published in The Wire No. 249, London, October 2004

Joe Hisaishi - Hana Bi
Joe Hisaishi - A Scene At The Sea
Joe Hisaishi - Dolls

While recent American crime films attempt to bludgeon one with violence (some quite masterly) Japanese crime cinema has always been intent on cutting deep. It’s a hammer versus sword thing. Contemporary revisions of the tradition are best exemplified by the yakuza films by Kitano ‘Beat’ Takashi. The unexpected timing of his characters’ explosions of violence are as unsettling as the acts themselves. Yet Takashi films aren’t about violence: they are about regret. Composer Joe Hisaishi’s compositional tack is as much about voicing Takashi’s sense of ‘ill-timing’ as it is about emotional states. Shifting from very Anglophile neo-minimalism to an almost fetid fertility in its pulped paraphrasing of the sweeter end of the spectralist vogue, Hanna-Bi’s (1998) musical iconography to many listeners will appear bland, suffocating even. But this is muzak peculiar to modern Japan’s air-conditioned zones of existential angst. With Takashi, Hisaishi renders the cinema theatre as sterile as the confines of the screen’s bitter and disengaged yakuza, giving us the muzak of their minds.

Hisaishi’s first collaboration with Takahashi has the trademarks he developed for their proceeding films. A Scene At The Sea (1991) is an unnervingly close study of the mystery that clouds the murky motivations behind those who commit suicide – in this case, a near-dysfunctional teen who becomes obsessed with surfing. The waves aren’t that big in Japan, so there’s no epic swelling in either film or score. The story devolves into a deflation of Melville’s Moby Dick, here ending with simply the disappearance of the young surfer. His erasure is subtly portrayed by Hisaishi’s score (recently re-released). With delicate and tasteful pattering of marimbas, upper register piano octaves, nylon sting guitar plinks and real and synthetic feminine wordless-vox, there is always a sense that the music is its own ghost: lightly being stated with a knowingness that it must eventually fade. Satie’s Gymnopedies are obliquely quoted elsewhere – but more for their disconnected tonal progression as per Satie’s intention than for the presumed lusciousness of their somnambulistic waltz figures. The right-but-wrong harmonic logic generates ‘beautiful music’ yet Hisaishi is here synchronising to the random connections made between the film’s tragic characters. And those Fairlight CMI strings are employed for their fakeness in a way that is quintessentially Japanese. All up, it’s a surf movie with no surf, with gorgeous no-surf movie music.

When Beat Takashi adapted a famous play from the bunraku puppet theatre of his hometown Osaka, his core theme of regret came to the fore in an unbridled outpouring of cinematic poetry. After a no-show wedding ceremony sends a woman into catatonia, the groom undertakes to redress his mistake and spend his life tied to her by the traditional ‘beggar’s bond’ of thick red rope. The film then traces their journey across Japan over the four seasons. The film’s allegorical structure is profoundly traditional, and certainly devoid of the yakuza pyrotechnics expected of Takahashi. However Dolls (2001) is the purest cinematic visualisation of exactly what Hisaishi’s music had been doing for Takashi’s preceding films: weighing the present of music’s performative aura with the past of its harmonic baggage. Western/European film scoring has ultimately been fixated on its present-tense synchronisation to onscreen drama; Hisaishi’s scores are more about music’s exclusion from image dictates. Specifically, his metronomic orchestrations musically illustrate the inner emptiness of the forlorn lovers’ transformation into ‘dolls’ as they plod their way through pink sakura blossoms and translucent white snow. Drained of humanism but brimful of the sad residue of what it once felt like to be human, these tragic lovers are Hisaishi’s score remembered.

Ennio Morricone - Il Diavolo Nel Cervello
Ennio Morricone - Il Serpente
Ennio Morricone - Ecce Homo – I Spravvissuti

The sprawling ties between the thriller, giallo and psycho movies in Italy throughout the 60s and 70s form a wonderfully saturated era where every whodunit cliché is contorted into new and ungainly spasms. Far from a dumb mainstream cinema, it was a perverse and playful cinema. Music played a big role in building the atmosphere to these cinematic games. Morricone’s score to Sergio Sollima’s Il Diavolo Nel Cervello (aka Devil In The Brain, 1971) provides a snapshot of this generic gameplay. True to the modular format of these whodunits, Morricone takes a brace of themes and then with appropriate perversity ties them into knotted configurations, each overlaid on the other. Listening to the whole CD, one is left giddy from these variations and their unending malleability. Based on the opening yet incomplete phrase of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, Morricone’s undying inventiveness accelerates the matricular possibilities of its harmonic patterning into terrains unimagined by the arch romantic minimalism which would be deemed postmodern a decade later. From rich permutations of horns, strings, harpsichord, piano and Edda Dell’orso, to splayed and exhausted overtones and upper-harmonics ghosting the recognisable motifs, Morricone does orchestral math at its best.

Morricone’s score to Henri Verneuil’s Il Serpente (aka Night Flight To Moscow, 1973) is a mixed bag: some lush organ and orchestra themes redolent with that Vatican church ambience; some wild freakout wah-wah rock with girl boogaloo chorus; plus the garish addition of some small-town brass marching tunes. But it is the clutch of dripping and shivering atonal sketches of the second half of the CD that link this score to Morricone’s experimental work with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuovo Consonanza Musica. Expanded bowed and percussive techniques are combined with some brutishly effective ring-modulation processing, suggesting what Stockhausen might have done if he had scored a crime thriller. Still, Morricone’s voguish appropriation of these improvisatory gestures creates some thoroughly engaging soundscapes sophisticated in both their arrangement and stereo spatialization, especially in his distinctive fusion of synth tones, amplifier effects, triangles, bowed cymbals.

The inimitable Edda Dell’orso is the first thing you hear in Morricone’s score t Bruno A. Gaburro’s Ecco Homo – I Spravvissuti (Behold This Man, 1969). She murmurs a quasi-Grecian semitonal incantation which is picked up and draped around her corpus by a confined ensemble of flute, viola, harp, marimba, vibes and percussion. Her siren voice floats across the CD, sometimes in close breathy relief, other times in echoic displacement. The instruments stretch her, mimic her, replace her, voice her – in uncanny replay of the film’s psychologically tense sexual drama as three men are captivated by a woman in a remote seaside village. The Mediterranean primitivism connoted in the score is less a statement on expanded performance and more Morricone’s own portrait of the sexual revolution in this 1969 recording. A beautiful recording of a tersely erotic work.

John Carpenter - Vampires
John Carpenter - Ghosts of Mars

John Carpenter’s score for his own film Vampires (1998) may not seem outré by any measure – but this is deliberately so. In his revisiting of the vampire genre (with greater fidelity and respect than most have accorded it in the past few decades), his score roots the musical milieu of the film into a Californian/Tex-Mex Latino tradition of this decidedly European archetype. Carpenter creates a musicological map for the new-American terrain of the vampire, and thus soundscapes the dry mortal desert of the vampire’s reign in place of his dark and brooding mystical essence. Furthermore, Carpenter takes Jack Nitzsche’s distinctive model of forming a band to record the score sessions, and creates the Texas Toad Lickers for half of the score. The line-up includes the core backing section of Booker T and the MGs: Donald Dunn and Steve Cropper. A Stax texture pervades the film in its own mystical way, generating a slow Texan blues boogie which unexpectedly symbolises the hard-but-cool drudgery with which the gang of humans fight the dark forces. It might sound like a Jim Beam ad, but contextualized within the film, it’s strong stuff.

A casual netsearch suggests Carpenter’s music is perceived as middling and not clearly defined for those who like their music (and scores) to be emblazoned with clear affiliations. But Carpenter has always merged sensibilities, forms and styles in both his genre movies and their scores. Most importantly, these mergers occur between screen and score – something a music review alone can miss. Ghosts of Mars (2001) with ghosts is done with typical Carpenter conviction. The score is Carpenter again assembling a musical line-up to characterise the film: he selects musicians as a director would choose actors. With Anthrax as his backing band and featuring guitar solos by Steve Vai and Buckethead, Carpenter provides synth-pad drones behind them. It might not be pure metal but it’s a kick-arse score to a no-bullshit movie, born of a singular audiovision, and not concocted over lunch between an A&R man and a ‘music supervisor’. The difference here is that this is a score composed specifically for the film, and well-attuned to its sensibilities. Cinema and film music are mongrel mulatto beings: the canny scores are those who know this and experiment with that knowledge.

Onogawa Hiroyuki - Electric Dragon 80,000V
Onogawa Hiroyuki - Gojoe

The loudest deafest dumbest noise-score has to be Onogawa Hiroyuki’s freak-out to Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80,000V (2002). The film details an ongoing battle between two beings literally addicted to electricity, including one who generates megatronic feedback wails through Marshall stacks lining his bedroom wall. For once, a film’s visual pyrotechnics are forcefully welded to its score. The screaming history and histrionics of guitar noise are compressed into slabs which sonically convey the electrified adrenaline surging through these two supermen. Music cues? No – just pure eruptions of energy in place of a recognisable score. Specific to the Japanese context, Electric Dragon 80,000V is a homage to early 60s kid’s TV shows, filmed in black and white and on location in Japan’s outer suburban wastelands – still visually scarred by WWII bombing and the emergent signs of urban renewal. These shows are quaint but amazing – like 40s Italian neo-realism meets 30s Flash Gordon serials – and feature bizarre musique concrete effects to energise the low-budget visual effects. Fondly remembering Japan’s own B-Grade legacy while decimating any sense of warm nostalgia, Onogawa Hiroyuki’s ‘score-core’ perfectly represents the childlike hysteria for superpower and blasts it loudly into the film.

Sogo Ishii’s Gojoe (2000) is his 5th collaboration with composer Hiroyuki Onogawa. In contrast to the biting brute noise of Electric Dragon 80,000V, Gojoe is an epic ‘trans-world’ score for a mystical historical lore – Asian-style. Using his own group Mach 1.67, Onogawa works with a family of traditional Indian singers and tabla players. Sounds like an obvious ethnographic recipe, but Onogawa’s direction of this merger reverberates with the near-deafening majesty of the film’s torrid and sordid battles for power between a Buddhist monk, a grave-robber, a clan head and a vengeful master swordsman. Due to the score’s taiko drum detonations and searing metallic percussive events and tonings, the music casts these figures as gigantic bronze statues of godly proportion. It’s the Asiatic version of Teutonic and Vulcanite powerheads of Western lore, appropriately and evocatively signified through the Indian/Japanese instrumentation and modal improvisation. The orchestration also ably reflects the social and psychological profile of the 4 warring figures (scrapping metal for the grave-robber, court music flute for the lords, etc.). A beautiful stereofield imaging adds to the massive expansiveness of the music, making a CD that seeks to be played loudly.

Thomas Bangalter - Irreversible

If you’ve seen Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) you may find it hard to remember Thomas Bangalter’s music. But when you hear the music after seeing the movie, it’s likely you will find it hard to not remember the film’s images. Possibly the most savage piece of cinema in film history (no need to take my word for it – watch it and see), Noe’s extended agenda to scar the viewer in the act of viewing has always been cogniscent of the role sound and music play in such strategies. In Irreversible’s decimation of the rape-revenge subgenre, he has solicited a score from Bangalter that acts like an ungiving and unforgiving sonic spatialisation of Noe’s brute world. A lesser director would have welcomed a dark brooding reverberant industrial noise-scape. Noe and Bangalter wisely leave that for PS2 games and Hollywood films derived from comics, and instead use club music of high House order French style to forge an unstoppable din. The music’s forceful niceness perfectly matches the sheer indifference with which Noe’s long-take camera gazes unflinchingly at its acts of violence and retribution. Irreversibly.

Jon Brion - Magnolia

Jon Brion’s first major score was for P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). Released as a separate score CD to the more readily available ‘song score’ by Aimee Mann (itself a complex and beguiling collection of songs largely co-produced by Brion), Magnolia is an astounding work. A slight listen might mark the music as falling somewhere in the lushness which has characterised cinema’s appropriation of the softer streams of minimalism. A sharper consideration should make apparent Brion’s music bears no lineage to the twee gentility afforded by cinema’s embrace of contemporary chamber music. The perversely unironic lushness of Brion is akin to the string arrangements typical of other west coast pop arrangers like Jack Nitzsche, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson: all operate openly in the vulgar domain of pop, but do so with an ambiguous genuineness that captivates despite the obviousness of their harmonic statement. With bold distinction and emotional conviction, Brion’s score is less about anything apparent onscreen in Anderson’s emotional flora of contemporary breakdowns, and more about the psychological bio-rhythms which pulsate fatalistically as people harm those they love. A score with deep dramaturgical energy.

Kenji Kawai - Avalon

In contrast to his more pan-Asiatic toned scores for anime, Kenji Kawai’s high-European orchestral score matches Mamoru Oshii’s shift from anime to live action in Avalon (2001). For a westerner, possibly the hardest act of listening is when the East goes West: one immediately thinks something is too reduced in the referencing and too skeletal in the tonality. This score certainly took me a while to find a perspective to best appreciate Kawai’s ingestion of the darker romantic chorales associated with Europe’s Eastern Block. But once found, a new sonic world opens up as the grandeur of the orchestra and choir of the Warsaw Philharmonic is musically tailored to suit Japanese sense. A gorgeous recording which intensifies the purely sonic sensation of orchestral rumbling combined with a hyper-soprano solo by Elizibeta Towarnicka convey a sense of ‘real music’ morphing into the hyperreal (in perfect line with Avalon’s story of virtuality). To the classical purist, Avalon might be harmonically irrational and conceptually irritating, but as an example of a ‘de-Eurocentric’ investigation of music, it truly is something else.

Text © Philip Brophy.