Making Sense of Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Sound & Fury’ Anime Film
As if Sturgill Simpson's furthest departure from some folks’ definition of “real country music” isn't intimidating enough, the Grammy-winning Kentuckian paired the ZZ Top’s Eliminator-meets-modern studio magic sound heard on Sound & Fury with an album-length anime movie.
The film Sound & Fury, released on Netflix on Sept. 27, the same day the album dropped, pairs moody, caustic songs with the over-the-top gore often found in the sort of animated features in which a lone sword-slinger defends a more traditional way of life against post-apocalyptic power brokers (think record label execs, if they were into mutilating their own bodies and commanding giant robots). To help us country music fans and heavy rock aficionados with little to no knowledge of Japanese animation understand Simpson’s latest creative venture, The Boot asked a different Kentucky-born musician to break down the film: Speedy Ortiz member and Mal Blum mastermind (and knowledgeable anime fan) Audrey Zee Whitesides.
The slightly terrifying, ultra-violent imagery in Sound & Fury is a far cry from My Neighbor Totoro and the other kid-friendly films that come to mind when many Americans think of anime. “That kind of broad, general genre is seinen, which is made for older male audiences,” Whitesides explains. “Specifically, the very stylized violence when people get shot or cut with a sword and there’s a lot of blood -- it’s similar to what you’ll see in a lot of seinen anime, particularly from the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
Beyond representing the types of adult-friendly anime films and series Simpson discovered in Japan while serving in the Navy, Sound & Fury ties a rock and country artist to electronic music's history of anime shorts as music videos. His new album’s film anthology can be likened to the ‘80s standard Robot Carnival and, more directly, Daft Punk’s 2003 film Interstella 5555.
Of course, Simpson doing anything comparable to Daft Punk marks quite a departure from his past projects; after all, Daft Punk base their whole act on cartoonish imagery and sci-fi storytelling, while Simpson is just a guy writing awesome songs without much concern for genre labels.
Intentional or not, Simpson and his supporting cast’s wide range of digitized vignettes set to western music (that's 'western' as in hemispheres, not tough hombres) is reminiscent of a former YouTube trend: “There was a big fad in America a decade or so ago of people making fan videos called AMVs, which stood for 'anime music videos,' where fans in North America take a clip from an anime and set it to music,” Whitesides explains. “I’ve seen a lot of them with Linkin Park and nu-metal because the people who were watching anime at the time were teenagers who also liked Linkin Park.”
Another point worth considering is the importance of music within anime: The Cowboy Bebop series, for example, relies heavily on blues and jazz. In fact, long before video games became inseparable from their soundtracks, anime played a key role Japan’s music industry.
“A series that I’m a very big fan of in general is Mobile Suit Gundam and all its sequels over the years,” Whitesides says. “The first one of those came out in 1979, and its soundtrack was the top-selling album on the record label that put it out. This soundtrack was a huge part of what people cared about for this show, and the soundtrack appealed to people who didn’t necessarily watch the show.”
To build on a different set of traditions while drifting from country music expectations, Simpson picked the right team to continue anime’s history of interlocking powerful music with jaw-dropping visuals. Led by writer, director and Kamikaze Douga animation studio founder Jumpei Mizusaki and character designer and Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki -- who worked together on 2018's Batman Ninja -- the team of directors Koji Morimoto, Michael Arias, Masaru Matsumoto, Henry Thurlow and Arthell Isom; co-executive producer Shunsuke Ochiai; and production assistant Hiroaki Takeuchi created the Sound & Fury film.
"[Kamikaze Douga] do[es] a lot of opening and closing videos for anime, so they had a ton of experience doing this kind of thing already," Whitesides shares. "They definitely worked very well with the moods of the songs and helping the various creators who worked on the various parts to make those sections come to life."
If Whitesides' explanations have helped demystify anime, give Sound & Fury a watch. At the very least, viewers will appreciate the psychedelic dance sequence -- something that’s been missing from Simpson’s audio-visual experiences.
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