Just to reiterate for anyone who missed the excerpt: If you haven’t seen Madoka and intend to watch it at some point in the future do not read this post! Seriously!
Kajiura Yuki has long been one of my favourite soundtrack composers, both in the anime and video game industry. With series like .hack//SIGN, Mai-Otome, Pandora Hearts, and of course, Fate/Zero under her belt, it’s always fair to expect great things. For Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica she brings us a typically unique soundtrack filled with unintelligible lyrics, folk influences and Latin titles!
Madoka was an odd anime. This is no surprise really; being both a deconstruction of an extremely popular genre and a SHAFT production, it was inevitable that it would be well outside the norm. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is not ‘unusual’ per se, but different in the way that all Kajiura soundtracks are different to the works of most other composers. When you hear anything composed by Kajiura, there’s a good chance that you’ll almost immediately recognise her style. This is actually both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, her music stands out from the crowd and you will always recognise her distinctive style. On the other, we have a criticism shared by many other composers – there isn’t that much variety across soundtracks. If you were to listen to all her soundtracks back-to-back without intimate knowledge of them, it would be hard to tell where one ends and another begins. To be honest, this doesn’t bother me too much beyond an academic level – I really enjoy her style anyway.
Partially because it is Madoka we’re talking about, and also because the first soundtrack is relatively short compared to most anime (since it’s split into three soundtracks to give extra ‘perks’ for purchasers of the special editions), I’m going to approach this a little differently than I have the previous three. Context is a big deal for me when talking about game or anime soundtracks – when they were written, they were done so with the knowledge that they would accompany visual media. A soundtrack release for standalone listening would be a secondary concern. For that reason, I like to include some amount of context when talking about individual tracks. This time, I’m going to go slightly further – rather than do a breakdown of the tracks grouped by genre, I’m going to take a look at how they set up the series, how they work in the context of the first episode, how they work to lull us into a false sense of security, and how they paint a portrait beyond what we see on the surface.
At first, one of the soundtrack’s primary functions was to deceive – to trick us into believing that this was no more than any other Mahou Shoujo anime, but at the same time, it also hinted at the hidden darkness lying just beneath the surface. To me, the first couple of episodes seemed like an elaborate deception – sure it was weird, there was the clash of art styles, the references to Faust and some darker themes, but it was nothing too far beyond what had already been explored by its precursors (such as Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha). No, it wasn’t until the end of the third episode that everything kicked into full throttle and we launched off the traditional pathway into new ground.
One of the very first tracks we hear (the second actually – not counting insert songs since they’re not included on this OST) in Madoka is Postmeridie, an upbeat and carefree piece of music with the characteristic syncopated rhythms and harmonies of a rumba. This is where the deception begins in earnest, using a track of this type to lull us into a false sense of security – all is right in the world and there’s not a single dark cloud in the sky. Tracks based around the rumba, bossa nova and samba are extremely common in slice of life anime, as well as for everyday life (and particularly beach scenes) in all genres. They give off a laid-back and soothing feeling that would warm anyone’s heart even on the coldest of days.
Only a little later we get our first subtle glimpse of discord. Conturbatio, a somewhat melancholic and lonely track, accompanied by the occasionally dissonant harmonies produced by the reverb of the multitude of bell-like instruments, accompanies Homura’s introduction and Madoka’s recognition of her as the girl from her dream. In a way, the emptiness of the music reflects how Homura keeps her distance from others (remaining alone) while also exuding a feeling of longing and despair – the number of times she’s already tried and failed to save Madoka and the pain of watching her die repeatedly. At the same time, the transient feeling that comes with the bell-like tones and evolving reverb evoke images of the unknown and also of mystery, not only that of Homura’s identity, but the inherent mystery that is magic itself.
As Homura displays her physical and mental prowess, we’re presented with the (wonderful) medieval influenced Salve, terrae magicae. The swift and somewhat upbeat flute melody, accompanied by a medieval trademark – the drone – leaps out at us as if to say ‘This is a being of the world of magic, this is what one can achieve if they form a contract!’ all while Kyuubei watches unnoticed from the shadows. Though Kyuubei’s shadowed form is disconcerting (and to a lesser extent, the static drone in the music could potentially be a nod to the undercurrent of discord), it’s easy to overlook it in the face of the brighter music and glorification of magical girls.
Next up is Desiderium, a soft and wistful piano solo which, while relatively simplistic and sparse in composition, has a beauty to it that I find comparable to the impressionistic works of composers like Ravel. I’m actually going to partially break my taboo on translating track titles for this post, purely because the titles on the Madoka OST give such a huge insight into the tracks themselves. Desiderium is written to symbolise ‘longing.’ It first starts playing while Hitomi and Madoka discuss Homura and her presence within Madoka’s dreams. This is actually beautifully done – just as Hitomi mentions that Madoka might have met Homura but be unable to remember it, the cue begins. Looking back with the knowledge the rest of the anime adds, there’s such a profound depth to it – Madoka’s subconscious longing for the girl she can’t remember who has saved her countless times in various universes, constantly rewinding time, never giving up. Surely it should be no surprise that some vestige of feelings have carried over.
But it doesn’t stop there, the music continues through Sayaka’s mention of Kamijou, her unrequited love. Not only does it fit in with her longing for his affection (and also his recovery!), but the slightly sad turns to each of the melodic phrases almost seem to hint towards the ultimate outcome – losing him to Hitomi and her eventual end. Despite these more melancholic turns, the main body of the phrases have a slightly positive tint to them – not all will end poorly. Sayaka’s ending, for one, is bittersweet – while Kamijou never returns her love (and she actually fades from existence), she still succeeds in saving him, restoring him to health and allowing him to live a happy life (presumably with Hitomi).
Our next track is much darker, much more unwelcoming. Gradus prohibitus – ‘forbidden steps’ – is uniquely suited for its purpose during the first episode. It opens with a combination of haunting vocals and various effects very reminiscent of dark ambient music, before later introducing more rhythmic elements to the mix. With the dissonant, evolving atmosphere, the use of unnerving and reverb-heavy sound effects, and eerie vocals, it works well to put us ill at ease for its duration. Heck, there’s even a heartbeat in there at one point which plays at really inconvenient times while I’m working (okay… gaming *cough*) on something that already has levels of pressure involved! The vocals and the strong elements of sound design are actually quite similar in nature to works by Hirota Yoshitaka, most notably his work on the Shadow Hearts series.
This is another track where the title gives us an insight into how the story and music intertwine. Just how many concepts can we consider ‘forbidden’ that fall under the use of this track during in the first episode? The first and most obvious is of course the meeting with Kyuubei and Madoka’s choice to defend him from Homura (did I just make a full-length for an OST post?), arguably the event which began the entire downward spiral in this timeline. However, from our perspective at this point in the anime, perhaps the more obvious conclusion to draw would be Homura’s actions against a cute, defenceless mascot character (KILL IT WITH FIRE) – in that sense, the music helps to paint Homura as the villain as opposed to Kyuubei, something which occurs countless times throughout the series.
The second time the track is used during episode one (only a couple of minutes after the first use), it provides a backdrop for Madoka’s first entry into the dimension of a witch. The slightly ambient and oppressive nature of the track makes it ideal for the purpose, especially when we add in SHAFT’s unusual clash of art styles for these segments of the anime. It also ties in well with the concept of a ‘forbidden land’ – one should never venture into these places, lest they wish to die.
Looking even deeper (possibly too deep), we also have the concept of time manipulation, toying with entropy, and the use of wishes to add to the mix. All three are undeniably things which should never be tampered with (and always come with a hefty price).
The last track used in the first episode that I want to cover is Credens justitiam, roughly ‘believing in justice.’ Played during Mami’s transformation and battle, this upbeat counterpoint-filled track is yet another musical deception. With the addition of the sudden semitone up modulation (a technique used to quickly ramp up emotion and add more power to a track) halfway through, this piece of music glorifies magical girls as something to admire, completely glossing over any of the negatives. As the title suggests, Mami is one who believes in justice, but the use of the music within the anime goes further to suggest that magical girls are justice, fighting against the dark and deformed monsters to protect the world. If only they knew.
Aha! Did you think that was the final track I would talk about? There’s actually one last piece I want – no, need – to cover, since it’s such a perfect example of what makes Kajiura Kajiura. Sis puella magica! is the track that’s used throughout the anime during Kyuubei’s lengthy expositions on the world of magic and his attempts to persuade Madoka into forming a contract. As is typical with many of Kajiura’s works, it uses ‘Kajiuraish’ for the lyrics – an indecipherable mesh of various languages which, in this case, works well to add an air of the unknowable, of something that can never be fully comprehended and sits outside the norm. In addition we have the wonderful, slightly minimal harp and Irish bouzouki passages adding a mysterious backdrop to the melody. The Irish bouzouki is an instrument Kajiura uses quite frequently in her soundtracks – I think her strength has always lain in her string writing (both bowed and plucked). When I think of Kajiura, it’s always her acoustic guitar and violin-heavy tracks that first come to mind.
Normally I would now talk about how and why the soundtrack works for the anime… but I think it’s fairly obvious by this point so I’ll skip past that. It’s actually quite hard to recommend any soundtracks that are particularly similar to Kajiura’s works since her style is so unique. Some of Kanno Yoko’s work on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex features stylistic similarities – especially in the vocals – and the same is at least partially true of Hirota Yoshitaka and his work on the Shadow Hearts series. Fortunately, despite the relative lack of similar soundtracks from other artists, Kajiura has a fairly large catalogue of music to consume, including all the works by See-Saw, FictionJunction and Kalafina on top of that!