Anime theme songs are the best theme tunes on the small screen. Sorry, Breaking Bad. Sorry, The Simpsons. Sorry, Dickinson’s Real Deal (for those that don’t know, DRD is a long-running daytime TV auction show in the UK). Actually, anime themes are probably among the best to be found on the big screen too, come to that. Sorry, Superman. Sacrilegious to say so? Maybe, but hear us out.
Anime themes tell a tale like no other, and are integral to the overall message, feel and narrative of the animation; they add an extra dimension beyond that of more standard screen music. Often foregoing muted instrumentals in favour of catchy rock tunes and karaoke-ready vocals — set to bombastic highlights reels of scenes from the show — there’s no other way to describe anime theme songs than as Absolute. Bangers.
Fans agree. When we polled Fandom’s anime community about which theme song was the best, the vote was split — across countless different anime titles. At the time of writing, this is how the poll was looking (it’s still open if you want to cast your vote!):
Pokémon (Gotta Catch ‘Em All!) 25%
Attack on Titan (Guren No Yumiya) 22%
Cowboy Bebop (Tank!) 15%
Dragon Ball Z (Cha-La-Head-Cha-La) 14%
Akira (Kaneda’s Theme) 1%
And people are so passionate about their choices, they argued vociferously in favour of their selections in the comments section beneath the poll. We’ve included some of the community’s thoughts throughout this article to give a fuller picture of the impact of anime’s music.
One band who know exactly how to craft a banging anime track are Japan’s own Man With a Mission. Fandom spoke to the guitarist and vocalist of the Tokyo-based rock act, Jean-Ken Johnny, to find out exactly what it takes to craft the perfect anime theme song.
1. Know Its Importance
According to Johnny, the opening to an anime series is crucial because “it makes you get into the story deeper and easier… It multiplies your feelings towards the story, and at the same time introduces the world to you.”
It’s this which could explain why, in some anime series, the opening track seems to change season by season. As the story progresses, so do the needs of the title music if it’s to uphold its threefold purpose of translating elements of the story via song, maintaining its relevance and continuing to keep the audience engaged.
Big expectations are placed on the shoulders of the opening track, then. Ever since the 1970s and the likes of Lupin the Third — when anime experienced its first significant wave of development since its inception in the early half of the 20th century — anime themes have been responsible for enhancing and elevating stories, and winning over fans in the process. Through hitting the mainstream in Japan in the 1980s via titles like Akira, and ultimately capturing the hearts and minds of great swathes of western audiences in the second half of the 1990s via Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop, anime has become as synonymous with its memorable theme tunes as it has with its signature traditional two-dimensional animation style.
2. Be More Anime
First, to understand Man With a Mission. Formed in Shibuya, Tokyo, they claim to have been created by Jimi Hendrix – who they suggest was not only a “mad professor”, but also a “master wolf biologist” — who froze them in the Antarctic before they made their escape, only after years spent in stasis listening to all the world’s music. Oh, and they’re never seen without their trademark wolf heads. It’s the stuff of anime, pure and simple. Which is probably why they’re masters at what they do.
The five-piece, who have spent their summer globe-trotting from gigantic rock festival to gigantic rock festival, following up in September with a handful of dates across North America, have seen their music used as themes for Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, Log Horizon, and The Seven Deadly Sins. Their sounds also featured in Street Fighter V. Each composition is a thumping anthem: imagine all your favourite TV shows, set to the tune of banging nu-metal power tracks. There’s surely nothing better than a J-Rock Linkin Park.
But, of course, Man With a Mission are more than that. They understand the power of anime and are titans in the art of translating it via the medium of music. And now, the band have written another high-octane earworm theme, ‘Dark Crow’.
It’s a brand new, original song written for Vinland Saga, the Viking-set historical animated adventure which premiered this summer on NHK in Japan and streams on Amazon Prime Video in the US. It’s a song that’s already topping some fans’ personal charts, as Fandom community member Wzkt will attest.
3. Understand the Story
“We’re big fans of the story,” says Johnny of Vinland Saga. And that’s got to help right? For Johnny, it’s essential. Because composing a new anime theme, says Johnny, starts with getting to grips with the narrative.
“I watch the anime, or read the original manga and understand, comprehend, and kind of analyse it at the same time,” he explains. “Sometimes I go to the lines of the characters for hints, because that’s mostly where the writer puts a lot of his or her emotions into the story. I pick some of those words and think about it, try to ‘cling’ the story to my life and experience, and then start to write the song.”
When anime themes are most powerful, it’s almost certainly thanks to understanding the manga itself, asserts the guitarist.
“I try to analyse and think about the message of the narrative and at the same time try to see things from a fan’s [perspective],” he adds.
“Of those listed [in the poll], from a musical perspective and in terms of a theme song serving its show, ‘Tank!’ [from Cowboy Bebop] is clearly the best.’ — Fandom community member, Arcanumus
4. Love It Truly
Seeing things from a fan’s perspective comes naturally when you’re already part of the fandom, says Johnny. And it makes sense that an artist’s best work would come from a genuine passion.
“Mostly we’ve been working with stories which I was already a fan of, so that was easy. So, as fans, we make the theme play into the story that we love,” he says.
The musician credits the band’s love of anime as a whole with their continued success in writing killer theme songs.
“I think it’s because we, luckily, have been collaborating with the stories that we really found interesting or even were already fans of,” says Johnny. “That helps us a lot in making music and the lyrics because we already have something in common with the message of the story.”
“Attack on Titan’s theme [is the best], no contest! Omg it gives me the chills whenever I hear it.” — Gary Oakkk
5. Get the Balance Right
Writing the perfect anime theme is as delicate an art form as animating the show itself. As Johnny has learned, it’s about striking a balance between setting up the narrative, but not spoiling the show (Hollywood film trailers, take note). It’s about evoking the feeling that is inherent within the anime.
“The music supports the listener, and multiplies the emotion and feelings towards the story by expressing and describing the story from another aspect,” says Johnny. “Explaining too much isn’t what I expect from the theme. It needs to be something like a hint, and nothing too direct. Too much spoils the story. I don’t like songs that explain too much about the anime. Of course, describing the world and what’s going on in the narrative is good to help the listeners to understand, but ‘explaining’ too much just spoils the beauty. The song must be an element of the anime which makes it cooler, not something that shows off too much.”
“Attack on Titan’s first opening is epic as hell on a sugar rush riding a Rapidash that can run on water while drinking a nice cup of tea; Fairy Tail‘s opening, ‘Strike Back’, from the last part of the grand magic games arc is my overall [favourite] anime opening though. I grew up in the pop punk era of the early 2000s so it just speaks to me on every level.” — Spider crash
6. Get Technical
Musically, the theme songs to anime series are distinct in a technical way, too.
“Most Japanese animation songs can be very hyper,” explains Johnny. “I’m not just talking about the BPM [beats per minute] of the song, but the song contains many elements of sounds. It also sometimes has many progressions in just one song.”
So there’s a science to it? To a degree, yes. Johnny says that the construction and other elements of the song are “hyper” in order “to make the audience more [ready to] absorb the anime.”
In other words, an effective anime theme song primes the audience by setting pulses racing with excitement as anticipation peaks.
“The time stop in ‘Sono Chi no Kioku’ [JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure] was the first time any anime ‘OP’ [opening theme] had done anything like that. No one was expecting it and then Dio — I mean ‘DIO’ — comes in and says “ZA WARUDO” and time stops for exactly 5 seconds and all we hear is DIO’s footsteps as he walks past Jotaro and then time resumes and they brawl it out. That is the most epic scene in any anime opening.” — Fandom community member, Nth power
7. Make It Catchy
A great anime theme becomes burned into your brain on loop, making it impossible to go about your day without it making up your internal soundtrack. That’s not to say it’s unwanted, or that the song should be — or is — by default necessarily simplistic. But it should be catchy.
Of all the anime themes Man With A Mission have recorded, Johnny says his favourite is their explosive, Papa Roach-y, rap metal-esque ‘Database’, the theme to Log Horizon: “It was our first challenge for the opening of an animation.”
That one version of ‘Database’ alone has racked up more than 18 million views on Youtube.
Recording the themes to anime series has a welcome side effect for Japanese bands: it provides a way for international anime fans to discover Japanese bands they might not have otherwise heard.
As MWAM become the go-to band for thumping theme songs, Johnny says he has noticed an uptick of fans who say they found the band through their favourite anime theme: “Yes, indeed! Especially the fans we meet around the world. It’s great to see them enjoy both Japanese culture and our songs at the same time.”
They're all great, but the best one is, without a doubt, "A Cruel Angel's Thesis", from Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's the kind of song that you'll want to play on repeat and it'll make you get up and dance to the rhythm. https://t.co/xSLSBVuTTb
— Allen M. Hopson (@AllenHopson2) September 7, 2019
8. Explore Fan Favourites
Johnny reveals that one of his favourite themes of all time is the theme from 1970s’ anime, Lupin The Third. It’s a decidedly more jazzy affair than any sounds you’d think Man With a Mission might produce.
“It’s just rad,” he says. “It explains the hero so well and fits so much with the anime.”
He also loves the soundtrack to early-nineties’ coming-of-age sci-fi series Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia in Japanese).
“The opening and ending of Fushigi no Umi no Nadia is one of my favourites of all time. The lyrics are so great,” says Johnny.
9. Aspire to the Greatest Anime Theme of All Time
However, the distinguished honour of Greatest Anime Theme Song Ever, says Johnny, goes to ‘Requiem’ from the soundtrack of iconic 1988 post-apocalyptic classic, Akira. The GOAT of anime themes, if you like. Interestingly, the music on the Akira soundtrack, and this theme which plays at the end of the film specifically, are different to anything else referenced so far in this article. And that is arguably where its power lies.
“The tribal, instrumental song at the end. It just gives me the goosebumps and chills and makes me feel ‘on’ at the same time. It has no lyrics, but it just somehow expresses everything of the story,” he explains. And that’s the key to its success according to Johnny’s checklist of requirements for a stonking anime theme.
“The ending of Akira was like a masterpiece to me,” says Johnny, “No lyrics. No [verbal] explaining. But [the composition] explains a lot more than words.”
A picture may paint a thousand words, and an animated series — made up of countless pictures — may paint many, many more. But the music of an anime theme can tell a story just as evocatively.
Now, it’s surely only a matter of time before a Man With A Mission anime series ABOUT the larger-than-life band comes to a streaming service near you. Perhaps Professor Jimi Hendrix has already scored the theme.
- To catch Man With A Mission live or to find out more about the band, visit their official website.