I had the honor and pleasure of seeing Joe Hisaishi conduct and perform on September 27 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This was monumental for me for many reasons. Firstly, as an anime fan, hearing live and in-person the score from a film that personally impacted me was incredible; being transported back into the world of Spirited Away with its hauntingly hopeful melodies was a wonderful mix of nostalgia and elation. Secondly, and I think most importantly, as a musician, having the opportunity to see and hear one of my favorite composers and musical inspirations on the world's biggest symphonic stage was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never thought it would happen and, in a way, still have a hard time believing it actually did. In a way, I was Spirited Away.
For those of you who don’t know this incredibly talented human, let me give him a short introduction. Joe Hisaishi is known in the West for scoring many famous Ghibli films, including Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo. He is also credited with some of the compositions for the video game MapleStory. In the East, he is known for much more (as if those accolades weren’t enough). He scored many Takeshi Kitano films and continues to write symphonies that are performed in his homeland. Last month, I got a taste of all the sides of Joe Hisaishi and it was easily one of the greatest musical experiences of my adult life.
The first act was The East Land Symphony, Hisaishi’s most recent 5-movement symphony that was completed in 2016. I had never heard it before so, as a musician there with my musician boyfriend, it was fun to listen and break down its parts while they were happening. Hisaishi also included a commentary in the program describing each movement, which was extremely insightful. In a way, the symphony reflects Japan’s journey to recovery and normalcy after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. It’s a quirky piece that goes through the sadness and confusion brought forth by the disaster but also pokes fun at the daily monotony of Japanese life. We found ourselves drawn in to Hisaishi’s innovative instrumentation and rhythmic choices. It was a pleasant reminder that movies and video games are not the only vehicle for music. Music itself is media and art. There are millions of wonderful pieces of music that are unattached to any supporting media. The East Land Symphony was the best example of this I could ask for.
I returned to familiarity in the second half, which covered his older, more well-known compositions. He rearranged a trilogy of themes he wrote for Kitano’s films, Kikujiro, Hana-bi, and Kids Return. I had not heard the theme to Kids Return before the week of the concert when I was binging his discography. It is now one of my favorite symphonic pieces of all time. The first time I listened to it, I felt two starkly different emotions. I wanted to cry, but I also wanted to run towards something. I wanted to accomplish something important. It has an amazing mix or melancholy and determination. It’s a strange song, but a song I have grown to love so much. Hearing it live and watching Hisaishi conduct and play its piercing melody was a powerful experience. Please listen to this piece!
At the end of the day, even as a huge anime fan, I think hearing Summer live was the biggest delight of the show. There is a reason it is one of his most renowned melodies; that song just has a way of staying with you. The melody was beautifully introduced with a light pizzicato that almost made me cry. I could have listened to it all day. Then, the piano came in, the song swelled, and so did my heart. I was there to hear Spirited Away, but I think Summer is the song that is going to stick with me from that show. It hit me in the perfect place. And that’s how you know a song is a masterpiece.
The finally, to make this near-perfect concert perfect, the orchestra played the revamped symphonic suite from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away with Hisaishi playing its most iconic melodies himself on piano. Even though it has been two or three years since I’ve seen the film, I was transported right back to it during this suite. And I wasn't just watching the film; I felt like I was inside it. Like Chihiro, I was brought to a different world— a world of magic, monsters, flying, and the most beautiful music. It made me remember why I love Joe Hisaishi and why I wanted to come to this show in the first place. This man is a true master of music. The score from Spirited Away is a beautiful testament to that.
All-in-all, it was an absolutely incredible celebration of one of the world’s greatest composers. The walls drip with artistry at Carnegie Hall; every note and breath is strikingly accented on this famous stage. Being able to see a performance there was such a privilege. And seeing a composer I have admired since I was young who continues you influence my life as a musician was incredibly humbling. Thank you so much, Mr. Hisaishi! It will be a night I will truly never forget.