Opening move

Ninety seconds. Just under 2,200 frames. That’s how long the majority of anime openings have to stick in the mind, set the scene and contribute to the microcosm that history has created for them. Right back to what some would consider the dawn of modern anime with Astro Boy in the 1960’s, the prototype for modern anime openings was there, continuing through the seventies and eighties through to recent history of the nineties and 2000+.

setting the tone for bombastic score of the series itself

By now you’ve mostly likely seen the “Every Anime Opening Ever Made” video which cycles through a lot of the tropes and visual motifs that are (over)used, set to remixed trance music. Like a lot of pithy satire its humour and truth doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and even a limited exploration of openings from any time period would highlight how wrong it is. That wasn’t what got me thinking about anime openings though but an offshoot when musing on the slow burning RahXephon one. Originally this was going to be a dissection of the hidden meanings in the visuals and mentioning other similar openings. Then I got lost in a endless loop of watching an opening, then remembering just one more and before I knew it I was attempting to sort the openings I had seen into some kind of system.

The easiest place to start with this endeavour was the ones which didn’t slot into any pigeon hole. The one that springs immediately to mind is Paranoia Agent’s which is equal parts haunting and disconcerting set to vocals that some have called “Japanese yodelling”. The music is provided by Susumu Hirasawa who was a longtime collaborator with Satoshi Kon, but also provided the soundtrack to the original 1997 Berserk TV series which sports another, uncategorisable opening with incongruous music provided by the PENPALS.

Despite being in a strange a peculiar league of its own, the Berserk opening has many visual similarities to the grungy, static-image heavy openings that have sprung up in the past decade. It’s not a huge step to see the connection with something like the Hellsing TV opening with the same juxtaposition of music and imagery, but does double duty in the case of Hellsing by setting the tone for bombastic score of the series itself. From there you could go full bore with Ergo Proxy’s opening which pinches scenes from the early episodes superimposed over scratchy text and burned out scribbles through to Texhnolyze’s online-video breaking visual assault backed by Juno Reactor’s Guardian Angel. In between those two extremes though are ones like Black Lagoon’s Red Fraction by MELL, using the distinctive I’VE sound to put the vocoding up to ten (see Jormungand’s as an example of when it goes to eleven), Highschool of the Dead’s which trades techno for (almost) metal or even the astounding Steins;Gate which uses the vocal talents of Kanako Ito to great effect. Of course, these are all examples of openings that, in one way or another, work given their context but you don’t have to look far to find examples of when the format doesn’t work. Strangely, Mitsuyuki Masuhara, one of the main people responsible for that opening was also responsible for the third Polar Bear’s Cafe opening which is quite the difference...

Regardless it highlights the difference the music can make when using similar aesthetics as well as how to use the opening to set the tone for the anime to come. Sometimes though, you just want to rev up the audience while they wait the minute and half (and any commercials) before the actual show begins which is exactly what both the recent Kill la Kill openings achieve. They’re certainly not alone and giant robot shows are fairly typical for this (Gundam 00, Code Geass, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Valvrave et. al) but any show that requires a level of high octane investement such as Initial D is ripe for a visually forgettable but catchy opening. It’s an easy trick and one that Outlaw Star used to great effect, but obviously marrying both aesthetics and visuals together is almost a surefire way of creating an enduring, stylish, maybe even iconic opening.

Tenjou Tenge’s Bomb a Head doesn’t quite manage the latter and has the unfortunate position of being attached to the much maligned series but does get a tick in the “memorable” column. Likewise for Xam’d’s which shows exactly what studio BONES is able to do with animation and, of all things, story in such a scant amount of time, but also marks the beginning of the ascent from simply “interesting” to “stylish”. Both Eden of the East and the recent Noragami kick it up a notch until you get the astounding Baccano and Durarara openings, both of which are almost impossibly stylish and the brainchild of director Takahiro Omori, here’s hoping he lends his talents to Durarara’s recently announced second season. No discussion of stylish anime openings would be complete though without the subcategory that is Shinichiro Watanabe’s contributions with Samurai Champloo and the astounding Cowboy Bebop, even his hand in Michiko to Hatchin’s music seemed to bleed over to its opening. The shadow that Bebop’s opening especially has cast is hard to overstate, though really that goes for the series as a whole which ushered in innumerable changes and has surprisingly yet to be bettered.

Tank! also highlights the subcategory dominated almost exclusively by Yoko Kanno in using the music producer for the opening theme’s melody. More often than not it’s either big name bands or struggling artists that accompany openings, the thinking perhaps being that the former lends a series some star credibility (or at least gives an indication of the bank roll behind it) while the latter is a chance for probably fleeting, sometimes permanent, stardom - see ClariS and their partnership with SHAFT. Of course one of Yoko Kanno’s greatest triumphs is bringing Maaya Sakamoto to the fore, starting when she was just 15 with the Escaflowne opening then using her in notable ones including Macross Frontier and, yes, RahXephon with the wonderful Hemisphere.

So we’re back to what this was originally going to be about and RahXephon’s visual secrets hidden in everything from Haruka standing next to clocks to Quon’s doll-like stature. It’s a rare opening that even attempts something similar though as they are, effectively, spoilers hidden in plain sight but only exposed as such when given context. It’s a far cry from the sentai-esque shows such as Vividred that spoil the team makeup from the get-go. Rare then, but not unique; requiring a show with considerable narrative weight to make it work, the most recent of which is the wonderful Kyousougiga which hides character connections in DNA symbolism and even gives away the location of the elusive mother. Probably the grand-daddy of this though is Evangelion’s Cruel Angel’s Thesis which more or less slaps you in the face with what’s to come in the latter half of the series.

All of these are really only touching the surface of the volume of anime openings that are out there (back of the envelope calculation is northward of 5,000 and probably closer to 7,500) though the number that are worth remembering is obviously far fewer. For instance who remembers the opening to Green Green, Raimuiro Senkitan or any number of other forgettable openings (to terrible series, natch). No mention either of the endless subcategories, such as the vocal cast chorus of Lucky Star, Mikakunin or the chaotic brilliance of the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei ones; or the now commonplace changing of the opening every thirteen episodes, meaning long running series like Bleach, Naruto or One Piece have openings numbering in the tens; or even the openings that aren’t from the soft lilting tones of Aria, to Mushishi’s Sore Feet Song to Shin Sekai Yori’s lonely title cards.

Regardless of its quality or taxonomy though, behind any opening is a team of people who have poured their time and creativity into making the music and animation what it is. Following the directors and animators through their careers is a fascinating exercise, especially when you come across prolific creators like Toshihiro Kawamoto who had a leading hand in the Cowboy Bebop opening, but also Eureka Seven AO’s, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood’s and the criminally underrated Witch Hunter Robin (which remains one of the few openings I know all of the words to) but also went on to do key animation for RahXephon and chief animation director for Noragami. Or you compare Takahiro Omori’s Baccano and Durarara openings to his work on Hellgirl’s first. Or watching as Takayuki Kirao goes from co-directing the Texhnolyze opening with MADHOUSE to directing the opening to Futakoi Alternative opening and the entirety of the 5th Kara no Kyoukai movie. Or finding out that the director of the Black Lagoon opening, Masanori Shino, preceded it with the thematically similar Gungrave opening.

It’s not hard to see why with such variety and creativity, anime openings are so important to the overall tone, appreciation and memorability of a series. If this rather longwinded exercise has proven anything it’s that, like olfactory memory, just ninety seconds of sound and animation is enough to conjure up whatever boundless emotions and memories are tied to a series. Of summers lost or winters warmed, conversations had or disappointments experienced. To hold such things in such a small space of time seems implausible, but long may it continue.

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