Joe Hisaishi, review: why the Studio Ghibli maestro's magic will never leave you

Joe Hisaishi with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Wembley Arena
Some enchanted evening: Joe Hisaishi with the BBC Concert Orchestra - lloydwintersphoto.com

The Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi has written more than 100 movie scores and created 30-odd albums in his award-laden career to date – but he is famed above all for his work with Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. This is a creative bond that began in 1984, with Hisaishi’s powerfully poignant soundtrack for Miyazaki’s eco-themed fantasy Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind; their collaborations have sparked numerous hits since then, drawing parallels with classic movie/music pairings including Fellini and Nino Rota.

Soundtrack music (whether cinematic or videogame-based) has increasingly inspired major concert events, and Hisaishi’s elegantly arranged, multi-instrumental melodies have naturally translated to a live orchestral setting.

At the first of two sold-out London dates (rescheduled from 2020), the jaunty 72-year-old Hisaishi was cheered like a pop idol when he arrived to join the assembled 84-strong BBC Concert Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus. The set-up reflected his extensive influences, spanning Japanese and Western classical (with a taiko drum amid the percussion section); vintage movie soundtracks and rich symphonies as well as minimalist styles.

Most of the international crowd, myself included, had clearly grown up with decades of Studio Ghibli stories and soundtracks; there was audible delight whenever a much-loved character appeared on the overhead screens to accompany the scores. The sight of the titular star of Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Chihiro taking flight with Haku in Spirited Away had an enchanting effect; they were greeted like old friends.

Hisaishi’s music has always precisely struck the emotional chord of Miyazaki’s movies: in these adventures: young female heroines largely take centre-stage (from the aquatic cuteness of Ponyo to fearless warrior Princess Mononoke), and the natural world holds magical force. His soundtracks combine an earthy energy with otherworldly elements; they exude a sense of wonder that never quite leaves you.

Crucially, the concert also demonstrated the music’s exceptional beauty, regardless of whether you’d seen the original films. Throughout, Hisaishi glided between pianist and conductor roles, and his leitmotifs were memorable without ever sounding cloying or forced. Guest highlights included Simon Mayor’s gorgeously tremulous mandolin (The Wind Rises), and the heart-soaring soprano vocals of Ella Taylor and Grace Davidson.

The show drew towards a catchy close with themes from Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro, at which point there were happy tears en masse. Hisaishi then announced a “special gift” for the thrilled crowd: an untitled piano piece from Miyazaki’s latest film, The Boy And The Heron, which is released in the UK later this year. Tonight was just a fragment of Hisaishi’s repertoire, but his music took on a captivating life of its own.