Review Summary: How do you soundtrack a movie about the future and souls? With old Japanese prayers, that’s how!
Ghost in the Shell is a classic. Progenitor of a thousand imitiations (e.g. The Matrix, Surrogates, Chronicle, GiTS: SAC, Psycho-Pass…), its unique vision of a bleak cyberized future essentially gave birth to the cyberpunk genre, brilliantly paving the way for movies like The Matrix and shows like Dollhouse. But an oft-overlooked feature of this landmark film is the music itself. Kenji Kawai’s soundtrack to this film is almost as instrumental as the setting and characters themselves, brilliantly breathing an air of grounded classicism into a somewhat lofty film.
Before even addressing the music itself, one must first look at its influence in a contemporary setting. Artists like Massive Attack (progenitors themselves of the now-resurgent trip-hop genre), Grimes and The Weeknd have all been haunted by the immense atmosphere of the film, particularly its vision of a futuristic Japan that’s haunted itself by its past. But what makes this atmosphere tangible, in my opinion, is the beautifully oriental soundscapes that Kawai brings to the film. For example, the film’s opening scene, in which Motoko is “born,” is made all the more jarring thanks to the juxtaposition of a choir singing an old Japanese prayer. The archaic phrases help to make the action depicted seem all the more futuristic, all the more alien and all the more intense. The action scenes are also given a rugged and physical feel. Through the use of Taiko drums, Kawai creates a stiff militaristic feel, reminiscent of Bear McCreary’s score for Battlestar Galactica (McCreary is also said to have been influenced by this score).
But the real glory of this soundtrack is how well ambient textures and electronic embellishments are mixed with these classicist cores. On track “Nightstalker,” airy synths straight out of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score are mixed with sensual Shamisen playing to evoke an immensely melancholy atmosphere. As the synths and bass swell, the playing gets more erratic until it abruptly stops. The next track, “Floating Museum,” ominous synth arpeggios and cavernous bass are mixed to bring a track that would sound at home on a Burial or Brian Eno album.
Throughout the entire soundtrack, similar aural cues help to flesh out the story even without the movie. Bells and chimes give way to the feeling of development and subtle intrigue, synth swells clue the audience to the film’s more ponderous moments. And the choir, in a technique used in films like Akira and End of Evangelion, alert the audience as to when their feelings of disillusionment and introspection are justified, even encouraged. Usually when a soundtrack so heavy-handedly tells an audience how to feel the result is that the audience feels forced into a particular set of emotions, or even cheated out of an authentic emotional experience. That’s not the case here. What Kawai does here is guide the listener without corralling her, inform the listener without violent exposition. And that’s what ultimately helps the film.
Despite all this, there’s still much to be desired here. In terms of dynamics, the album is pretty one-tone, despite the film’s variation and bold subversion. After a while, the ambient textures and icy electronics lose their touch and seem more like artifice than artistry. And when compared with the legendary Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the film’s soundtrack feels flimsy and overwrought, making for the only circumstance where SAC beats the original film. In terms of memorability, it’s incredibly hard to point to a favorite track. The closest that most people I’ve asked have gotten was “the one with the choir.” There are three of those, all titled “Utai #: Something or the other.” And while choral suites themselves aren’t bad (Shiro Sagisu used one to brilliant effect on the End of Evangelion OST), what made this choral arrangement bold was how jarring and out-of-place it seemed in the film’s cold dystopia. All-in-all, Kenji Kawai’s soundtrack to Ghost in the Shell is a beautiful work that complements a classic film. As a standalone piece though, it falters in enough areas to provide apprehension when regarding it with the same lens of undying love that its accompanying film has been relishing in since 1995.