The music of Mushi-Shi: how an anime taught me to write with simplicity.

Music composed by Toshio Masuda  / 増田 俊郎

Music composed by Toshio Masuda / 増田 俊郎

One of the things that my wife and I have been trying to do this year is to live simply. We don’t want to live in excess and have tried to only keep material items that we use on a semi-daily basis or that are eco-friendly. As a result, we have been able to accomplish our goals and not cloud our lives with junk.

My music on the other hand…I like bling.

My music sounded so cluttered and “busy”. I would cloud my music with so many instruments, plugin effects, REVERB (boy do I love reverb!), and I was loosing my vision.

Around that time I started watching a anime called Mushi-shi. My music was changed forever.

Mushi-Shi is set in ancient Japan and follows Ginko, a man who has dedicated his life to learning and studying Mushi. Mushi are these supernatural creatures that are found all around Japan. Some of these creatures make life beneficial and some are dangerous (or seen that way). Each story follows Ginko’s happenings with the people that are either dealing with these creatures or studying how the land has been affected by the Mushi.

What I love about each of these stories is they are amazing pieces of art. You aren’t missing some major plot point if you were to watch them out of order or only ever watch one. They are all stand alone stories; paintings that you might view at an art gallery and simply observe. Each one obviously tied together by a theme (Mushi) but all having there own story to tell.

And then there is the music.

Like the animation and storytelling, the music is utterly simple. It doesn’t get in the way. It doesn’t try to overflow your senses. It simply: is.

Composer Toshio Masuda’s writing style perfectly mirrors the show’s philosophy: keep everything stripped down so that the narrative can shine through. The way Masuda writes takes advantage of small moments of silence, simple melodies, and will often double instruments to play the same parts. But what is truly amazing is how the music adds to the artwork. The use of slow movement, color, and minimal animations in the anime are reflected by the music.

But it is those small moments of silence that has forced me change the way I write music. These silences give the listener a chance to digest what was presented. In other words: the listener is more engaged with your music if you give them the chance to hear it. Simply throwing everything and the kitchen sink will not let you tell a story, it only clutters it.

I am not saying that everyone should stop trying to flood the airwaves with pure sound! Rather, it has been my personal challenge to not throw as many ideas and sounds together as possible but spend the time and work to develop the idea and simply present that. Then, develop the idea further.

In addition, by writing simply, I have the ability to finish something and move on to the next project. If I am always trying to add things and make them better and better they are never finished.

I recently read BIG MAGIC by Elisabeth Gilbert where she discusses her views on creativity. While reading I was challenged by a sentence that I both love and hate: “Done is better than good.” For anyone who is in the arts, this can be a really big pill to swallow (she calls it a “shit sandwich”). But I think that these are word to take heart. Do I love my art? Do I really believe in it? Then share it! I can always go back later and “fix it” or add more, but it is so much more important for us to show that we can write/draw/create and do it.

Finally, the music of Mushi-Shi has taught me to listen. Giving music the space to say what it means is important. If it is being crowded by complex rhythm and harmony parts, am I telling the right story? Or am I actually getting away from the original goal of the piece and turning it into something else? This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is important to identify and answer the question: what am I trying to say/do/accomplish? When I have skipped this step, the result are not consistent and often lead me back to the drawing board.

I love Mushi-Shi. LOVE. You can watch it on Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube and I highly recommend you do. They are the best 20 minutes of storytelling you can hope to watch and are truly pieces of art.

Analysis of the anime

An excellent video analysis of the show if you want to learn more.

Music Playlist

Playlist of the whole soundtrack from all two seasons of the anime,