Exploring Suicide in Anime: An Analysis of the Medium

**As the title implies, this post speaks towards suicide—how we consume it in media, how it functions culturally, how it affects personal experience. If this is a sensitive topic for you, be mindful of continuing.**

High school was the first time suicide directly impacted my life. A minor friend of a few years had convinced himself he was unworthy of living and killed himself in his middling teenage years—dead before he started. I was not overly familiar with his life, and only tangential in the scope of his social circles, but he was the widely beloved class comic. Witty without effort, smart in how he spun situations to create entertainment for others. Common class-clown things that highly depressed people are often good at. It was one of those things that is obvious in hindsight.

Despite him not being one of my closest relationships, that loss still pried open the gates to a world that, up to then, my naivety had kept in a fantastical land. Intellectually, I understood suicide was a thing that could happen. I had simply never imagined it happening to him.

Suddenly, no one was safe.

Suicide would not have any intimate brushes with my life again until much later, in the tail-end of my college years. This time, it would be a little more personal. This time it was family.

Almost family, anyways. Thank God that darkness was made to retreat, though not without years of heavy battle against some inner demons and leagues of external intervention. It was a wildly complicated ordeal, and I will not unpack it here, because ultimately it’s not what I want to talk about. I only bring up these two circumstances because they served to re-appropriate the emotional energy in my heart and made the topic of suicide one I hold up in both personal and professional interest. I spent years studying the psychology of killing oneself and interacting with people who had tried or wanted to or planned on executing that final act.

Suicide, for all its macabre implications, is important to me. And that’s why I appreciate when I see an honest, realistic portrayal of it in the media I consume. Suicide has a history of being a gimmick, a basic inciting incident or historical cornerstone in a character’s background, but is rarely made the focus of a narrative—probably out of the risk of it tonally disrupting an otherwise happy story.

But that’s what I want to talk about with this article. I write about anime for Geeks Under Grace. I’ve been reviewing anime here since before we had an “anime team,” and I’ve been aching to write an article of this nature for over a year. What eventually made me decide now was the time came after my exposure to the film A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi), which blew up in 2017, following the international commercial success of Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa). This article is not strictly about A Silent Voice, neither the anime, nor manga versions (both of which have my meteoric recommendation), but I will be drawing on pieces of it, as well as several other anime, to reach my conclusion.

Before we go any further though, I wanted to touch upon suicide as it relates to Japan, the land where anime is traditionally forged. Japan has a long history of suicide, even if the kind we see now is different from the days of old. It’s no secret ancient Japan helped “popularize” the concept of seppuku, or the “honorable death.” You are a samurai who failed to protect his benefactor? Rend open your belly. You had inappropriate sexual relations with somebody outside your family’s favor? It is your duty to atone for the dishonor you have brought upon them, and this means willingly (often publicly) bringing about the end.

And you see, that honor… it never really went away. You can see the echoes of it in contemporary Japanese society. The nuances may be different, but the underlying spirit of the problem remains the same: if you cannot be the steadfast rock your family needs, or find success in a cutthroat professional climate, or contribute to the greater whole of Japan as a nation…well, you can always just kill yourself. Under a magnifying glass, if you break down the various economic and social factors that permeate every angle of Japanese culture, you’ll notice it’s a country almost designed to encourage self-destruction. The tides of difficulty that press against every youth and adult are so staggeringly insane that they’d almost be hilarious if they weren’t real, and the result is that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the entire world.

As such it’s encouraging when I see an anime that takes a no-nonsense approach to the subject, because suicide and the mental elements that surround it are something Japan obviously needs to address with more frequency and greater efforts (something their government is finally taking strides to accomplish). Historically, it’s not as if anime development studios (and any prerequisite creators) have been completely adverse to showcasing suicide in their creations; it just seems to be coming into greater prominence now than years past. Suicide has shown up in many series: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Welcome to the NHK, Orange, and even Naruto, to name a few.

But more often, if a character is killing themselves, it’s not out of an innate desire to end their own lives. I want to make this distinction. Dying as a mode of martyrdom, sacrificial protection, or ignorant abuse of one’s own health are not the same things, and should not be confused with what we are talking about. This is intentional self-obliteration, because you’ve found yourself in a situation where you simply don’t want to live anymore.

I recently watched an anime called Made in Abyss, which had one of the most realistic conflicts orbiting suicide I’ve seen inside or outside of the medium. It was a short, gripping scene—one I cannot talk about without spoilers, so if MiA is on your radar, skip down to the bold sentence below and continue reading from there.

I’ll keep this pretty complex scenario as simple as possible. Nanachi is a young girl who has been through a lot. She was enslaved for use in human experimentation by a sadistic madman alongside her best friend, Mitty. Mitty got the far worse brunt of aforementioned experimentation, and now cannot die, despite being in a constant state of suffering. She cannot even die when Nanachi tries to kill her. In so doing, Nanachi only torments her friend more, even after escaping the clutches of the monster who made them this way. Then come the protagonists of the series, who are in a bind. Our lead girl, Riko, is on the cusp of venomous death, but Nanachi can save her, and does. Recovery takes a long time, during which Nanachi becomes friend with our other protag, Reg. Nanachi learns Reg possesses a means of killing Mitty. If Mitty dies, Nanachi can finally be free of the overwhelming emotional burden placed upon needing to take care of her, and all the suffering she has inadvertently caused.

But if Mitty was gone, Nanachi would also have no more reason to live. Reg picks up on this and, when approached about whether or not he’d be willing to kill Mitty, says, “Okay. But you’re not allowed to die after she’s gone.”

Nanachi pauses. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to take care of Riko and make sure she’s all better, too.”

“Even after that!” Reg bites down on the moisture in his eyes. “Even after that. You need to promise.”

“Oh,” Nanachi contemplates the pool of water at her feet, a sad ache reflecting in her eyes. She resigns. “That’s so cruel… fine. I promise.”

And Reg destroys Mitty in one of the saddest death scenes in recent memory, fulfilling his part of the deal. Nanachi then joins their party afterwards because, well, she has nothing else.

loved this interaction. My writing of it now cannot convey the heartbreaking rawness of the scene, but the subtle context of Nanachi wanting to die was never explicitly mentioned or given heavy foreshadowing. It was implied through small phrases and gestures leading to this moment, which Reg, being emotionally alert, was able to notice and act against. The audience is trusted to be intelligent enough to understand that Nanachi was planning to kill herself before this confrontation. And Reg—sweet, broken Reg—called her bluff in a gambit to save her life. Being as young as he is, Reg doesn’t have a good solution, so he basically resorts to blackmail. It is an honest, if brutal means of protecting one of his only friends.

Let’s take a moment to talk about Misa from Death Note. Spoilers for this, as well.  There’s a bold line for you, too. 

Misa Amane is an immensely tragic character. She is gifted in all the wrong types of intelligence, and none of the ones that save her from abuse and harm at the hands of our favorite sociopathic pile-o-trash, Light Yagami. Misa is practically designed to be emotionally manipulated into supporting whatever vague, justice-centric whim passes through the miasma of sludge that is Light’s ego, falling intensely in love with the mass-murderer because, as she perceives it, he dealt justice against the man who killed her family. Misa’s entire existence rotates around supporting Light.

So, when Light is eventually caught out by the investigation agents and brought to an untimely demise (or not soon enough, depending who you ask), Misa’s world goes with him. While we never see her commit suicide, the last image we have of Misa is one of her standing alone on the edge of a tall building. With all we know of Misa, it’s not hard to pick up on the implication that she jumped, forfeiting her life, as Light was no longer in it.

Misa was bright, popular, enthusiastic, and showed kindness to others. The number one complaint fans have against her character is how easily she was manhandled by Light’s nefarious charm. Like, we know she’s smart, so why is she so oblivious to the awful personality of the man she loves? That’s not realistic at all

I’m obviously being sarcastic. The most tragic part of Misa’s narrative is that she is a loose manifestation of thousands of people who, at any given moment, are betrayed by their better judgment into trusting people who are not worthy of trust. Misa, for all of her dimensions, was ultimately a simple character. She wanted to love, and be loved in return. She wanted to be useful to somebody, even at the cost of herself, because self-sacrifice is further evidence of how much you love someone. She would forego her happiness in favor of Light’s happiness. And, because of the precarious situation she was in, once Light was no more, she had nothing to fall back on. There was nobody else who would be prepared to save her.

Misa is tragic, because she could have been saved if people had known the whole story. She is a superb example of why we should reserve judgment against others. It’s difficult to ever truly know somebody or the struggles they endure, so it’s imperative we be kind to one another. It’s easy to hate Light, because in this example we were allowed inside his mind. We had first-hand evidence he was rotten. If we were on the outside, among his peers—among Misa—it’s likely he would have duped us, too.

There are honestly so many examples I want to explore, but instead, let’s circle back to the beginning.  A Silent Voice.

A Silent Voice tackles many heavy subjects. In the roster along suicide, there’s depression, social anxiety, bullying, and living with disabilities, to name the big ones. It’s not really spoilers to say that both of the protagonists, Shoya and Shoko, face suicidal ideation at some point in their respective lives, and for entirely different reasons. Unlike the last two examples, I’m not going to dive into this one, because the idiosyncrasies and emotional buildup are what make the movie memorable, and I cannot adequately communicate those things with words. But A Silent Voicedoes something remarkable, which is not often seen in this industry. It takes realistic characters, in a real setting, with real hopes, goals, and motivations, places them against real problems, and doesn’t water it down for the sake of the audience. But more than any of that, it doesn’t cast these struggles in a blunt light. They are not hideously dramatic or tragic. They are commonplace issues, dealt with by commonplace people, and we see the power of unity as friends and family support each other through the little ways the world falls apart every day.

I don’t want to deviate too hard from the subject, or feel like I’m bashing you over the head with what I think you should watch, but I cannot stress enough the merits of seeing this film. And, if you liked that, I recommend you read the manga, too. The latter further fleshes out the characters and narrative that the movie, while great, did not have the screen-time to capture.

I guess what I really wanted to do with this article was say thanks. It’s a wide, open letter to every creator who had the skill, courage, and insight to brave the trenches of suicide in narrative. It’s not an easy thing to do, even from a technical vantage. It’s a story that can be easily cheesed without setting the proper tones and expectations for the audience. Yet, it’s one of the heaviest and most needed stories of our modern day.

I’m not expecting any isolated anime, book, video game, or movie to be enough to “save” somebody who struggles with suicidal ideation. But if it can reach them and help them realize they aren’t alone in their struggle, that’s a worthy thing to ask of “entertainment.” Maybe if they see a story in which depression is toppled and anxiety is overcome, they could even find it in themselves to seek help.

If this is you, please understand you are stronger and more important than you believe. Please, if you have an authority figure or religious leader you can trust, reach out to them. If not, the 24-hour suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and talkspace.com has an affordable, online therapy match-making program, which I have on good knowledge to be worth its weight.

You have my prayers. I believe in you.

Thanks for reading, and God bless.

(This article first ran in geeksundergrace.com, in April of 2018.)

http://www.geeksundergrace.com/anime-cosplay/exploring-suicide-anime/

Emotional Repression, and The Girl Who Would Be Tank


**I will refrain from using game-specific terminology in this post, as it would break the flow of the article.**

Presea Combatir is one of, if not the greatest example of a tragic character in the beloved Tales franchise of video games. In a gambit to make herself useful to her struggling family after her sister falls ill, she subjects herself to a malevolent experiment, wherein she gains increased strength at the cost of her emotional and physical growth being permanently subdued. As such, she turns into a shell of the child she once was, and by the time she is found in the game, sixteen full years of this repression have cost her much of her humanity.

Though technically twenty-eight, Presea appears as a twelve-year-old girl, with her emotional and social maturity being practically non-existent. She is in a routine of soulless labor, with no cognitive attachment or awareness for the world around her. Even when her father dies, she doesn’t notice or care, allowing him to rot in his bed. Her freakish nature and questionable history have turned her into a pariah within her village, completely ostracized from peers and adults.

When at last the main cast of Tales of Symphonia is able to recover part of Presea’s humanity, much of the damage cannot be undone. Yet, she begins to age normally again, and slowly starts to form new connections with the world. She remains blunt and distant to communication with others, and does not understand social protocols. This is occasionally endearing, but mostly it’s sad. It becomes quickly apparent that her lack of emotions was something resembling a boon, for now that they were coming in full force, they were almost all negative. She grieves the years she lost, the family she doesn’t have anymore, and suffers without a clear purpose in the world. At the core of her reservation and ongoing melancholy is the tantalizing perception that, even with her new friends, she is ultimately still alone in this world. It is the bulk of her character arc from this point until the end of the game that she must realize, through the actions of her companions, that she is loved and has a home. It might not be the home she originally wanted or remembers, but it is something worth cherishing and protecting.

Protection is Presea’s strong suit, even as a combat asset within the game. Her size and cute appearance are deceptive. With her aforementioned inhuman fortitude, she can shrug off harm that would critically wound her friends. As such, she operates best as a “tank” for the team. That is, she offers herself as the one who, when everyone else must play it safe, walks into challenges head-on. She has faced hardship and hurt and damage, physically and emotionally, and they have strengthened her in a way her companions don’t immediately recognize. So, she’s the tank in every sense. The one who endures injury, but never relents.

Presea is my favorite character from Tales of Symphonia. Her tragedy aside, she is a wonderful, quirky little girl, fascinated by animal paws and woefully ignorant to the innocent flirtations of others. She is lost in the world, but possesses a durability in spite of her loneliness that things will somehow get better. It’s these things that I want to see more in myself, and hope to inspire in others.

Hard Friendship – Cowboy Bebop

I recently came across an article from the Bebop Attic (linked below) which explores the topsy-turvy, sometimes painful discourse of friendship that is the main cast of Cowboy Bebop. Being a long-time fan of Watanabe’s work (and CB, in particular), I am always delighted when I find a new angle on this classic anime. For all their casual disregard and generally laid-back, easy-going nature, it’s important to remember that Spike, Faye, and Jet are, at the end of the day, hardly more than active shells of the people they used to be. They are walking walls, keeping everyone around them at arms-reach, yet inexplicably can’t pull themselves apart from their meandering life together exploring the cosmos.

Take a look at the original article for more detail. And if you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop yet, or it’s been a while since you last explored space with the crew of the Bebop, I encourage you to rectify that as soon as you have a chance. It ages like your favorite wine.

http://bebopattic.weebly.com/friendship-in-cowboy-bebop.html

“Area of Effect: Wisdom From Geek Culture”

Published by Mythos & Ink, “Area of Effect: Wisdom from Geek Culture” checked a lot of my boxes. Using pop culture and the wider community of geekdom as a vehicle, the writers within challenge the quagmire of life with subtle excellence. Regardless of what media is most endearing to you—whether it cinema, novels, anime, video games, etc.—there is bound to be at least a handful of insightful deductions that make you think, or personal tales that make you feel.

I know a small handful of the collaborators involved in this book. I worked with most of them, in one way or another, during my time as a writer and editor at Geeks Under Grace. But Area of Effect afforded me an opportunity to learn new things about each of them, both in their opinions on various stories, as well as formative events that shaped their lives. I think what was most impressive about this compilation, however, was the consistency of ‘oh‘ moments I had. I was challenged to think in new ways (I’d never considered what it must have been like to be an average citizen in the sociopolitical climate of the Fire Nation when Sozen decided to siege the world), and I’ve never understood the appeal of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until two or three different chapters addressed aspects of its story. Now it’s at the forefront of my list (along with Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse).

There’s something for every geek in this series of articles and essays. Do you like anime? Plenty of that within these pages. Marvel films? There are at least four topics around those. Video games? Galore. Lord of the Rings? But of course.

I think it takes a unique frame of mind to connect the fiction we read to the lives that play out before us every day, and something even greater to learn from that connection. If you appreciate good dialogue on the merits of your favorite pieces of fiction, I implore you to pick up this book, available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions. I suspect you will not be disappointed.

NYT on Depression/Anxiety in Video Games

E3 2018 revealed a feast of new video games that we should expect to see throughout this year. One game that stood out to many people, myself included, was the sadly serene Sea of Solitude, developed by Jo-Mei Games and published by Electronic Arts. This waterscape misadventure, characterized by an aesthetic of over-saturated colors, braces itself against a narrative exploring loneliness. It is also Electronic Arts’ first major foray into supporting an indie story that focuses on mental health. Their support cannot be understated.

Laura Parker of the New York Times talks about Sea of Solitude in further detail below, as well as other video games that dare to explore the complicated waters of mental and emotional health in video game storytelling.

Top 50 Instrumental Songs (Part 5/5)

This is the fifth in a five-part series to be released daily, in which I unpack my favorite instrumental songs in the history of, well, ever. Narrowing this list down was obviously difficult. There were four “waves” needed to thin out the contestants from my library of thousands, and once we got below one-hundred it was like pulling teeth.

Yet, I stayed true to my original goal of fifty, for my own sake, and not compromise that number. I wanted to know for myself what I believed were my favorites among the gallery of songs I so dearly love.  This following list is the conclusion of those struggles.  They are not in order.  Simply getting a pool of them was hard enough.  I do wish to leave with my sanity.

Many are favored because of their execution and style, while others, because of a particular attachment or association they have with my personal life.  With each entry will be a short blurb, explaining why it belongs. And for a disclaimer: if I couldn’t understand what language they were singing in, I considered the vocals as their own independent instruments, and thus things like Gregorian chants do not disqualify songs from being “instrumentals.”

Enjoy.


#41 – “Atonement” by Masashi Hamauzu

My all-time favorite song, in-and-outside of instrumental music, accounting for all genres and all phases over the course of my nearly twenty-seven years of life. In the beginning, I didn’t think much more of it than “mmm, what a bittersweet sound,” but with time and repetition, it wiggled its way into the soft, squishy parts of my heart, and nested there.  I am not going to boast of its technical or emotional merits.  Just please do me the favor of listening to it a couple of times, and if you find it not capturing you right away, return later.  It is not for all moments of life, but imperative to a specific few which matter.  I hope you are fortunate enough to find this song in one of those times.

#42 – “Soul Battles” by Ryan Taubert

Similar to “Time” from Inception, “Soul Battles” darkly shines with a heavy, swaying sadness. It is the sound of somebody who is being overcome. I’m going to waylay my usual blurb for these entries.  Just let the music carry you away to the trenches.

#43 – “Kakariko Village” by Koji Kondo (performed by the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony)

This famous track from The Legend of Zelda practically oozes good feelings.  I feel safe when I hear this song.  I feel home.  This song precludes the adventure, showcasing the mystified daydreams of a hero-to-be, before he picks up the blade.  “Kakariko Village” is quaint, just like the village itself in every incarnation of Zelda.  I’m not the world’s biggest Zelda fan, but Link to the Past was one of the first games I ever played, and I would sometimes just leave my character sitting in the middle of the village to hear the soothing overture.  They brought perspective and optimism whenever I was feeling lost or uncertain in my direction.  It still makes me feel that way.  And for a song to be able to do that is nothing short of phenomenal.

#44 – “Kindred Spirits” by REEN

I think the image in the above video does a pretty good job of capturing my feelings towards this song.  “Kindred Spirits” is gingerly, romantically tragic.  An honest love, cracked down the middle by external powers.  Romeo and Juliet, except believable, and actually sad.  If I walked in on the scene depicted in that video, in that lighting…yeah, I can see how this song would fit.

#45 – “Friends” by Yoko Kanno

I have no idea what this show is about.  I’ve never seen Wolf’s Rain, but I discovered its soundtrack around the time I was reading a series called Bakuman.  A major theme in Bakuman is that of friendship and camaraderie, to which this song appropriately fits.  Yet, despite the earnestness of the track, it’s very clearly a song of bittersweet quality.  I suspect it originally plays in Wolf’s Rain to the scene of a friend dying, or having already passed and being reflected upon.  At any rate, that piano lacerates my strength.  I am made somber beneath its gentle might, just in time to be done in by the violins which follow after.  We approach the conclusion with a dirge of aching woodwinds, playing notes so low, they’re practically whispers.  Whispers between friends.  A promise to never forget one another.

#46 – “Ascending into Naught” by Demetori

(Despite the picture above, this is not from an anime…just a video game with anime aesthetics.)

It was difficult to narrow down one favorite from the Japanese metal band Demetori, but, gun to my head, I’d have to go with “Ascending Into Naught.”  This song has been on my workout playlists since my friend introduced me to it in college. The colliding harmony of layered guitars—some riding power chords, the others flying through high notes— synchronize perfectly with the piano to create what sounds to me like a grade-A, final boss video game track.  You can even tell when the final boss would go on its last leg.  Near the 5:48 mark, a slaughtering drum-line breaks through a tasteful lull in the energy of the song, ushering it to new heights, in which the guitars and piano/synth run a gauntlet of increased stress and speed and rioting awesomeness.

This song is crazy, it’s epic, and it’s so much fun.  Just like everything Demetori does.

#47 – “Beyond” by Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer

When people describe something which is “epic,” they are referring to scope and magnitude.  If something is epic, it is of great consequence, usually world-altering in nature, involving hundreds, if not thousands, millions, or billions of moving pieces.

If I were to describe “Beyond” in any two words, it would be as the spiritual incarnation of “epic sorrow.”  This is the dirge which follows a long, hard-fought battle, and things did not turn out well.  As the siren-like strings slowly crescendo, they build into a drop which plunges your heart into your feet.  This song is the sound of hope dying, as all the world weeps.  It, and the game it comes from (Beyond: Two Souls) were the original seed from which my own story, “Doubting Puppet,” was founded.

#48 – “Between Worlds” by Roger Subirana Mata

I’m sorry the world is not what it should be—that the crack in your chest has held on despite all these years of trying to make it go away. I’m sorry people are not always patient, not always kind. I’m sorry that sometimes neither am I. I’m sorry you’ve lost friends, in however way that might have happened. Tragedy is not always necessary in losing someone important. I’m sorry your heart doesn’t always feel big enough or strong enough.  I’m sorry your mind doesn’t always feel as though it can persist through the gales of stress which blow your way.

I’m sorry people don’t understand, can’t understand, or won’t understand.  Please forgive them.  Please forgive yourself, because you know sometimes it’s hard for you to understand, too.  That’s not your fault, it’s just the way of things.  We do the best with what we have, and as long as you are doing all you can, no fault can be justly held against you.

#49 – “Farewell, Life” by Arn Andersson & Nights Amore

One of the saddest songs I know.  Dangerously sad.  It should not be consumed without caution, and definitely not over an extended period of time.  Beneath the heartbreaking rhythm, a seduction is taking place, a parasitic spirit of hurt which will slowly drain you of vitality if you’re not careful, and lead you into thoughts of obliteration, however hypothetical.  That said, it is beautiful.  The ocean in a grey morning, not a stir to be seen, despite the cool gust tossing your hair.  Froth on the rocks.  A quiet harbor town.

“Farewell, Life,” is a deathbed anthem.  It’s what plays in the miasma of the spiritual plane when one of our own passes over, eyes clicking shut for the last time.  Songs like this are important.  They help us remember death isn’t necessarily bad or scary.  But it is significant, and should never be forgotten.

#50 – “Super Saiyan 3” by Bruce Faulconer

80’s Hair-metal ain’t got nothin’ on this. ^^^

There is a special place in my nerdy heart for many of the Super Saiyan themes.  This one is arguably my favorite (there was much internal debating).  Where the theme from Goku’s original ascension carried with it the sound of a legend being born—mystical and slow—and Gohan’s theme from reaching Super Saiyan 2 showed him surpass his father—chilling and violent—the Super Saiyan 3 Theme is something else entirely.  In Goku’s own meme-ified words, it is “to go even further beyond.”

This is the song of the ultimate hero, one who has found the final ceiling of their own potential, and somehow managed to push through it.  When the heroes of Dragon Ball Z first reached Super Saiyan, they were quick to realize there was something beyond it, a perfected form.  Super Saiyan 2 was achieved: the natural end to their evolution.  But Goku, he invented a level beyond that, something he and only he had ever done.

Super Saiyan 3 was an impossibility, creating one’s own reality from just being that awesome.  While the transformation in-series had the least emotional build-up and impact, it was no doubt memorable for its sheer confidence.  This song helped craft that feeling, make it whole, and cemented Goku, for better or worse, as one of the coolest shonen protagonists of all time.  So it would be fitting to make his ascension to SS3 the bookend to this immense list.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you found at least one song you enjoyed.

Top 50 Instrumental Songs (Part 4/5)

This is the fourth in a five-part series to be released daily, in which I unpack my favorite instrumental songs in the history of, well, ever. Narrowing this list down was obviously difficult. There were four “waves” needed to thin out the contestants from my library of thousands, and once we got below one-hundred it was like pulling teeth.

Yet, I stayed true to my original goal of fifty, for my own sake, and not compromise that number. I wanted to know for myself what I believed were my favorites among the gallery of songs I so dearly love.  This following list is the conclusion of those struggles.  They are not in order.  Simply getting a pool of them was hard enough.  I do wish to leave with my sanity.

Many are favored because of their execution and style, while others, because of a particular attachment or association they have with my personal life.  With each entry will be a short blurb, explaining why it belongs. And for a disclaimer: if I couldn’t understand what language they were singing in, I considered the vocals as their own independent instruments, and thus things like Gregorian chants do not disqualify songs from being “instrumentals.”

Enjoy.


#31 – “The Huge Tree in the Tsukamori Forest” by Joe Hisaishi

This song could straight-up break me out of a coma.  This is the song which holds the most history of any on this list.  My Neighbor Totoro was my first exposure to anime, played by my babysitter Patty when I was four years old.  She said I asked for it constantly.  Thus my love of anime was born.

When I hear The Huge Tree, I am brought to imagine the beautiful antiquity of rural Japan, in which My Neighbor Totoro is set.  Specifically, I feel the essence of late afternoon, bottled up and hung next to wind chimes.  Sunlight calms down as the late afternoon sets in.  The world, in spite all its troubles, is for a moment at peace.

And when those chimes or whatever they are start up…there is nothing more nostalgic.  That sound has the compounded interest of twenty-two years of memories behind it.  Nothing can compare.

#32 – “Otherworld” by Nobuo Uematsu and the Black Mages

Almost objectively the worst song on this list, my appreciation for “Otherworld,” the heavy-metal anthem of Final Fantasy X, relies on a story, and the evidence that it invokes one of the strongest biological reactions of any song I know.  Nearly all of my love for this track comes from the first twenty seconds, and that requires some context.  I’d first heard it long before it became one of my favorites, when the game first released in my elementary school years and I watched my friend Joey play it.  From that young moment, I’d come to associate that song with “Sin,” the immense and unstoppable monster which plagues the world of FFX.  When this song is first introduced, it is to the visage of Sin as it obliterates an entire city.  Your city.

For years I believed this song only played at the beginning of the game, as I’d never owned the game myself or completed it.  But in college I had the opportunity to play FFX to conclusion.  Once I reached the end, to the climax against the heart of Sin—my in-game father—I prepared for the worst.  I knew from word of mouth by multiple friends who’d gone before me that Sin’s core was an incredibly intimidating boss.  I got ready for the typical fare we see in Final Fantasy last boss soundtracks…

But when Sin (aka “Braska’s Final Aeon,” technically) reached its hand over the lip of the arena which was to be the place of the final battle, and slammed it down, that guitar from “Otherworld” kicked in, and I found myself instinctively leaning away from the screen as a massive, flaming demonoid creature heaved itself slowly into the frame, almost too large to be contained by the arena itself.  As it glared down at my party, now seeming woefully unprepared, I remembered the words of my friends who warned me of its might.  I did not know this song played again for the final boss.  I thought it only played at the beginning.  Years and years of listening to this song rushed at me all at once as I looked upon the true face of whom it belonged, the core of Sin, a creature of terrible menace.

I’ve never had such an animal response to a video game before.  To physically put space between myself and an enemy which could not technically hurt me.  I felt intimidation rolling off this moment as if I’d suddenly been caught out by a bear.  It was amazing.

If anybody were to tell me that, of the songs in my top 50, this was their least favorite, I would not blame them.  It’s special for me independent of its own quality.

#33 – “Drowning in this Fog of Yours” by Cicada

If you haven’t noticed, I am a never-ending sucker for the contrite piano.  When it’s part of an ensemble cast, alongside a guitar and strings which share its vision, then we have a classic case of a sum being greater than its parts.  “Drowning in this Fog of Yours” has a little something for both sides of the emotional soul.  Some melancholy, some tranquility, some encouragement, some love.  Such a perfect morning song.  A perfect reading song.  A perfect living song.  There’s nothing special about it musically, nor personally.  I just can’t seem to shake its hold on me.  It makes my heart smile.  I want more of it, as soon as it ends.

Songs like these are my favorite because they are so good at doing what traditional, vocal-driven songs cannot: they speak to you.  I am not ignorant to the irony of that statement, nor do I believe lyrics can’t convey amazing things. But there’s an undeniable transparency and individuality with these sorts of tracks.  There’s no words to misinterpret, no specific story behind the narrative.  It’s just feelings, made semi-material, a gateway into another person.  The music is much more honest than we could ever be with our faulted tongues.

#34 – “Death Image” by Yoshihisa Hirano

This song is morbidly simple.  It is the swaying footsteps of the man on his last dredges of vitality, ready to surrender to his own weight. The way the strings make drawn, flat notes provide a perfect foundation for the eventual raindrop sound of the piano, as well as the organ and slight percussion which give a sort of ticking clock sound.  If I must capture this word in a scene, it is that of somebody taking their final steps as the world melts away around them.  It’s a good deathbed song, extracted from the anime “Death Note,” something which says “yes, it’s over.”

I once listened to this song on repeat for an entire 8-hour overnight shift.

#35 – “Creator of Worlds” by Epic Score (I think?)

Three things: drums, ominous choir, and the angriest violins on this side of existence.  That’s 90% of this song, and it’s one of the most intense things ever.  Objectively.   I’m allowed to say that, I’m the writer.

It really does give an impression while you inhale the music of a divine act of terraforming taking place somewhere in the universe.  Can’t you feel it?  Tectonic plates, freshly birthed from the magma of a fledgling planet, sliding together, mashing into mountains and earthquakes and underwater ravines.  The oceans stir into place, a devastation contained only by gravity, drowning tens of thousands of miles in unstoppable nature.  Storms of lightning war with themselves as layers of atmosphere begin to form around the soft meat of the globe, tender from its chaos.  And then, somewhere in this miasma of ancient power, life rapidly expands beyond its natural elements.  I can imagine a body coming together just as easily.  Muscle sinews stretching and reaching for each other, forming elastic bridges between the still solidifying frame of bone and cartilage which will eventually have the power to raise itself up.  Eyes, for a moment mush, round out into something which is firm, and then complex, swallowing the world in the birth of perception.

This is the song, as the name implies, of a great god-hand sewing together the many fabrics of the universe.

#36 – “Fantasia alla Marcia” by Yoko Shimomura

There is something intrinsically important about this song.  It’s hard to quite land a finger on.  I mean, it’s obviously beautiful and dramatic, but that’s typical fare for Kingdom Hearts.  What I think sets this song apart, aside from it having like seven different melodies, is the nebulous sense of inheritance it provides.  As if I’m being entrusted with the responsibility to refine and pass along virtues of worth, in the hopes of breeding new caretakers of this strange truth: that humanity, in spite of ourselves, can imagine, and wonder, and create.  We make art, and music, and those things are worth maintaining.  You inherit a sense of protection towards that, such an insane and honest and worthwhile campaign.

#37 – “Goodbye” by Jared Emerson-Johnson

This is the saddest song from the saddest game I’ve ever played, and if I’m not careful, it can ruin my entire day.  I make this one of my favorite songs almost ironically, as it encapsulates an experience which plunged me into a thick, four day depression after exposure.  What I said is dramatic, yes, but not without cause.  To unpack all the reasoning behind that now would take too long, but in short, I associate this song intrinsically with a sense of unforgivable failure.  And as crudely categorized as that is, I love this song because, despite its simplicity and sorrowful grade, anything which makes me feel so deeply deserves to be considered a favorite.

That game broke me a little.

Sorry, Clementine.

#38 – “Into the Wild Chapter II” by Axl Rosenberg

A slow, but glorious burn. You need to stick with this one for a bit, because the first couple minutes are preemptive—steadily building in strength and tone.  The true character of ItWC2 resurrects around the 1:45 second mark.  Then opens the anthem to the long journey, an adventure to find an unknown something, a place not yet seen.  Being lost, and finding.  When I hear this track, I imagine a grand voyage or pilgrimage, either alone or with companions.  It is the quintessential self-discovery arc every person and character must endure to find themselves.

#39 – “Little Fugue in G Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach

For full-disclosure, I care less about the more traditional renditions of Bach’s famous “Little Fugue in G Minor,” and prefer it in several recent incarnations.  For example, this excellent metal take on the classic.  Or this one from a game called Catherine which I’ve never played but has a great soundtrack.

But I obviously have one which stands out, as it’s the one posted above.  The version which plays to the final adversary of Mega Man Legends, one of my favorite games.

Bach’s masterpiece has such a delicious, aristocratic horror, as if dancing at a masquerade on a night filled with secrets, lies, and betrayal.  There’s a scope of history about the song, nestled deep into the public psyche.  The almost universal familiarity of it somehow emphasizes the dread it creates.  A shadow hiding in our minds, wearing a mask, polite until your guard has fallen.

#40 – “Unfinished Battle” by Yoko Shimomura

Shimomura has now shown up just as many times as Sawano.

For some reason this song was only played once through the entire 80-hour game of Xenoblade Chronicles, which is practically a sin., because it’s one of the most raw soundtracks in recent memory.  It’s hard to point at any one part of the song and tell you “that, that is what makes it amazing.”  It is simply a perfectly rounded battle fanfare, with chasing strings running the course of its length, and a mounting synth-piano which explodes into prominence at the end.  As the name implies, it encourages a tremendous sense of pushing through adversity towards a final resolution.  An excellent workout song, “Unfinished Battle” has a home in many, many of my playlists.