Director Katsuhiro Otomo is most famous for his epochal animated film Akira, which introduced many Westerners to the conventions and stylistics of Japanese animation. Otomo’s output since then has been sparse, with few subsequent films to date of which Memories (1995) was the most immediate follow-up to Akira. Memories is an anthology film which consists of three quite different short films written by Otomo, and the film employs a different composer for each segment.
Anthology films can be tricky, especially when there is little in common among the stories presented, and using a single composer for the entire project is one way to lend it a sort of unity, much as Jerry Goldsmith did for The Twilight Zone: The Movie or The Illustrated Man. Using four different composers, one for each segment and a fourth for the opening and closing titles, Memories creates a frighteningly fragmented soundscape, where the brilliant and the banal exist side-by-side.
“Magnetic Rose,” the first segment, tells the tale of a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an opera diva impossibly living in deep space. Yoko Kanno, well-known to many Westerners for her work on several popular anime series including Cowboy Bebop, employs the only real orchestra on the album in creating her score and mixes it with a full chorus representing the opera singer. At the same time, Kanno acknowledges the deep space setting of the story by using electronics as well, and manipulating the orchestra and chorus to sound disembodied or free-floating. Fragments of the famous aria from Puccini’s Tosca drift in and out of the music as the story’s clouded narrative progresses.
It’s a relentlessly bleak musical approach that results in beautiful opera solos, some original, some from Tosca, transposed with clanking and grinding electronics. There are moments of tremendous power in the score, usually when the chorus and orchestra come together as in the middle of “Mad Butterfly” or the chaotic “End.” The orchestra performs some gentler music on its own, notably in “Memories,” and the chorus features in many opera solos sprinkled throughout Kanno’s score, as well as the lovely “Chorale” and its reprise, which features an impressive if slightly incongruous solo saxophone accompaniment.
The main problem with Kanno’s thirty minutes of score is that the tracks tend to be uneven, reflecting the bizarre scenes the score accompanies. Several tracks only reach their full potential after several minutes of grinding electronics or meandering opera lyrics; “Mad Butterfly” even features the choir altered so it appears to be filtered through a radio. Still, the music contains many beautiful melodic moments and choral interludes, and Kanno’s work is the best that Memories has to offer.
The second segment, “Stink Bomb,” is the tale of a man who emits a cloud of toxic gas after taking an experimental flu medicine and the military’s futile efforts to kill him. Its score is by Jun Miyake, an artist better known as a soloist and arranger, and is nearly the polar opposite of Kanno’s difficult and cerebral work. Miyake takes a kitchen sink approach to the music, which runs for about twenty-six minutes. The score is made up of dozens of short tracks, ranging from vocals (“Good Morning Yamanashi”) to urban funk (“Nobuo’s Groove”) to jazz (“Ants”) and every style in between. While this reflects the goofy nature of a story about a man who is an unwitting living biological weapon who accidentally kills hundreds of thousands of people while riding on a pizza delivery scooter, it suffers as a listening experience by trying to out-silly the silliness on screen.
“Stink Bomb” is the mickey-mouse approach to animation at its worst, always ready to change style abruptly to follow the action on screen. At no time does it ever come together with any sort of cohesion, and this is especially notable given the tightness with which Kanno combined disparate genres on the same disc: for all its difficulties, “Magnetic Rose” always sounds like “Magnetic Rose.” Also notable are the poor vocal performances, which give “Stink Bomb’s” songs a laughable quality. Miyake’s work is poor in almost every regard, and suffers even more greatly from comparison to the cerebral “Magnetic Rose.”
Hiroyuki Nagashima’s brief 15-minute score for the final segment, “Cannon Fodder,” is the most obviously synthesized of the three. An obscure figure compared to the Kanno and Miyaki, Nagashima’s credits are limited to a handful of Japanese feature films, most of which never had an international release. The music is generally fragmented, much like Miyake’s, though there is a stronger cohesion between the tracks. The lengthiest of these, “The Cannon’s Fanfare” isn’t a fanfare at all, but grinding industrial music that synchronizes clanging metal and other sound effects to a militaristic drum kit, an embarrassingly literal take on the notion of mechanization so prominent in the segment. That militaristic feel is what holds the music together, even as the other elements diverge.
There is some milder music in the “Boy and a Portrait” tracks, as well as “Lunch Time” (where it’s offset by a rather horrid electronic squeal), though. Despite its greater cohesion than “Stink Bomb,” “Cannon Fodder” is too short and too fragmented to make a pleasant listening experience, and its excursion into industrial music is eardrum-splitting. “Cannon Fodder” is a too-literal tale of a society so overly militarized that every aspect of daily life now revolves around firing gigantic cannons at a distant (possibly imaginary) “enemy moving city.” Nagashima, like Miyake, seems to have tried to match or outdo the film’s industrial cacophony of loading and firing, resulting in a score that is basically unlistenable outside of its context and frequently irritating within it.
Synthesist Takkyu Ishino’s contribution is limited, amounting to about seven minutes of electronic and trance-influenced music. A member of the technopop group Denki Groove, a DJ, and an occasional scorer of films and video games, Ishino provides the brief and atonal “Prologue” and the lengthy end credits suite “In Yer Memory.” The former is too short and bland to make much of an impact, while the latter is lively but unremarkable, and is at its best when Ishino mixes in portions of Kanno’s “Chorale” which contrast nicely with the former’s aggressive electronic rhythms.
In the end, it’s Yoko Kanno’s contribution to Memories that stands out the most, but given the difficult bleakness of that score, it’s not enough to redeem the album as a whole. “Magnetic Rose” is conveniently placed on the first disc, but the soundtrack as a whole should be avoided unless you’re willing to tackle Kanno’s chillingly bleak and difficult suite for chorus and orchestra. The rest is a forgetable hodgepodge of acoustic and electric sounds, or synthesized militaristic/industrial fanfares, and all three wildly divergent styles feel like they shouldn’t be part of the same album.