Takemitsu: Like John Cage, if John Cage Scored Samurai Movies

12/03/2010 1:00 PM |

December 3-16 at Film Forum

Cinema has its own rich history of great composers—Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Georges Delerue, and John Williams, to name just a few—but none can hold a candle to Toru Takemitsu. To celebrate his sonorous achievements, Film Forum is hosting “Takemitsu,” a two-week, nineteen-film retrospective covering the composer’s most famous work, as well as a few new discoveries for US audiences.

Fourteen years have elapsed since his passing in 1996 at the age of 65, and still Takemitsu’s legacy as a composer of chamber and solo works as well as film scores remains unsurpassed. Krzysztof Penderecki and Philip Glass (who similarly work in both the concert hall and the movie theater) come close—but Penderecki’s 25 and Glass’ 39 original film scores are only a fraction of the nearly 100 scores that Takemitsu completed in his lifetime.

Takemitsu’s distinct style is as ancient as it is modern. He was not only one of the first to bring traditional Japanese instrumentation to movie scores, but also to blend it with the avant-garde techniques being developed by John Cage, with whom Takemitsu briefly studied. The ethereal sounds of nature are as integral to his work as the metallic whine of machinery and the clamorous roar of fast-moving urban spaces. Somehow, magically, Takemitsu is able to mimic these sounds through orchestral arrangement. His skilled manipulation of aural space is such that you’re never quire sure if you’re listening to the war cry of hawks or the shrill of violins—either way, your senses can’t escape the commanding presence of Takemitsu’s soundscapes.

Takemitsu’s scores are as famous as the films they were written for. In the climactic battle scene in Akira Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran (1985), as the King Lear figure (Tatsuya Nakadai) stumbles out of his burning castle, Kurosawa cuts the diegetic sound and lets Takemitsu’s musical pulse take center stage, honing in on the psychological torment weighing down on Nakadai. The entire dramatic arc of the narrative is captured in that single piece of music: the majestic rise and devastating fall of one’s own empire, and the tragedy of watching it all burn to ashes in front of you. The bassoon melody, reminiscent of Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring, lends a mystical quality to the scene, while the unsettling harmony of the string section carries ominous portents. On its own, Nakadai’s performance is great; but with Takemitsu’s score behind him, it becomes legendary.

But Takemitsu could do more than just soul-shattering drama. Is there anything more triumphant than the “MacArthur Park”-esque fanfare composed for Kurosawa’s Dodes’Ka-Den (1970)? Kurosawa’s direction of this ensemble story, about the struggles of a group of people living in a garbage dump, is as lyrical as Takemitsu’s score, and the two hit all the right notes. And is there anything more chilling than Takemitsu’s contributions to Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost story omnibus Kwaidan (1964)? The storyline, filled with phantom ladies and the spirits of fallen soldiers, is perfectly matched by the ethereal presence of wind instruments and pizzicato strings—Takemitsu hallmarks. If the surface kitsch of recent art-house revival House left you dissatisfied, try immersing yourself in the total creepiness of Kwaidan. Perfectly paced, it’s a beautifully frightening film that sustains suspense for its entirety. This one is a justifiable classic.