Susumu Hirasawa is a Japanese composer and singer with his own unique style of symphonic electro pop. Active since the 1970s, Hirasawa was the founder of the experimental rock band P-MODEL, and has since offered up solo work of astonishing weirdness and beauty, all recorded, since 2001, in a studio run on solar energy.
Hirasawa is probably best known in the west for his soundtracks for animes like Detonator Orgun and Berserk, and especially for his work with the late writer and director Satoshi Kon. I’ve chosen three of Hirasawa’s best songs from Satoshi Kon films as a way of providing a brief introduction to his magic.
Prince of Key – from Millenium Actress
Millenium Actress was Satoshi Kon’s second film (his first, Perfect Blue, is regularly voted as one of the best animes of all time). It’s an elegiac love letter to Japanese cinema – a surreal blend of fantasy, history, and romance – with the actress of the title searching through time for a lost love.
It was the first of his films to feature music from Hirasawa, who Kon had long been a fan of. Hirasawa turned in some of his most mature and restrained work for the film, though his signature playfulness is still very much in evidence.
Shiroi Oka (Maromi no Theme) – from Paranoia Agent
Paranoia Agent is a mind-bending anime series that follows an ensemble cast drawn together by the appearance of Lil’ Slugger, a boy on golden inline skates who attacks his victims with a bent, gold baseball bat, and who may or may not be a supernatural force of change.
Hirasawa wrote all the music for the show, including the song above, which plays over the closing credits. The opening song is also worth a listen – it’s an apocalyptic piece of electro-stomp with probably the strangest lyrics to ever appear in a TV theme song:
“the lost children are a spectacular mushroom cloud in the sky / the lost children are comrades to the little birds that have infiltrated these lands.”
The Girl in Byakkoya – from Paprika
Satoshi Kon’s work often reached levels of mind-fuckery Christopher Nolan would punch a kitten to achieve, and Paprika is the perfect example of this (in fact, Nolan has admitted to Paprika‘s influence on Inception). The plot revolves around a machine that allows therapists to enter a patient’s dreams. When a prototype is stolen things start to get weird, and as always in Satoshi Kon’s films, the line between fantasy and reality becomes seriously blurred.
Hirasawa’s soundtrack for the film is notable for being the first soundtrack to make use of a Vocaloid, a singing voice synthesizer developed by the Yamaha Corporation. The software is based around recordings of voice actors which musicians can program with lyrics and melodies and then tweak to create natural sounding vocals. The Vocaloids are presented as different characters, with their own names and personalities.
The off-kilter vocal loop that opens The Girl in Byakkoya is provided by the Lola Vocaloid, one of the very first released, though Hirasawa himself sings the main parts (if you want to hear what the song sounds like when it’s sung entirely by a Vocaloid you can listen here to version by the Vocaloid Kaito).
All three of the soundtracks above are available in full on YouTube, and are definitely worth checking out.
P-Model’s first album In a Model Room is a good place to start for Hirasawa’s early work with the band. It’s way punkier than you’d expect, coming across like a Japanese Devo.
As far as his solo album goes, the general consensus is that AURORA, his fourth solo album, is his masterpiece. Other’s of interest include Sim City, which was inspired by Thai transsexuals (yes, you read that right) and the largely instrumental ICE-9, named after the McGuffin in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.