Thursday, November 4, 2010

JAPANESE FILM BLOGATHON: A tribute to the work of Joe Hisaishi and Takeshi Kitano

For our continuing participation in this week's Japanese Film Blogathon J-Film Pow-Wow founder and editor Chris MaGee presents an appreciation of the musical and cinematic collaboration between composer Joe Hisaishi and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano.

Film is a visual medium, or more precisely it is storytelling using images, actions, colour instead of ordered prose to relate a narrative. Of course an essential part of cinematic storytelling is sound and music. There are so many iconic film moments that would be completely neutered without music. Can you imagine the opening scene of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" without John Williams' simple but terrifying score? When Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name wanders into town in Sergio Leone's "The Good,The Bad and the Ugly" his arrival wouldn't be nearly as evocative without the music of Ennio Morricone. Spielberg/ Williams, Leone/ Morricone - these are two of the mightiest director/ composer pairings in cinema history, but Japan has its own legendary and long-standing partnerships - Toru Takemitsu and Hiroshi Teshigahara,Fumio Hayasaka and Akira Kurosawa,Akira Ifukube amd Ishiro Honda, and Chu Ishikawa and Shinya Tsukamoto to name just a few key examples. One of the most successful, and one that most deeply affected me as I was discovering the world of Japanese film, was between Takeshi Kitano and composer Joe Hisaishi.

Like a lot of people my entry into the world of Japanese film came through the work of Takeshi Kitano. Watching his films was an initiation into whole new levels of violence, elliptical editing, pitch black humour, pacing and structure. Films like "Boiling Point", "A Scene at the Sea", "Hana-bi", "Kikujiro" and "Dolls" schooled me in how Japanese cinema can not only bend the rules of Western-style filmmaking, but gleefully break them and in the process create eccentric and ingenious masterpieces. It was while all of this new information was filtering through my retina another aspect of Kitano's films was registering on an almost subliminal level - the sweet minimalistic music of composer Joe Hisaishi. For someone who had been (and still is) a fan of composers like Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Philip Glass there was so much that was familiar about Hisaishi's compositions, but combined with Kitano's visuals this music became all the more powerful. Often the success of a piece of artwork comes through its context. Kitano's unique cinematic vision and Hisaishi's deceptively simple melodies perfectly compliment each other... but they shouldn't! On the surface their collaboration would seem like playing new age music during a bloody Roman coliseum show. So what made the pairing of Kitano and Hisaishi so successful?

Silent Love (Theme from A Scene at the Sea, 1991)

It's a well known story how Kitano ended up taking over directing duties on his first film "Violent Cop" after its original director Kinji Fukasaku either bowed out of the project or was taken ill. It may very well have been the case that composer Daisaku Kume was already attached to the project at that point, but the fact that Kume based key segments of his score around Erik Satie's "Gnossienne #1" acted as a very interesting precursor to Kitano's eventual collaborations with Hisaishi.Kume's take on Satie was grumpy and brutal, much like Kitano's anti-hero Azuma. Kitano's sophomore directorial effort "Boiling Point" was literally boiled down to its bare essentials - violence, nihilism and absolutely no musical score at all. These two films were so very dark that in 1991 when Hisaishi received a call asking him to compose the soundtrack to the next Takeshi Kitano film he was a bit taken aback. "At first I thought it was a mistake," Hisaishi, who up to that point had success scoring documentaries and the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki, admitted in an interview with HK Orient Extreme, "I had seen 'Violent Cop' and 'Boiling Point' and I did not understand how my world and his could be connected.When I returned to Tokyo, I discovered 'A Scene at the Sea' and I understood what he had in mind."

Sonatine, 1993 - Rock, paper, scissors scene

What Kitano had in mind was a total rehaul of his big screen direction. "A Scene at the Sea" starred Claude Maki and Hiroko Oshima as a deaf/ mute couple whose lives are enhanced and complicated by Maki's new found obsession with surfing.Kitano wanted to make a film cheaply and quickly, so his leads had no dialogue and its beach location required no sets. Also Kitano was free to explore new emotional territory as he didn't star in the film and therefore wasn't compelled to play the tough guy, a reaction to his TV comedian persona. The end result was a film like no other in Kitano's filmography, but in many ways it was the first true Kitano film. The long, static camera set-ups and suicidal ending carried over from "Boiling Point", but the refinement of Kitano's famous grey-blue colour palette, elements of slapstick humour,the importance of seaside locations have carried through Kitano's films to this day. I believe that one of the keys to the success of "A Scene at the Sea" was Hisaishi's lovely minimalist score. It's a classic example of how music can deepen on screen emotion and, in the case of this particular film, give voice to characters who have no voice. Its also illustrates the Japanese concept of ma, a term that Hisaishi feels is of vital importance to his work. Ma is often described in the West as a pause or a moment of emptiness. "It is something quite complicated to express in another language," Hisaishi explained. Rightfully Hisaishi's work on "A Scene at the Sea"was honoured with a Best Score Award at the 1991 Japanese Academy Awards, and it started a collaboration with Kitano that would last for the next 11 years.

Kids Return, 1995 Closing Credits

Hisaishi's work has always been an amalgam of various styles and nods to other electronic and minimalist composers. One can easily hear hints of everything from Steve Reich-esque repetition of small musical modules to flourishes of flamenco and even electric rock guitar. Hisaishi also repeatedly takes well-known compositions and plays with them, creating variations on the aforementioned Erik Satie and even Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells".It was this latter motif that appeared in what Hisaishi describes as one of his favorite film scores - Kitano's 1993 yakuza film "Sonatine". Hisaishi's crystalline deconstruction of Oldfield's popular piece opens the film, and maybe because Hisaishi was on set during large portions of the shoot, he marshalls all his influences to add an extra layer to this very violent, but utterly atypical genre film.Brutality and inhumanity co-exist onscreen with boyish rough-housing and whimsy in "Sonatine", and Hisaishi thrived on these contrasts. "It is good that these two aspects coexist in the same space. With my music, it's the same thing. It is natural for me to break the traditional musical structures while pursuing an ideal of beauty..." The perfect example, I think, of the way that Kitano and Hisaishi complimented each other not just in "Sonatine" but in all their subsequent collaborations, is in the short but riveting scene of rock, paper , scissors that Kitano, as gangster Murakawa, plays on the beach with his fellow yakuza. Kitano takes this childhood game and combines it with Russian roulette. It gives us a window into the sociopathic and suicidal mind of Murakawa, and many filmmakers would use a piece of music tensed up with chords held to the breaking point and the simulated pounding of a nervous heart. Kitano doesn't and the music that Hisaishi provides instead is one of his most lyrical, haunting and unabashedly pretty piano works to appear in a Kitano film up to that point.

Alone, Hana-bi, 1997

Despite a gap of one film, Kitano's goofball 1995 comedy "Getting Any?", the film that proceeded his near fatal motorbike accident, Hisaishi would continue to refine his often serene and sometimes dramatic musical counterpoint to Kitano's pessimistic yet poetic world view. Influences of rock and electronica would show up in Hisaishi's score to "Kids Return", the story of two high school friends becoming involved in boxing and gang life, while jazz and European orchestral music played a huge part in the soundtracks to Kitano's Golden Lion-winning "Hana-bi" (1997) and the misjudged U.S.-crossover film "Brother" (2000).Next to his work on "A Scene at the Sea" though Hisaishi's most representative score for a Kitano film has to be his work on 1999's road movie "Kikujiro". This tale of a lonely boy who is accompanied through rural Japan by a low-level thug in a search for his lost mother left critics divided. Many said that Kitano was trying too hard to capture the hearts and votes of international film festival jurists. It's true that Kitano made some odd choices mixing his tough guy persona, hints of abuse and even pedophilia with what is ostensibly a children's film. Dedicated Japanese film enthusiasts know that genre rules aren't always as adhered to as stringently in Japan though. Still, Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert felt that Hisaishi's exquisite score couldn't make up for these lapses and might have actually added to the films problems, "Western audiences, looking at the material with less of the context, are likely to find some scenes a little creepy, even though the cheerful music keeps trying to take the edge off."

Summer (Theme from Kikujiro, 1999)

Yes, one could argue that scores that started out as evocative ended up becoming saccharine, cloying and sometimes dated as Kitano's feature film output became more erratic, but Hisaishi's loyalty to Kitano seemed to hold strong for the better part of a decade. "I consider him the ultimate director," Hisaishi said in the late 90's, "I respect [him] tremendously." Sadly something occurred in 2002 during the making of Kitano's bunraku-inspired "Dolls" that would finally put an end to this fruitful artistic collaboration. Like most bad break-ups two stories are told. Kitano was quoted as saying that Hisaishi had simply become to expensive to re-hire, while Hisaishi said that the two had argued over the placement of certain pieces of the score in the finished film. Maybe the truth lays somewhere in between these two accounts, but two things aren't up for debate with "Dolls." One, that despite its formal beauty the film was a failed experiment, and two, in spite of this Hisaishi's brief score may very well be his best.The melodies in "Dolls" are as spare and uncertain as the narrative threads that Kitano used to try and bind his three-films-within-one together, but for the music this works. Hisaishi presents achingly poignant music that uses equal parts melody, dissonance and silences to draw in the listener (or viewer, as the case may be).

Feel (Dolls, 2002)

By 2003 and Kitano's chanbara reboot "Zatoichi" Hisaishi was officially out of the picture and composer Keiichi Suzuki was in. "I chose to work with somebody else," Kitano explained to Midnight Eye, "because I had already shot the tap dancing scene and the scenes of the farmers working on the land. Those are all scenes that required percussion-based music, so the score needed to have that element to it. Mister Hisaishi as a composer is not very flexible, so I decided to use someone else." Since then Kitano has worked with a revolving group of composers including Nagi (Takeshis'), Shinichiro Ikebe (Glory to the Filmmaker!) and Yuki Kajiura (Achilles and the Tortoise). Meanwhile Hisaishi has continued his collaboration with Hayao Miyazaki while providing scores for such hugely successful films as Yojiro Takita's "Departures" and Sang-Il Lee's "Villain" as well as working with other Asian directors such as Wen Jiang and Kwang-Hyun Park. As of right now it seems doubtful that the two men will mend fences and begin to work together again. On one hand it is quite sad that now the only onscreen collaboration that continues between between Kitano and Hisaishi is the 10-second piece that Hisaishi composed for the Office Kitano logo identification that appears before Kitano's films. On the other hand this oh-so-brief moment of patented Hisaishi twinkle will always be a reminder of one of the best director/ composer teams in Japanese cinema.

For those of you who want to relive the glory days of Hisaishi's work with Kitano makes sure to download the 2001 compilation CD "Joe Hisaishi Meets Kitano Films" available through iTunes.


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