This is going to be a very weird post. Very very weird post.

The other day I was singing We Don’t Talk About Bruno, just like everyone else was in February/March of this year. And I thought to myself wow Encanto has some really good songs. And this made me tumble down a wishing well if you will, of Disney songs. And I realized, huh, all Disney movies are musicals. Like actual musicals where the characters sing in the middle of scenes and the songs have something to do with the plot.

not that there isn’t any singing in anime

Since I was still humming, I figured I would continue down this yellow brick road and thought that although Pixar movies aren’t exactly musicals they usually have very important scores and at least a few songs written by big musical stars in them. Shrek which is neither Pixar nor Disney also has fun little dance numbers and so many people instantly think of Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah when you mention the movie. Good song!

My point is that American animated movies are overwhelmingly musical, if not downright musicalS. At some point, we just decided that animation goes hand in hand with musical numbers and we just went with that for decades. I don’t know why. That’s just how it is.

But I can’t name a single song from an anime movie. I’m sure there is an anime musical movie, probably a bunch of them, but I have never seen one. And although I have watched more anime movies than Western animation movies at this point, I can’t really name a song from any of them. I could probably name a dozen from western movies off the top of my head. Heck, I could name at least half a dozen from movies I haven’t even seen.

And I find this weird… I don’t actually know why there’s such a different use of music in animated movies. I mean it could just be that animes are different. They’re different about a whole bunch of things, why not that. But once the thought wormed its way into my brain, I just kept on thinking about it. And now I’m telling you about it.

I did attempt to find some sort of “explanation”.

me attempting to explain things is never a good idea

I thought well maybe Japan doesn’t have a history of musical theatre so it’s not something they would naturally incorporate into anime. But then both Kabuki and Noh are filled with music. They have very rich traditions of storytelling through sound. Maybe more than most Western cultures. So that’s just not it.

Ok, I thought. Just because Japanese audiences historically enjoyed forms of musical theatre, doesn’t mean it’s popular now. And maybe they just don’t like it in animation. But then again, Disney is super popular in Japan. It’s the most popular studio by far and it beats out Anime movies pretty much every time.

So we know that Japanese audiences like animated musicals. And yet…

I remember watching Words Bubble Up like Soda Pop. That was a cute little romantic comedy that centred around finding an old album. It was all about music and was the perfect movie to turn into a musical. But no… I  guess there was a traditional Japanese dance during the O-bon festival scene but that’s really not the same thing.

instead of musical numbers, it had really great clouds. Fair tradeoff!

Actually wait, I do recall two Anime movies with musical numbers. One is Perfect Blue but that seems like cheating. The main character starts off as part of an idol group and we see her perform at her job. That’s it though. In fact, there are surprisingly few numbers. I figure the Love Live movie has a few numbers as well.  Still, that’s quite a niche. The other one is Lu Over The Wall that movie had a couple of musical numbers and even a dance scene and it was not only for practical purposes. It seems like the closest to a traditional musical. But I’ve only been able to find one movie that fits the bill. And a big fat zero explanations.

Maybe it’s coming. I’ll be kicking myself if all anime movies are musicals in a few years.

By the way, I’m not saying I want anime musicals. I don’t think one style is better than the other. I just noticed that despite the huge amount of international cross-influence, this musical thing still seems very regionally prevalent. We’re seeing superhero anime that could slot into marvel movies, we’re watching anime tropes worm their way into sitcoms without the need for explanation. Slowly there are more fusion titles. Still no anime musicals. 

Somewhere deep inside me, I like to think that it’s an unwritten and unexpressed rule that the Japanese people have decided on. They will embrace new ideas and western influences but they draw the line at turning their animated movies into musicals. There have to be limits! 

 I  warned you. Don’t say I didn’t. I told you all right from the start that this was going to be a weird post. And it was! At least I  kept my word!

34 thoughts

  1. There are plenty of anime that have one or two numbers in the show but none that I can think of that qualify as “musicals.” Off-hand I can only imagine the demographics they target aren’t into singing as the way to advance the plot and express emotions. Even shows about musical groups end up having a limited number of productions and they are the group putting on a show, not characters singing to each other or just to express their thought to the audience. Perhaps Disney has a different demographic in mind.

  2. Well, it so happens I know a couple of people who in the next year or so, may just produce the musical anime you’re looking for…

    On that score (no pun intended) while it may be that anime movies aren’t musicals, nonetheless, directors like Shinichiro Watanabe have made music more than just background atmospherics, but an integral part of the narrative structure…so, not musicals, per se, but certainly integrated music…

    And who is Bruno? 🤔

    1. Wait, did Watanabe make any movies? Aside from Cowboy Bebop conclusion and shorts for anthologies? I would watch a Watanabe standalone movie musical. That sounds great!

      We don’t talk about him.

      1. As far as I am aware, the only feature Watanabe has made was Cowboy Bebop: The Movie…which, obviously, had a gorgeous soundtrack composed by the legendary Yoko Kanno. So, not a musical per se…but as I was saying, a piece in which music was integrated into the story-telling mechanism…

        But, yes, I would watch a Watanabe stand alone musical, too…

        1. I didn’t notice the narrative integration in Bebop. I should watch it again. It was nice BGM that played into the mood and athmosphere like all BGM but I didn’t really hear anything more. Mind you I watched it a while ago in theaters so it might be more obvious in a home setting where you can really hear al the details.

  3. That’s something I didn’t even think about. I hear you about Perfect Blue, but that doesn’t count which I agree with you here. Maybe one could argue Interstella 5555, but it’s a glorified album-length music video for Daft Punk. The closest I can think of when it comes to anime series would be Key the Metal Idol or Beck, but calling either of them musicals would be a stretch even if music plays a role in both of them.

      1. Btw I made a couple of comments on other posts of yours but for some reason they went to mod-approval needed status – not sure why, but apologies for inadvertently spamming your… er, spam folder, I guess. XD

  4. “The other day I was singing We Don’t Talk About Bruno, just like everyone else was in February/March of this year”

    I wasn’t, in fact never heard of it – what’s it from?

  5. The only movie I’ve seen with musical numbers is Anthem of the Heart. It’s an anime about making a musical for the community to enjoy, and interestingly enough, they take American tunes like Somewhere Over The Rainbow and add their own lyrics. It sounds weird but it works.

    1. I haven’t watched that but just from this short description it sounds like something I would like

  6. Speculation incoming… Maybe that has to do with the prominence of idol groups in Japan.

    A notable trait of idols that sets them apart is their relationship with fans, and they are marketed intentionally by agencies to have a high emotional connection with their fan base. Fans are built as active supporters into the narrative of the idol’s journey to become a professional entertainer. (From Wikipedia.)

    So here’s an other form of entertainment, featuring a large cast of diverse characters, which seamlessly combines narrative & music.

    Moreover, it’s difficult to overstate how ubiquitous idols are in Japan. The tradition is well-entrenched, and dates back to the 80s. And if you believe Wikipedia, 50-70% of Japanese commercials feature an idol. That’s a staggering number!

    If you want to get your musical fix for a couple hours, just log onto an online concert. That’s as long as a movie. You’ve got 3,000 groups active at any time, just take your pick!

    Maybe idols have got the market cornered, so to speak. And the best anime can often do, is to simply copy the formula.

  7. If you want to watch an anime musical, then you should totally watch “Healer Girl” from the the spring season this year because it it is literally the first time I’ve ever seen anything like it before! You can find it on Crunchyroll.

    1. It’s on my to watch list so I will get around to it for sure. I was really focusing on movies for this post, I have watched tons of Idol Anime that are musicals

      1. I thought Healer Girls would be an idol show, too. It isn’t. They’re genuinely medical support staff who heal through magical song. There are the medical scenes, but the girls also practise during their everyday life, so you get scenes of every-day life with spontaneous songs. It’s one of the most musical things I’ve seen in anime; more so than, say, Starmyu.

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