It felt as if this would never happen. Film fans waited so long to see Joe Hisaishi play his Studio Ghibli music live in London that tickets were bought when global pandemics only existed in sci-fi movies. This string of gigs in the UK was first moved due to Covid. Then it was moved again (still the pandemic), then again when Hisaishi was sick (with Covid, obviously). Tonight people are joking about it in their seats: is he actually going to show up?
The spritely 72-year-old musical director is extremely present though, breaking into smiles and winks as he takes the audience through a two-hour highlight reel of his soundtracks, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus. Hisaishi is to Studio Ghibli director, Hayao Miyazaki, what Danny Elfman is to Tim Burton, or John Williams is to Spielberg: a tight forever-collaborator (he has written the scores for all but one of the Ghibli films).
How impressed you are by proceedings – pleased is a given – depends on what you want from an orchestral soundtrack concert. Some in this format focus on one film, playing the entire movie on screens from start to finish so you almost forget the orchestra is there. Others are just about the music without the bells, whistles and 30ft screens. Hisaishi’s show is a composite of the two: small clips cut between live footage of the performers. While Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo are all expertly covered, the biggest cheer of the night is for the music of Spirited Away – the most iconic theme in Japanese cinema this millennium – whose vocal solos are performed in English and later Japanese.
When Hisaishi smoothly half-dances back to the stage for the third encore, he waits for a moment of quiet to mention Miyazaki’s new – and final – movie. “This is a special gift for you,” he says, and sits down to play an unaccompanied piano ballad, presumably the theme of the forthcoming The Boy and the Heron. It is mature, simple and beautiful, and testament to what tonight, at long last, has reminded fans in attendance, that you can’t have the spiritual and heartfelt nature Ghibli is beloved for without the spirit itself: its music.
• At Ovo Arena Wembley, London, on 22 September.
• This review was updated on 22 September to include the names of the orchestra and choir.