10 greatest pieces of music by Joe Hisaishi, ranked

4 August 2023, 15:23

Spirited Away is one of Joe Hisaishi’s most famous soundtracks
Spirited Away is one of Joe Hisaishi’s most famous soundtracks. Picture: Alamy

By Siena Linton

Ranking Joe Hisaishi’s very best pieces of music – from his beloved soundtracks to Studio Ghibli animations, to original compositions for piano and orchestra.

With more than 100 soundtracks and studio albums under his belt, Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi is one of the best-loved composers of the 21st century, most famous for his soundtracks to Studio Ghibli animations, from Howl’s Moving Castle to Spirited Away.

His reputation as an illustrious composer for the studio is down to his close working relationship with director and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki. The pair first worked together on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984, and Hisaishi has written the soundtrack to every one of Miyazaki’s films since.

Film music is not Hisaishi’s only domain, having released 27 studio albums to date, most recently A Symphonic Celebration on Deutsche Grammophon in 2023, having signed to the famed yellow label earlier that year.

So, with more than 40 years of music to choose from, here are 10 of his all-time greatest!

Read more: 10 incredible pieces of anime music

  1. ‘A Town with an Ocean View’ from Kiki’s Delivery Service

    The 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service follows a young witch, Kiki, and her black cat named Jiji, as she sets out to make her own way in the world. The theme that plays as the pair fly over the sea towards their new home is full of playful innocence, and an idealistic hope for all the new things this town could offer.

    A sprightly melody, underscored by a chugging wind and brass-led bass, accompanies Kiki on her journey to newfound freedom and all that is to come with it.

    Joe Hisaishi - A Town with an Ocean View

  2. ‘Deep Sea Pastures’ from Ponyo

    ‘Deep Sea Pastures’ accompanies the opening scene of the 2008 Studio Ghibli animation, Ponyo, a goldfish who escapes from the ocean and is rescued by a five-year-old boy.

    As the film opens with the underwater landscape being explored, string tremolandi and rapidly flourishing flute melodies echo the rippling motion of the water, and the tiny fish that dash and dart through it. Long, sweeping string melodies and a wordless choir meanwhile represent the vastness of the ocean.

    Read more: The 50 best film scores of all time

    Deep Sea Pastures (from 'Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea')

  3. ‘A Journey (Dream of Flight)’ from The Wind Rises

    Released in 2013, The Wind Rises was intended to be Miyazaki’s final film for Studio Ghibli before retiring. The film tells a fictional account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed airplanes used by the Japanese in the Second World War.

    The original score makes use of guitar tremolos and an accordion melody to paint a quaint and idyllic picture of rural Japan, building into an ‘oom-pah’ rhythm together with strings as Horikoshi takes to the skies in a dream, flying high over green fields and snow-capped mountains.

    The Wind Rises Soundtrack: Joe Hisaishi - A Journey

  4. ‘One Summer’s Day’ from Spirited Away

    ‘One Summer’s Day’ scores the opening scene to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s 2001 film, Spirited Away. In it, a young girl named Chihiro is travelling in the back seat of her parents’ car, resigned to the new chapter they’re beginning together in a new town.

    A simple, melancholy piano melody on a bed of soft string chords reflects Chihiro’s reluctance to leave her home and friends behind. The music builds to a richer texture with full, jazz-inflected piano chords, more orchestration, and a more optimistic mood as Chihiro’s mother encourages her to view the move as an adventure.

    Joe Hisaishi - One Summer's Day

  5. ‘The Rain’ from Kikujiro

    A departure from Joe Hisaishi’s work for Studio Ghibli now, with his music from the live action 1999 drama, Kikujiro.‘The Rain’ showcases Hisaishi’s typical minimalist and melody-driven piano style, this time with percussive synthesised inflections and solo lines for a cellist and a violinist.

    Joe Hisaishi - The Rain

  6. ‘Mother’s Broom’ from Kiki’s Delivery Service

    A second theme from Kiki’s Delivery Service, ‘Mother’s Broom’ opens with a magical chime flourish and string tremolos, for a truly bewitching accompaniment to Miyazaki’s film.

    A virtuosic violin solo ensues and gives into a full orchestral outburst of symphonic proportions, in a moment of music that stands just as well on its own as it does in a film.

    Joe Hisaishi - Mother’s Broom (from Kiki’s Delivery Service)

  7. ‘The Flower Garden’ from Howl’s Moving Castle

    Unlike much of Hisaishi’s previous work for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the score to Howl’s Moving Castle contains ‘leitmotifs’ – specific musical themes that relate to individual characters, places, or plot themes within the movie.

    One of them can be heard here, in ‘The Flower Garden’, in a sumptuous string arrangement before the brass section introduces a majestic second theme.

  8. ‘Birthday’ from Freedom: Piano Stories 4

    Joe Hisaishi’s musical mastery doesn’t end with music for the screen. On an album released in 2005, Hisaishi plays his own piano music together with a string ensemble.

    ‘Birthday’ is a sweet interlude which opens with warm, sweeping chords before giving way to a solo piano, playing high in its register. Full of rich, Romantic-style textures, ‘Birthday’ feels like a warm, comforting hug in musical form.

    Joe Hisaishi - Birthday

  9. ‘Nausicaä Requiem’ from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

    If ‘Nausicaä Requiem’, from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind sounds familiar to you, you wouldn’t be mistaken. The 1984 anime fantasy, Hisaishi and Miyazaki’s first collaboration, makes use of the Sarabande from Handel’s Suite No.4.

    In a new arrangement released in 2023, the short, stabbing chords are hauntingly sung by a choir to the lyrics of the Dies irae, building up to a magnificently powerful tutti section complete with brass fanfare. Goosebumps.

    Nausicaä Requiem (from 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind')

  10. ‘Merry-Go-Round of Life’ from Howl’s Moving Castle

    A list of Joe Hisaishi’s greatest music just wouldn’t be complete without what might be his most famous piece to date. ‘Merry-Go-Round of Life’, the main theme from Howl’s Moving Castle, is where a Chopin-esque waltz meets a wind-up music box.

    It’s a theme that has transcended the film it was written for, and become just as treasured as a piece of music as it is within the film itself.

    Joe Hisaishi - Merry-Go-Round of Life (from “Howl’s Moving Castle”)

If you love Joe Hisaishi’s music, vote for your favourite soundtrack in the Classic FM Movie Music Hall of Fame 2023, and be in with the chance to win a Smart TV or Sony Soundbar.