Thursday, August 29, 2013

10 Notable Waltzes in Anime

It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that waltzes are the pop-music of the Classical genre (the dance music before Dance music!). There's something about them that effortlessly catches the ear and makes them easy to like. Maybe it's the soaring melodies or the trademark OOM-pah-pah, but a waltz done well has a characteristic sensation of movement that's addicting and catchy. And given anime music's proclivities when it comes to incorporating diverse genres in its body, waltzes pop up too. The ten tracks below (in no particular order of preference) are selections that have especially stuck out to me throughout the anime I've watched and the soundtracks I've listened to and are definitely worth sharing.

The first waltz hails from an unexpected source - original mecha anime Mazinger Z. If you were to attempt to characterize oversized machines beating each other up with a piece of music, this piece wouldn't be too far off. Extravagantly grandiose, the music immediately smacks you upside the head with a powerful fanfare. A fearless melody is quickly picked up by the strings as they are peppered relentlessly by bursts of bombast from the percussion and brass. The battle ends in a crashing finale as the waltz draws out an overly theatrical ending. Excessively affected in every way, "God Scrander's" enthusiasm is a great track to start off this particular listening exercise.


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Contrasting with "God Scrander's" straightforward grandiosity, "Waltz #5" from Ashita no Nadja takes a subtler approach. With the grandeur of the earlier waltz still reverberating in the air, it takes a moment to even realize that this waltz has started. The music takes its time to diffuse into the atmosphere - distant echoes of a harp haunt the air as the strings filter in like a slowly shifting mist. The ephemeral wisps gradually gain substance as they coalesce into a more tangible entity with the addition of more voices. Nevertheless, it feels like attempting to reach out for the airy notes would still scatter the fragile melody. As much as I would have loved to experience the dream for longer, it dissipates back into silence, leaving a strange feeling of having experienced something that wasn't quite there.


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Indeed, I've always found it to be fascinating that pieces which capture such different sentiments could all fall under the same category. Hunter x Hunter's "Ginpatsu no Shounen", while remaining a waltz, has a distinctly different flavor than the previous two. A piano leads the ensemble, performing an elegant solo that soars over waves of rolling swells. Imbued with a graceful purpose, the piece unerringly voyages forward as countless landscapes slide past. The placid journey is briefly interrupted by a moment of exultant brass which quickly fades as the adventure begins anew and the music resumes its meanderings.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

It speaks to the versatility of the waltz as a musical genre when you realize that most of the waltzes presented so far aren't really the stereotypical type you'd dance to. "Akari, Waltz, Odoru", from Battle Athletes finally brings about an upbeat and cheerful atmosphere more typical of archetypal waltz (besides, it's got 'dance' in its name!). The piece opts for a more whimsical atmosphere, beginning with the dreamy tinkling of bells and piano keys. The melody has the storybook childish warmth, featuring a flute that skips from place to place, blithely bathed in warm sunshine and flowers. The flute takes a moment to frolic with a sprightly violin before commencing with a playful back and forth between the flute and a sluggishly stolid section of French horns. Wearied from the day at last, the instruments settle down for a night of rest.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

The next selection remains one of my favorite tracks of all time. "Rekishi wa Kataru", from , establishes a provocatively unsettling mood like no other piece. Starting off on a minor key, the violins immediately evoke a tense atmosphere with a precarious motif that is periodically punctuated by ominous strokes from the lower strings. The thick uneasiness is cut by a saxophone that introduces a treacherous yet entrancing melody. As the brave saxophone waltzes perilously close to the ensemble, the agitated atmosphere is abruptly interrupted by a glorious trumpet call, spurring the instruments to a frenzied rush with our solo saxophone leading the way. The moment of triumph is nevertheless brought to an end - the piece ends on a sinister note as the solo saxophone is drowned by the heavy crashing of trumpets from which only the strings emerge, gradually dying on a grim note.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

Speaking of favorites, what's a waltz post without a mention of one of the most famous anime waltzes of all time? The main theme of Studio Ghibli's Howl's Moving Castle is, in fact, a waltz. It's practically impossible to miss - the tune surfaces in the BGM for at least a third of the movie. That said, I ended up choosing "Stroll through the Sky" as the track to include, mostly because it captures the waltz nature of the theme particularly well. The piece begins rather unassumingly (as unassuming as Hisaishi conducting the New Japan Philharmonic can be), with pizzicato that is unpretentious to the point of being shy. The modesty of the pizzicato undergoes an uncanny metamorphosis as the piece takes an ominous turn, unsettled by the strange, scurrying calls of woodwinds. Nevertheless, the music takes another unexpected turn after a circus-esque drumroll, where the piece decides to break out in grandeur. Unlike the first segment, the theme now embodies everything extravagant, capturing the soaring whirls of multi-colored dancers.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

Ghibli aside, anime music is prone to having gems show up in unexpected places. While a good soundtrack can always be expected from Ghibli's high-budget movies, not everyone has the studio's budget. Sometimes a piece will get extra bonus points if I didn't expect it to be good given the circumstances. "Youjinshou no Asa", from Otome Youkai Zakuro, is one example, coming from a standard-looking seinen anime with a composer I'd never heard of before. Despite its humble origins, the piece is extremely pretty, setting the mood with an ensemble of shimmering strings. As the bass playfully traipses along, it evokes a delightful promenade through a sunshine-bathed garden. The relaxed pace works well to set the mood, instilling a pleasant feeling of sedately refined cheer.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

Things turn from the mundane towards the eccentric with the next track. "Mawaru Karakuri Tokei" from the xxxHolic movie, is weird, but uniquely so. It features only bells (perhaps they're mallet instruments; I'm not very good at identifying percussion) playing a tune one would expect to hear in an amusement park on a merry-go-round. The entire time, chromatic scales undulate through the piece in a haphazard fashion, giving the whole piece an intricately off-kilter atmosphere. Due to the incongruity between the childish melody and the dissonant scales, the whole thing becomes rather creepy. It's as if the piece were just a veneer of innocence thinly veiling something twisted and sinister.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

"Sequentia", from Meine Liebe, also opts for an eerie sound. At first glance, the piece is a cultivated and stately waltz - the sort that would accompany an old fashioned upper-crust party. However, if one listens closely, woodwinds can be heard furtively bubbling in the shadows of the string theme. Instilled with subterfuge and spiteful gossip, they watch on from the darkness. The scheming is momentarily silenced by the dignified entrance of an esteemed sovereign, arriving in the form of an uplifting interlude. Nevertheless, the machinations of the court inevitably resume from the darkness, bringing the music to a head with an almost circus-like finish as cymbals crash and the scheming rises to a flustered pitch


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

The last waltz is one I hold dearly to my heart for nostalgic reasons. Long before I had come across any of the tracks I've already mentioned, I watched The Cat Returns. Out of the rest of BGM (which is also excellent, might I add), one particular track attracted my attention. "Waltz Katzen Blut" stuck with me long after I watched the film, prompting some of my earliest attempts to find music to use as standalone entertainment. The music begins unassumingly with a pair of accordions that introduce the theme with their own little duet. The scope abruptly zooms out from the duo as the ensemble joins in. A whole ballroom of dancers suddenly appears as the enchanting theme blossoms into a majestic dance of grand proportion. While perhaps the most standard of all the selections so far, "Waltz Katzen Blut" is pulled off beautifully, establishing itself as an iconic example of the waltz as a genre.


[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

Waltzes are catchy and easy to like, making them a great choice to share with others. As such, I'm hoping that these ten waltzes worked to stir up some interest in the related OSTs and in waltzes in general. Of course, if I missed anything beyond sayOuran, feel free to share in the comments!

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