Music is an important aspect of many mediums. Many movies, anime, and video games are elevated by having spectacular soundtracks. Sometimes it becomes the aspect that people remember the most, such as with Cowboy Bebop or many classic Disney movies.
It isn’t hard to understand why. Music is an excellent tool for communicating the emotion of a given scene without saying a single word. High strings can communicate tension, a slower and deeper melody can create sorrow, and a high-tempo head banger can get the adrenaline pumping. A good OST working together with excellent writing and visual presentation can create some truly unforgettable moments in media.
It’s a versatile tool, as well. The music can be reserved purely for one specific scene; you can name pretty much any insert song from any shounen anime as an example. Or it can be used as a motif to communicate a certain feeling or idea. Or the music could focus solely on one character within the story.
Enter the character theme. A motif used specifically for one person in the story. It may not always play whenever they’re on-screen, but the song undeniably belongs to them.
I love songs like these. They communicate so much about the character without the need to write a single word. A good character theme is essentially the character’s true nature distilled into the universal language that is music. When done well, they become as essential to the character as the writing behind them.
My favorite example is Guts’ theme from Berserk ’97, a song so good that it has transcended the series itself. Upon first glance, you might think that Guts is a violent brute, so you’d expect his theme to be something like death metal. But that couldn’t be further from who he is. Instead, we get a haunting, ethereal, and somber track. The closest thing to lyrics are the almost wail-like chants of the singers. Each note played by the piano reverberate like echoes in a cave. It all perfectly captures the true nature of Guts as a character: lonely, introspective, and deeply sad. Yet it doesn’t feel hopeless or depressing. It has an air of tragedy, yes, but also one of hope and potential.
No wonder it became a meme.
Most character themes are instrumental. Some, however, add lyrics into the mix to make a full-blown insert song. You’ll see these in video games more than anywhere else. This can come across as a bit cheesy, but it does have its values.
Sometimes, a story may not have the necessary time to develop a character. What can the writers do? A clever answer: use the lyrics of their theme to subtly communicate their backstory, philosophy, or motivations. Sure, it isn’t a replacement for solid writing. But it is a cool way to use music to help make up for it.
A great example of this can be found in the Metal Gear Rising soundtrack. The bosses in that game didn’t get much screen time, so they didn’t get much development. So the writers used the lyrics to give them a bit of depth. For example, Blade Wolf’s theme is all about how the robotic hound feels trapped by his orders and programing and wants to defy them both to become his own person.
Why does Platinum have such a hard-on for existential robots?
Writing is the core of fiction. If a character isn’t well-written, no amount of creative visuals or cool music will be able to fix that. That said, there is far more to visual mediums like movies or shows or games than the writing. One needs to synergize each aspects to create something truly memorable.
When you combine an excellently written character with a fitting theme, you can create something incredibly special. It’s a rare thing, and extremely difficult to execute. But it is wonderful indeed.
Also, it gives my weeb-ass some good music to listen to.