Since the publication of the first of Nagaru Tanigawa's Haruhi Suzumiya light novels in 2003, a veritable franchise has been established around the novels' main character Haruhi Suzumiya and her high school club, the SOS Brigade. The commercial and critical success of the novels in Japan ensured that they would be adapted into other media, and now the Haruhi Suzumiya brand comprises a series of mangas, animes, net animations and video games. Not surprisingly, a feature film would eventually spring forth from the franchise as well, and on February 6 2010, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (aka The Vanishment of Haruhi Suzumiya) was released in a small number of Japanese cinemas, generating impressive revenues.
Given that music had always been an important part of the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise — with excerpts of the anime's soundtrack being performed during several orchestral concerts in Japan and Australia — fans had reason to look forward to the feature film's soundtrack release with high hopes. Four composers from music production company Monaca created the film's musical backing: Haruhi Suzumiya anime series veteran Satoru Kousaki, Soul Calibur veteran Ryuichi Takada, and relative newcomers Keigo Hoashi and Kakeru Ishihama. Arrangement duties were handled by IMAGINE's seasoned team of Akifumi Tada, Hayato Matsuo, and Shiro Hamaguchi, while Australia's Eminence Symphony Orchestra performed the soundtrack's compositions. With so much high-calibre talent involved, does the final product live up to expectations?
Despite being created by four different composers, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya sports a stylistically coherent soundtrack that makes it virtually impossible to tell which artist created which track. Interestingly enough, the only tracks that are distinctly different from anything else on the soundtrack are its three opening compositions, which are quite misleading in regards to the experience that awaits the listener. Reflecting the film's light hearted beginning — before proceedings take a turn for the more mysterious — the opening track "A Story Beginning from the Usual Scenery" certainly earns its name. Based on a light pop rhythm, the piece exudes a breezy, low-key charm, with a bouncy, catchy trumpet solo and strings that add a whiff of nostalgia and sentimentality. The instrumentation gives the track a slight easy listening jazz edge, and while it's certainly well composed and delightful in its laid-back atmosphere, it's somewhat generic as well and indeed 'usual' (at least as far as anime soundtracks go). The following two tracks are more energetic. "The SOS Brigade's Christmas Party" adds a hammond organ and and swinging brass to create an entertaining, funky slice of party music, and even manages to incorporate a rocking electric guitar solo near the end. "Noisy Time" follows the same blueprint, but keeps things interesting through the inclusion of hand congas and an exuberant piano part.
However, with the next track "What Awaits Beyond the Everyday", the soundtrack — somewhat abruptly — changes gears. A pensive ballad for piano and solo strings, the track foreshadows the upcoming change of mood. And indeed, listeners expecting another lightweight anime soundtrack after the album's opening tracks will be surprised to realise that the music for The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya packs a hefty amount of tragedy and drama, worthy of any Hollywood epic.
Dominating the soundtrack's soundscape are a number of stylistically quite similar string adagios. Fortunately, despite their overall commonness regarding their style — imagine your typical, late 19th century style, romantic, slow string piece — these adagios never weight the soundtrack down or cause it to meander in a constantly oppressive mood. This is due to two factors: first of all, each and every single one of these pieces is a showcase of impressive composition and arrangement skills, featuring heartbreaking melodies and gorgeous harmonies that are sure to enchant and touch any listener who's not allergic against such statements of grand emotions. Secondly, subtle differences between these pieces ensures that the listening experience doesn't become a monotonous one and that the soundtrack's flow offers a necessary amount of variety. After a scherzo opening (including busy xylophones), "Betrayed Expectations" evolves into a mournful elegy that retains an air of menace through a high-pitched, harmonically uneasy accompaniment in the violins. "What Lies in Yuki Nagato's Heart" meanwhile adds oboes for increased variety in the piece's orchestral texture. "The Word that the Leading Girl Speaks" opens with a cello solo and like the other slow tracks benefits from IMAGINE's masterful arrangement of the string orchestra. In contrast to the pieces that proceed this composition on the soundtrack, it is free of the dread and tragedy of other adagios, but rather an orchestral love song. The same goes for "Footprints to the Future", which is programmed near the end of the album and conveys a feeling of hope through its utterly beautiful major-key violin melody.
But the soundtrack's emotional centrepiece proves to be "READY?", four minutes of deeply moving orchestral bliss. Trombones are added to provide counterpoint and increased emotional impact, while a steady rhythmic accompaniment in the lower strings evokes sentiments of quiet determination and the will to carry on. The track's relatively long running time works to its advantage, since it is given sufficient space to build to its climax. Interestingly enough, both "READY?" and "Footprints to the Future" do not resolve their melodies in the pieces' last seconds, leaving the emotionally hooked listener with a slight feeling of insecurity and letting her wonder what turn of events might follow.
Despite the relative dominance of these string-driven pieces, not all slower tracks on the album are based on this particular type of orchestration. "The Extend of the Isolated World" masterfully conveys loneliness through an arrangement for solo woodwinds, which play incessant variations of a simple motif. The piece derives its fascinating effect from its constantly chromatic, slightly dissonant harmonies, which keep it interesting and emotionally ambivalent. A tender oboe solo in the track's middle section adds to the impression the composition leaves on the listener. It is also helped by soulful, immaculate playing by members of the Eminence Symphony Orchestra and a sound recording that balances the solo instruments perfectly and gives them sufficient space to breath. Throughout the whole album, both the orchestra and the recording engineers display their admirable skills and ensure the pieces fulfil their potential at all times. "Feet that Don't Appear Before a Popular Heart" is another touching ballad, but much lighter than its string-heavy cousins, with its delicate orchestration which includes tinkling percussion and a flute solo. French composer Eric Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 2" fits well into the album's soundscape, due to his work's mellow character and magical, dreamy beauty. However, some listeners might prefer the piece in its original arrangement for solo piano, and it remains debatable if the soundtrack's second disc — a brief collection of seven of Satie's most popular compositions — adds much to the soundtrack as a whole or rather can be regarded as little more than a nice bonus disc.
More variety is added by two tracks which emphasise the film's more mysterious moments. "Connected Memories" successfully translates a feeling of approaching danger into music by combining tremolo violins and a resolute motif for lower strings during its opening. The track then takes on an air of tragedy with a mournful string melody, before concluding with a more peaceful — but still emotionally ambiguous — section for solo flute over the beginning's string figures. "The Girl Named Ryoko Asakura" is one of the album's most curious tracks: it starts with a series of single, irregular, disjointed notes played by the celli and weaves a spell of mystery and menace through highly chromatic brass and woodwind melodies, before its unsettling harmonies dissolve into a passage for ethereal female choir, only to return soon to its earlier, uncanny mood. Despite being based on repetitive material and not delivering much in terms of melodic content, the track sustains itself well through the fascinating atmosphere it creates. Once more, credit must go to the composers and arrangement team at IMAGINE.
Directly contrasting in mood with the more lugubrious sections of the album is its action material, which is surprisingly energetic and ebullient and successfully breaks up the soundtrack's sometime heavy mood. All of these more frenzied pieces start with hurried string ostinati, before more and more orchestral layers are added. And indeed, most of these compositions provide the listener with an amazing amount of exciting counterpoint and dense orchestrations, including intricate instrumental details like the bassoon embellishments at the beginning of "The Clue of Haruhi Suzumiya". The track is most representative of the albums action material: constantly moving forward, featuring heroic brass and sweeping string melodies, conveying a spirit of embarking on an epic adventure. The powerful fortississimo ending of "From Anxiety to Fear"; the quieter middle section in "The SOS Brigade Again" with a cheeky, slightly mischievous xylophone part before the track's triumphant conclusion; the somewhat reduced orchestration of "Chasing the Memory of that Day" and its focus on propulsive string rhythms that convey a sense of stirring urgency: there are as many enjoyable moments to be found in these tracks as in the album's slower passages. A slightly different use of string ostinati can be found at the beginning of "Verification of Self-Consciousness", where three such ostinati are not used to provide the rhythmic base for an action track, but rather build an atmosphere of willful resolution when more and more sections of the orchestra join in and the track culminates in a rousing, march-like section with string tremolo on top of the brass melody.
As it turns out, that section perfectly sets up the mood for the following track, "A Turning Point of History". We've doubtlessly arrived at the site of the story's showdown, and the surprisingly violent music makes this clear through heavy, piercing brass and string accents, on top of which the full choir sings a majestic melody, driven forward by a propulsive orchestral accompaniment. Despite all the grand drama the track evokes — we get our fair share of cymbal crashes and epic trombone and french horn melodies — it never succumbs to over-the-top cheesiness. Once again, kudos to the sound engineers, this time for perfectly balancing orchestra and choir — never does one overpower the other. It gets even better when after one last choral outburst, the piece dissolves into a peaceful, moving conclusion for female choir and harp: all the conflict that has been built up is resolved, and the feeling of calm elation is palpable.
"The Brigade Members Who Met Again" captures this atmosphere of calm after the storm perfectly: while it's another slow piece, it is scored for full orchestra, and the mood is much less oppressive, but rather one of pastoral beauty. Its five minute running time provides sheer orchestral delight and concludes with a magical coda (for harp and woodwind soli) which, in its reduced, chamber music-like orchestration and simple motifs, proves one of the album's most touching moments. And finally, "A Story Ending in the Usual Scenery" turns out to be the perfect way to close the soundtrack: starting out as a light hearted march with a focus on playful woodwinds, it adds a bit of sentiment with another trumpet solo and a passage for lyrical, but surprisingly agile solo violin — a reminder of the high emotions that ran through most of the soundtrack. The composition finishes the album on a suitably optimistic note, without neglecting the emotional weight that most of the album's earlier tracks carried.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this review: yes, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya's soundtrack not only lives up to expectations, but proves one of the most enjoyable orchestral soundtracks in quite a while. Everybody in the project involved — composer, arrangers, performers, and sound engineers — acquit themselves splendidly. Despite a preponderance of slower, mostly string-based pieces, the album remains an engaging listen throughout, on the merits of its more frantic and outwardly dramatic action material, and the sheer quality of the compositions, which easily carry the listener through the album's running time. There are no fillers in sight — even the shorter tracks are substantial and bear repeated listening. The album's sunny opening tracks slightly clash with the more dramatic rest of the soundtrack, but the effect isn't too jarring and, since these pieces are well composed, it is unlikely many listeners will mind their inclusion on the album. It would have been nice to find some more examples of the more experimental, abstract composition and orchestration style featured in "The Girl Named Ryoko Asakura" and "The Extend of the Isolated World", but again, the quality of the album's material turns such complaints into mere afterthoughts. On a side note: after a couple of projects that were hampered by budget constraints, it is very satisfying to see what the Eminence Symphony Orchestra is truly capable of. It is difficult to imagine better performances of these compositions. In short: if you like grand, romantic style orchestral soundtracks and lush compositions, get this album.