The OP is often the first experience we have of an anime. It’s meant to ease us into the anime’s story and it usually tells us what kind of story we’re about to experience. From the video, we can glean major plot twists and guess how the characters are related to each other. The video aspects of anime OPs are their own subject, but what about the music? In my experience, a good opening song usually indicates a good anime (although this doesn’t hold true for all cases) while songs with terrible vocals or instrumentation indicate a mediocre series. Additionally, several opening songs are so iconic that even if they’re not the best, they’re still well-loved by many anime fans. In this series of blog posts, I’d like to take a look at a variety of anime OPs from several different genres and see how strong the correlation is between good songs and good series. Please keep in mind that most of this will be based on my own personal preferences. I’m not trying to make sweeping generalizations, but I do think there’s something to be said about an opening song’s appeal and the entire anime’s appeal.
Iconic songs that even non-anime fans might recognize
Sometimes, an amazing anime has an equally amazing, or at least catchy, song. In some cases, the song is more recognizable than the anime. That is to say, someone who doesn’t know a lot about anime might still recognize some opening songs. Here are some OPs that I believe fit this description.
1) Cowboy Bebop–Tank!
Arguably the most recognizable anime song, Tank! sets itself apart from the majority of other opening songs with its fantastic, energetic jazziness. The staccato horns at the start immediately grab our attention and then a quick drum roll leads into a cool yet driven bass line. The horns come back a bit more subdued and build the anticipation by repeating the same phrase, leading to another set of quick, high pitched notes (the musical interpretation of gun shots). Overall, the song has a very adventurous quality to it. You can clearly hear that it’s going in a certain direction and it’s exciting. Tank! is an opening song that really gets you ready to explore the lonely reaches of space, which is a bit ironic seeing as how most Cowboy Bebop episodes are pretty relaxed until the second half.
I have tons of friends who aren’t very interested in anime, or they’ve only seen a few series, but even they have recognized this song when it plays on my iPod in the car. Cowboy Bebop’s run on Adult Swim certainly exposed it to a lot of us in the West, but I certainly think that Tank! helped to embed it in people’s mind. Not many OPs combine cool, classy, and exciting all in one smooth blend.
2) Sailor Moon–Moonlight Densetsu
Sailor Moon is an iconic series in its own rights from its popularization of the magical girl genre to its role in the 90s anime boom in America, and this opening has one of those melodies that you can place in an instant. It certainly helps that this song was used for the first four seasons (with some minor changes) and that the lyrics essentially summarize a good portion of the plot. Sure, it’s not necessarily the most exciting song, but for those of us who grew up with Sailor Moon, it evokes all sorts of wonderful childhood memories.
Moonlight Densetsu is a song that’s all about the melody–not much else about it stands out except for the strings at the beginning. Other sounds, especially the bell-like keyboard that plays the melody, give the song a “girly” flair without sounding weak (the ways that Sailor Moon encompasses a lot of good things about feminism is its own discussion). There’s hardly any variation except for the bridge, allowing the same notes to repeat until they stick in our minds. It’s catchy, cute, and a fun, albeit older pop song.
OPs that most anime fans recognize even if they’ve never seen the series
Narrowing our focus a bit, there are a good handful of opening songs that most of us know even if we haven’t seen the series in question. Whether through popularity or the prevalence of internet parodies, these are tunes that jump out of their anime’s context and fix themselves in the pool of common anime knowledge.
In most other circumstances, a song like this wouldn’t be much to remember, but because Eva blew a lot of people’s minds back in the day, this song has achieved instant recognizability status. Some people love Eva, some people hate it, and some people just love making fun of Shinji, but everyone at least knows the song. Much like Sailor Moon’s opening, this one hinges on the melody to make it memorable, except it’s really just the chorus that sticks with people. Would a different song be just as well-known? Maybe. There’s no way of knowing, but there are plenty of notable series where the opening songs are forgettable. Additionally, it’s clear by looking at the lyrics that this song is tailored to Eva. Not many recent anime OPs do this, which might account for their forgettability. The combination of Cruel Angel’s Thesis and a story that, for better or for worse, defines anime as a mature medium certainly leaves a lasting impression.
2) Rurouni Kenshin–Sobakasu
Honestly, I find this song annoying. Squeaky, high-pitched vocals, even in Japanese, are a hit or miss and this one’s a miss. Even so, this song also has a melody that gets stuck in your head and Rurouni Kenshin is such a good example of a well-done shonen anime that I, at least, can get over the grating vocals. It also helps that I remember watching the show on TV back when I first got into anime, but even outside of nostalgia I think this song encompasses the mood of the series’ beginnings–optimistic yet still hindered by the past. It also doesn’t have a very “masculine” tone, which matches Kenshin’s seeming lack of stereotypically manly qualities (a thirst for blood, violence, and power). In fact, having such a “girly” opening coincides with Kenshin’s numerous feminine qualities that he’s not ashamed of displaying. At least the song has some sweet guitar riffs.
3) Lucky Star–Motteke! Sailor Fuku
Keeping in line with the annoying theme, we have this gem that’s just as prevalent on the internet as Hare Hare Yukai. It took me until I actually watched Lucky Star to love this song, but even before then I knew it because it was everywhere. Cute Japanese school girls plus an energetic dance equals a major hit with today’s anime fans (it also spawns a lot of frustration with all the moemoekyuun, but that’s a different discussion). Motteke! Sailor Fuku is a prime example of the annoying pop song that drives you crazy when it gets stuck in your head, but then the more you listen to it the more you like it. Like the Eva opening, this song’s sticking power is in the chorus, which is the only part that actually sounds like a song.
To an extent, I think the song is annoying on purpose. I mean, this is Lucky Star we’re talking about. Most of its humor centers around otakuism filtered through cute high school girls who look like they’re five. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me that Motteke! Sailor Fuku is filled with synth horns and random talking. If you really think about it, the song fits the anime very well (and it’s also a lot of fun to listen to).
All of the above series are ones I’ve enjoyed and they also have good or at least recognizable OPs. They also happen to be very popular series. While I know there are exceptions to this rule (I’ll talk about some of them in another post), I think it’s fair to say that good/catchy music and good anime go hand-in-hand most of the time. Next time, I’ll look at series that have good OPs and good stories (but may not be as popular as the ones I talked about here) as well as ones with good stories and okay OPs (songs that don’t particularly stand out).
In the mean time, I’d like to know about other OPs that you all think are iconic. Link them in the comments section and I’ll mention them in my next post.