Few people talk about Shunsuke Kikuchi. While not the quality of say, Yoko Kanno's contributions, or the emotional power of Hiroshi Miyagawa's work, Kikuchi has been in the business of incidental music (that is to say, background music) for decades. Cutting his teeth on tokusatsu programs, Kikuchi got work scoring the anime adaption of the popular Akira Toriyama manga Dr. Slump. He is best known, however, for scoring the anime adaptation of Toriyama's most popular work, Dragon Ball. Taking cues from old films, Kikuchi is a little Wang Fu-ling and a little Bernard Hermann.
I've been thinking about how to best describe the Kikuchi sound in the Dragon Ball franchise. It really runs the gamut. Sometimes it's cute (but never cutesy), other times it's triumphant, and sometimes it's grandious. The overall effect seems like part parade music, part toddler tunes, and part building orchestral. It comes off as this very spirited score, one that captures the atmosphere of not just the setting but the pace and mood of a scene. In one scene, a simple piece with tingle bells added creates the effect of focusing on Gohan. In another scene, roaring horns sound and drums snap as Goku transforms into a Super Saiyan. A careful amount of synthesizer is thrown in for good measure.
I think there's a real sense of genuine personality to the music. It doesn't feel produced to sound "cool", nor does it emphasize action over atmosphere, like some of the American soundtracks to DBZ. It has this very corporeal tone to it.
So it's no surprise that I have favorite pieces of Kikuchi's. Here are my top 10:
10) ピッコロ大魔王の恐怖 Pikkoro-Daimaô no Kyôfu ("The Terror of Piccolo-Daimaô")
This piece has a sense of dark foreboding, an eerie haunting nature to it. It is essentially the theme music for Piccolo Daimao, so it's quite appropriate. There seems to be three parts in the track, one that's slow and deliberate, the second part is builds suspense, and the third knocks has a feel of something already terrifying occuring.
9) 極限バトル!!三大超サイヤ人 Kyokugen Batoru!! San Dai Sûpâ Saiya-jin ("Extreme Battle!! The Three Great Super Saiyans")
This is a long piece, coming in at about 9 minutes, so there are several parts of it. It's a varied piece, with certain parts suspenseful, and other parts slower and more introspective. Five and a half minutes in it goes to a very slow, enchanting, calm piece, that slowly crescendos into a heavenly climax. This last part of the music was used during the defeat of Buu, with an effect of relief after a brutal fight and Goku's wish to fight the strong opponent again someday. It lends itself to a real hopeful feeling.
8) 因縁の対決!悟空とピッコロ In'nen no Taiketsu! Gokû to Pikkoro ("The Fateful Confrontation! Goku and Piccolo")
This four-part piece can be said to have a jo-ha-kyū structure. That is, the first part is slow and builds up. The second and third parts build suspense, switching from action to foreboding, until we reach the climax in part four which is rapid-paced. This track figures in both Goku's battle with Piccolo Daimao and Piccolo (Ma Junior). In it is a feeling of grand, terrible things afoot, building until a great rush of power is released. The only flaw I hear in it is the overuse of vibraslap. After a while, it gets tiresome.
7) とびっきりの最強対最強 Tobikkiri no Saikyô tai Saikyô ("The Incredible Mightiest vs. Mightiest")
Used in movie 5 and throughout the Cell arc, this particular track shares its first part with another track ("The Boy Who Came From the Future"). The slow, crawling, eerie sound of the guitar and other string instruments leads into the second part which seems paced for action. The third part is more gentle, making me think of gathering ki for a Genki Dama (though I don't believe it was ever used for that). It's the first and second parts that really get me going, though.
6) 孫悟空の逆襲 Son Gokû no Gyakushû ("Son Goku's Counterattack")
Immediately in this track, I get the feeling of lurking or waiting something out, like there's a stare down going on. In a show with a lot of those, it's not surprising. The second part has a bit more movement, sounding like slow, but deliberate actions taking place. However, it's the third part that really breaks out, with a building percussion, some vibraslap, and horn. Then finally we get a version of Piccolo Daimao's theme at a faster pace. It's clear that Piccolo Daimao is being fought and there's some damage delt. This piece is used well during Goku's final bout (lol) with the evil Daimao. The final part is just the eyecatch music for Dragon Ball. I get the feeling of shifting from one stage of a fight to another is happening in this piece.
5) 間にあえ!!ななつのドラゴンボール Ma ni Ae!! Nanatsu No Doragonbôru ("Reach the Seven Dragon Balls in Time!!")
Right off the bat, the track treats us to another version of Piccolo's theme, this one used for Ma Junior Piccolo. Then it switches to a sort of creepy, crawling tune, giving the impression of plotting and planning. This second part gives way to a mostly string piece with a few horns that slowly builds up into trumpet sounds. It's not an especially long piece of music, but it's pretty impressive nevertheless.
4) 地球まるごと超決戦 Chikyû Marugoto Chô-Kessen ("Super Deciding Battle for the Entire Planet Earth")
The longest track on this list, this piece begins with a real burst of sound that creates a feeling of danger and excitement. The second part has a measured amount of string and horn that keeps time carefully. But it's the third part that most interests me. The third part is the music that plays when Goku tries 20x Kaioken in his battle with Freeza and when he gathers ki for a Genki Dama. This is my favorite part of the track, this slow build up into this triumphant-sounding capper. The track doesn't end there. The next part starts off upbeat and cheerful but transforms into something different and then back. Then there's a softer fifth piece, that falls into a choral-sounding echo with soft instrumental accompaniment. Finally, there's a gentle, reassuring sound to the last part. This track is the music suite for the third DBZ movie, but pieces are used in several places throughout the program.
3. DRAGON BALL Z ("Dragon Ball Z")
One of the things I loved about the first DBZ movie was this powerful musical suite that played throughout. It mixes in horns, percussions, and more unstable dissonant sounds. The effect is feeling all the horror and power of events unfolding. This fits perfectly with that movie and the sense of eerieness about Garlic Junior's palace, his henchmen, and his transformation as an immortal. You even get the sense of the specific actions taking place in the movie. And of course, there are parts of this that play throughout the TV series, especially early on during Goku's fight with Vegeta. There's a little of "Makafushigi Adventure" mixed in at the same time, giving it a sense of adventure and tying it to early DB. That's how the first movie felt, like something that happened after the original series but before DBZ. Finally there's a come down in the ending part, giving a gentle, safe ending, a haven from all the terrible power.
2. 怪物フリーザVS伝説の超サイヤ人 Kaibutsu Furîza VS Densetsu no Sûpâ Saiya-jin ("The Monster Freeza vs. the Legendary Super Saiyan"
Much like #3, this track is a horror show, but without any peaceful come down. The first part, with its horns and vibraslap, sounds like a threat rising, a threat coming to fruition. It builds and builds until a storm comes in. First silence. Then a giant wave of horn with some string and a slight jingling sound. Once again, it stops. Then it starts up again with piano and synth. It builds into a frenzy, accompanied by percussion. This is it, a great power is about to be released. Of course, part of this is played when Goku first transforms into a Super Saiyan. We are to behold the terrible transformation of rage with this piece in the background.
1. 銀河ギリギリ!!ぶっちぎりの凄い奴 Ginga Giri-Giri!! Butchigiri no Sugoi Yatsu ("The Galaxy at the Brink!! The Super Incredible Guy")
The ninth movie is my favorite movie, and part of why includes this musical suite. First, like in the movie, we're treated to celebration, joy, excitement over competition. Then a threat arises. Something has gone awry. Then the villain enters. This causes the situation to explode into violent action. But wait, what is this? A hero arrives onto the scene, too, ready to wright the wrongs. Still, the evil makes its presence known. Then there is a showdown. My favorite part of this track comes with this, the music that plays in Gohan's final showdown with Bojack. It's also used when Vegeta sacrifices himself in the Buu arc. The track ends with more upbeat sounds, followed by a gentle capper. The battle is over.