CSEAS has previously published an article by PhD candidate in musicology Nathinee Chucherdwatanasak on Gamelan in North America, from discussions of Western art composers working with Gamelan, to Gamelan ensembles founded throughout the US and Canada. This article discusses the use of Gamelan in the 1988 Japanese film Akira.
Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, is the film that announced anime to the world as a serious cinematic genre. The film is based on Otomo’s manga of the same name. The film opens in 1988 with a shot of the Japanese government detonating a nuclear bomb over Tokyo to stop a program experimenting with a new generation of telekinetic children. Akira follows childhood friends and orphans Kaneda and Tetsuo in 2019 Neo-Tokyo. When Tetsuo develops uncontrollable telekinetic powers after an encounter with one of the original children, Kaneda takes it upon himself to stop Tetsuo from destroying Neo-Tokyo.
Akira weaves together multiple character perspectives and musical styles, including the original child subjects of the 1988 experiments, a Japanese Defense Force colonel and scientist, a massive student protest, and a few anti-authoritarian government freedom fighters.
The film was scored by Geino Yamashirogumi, a loose collective of over 100 musicians comprised of professors, college musicians, doctors, scientists, and amateurs, directed by Shoji Yamashiro. The group experimented with a wide range of styles, including Japanese Noh and Buddhist chant, progressive rock and modular synthesis, and Balinese gamelan, jegog, and kecak. Geino Yamashirogumi completed Akira Orchestral Suite before production was finished on the film.
The film pairs characters with these different musical styles from the outset; Kaneda, the irreverent leader of a biker gang, is paired with the pulsating bass of Balinese jegog, an ensemble of xylophones made with enormous bamboo tubes. The opening scene in Neo-Tokyo shows Kaneda inserting a CD of techno-like jegog music before his biker gang, the Capsules, engages in a turf battle with a rival gang. The rapid pulse of the bamboo tubes guides the viewer through the impossibly large Neo-Tokyo of infinitely tall buildings.
Tetsuo is paired with the frenetic and syncopated sounds of bronze-keyed Balinese gamelan, which is also associated with Akira, the strongest boy from the original child experiment program. Whenever army scientist Doctor Onishi analyzes Tetsuo’s power signature and its similarity to Akira’s, a lively Balinese gamelan melody plays. Tetsuo’s theme is as long as this lively melody and as simple as a single strike of a Balinese keyed instrument. The sound of that single note travels through experimental rock/noise music in scenes of violence and pairs with Japanese Buddhist music in flashbacks.
The third style of Balinese music, kecak, appears during scenes of action or violence. Kecak is a performance style of male chorus arranged in concentric circles and dancers in the center that recount stories from the Hindu epic Ramayana. Kecak consists of the syllables “chak ke-chak” being split between sections of the chorus, such that the sounds travel around the chorus in a circle. In Akira, Geino Yamashirogumi treats the names Kaneda and Tetsuo this way, breaking them into syllables atop low male chants and rapid synthesized hits from a drum machine. These syllables are placed in different parts of the stereo audio to recreate the impression of circular array.
The experience of Akira Orchestral Suite is vastly different from the experience of hearing the music in the film, as the film uses relatively short excerpts of compositions that range from under three minutes to nearly fourteen and a half. But the story the suite tells is incomplete without the themes the film builds into it: the electronic feel of the jegog, the cyclicality of the Balinese gamelan, and the chaos of the kecak.