Yoko Kanno: Crafting the Songs of 90s Anime


Sometimes, you realize the world is a whole lot smaller than you originally thought. Sometimes, you learn an amazing fact about someone’s career that ties things together you had no idea were connected. This is one of those moments for me.

Let’s start with a little off-topic background

I grew up in the golden age of video games. Most of the time I was playing with my best friend, so co-cop games were highly sought after. We played things like Contra, Ikari Warriors, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage…etc.

But there was a time when we were introduced to what we called a “board game style” video game. It was advertised as a historical military strategy game, and it was released in 1989 (US) by a company I had never heard of before: KOEI. The game was called NOBUNAGA’S AMBITION and it changed my life as a gamer.

Check out that emotional intro!

My friend and I played this one game for an entire summer. Every night. Hours and hours and hours spent. We sat there and talked about school, cartoons, movies, and our other hobbies between turns. We ate rice crispy snacks by the tray load and drank copious amounts of soda (not Mountain Dew!) (OK, maybe some Mountain Dew!).

Those were the good old days for me. So, when I recently found out that the person who composed the music for my favorite KOEI games, music that is hauntingly part of my past…music that instantly reminds me of some of the best years of my youth, also composed music from several of my favorite anime and the theme song of Cowboy Bebop. Yeah. You can imagine. Boom! Mind blown.

As I write this I still wonder, how can one person be responsible for creating music for multiple intellectual properties that I hold dear? Is that even possible? It turns out it can be, and that is truly amazing.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about award-winning composer and basically musical genius, Yoko Kanno.

Kanno’s Early Days

Yoko Kanno was born in Sendai, Japan in 1963. Her strict parents limited her access to movies and television and only allowed her to listen to classical music. Yoko studied the keyboard from a young age, but when attending college, her major focus shifted to literature.

While in college, she began helping her friends with their musical projects and eventually joined a band. It was during this time that she was introduced to all sorts of new genres of music: folk, pop, jazz, rock, metal, contemporary and more.

During her time in college, a video game publishing company named KOEI offered her a job composing the soundtrack for a new game in a brand-new line of games they were starting. That game was ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS, a historically based military strategy game. This was her big shot and guess what? The game became a huge hit and Yoko’s career was officially launched.

Check out that epic intro!

During her career, Yoko Kanno has composed music for sixteen video games, largely staying within KOEIs original historically based strategy games such as the acclaimed NOBUNAGA’S AMBITION, GENGHIS KHAN, and UNCHARTED WATERS.

But this is just one small fraction of her musical empire. She has composed for movies, anime, TV, commercials, and more. Let’s look at some of the 90s anime she has done.

The 90s Anime Music of Yoko Kanno

Macross Plus

Yoko Kanno has worked on nearly 40 anime projects spanning thirty years from 1992 to the present day. She has been nominated for the Annie Award and International Film Music Critics Award, Blue Dragon Award, and won the Asian Film Critics Association Award and Tokyo Anime Award five times.

Listed below are just a few highlights from her incredible long run.

PORCO ROSSO

This was the first anime fantasy feature Yoko composed for. The movie was released by Studio Ghibli in 1992 and was the top film in the market for some time. It received many accolades during its run including Best Feature-length Film Award at the 1993 Annecy International Animated Film Festival. This is the story of a pig-headed World War I ace pilot and bounty hunter. No, he was not a difficult person, I mean he could be, I guess, but yes, he actually had a pig head. It was a curse. Aren’t all the good animal heads curses? Right?

MACROSS PLUS

A four-episode OVA that was the long-awaited sequel to the original space opera Macross series (What Robotech was adapted from). We imagine taking on such a legacy can be very intimidating, but Yoko nailed it on so many levels. This connected her with renowned Japanese anime film and television director Shinichirō Watanabe who later went on to direct Cowboy Bebop.

Another emotional intro!

COWBOY BEBOP

It almost goes without saying that Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop has become a household name, and that is in part due to its epic opening theme music. The track is called, “Tank!” and we dare all 90s anime fans to deny that while reading this they are not hearing, “Three, Two, One, let’s jam…” in their head.  Cowboy Bebop surely succeeds in building a moody atmosphere with the help of Kanno’s music.

THE VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE

This 26-episode isekai series debuted in Japan in 1996 and later arrived in the US in 1998 when released by Bandai.  Yoko lends her skills and desire to mix many genres of music to this worldwide hit with elements of classical, contemporary, and even Gregorian chant. While this series struggled to get a good footing in Japan, it was loved everywhere else. Many reviewers urge their readers to get ahold of this one’s soundtrack.

JIN-ROH

Often referred to as a beautiful blend of art and music, this film was released in France first in 1999. Set in Japan in an alternative timeline after World War II the movie follows a special police unit tasked as a counter-terrorism unit. Borrowing a Red-Riding Hood-esque storyline and peppering it with adult themes made this big-budget film a favorite with critics.

GENESIS OF AQUARION, AQUARION EVOL, AQUARION LOGOS

Yoko has composed the theme songs and music for each of these, starting with Genesis of Aquarion is 2005 and then the following two series in 2012 and 2015.  All of which were praised for their musical score and even won her an award.  While these may not be in the realm of 90s anime, it’s hard not to mention them in her credits.

Yoko Kanno’s Collaborations and Bands

Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts

Yoko has shared her talents with many people, not only as a composer but as an arranger, conductor, and producer as well. She has collaborated with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and has even been commissioned to make music for commercials for dozens of companies like Microsoft, Sony, Google, Nintendo, and Toyota.

Not only that, but she has also been in a band called the Seatbelts and released several solo albums.

Honestly, it’s hard to compare her to anyone else in the business.

In Closing

How many legendary contemporary composers do you think are alive today? Ten? Twenty? More? Less? How would you identify them? By their work? Their awards? How many people their music touched? It’s hard to say. I can only think of two and one of them is the person you read about above.

Excellent work Yoko Kanno! It was an honor to write about you.

Btw, did you think we were going to leave out Tank!?


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