I can’t be the only person who gets super pumped to Ready, Steady, Go!. I can’t be the only one still singing Go!!!. There’s something magical about a good shonen theme song. And while there’s one or two shojo that I like and still sing along to, there’s a special kind of magic that is used by the pairing of a good shonen and a theme. So today, in the spirit of the youthful revolution still in my heart, I wanted to talk about what makes a great shonen theme song, why the themes match so well and why I spent most of my high school career learning how to groan into a microphone like Hyde.
Before we even begin, there’s a saxophone playing elephant in the room. I am will not be mentioning any Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo in this post. Why? Is it because I hate Yoko Kanno? Is it because I can’t stand good music? Hell no. I love both of those soundtracks but Bebop is made greater because of the OST so it’s a little unfair to compare Yoko Kanno belting out her heart to the owl-shrieking that is SID during Monochrome no Kiss. The music of Bebop and the way Watanabe uses music in anime could and should be its own post along with the way Miyazaki uses music. I’ll pause for any more indignation despite reading the obvious reason why I’m not mentioning those works.
Now, let’s get on with the show.
Some of my favorite songs of all time are from animes. Some of those animes happen to be shonen series and while I’ve been very open about my love of the average shonen series, the way they use music really is genius. So much of the animation, style and feel of a show is conveyed just in the theme music. The translations alone should tell you where you’re going: Save the One, Save the All, No Rain, No Rainbow, Alones, and so many songs titled Rain. They’re moody, they’re deep and most of them are far more intense than the light whimsy of most shojo. And when a shonen goes girly like Yura Yura for Naruto or the other half of the InuYasha soundtrack. Or it was thematic. The more intense song was the opening like Ready, Steady, Go! To the much softer Motherland that it transitioned into from opening to closing. Bleach is probably the most effective at this where you begin with a song like Asterick and close with Life is Like a Boat. By the end of an episode, you probably need a break and what better break is there than a 2 minute melodramatic-fest.
Even more brilliant is when a theme matches the plot. Think about Death Note briefly. The first two openings are Alumina for the closing and The World for the opening. Both are very 90s Japanese metal from Nightmare and they speak more to a benevolent leader who does what he can despite making unpopular decisions. Really, these are the theme songs to an Ayn Rand fever dream.
The fact of piercing through the whitewash will turn into the truth someday
I want to keep believing in it stubbornly; It’s just my faith. The absolute truth.
And that matches season 1 of the series. Light is a strong dictator with a mission but he feels he is doing the right thing. He feels like he is justice.
By season 2 we get two songs from Maximum the Hormone: Zetsubou Billy as the closing and What’s Up People? As the opening. These are about as vulgar metal as you can get. I totally understand why my aunt didn’t like me screaming these at home. That’s okay. Sang these songs in the halls at school because at school, no one understood the collective screeching of the Japanese Culture Club. By Season 2, Light has gone from caring about his mission to full nihilism and self-protection. Light is willing to kill anyone that stands in his way and that is very evident in these songs.
Despair the Billy
Go on, the unstoppable EraserRain
Despair the Billy
Go on, the unstoppable EraserRain
And both of the sets of themes are taken from artists who wrote around the series as opposed to just grabbing a song from a discography the way Paradise Kiss did with Do You Want To by Franz Ferdinand (and yes, I know this isn’t shonen, I just needed to prove a point).
I think Naruto also does this very well and it isn’t just because Wind is probably one of my favorite songs. As Naruto gains confidence so do the songs from Go!!! And Haruka Kanata and when the show despairs a little with the main as he loses friends and ties are broken you get songs like Wind and No Rain, No Rainbow, songs that reflect that to get anywhere there are things that must be lost.
It was those themes that inspired me so much as a youth and even more so now as an adult. As a teenager, my anime club and friends sang these songs. At home, I obsessed over learning the lyrics and even began to translate them for Gendou.com. I recorded fandubs. I made friends that I’ve kept most of my life. I’ve made new ones running through convention halls belting Ranbu no Melody. These songs, because they were of our hearts, were of our generation and we committed them to memory. There’s a reason when on road trips Amber and I both finish each and every non-sensual groan Hyde does in Ready, Steady, Go! (Actually, Amber usually leaves those to me. I take them on with pride.). So many of these songs were learned in darkened bedrooms, at late hours of the night, in between homework assignments and collectively with friends.
Look at the music I listen to that isn’t from an animated TV show. I still love the themes of shonen that are determination, forging your own way, self-reliance, the importance or friends and making your own family from those that value you. I also adore the way shonen theme songs frame love in a better way. It’s seldom the obsessive cringe-stalking of shojo series or the passive “I watch you while you sleep” of other girl-centric narratives, it’s romantic while also valuing the person you love like this piece taken from a Bleach closing theme.
I will protect you, from everything that makes you hurt
I don’t even care if other people laugh at me
I may not be able to make it perfect but I’ll definitely make you smile
I swear, I will protect you no matter what
Here’s where I’ll pause and let you have your moment of “Well, Amanda, that’s like totally a matter of opinion.” to which then I submit that point only then to remind you that you are in my world and we briefly go back and forth on the nature of reality and why my hair is blonde for some reason.
Sure, it’s all subjective. The stories and themes of shonen spoke to me and amazingly still do as an adult. If I could pin down one reason I never clicked with shojo it probably just was boring storytelling. I didn’t fit neatly into the narrative of “the normal high school girl”. By age 14 I had buried a parent, moved out from my mother’s house, was living with my aunts and was a strict honor’s student trying to balance a host’s personality on a misanthrope’s heart. Tohru Honda didn’t get me. Kagome Higurashi didn’t get me. And while I found disappointment after disappointment when it came to looking for representation in a female lead in anime, I did find my voice, my heart and my spirit in their male counterparts. That’s what led me to shonen all those years ago. Edward Elric gave me my voice. Yuki Eiri gave me my voice even though Gravitation is to shonen anime what a Jackson Pollock is to an upside-down framed toddler painting.
Not to say that there aren’t series that aren’t shonen that don’t get the music right. Most of the shonen ai series that have taken over my heart and corrupted it like a vine to a statue use music exceptionally: they have to. Most shonen ai series have such a shoe-string plot that something has to keep you in. If you aren’t watching Antique Bakery for anything other than watching Tachibana-san struggle emotionally and financially, you’re there for the beautifully mirrored opening and closing that is Life Goes On and that song is even echoed in the series itself. Tachibana’s ringtone to the phone he almost never answers is the slower, waltz-like version of Life Goes On Side D, the very same song that acts as the shows closing theme that is the foil to the upbeat version that seems to follow optimistic Eiji around which is Life Goes On Side K.
Gravitation is centered around a couple of bands so you’d expect the soundtrack to be great and it’s one of the best. Shuichi’s not so annoying when he sings and Anti-Nostalgic still makes me cry on the right day. I could spend hours going on how Sleepless Beauty is a fantastic song (you should hear me sing it) and how Shining Collection confirms that the true OTP of the series is not Yuki and Shuichi. (GASP. Leave me a comment and I will explain the song to you in a way only a person who has spent almost 20 years obsessing over Gravitation can.)
If I have to praise shojo for a moment (a very brief moment), I still know all the words to Sakura Kiss thanks to years of cosplaying as Tamaki and I’m surprised by how much of the dance from Lucky Star I still remember. Let Me Be With You annoys Amber but I like it. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt doesn’t fit into any one category but it has a fantastic soundtrack. Same could be said for FLCL but when you start with a good base, of course the result is good. (This also could be its own entire blog post but I’d call this one a shonen/coming of age story).
This was different, wasn’t it?
Let’s do this again soon.