Kenji Kawai

" The score Kenji Kawai wrote to Avalon is of unparalleled quality. "

Written by Joep de Bruijn - Review of the regular release

Avalon is a 2001 film directed by Mamoru Oshii and features a score by composer Kenji Kawai. Together they have created some of the most iconic works in the world of Japanese animation cinema, amongst them the Kidô Keisatsu Patorebâ (Patlabor) series, Kôkaku Kidôtai (Ghost in the Shell) and its sequel Kôkaku Kidôtai 2: Inosensu (Innocence). The poetic sightseeing sequence of Tokyo in Ghost in the Shell, with transcendental drums and Japanese children's choir, is one of the most imposing symbiosis I have seen. Similarly, the Japanese children´s choir and unrivalled taiko drumming come together as an evoluted new masterpiece in its sequel Innocence. Avalon has an equally brilliant score.

The film revolves around a virtual reality video game wherein protagonist Ash is trying to reach an unprecedented, higher level. Players are led to believe in a mythical island, Avalon, to rest once they reached the end of the game. The core element of the film is not to question reality perse, but rather seeing how it affects someone and how they deal with it. For one, Ash lives a rather lonely life, and does not seem social and does not really enjoy the things that aren't meant to be real. It is an aesthetic visceral experience, with an idiosyncratic sepia look that draws you into the world of the game and the isolated state in which Ash lives. Though the specific look is unique and for an acquired taste, the photography produces a variety of gorgeous images, intentionally bringing back memories of Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker) by the sepia look, Krystof Kieślowski cinema and Kanal (Andrezj Wadja).

One of the major components that has to be explained is the influence of the Polish culture on the music that Kawai wrote for Avalon. Due to budget restraints, director Oshii was looking for a place where he could shoot the film and borrow military vehicles from. He found its partner in Poland as his co-producing partner, whose army gave him free access to the things he required. Furthermore, the full cast (and language) and several other important places were filled in by Polish people, being cheaper than other places he had looked. So while Oshii had economical reason, the earlier mentioned film influences and praise that the director had for Eastern European cinema, also played a significant role. The most significant musical influences were drawn from Kieślowski, using a soprano, Elżbieta Towarnicka, that Zbigniew Preisner utilized for some of Kieślowski' films, while drawing inspiration from European operas. Also, Oshii was looking for a language to underline the unreal themes of the film, in which a strange language helped him to establish this, allowing the choir and soprano in Kawai´s score to sing in Polish. A carefully selected group of Japanese musicians performed were part of the score, while the National Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, with arranger, conductors and solo soprano were responsible for the Polish musical contributions. It's interesting to note that the Warsaw orchestra is known for their performances of a variety of Japanese orchestral animation scores. I would very much recommend to listen to their impressive legacy.

Foremost, the film is a slow, philosophical and atmospheric aesthetic experience, which is greatly reflected by a majority of atmospheric, sometimes, minimal, pieces of music. Kawai has written a lot of great scores relying much on atmosphere and amazing electronic ambience, while at the same time he could write such scores using electronics of the lowest possible demeanor and less appealing compositional skills. For Avalon, he has written a unique electronic-orchestral hybrid, the best I have ever heard.

The director wanted a lot of these sequences to be underscored by unusual, well crafted pieces of atmosphere, for both the everyday life sequences and sequences inside the game. There's a great wealth of different kinds of electronic tools to be discovered within this score, some actually outdated, some were intended to sound like they were created for a video game, yet overall it is a unique palette that is still impressive. There is often a sense of intrigue in these brooding piece of atmosphere, which also needed to reflect the introspective and sad protagonist Ash.

Ruins D99 displays a great low-key synthesised ambience, which alludes to the ominous and filthy environment and progression of the game. Bishops Ruins is an exceptional piece, trascendal waves of choir and electronics make this such a treat. Nine Sisters uses, an outdated, sampled choir singing a capella, whose minimalism approach gives this a hallucinating and disorientating feel, which gradually builds alongside an emerging wave of atmospheric sound. Similarly attractive are the distilled beauty of the voices in Murphy´s Ghost.

The introspectiveness of Ash is best reflected in a lot of the slower, saddening pieces of atmosphere, and especially in the rewardingly evocative and soothing strings of Gray Lady (Ash) and the electronic version Tir Na Mban. The second version was created to form a bridge between the spectacular Voyage To Avalon (Orchestra Version) and Log In, but was ultimately tossed from the film.

Apart from very specific instructions that Oshii laid out for the composer regarding the operatic side of the score, and some minor details, Kawai mostly had creative freedom for the entire score. I do realise I put extra weight in this review on the Polish influences, which is not entirely undeserved, but the majority of the score is written as a characteristic Kenji Kawai work. But Avalon is truly his most unique and well-written score to date. Originally, Oshii wanted the film to end on slower music, on which Kawai suggested reprising Log Off, in an extended version with great rhythm and choral phrases, as heard in Log In. While Voyage to Avalon reflects on the higher meaning of the game, these two pieces more conventionally serve as a game anthem.

Two extraordinary pieces represent the operatic side of the score to Avalon, first heard in the 4 minutes long Voyage To Avalon, later followed by the 10 minute long composition Voyage To Avalon (Orchestra Version). The short version is an elegantly operatic cue, performed by the slow, melancholic and operatic performance of the orchestra, aided by my personal favorite (Polish) soprano Elżbieta Towarnicka, whose contributions to some of Preisner's best scores are unforgettable. The text sung by Towarnicka is in Polish, describing the King Arthur theme of the film, a higher mythical place that Ash is trying to reach by completing the game.

As said before, director Oshii was looking for a strange language to underline the virtual reality themes of the film, in which Polish dialogues and singing helped in crafting an estranging of reality. At least, that is what he believed, I honestly do not see it. The actual lyrics are rather tedious and, unfortunately, even revealed upon watching the film with imposed subtitles, which undoes some of the intentions of Oshii, while he also clearly meant the texts being sung to add to the content of the legend. Nevertheless, the track triggers an inconceivable emotion, which makes these beauty marks rather trivial. This music (Voyage to Avalon) along with Ash travelling aboard a tram, respresents all themes, including the higher goal, but foremost her loneliness.

Voyage To Avalon (Orchestra Version) underscores Ash' attempt to finally reach the goal, reprises the same musical content as heard in the 4 minute version, but offers an encompassing overview, with more elements of the score coming to a truly remarkable conclusion, a compressed mini opera, the best I have ever heard in any score. It brings back memories of the brilliant evolution of the children's choir composition of the original Ghost in the Shell onto its sequel, with a broader canvas and emotion.

The composition includes several takes on the established Avalon theme, moments of more intimacy and more bold orchestral and operatic moments of grandeur, such as the insanely swirling and aggressive performances at 5:13 into the cue, and magnificent (word)less choral. It goes without saying, but this is truly a voyage to Avalon, such a magnificent conclusion to Ash reaching her goal. It is a vibrant and inspiring piece, and certainly one of the most memorable compositions for film. The composer wrote the piece, being very directly instructed to write an operatic piece in the European tradition, which would be enriched by the Polish influences in performance and emotion. He wrote it during principal photography. The musical construction, with its many gear changes, helped in editing the footage to the music. Tears are more than likely to be shed upon hearing this majestic piece of music.

Even though the shorter version included pour lyrics that were unnecessarily subtitled in the film, the long orchestral version includes a secondary overwhelmingly, but, positive distraction coming from the on-screen cameo by Towarnicka and the orchestra, performing in the film. I am aware that others may not have felt it so intensely as I had, for reasons explained. Her singing does not synchronise perfectly with her lips on screen, more so adding to the reality themes of the film.

The score Kenji Kawai wrote to Avalon is of unparalleled quality, a work that still has not lost its place in my personal top 10 of all times.

1. City 13 (5:06)
2. Log Off (2:34)
3. Voyage To Avalon (4:06)
4. Murphy's Ghost (2:46)
5. Bishop (0:39)
6. Nine Sisters (3:54)
7. Ruins C66 (3:02)
8. Gray Lady (Ash) (4:50)
9. Flak Tower 22 (1:26)
10. Ruins D99 (3:12)
11. The Ghost Hunting (3:21)
12. Voyage To Avalon (Orchestra Version) (10:19)
13. Tir Na Mban (2:28)
14. Log In (6:21)

Total Duration: 54:04

(written 12-12-2019)
(click to rate this score)  
(total of 7 votes - average 4.64/5)

Released by

Virgin Records (regular release 2002)