In Japan, silence is not only golden, it's deafening. Back in the day, John Cage's importation of Zen tenets led him to centrally position silence within his own compositional methods. His wispy utterances appear comforting when compared to many other artistic transpositions of the minimalist practice emanating from Japan. Japanese folk music, for example, is honored as a paradigm of spiritual quiet, while radical assertions of Occidental Silence drawn from post-modern angles have been misinterpreted or dismissed by orthodox Nippophiles.
Cineastes might recall the warm clickity-clack of a distant train in the cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi. But that yearning domestic melancholy vanished from the Japanese soundtrack into the chasm gouged by Kurosawa's Shakespearean chambara. Typically post-war, his soundtracks alternate between gasps of silence, spurts of blood, slices of resonance, and deep passages of nothingness. Come the Sixties electronics explosion, the sonar field of Japanese life had profoundly transformed their soundtracks into something more akin to Stockhausen than Korngold. It is hard to not hear this J-Pop noise in the transistorized cinema of Suzuki, Wakamatsu, Imamura.
Today, those vibrations of inverted silences, screaming pauses and razor-thin detonations are heard in much contemporary cinema and music from Japan. Sonically, a difference governs their qualifications of sound, music and silence - so fundamentally misaligning them to Judeo-Christian Eurocentric thought that misperception of Japanese music and soundtracks is understandable. But not acceptable.
The six-part OVA (original video animation?a straight to DVD genre) Furi Kuri (Kazuya Tsurumaki, 01) may be the deepest end of the noise pool to dive into and familiarize oneself with this "difference." Furi Kuri is hard to describe without resorting to flip cult movie adlines, suffice to say this anime continues the ungainly equation of debilitating teen angst mixed with outrageous machinic interaction that drove Gainax and Company IG's previous work, the outstanding 26-part anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 97). Yet while NGE revisits the boy-with-robot lineage, Furi Kuri features a boy who sprouts robots from his own head. Literally. One of them becomes a mechanical externalization of his inner power and then periodically swallows the boy to transform into a mystical mecha-power. While this sounds like Cronenberg territory, Furi Kuri is closer to the nightmare world of films like The 5,000 Fingers of Doctor T where children are trapped in realms so violently realized they convey the subjective terror of being young: equally unable to control one's world or oneself.
Sociology is the cheapest of cinematic divining rods, but it must be noted that the spectre of teen suicide in contemporary Japan has peculiarly fuelled many fantastic film, anime and manga scenarios for at least a decade now. Furi Kuri accepts this terrain as home ground and builds a sci-fi project formally unclassifiable and deliberately self-problematized. Yet apart from its astounding animation artistry and densely compacted scripting, Furi Kuri is notable for its equally radical use of music and sound design.
Like listening to John Hughes teen movies and MTV at the same time, Furi Kuri frenetically percolates with post-grunge power pop, J-style. Songs by Little Busters, Running High, The Pillows, Happy Bivouac and more are mixed high, hard, and happily, generating a freshness in mixing not heard since Hughes' vilified pop-tracking. The largely instrumental song-score is gloriously radiophonic in its saturation and density. Of note is the way the energy of the wall-to-wall tracks is integrated into the drama and its many mood swings. And in seeming oppostion to this hyper-compression and fat rendering of pop noise, the tactile presence of amp hums, drum tunings, and vocal sibilance is gorgeously foregrounded. Recalling the production work of indie rock stalwart Steve Albini's Shellac recordings, the music sounds sparklingly raw and urgently alive.
This palpable presence of electrified life carries over into Furi Kuri's sound design. Quality DVD playback is required for the most tactile aspects of the soundtrack: the digital recording of nothing. One continually hears mics left on to record the hum of unseen technology (fridge compressors, subway rumbles, stairwell echoes, etc.), generating careful placement and modulation of the sonic grain of emptiness which filters urban and suburban Japan. Fluro tubes at 3 am, aircon exhaust emissions, and yes: that same train in the distance from Ozu and Mizoguchi. For Furi Kuri is as thorough a recording of the Japanese psyche today as the sonic portraits generated by the afore-mentioned Japanese directors. Do not be fooled by Furi Kuri's audiovisual pop sheen. It is a sign of the noise that is Japan: imperceptible through Cage and Zen, but discernible to those attuned to amplified silence.Text © Philip Brophy 2002. Images © Gainax