The anime industry is huge. Like, really huge. There are many sides of an anime that enable a deeper understanding of the anime, beyond what is shown in the twelve or twenty-five episodes broadcast over the span of a few weeks. One of these is music. From the opening and ending songs, to the “character songs” and the soundtrack, music plays a big part in the anime series we know and love (or hate). With at least two or three songs played in each episode – including opening and ending themes – it’s almost like anime is a musical: you’ve got dramatic dialogue, song, and elaborate movements. All that’s needed is to use these in various combinations to convey certain emotions and ideas to the audience.
Along with instrumentals, theme songs with lyrics that relate to an event taking place on-screen can really amplify the mood and give viewers a bit more insight into the event in question. These are often known as Insert Songs and can include the anime opening and ending themes (if played during an episode), character songs, and compositions played during a specific, recurring event (like a fighting scene in an action anime series). Insert songs are an overarching collection of lyrical compositions that relate to what is happening in a show at a particular moment.
Character songs, also called “image songs,” are created specifically for the anime and often provide a greater insight into the various characters present in the series. We find out the way they think and get a better understanding of their personalities. These songs can come from protagonists, sidekicks, or minor characters. This depends on the anime — the number of character songs can be limited to the main characters, or cover almost everyone in the series. Not all series have character songs, but many do.
These songs are sung by the same actors who voice the characters in the series. Some of them are known singers or start their singing careers with character songs. Character songs can be used in the show to amplify a certain mood or event, or maybe even an opening or ending theme in the anime, but they normally appear as separate CDs with one or two image songs for the character. In most cases, the song credits show it as being sung by the character, with the term character voice (CV) signifying the voice actor who sang it.
One song that gives an interesting insight into anime characters is Over the Starlight, the character song of Azusa Nakano (voiced by Ayana Taketatsu) from the second season of the anime K-On, which is about a music club in high school.
In this song (or at least, in the English translation), we learn that Azusa is normally a very dignified, strict person, who takes her guitar and club work seriously. However, being around her relaxed seniors for a year has changed her, and the way she works with music. She has gained so much from her seniors, and to some extent wants others to rely on her the way she relies on her seniors.
As a serious person by nature, Azusa is often taken aback by the free and easy nature of the club she’s a part of, but as time passes by she lightens up, while being an inspiration to her seniors in the club as well. Using the lessons she’s learnt, Azusa aims to keep her chin up and move forward in life.
Here are the lyrics: https://www.animelyrics.com/anime/kons2/overthestarlight.htm
Not only does this character song give us a look into Azusa’s personality, it also shines light on what environment she’s in, as well as the people who are around her. Since Azusa is a guitarist, the song is largely based on guitar melodies (in this song series, the band member’s character songs have their chosen instruments at the forefront). Image songs not only focus on the character and their own thoughts, but also explore surrounding areas and people, and tie in various elements of the anime together.
Other ways to understand the show and the various themes in it are elements of the soundtrack and insert songs that are played during an episode. They could be from anyone’s point of view, and often reflect circumstances or questions brought out in the show. There are times when a character song, an opening, or ending theme is played in an episode as an insert song.
Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) is an anime that relies heavily on these songs. The anime follows a group of teenagers and young adults as they aim to defeat humanoid creatures called Titans who eat humans. The protagonists seek freedom from these monsters, and many of their individual dreams can only be achieved through victory in battle
In season 2 of the anime, the song Barricades explores one of the key themes in the show: freedom, and what it takes to obtain it. The song is not sung from anyone’s point of view and reflects the dreams and hopes of all the characters. They all look for freedom as the series goes on, and dream of a world where they can see the ocean and no longer live in fear.
The characters in the show are teenagers fighting a war: a theme reprised in various other songs in the anime. The younger characters understand that along with crossing physical walls and boundaries placed for their protection, they’ve also crossed some moral boundaries in order to achieve their goals and save humanity, sometimes having no other choice. The lyrics say the reason for this is so that they can live free…but when will that happen?
Barricades highlights the grey areas that are all over the anime. There is no set definition of “good” and “bad” in the series: even the conventional “good guys” resort to morally ambiguous plans to get things done, all for the sake of humanity and freedom. Whether the “life without barricades” is worth killing one’s soul remains to be seen, and that’s the underlying idea of the lyrics.
With music helping viewers explore themes and personalities in many anime shows, the experience of watching anime not only becomes more enjoyable but also an occasion to critically understand the series and what is at stake in the show’s universe.
Edited by Rangoli Gupta
Images curated by Viraj Malani