Music for Japanese movies has been an area that I have always been drawn too, maybe because it was something of an unknown quantity to me personally? It was the score for THE SEVEN SAMURAI that first awakened my interest, mainly because I had seen the MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and was curious about the film that the classic western was based upon. As we all know the story is very similar, but the SAMURAI movie in many ways is better than the colourful western take as produced by Hollywood. SEVEN SAMURAI had a rawness and a stark reality to it within its many fights and battles and also because of the honourable codes observed by the Samurai, it was a look at the culture of Japan from bygone days and also because of the way in which the movie was filmed it was for me at least very real and affecting. The score featured a sound and style that was of course essentially Japanese in its overall style and sound, but there were also musical passages and hints of orchestration that leaned towards the film music as produced outside of Japan during this period in time, the composers use of brass and percussion was particularly effective and underlines and supports the many action pieces within the film. It keeps in step perfectly with the storyline, never encroaching upon the dialogue or overpowering any of the many important scenarios and scenes within the film.
I remember owning the LP record many years ago, it was during the 1970’s when many soundtracks were issued in Japan THE SEVEN SAMURAI being one of them, the recording on TOHO records was a gatefold edition beautifully packaged as was the norm with Japanese releases. The one downfall as far I was concerned was the inclusion of dialogue, so the album was basically a soundtrack of the movie literally with the dialogue being the focus of the release with music taking a back seat. This was rectified in future releases with one or two of these just containing the score, which was wonderful to hear with no dialogue and FX sounds, in later years the score was reconstructed and re-recorded.
Composer Fumio Hayasaka wrote what is now looked upon as a classic soundtrack for the movie which was directed by the great film maker Akira Kurosawa in 1954, who went on to make so many iconic motion pictures that themselves influenced directors all over the world. Producers and actors. The composer sadly passed away just one year after scoring THE SEVEN SAMURAI he was 41 years of age, but his music for this movie in-particular has become synonymous with the Japanese film industry and especially with the work of director Kurosawa. After Hayasaka’s death, Kurosawa turned to composer Masaru Sato amongst others.
In a career that spanned some 40 years Sato scored approximately 300 movies, his key works for Kurosawa included YOJIMBO and SANJURO, YOJIMBO being the film that director Sergio Leone based his first western movie A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS upon.
Sato’s style was not dissimilar to that of Hayasaka, not surprising because it was Hayasaka who mentored and schooled Sato, but Sato did use more of a developed theme approach, where as he would create motifs for certain characters and his style of scoring was also influenced by European and Hollywood soundtracks as opposed to the more traditional Japanese approach.
Saying this the style that the composer employed was all his own and he placed his own musical fingerprint upon each movie he scored. Yojimbo for example opens with a rhythmic and rousing theme that has hints of jazz in its make-up, or at least a scattering of orchestration that could be linked to jazz slanted styles, we hear harpsichord flourishes, guitar and brass underlined by percussion at times Sato employing saxophone to play out the core theme or to just add a note here and there along the way, in fact listening to the entire score one can hear where many of the Italian composers who worked on westerns (Piccioni, Ferrio) and even the later crime or Giallo movies got their inspiration. Sato would often add a single note or two when a character appeared on screen, which is something that Ennio Morricone employed within the score for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Like with all composers in Japan that worked in film, Sato did work on films about monsters and the best known and feared monster of them all GODZILLA. Sato’s soundtracks were melodic, dramatic, original and always entertaining. Masaru Sato was born in Japan on May 28th, 1928, after studying with Hayasaka the composer was employed at Toho studios, one of his first assignments was to carry out the orchestration on the score for THE SEVEN SAMURAI, when Hayasaka passed away suddenly in 1955 he was in the middle of scoring two movie, Kurosawa’s RECORD OF A LIVING BEING and film maker Kenji Mizoguchi’s NEW TALES OF THE TIARA CLAN, so Toho studios decided to let Sato complete the work on these two projects.
It was also in 1955 that Sato worked on his first movie as a composer in his own right, this was for GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. During the next ten-year period Sato wrote the scores for all of Kurosawa’s films, these included titles such as THRONE OF BLOOD and THE BAD SLEEP WELL. The composer also collaborated with director Hideo Gosha at this time and soon established himself as a rising talent within the film music arena. Scoring movies for numerous film makers and working on a wide variety of genres. HALF HUMAN, THE H-MAN, THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD, GODZILLA VS THE SEAMONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA amongst them. He enjoyed a 44-year association with Toho studios and during that time worked on over 300 motion pictures. Sato also worked on television and scored the popular series THE WATER MARGIN for which he was nominated to receive the Japan Academy Award. Sato died on December 5th 1999, leaving behind a rich and innovative musical legacy.
The same can said of fellow Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who produced some diverse and innovative works for cinema, one of which was for the movie, RAN, again directed by Kurosawa. Takemitsu wrote an epic score for the picture and one which is regarded by many as being his finest. RAN certainly contains some moments of musical excellence, with the composer creating a powerful score that is overflowing with an array of moods and atmospheres. It has to it a taught sense of the dramatic in certain areas and is at times filled with apprehension and darkness, but it remains powerfully epic and supports, enhances and gives a greater depth and atmosphere to the tense persona that is already purveyed by the picture’s imagery and script. There is also a more melodic side to the score with the composer employing woodwind and strings to fashion a mood that is vaguely romantic and fleetingly melancholy. Takemitsu also utilises flute to great effect creating traditional sounding passages that are at times shrill but strangely attractive.
Takemitsu was born in Japan on October 30th, 1930. He was a self-taught composer and became renowned for his ability to fuse the traditional sounding music of his homeland with that of a contemporary style. The composer wrote hundreds of independent musical works and was responsible for scoring nearly one hundred motion pictures, he was also the author of more than twenty books. At the age of twenty-seven he composed REQUIEM FOR STRING ORCHESTRA which was probably the work that gained him international recognition and was regarded as one of the leading Japanese composers of the 20th century. He would often go on set for a movie that he was considering working on, so that he could absorb the atmosphere and have a better understanding of the film’s storyline and the mechanics of film making. As he became more prominent, Takemitsu would also become more selective in what movies he worked on, often the composer would read the entire script for a move before deciding whether he would be involved on the project. Takemitsu more than many other composers of film music also had a greater understanding of the use of silence on a soundtrack, at times a section of film without music being more impacting and powerful and this is seen in many of his cinematic assignments. He passed away on February 20th, 1996.
Moving up to more recent works for the cinema I have included a look at composer Taro Iwashiro, he has written the music for numerous movies in recent years and was responsible for score both of the RED CLIFF movies and wrote a rousing and thoughtful soundtrack for the Japanese war movie ISOROKU, which told the life story of Japanese naval commander Isoroku Yamamoto. The composer was born in Tokyo Japan on May 1st 1965, he has worked in both film and television and has also written music for various video games.
One of the most respected and sought-after composers for film and concert hall compositions was Akira Ifukube, he is probably best known for his musical scores for numerous GODZILLA movies, but he has written as much if not more music for concert hall performance. Ifukube was born on 31 May 1914 in Kushiro, Japan. He first noticed music whilst at school and after hearing Stravinskys, RITE OF SPRING when he was fourteen, he decided that he wanted to become a composer. Like so many composers in Japan Ifukube was self-taught, he studied forestry and only composed in his spare time. But due to illness he had to stop forestry and began to compose full time. In 1947 he composed his first film score which was for THE END OF THE SILVER MOUNTAINS, this was the beginning of a fifty plus year career in the film music business, also during this time he continued to write for the concert hall and taught music. He passed away on February 8th, 2006. Of course there are numerous other Japanese composers who write for film, JOE HISAISHI, KENJI KAWAI, RYUICHI SAKAMOTO, HIKARU HAYASHI and many many more. I just wanted to dip my toe into the film music waters of Japan and will return to the subject again in the near future.