The Unexpected Genius Behind Akira's Legendary Score

There's never been anything quite like the soundtrack to the anime classic "Akira." To this day, the pulsating rhythms and otherworldly chants still sound unlike any other music put to film. That uniqueness is due to the unorthodox approach of composer Shoji Yamashiro, whose background in amateur musicianship allowed him to create a score completely outside the realm of professional tradition.

"Akira" utilizes a host of sounds that may seem unfamiliar to Western ears. The soundtrack is an eclectic mixture of traditional folk music and digital synthesizer programming, eliciting a raw and primal feeling amidst the futuristic cyberpunk skyline of Neo-Tokyo. Yamashiro incorporated a form of Indonesian music called gamelan jegog, which stems from Bali and is made up of fast, intense rhythms played on bamboo instruments. The composer also drew from the chants of Noh, traditional Japanese theater. Combined with polyrhythmic drum machine beats and synths tuned to gamelan microtonal scales, these styles give a sense of ritualistic tension to the dystopian world of "Akira."

The rogue composer

Shoji Yamashiro is the founder of the experimental musical performance collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi, comprised of people who work day jobs in all sorts of non-musical fields like science, business, education, and more. Yamashiro himself isn't a musician by career, but a university professor and scientist who specializes in everything from engineering to molecular biology. Truly a Renaissance man, Yamashiro approached "Akira" from an outsider's perspective, ignoring any established rules and embracing his own musical interests. According to an article published by The Japan Times, director Katsuhiro Otomo told the composer to write pieces for a "festival" and "requiem," otherwise giving him complete creative control. 

In an interview cited by the piece, Yamashiro explains his gung-ho attitude towards his compositions:

"All I did was go all out and write totally self-complacent music that I wanted to hear, other people be damned... I feel like I've been swinging away with a sword with my eyes closed. It feels like I cut clean through something. But I still don't know if I hit what I was supposed to, or if I just sliced my own leg open."

No rules in Neo-Tokyo

It was Yamashiro's lack of experience in scoring films that attracted Otomo. At first, a producer recommended the synth pioneer Isao Tomita, a highly accomplished and influential musician in his own right. However, Otomo thought that a synth-dominant soundtrack was too stereotypical for a science-fiction film. Enter Geinoh Yamashirogumi, whose ritualistic polyrhythms Otomo had already been a fan of.

The popular story told is that Yamashiro composed the soundtrack before animation was completed, atypical for any type of production. That's not entirely true, though Yamashiro did freely write the "festival" and "requiem" pieces that Otomo requested without any sort of visual reference. Otomo admitted in a Forbes interview:

"While I said that I only wanted two tracks, I actually needed more. So when I brought over the rush animations of the whole movie and all the storyboards, Yamashiro fell in love with it and he ended up composing the entire score for the movie."

That does not, by any means, discount Shoji Yamashiro's ingenuity. Geinoh Yamashirogumi performed a one-of-a-kind soundtrack that has influenced hip hop and electronic artists as well as other film composers, and that no one has been able to quite replicate. "Akira" is a classic precisely because of its refusal to conform to the standards of animation and storytelling. Its music is no different.