Joe Hisaishi: The man behind Miyazaki’s music


[All this week, Flixist is holding Ghibli Week by bringing you all sorts of Studio Ghibli related posts to celebrate the U.S. release of Ghibli’s newest movie, The Secret World of Arrietty, on Friday, February 17th! Check back throughout the week for lots of Ghibli-related goodness!]

One of the most important parts of a movie is the music supporting it. Imagine watching Star Wars without The Imperial March. Imagine Jurassic Park without John Williams. Imagine The Lord of the Rings Trilogy without, you know, that Enya soundtrack. It’s unthinkable, right? Well, most of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki’s movies would be just as unthinkable if it wasn’t for one guy: Mamoru Fujisawa, also known as Joe Hisaishi.

Don’t recognize who he is? Neither did I. Check out the rest for a look at this incredibly influential, and widely unknown master.

Mamoru Fujisawa was born in Nakano, Nagano, Japan in 1950, and started violin lessons when he was five years old. This sparked his life-long love affair with music. He later attended Kunitachi College of Music in 1969 to study music composition. He broke into the world of anime musical composition by composing the music for a small animation called Gyatoruzu. After his first composition gig, he continued to compose for various small projects, such as Hajime Ningen Gyatoruz in 1974 and Robokko Beeton in 1976.

As he started to become more well known, he came up with a stage-name, inspired by African-American musician Quincy Jones. In Japanese, “Quincy” is pronounced like “Kuishi”, and in Kanji this can be written as “Hisaishi”, and “Joe” comes from “Jones” of course. Thus, Joe Hisaishi became Mamoru Fujisawa’s working alias.

In 1983, Hisaishi was recommended by a record company to compose the music for the then up-and-coming Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This collaboration lead to a great friendship between the two men, and since then Hisaishi has composed for virtually every big, feature-length movie Miyazaki has made to date. Since this is Ghibli Week, let’s take a look at just what makes Hisaishi’s contribution to these films so amazing.


At its core, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has a sense of grandeur to it. This is underlined through the score. In the scenes where Nausicaä meets the Ohmu, large insects that have overrun the post-apocalyptic world, the score helps you understand – without words – that these beings are powerful, dangerous and otherworldly.

That said, parts of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind‘s score is a blast from the past! The 1980s, that is! Electronic and synthesized music was big in Japan at the time, and Hisaishi reflected this in the score at appropriate times.


Princess Mononoke‘s score lends itself to the traditional Japanese themes being depicted in the movie. There are times – like certian scenes in the forest – where the score sounds totally natural, like bamboo falling. Okay, that sounds SUPER cheesy, but it’s true! It works perfectly within the context of the scenes too!

Most notably for me in Princess Mononoke‘s music is the first ten minutes or so. Mononoke wastes absolutely no time getting into the action. Within a few minutes, we go from an idyllic scene and tune in the Japanese countryside to an animalistic, bestial, zoomorphic beat that catapults the viewer to the edge of their seat as they watch the hero, Ashitaka, battle a demon boar spirit. I’ve seen the opening for Princess Mononoke so many times, and it still scares the crap out of me, and Hisaishi’s excellent score is a large part of that. It always makes me feel like someone’s going to start preforming ancient blood-letting rituals or something at any second.

Spirited Away

The soundtrack for Spirited Away is endearing and perfectly matched in every scene. It brings to the foreground a lot of the themes that Miyazaki implies with the work; ideas of lost Japanese traditional ways, luxury and excess, hard work, mischief and even retribution. Ideas that are embedded deep within the Japanese cultural psyche.

The scenes in within the bathhouse have the most memorable music for me. Those scenes recall such a fully Japanese tradition and the music follows up right alongside the lush visuals. To this day, when I listen to Hisaishi’s Procession of the Spirits, I can’t help but dance. It’s absolutely entrancing.


The soundtrack for Howl’s Moving Castle varies considerably from the previous two collaborations between Miyazaki and Hisaishi. The soundtrack places a large emphasis on the singular piano, often played in European styles, and the full-fledged European orchestra. The songs are sweeping and grandiose, a perfect match for the whirlwind of a romance that is Howl’s Moving Castle. The characters’ moods range from lonely self-pity to heart-bursting excitement, and Hisaishi’s music mirrors their every step.


Ponyo‘s soundtrack is heavy on the orchestral strings. Ponyo’s theme song herself is flighty, mischievous, and lighthearted. The rest of the music, while perhaps not as memorable as some of Hisaishi’s previous works, mirrors the cute, mild-mannered tone set by the film.

The ending credits song in the Japanese version of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea became a bona fide hit in Japan. Sung by eight year old Nozomi Ōhashi, by the end of 2008, it was ranked as the 14th highest selling single on the Oricon Yearly Charts. The Japanese version of the song is totally more adorable than the English version which, if you ask me, is one of the most grating parts of the entire experience.

Without Hisaishi, movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle would have been radically different to view and chances are that they would have been lesser works. Joe Hisaishi’s contribution to Hayao Miyazaki’s works while almost intangible, are undeniably important to the experience of a Miyazaki film. Joe Hisaishi truly deserves to get his due recognition within the wider Miyazaki audience.