Instrumental anime openings are fairly rare. So I decided to take a look at the ones I knew. As usual when I examine a list of more than ten things, a few points jumped out at me. So I thought I’d share.
Short version: Instrumental openings often succeed. Because they try harder. They have to; they’re taking a risk, going against a current that carries lots of proverbial fish. And also because the people who tend to take that risk generally tend to be talented people. But they’re not a guaranteed winner for a show by any means.
Let’s take a look at some of the (comparatively few) anime I’ve seen which had instrumental openings:
El Hazard OVA
Hajime no Ippo if you count Tumbling Dice
Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl
Lunar Legend Tsukihime
Kishin Corps OVA
Neo Ranga if you count Kami to Nare (which I most assuredly do)
Read or Die OVA
That’s it. I even combed through the short anime I’ve finished or am watching, and the only extra one that popped in was Kogepan. It’s a tad selective because I only browsed through shows I finished, but it’s a broad enough list to talk about.
The first and most interesting thing about this list is that these were not exactly anime strapped for budget. Obviously, Cowboy Bebop is on the list, but most of the other shows can hold their own in terms of quality, with the exception of the below-average Jubei-chan. Let’s toss 4-minute short Kogepan aside for now and take a look at how these instrumental openings serve the show they front for.
Baccano/Guns & Roses:
-Not only does Baccano’s opener feel like something right smack out of the 1930s that the show is based in, it also sets you up for the fact that the show is about to drop more smash cuts on you than a veteran SSBM Marth player.
-Did they mention Cowboy Bebop was a Jazz-based anime? Well, now you know.
El Hazard/Theme of El Hazard:
-Want an epic fantasy adventure? Well here’s 90 seconds of teasing one, with exotic-looking locales and very ancient sounding music. Do they have lost super technology, nonhuman races, and megalomanics bent on world domination for a righteous hero to stop? I bet they do! Let’s watch me some El-Hazard.*
Gad Guard/Boomerang Boogie:
-Listen to that sax jam. Isn’t that a saxy sax? … Seriously, though, for the steampunky slash modern-urban big fancy feel Gad Guard wants, what better way than jazz? Delivers the atmosphere cleanly and is more accessible than a rap used for the same purpose would be.
Haibane Renmei/Free Bird:***
-In addition to being just kind of a great piece of music, Haibane Renmei’s opener is interesting because it doesn’t directly set up the atmosphere of the show, which is a very peaceful non-epic experience. What it does do is set you up for a feeling of exploration, as you explore one of the 5 most intricate anime settings ever created for an anime along with “newborn” Haibane Rakka.
Hajime no Ippo/Tumbling Dice:
-I really, really don’t like this opening. But taking a step back, I can see how those guitar riffs set up for an incredibly raw series finale where the show’s two fiercest close-range juggernauts exchange concussive, rib-cracking punches over a national championship belt.
Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl/Main Theme:
-This show is an Akitaro Daichi (of Sexy Commando and Gag Manga Biyori fame) comedy, so of course the opening theme is a generic rpg-esque battle track. I guess it fits in that the choice of opening for the show was as lackluster as the show itself.
Lunar Legend Tsukihime/The Sacred Moon:
-This show carries a somber dark atmosphere, as opposed to edgy dark one of a show like Gantz. The opening does a pretty good job of relaying that to the audience via a chorus and some softly ominous imagery.
-The titular Kishin Corps fight aliens, and they fight nazis. Sometimes at the same time. So it fits that the opening music is ominous in a very “creeping evil empire” sort of way.
Neo Ranga/Kami to Nare:
-Neo Ranga’s second half is a mix of weird mythology, the insane brand of urban politics that happens when a hostile nation has a nigh-invincible mech parked on your front lawn, and 3 girls mixed up in said politics (a little out of their emotional depth). The music delivers mainly on the south seas cult mythology, while the visuals give a taste of all 3 elements.
Read or Die OVA/Read or Die Theme:
-Will there be secret agents in this show? Those guitar riffs say yes. Will they be doing cool secret agent things? See first answer.
-I challenge the world at large to write an intro that says “Dystopic Cyberpunk” in capslock better than that intro does.
Now, at first glance, this might seem to indicate that picking an instrumental opening is actually a generally good idea. This is why I’m really glad Jubei-chan is on this list; because it pokes a nicely-sized hole in the idea that being a good show somehow automatically follows from having an instrumental opening. The shows I’ve talked about above aren’t good because they have that feature, but because they’re generally well-handled and the instrumental opening theme is smoothly integrated with the atmosphere of the show. Generally, the decision of what sort of opening theme song to include is one made along with a set of other decisions regarding how to best express a show’s chosen message.
I draw an analogy between the decision to make a show’s opener lyric-free and other avant-garde choices anime can make in general. Because, in much the same way Shinichiro Watanabe chose the Seatbelts, makers of shows with experimental visual approaches and out-there scripts make the conscious decision to go in that direction because doing so fits in with their specific goals. If they succeed, great. If they fail, which usually happens because the decision to go nontraditional was made in a vacuum (as opposed to in a general set of plans to take a show in a certain direction), then that show merely gets a few points for trying. However, simply choosing to be different isn’t what makes an anime great. It’s top-tier handling, different or no, that does that.
*El Hazard is an OVA notable for 3 reasons beyond the solid fantasy story teased by the music.
1. Every El Hazard project that isn’t this OVA is crap.
2. Drunk teacher Fujisawa’s power of super-strength inversely proportional to his sobriety is on any sane man’s shortlist for most ironic superpower of all time.
3. Jinnai Katsuhiko**
**Maybe I did watch this entire video while going to find it on youtube. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Or the tenth.
***No, not that one.****
****Though that song is also good.