For whatever reason, there have been a ton of Favourite Anime OP posts out lately. These are always pretty fun to read, and I had thought of doing my own for quite a while now (in fact, I’ve been putting that off for the last couple of years, if not longer). And while I do intend to get there eventually, I thought it might be good to first write up a few different articles on the topic, each with their own specific theme. First up: my top 5 foreign language OPs.
The vast majority of anime OPs are, understandably, written and performed by Japanese artists or groups, and the accompanying vocals are therefore also primarily sung in Japanese (albeit often with snatches of English here and there, as has been considered cool and fashionable for decades now). However, it’s not unheard of to have songs by Western artists featured in anime OPs as well, such as with Eden of the East, Wolf’s Rain, and Mushishi. Since these OPs seem to have already attracted their fair share of attention though, I’ve decided to discount any songs performed in English by English native speakers. Not because I dislike said songs, but because I’d rather look at some hopefully less well-known OPs instead of just posting a bunch of videos that everyone’s likely to immediately think of on their own.
Honourable Mention: Elfen Lied
While I think the show itself is a total mess, the opening to Elfen Lied is everything the series probably should have been: eerie, haunting, and mournful. Sung mostly in Latin, with a bit of Greek thrown in for good measure, the lyrics of ‘Lilium’ use parts of the Bible as well as an old Catholic hymn, with high-pitched vocals but the music in a minor key, complete with piano and violin in the background. The overall effect is both powerful and unnerving, especially when paired with the artwork, which is based on the works of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. It’s a bit like listening to some kind of ethereal opera dirge – more a ceremonial lament than anything else – and that suits Elfen Lied better than most of the actual content ever did.
I don’t expect a great many people to recognise the name Tane Tomoko. The singer-songwriter made her debut back in 1985, but even when one of her albums peaked at number five in the Japanese charts in 1990, she never saw a huge amount of commercial success. ‘Message #9’ though, the OP to 1998’s Gasaraki, is well worth some attention. There’s one short line of Japanese but otherwise the song is performed entirely in English, with lyrics that are pronounced reasonably well and mostly even make complete sense – something of a rarity when it comes to Japanese songs. However, it’s the music itself that really makes the song for me. As the series mixes science-fantasy and mecha with feudal Japan, so does the music mix a futuristic vibe with traditional Japanese elements, pairing solid beats with classic sounds from Kabuki and Noh theatre. It’s an interesting and arresting combination, and one that still makes an impact on me today.
Japanese band See-Saw, made up of dynamic duo Kajiura Yuki and Ishikawa Chiaki, was bound to be on this list somewhere. They’ve done quite a bit of anime-related work over the years – in fact, Kajiura composed the entire soundtrack for .hack//Sign – but ‘Obsession’ in particular has always stood out to me. If I’m being totally honest here, the all-English lyrics aren’t exactly stellar; often difficult to make out and, in Kajiura’s usual fashion, more whimsical than necessarily sensical. They’re sung with plenty of power behind them though, and the song is an odd but compelling mixture of rapid, almost urgent-sounding electronic beats and Kajiura’s now trademark background chanting.
3. Zetsuen no Tempest
Zetsuen no Tempest’s first OP, ‘Spirit Inspiration’ by Nothing’s Carved in Stone, is still one of my favourite English-language Japanese songs of all time today. I listen to a lot of different types of music, but alternative rock is one of my preferred genres and ‘Spirit Inspiration’ is a great track to rock out to. The lyrics are all over the place and really only make (some) sense if you squint, but the pronunciation is good enough that anyone who didn’t know the band would probably assume they were American. Well-paced, catchy, and with a strong beat in mainstream punk-rock/pop-punk style (think somewhere between Green Day and Sum 41), it’s definitely an OP that has me up and dancing every time I hear it.
I don’t think I’d heard anything from Boom Boom Satellites until I saw Kiznaiver, and that makes me doubly glad I watched the show. ‘Lay Your Hands on Me’ turned out to be the band’s final record, as vocalist and guitarist Kawashima Michiyuki unfortunately passed away due to illness in 2016, but they could not have asked for a better song to go out on. The track has a great, deliberate build-up and ends on a wonderfully strong yet dreamy note; it’s an excellent smooth trance number as well as being the perfect fit for the kind of surrealness that Kiznaiver itself happens to sell. The all-English lyrics, while not quite natural enough to pass as being penned by a native speaker, are pronounced just fine and, despite the circumstances, manage to be uplifting rather than depressing.
1. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
This anime series has what is quite possibly my single favourite overall soundtrack of all time, and both OPs contribute to that ranking. I was sorely tempted to list them as separate entries for this list, but in the interest of fairness decided to combine them. Of the two tracks, however, ‘Inner Universe’ always comes out on top for me. Composed by the legendary Kanno Yoko but written and performed by the late Russian singer Origa, ‘Inner Universe’ is sung primarily in Russian, with bits of English and Latin for good measure. Origa has an amazing vocal range and puts it to great use here, and her voice instantly both stands out from and yet blends incredibly well with the electronic music. A perfect fit for the ideas and themes that Ghost in the Shell explores, it wraps and pulses around the lyrics like some kind of cybernetic heartbeat, and stays in the head long after the song finishes playing. The OPs visuals might be outdated, but this is one piece of music that never will be.
Question of the post: Did I miss any of your favourites? Let me know one or more of your own picks for best foreign language OP in the comments (again, note that for the sake of diversity, I’ve deliberately left out of songs performed in English by English native speakers).