Why aren’t more people aware of Geinoh Yamashirogumi, given the legendary status of AKIRA and its soundtrack, for which they are responsible? We have featured them several times here, in an attempt to redress this situation, and speed up humanity’s currently stalled process of spiritual enlightenment.
We previously mentioned that they are a collective of over a hundred ‘non-musicians’ organised by Shoji Yamashiro, alter ego for ‘molecular biologist, neuroscientist, artificial life researcher and pioneer of redefining how the human body senses sound ‘ Tsutomu Ōhashi. They started as a reaction against ‘specialist’ commercial music that spurns the deep, anthropological and even genetic intertwinement of humanity and music.
After several albums visiting different regions of the world and their folk musics, Yamashirogumi focused on gamelan, in Ecophony Rinne (1986). This record brought them to the attention of Katsuhiro Otomo, who initially wanted to use its music for AKIRA’s soundtrack. Instead, Yamashirogumi created something completely new, one of the core albums in 20JFG’s musical pantheon. After AKIRA, Yamashirogumi produced Ecophony Gaia (1994), their latest release to date.
We recommend that you listen to these three records – Rinne, AKIRA and Gaia – in sequence. If you want, you can even imagine a cinematic trilogy paralleling the original Star Wars, with telekinetic teens instead of Jedis, low-slung red hot bikes instead of X-wings and Yamashirogumi’s brain expanding turbo-gamelan trances instead of John William’s retro symphonics. There is nothing quite like it: fractal beauty, macroscopic harmony, infinite thrills with a surprise at every turn.
It is as if Yamashirogumi’s music had been produced by an artificial (collective) intelligence trained in the works of Sagan and Maturana, and evolved through an artificial game of life that rewarded the symbiosis of wildly different ideas, and fearless, unself-aware exploration, often to rediscover what’s already there, at the source, rather than to create something ‘new’. Their ability to bore musical tunnels accessing deep sources of unconscious energy puts them up there with Can, Boredoms or Magma, which is mighty praise indeed.
As is the case in the best works of those other artists, a discrete part (song) excised from the whole (album) fails to capture the overwhelming power, often based on repetition, sweeping movements and returning motifs. We are very aware of this when we leave you with two, relatively self-contained, songs out of Rinne and Gaia. We believe that they will blow your mind, and send you after the albums at their source like pumped-out Capsule bikers hot on the heels of a Clown infiltrator.
It crumples the day up. Makes things difficult to see through.
Air tastes dry. Imagination barren. Soul aches like a hangover.
I want music that’s like liquid, just pure – to wash everything else away. Music you can heal yourself in.
When I’m tired of everything and my senses are exhausted – when my psyche is too fucked and even music starts to taste bad and smell bad, there is one group of artists I have utter faith in for rejuvenation.
The artwork is panels from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira manga, but the sound isn’t from the AKIRA soundtrack. It’s from a 1977 LP released by Geinoh. It’s impossible to say whether it’s any better or any worse than the AKIRA soundtrack – each and every Geinoh LP is equally as perfect, but all different.
“Always different, always the same” as a man used to say about a rock group. But they always were the same. This is different.
A little while ago we had a go at unravelling the DNA of the music of AKIRA, the greatest animated film of all time. The army of non-musicians who breathed AKIRA’s soundtrack into life go by the name of Geinoh Yamashirogumi, and no two of their albums are the same.
Committed ethnomusicologists, Geinoh seem to study musical forms by posessing them. The pre-AKIRA Selections from Folk Music from Silkroad threads a musical cartography through Taiwan, India, Corsica, Georgia, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. Geinoh use nothing but their voices to make something astral and forever-sounding. This choral music sounds like the stars and should be sung by all who travel under them, as a prayer to ward off misadventure.
AKIRA wasn’t the first mainstreamish film to incorporate gamelan elements in its soundtrack – Ryuichi Sakamoto applied synthesizers to a modern Japanese take on gamelan in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, five years earlier. But it probably is the only film to use gamelan almost exclusively as its driving energy, rather than just as incidental texture (The Girl With The Pearl Earring, The Golden Compass) or simply to denote some hazy ‘other’ ethnicity (Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
The AKIRA soundtrack is confusing. Listened to in its ‘Symphonic Suite’ version (the release which excises dialogue samples from the film), it’s a sprawling, maddeningly intricate work – a puzzlebox symphony. It goes against type. The predictable soundtrack for the 1988 anime of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic manga should deal heavily in cyberpunky tropes – an industrial throb representing the post-WW3 gangland of Neo-Tokyo, maybe some squealing 80s rock guitar to energise the chase and fight sequences and keep the nerds onside. In truth, you’d expect it to sound a lot like Chu Ishikawa’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man score, released a year later.
Even the choice of composer for AKIRA is a weird – but also weirdly appropriate – one. Shoji Yamashiro is primarily a scientist, who dabbles in art. His several hundred person strong musical collective, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, is reputedly an army of non-musicians: journalists, salarymen, doctors, engineers, etc. Geinoh are committed students of indigenous folk musics from around the world, and their work has examined African, Chinese, and Persian forms, as well as the Indonesian gamelan that informs AKIRA.
Rumour has it that Shoji hadn’t seen a frame of footage or even read a page of script when he completed his AKIRA compositions for Geinoh. If this is true, then Geinoh’s AKIRA is essentially a soundtrack to the manga, rather than the film. So it was likely less burdened by being forced to adopt the more obvious stylistic conventions for scene-tracking (fast music for the action sequences, weepy strings for love scenes, ‘epic climaxes’ as preludes to denoument, etc., etc.). It also perhaps allowed Yamashiro more space to dwell on contextual elements, and think about how sound might be used thematically in conjunction with this tale of telekinetic teens, totalitarian governments, and manga metaphors for post-Hiroshima Japan.
The score conjures up half-remembered and misinterpreted ancient music, and lashes it firmly to the present with the addition of the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. This is a common trope in dystopian fiction, from Cloud Atlas to Red Dwarf, scraps of antiquated signifiers of the ‘old world’ become amplified and distorted into new symbolism, and the addition of modern technology to these signifiers gives an illusion of futuristicness.
What is interesting is why Shoji chose to use gamelan for this, though, rather than what might be the more contextually obvious choice of gagaku – the similarly-minimal, ancient Imperial court music of Japan. Gagaku would experience a post-war revival, with modern classical composers such as Toru Takemitsu composing new works (termed ‘reigaku’) in the tradition of this 14th Century music. AKIRA plays with themes of Empire building, and the struggle to rebuild in Empire’s fallout, so a postmodern gagaku would carry strong subtextual significance.
The mythology of Javan gamelan dates its creation to 230 AD, when the god-king Sang Hyang Guru used tuned gongs to communicate with and summon other deities. Gamelan has a strong ritualistic history, but it’s also the traditional accompaniment in rural Indonesia for dance, poetry, and puppet performances.
Within the mythology of AKIRA, gamelan is invocatory.
It’s initially difficult to pick out words from the massed chanting that shushes and roars, weaving throughout the purposeful percussion of AKIRA – and most of us gaijin tend to switch off the decoding parts of our brain when listening to Japanese music, focusing instead on texture, pure sonics, the way words sound and feel when they scrape up against the other instrumentation rather than what they mean. But a bit of close listening reveals the ominous whooshes of humansound are actually made up of little more than the names of the four main characters: Kaneda, Tetsuo, Kei, and of course, Akira – whose own story is largely absent from the anime, but whose implied presence looms majestically over the narrative, somehow made even more Godlike by his absence, his existence the stuff of rumour, conjecture, and fervour.
Within the Geinoh symphony, Akira is a doom-laden premonition, a bad thought in a hungry animal. Even when tracking unrelated scenes, the soundtrack crafts its own narrative. Listened to as a consistent piece of music, AKIRA as a symphony is constantly building, gesturing urgently to something approaching. It never relaxes or lowers its guard, even when it disintegrates into the most minimal function ever – just sparse, lone woodblock, voice, and voids of silence. If gamelan was created for one god to communicate with his peers, then the AKIRA gamelan is full of nervous, rattling transmissions debating gods – so communicative and voice-like is the dialogue of the percussion that it could realistically represent the fearful psychic gossip between the Espers prophesying Akira’s return and Tetsuo’s nuclear tantrum.
Occasionally these percussion lines break with call and response and lock into tightly spiralling or dazzling scrolling patterns. This is a normal mode of gamelan, but when it happens in AKIRA it feels as though the sounds are no longer ‘talking’, but praying. Summoning.
In the Dolls’ Polyphony movement, the percussion is absent entirely, indicating another perspective in the sound-narrative – contrapuntal gamelan phrases now constructed out of re-pitched vocal squeaks and low chanting. In the anime, this piece soundtracks the scene where the toys in Tetsuo’s hospital room come to life – a childish psychic prank by his fellow inmates that so enrages him. Suddenly the relationship of a traditional music for puppet theatre doesn’t seem so incongruous with AKIRA. It’s also possible to read most of the characters as puppets of one sort or another – manipulated mostly by military or other government factions, with possibly only the apolitical, hedonistic Capsules retaining any sense of agency (even the Resistance are used to achieve Nezu’s political ambitions), ultimately incorruptible in their nihilism and lack of agenda.
So the AKIRA symphony works as both ritual and puppetshow, gleefully diverging from its presumed role as soundtrack. The fact that Geinoh’s electrifying 20th Century gamelan does work so ferociously against the hyper-vivid anime dream of Katsuhiro Otomo almost seems accidental. As a tone poem, it is perfect.
The blu-ray edition of AKIRA has a brand new 20-bit remaster of the Symphonic Suite, mastered by Shoji Yamashiro himself: buy it