Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)James Batcho: THE SONIC LIFEWORLD: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL EXPLORATION OF THE IMAGINATIVE POTENTIAL OF ANIMATION SOUND
Let us explore some examples of popular Asian animated films and identify some of the problems associated with their approach to sound design in the context of the issues mentioned previously. Mamour Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell (Kôkaku Kidôtai) (Oshii 1995) presents a nonspecific Asian city of the future. As a fictional location in both time and place, Oshii and his sound designers had an opportunity to create a sonic culture, a lifeworld of sound in which characters interact. But while visually inventive, the film is for the most part culturally mute, with subjectivity only established through inner dialogue. There is a missed opportunity in design: What does this imagined world sound like? Does it hum? Does it beep and murmur? Is it industrial and mechanized, organic and interactive? Do fruit sellers roll down the street in trucks shouting prices through bullhorns? Apparently no one exists in this world; these are characters abstracted from their setting, chasing each other around a mute and lifeless city. The example scene below reveals a Cartesian approach to sound. In the first third of the clip, there is no sound of the city because there is not much visibly apparent. We only get the sound of objects occurring within the screen. In the second third, when we have a visually active setting, we get accompanying sounds. Then again in the final third, with nothing visual, we hear nothing of the world.
VideoObject1: Ghost in the Shell (chase scene)
The story is actually quite inventive and philosophical in its ideas of subjective being. We find this presented in what Thompson and Bordwell would call “mental subjectivity” in regard to inner dialogue (Thompson and Bordwell 2008). However, we do not hear a relationship between the characters and their world. A key plot element in the movie is that the characters are not human but are conditioned through programming. How might such a character hear “her” (its?) world? We are meant to identify with the main character Kusanagi, but her subjective moments do not reveal a dynamic between the outside world and her being in that world. More often, identification with her condition is done by masking the world of sound through the use of nondiegetic music. While this creates an emotional focusing upon her condition, as music does—think again of The Insider—it also removes the possibility for us to connect with her as she experiences her particular environment. A connection between her being and her being within a lifeworld is never created aurally.
VideoObject2: Ghost in the Shell (city montage)
Akira, by director Katsuhiro Otomo, is similar in sonic design (Otomo 1988). As with Ghost in the Shell, “Neo-Tokyo” stands prominent in the storytelling. But we don’t know what this new city sounds like. As evidenced particularly in early scenes, establishing the setting, there is no sound. It is sonically empty. One might suggest that this emptiness reflects the inward paranoia of its citizens in a dystopian condition. But we see throughout the film that the characters are very active in this world—they drive through the city, engage in political protests, and go about their lives. More than that, it is a city on the brink of anarchy. But this again is embodied visually; other than crowds of voices, music and certain onscreen synchronous elements, we don’t hear the world, and certainly not through anyone who inhabits it.
VideoObject3: Akira (biker gangs scene)
It is difficult to discuss animated works that embrace a phenomenological approach to sound design because not many exist, even though animation is the perfect storytelling apparatus to do so. One example that comes close is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Early in the film, the family enters a tunnel, which becomes a long hall, then emerges into an open field. The sound designers did an interesting thing with the soundtrack in that it is through sound that we come to recognize the hall as an abandoned train station, through the faint reverberation of an arriving train. This accomplishes several narrative aims. First, it injects ambiguity into the soundtrack and the story. Is it “real” or is it mystical? Is it a ghost of the past or something else? The mother asks: “Do you hear that?” even though no train actually exists. We might ascertain that it is her subjective moment. But Chihiro, her daughter, responds to it: “It sounds like a train.” (The father makes no reference to it.) We might consider this mother-daughter acknowledgement a maternal act, an alerting toward something that Chihiro must recognize. It is a last gesture of protectiveness before the mother disappears and Chihiro sets out on her own journey. We can therefore consider the sound, and the station itself, as a transition point of not merely of mind and body, but of being. It metaphorically establishes Chihiro’s existential “transportation” from the real world into fantasy, and a transition from innocence to adulthood. It also portends via foreshadowing her later heroic journey by train to make amends for Haku, in itself a transition into adulthood. This sound is not tied to the physical world of objects, nor to notions of subjectivity; rather it is a phenomenological disclosure which provides narrative meaning beyond the rational world of physical extension.