Review Summary: Nearly as perfect as the film it accompanies.
It always pains me when somebody says (and believe it or not, there actually are people who say this) that animation is lesser form of art or entertainment to live-action cinema. If anything, animated cinema could possibly be considered even more credible when you get down to it; something about animation creates a magic of its own. It really builds on the sort of otherworldly cinematic environments and experiences that put its audience in a different state of mind for whatever duration it has. However, many audiences still shrug off animation as "children's fare" or "inferior to 'real' cinema." Hell, the first time a film (the film being Beauty and the Beast) got an Academy Award for Best Picture nomination was all the way in 1991! Considering the long-winded history of cinema, that's an exceptionally long wait. This leads us to the best animated film that never got such an honor, Spirited Away. Essentially Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece, Spirited Away was a wonderful anime film with strange creatures and detailed visuals; consider it Japan's answer to Alice Through the Looking Glass, but with even more inventive storytelling and overall direction.
With a film so (deservedly) legendary and revered, it would be expected for Spirited Away to have a similarly beautiful and varied score from composer Joe Hisaishi. Luckily, while it doesn't surpass its film, this soundtrack is absolutely superb on just about every level. The actual film maintains a heavy focus on the atmosphere around main character Chihiro, and Hisaishi's score illustrates the settings perfectly. The soundtrack mainly contains a mix of sentimental new age piano melodies, both triumphant and playful orchestral aural backdrops, and a heavy emphasis on subtle instrumental nuances. Even if the listener has never watched the movie, these pieces are still great standalone listens. Take the melancholic piano lines and brooding orchestral work of "The Sixth Station," for instance. The piece serves weaves its own tale of what might be regret, or perhaps loneliness, the latter suggested by the minimalist higher-pitched piano chords illustrating the second half of its running time. Similarly, "The Empty Restaurant" makes its haunting tone clear from the very beginning, hollow tribal drums kicking off the cold tension. The orchestral work following them maintains a frantic, atonal pace as the horns start entering to further increase the tight atmosphere. Eventually, even the bombastic climax comes with multiple dissonant orchestrations that keep your ears fully focused.
As was mentioned earlier, the album also has its share of lightheartedness for the film's sillier moments. "Sootballs" is easily one of the biggest representations of this, with the horns playing very sporadic and quirky melodies for a playful effect. "Bathhouse Morning" takes a relatively simplistic Baroque-style sound and molds it into a nicely comedic-sounding relief piece for its certain scene (which does happen to have that same tone). One thing that's remarkable is how Hisaishi can mash so many styles together so coherently, and his ability to alternate between the sentimental pieces and the quirky pieces so fluidly is commendable. However, there is one piece that is absolutely perfect from the very first note: the very first song in the score, "One Summer's Day."
I could go on for hours about this piece; it has everything a listener (and a composer, for that matter) would want from a dramatic movie song. The most recurring song in the movie, the piece begins with a sentimental piano chord and ends with an explosive orchestral climax; between those points resides one of the most poignant piano tunes ever recorded. After quiet, mysterious strings illustrate the background, the piano takes the forefront and Hisaishi uses Romantic-era composing to the most expressive level he can. What's interesting is that the song isn't all that complex, and yet the fleeting melodies and lighthearted atmosphere lets it take on a life of its own. Similar to "Fly" by Devin Townsend, it's clear that the song is a perfect foreshadowing of what's ahead on the album (and the film); it uses a similarly sentimental aural environment to suck the listener in, as if an old friend is inviting you back to experience past adventures all over again.
The only reason this soundtrack warrants a 4.5 instead of a perfect score is because it's better heard with the actual film, instead of just on its own. Even though I said these songs are fantastic standalone tracks, they're brought to a much higher emotional level when combined with the film. Joe Hisaishi really did create a masterpiece of a score that combines beautifully with Miyazaki's direction of the film. While you should pick up this soundtrack, as it's well worth the investment, I'd highly suggest watching the film it goes with. It's pure cinematic perfection to experience the visual and aural halves become a cohesive whole right in front of you, beauty rarely represented so well in the world of film.