What does anime do better than almost anything else?
Just look at the incredible anime that feature music and musicians. And while the music itself is a blessing to listen too, it is the musicians’ stories that make you fall in love with them. Here are, IMHO, the very best. (YMMV)
Piano no Mori
Piano is the rich boy’s destiny (Shūhei Amamiya) but also a poor boy’s salvation (Kai Ichinose).
It seems a common trope in anime about classical music is that one wins contests with mechanical perfection while one wins hearts with emotional expression. The two boys from totally opposite backgrounds and opposite styles become friends over playing the piano.
Not to mention there is a magical piano in the forest that only plays for the pianist with the chosen hands. How it got there is a story in itself.
Your Lie in April
Oh God, I cried! I wept until my eyes ached. And cried some more the next day. Piano and violin loveliness!
There is the orphaned boy under immense psychological stress from his dead mother, a virtual machine at the piano. A superstar who is working on a nervous breakdown.
The girl, a free spirit who only wants people to remember her music and couldn’t care less about the contest. They meet and his empty place is filled at last. But will emotion be the end of him as a competitive player?
There is nothing extraneous about this series. Nothing out of place, nothing that is not needed and everything that is. If the concluding performance doesn’t leave you a quivering bowl of jelly and shorting out your keyboard with tears, we aren’t the same species. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)
I love the colors and the way faces get modeled here. And that trope pops up yet again. Massively. If it happens so often in this genre, just maybe there is some truth to it.
Opposites attract. It sometimes takes a long time for both of them to realize it.
She’s a quirky pianist with great potential, he’s a disciplined musical genius. The cast is full of endearing characters with their own individualities. Chiaki is the best example of male type A tsundere I’ve ever seen while Nodame would happily deredere him right into a wedding ceremony, ASAP. It is long enough to be entirely satisfying plus there are several OVA sequels.
If you look under the hood, that trope I mentioned earlier is here too.
Two Nanas, one a hard-core rocker the other a wanna-be housewife. An up and coming punk rock band (Black Stones) and an established J-Pop band (Trapnest). Who is sleeping with whom?
What a stunning OST this anime produced!
Our two protagonists seem to be opposites in every way. Nana Osaka is a hard-bitten punk rocker determined to make it to the big time at all costs. The other Nana Komatsu, soon to be called “Hachi” is as helpless as a puppy. She is new to life on her own. Getting work and managing her life and loves without help appears beyond Hachi, so Nana steps in to be the rock in her life. Things happen, boyfriends are had and conflicts arise.
There are a few bedroom scenes here but what else would you expect? Everyone has a lover and the relationships are what the show is all about. That and a glacially slow maturation process.
Alas! The anime was never completed. After 47 episodes, we are left hanging. Ai Yazawa, the manga author, became ill in 2009 and didn’t get out of the hospital until 2010. Ep 47 has a sort of ending-ish feel but the manga goes on from there. She never completed either one. There was to be no filler material so when the artist stopped, so did the anime.
Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope)
Growing up is hard to do. It seems like heartbreak is around every corner. But there’s jazz in the basement.
Kids on the Slope is about climbing uphill to adulthood. Shinichiro Watanabe knocked this one out of the park. Yoko Kanno produced the music with young professional musicians.
Kaoru is a classicly trained pianist. He meets Sentaro who saves his butt from bullies. Sentaro plays jazz in the basement of a music shop. Soon the machine-like and inhibited style of Kaoru melts to the smokey & smooth jazz he hears. Sentaro falls for an older, beautiful woman named Yurika. Kaoru is in love with Ritsuko, the sweet and innocent girl who is the daughter of the shop owner. Too bad she only has eyes for the unavailable Sentaro.
Kaoru is an insensitive nerd. Sentaro has a family. Love of his family dominates his life. And there is Sentaro’s best friend, Junichi, who seems to attract problems. Or more likely. he is attracted to problems.
White Album 2
Trials and tribulation in a high school music club. Also one of the greatest kisses in the history of anime!
Haruki wants to keep the high school light music club alive. But his singer and most of the club just quit. Setting his sights high, he convinces Setsuna, the school’s “idol” to become the vocalist and his alienated and angry classmate Kazusa to be the keyboardist for a high school festival concert. They are going to perform White Album, the product of the earlier White Album series set 4 years in the past. (No relation to the Beatles.) From there it goes on to one of the best anime romances I’ve watched.
Quite the on-stage presence!
There’s a bit of what I’d consider fanservice here, mostly shower and a couple of panty shots for the girls. The inevitable hot tub which – since it adds so much to the characterizations and the plot – I don’t count as fanservice. Nothing overboard. The music is excellent.
White Album was a good anime in the music genre. White Album 2 is a great one.
Every one of these had me fall in love with the characters. Not just one, but the entire ensemble. Be prepared to cry.
Oftentimes the OST will have the extended version of something only hinted at in the show. These gems slip by if you don’t love the show so much you run out and buy the OST CD.
I love to hear good vocals. It doesn’t matter what the language is. The human voice is an instrument, the most versatile and impactful instrument in existence. Its purest form is independent of content. This is why we can love a Rock ‘n Roll song without being clear on the lyrics. You can hear, “Lit up like a douche another rotor in the night” when he’s really singing, “Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.” and still enjoy it as much.
Oh well, back to anime.
One of my favorite OSTs belongs to Rurouni Kenshin. Listen to Kaoru’s Theme from Rurouni Kenshin and tell me if it doesn’t melt your heart!
This is Aoshi’s theme, Warrior Blue. Does it not fill you with sadness?
Kenshin’s theme is extremely calming. It makes me feel at rest in a crazy world.
And this makes me think of strong men in war. Wouldn’t even need to know the title or where it comes from. War of the Last Wolves.
And there is the musical jazz wonderfulness of Cowboy Bebop.
Ballad of Fallen Angels, however, is my personal CBop favorite. Enjoy the contrast between the brutality of Spike’s life and the innocence of the “angelic” music.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is not specifically a music anime but it has a musical arc. Since it is an incredible anime even without the music, I wanted to include it here. Just listen to this. It has my hands thrumming and wishing desperately I could sing in Japanese even if I can’t understand the words.
Lastly, I’ll mention one of the most popular anime franchises of all time and two opening songs. Inner Universe and Rise, from Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell S.A.C., respectively. When I’m worried or insecure about something I’m about to do, I’ll often put Rise on loop and crank it through my headphones. It solidifies my determination.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. Very many anime can boast of a great song or two or even a great OST. These are my favorites for the moment. What are yours?