The Use of Leitmotifs in Anime (Maybe Spoliers)

The Use of Leitmotifs in Anime (Maybe Spoliers)

We all know the scene. Our madlad underdog protagonist is going up against their greatest challenge yet (that season). They are worn, beaten, bloody, and all hope seems lost. And then, you hear it. The sweet, sweet sound of the music. It starts off quiet. Our hero catches his second wind and makes his declaration before running at the antagonist, eyes full of hope and passion. The music picks up. The protagonist lands that killer blow that he’s been aiming for the whole damn fight. Then, the part of that song you remember starts absolutely blaring. It is the “Victory is Assured” song, the “Heroes Always Win” song, the “I’m Never Going to Forget This Melody for the Rest of my Natural Born Life” song. Our hero is victorious. We, along with them, celebrate.

Good day to you wonderful patrons. This post will be talking about the art of the leitmotif (as best as I can since my only experience with composing music was when I composed the one hit wonder known as the Potty Song that only my parents seem to remember at the most inopportune times). I won’t bore you with this introduction because I know you want to get down to the proverbial meat and potatoes of this post, so, without further ado, the kitchen here at the Ramen Stand proudly presents…your blog post.

What exactly is a leitmotif? It’s definitely not a word you hear often unless you’re into music and composition.

A leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person (or group of people), idea, or situation. Put in layman’s terms, it is that piece of music played at a certain time that makes you feel all of the feelings; it is those notes that let your mind know that the scene wants you to experience a particular emotion.

So, how does this concept apply to anime?

Well, let’s take this one step at a time. As the definition of the word states, a leitmotif is associated with a particular person (or group of people), idea or situation. So, let’s look at examples for each of the definitions and see how well this concept fits.

For music that is representative of a person, I will look no farther than at Naruto, an anime with a wide cast of characters where a good majority of the major players in the series have their own theme music that accompanies their presence on screen. The character I am going to look at is none other than Uchiha Itachi.

Itachi’s theme, a song titled “Senya” (which translates to “1,000 Nights”), is a beautiful representation of the character as a whole and his place within the context of the series. Within this piece, you can discern that the music is being played mostly with string instruments such as the violin/viola and the koto or shamisen, as well as the  hollow sounding shakuhachi, in addition to the choral accompaniment and the undertone of a taiko drum (I’d very much like to take this moment to thank AichiYume, a fellow blogger on Twitter , for her help with this, since I know nothing about music other than how it feels in relation to a visual medium. Definitely check her out!). This gives this piece of music a haunting, almost lamenting tone to it that I feel is representative of the kind of character Itachi is.

Senya – Itachi’s Theme

The first instance of this song playing that I can discern is in Naruto Shipudden when Sasuke finally goes to seek out Itachi for the crimes he committed against the Uchiha clan. While we mostly follow Sasuke through this portion of the show, the music at just this moment tells us that this moment is Itachi’s and not Sasuke’s, that we are watching this to learn about the older brother instead of the younger. Furthermore, throughout the Sasuke and Itachi portion of the series, the song only plays when it appears as though Itachi is going to be killed by Sasuke. It is notably absent at the moment of his death.

From then, Senya gets played periodically when we learn about Itachi’s past and the struggles he faced. It is a song about a man who saw the world around him, how dirty it was, and lamented at the state of it, who lamented at the part he was forced to play and at the people he had to hurt in order to achieve peace in a future he could not be part of. And that feeling, that pain, is expressed through the music.

Let’s continue.

A group of people. A team. A guild. For all of the flack I’ve seen Fairy Tail get over the years, I believe that it is, at its core, not a traditional battle shounen in the sense that it is not about any one individual specifically. Sure, we watch most of the series from the perspective of Natsu and his friends who make up the main cast, but what we are really supposed to be watching is the trials, struggles, and victories of the guild as a whole. Lord Nuxenor did a wonderful YouTube video on this a while back, so be sure to check that out if you get a chance.

The Fairy Tail Theme, otherwise known as Overture: Fairy Tail, combines the elements of rock music as well as the orchestra and chorus. An overture (for the people like me who had no idea what this word meant) is defined as “an orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, suite, play, oratorio, or other extended composition”, “an introduction to something more substantial”, and “an approach or proposal made to someone with the aim of opening negotiations or establishing a relationship”. This musical piece combines all three of these definitions into one. Let me explain.

Overture: Fairy Tail – Fairy Tail Theme

This piece opens with the sound of the orchestra accompanied by the guitar. Funnily enough, guitars are considered to not be suitable for an orchestra because of the sounds it produces that is starkly different from the other strings, but it is used in this piece to introduce us to the fact that we are about to embark on the ride of our lives. The music tells us that the show itself is going to be an “extended composition” that is fun, jovial, and just simply amazing to be a part of.

As an introduction to something more substantial, I would say that roughly thirty seconds into the song, the loud and boisterous feel dies away to give us something that sounds adventurous. It isn’t sad or gut-wrenching to listen to, but it advises us that there will be hardships present within the narrative that everyone will have to overcome. It lets us know that, underneath the excitement of the introduction, there is something more substantial, something that requires courage, strength, determination, and friendships to get through.

Lastly, we have this song as a proposal. Overture: Fairy Tail is inviting us to the guild, to the adventure, to the fun as well as the hardship. It proposes to us that we will have fun, not only as a member of the audience, but as a member of the guild itself.

The very first time the song is heard is actually in the very first episode when Natsu takes down Bora the Prominence, who was masquerading as a Fairy Tail wizard in order to kidnap girls and sell them as slaves. Though at first glance it may seem like the victory was solely Natsu’s, he was acting on behalf of the guild and defending the name of the guild from those who would drag it through the mud. The guild’s theme is, from then on, displayed very prominently throughout the series whenever the guild is victorious in defending itself, its name, its reputation, and the bonds that were forged within its walls. It is their song. It is our song. In the words of Nux Taku, “YOU are part of Fairy Tail!”

While I would love to watch this show in its entirety for the third time just to give you every instance of when the song is used and how it relates to the things I’ve mentioned before, I don’t want to slowly lose my sanity over this one blog post, so I’m going to move on from here.

Alright, so nailing down a leitmotif in an anime that I thought was representative of an idea was actually quite difficult. I mean, everything is basically an idea in some way, shape, or form, from the idea of Itachi’s internal lamentation to the idea of Fairy Tail, a guild where you are just as much a part of it as everyone in the narrative. So, I decided to look towards a nation and the ideas that the music of that nation evokes.

ALL HAIL BRITANNIA! – Code Geass

To fully grasp the concept of a leitmotif being representative of an idea, I am not going to provide context as to how the song fits in with the narrative. Instead, I am simply going to talk about the music itself and the ideas that it gives me when I listen to it.

This song is proud. It’s strong. When I listen to it, I imagine an overwhelming force marching towards me in perfect unison, the stomping of their feet shaking the ground underneath me. I imagine conquerors, coming to subjugate me through their might alone. They are bigger than me. More powerful than me and better equipped than I am. They are all of one mind, of one mission, to dominate any and all in their path. It’s less of a song and more of a declaration (which makes sense since, in my research, that the vocals are actually words. Who knew?).

Now, I am not above admitting that I know that this song is from Code Geass and so my perspective may be a little skewed because of that. However, I asked my wife (who has never seen the show at all) what she envisioned when she heard this song. She said warriors. She said marching to battle. She said murder. If you have ever seen the show, you know that she’s not wrong at all. If you haven’t seen the show, I wonder what you see. What do you envision? Is it in line with my wife’s and my descriptions? Or do you see something else entirely?

Last, but certainly not least, we have music that represents a situation. This is music that is sad when something is sad is happening on screen, or happy when something happy is happening. It’s hard to explain this without accompanying imagery and, to be honest, I feel that it is very easy to notice situational music, especially in longer series. So I am going to just embed two of my favorite situational tracks here.

Sadness and Sorrow – Naruto

The Secret Ingredient Called Victory – Shokugeki no Soma

Anyone who has watched either of these series knows these songs, in what situations they play throughout the series, and the emotions associated with them.

With that, we have gone over all the definitions of a leitmotif. This post was both a massive undertaking and an absolute pleasure for me to write. While I am not someone who usually pays too much attention to the soundtracks associated with an anime, I did find myself enjoying writing this and listening to all the music from shows that I am absolutely in love with. It has given me a new outlook on musical accompaniments to a narrative as well as taught me new terms that I was previously unaware of. I really do hope I can do things like this more often.

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!

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