When you think about music producers in anime, do any come to mind? Does anyone stand out in your mind? What if I started to name some show or movie names? Porco Rosso? The Vision of Escaflowne? Turn A Gundam? Darker than Black? Kids on the Slope? Space☆Dandy? Really? What if I mentioned some famous shows like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Macross Frontier, Wolf’s Rain, RahXephon, Card Captor Sakura, and Cowboy Bebop? Ah ha! How about now? That’s right!
I’m talking about the internationally (albeit mostly within anime and video game circles) famous Yoko Kanno! What do you know about her? How many shows can you name that she was composed music for? (p.s. there are a lot) I’m proud to present this list of six shows that Yoko Kanno has written or composed music for!
First though, let’s dive a little bit into the persona that is Yoko Kanno. She was born on March 18 1964 in Sendai, Japan. She met her husband working at a show that they worked on together, and that’s about where most of the information detailing her personal life ends. She actually is quite reclusive and doesn’t like the attention that comes with her fame. Now some things that we do know, is that in the 1980s and 90s, she built a reputation for herself by designing music for Koei games. She then gained major traction making music for the Vision of Escaflowne movie and then with her blockbuster hit, Tank! for the anime Cowboy Bebop.
You can find a review of Cowboy Bebop on this site that I actually wrote here (hyperlink). She then also started doing mainstream production for live-action movies and commercials. Yoko at some point then met her protégé, Maaya Sakamoto, another famous music composer. They worked together to make the music for Tsubasa Chronicle. Finally, Yoko created what I consider to be her best work to date; the music for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Not one to rest on those laurels, she kept producing and created the wildly celebrated Macross Frontier. More recently she has created music for Space☆Dandy(2014) and Zankyo no Terror (2014).
Other than that, no much is known about Yoko Kanno. She does claim to be able to speak a little English and a little French as well, however when she has tried to speak French, she needs a translator. For the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011, she composed a song that sales for went to relief efforts. What a saint! She’s great! With that being said, I bring this list of 6 shows that I think she did a fantastic job of composing music for!
(P.S. This list is in no particular order. So please don’t hate me if a show isn’t a certain number.)
1. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
- Episodes: 26 (season 1) , 26 (season 2)
- Aired: Oct 2002 – Oct 2003, Jan 2004 – Jan 2005
Just about anyone who has ever uttered the word, “anime” has heard of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (referred to as GITS from here on out). A quick look at the series shows that it’s a futuristic police drama set in the nearby future, about three decades away, where the lines of man and machine have been blurred. However, with the rise of great technology, abuse of said technology is on the rise by terrorists and criminals. GITS follows Major Kusanagi and her team referred to as section 9 as they serve to stop these crimes and track down criminals.
The most popular track by far written for this series has to be “Inner Universe” sung by Origa. Yoko Kanno wrote this track by running together quick beats to give it a fuzzy, extraterrestrial feeling which you can hear in the opening notes and if you listen closely throughout the song. She does this in many other songs throughout the series giving it a slightly futuristic forward sound. Run Rabbit Junk, Stamina Rose, Home Stay etc etc. The other cool part about Inner Universe is that it’s sung in Russian, Latin, and English. The lyrics within it as well reference people struggling to find identities within a society that has rapidly become so mechanized that they are disassociated from each other almost automatically.
“Rise,” the opening for season two, is also sang Russian and English, and again with lyrics about being a soldier and rising up to right the good fight. The ending songs, “Lithium Flower” (S1) and “Living Inside the Shell” (S2), were also written by Yoko Kanno. She also collaborated with many, many artists to create the soundtracks for the two seasons and the movie. In fact the OP for the movie Solid State Society features Origa singing with the now disbanded group Heartsdales right before they broke up! Some favorites that she worked with for GITS are Steve Conte and Tim Jensen.
Beauty within us
Run Rabbit Junk
I can’t be cool
2. Macross Frontier
- Episodes: 25 ＋ 2 movies
- Aired: Apr 4, 2008 - Sep 26, 2008
I’m pretty much sure the users of the internet would come to my home and burn my house down to the ground if I somehow missed including this show in this list. Well good thing I didn’t forget!! Macross Frontier is actually a remake of the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross which originally aired in 1982. It paints a future about 47 years beyond the original series where people are now looking at integrating with another race which creates new problems such as politics, drama, and of course, action. The series takes off when a reconnaissance mission goes awry and is destroyed by an alien mecha known only as the Vajra. The new United Nations is called in to find this problem and solve it.
It is mind-blowing how popular the music is for this series. It should be noted that the combined sales of all the albums and singles totals over 900,000 and ALL singles and albums linked to this show, according to the research I did, charted within the Top 3 spots on the Oricon Charts. (Similar to the American Billboard Charts) Wow! Yoko Kanno’s reach doesn’t stop there. This show also showcased now relatively popular J-pop Singers May’n and Megumi Nakajima. Both of these artists were given their shots at fame because of Macross Frontier and Yoko Kanno. Kanno again in this series relies on her large orchestra to make her sounds come together.
You can hear this quite well in “Vital Force.” “Diamond cross” is another great example of how Kanno creates songs to be placed towards the end of the series giving it a sense of closing as you listen. All in all this amazing series has spawned 6 full albums and 9 singles. This is quite a lot considering this is a one season show with two movies!
3. Cowboy Bebop
- Episodes: 26 Epsiodes + 1 movie
- Aired: Apr 3, 1998 - Apr 24, 1999
Where do I even start? Cowboy Bebop has to undoubtedly be one of the most popular anime of all time, if not the best known of all time. This show follows Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, a pair of bounty hunters that work closely with the law to bring in criminals for that cold hard cash! Endless with intrigue and action, Cowboy Bebop is loved by countless fans.
Let’s get right into it. Almost all music for this show is credited to a band named The Seatbelts. However, this was a band painstakingly arranged and carefully plotted by Yoko Kanno herself. She arranged this band to have countless members from Japan and internationally. Steve Conte and Tim Jensen, famous now from their GITS songs, made their appearance here as well. Over 80 musicians are credited with having been a part of The Seatbelts!! Wow! The main focus of the music here was from a Jazz background, hence the imagery of the series.
Tank!, for example, relies heavily on the big band jazz style with Latin influences, a fantastic saxophone solo, and there’s even bongo drums in the song as well. The Real Folk Blues is unique due to it being one of the few songs in the whole series that uses Japanese at all. The show itself tends to use more instrumental tracks with very limited vocals. This series has spawned a total of 9 albums!
One cool fact is that Yoko Kanno was actually told by the director, Shinichirou Watanabe, exactly how he wanted the music to sound for Cowboy Bebop. She ignored him and instead wrote a bunch of music and handed it in suggesting where it should be used within the series. Watanabe was so surprised that she deified his orders that he actually used the music for the first half of the series because the second half had not been produced yet. However, Kanno, with no reference materials went ahead and wrote extra music for the whole series. The second half of the series features the music that she wrote that they had not originally requested. How cool!!
Bad Dog no Biscuits
The Real Folk Blues
4. Wolf’s Rain
- Episodes: 26 + 4 OVA
- Aired: Jan 7, 2003 - Jul 29, 2003
This list would not be complete without naming Wolf’s Rain on it!! Wolf’s Rain is an incredibly tragic, post-apocalyptic anime about, you guessed it, wolves. It tells the story of a world where wolves have been hunted to near extinction. However, they can smell a lunar flower. Should they be able to find the person who is the embodiment of that flower, she can lead them to paradise. The wolves disguise themselves as humans and travel across many towns and landscapes in search of the flower and paradise.
The number one comment I see for this series in regards to music, is that this show would be nothing if it was not for Yoko Kanno writing the entire OST. Of course it’s going to be a hit when she brings out her aces such as Maaya Sakamoto, Steve Conte, and Ilaria Graziano. Gravity Features Maaya Sakamoto’s vocals. This soundtrack was actually recorded in Brazil, Japan, the US, and Poland. Kanno pulled out all the stops here to make this one. Something to note though about the music this time around, is that it is more somber.
For example, “Gravity,” is a piano driven song and “Pilgrim Snow” is a slower harp based song meant to evoke slower and calmer feelings while still being somber. Not out of left field, but definitely not something that you will hear often. Songs like “Stray” are definitely a step away from the slower, sadder songs, but there aren’t many that are quick like it. “Stray” also features my favorite singer that she has worked with, Steve Conte. Stray is also noted for its lyrics that tie into the series characters.
Heaven’s not Enough
Tell me what the rain knows
5. Kids on the Slope
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Apr 13, 2012 - Jun 29, 2012
Kids on the Slope is on this list for one reason alone; Yoko Kanno and Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Macross Frontier) reunite! Kids on the slope takes a look at the evolution of jazz in 1960s Japan. Kaoru moves from Yokosuka, a navy base in Tokyo to a tiny, remote city in Kyushu. Before he came, he was an perfect student. Now that he is in Kyushu, he becomes a shut-in. He does chance on meeting Sentaro, Ritsuko, and Junichi (brother Jun) among others and through them they discover that they can all play jazz music together. Together, they journey through high school.
I think that Kanno really really really really really likes Jazz music the best. Cowboy bebop, easily one of her best achievements, was very heavy on jazz and since she reunited with Watanabe here, of course, it’s all jazz! This show is actually very true to the history of jazz and samples from various artists within the genre. I was quite shocked to find out that most of the songs in the show are actually very famous, well known songs. Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Chet Baker, Horace Silver, are all very famous jazz performers, and the list doesn’t stop there!
The best part is that each episode is names after a famous song by a jazz artist. Which is then usually played by the characters in the series! If you have an appreciation for what real jazz sounds like, then this is the show for you. Yoko Kanno’s musical genius with Watanabe’s directional genius makes Kids on the slope a true gem.
Someday my Prince will come
Lullaby of Birdland
6. Aquarion Evol
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Jan 9, 2012 - Jun 25, 2012
Aquarion Evol is actually the sequel to the 2005 hit anime series Genesis of Aquarion. Well… what I should say is the distant sequel. This show is set 12,000 years into the future. The people living on the planet Vega are now under attack from the people of the nearby planet of Altair who have had all women die due to a strange disease. Altarians are now attacking Vega and kidnapping women to save their own race. Sora must use his hidden power to save his new friend Mikono and his planet.
Aquarion Evol and Genesis of Aquarion both feature Yoko Kanno’s genius behind the musical production. Yoko Kanno wrote basically everything for this series as well, and just like with Macross Frontier, she took AKINO from the group bless4 and made her as well as the band itself famous! Bless4 contains Akino, but she has also debuted as a solo artist. In this series again though, Kanno relies on her powerful orchestra to bring a musical delight to our ears. Songs like “Fragments of Eve” keep the beat upbeat, moving and fast while working in the vocals of AKINO to keep you entertained. She does try to give us a bit more of a dark/somber track with “Altair Invasion.” Looking at the series and what it is about, it makes sense that this track would be aptly named so.
The series also has some fantastic songs reworked from the old series that are placed into the new one as well. For example, if you listen closely to “Genesis Carnival” you can hear the melody from Aquarius, but now arranged for an organ!
Fragments of Eve
Kimi no Shinwa ~ Aquarion Dai 2 Shou~
Genesis of Aquarion
I would like this time to dedicate this article to Origa who worked closely with Yoko Kanno to produce the soundtracks for the Ghost in the Shell series. Origa lived a full and exciting life, but unfortunately succumbed to lung cancer at the young age of 44 this past January. Rest in peace Origa, and thanks for all the great songs you left us with.
Whew!!!! I could keep going and going and going about Yoko Kanno. This article is just an introduction to her genius, but it’s a pretty good idea of where to go. I’m sorry if your favorite show that she has written for hasn’t made it here, but why not tell me about it in the comments? She has worked on countless shows so I’d love to hear what your favorites are!