The music of Kenji Kawai

Kenji Kawai is a musician whom I’ve admired for quite some time. With a career as a score composer spanning for almost 30 years, he has worked on a lot of various films and TV-series, including many of Mamoru Oshii’s works, all of Hideo Nakata’s movies, Wilson Yip’s Ip Man film series, and anime series such as Higurashi and the original Fate/Stay Night TV-adaptation. What I like so much about Kawai though is that he’s a composer who knows how to leave his mark on the scores that he’s working with, while still managing to keep them being scores and not products his own artistic expressions. Granted, this ”mark” doesn’t apply to all of his works, but very often you recognize with ease that distinct Kenji Kawai sound – a sound that is filled with a meditative, dreamlike atmosphere, yet at the same time can be very bombastic and grandiose. But what exactly is it that makes this sound what it is? I’d like to devote this post to exploring and breaking down the different aspects of Kawai’s music in an attempt to figure out what makes his typical style.

Let’s begin with looking at the instrumentations. The overall character prominent in Kawai’s music is that it’s symphonic, with his compositions being arranged with a classical orchestra as their prime element. What makes the arrangements stick out though from other symphonic music is their blend with 80s-influenced pop and rock instrumentations. Especially synthesizers is something that Kawai frequently makes use of, often accompanying the acoustic instruments as either some ambient background…

…or as a more steady melody.

It is indeed a very unique approach to symphonic music that I haven’t really heard any other composer do. While the addition of classical orchestration to a pop song is far from a new or unusual occurrence, doing the opposite is something that, at least from my own experience, Kawai is very alone with. And I suspect that this type of arrangement partly originates from his earlier composing days – a time when he, as with so many of his then contemporaries, more or less exclusively worked within the veins of either glam rock, synth pop, new wave, or some other musical branch that was widely popular around then. By listening to only a few examples of his earlier works this becomes highly evident, whether it be Mamoru Oshii’s The Red Spectacles from 1987, the 1988 OVA-adaptation of Vampire Princess Miyu, or the 1989 Patlabor TV-series.

One specific work that is worth looking at in more detail in terms of instrumentation is the Ghost in the Shell movie. On top of using his blend of synth and classical orchestration, Kawai for this project also chose to incorporate a lot of eastern folk music – something that he later came to carry on to his other works. The probably most notable of these compartments is the nowadays iconic female choir heard in the main theme of the movie.

This unique choir sound is actually a mixture between the vocal tradition of Japanese folk music, or min’yō, and Bulgarian choir music. Kawai originally wanted to use actual Bulgarian singers for the score, but for whatever practical reason he ended up with Japanese singers instead. In retrospect though this arguably lead to the better as it created the choir’s highly unique flair, with it containing harmonies borrowed from Bulgarian choir music but which are performed with the vocal technique of min’yō. To get a better understanding of this, let’s look at an example from each of the two traditions.

The first thing that comes to mind is that they both use a much sharper and thinner vocal style (perhaps most so in min’yō) as opposed to the very round and wide open-throat-style usually heard within western classical music. The distinct harmonies of the Bulgarian choir are made up by both the harmonic scales used within Balkan folk music, as well as a heavy use of dissonant and often close intervals. On top of that, the min’yō tradition uses a very vigorous and chromatic-sounding form of vibrato, as well as an extremely sharp and high tone in its vocal technique. All of this is what creates the unique style of Ghost in the Shell’s choir.

We’re not done here yet though; as we can hear, the choir is also accompanied by a variety of drums – more specifically Japanese taiko drums. Taiko in itself refers to all sorts of percussion instruments associated with Japanese folk music, and thus comes in a lot of different shapes, sizes and, most essentially, sounds. Although one only needs to hear a few examples to get an overview for this instrument family’s common aesthetic.

However, as we can hear there’s a significant difference in the sound between the more traditional taiko drums and the ones in Ghost in the Shell, which in the latter isn’t nearly as round and plump but has much more punchiness and sharpness to it. Once again I feel like there’s an 80s influence here, more specifically the sound of a glam rock drum set.

This sort of sound becomes even more apparent (if not also more enhanced) in the movie’s follow-up, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, whose score has the same layout as its predecessor in terms of arrangement, but with much less emphasis on the minimalistic ambient atmosphere and more on a Beethoven-like ”more is more”-heaviness. Especially the taiko drums are thus used heavily as a rhythmic force in all of its grandiosity.

This style can also be found in Oshii’s later project Mezame No Hakobune.

Since I don’t have any actual footage from the recording of these scores I can only speculate how the sound was accomplished, but I’m guessing several factors were involved; everything from placing the microphones closer to the instruments, to a high-end increase in the equalizer, to amplified punchiness through the compression. The extra addition of reverb is probably also a major contributor (this I will talk about more later on).

Before moving on, there’s one last thing present in the Ghost in the Shell score worth mentioning, and that is the soft and spooky metallophone-sounding instrument being played in some tracks:

I couldn’t find any concrete information on what instrument (or instruments) is actually used here, but my qualified guess is that it’s some metallophone from the Gamelan family, which is an instrument ensemble of Indonesian tradition (more specifically Java and Bali). This ensemble mostly consists of different types of metallophones, such as the gender, saron and slenthem.

Especially the tuning of the slenthem in this video is remarkably similar to that of Ghost in the Shell:

Just like with the choir and the taiko drums, this instrument (whatever it is) has also reappeared in several of Kawai’s later works, such as Higurashi and the third Patlabor movie.

Now, let’s move on and mention something about the overall mixing, because there is one aspect of it that really sticks out and which is apparent all throughout Kawai’s music, and that is the reverb. Never is this so strong as in WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3, in which he just like with Ghost in the Shell takes on a much more stripped back minimalist approach, but with even more emphasis on the soft ambience.

I find this particular aspect of his music very reminiscent to that of Eric Serra, the score composer probably best known for having worked on several of Luc Besson’s movies such as Subway, The Big Blue, Nikita and Léon. Just like Kawai, Serra also uses reverb heavily in order to create a floating, ambient atmosphere – something that is probably most evident in The Big Blue in which the mixing perfectly fits the fluidity and relaxation of the water and the ocean.

It’s kind of similar to how Kawai uses a softer and smoother approach in The Sky Crawlers in order to fit the softness of the air and the clouds, but also the somberness and fragility of the movie’s themes.

We can also hear how the two composers both use different sound effects and instrumentations to emulate their movies’ aesthetics; The Big Blue with its dolphin sounds, fretless base and soft saxophone, or Ghost in the Shell with its eerie ambient winds. But as I said before, the heavy use of reverb is present in almost all of Kawai’s works, as if it’s a thing that he automatically adds in the mastering process. While it’s definitely there most of the time, it isn’t always as evident as in Patlabor 3 or The Sky Crawlers. So to make it clearer, let’s do a comparison.

The 2001 Oshii film Avalon is a special piece in Kawai’s catalogue, due to the fact that it has a significantly small amount of pop, rock or folk instrumentations. Being shot and produced in Poland and with a Polish cast, the music for the movie too was performed in Poland by the Polish National Philharmonic Orchestra. Because of this, some tracks are exclusively arranged in a western classical tradition, which makes it a perfect comparing example to a more traditional classical performance in terms of mixing. Let’s first listen to this track from Avalon:

And then listen to this performance of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights:

While the only reverb present in the Prokofiev concert is the one naturally created through the ambience of the open space, the Avalon score has both this and an extra addition of reverb added in the mixing process. You can hear this in how the Avalon track sounds somewhat more distant and almost muddy in comparison to Dance of the Knights. Despite this, Kawai somehow makes it work perfectly; the reverb is highly strong and prominent but never takes overhand, giving the music an ambient atmosphere without it losing its bombastic flare.

Now we’ve talked about the arrangements as well as the general mixing, but what is arguably the most important ingredient to his style is the very core of it all, namely how the music is written. The first thing necessary to establish about Kawai’s writing style is that he loves add9 chords. As heard in almost any example from the 90s and onwards, he uses them all the time. But what is an add9 chord? To figure that out, we’re going to need to dive into some music theory.

Music, as we usually know it with all its harmonies and melodies, consists of scales. A music scale is simply put a collection of notes starting from the scale’s base-note, or key, and then going up until it reaches the same note again. While there are a lot of different scales out there in the world, the two standard scales used in western music is what we call the major and minor scale, with the major scale having a positive tone to it and the minor scale a negative one. A basic chord then consists of three notes, more particularly the first, third and fifth note in its scale. So for example, an A minor chord consists of an A-note, a C-note and an E-note. It looks and sounds like this:

Am chord cutout

An add9 chord is henceforth created when adding an interval of a ninth from the key note. In the case of A minor it’s a B-note, making it look and sound like this:

Amadd9 cutout

As we can hear, this type of chord has a very atmospheric yet suspenseful character to it, which may be why Kawai uses it so often.

But we’re not done yet. Kawai may be using add9s a lot, but he also plays around with chord progressions in very peculiar ways. Mainly, he likes to add in chords that fundamentally doesn’t belong to the scale in which the song is played, but in a way still does. This may sound a little weird, but let’s look at an example:

This track from the Vampire Princess Miyu TV-series kicks off with a D# minor chord (actually, it’s a D#madd9, but let’s skip the add9 notes for now), and then goes to a D# minor with B in the base (which could also naturally be replaced B major). So far, everything is normal and within the scale. But at the third chord, something strange happens with the harmony; instead of staying within the scale by playing the following C# chord in major, he plays it in minor – thus all notes in the chord fit into the scale of D# minor except one, namely the second. After that he wraps things up by returning to the scale with a G# minor. So instead of the chord progression expectedly sounding like this:

Resolution cutout

…it sounds like this:

Resolution (right) cutout

This creates a very unique type of harmony that I haven’t really heard outside of Kawai’s music, in which the chord(s) in question is straddling a suspenseful line between belonging and not belonging to the scale. On one hand it sounds like the song is changing key, but on the other it doesn’t. Another example of this can be found in this track from Fate/Stay Night:

The A part of this track has a very basic progression of two chords, starting at B minor and then going up a whole note to C# minor – seemingly simple. Although just as with the previous example, these two chords doesn’t quite fit on the same scale. Both the first and the second note in the C# minor chord (C# and E) belong to the B minor scale, but the third and last note (G#) does not. Once again we see how one single note being ”out of place” creates this suspenseful tension in the harmony. You can especially notice this in how the violin melody has to switch scale between the chords for it not to sound dissonant.

We can also hear in some places how these two examples are sort of combined into one single harmony, like in the B part of this track from Ghost in the Shell:

Here, the harmony starts off at D minor and then goes one whole step up to E minor, making the third note not fitting into the scale – just like in the second example. Then after that, it goes back to the D minor key, playing an A minor which is the fifth chord in the scale. From there it goes one and a half step up to C minor, in which it’s the second note that doesn’t belong to the previous scale – just like in the first example.

Ghost City cutout

I could throw out more examples, but what I think it all boils down to is how the scale of the song in question is changed through these very small yet effective one-note alterations. This, in combination with the add9s and other various chord extensions, creates a truly magical harmony.

Now I think we’ve gathered enough knowledge to get a decent understanding of what makes the Kenji Kawai sound. We’ve seen how his arrangements are just as orchestral as they are influenced by 80s pop and eastern folk music, we’ve seen how his heavy use of reverb in the mixing creates a relaxing yet captivating atmosphere, and we’ve seen how his writing style is filled with sonic tension created through add9s and unexpected chord progressions. Kenji Kawai truly is a great composer, and while there’s probably a lot more that can be said about his music, at least this has given us an overview for what makes his unique and recognizable style.


2 thoughts on “The music of Kenji Kawai

  1. When I google ‘Kenji Kawai Ghost in the shell “min yo” bulgarian’, you are the ONLY page that comes up that is not full of garbage (out of 10 results). Isn’t that crazy ?
    Thank you so much for doing this ! If you don’t nobody will !
    The best part is that you do it so well. Keep the good work !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! Yeah, that is pretty crazy. But then again, part of my goal is to explore topics that I don’t see being covered by others already, so I guess I succeeded on that end with this one. I’m very happy that you enjoyed it!


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