This time around, I’ll be focusing on a soundtrack by Kousaki Satoru, a member of MONACA – a specialised music outsourcing studio notable for working on things such as the recently concluded Haiyore! Nyaruko-san and the brilliant soundtrack to Nier. As for Kousaki himself, his notable works include Haruhi (all three series), Kannagi and of course, the entire Monogatari series to date.
Due to its length (70 tracks spanning almost 3.5 hours of music) I’m actually going to break this soundtrack into two posts – one for each disc. That way I can talk about more of the music without pulling a Stilts and mutilating my carpal tunnel. I also won’t be focusing much on the vocal themes, despite many of them being awesome (Ren’ai Circulation and Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari come to mind, though I may glance over the latter in some capacity towards the end of this writeup).
The Bakemonogatari OST is one of those rare soundtracks that is both varied and not. I’ve spoken a bit about minimalism in previous posts, but none of the soundtracks I’ve covered so far have gone to quite the lengths this one does. In a sense, minimal music is both the easiest and hardest type of music to compose. Easy because only a small number of ideas are required to create a track; hard because those ideas need to be clever enough to keep people interested. This is background music in the truest sense – it exists, but it’s not intrusive. It creates an atmosphere. For that reason, it works wonders in the context of Bakemonogatari, where there’s almost always someone talking about something. It would definitely be detrimental if the music were to draw your attention away from core of the series – its dialogue. Unfortunately, this does result in quite a bit of music that doesn’t make for interesting standalone listening material, and while there are many tracks in different styles, a lot of the music sounds very similar due to the choice of instrumentation. Let’s look for a moment at some of the more minimal tracks:
As one might expect from a track with a name like Shugendou, it evokes that calming, yet thought-provoking, meditative feel often associated with Buddhist music. Like the majority of the soundtrack, the lack of a strong melody ensures that the music doesn’t gain prevalence over the dialogue, leaving the xylophone ostinato to create atmosphere in combination with the synth pads. Unlike some of the more complex (and arguably more interesting) tracks on the OST, the only variation introduced comes from the percussion and the modulation of the focal ostinato. You could undoubtedly meditate to the track, but otherwise it doesn’t make the best listening experience. It does serve as a perfect example of simplistic minimal music for the sake of this review though!
Our second track is immediately far more interesting to listen to, despite continuing in the minimal trend. With a slightly Celtic flair and a mysterious aura lent to it by the use of glockenspiels and some darker evolving textures, Hyouri caters more to the supernatural side of the Bakemonogatari soundtrack. The added heavy reverb, particularly on the later percussion, also helps contribute to this mysterious air, while the constant repetitions introduce an almost hypnotic quality to the track. Whereas Shugendou was particularly unchanging throughout its course, Hyouri introduces various elements which almost entirely change the nature of the track at different points – most notably the guitars which, in combination with the percussion, add a strong sense of motion. Oddly enough, most of the tracks on this OST have underwhelming endings – this track is no exception.
There are many ways to make minimal music more interesting to listen to. The variation used in Hyouri is but one of these – bringing in new elements which cause drastic changes in the overall feeling generated by the track. Obviously, this wouldn’t work too well in most situations when we’re talking about background music to scenes which are fairly static in nature – turning a relaxed track into something approaching an action theme would definitely not work if the scene does not also change to reflect that.
Classmate is one such track – it holds interest not through drastic changes in atmosphere, but through the use of unusual metres and complex rhythmic patterns. While in most cases jarring metres are used to unsettle, in this instance, the mellow tones of a Rhodes Electric Piano synth combines with the soft strings, guitar and major key to create a far more serene atmosphere. As the track moves on, we have the introduction of glockenspiel and piano lines, each playing a contrasting rhythmic pattern with different emphasises – in a sense, the complex layers of rhythm could be compared to the multiple layers of meaning in Nisio Isin’s dialogue. Complex musicality in an anime based heavily on clever wordplay and unusual lines of thought. Makes sense!
Suteki Meppou continues the trend of using unusual metres. In this case however, the piano riff is a very obvious reference to Take Five by The Dave Brubeck Quartet which shares the use of quintuple time. The staccato playing style gives it a slightly playful feel – Take Five is often referenced in music for similar reasons and particularly for comic effect. A pretty good example of this would be episode three of Nichijou.
Ika, Kaisou also feels like a reference to another famous piece of music, namely Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (renowned for its use in The Exorcist). Whether or not this reference is intentional is debatable – it could just be a by-product of writing something minimal for piano. Other than that superficial piano ostinato, it couldn’t be more different. The soft string harmonies that come in shortly after the start add an air of melancholy while the introduction of the distorted guitar gives a more hostile edge. It’s distinctly a track designed to unsettle, not just in a hostile manner but also with a hint of sadness. The glitch percussion (a characteristic of so-called intelligent dance music) also contributes to the unnatural nature of the track with its unpredictable patterns.
Strangely enough, in complete contrast to a fair bit of the minimalist music featured throughout the soundtrack, there are also a few western style tracks. Haikyo is one such bluesy western theme. Using a variation of the twelve-bar blues, we have a fairly laid back and wanderlust-inspiring guitar and harmonica track. While this track may not be the perfect example, western style music is actually relatively fitting for Bakemonogatari – the verbal duels could potentially be likened to the traditional Spaghetti Western standoffs.
The last track I’m going to talk about is actually the ED, Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari (performed by nagi). I’m not going to talk about it musically though, not exactly. Music is an art form that’s very closely tied with emotion, not just through lyrics but also memory association. A strong scene with weak music or an uninteresting scene with amazing music would have little to no lasting impact – it’s when a combination of the two come together that a brilliant meld is established. By itself, Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari is a great song, but its inclusion as an insert adds to its power. The relationship dynamic between Araragi and Senjougahara is arguably one of the best parts of Bakemonogatari, so it’s no surprise that the climax of that thread would involve a fitting insert song to emphasise it. I can’t exactly speak for anyone else, but this resulted in it being one of the few scenes permanently burned into my memory.
And so we come to the important question – does the soundtrack fit the anime? I think the answer is a resounding yes. To be entirely honest, I’m not sure this particular soundtrack would work for any other anime that comes to mind. In that sense, it’s uniquely suited to Bakemonogatari – it never takes centre stage, merely acting as a support to the anime’s content. Other than a very small number of exceptions, the tracks aren’t exactly the type that will blow you away when standing on their own, but that doesn’t make them any less worth listening to. It may well be that they’re more interesting musically than aesthetically though.