruments are well balanced.
The remaining four pieces are arrangements for solo piano, and they are the relative weak spot of the album. As already mentioned, Tenmon’s melodies are lovely and successful in conveying a subdued mood somewhere between hope and resignation, but they tend to be rather slight and repetitive. While this circumstance is less obvious in the fuller arrangements, when stripped of counterpoint and most of their harmonic accompaniment and variety in timbres, his compositions become a classic case of “nice, but not much more than that”. This becomes most obvious in the case of the piano version of “The Place Promised in Our Early Days Theme”. The melody’s simplicity borders on uninspired — this was far less obvious in the composition’s orchestral version, which assigned the melody to different instruments — and the left-hand accompaniment doesn’t add much to the proceedings.
The arrangers do their best to imbue the tracks with a sense of forward movement and development, but after the second piano solo track, the pattern they use to stir the listener’s interest becomes obvious. After a quiet start during which the theme is stated, the piece builds to a more dramatic middle section which relies on raising the volume levels to forte and deep, pounding left-hand chords, before returning to the beginning’s calm atmosphere. Despite slight variations to this formula — “Mikako kara no Tayori [News from Mikako]”‘s middle section uses rising left-hand arpeggios to increase the tension, while the piano version of “She and Her Cat Theme” again increases in volume towards the end &##151 the pieces’ variations in dynamics are too predictable to fully satisfy the listener. And of course, those louder middle sections hardly benefit from the recording’s excessive reverb, especially in the bass range. This is in no case to say that these piano pieces are unpleasant to listen to: they’re well-performed, professional arranged, soothing, occasionally moving, but are unlikely to leave much of a deeper impression.
As far as arrangements of original anime soundtracks go, Promise Project — for most of its running time — belongs to the cream of the crop. The arrangements for ensembles of varying sizes are well handled and overcome the potential problem of monotony, caused by the album’s relatively narrow range of emotional expression, through skilful orchestrations that put the spotlight on a variety of solo instruments, either playing alone or against the backdrop of the orchestra. The arrangers’ talent for creating surprising and pleasing timbres is evidenced in unusual instrumental pairings, like a duet for violin and acoustic guitar. Above all, a good number of compositions is simply beautiful, full of understated passion and grand emotions that fortunately never become too sentimental. The piano compositions are a too non-descript to merit the same praise, but they are pleasing, competent, and provide some welcome variety to the album’s flow.
Unfortunately, all this praise remains somewhat hypothetical. Obvious problems in regards to the quality of the album’s sound (too much reverb, lack of clarity) prevent the compositions from truly enrapturing the listener. Some compositions suffer from these flaws less then others do, but all in all, this is a step below of what a professional studio recording should deliver. For the compositions alone, this would have been an easy 8/10, but given that the sound problems often diminish the music’s impact just when it should reach its peak, the final score needs to be adjusted accordingly. The record is still a worthy purchase for fans of anime soundtracks and skilfully handled classical arrangements, but it just could have been more.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.