The Explosive Power of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s ‘Akira’ Score [Terror on the Turntable]
'Akira' is a must-see for any body horror fan.
Welcome to Terror on the Turntable! In this monthly column, join Rachel Reeves as she explores the powerful and unholy alliance between horror films and their scores. Covering only scores released on vinyl, it’s a conversation about the intersection of music theory, composer style, film history, and the art of deep listening. So, light the candles, put on your headphones, and get ready to drop that needle. The sacred ritual of listening to music on wax is about to begin. For this installment, Rachel slides into Shoji Yamashiro’s score for Akira.
Little did Japan know it then, but in the summer of 1988, the anime world was about to explode. Despite six years of prior existence as a popular manga series, nothing could prepare the industry for the impact that Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s animated adaptation of Akira would have. Spreading like the fictional explosion that opens the film, the wonder of Ôtomo’s cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, body horror creation eventually extended far past Japan’s borders to captivate and inspire audiences worldwide.
Not only did the genuine marvel of Akira’s technical achievements, stunning presentation, and creative vision push the boundaries of what animation could do, but it also impacted how the Western world perceived it. Moreover, the film also broke ground in the anime sphere for how it represented post-war Japan. Understandably, the atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945 left deep wounds on the people of Japan, wounds that no other country can fully comprehend. While popular anime contemporaries like Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen and even Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind helped process this trauma with strong referential narratives, Akira is consciously enigmatic.
Intentionally subverting, exploring, and manipulating these deep-seated cultural associations connected to Japan’s collective trauma and memory, every creative decision Ôtomo made deliberately sought to disentangle Akira from pre-existing post-apocalyptic anime works. For Ôtomo, Akira was more than just a historical reflection; it was a chance to simultaneously encapsulate Japan’s past, present, and future. While many decisive creative decisions support this, perhaps none are as impactful and brilliant as the score composed by Dr. Shoji Yamashiro and performed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi.
Before we dive into the music, it’s essential to understand the basics of Akira. The story is set in 2019 Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after a powerful explosion decimates the city. While rebuilt to some extent, the landscape is littered with physical, social, political, and economic scars. Here, a young man named Shōtarō Kaneda leads a bōsōzoku motorcycle gang known as The Capsules. During a run-in with a rival gang, Kaneda’s childhood friend and fellow gang member, Tetsuo, gets injured after crashing into a unique child named Takashi. Quickly whisked away to a top-secret government facility, Tetsuo develops telekinetic powers beyond his control. Soon, Tetsuo ignites a chain of events that threatens to destroy Neo-Tokyo once again.
To definitively signal to audiences that Akira’s Neo-Tokyo is an unprecedented, futuristic interpretation of Tokyo proper, Ôtomo knew a distinctive score would be critical. So rather than relying on a traditional scoring approach, Ôtomo pursued a more postmodern course. Not wanting to sound too conventional or too sci-fi, Ôtomo turned down suggestions to work with many highly regarded composers, including electronic pioneer Isao Tomita. Finally, inspiration struck when Ôtomo dropped the needle on Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s 1986 four-movement, life cycle-inspired album, “Ecophony Rinne.”
“They have a real breadth in the music world, a real mish-mash. They don’t just let it go with individual pieces. I thought they were really close to the image I had of Tokyo. Plain classical and choral [music] wouldn’t be enough.”– Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Founded in 1974, Geinoh Yamashirogumi was established by Dr. Tsutomu Ōhashi, aka Shoji Yamashiro. More than just a musician, Yamashiro holds a Doctorate of Agriculture and is a known specialist in molecular biology, artificial life, environmental science, engineering, brain science, and more. Motivated by a mixture of civil disobedience, science, existentialism, humanity, conscious social awareness, and the power of creativity, Yamashiro sought to assemble a creative collective of fellow thinkers from various professional fields. Through music, Yamashiro united hundreds of rotating amateur Japanese musicians in a musical quest for enlightenment and passionate, innovative creation.
“Geinoh Yamashirogumi is more than just a performing arts group; it is an experimental group that seeks and verifies the original lifestyle of human beings, which is promised by genetic DNA, and is one of the bases of ‘action criticism of civilization.’ Learning from the wisdom of the traditional community, the steady and sincere ‘group creation’ and ‘human creation’ that eliminates specialization and mono-functionalization is the true value of the multi-performance community, Yamashirogumi. ”Yamashirogumi’s official website
Adopting an exceptionally globally aware approach to their music, Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s exciting blend of folk music from around the world, electronic elements, and choirs immediately captured Ôtomo’s attention. Not only would the group’s diverse sound palette resist any direct association with Japan’s history, but it would also help shape and support the film as it developed. Despite never having composed for a movie before, Ôtomo placed his complete trust in Yamashiro’s abilities and a literal blank cheque in his hand.
The only requests Ôtomo made were that Geinoh Yamashirogumi deliver a “festival” and a “requiem” track. With animation not even started, Ôtomo would then use these as, what he called, “sonic architecture”. However, after early segments of Akira were shown to Yamashiro, he became inspired to expand his contributions and created a complete score for the film, which Ôtomo happily accepted. By becoming so heavily involved so early in Akira’s development, this open exchange of inspiration and creative energy bolstered Akira from the inside out. Both visionaries in their respective arenas, the partnering of Geinoh Yamashirogumi and Ôtomo is perhaps one of the most outstanding cinematic examples of serendipitous symbiotic creativity.
That’s Mr. Kaneda to You, Punk
Ushering viewers into the world of Neo-Tokyo is the opening track, “Kaneda”. Timed and matched perfectly to fade in as a jukebox selection at The Capsules local dive bar, the momentary diegetic function of the cue instantly links the engaging musical style to this fictional world. Along with some mild electronic elements and drumset, the dominant technique and instrumentation of the track are performed in the traditional Gamelan Jegog style.
Indigenous to Bali, Indonesia, the Gamelan style features percussion instruments heavily. However, it is the Jegog style specifically that takes center stage here. The traditional four-tone tuning becomes maximized with an array of pitched bamboo instruments with eight bamboo keys each. Intimately familiar with Jegog, Yamashiro utilized the natural stylistic characteristics and intentional limitations of the Jegog tonal range to support the narrative and expand upon it.
Kinetic and contagiously energetic layers of “sophisticated interlocking” rhythmic parts unfold in the traditional Balinese Gamelan Kotekan style. Not only does this reinforce the fictional representation of Neo-Tokyo, but it also telegraphs the unification and close-knit bonds Kaneda and his friends share. Together, these individual lines of patterned rhythms come together to form something magnificently more significant and potent than their singular selves. Further backing this idea is the choir of voices (inspired by the Japanese Noh tradition) that enters while singing repeated phrases along with the literal names of the young men.
You’re a Boss, Too…of this Pile of Rubble
The dominant use of percussion and vocals in the score for Akira reaches much further than the traditional Balinese Gamelan style itself. Here, in this world of Neo-Tokyo, the idea of pianos, violins, cellos, expensive synthesizers, and horns doesn’t make sense. Littered by destruction, construction, corruption, civil unrest, and general chaos, the existence of such luxury instruments in Neo-Tokyo is not only unbelievable, it’s illogical. However, as choir nerds know, vocalists carry their instruments wherever they go. In fact, it’s the most ancient instrument of them all. Similarly, anything can be modified, manipulated, or utilized as a percussion instrument. These components, that thread through the entire score, would exist in Neo-Tokyo. Thus, they further contribute to the world Ôtomo has created.
Though different, this palette continues with the music for Tetsuo. Despite years of friendship with Kaneda, Tetsuo is insecure and a bit bitter about Kaneda’s natural leadership abilities. While sharing a deep love and bond, this issue reaches a catastrophic level when Tetsuo acquires powerful (almost) unprecedented telekinetic capabilities. Not seen since the time of the titular Akira, Tetsuo’s internal and physical struggle is what fuels the entire narrative of the film.
With the track “Tetsuo,” Yamashiro and Geinoh Yamashirogumi implement the Gamelan Gong Kebyar style of music. Based on a five-tone scale (versus the Jegog’s four), gongs and metallic keyed instruments are typically used. Specifically with “Tetsuo,” keyed metallophones, drums, and gongs are employed, along with some electronic organ elements and vocals. With deep roots related to ancient religions, the deliberate use of these instruments with Tetsuo hint at his godlike abilities and the ethereal fate that awaits him.
Like Kaneda’s track, the musical innuendos for Tetsuo don’t stop there. Rhythmically, “Tetsuo” feels a bit staggering and integrates moments of polyrhythm. As the rhythms alternate and develop, the unpredictable nature disrupts the sonic stability. Like Tetsuo himself, there is a noticeable feeling of imbalance that ebbs and flows. In conjunction with these rhythms, “Tetsuo” modulates back and forth between a major and minor key. As a storytelling mechanism, this signature track serves Tetsuo well. This both charts his inner battle and painful change into a telepathic force to be reckoned with and retains the heart and soul of a young man simply stumbling to find his way.
The Future is Not a Straight Line
By purposely choosing an unexpected score and composer for Akira, Ôtomo bestowed a priceless gift to his creation — timelessness. Seeing past the sci-fi stereotypes and conventional film score cliches, the potent Geinoh Yamashirogumi blend of avant-garde thinking and indigenous world music has no expiration date, precisely what Ôtomo was aiming for. As stunning and compelling as it was when first released in 1988, every aspect of Akira pushed boundaries. From the technical advancements in animation to the fast-paced narrative, blended social issues that span the gamut of Japan’s rich history, deeply metaphorical characters and arcs, and, of course, the music, Akira defies clear interpretation at every turn. Refusing to be placed in any kind of box, Akira is — and always will remain — an immersive, influential, surrealist, explosive anime experience whose power simply cannot be contained.
Whether watching the film or tossing a record on the table, the music of Akira is a full-on experience. And honestly, there was simply too much to tackle in one article. Every track is an unarguable banger. While a truncated album of the score was released in 1988, those are, not surprisingly, very expensive. Thankfully, Milan Records brought the music of Akira back into record store racks when they re-issued the score for its 30th anniversary. The first time the score was ever officially released outside Japan! Since that initial run, Milan Records has done its best to keep up with demand through a wealth of beautiful, multi-colored reissues. Reasonably priced and decently readily available, there is no excuse not to pick this up. Please. Buy this record.