Symphonic Suite Akira
Emru Townsend · October 15, 2004 | "Didn't Philip Glass do this already?"

Those were more or less the words of my pal Peter in 1990 when he handed me the Symphonic Suite Akira CD I'd lent him. He was kind of right; Philip Glass had explored many of the same musical themes years before composer Shoji Yamashiro arranged Symphonic Suite Akira. But that wasn't entirely the point. This was the first time that someone took the idea of using what we call world music—something that recalls centuries-old musical traditions of non-Western cultures—and applied it the entire soundtrack of a future-dystopic, Blade Runner-esque film.

That film was, of course, Akira, full of government conspiracies, civil unrest, genetic mutations, and laser weaponry. If you haven't seen the movie, it may seem counterintuitive to use music that largely looks to the past (and, with its extensive use of choral music, is quite organic) for something so determinedly futuristic and repressive. If you have seen the movie, or at least read the manga, its makes perfect sense. At its core, Akira is about man tapping into fundamental forces of the universe that are locked away inside of our bodies, particularly the bodies of children. The children's voices in "Doll's Polyphony" and the chanting in "Shomyoh" spell this out clearly.

The best examples of the paradox between the music and the movie are the CD's first and final three minutes. "Kaneda" and the final three minutes of "Requiem" are essentially the same song, arranged differently. Both are predominantly defined by Balinese percussion and choruses of voices, and describe Akira's opening and closing scenes, both of which play out on a large scope, over the entirety, it seems, of Neo-Tokyo. "Kaneda" starts with a crash of thunder, and its driving rhythms and frenzied voices convey the chaos of the battle between the Capsule and the Clown motorcycle gangs, combined with the riots happening elsewhere in the city. "Requiem," almost in its entirety, plays over the destruction of Neo-Tokyo as Tetsuo's mutant powers, having careened out of control, are now levelling the city—but the percussion takes a back seat to the voices, which are this time soothing, almost to the point of being a lullaby.

Symphonic Suite Akira
Geneon Entertainment, 2004
Originally released in 1988
Geinoh Yamashirogumi
70 minutes

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I remember hearing "Requiem" separately from the movie for the first time. That was when I realized that it and "Kaneda" are really about Tetsuo. When the movie starts, his mind is a chaotic jumble, largely focused on Kaneda, the ersatz older brother he loves and resents. At the movie's end he is, finally, at peace. The music isn't about the grand social and literal destruction of Neo-Tokyo; it's about the battle that has gone on in one person's head.
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