It's always a thrill to present at Sakuracon. It is truly odd to lecture to and perform for an audience of steampunk robots, dwarves and Sailor Moons, but they are always attentive, and their questions well-thought out. I am always pleased by their sincere interest in the traditional arts of Asia.
The popular samurai anime "Samurai Champloo" defied convention by effectively using the hip-hop music of Nujabes, Tsutchie, Fat Jon and Force of Nature to enhance the anachronistic feel of its alternative Edo setting.
But examples of traditional music in anime are not difficult to find. The shakuhachi and Noh flute often enhance the eeriness of a scene, and one of the 'villains' in 'Blade of the Immortal' even performs Noh chant before each duel. More surprising is the increasing presence in anime of theme songs and background music performed on or inspired by gamelan, the traditional knobbed-gong ensembles of Java and Bali.
Interestingly, anime may have had a lot to do with the spread of gamelan not just in Japan but in the United States as well. Gamelan inspired composers such as Impressionist Claude Debussy and American Lou Harrison, but its popularization was more likely due to popular performers such as the influential rock performer Peter Gabriel. Progressive rock mainstays King Crimson have also sited gamelan as an influence for their rhythmically complex, interlocking pieces. Still, the gamelan-influenced theme song of the anime classic 'Akira' by Shoji Yamashiro may have been the first exposure of many in Japan and the United States to the music of gamelan.
More recently, composer Kiyoshi Yoshida composed the theme song for the disturbing anime 'Shigurui' scored for the unusual combination of gamelan, Japanese taiko, didgeridoo and strings.
The influence of gamelan is also clear in the theme from 'Ghost in the Shell: Arise,' composed by Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada).
In addition to inspiring the music for anime theme songs and background music, the influences of traditional Japanese theater can be seen in its esthetics. The well-known liminal expressions on traditional Japanese Noh masks are often used to great effect during fight scenes. See, for example, the emotionless expressions of the little girl automaton dolls during their assassination attempts and mass suicide attacks in 'Ghost in the Shell: Arise.'
Other Noh esthetics in play in many anime include the concept of 'mu' or nothingness. Silence is used to great effect in many anime, including 'Mushishi,' 'Ergo Proxy' and Makoto Shinkai's beautiful "Five Centimeters per Second."
There is in the Noh repertoire a type of Noh called 'Mugen Noh' or Dream Noh. In Noh of this type, there is a blurring of time, of space and of identity. The distant becomes close; dream and reality, past and present become indistinguishable; who someone is, who they say they are and who we think they are becomes unclear. The underlying dreamlike esthetic of Mugen Noh, whether invoked consciously or unconsciously, is apparent in several of the anime already mentioned, including 'Mushishi,' 'Five Centimeters per Second,' 'Ergo Proxy,' 'Ghost in the Shell, and 'Shigurui.'
The traditional esthetics mentioned in Kenneth E. Lawrence's lecture on traditional Asian theater in anime were illustrated in the performance that followed the lecture, Sakura Projekt's performance of the piece 'Mist.' While the form of the piece were inspired by Noh theatre, the libretto, written by Kenneth E. Lawrence, was inspired in equal parts by two geniuses, Zeami Motokiyo and American author Gene Wolfe. 'Mist' is the story of a samurai warrior who, due to a brain injury, is unable to recall his past and must piece together his life from what he sees around him. The piece was a collaboration with Golden Heron Gamelan director Jeff Milano, sumi painter Kumiko Lawrence, visual cretor Kaz, taiko drummer Stan Shikuma and electronic musician Kaley Eaton.
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