There are many Japanese musicians and composers that influence my taste in music. Yoko Shimomura, Nobuo Uematsu, Yoko Kanno and Joe Hisaishi shaped the way I viewed music in media— and music as a whole— growing up. Years later, I’ve learned to appreciate a new generation of arrangers and performers. One of the most prominent of the new generation is Sawano Hiroyuki, a composer known for his ability to entwine EPIC into everything he does (shout out to Kevin Penkin though, I love him too). I want to break down some of Sawano’s amazing work and discuss how his pieces impact the series they are in and how his work truly shows the importance of music and musical appreciation in media.
Aldnoah Zero (2015)
I didn’t watch all of Aldnoah Zero; after the first season, I didn’t feel a need to see the rest. It didn’t stick with me enough to encourage me to continue the story. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a conversation. It has great animation and very interesting characters with unique motivations. And, of course, the music is stand-out. I did not finish watching Aldnoah Zero but I listen to the OST (Original Soundtrack) all the time. Sawano’s work on this show is amazing, even if the series is not.
This OST is a mix of two things, EPIC and beauty. In a show about an intergalactic uprising, you’ve got to be edgy. But it’s also about the compassionate and internally-conflicted princess leading this rebellion, so it has to almost embody the same beauty and grace that she does. Sawano balances these two themes immaculately in this collection of pieces, matching heavy accompaniments with soaring melodies performed by the strings or a female vocalist. No song feels out of place within the narrative, something that is crucial in achieving a cohesive work.
Also of note, the lyrics of the opening are phenomenal and match the protagonist’s themes and emotions. For a pacifist leading a rebellion, the lyrics “I wage war, I hate war” passionately screamed by the female vocalist are chilling. Although the show itself may be lacking, the Sawano raises the quality of the entire production with his amazing arrangements and choices in the Aldnoah Zero OST.
Seraph of the End (2015)
The purpose of a good anime opening is to get you excited/in the mood for what’s about to happen. Just ask Mother’s Basement or any other AniTuber; the OP is the minute and a half pitch for the show. It’s your hook and if you can’t enthrall the audience with it, you may be out of luck. The Seraph of the End OP is a stellar example of an anime opening doing it’s job. Why? Because it’s a banger. The track gets you excited, the visuals get your blood pumping, and the combination of the two make you want to dive right in to a crazy and darker-than-most-shonen anime adventure. Magnifique, Sawano. Sign me up.
Other than the main theme, the music in the show is a typical Sawano hype-fest, filled with awesome rock music and intense insert songs with incredibly talented vocalists. Sawano really takes advantage of motif in this score; throughout the score and insert songs you hear allusions to other songs. The ending takes song of the lyrics from the OP, some background tracks take horn lines from the ending, etc. It’s this kind of innovative recycling that ties the show together and keeps it grounded in its crazy fantasy landscape. All the tracks included in this beautifully animated and executed vampire war anime are top-notch. Is the plot of the show very original? No way, but the aesthetics of the production, music included, are enchanting.
I was only able to hear the Promare OST once while I was watching the film in theaters, but damn if this collection is not the epitome of Sawano Hiroyuki, I don’t know what is. The whole movie is EPIC, but this soundtrack takes it over-the-top. Sometimes it’s too over-the-top. I feel some scenes could’ve benefited from a less impactful song; it got a little campy after a while. But that in no way, shape, or form reflects upon the music itself. The score is amazing and I found out the most amazing thing about it in a round table discussion that was featured after the movie played. The main production team of Promare stated that Sawano wrote the music with only a few storyboards and the script. He had basically no visuals to work from. And, for a movie that depends solely on its visuals (it definitely does lean heavily on its plot or characters), it’s incredible that everything came together so perfectly for Promare. But with Sawano on the team, I can totally understand why.
One of the standouts of this score is its amount of vocal performances. Usually film soundtracks only have one or two backing tracks with vocals; for Promare, almost every song has a vocal element. In most songs, the vocal was many people, as if a large crowd of people were singing along. This element brings an added intensity to each scene, adding to the scale and hilarity of the film. Sawano outdid himself with this one, but it’s no surprise. He was working with Trigger, a studio known for kicking logic to the curb and doing the impossible.
Guilty Crown (2012)
Okay, pay attention. What you are about to listen to is gold.
Guilty Crown has one of my top ten favorite anime openings. Its theme, My Dearest, is a moving power ballad about love and loyalty in the face of deceit. It starts balanced and low until it crescendos into a beautiful, cathartic wail against the unfairness of the world.
The entirety of the series is filled with this thoughtful, thematic, and impactful music. I seriously believe Guilty Crown has one of the greatest anime OSTs of all time. It’s one of the best for all the reasons I’ve been harping on this entire post. EPIC, THEMATIC, COMPOSITIONALLY COMPLEX. But Guilty Crown’s score is more than that; it’s a perfect example of how music can do more than enhance a series— it can elevate it to a status that could not have been achieved otherwise. On its own, Guilty Crown is not very good. Sawano’s music has made this mediocre show a legend.
Guilty Crown is known for a few things— its haphazard plot, abandonment of almost all relevant character development, and slightly drug-inducing grand finale— and those all have an extremely negative connotation. Its biggest victory (besides its animation) is its soundtrack. Sawano Hiroyuki took everything that worked about Guilty Crown and amplified it to unprecedented levels. One of the main characters, Inori, disguises herself as a pop star and Sawano takes incredible advantage of this plotpoint by giving her enchanting songs that add to her mystery as a terrorist of Funeral Parlor. All his choices in this show were exquisite and it leads Guilty Crown to being a supreme album. Should you watch the show? Yeah, it’s not that bad. But if you want an…wait for it… EPIC musical ride, you’ve come to the right place.
I was surprised to find this album recently while I was falling into the big, black whole of Youtube. The title track of the album, Remember, started playing on my shuffle unsolicited and I was immediately hooked. Who wrote this? Which anime is this from? I was surprised to see Sawano’s name and no anime credit. In March 2019, Sawano released an original album under the name SawanoHiroyuki[nZk]. In it, he features many well-known anime vocalists, including Sayuri (of Erased ED fame), Aimer (just fantastic in everything she does, listen to her orchestra concert, it’s amazing), LiSA (vocalist of one of the greatest anime tracks of all time, Ichiban no Takaramono), Sukima Switch (FMA:B Golden Time Lover!), Porno Graffiti (My Hero Academia and many others), and more. Listening through the tracks for the first time, discovering all the talent packed into these songs, was a very unique and rewarding musical experience. It was a Where’s Waldo of the Ani-Song world! Each song highlights the strength of its singer in a way that only Sawano can produce. But that’s not even the best part of the collection…
This album elicits pure joy. Each song, even the ballads, sounds like a celebration. Listening to the tracks is almost euphoric; every addition is the perfect driving song. Sawano’s music is EPIC without a doubt, but the amount of happiness he is able to transmit through his music is also impressive. Music is a form of expression; songs like Ichiban no Takaramono can make you cry, jams like Aldnoah Zero can get you in the zone. All the tracks on Re/Member make me happy, plain and simply. And sometimes, that’s all you need from a good pop album. Sawano, in a different form than usually, kills it once again with this life-loving album that celebrates music and the people that make it.
All these great tracks could just be written off as unimportant background music—songs used to enhance the mood of the plot and character development. But that would be a disservice to the musicians and composers. They enhance the plot with their thematic resonance and tonal power; these pieces have the ability to make or break a scene. Sawano Hiroyuki needs to be able to read the mood of a scene and understand a story, sometimes before it’s even complete, in order to create cohesive pieces that support and represent the media they’re a part of. Treating music as a continuation of the media’s effect instead of just an accent is important in fueling the industry to get better and pushing it to be as exciting and relentless as Sawano. And, as you can tell from the selection I have here, he is a king, being able to incorporate hard rock, symphonic instrumentation, and electronic music into amazingly impactful pieces.
I love music and the power it has to evoke emotion, with or without its attached media. I’m on a mission to get people to understand that there are so many masters of musical composition that need to be lauded. I hope you agree with me that I just introduced you to one :)