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a girl lies in the back of a car, clutching a bouquet of flowers
Chihiro in Spirited Away.
Image: Studio Ghibli

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The perfection of Joe Hisaishi’s Spirited Away theme ‘One Summer’s Day’

Ghibli’s longtime composer is key to the studio’s work, but Spirited Away is particularly unforgettable

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

Every element of Spirited Away makes it easy to get caught up in the story of a young girl who must navigate the spirit world in order to return herself and her parents to the human world. But the music is an especially potent part of the film’s power. The man responsible for the film’s music is Joe Hisaishi, who has worked on all but one of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro), and has released more than 100 film scores and solo albums over the course of his career. The score to Spirited Away is a lush, sweeping aural adventure, and the crown jewel of it all is “One Summer’s Day,” the opening track.

Though not as romantic as the love theme from the scenes between Chihiro and Haku, “One Summer’s Day” perfectly captures a story that’s bittersweet, even though it’s full of fun and adventure. Chihiro, who begins the film as a bratty 10-year-old, grows more mature and even falls in love, but the attachments she forms while working in a spirit bathhouse are connections she has to leave behind. All she can keep are her memories, and a hair tie spun by her friends. “One Summer’s Day” is accordingly wistful, with intentionally discordant notes scattered throughout and a melody that ventures in and out of minor-key territory. It sounds sad, but yearning, too, reflective in a way that echoes the complexity of the film itself.

There’s a little foreshadowing evident in the piece, too, as Hisaishi backs up the piano melody with eerie synthesizer sounds and strings. As simple as the piano line might seem, there’s something much stranger in store. But even those spookier sounds ultimately give way to warmer orchestration, with some woodwinds echoing the melody and filling out the sound. The rolling chords, now placed within the melody rather than standing alone as they do at the beginning of the song, also soften, becoming warm and shimmering.

But while Spirited Away is full of great characters, there’s still ultimately only one main character. “One Summer’s Day” emphasizes the focus on Chihiro with a returning focus on the piano. The orchestration might grow and evolve around it, but the piano almost always carries the melody, and at a key moment — the appearance of the film’s title card — all other instruments drop out completely, leaving just the piano.

Hisaishi’s music strikes a careful balance between internal and external, focusing on highlighting the emotions present in a scene without completely disregarding the unfolding action. “One Summer’s Day” does both, mapping out the journey Chihiro will go on with its main theme before taking a dramatic shift two-thirds of the way through. As the car Chihiro and her family are traveling in hits some less well-traveled roads, jostling its occupants, the melody follows suit, growing more frantic. Drums and cymbals suddenly factor in, and so do different time signatures, creating a sense of strangeness and off-beat rhythms. That rush builds to a pregnant pause that’s picked up by the next song, “A Road to Somewhere,” officially beginning Chihiro’s journey.

When the “One Summer’s Day” theme finally returns, it’s to bookend the film in “The Return.” This time, however, the piano melody is supported by wisps of other musical themes established throughout the film (notably Haku’s theme as heard in “The Dragon Boy”), and with a fuller orchestration. That recurrence emphasizes the melody of “One Summer’s Day” as Chihiro’s theme, with its changing presentation mirroring just how much she has changed over the course of the film.

In that way, Hisaishi’s music not only supports the story being told on screen but tells a story of its own. “One Summer’s Day” is crucial to setting the tone for Spirited Away, which captures the bittersweetness in growing up and growing out of things, as well as establishing the thoughts of Chihiro herself. She, like the piano melody, begins somewhat isolated, but by the end of the film, has been enriched by the people she’s met and grown to know. On top of that, “One Summer’s Day” is beautiful, the winding melody and its yearning quality a hallmark of Hisaishi’s music, and of Studio Ghibli’s films.

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