Hunter x Hunter 28 – Silence Is Golden

I feel like I’ve brought this complaint up in various places, but I can’t remember if I’ve bitched about it here . . . but oh well! It colored my view of this episode — and Hisoka’s scene in particular — so deal with it.

Anyway, my qualm is with the background music. I like Hisoka’s theme; it’s a cool, snappy song, it’s of a flavor you don’t often get in anime, and it even works for him in a weird sort of way. The song works just fine when Hisoka is introduced during the Hunter Exam. Here, though? Doesn’t work at all, and here’s why: The scene is supposed to be carried by Hisoka’s menace. He is the roadblock keeping Gon and Killua from advancing. Their fear of Hisoka’s power and the ease with which he could kill them using it is the entire point of the scene.

But how menacing can Hisoka be when you’ve got a catchy Spanish tune in the background distracting the viewer?

If this makes me an old grump rockin’ back and forth in a chair on my porch with a shotgun in my lap, then so be it, but I find myself increasingly tired of background music. Or, more accurately, I find myself tired of the dull ways in which it is meant to mold the feelings of the audience. I don’t hate background music in anime; in fact, taken on their own merits, a lot of anime background music is pretty good. But that’s the problem: music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They work in tandem with the images we see and the voices we hear. Sometimes the music works well, but honestly, when it’s conspicuously absent, I often don’t miss background music.

How often is background music used in a way that doesn’t fill space as yet another small signifier of a scene’s mood? To use a tired cliche, it’s Pavlovian entertainment conditioning. We hear sad music, and we’re sad! We hear adventurous music, and we know the characters are on an adventure! We hear scary music, and wow, I’m oh so scared! To be fair, despite my mocking tone, I don’t have that big a problem with music strengthening the flavor of a scene so much as I have a problem with music being thoughtlessly used. Especially so when simple silence would work much better.

Knowing how and when to use silence is rapidly becoming a lost art. To come back to Hunter x Hunter, what did the use of Hisoka’s theme add that the camera angles, Hisoka’s look, and Daisuke Namikawa’s acting didn’t already convey? If the purpose of the scene is to demonstrate the forcefulness of Hisoka’s power, then what purpose does a jaunty tune serve? Instead of adding seamlessly to the scene, it serves to distract. It does what background music should not do: it divides the attention of the audience and puts the focus on itself. That scene should have a razor sharp focus; instead, I spent the scene wondering why that music was playing. To me, the simple solution is to have enough confidence that the existing material can keep the audience’s attention.

The moments leading up to Hisoka’s reveal are an example of background music and sound effects being used solidly. The music is low and unnerving, and while the loud, pounding sound effect when Hisoka shows himself is a bit much, it’s not terrible, either. It gives the audience a nice jolt, and then the silence tightens the tension ever further while Hisoka lays out exactly why he is here. It’s the perfect tone for this scene until the other music kicks in and dissipates everything that had been built in the previous minute.

It’s like someone decided the audience would get antsy without some sort of music to lead them along; therefore, we’ve gotta make sure they’ve got something to listen to while this scene is going on! Maybe it seems like a small thing to other people, and maybe some would think I shouldn’t have wasted 700+ words on what amounts to barely more than a minute of a 23 minute episode of anime, but I figure someone should give a shit about effective use of silence. I’ll bring this up on my deathbed if I have to.

3 Responses to “Hunter x Hunter 28 – Silence Is Golden”

  1. Maybe it’s just because I’m a whore for music or something, but I really like it when music vies for the viewer’s attention. I want it to jump out and become noticeable on its own, even if that means it becomes more noticeable than what I’m watching. But I DON’T want it to totally not match the mood (which sounds like the case here) unless it can make it disconcerting in some way, and I don’t want it to remain as just quiet, throwaway background music that might as well have not been there.

    Also, back when I was watching Serial Experiments Lain for the first time, I remember suddenly realizing that it had been silent for like an entire episode. And I realized just how much that had added to the atmosphere. It’d be interesting to see more shows do that.

    • Oh yeah, much as I enjoy good use of silence, I don’t advocate abolishing the use of strong, noticeable music. There are situations where it absolutely fits. But I think too many shows attempt to have a blockbuster, “epic” feel, and the more it’s used, the less special it is.

      The Lain example is good. I didn’t want to seem like too much of a snob in this post, but I always think of old movies when I think of effective use of silence. They just got it right — partially because you had incredibly skilled people making movies, and partially because the blockbuster method hadn’t come into practice.

  2. […] And man, oh man, the setting. The city at night, so down low and grimy, raining buckets because it’s right that it’s raining. You’ve got the Spiders walking the urban jungle, navigating the sidewalks and traffic in search of their prey. (One little bit I missed from the ’99 version: I believe that when the other group of Spiders is chasing Squala, Nobunaga leaps from car to car as he searches for Squala’s vehicle. It’s a cool scene.) Really, only two details could have made this better for me: 1) Everything in black and white, so that the shadows could be as deep and dark as possible. Nothing beats that good ol’ film noir chiaroscuro. 2) Some super sleazy jazz in back. (Though, generally, the musical choices in this episode are good, and the choices of when to not play the music are better. Hunter x Hunter‘s sound direction has become so much better that it’s almost difficult to believe that I really got on the show for bad sound direction not that long ago.) […]

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