Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Top Ten Favorite Japanese Film Composers


Music has the power to make or break a scene in a film. While the director, actors and cinematographers job is to deliver unforgettable images and performances it is the job of the film composer to heighten the emotions or mood onscreen. The classic examples given by cinephiles of music's power in film are many -- imagine watching a film like "Jaws" without the suspenseful, every-increasing strings and brass theme by John Williams, or the appearance of The Man with No Name in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" without the raspy whistle and reverb of Ennio Morricone's iconic composition. Obviously Japanese film has these same moments, when the music and the images fuse together as one in viewers minds. It's to honour these moments and the composers that helped create them that we offer you this month's top ten -- Our Top Ten Favorite Japanese Film Composers. Of course writing about music is like the proverbial dance about architecture (or the blog about film-making), so for each entry you'll find a link to a classic composition by this talented group of musicians.


10. Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952 - )

Ryuichi Sakamoto is so much more than just a film composer. Starting out by studying enthnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music during the early 70's he ended up working as a session musician. It was while playing on other people's albums that he met two other session men, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, and the three would form one of Japan's best known electronic music acts, Yellow Magic Orchestra. YMO, as they came to be known, would become a seminal influence on what would later be called synth-pop and electronica. After the band disbanded in 1983 Ryuichi Sakamoto went on to a successful solo career, releasing a staggering 32 albums in Japan and abroad. In amongst this stream of releases Sakamoto also made time to compose the scores for a number of films. While many of these were for non-Japanese productions, such as Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" (for which Sakamoto won an Academy Award for Best Score), John Maybury's Francis Bacon biopic "Love is the Devil" and Brian DePalma's "Snake Eyes", Sakamoto has created some truly remarkable work for the Japanese cinema. Most notable are his collaborations with director Nagisa Oshima. Sakamoto not only acted in Oshima's 1983 film "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence", but he also provided its unforgettable score. The "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" theme even became a pop hit when it was renamed "Forbidden Colours" and had lyrics put to it by British singer-songwriter David Sylvian. Sakamoto would later go on to work with Oshima again in 1999, providing the music for the director's homoerotic samurai film "Gohatto (Taboo)". CM

Theme from Nagisa Oshima's Merry Chrismas Mr. Lawrence


9. Susumu Hirasawa (1954 - )

If you're an anime fan then you will know Susumu Hirasawa's work even if his name doesn't immediately ring any bells. The 57-year-old former prog rocker has provided music for a number of anime films and series, most memorably for the films of late anime master Satoshi Kon. After playing guitar with the band Mandrake through the 1970's Hirasawa began experimenting with the Yamaha synthesiser. In 1983 he entered "Iri you hachi no yuuwaku", a composition created on the Yamaha, into a music contest run by Japan's Weekly Playboy Magazine. He won and from then on Hirasawa was a convert to electronic music. A year after his Playboy wion Hirasawa formed the synth-pop band P-Model. The years since the formation of P-Model has seen Hirasawa become more and more involved with experimental electronic composition performance and culture. In 1995 he released the album "Sim City" which was inspired in large part by his time spent amongst the Transsexual community in cities like Bangkok. 2000 saw Hirasawa create a live performance piece in which audiences had to navigate a maze, choosing which music to "follow". Hirasawa has also been an outspoken voice against the war in Iraq and America's continuing war on terror. All of these diverse ideas and influences can be heard in the work that Hirasawa created for Satoshi Kon's films, bringing mystery, playfulness and mind-boggling electronic musicianship to Kon's mind-bending tales. CM

Opening theme from Satoshi Kon's Paprika


8. Chu Ishikawa (1966 - )

There are many examples on this list of music and film merging to create a powerful artistic experience, one that would prove to be entirely different, or an utter failure, should a different composer have been introduced into the mix. Still, the very best example of this has to be our #8 choice - industrial musician Chu Ishikawa. In 1981 Ishikawa began fiddling around with synthesisers and only three years later he had founded his first electronic/ industrial band Zeitlich Vergelter. The sound of Zeitlich Vergelter was based on discordant, metallic percussion created on found and created objects and instruments, much like the work of German industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten. Zeitlich Vergelter thrived in Japan's underground music scene alongside acts like The Boredoms, but in 1988 Ishikawa met up with a young salaryman who was committing outrageous and visually discordant images to film. This was Shinya Tsukamoto (above right). Chu Ishikawa would provide the industrial soundtrack to Tsukamoto's breakthrough film "Tetsuo the Iron Man". It's story of a man who was grotesquely morphing into a machine was a perfect visual parallel to Ishikawa's work. Both he and Tsukamoto have continued to collaborate in the over two decades since the release of "Tetsuo", with Ishikawa providing music not just for the two "Tetsuo" sequels, but all subsequent Tsukamoto films. Ishikawa also composed the soundtracks for Takashi Miike's "Fudoh: The New Generation" and "Dead or Alive 2" and formed a new industrial group, Der Eisenrost. CM

"412", the opening theme to Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo the Iron Man


7. Hikaru Hayashi (1931 - )

Many important and influential 20th century Japanese composers lent their talents to motion pictures. One such composer who created both sweeping melodies as well as moody backdrops was Hikaru Hayashi. A native of Toyama Prefecture, Hayashi enrolled in the Tokyo University of the Arts to study composition, but ended up dropping out. This wouldn't be the end of his musical education though. Hayashi would study under composer and long-time NHK Symphony Orchestra conductor Hisatada Otaka. Hayashi's musical output from his early studies with Otaka in 1953 through to his latest works in 2006 is astounding -- 8 complete operas based on the literary works of such iconic authors as Natsume Soseki, William Shakespeare, Franz Kafka and Anton Chekhov, 7 symphonies, 31 solo piano suites and sonatas, 6 chamber sonatas for flute, violin and strings and 3 concertantes. Oh, and many of these Hayashi would conduct himself. You'd wonder how he could have found time to compose scores for films, but he did. In Japan Hayashi is best known for his score for Kaneto Shindo's 1960 film "Naked Island". In that nearly silent film Hayashi's score assists the story of a family surviving on a remote island. Hayashi would also provide music for Nagisa Oshima's "Death by Hanging", "Boy", Yoshishige Yoshida's "Akitsu Springs", Kinji Fukasaku's "Under the Flag of the Rising Sun" and three other Kaneto Shindo films -- 1968's "Kuroneko", 1995's "A Last Note" and one of Shindo's best known films, 1964's "Onibaba". In that film Hayashi's compositions melded with the aural soundscapes of Sound Director Tetsuya Ohashi to create a journey to hell in Japan's Warring States Period. CM

Theme from Yoshishige Yoshida's Akitsu Springs


6. Kenji Kawai (1957 - )

Anime and horror films, these are probably the biggest cinematic exports from Japan in the past 25 years, and the soundtrack for the Japanese film invasion was provided in large part by one man -- composer Kenji Kawai. It is a small miracle, though, that 54-year-old Kawai ended up giving us any music at all. Originally the Tokyo native enrolled himself into Tokai University to study nuclear engineering, but thankfully he switched majors, and universities, and ended up studying at Tokyo's Shobi College of Music. Even then Kawai would drop out of that school as well and learn music the hard way, gigging with the band jazz/ prog rock/ electronic fusion band Muse. After the break-up of Muse Kawai would master electronic music through creating music for commercials. It was a friendship with anime voice actor Yuji Mitsuya (Ranma ½, Glass no Kamen, Dragonball Z) that would give Kawai connections in the film industry. It's here he would begin creating his signature work for his two major cinematic collaborators, J-Horror master Hideo Nakata and cyberpunk anime pioneer Mamoru Oshii. Kawai would provide delicate, somber melodies and dissonant macabre ambience to both of Nakata's "Ring" films, as well as "Dark Water" and "Kaidan". For Oshii Kawai would combine a sonic futurism with elements of traditional Japanese music for his soundtracks to both "Ghost in the Shell" and "Ghost in the Shell: Innocence", the alternate universe war drama "The Sky Crawlers" and two of Oshii's live-action projects, the RPG fantasy "Avalon" and its loose sequel/ spin-off "Assault Girls". CM

"Reincarnation" from Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell



5. Joe Hisaishi (1950 - )

While Kenji Kawai's haunting compositions have provided the soundtrack for the J-Horror and anime invasions of the West another composer would ally himself with two of the most important men in modern day Japanese film-making, bringing his trademark melodies, melancholy and whimsy to world of wonder and violence. 60-year-old Joe Hisaishi (born Mamoru Fujisawa) studied music composition at Tokyo's Kunitachi College of Music and would go on to cut his musical teeth in the the same synth-pop milieux as The Yellow Magic Orchestra, but from the very start he had a connection with film. Some of his earliest compositions were scored for short animated films and anime series such as "Sasuga no Sarutobi" and "Futari Taka". Hisaishi's melding of cutting edge electronics, rock fusion and the tunefullness of French composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie made him the perfect candidate for these imaginative worlds, but it wasn't until he was introduced to Hayao Miyazaki that his music would reach whole new levels of exposure. Hisaishi would provide the soundtrack to Miyazaki's 1984 sci-fi adventure "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind", and every other subsequent Miyazaki film since. While Hisaishi was enhancing Miyazaki's magical worlds he would form another creative collaboration with Japan's king of media Takeshi Kitano. Hisaishi would leaven Kitano's often blackly pessimistic films with his unrepentantly pretty and melodramatic compositions starting in 1991 with "A Scene at the Sea" and ending in 2002 with "Dolls". After that the two men had a much publicized falling out, but it hasn't stopped Hisaishi from continuing to provide music to other high profile films as Sang-Il Lee's "Villain" and Yojiro Takita's "Departures". CM

"Summer" from Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro


4. Hajime Kaburagi (1926 - )

While we may have covered some iconic musical and cinematic pairings up to this point there are few Japanese composers who could boast the kind of lengthy resume of projects that Hajime Kaburagi has in his back pocket. Not heard of Kaburagi? Well, don't feel bad. Even we had to remind ourselves of this rarely praised composer, but just looking at his IMDB profile is enough reason for him to find himself in the #4 slot on our list. Seijun Suzuki's "Tokyo Drifter" (above), Toshio Masuda's "Velvet Hustler", Kazuo Mori's "A Certain Killer", Kinji Fukasaku's "Blackmail is My Life" and "Black Rose Mansion", Kimiyoshi Masuda's "Zatoichi and the Fugitives", Yasuharu Hasebe's "Roughneck", "Bloody Territories" and "Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter", AND Teruo Ishii's "Horrors of Malformed Men", "Blind Woman's Curse", "Bohachi Bushido: Clan of the Forgotten Eight" and "The Executioner" -- all of these films had soundtracks provided by Kaburagi! This man single-handedly defined the sound of the late-60's/ early 70's action/ exploitation era of Japanese film. You wouldn't be able to tell from Kaburagi's ultra-respectable musical pedigree though. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture, Kaburagi would enroll in the Tokyo University of the Arts' music program, studying under such highly-esteemed composers as Tomojiro Ikeuchi and Tadashi Kinoshita. While many of his colleagues and classmates would find themselves in concert halls, though, Kaburagi would carve a lucrative position for himself providing punchy and sensational scores to the gangster and pinky violence films churned out by Toei (as well as Daiei and Nikkatsu). With more and more of these films now gaining fans the name of Hajime Kaburagi won't be unknown in the West for long. CM

"Zatoichi's Lullaby" from Kimiyoshi Yasuda's Zatoichi and the Fugitives


3. Akira Ifukube (1914 - 2006)

Which composer on this list can boast not only scoring classic films, but giving voice to one of Japan's defining pop culture icons. Akira Ifukube can. Ifukube, a native of Hokkaido, will go down in Japanese film history as the man who provided the music for Ishiro Honda's genre-establishing kaiju film "Gojira (Godzilla)", but Ifukube did more than just put music behind the giant lizard. The story goes that Ifukube also created Godzilla's signature reptilian roar by slipping on a resin-coated leather glove and bowing his hand across the mistuned strings of a cello. We're not joking! That being said Akira Ifukube is far from being a novelty composer. Yes, he provided the soundtrack for the explosion of often campy kaiju and tokusatsu films produced by Toho during the late 50's and throughout the 60's -- "Rodan", "The Mysterians", "Varan the Unbelievable", "Battle in Outer Space", "King Kong vs. Godzilla" and "Frankenstein Conquers the World" were all scored by him -- but Ifukube was also one of Japan's most gifted and praised composers of the last century. He originally studied forestry, not music, at Hokkaido University, teaching himself music while serving in the Imperial Army during WW2, assigned to run experiments on the "elasticity and vibratory strength of wood" by his superiors. The cruel irony was that before he scored "Gojira", the film that director Ishiro Honda hoped would end nuclear weaponry and research, Ikufube suffered radiation poisoning while carrying out research on x-rays for the military. This setback didn't stop him from creating dozens of orchestral works outside of his work for Toho Studios, including symphonies and sonatas. His work for the concert hall can be heard in the heartbreaking composition "Godzilla Under the Sea", which wouldn't sound out of place next to the work of Michael Nyman or Arvo Part. CM

"Godzilla Under the Sea" from Ishiro Honda's Gojira


2. Toru Takemitsu (1930 - 1996)

There are few folks on our list whose work for film was marked with such creativity as Toru Takemitsu. One of, and maybe, the most respected 20th century Japanese composer, Takemitsu's piercing and avant-garde talent came to movie audiences' attention through the films of the equally creative and avant-garde director Hiroshi Teshigahara. Takemistu, Teshigahara and novelist Kobo Abe created a kind of cinematic Holy Trinity in Japan in the 1960's. Instead of Teshigahara simply adapting the abstract and existential novels of Abe and then handing the completed cut to Takemitsu to provide the music the three men instead collaborated throughout the film-making process, creating a synthesis of image, narrative and sound. Takemistu's contribution to this were compositions that were more like proto-ambient soundscapes than the kind of straight ahead film scores people were used to. His work on Teshigahara's famed "Woman in the Dunes" is comprised of sharp, crystalline strings, sandpaper abrasiveness and found sounds, the perfect compliment to the slow erosion suffered by the unnamed lead played by Eiji Okada. This ingenuity wasn't limited to "Woman in the Dunes" though. Far from it. Born in Tokyo, but raised in Japanese occupied Manchuria, Takemitsu would serve for a brief time in the Imperial Army while still a teenager. After the war he found himself bedridden and listening to Western classical music. This period of isolation led hi to teach himself about music and in the ensuing years he would combine everything from traditional Japanese folk and classical music to "musique concrète" and John Cage inspired indeterminacy. His first film score would be for Ko Nakahira's 1956 film "Crazed Fruit", his last for Philip Kaufman's 1993 film "Rising Sun" starring Sean Connery, but between those two divergent poles there were moments of sheer brilliance like "Pale Flower". For the opening credits sequence of Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 yakuza film Takemitsu synced the sound of a tap dance performance to the dealing of cards in a backroom game of hanafuda. Brilliant. CM

From Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes


1. Fumio Hayasaka (1914 - 1955)


Many of the composers on this list have enjoyed decades of productivity and have contributed to some of the best known films in Japanese cinema. None of them can say, or could have said, that they scored some of the defining moments in Japanese film... and all in a tragically short 15-year career. Composer Fumio Hayasaka is that one unique artist. Hayasaka was born in Sendai but grew up in Hokkaido, and by his late teens was already earning himself praise as a talented musician and composer. He and good friend Akira Ifukube would found what they dubbed The New Music League which gave concerts in Japan, and it was Ifukube who would get Hayasaka a job working at Toho Studios in the 1940's. Very quickly Hayasaka was winning awards, the first coming for his score for Tadashi Imai's 1946 film "Minshu no Teki" starring Takashi Shimura. It was at Toho that Hayasaka met director Akira Kurosawa (above right) and he was very quickly enlisted to provide music for films that would come to define Japanese film for movie audiences worldwide. Hayasaka's collaboration with Kurosawa started in 1949 with "Stray Dog" and continued through "Rashomon", "Ikiru", and "The Seven Samurai". These Kurosawa classics weren't the only films that Hayasaka would score though. He would also write music for masterpieces by director Kenji Mizoguchi such as "Ugestu", "Sansho the Bailiff", "The Crucified Lovers" and "The Taira Clan". Hayasaka would also found Japan's Association of Film Music in 1950. Sadly in the years following 1950 Hayasaka's health began to decline. It was discovered he as suffering from tuberculosis, and the toll that the disease took on him forced him to stop working on Akira Kurosawa's film "I Live in Fear". Fumio Hayasaka would die in 1955 at the age of only 41, having left behind a legacy that would leave any composer in awe. CM

Main theme from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai

5 comments:

sa said...

love the article chris.

i might quibble with your rankings -- i would place ifukube in the number 1 or 2 slot, owing to my fondness for his score for inagaki's 1962 Chushingura.

i'd hoped to find michiru ohshima on the list. the woman has a Nielsen-esque gift for inventing wonderful melodies. her score for the (dreadful) remake Tsubaki Sanjuro is one of my favorites, pretty much the only reason to watch the film. (ok, it's not quite THAT bad.)

Chris MaGee said...

Thanks, sa! This was a tough, tough list to compile. We actually have been discussing it off and on for a while. It was a lot of fun to write though :)

maddy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Klotz said...

Where's Shoji Yamashiro? I know he only did Akira, but what a score!

Great article mate!

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