Posts Tagged 'AAPI'

The Music of Turning Red: Finding Cultural Harmony

By: Naoko Maruko – Head of Catalog Product Management at Sheet Music Plus

Think back to the first time you watched a movie and watched a character that made you think, “That’s me!” Remember the feeling of being seen and the excitement of being represented on the big screen? 

Well, I don’t. 

I was an Asian American girl who spoke with no Asian accent, only spoke English (and some basic French), and did no martial art. We did not exist in movies in the 80s and 90s and as such, we weren’t really thought to exist at all.

That’s why I was excited to see the movie Turning Red! It’s a movie about a flute-playing, high achieving, confident, Chinese Canadian 13-year-old girl named Meilin (Mei for short) Lee. Granted, I was a cello-playing, high achieving, less confident, Japanese American 13-year-old girl, but in an industry that has so little representation, East Asian folks tend to rally behind any East Asian character whenever they exist. It’s exciting to have any non-stereotypical visibility even when it is not direct representation.

Upon watching Turning Red for a second time, I realized how the movie’s music captures the journey of finding harmony between the many different facets of identity. For this movie, it is the struggle not only of growing up but balancing eastern and western cultural expectations along with showing respect for tradition in a modern societal construct.

In the opening self-introduction, Mei walks and talks over a new jack swing soundtrack. This sound is a quintessentially western sound (specifically Black-created music, with influences of hip hop, soul, R&B, funk, jazz, blues, etc.). On top of this is a melody played by a modern western flute, representing the western side of Mei. It’s used whenever she is at school, with her friends, or walking around in Toronto.

© Disney

This is juxtaposed with Mei’s familial traditional eastern influences. As Mei rushes home to be with her family, the western flute melody changes to a dizi (笛子), a Chinese bamboo flute. Traditional Chinese instruments and music styles come up frequently whenever Mei is with her family, not only representing the more traditional viewpoints but also her Chinese culture. Her mother, Ming, represents that more traditional and eastern viewpoint and is thusly represented by the more traditional and eastern instrument: the guzheng (古箏), a plucked Chinese string instrument. 

Mei discovers that she has a long family history of turning into a red panda whenever feeling a strong emotion, thanks to a wish made by her ancestor. When she initially transforms and is panicking, an erhu enters the soundtrack, often accompanied by synth. An erhu, a Chinese bowed string instrument, is rarely heard in mainstream music, much less with a modern synth accompaniment, so I found these two together to be an interesting play on east and west; traditional and more modern.

In fact, the traditional Chinese instruments often play alongside western musical entities in this movie. We get combinations of dizi and full orchestra. Guzheng and synth. Big band and dizi. It is a blended cohesive sound that incorporates both eastern and western instruments and various styles that foreshadows the peace that Mei will find with her various identities.

© Disney

At the climax of Turning Red, Mei walks away from her need for her mother’s approval and toward her friends at a 4*Town concert. Hijinx ensues and everyone ends up needing to open a door to the astral plane and deal with a big red panda situation. A ritual is performed where “The door will only open if we sing from our hearts”. For Mei’s grandma and aunties, that is a traditional-sounding Cantonese chant. 4*Town is singing and doing their boy band thing. Mei’s friends are beatboxing. The supporting music is a combination of full orchestra, Chinese orchestra, dizi, and synth. It’s the culmination of all of Mei’s identities so that she can emerge her true self.

There is often the perception that East Asian people living in non-Asian countries just arrived. The “perpetual foreigner” concept means that we are always seen as “other” as opposed to part of the societal “norm”. It is why I’ve been asked, “Where are you from? But where are you really from? But originally?” hundreds of times.

Turning Red is unique because Mei is not treated as an Other. The movie seamlessly has her belonging, which in turn normalizes her belonging. More importantly, she belongs without having to give up her cultural heritage and instead has her heritage celebrated. Mei and Mei’s music showcases how you do not need to choose sides; you do not need to be 100% something (eastern, western, traditional, modern, etc.) nor do you need to be 0% something else, because your true self may be a harmonious amalgamation of many influences. You do not need to fully assimilate and leave your culture behind to gain acceptance. You also do not need to fully live by the traditional values and expectations of a generation and/or culture. All these influences can instead co-exist and come together to create something special and lovely.

In the end, Turning Red is the soundtrack for the journey of finding cultural and generational harmony and finding peace in authentic identity. It’s also an opportunity to shine a spotlight and bring visibility to not only East Asian characters but East Asian people as we celebrate both what makes us unique and our belonging. 

BIO

Naoko Maruko is the Head of Catalog Product Management at Sheet Music Plus. She is also a professional cellist and has played with musicians such as Michael Bublé, the Trans Siberian Orchestra, and Disturbed. You can find her multi-track cello arrangements on www.youtube.com/onenaoko She is from Fresno, California. Originally.


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