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The music of Kenji Kawai

The Japanese score composer Kenji Kawai has a both long and wide career behind his back. Having been active in the film score industry for nearly three decades, he has worked on a lot of different stuff over the years both inside and outside of Japan, including his longtime collaborations with cult directors Mamoru Oshii and Hideo Nakata, as well as Wilson Yip’s Ip Man film series, anime series such as Higurashi no Naku Koro ni and the first Fate/Stay Night adaptation, and many more.

Despite his wide variety of projects stretching between both mediums and genres, there exists a highly recognizable style, a flavor, within almost all of his works from the 90s and onwards. It’s a style characterized by its calming yet captivating atmosphere, and which is highly prominent in but at the same time strangely applicable to his different musical approaches.

But what is it that makes this "style" what it is? What elements does Kawai apply to his music in order to achieve this unique atmosphere? Well there are essentially three factors involved in the equation; the first one being the instrumentations. Kawai uses a very unique form of arrangements consisting of a blend between classical orchestra and 80s pop music, something that arguably has its roots in his early days. His score for the landmark film Ghost in the Shell from 1995 also served as a notable instrumental influence, as he for this project incorporated a lot of elements from eastern folk music which he then came to reuse for his later works.

The second ingredient has to do with the mixing. Specifically reverb is something that Kawai uses quite heavily in order to achieve the atmospheric ambience of his music. This is most notable in his more laid back, minimalistic scores, although most distinguishable when comparing his straight-up classically orchestrated pieces to a more traditional classical performance, as you then hear where exactly the mixing differences lie.

The third and arguably most essential ingredient is that of the writing, in which there are two major factors involved. The first one is Kawai’s frequent use of add9 chords. The second has to do with the chord progressions, and how he incorporates chords in which one single note doesn’t belong to the song’s scale, thus making these chords fall into a suspenseful middle-ground between in and out of key.

So as we can see, the music of Kenji Kawai is certainly a wide and interesting subject to dive into.

  • Really enjoyed reading this tide and the full article. Kawai's music really defines the role of music for films, in summarizing the aesthetic of the on-screen content without taking away from it. I hope his music continues to live on in the anime community. – washo 6 years ago
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  • Kenji Kawai's music is best example how traditional and modern music in synergy create a greater impact for anyone who listen to it. – manifest 6 years ago
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