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Essay: Japanese film music

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  • Published: 5 April 2022*
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Japan was quick to adopt the technology for film production. Within only two years of the first moving picture camera entering Japan, a public showing of the new technology was given. Music was an element of the experience of motion picture in Japan from the beginning. The first film shown in Tokyo had no narrative content. Instead, it showed Geisha dancing and featured a live, 16-piece shamisen ensemble. Both Japanese and European instruments were used to accompany motion pictures. If the film had a traditional Japanese theme, only Japanese instruments would be used. If the film was depicting modern Japanese life, a combination of European and Japanese instruments were employed. The term “ballyhoo” was used to describe the practice in early Japanese narrative cinema of a band playing modern brass instruments outside the theater to attract attention and then moving inside, where they would continue to play throughout the film as part of the cinema’s live musical accompaniment (Hosokawa 288-91).

A unique and essential element of the experience of seeing a moving film in Japan was a person known as a benshi. This person usually served as more than just a narrator reading the text on screen with dramatic effect. The role of the benshi was to act more as an interpreter of the film for the audience. He would often begin with an introduction of the film, which included background information helpful for understanding the film for an audience of varying levels of education. The benshi then continued to create comments and insert dialogue as the film played, adding vocal sound effects and even signaling the projectionist at certain points to add mechanical sounds. Benshi in early moving film projection grew out of similar traditions of vocal narration used in traditional Japanese theater. These modern and traditional forms of narration and musical accompaniment made for an aurally rich theater-going experience (Anderson 23).

Later on, traditional elements in Japanese film were looked down upon because such elements made it more difficult for Japanese films to be widely accepted abroad in the way that European and American films were accepted in Japan. The Pure Film Movement advocated making films truly silent and doing away with elements such as benshi, thereby allowing only images to convey the story. The reasoning was that if the film was scripted and shot with the expectation that vocal narration will accompany the film, audiences overseas could not be expected to understand it without the aid of such narration. This reaction against sound slowed the acceptance of the talkie in Japan (Dym 142-3).

Largely due to the presence and popularity of the benshi tradition, sound films did not become the norm in Japanese cinema until the late 1930s (Harris 57). Interest in traditional musical forms previously neglected under the Meiji regime bloomed with the growth of a middle-class audience and a greater awareness of Japanese identity as the country became increasingly nationalistic (Koozin 6). The unstable social atmosphere spurred artistic creativity and the emergence of innovative composers such as Fumio Hayasaka, who later achieved prominence for developing a unique musical idiom that incorporated a diverse range of styles, both domestic and foreign. Notably, his collaboration with the director Akira Kurosawa in Drunken Angel (1948), a noir film set in the yakuza world of postwar Japan, marked a “turning point” in film music in that it “was considered during the writing stage, mapped out, and tied to the images and what kind of role it would play.” Music was given a greater structural role, and began to be conceived not only as “accompaniment,” but also as potential “counterpoint” to the visual component. An example of this is the critical knife battle scene in Drunken Angel, which employed orchestral music inspired by the rich, dreamy harmonies characteristic of Debussy to establish a poignant contrast between the vicious violence and the brighter outside world (Koozin 6-7).

Continuing to explore the generative potential of embracing diverse musical styles was the composer Toru Takemitsu, who first entered the world of film music by working as Hayasaka’s assistant (Koozin 10-11). Also of crucial importance to his career was the 1961 formation of the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), the focus of which on avant-garde, independent filmmaking engaged the works of many rising composers. Interestingly, Takemitsu would also go on to collaborate extensively with Kurosawa, and the 1985 film Ran, in which the structural function of music became highly mature and explicit, is often cited as one of the hallmarks of this partnership (Deguchi 51, Harris 5). An adaption of Shakespeare’s King Lear to fit the myth of a Japanese warlord, Ran juxtaposes two distinct types of music to support its overarching structure. On one hand, solo flute music, alternatively performed using ryūteki, shinobue, or piccolo, demarcates the progressive downfall of the main character, Hidetora, and outlines the underlying tripartite jo-ha-kyū narrative framework, the use of which reflects the influence of Noh theatre aesthetics (Deguchi 55). On the other hand, a Mahler-inspired symphonic piece titled Hell’s Picture Scroll accompanies the majestic battle scene between Hidetora\’s followers and the armies of his sons. Played at an adagio tempo at the exclusion of source sounds, the music can be understood to represent the divine perspective, through which the cyclical nature of human history and individual mortality is highlighted (Deguchi 60, 63). Like Hayasaka, then, Takemitsu contributed to the expanding role of music in Japanese film by drawing upon the expressive power of complex mixtures of musical influences (Koozin 15).

With the rise of the animation film from the 1960’s to 1980’s, we see a complete integration of music into film. Japanese animation film started attracting a considerable amount of worldwide attention with the production of the movie, Spirited Away. Produced by Studio Ghibli in 2001 with Hayao Miyazaki as the director, Spirited Away is the highest grossing film in the history of Japanese film with a total revenue of approximately $300 million (Hewitt). It is also the first non-English animation film to ever receive an award in the United States – it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, making the film the only hand-drawn animated film to win this award (Hewitt). The popularity of the film was enhanced by its film score, which was composed by Joe Hisaishi, a well-recognized film score composer trained in Western classical music. The score was so exceedingly well-received that the studio even created a Spirited Away Image Album, which contained 10 soundtracks from the movie. The success of the movie in Japan led to its English adaptation by Disney producer John Lasseter. However, in contrast to its popularity in Japan, the movie was featured in only 151 theaters when it premiered in 2002, although the number expanded to approximately 700 theaters after the film received its Oscar in 2003 (Hewitt). The relatively low revenue and popularity that the film received in the U.S. can be attributed to Miyazaki’s retention rights to the film and its characters. Due to Miyazaki’s contract request to not advertise, commercialize, or westernize his characters in the same way that other Disney characters often were, there was very little marketing of the film in the United States.

Miyazaki’s efforts to keep the film and his characters as traditionally “Japanese” as possible can also be seen throughout the storyline of the film. The main theme featured in this movie – criticism of consumer society and industrialization – is rooted in Miyazaki’s criticism against modern Japanese society and his effort to continue the traditions of Shintoism, a Japanese ethnic religion that emphasizes ritual practices and belief in numerous kami, or spirits. Consequently, the entire storyline revolves around a Japanese traditional bathhouse where various kami, or Japanese spirits, come to replenish their minds and bodies (Miyazaki). In fact, the bathhouse featured in the film is based on an actual bathhouse in Japan, and audiences of the movie are constantly exposed to multiple components of the bathhouse, such as the central heating room, workers’ living place, the process of making Japanese herbal bath water, and exclusive guest rooms in higher floors (Miyazaki). Thus, it is not surprising that Hisaishi decided to write an independent score for the bathhouse theme, which showcases the dynamic nature of the bathhouse that the customers often do not see through the usage of various rhythmic techniques and Eastern instruments such as gamelan and taiko-sounding drums. Another prominently Japanese element of the movie involves the various traditional gods, such as spirits of the river, tree, daikong, and other elements of nature. As previously mentioned, the traditional Japanese religion Shintoism believes in innumerable “Kami,” or sacred spirits associated with objects and concepts important to daily life, such as the wind, rain, mountains, trees, and rivers. In fact, one of the main featured themes is criticism of industrialization and consequent failure of modern Japanese society to preserve the nature-loving spirit of Shintoism (Miyazaki). Inevitably, Hisaishi also creates sound and leit motif associated with each spirit that is closely incorporated into the storyline of the film.

While Hisaishi primarily utilizes Western instruments and orchestration for the film score, he employs various techniques to evoke traditional Japanese themes. The film score for Spirited Away can be classified into two genres. Most obviously, it is an underscore to a film, which means that it has no lyrics, and is instead entirely instrumental (and in this case is an orchestral instrumental). Secondly, I would classify it as “popular music,” the reason being that Spirited Away is a “popular film,” which is defined in this case as a film that is not a small indie or art film intended for niche audiences. Instead, it is an animated film for all ages, created by Studio Ghibli, with a distribution deal with Disney, the second largest media company in the world. This means that Spirited Away was intended to reach a large audience, and that both companies were confident that it would do well in both commercial and cultural markets.

This aspect was incorporated into the music, as it largely features a traditional Western orchestra, with heavy use of piano, as well as a few Japanese and other Asian musical elements. The original soundtrack was recorded by the New Japan Philharmonic, founded in 1972 by Seiji Ozawa, an acclaimed conductor who has conducted top classical orchestras in Europe and America. Two pieces where Japanese / Asian influences are most notable include “Stink Spirit (Okusaregami)” and “Sen’s Courage (Sen no yuki).” Evident in the former is the use of various taiko drums, and the piece itself is an underscore that supports a slightly suspenseful and important pivotal scene in the film — the main character is able to show her true strength in helping the Stink Spirit, an important river god in disguise. The latter showcases the use of Balinese Gamelan, the chaotic, distinctive, and colorful metallic timbre of which helps to paint a scene of the exotic other, in this case the magical mysteries of the spirit world. However, these salient non-traditional-Western-orchestra moments are few, and, when they happen, it is obvious that there has been a musical departure from the regular music. These “exotic” musical moments are meant to jolt the listener out of the comfort of a popular, familiar film score and represent something new and different.

In fact, considering how culturally Japanese the thematic backdrop of Spirited Away is, as discussed before, the music is surprisingly accessible and Western. There are clear melodic lines that are singable and easy to follow, and Hisaishi uses very common film music tropes. For example, the use of a honky bassoon leaping from low to high registers to an unbalanced rhythm, as heard in the piece “Sootballs (Boira Mushi),” is a common comedic trope employed by many western film composers. Another example is the use of the oboe for romantic moments, as heard in Chihiro and Haku’s love theme, “Reprise.” These tropes are musical moments that the audience can expect and know how to react to due to lots of previous exposure. Essentially, Hisaishi is utilizing the whole Western film music canon to inform his audience, with the result that the film music is relatable and most importantly, enjoyable.

It is of no doubt that music noticeably occupies an essential function in Japanese film as a means to establish mood and location, assist in the flow of one scene to another, and provide sound effects. However, Japanese film music also exists prominently outside of films in the form of soundtrack albums that have even reached the top of the music charts. The soundtracks for Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Death Note (2006) are but a few that have done exceptionally well. In particular, the film scores composed by Joe Hisaishi for Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films have become so popular worldwide that there are concerts exclusively dedicated to reconstructing his songs (\”Joe Hisaishi Symphonic Concert\”). Furthermore, anime soundtracks have penetrated mainstream society with songs like Cowboy Bebop’s opening track, “Tank!,” being covered by jazz bands around the world (“Tank! Cowboy Bebop – Westlake HS Studio Jazz Band”).

Japanese anime music is often associated with the otaku, a Japanese term meaning nerd or geek. It is used to refer to people who are obsessed with certain things, most often anime or manga, but it can also be applied to other areas such as trains and fashion. The term’s contemporary originator, Nakamori Akio, originally derived it as a derogatory phrase to describe those who were friendless, unfashionable, terrible at sports, and utterly devoted to their chosen craft, since the phrases “crazies, fanatics, and introverts” could not fully encompass “particular variations and the general phenomenon of this character type” (Morikawa 1-2). The term took on an extreme negative characterization when it was transformed through the murders of four young girls in 1989 by a man with an extensive collection of videos and anime. Looking for a motive, the police and media labeled the murderer an otaku and blamed his collection of videos and anime for driving him to commit such horrendous deeds. The word otaku became associated with “… a person who has retreated into a fantasy world, is unable to tell the difference between reality and illusion …” (Morikawa 8). However, more recently, people have begun to self-identify as otaku as a way of reclaiming the word for their own use. By doing so, they are “simultaneously self-deprecating and self-confirming” the stereotype (Morikawa 7).

Not too long ago, a Japanese anime movie called Your Name (2016) became the second highest-grossing movie in Japan, trailing only Spirited Away, while earning the title of the highest-grossing anime film of all time due to better overseas sales. Adding to its impressive box office total is Your Name’s enormous cultural impact on Japan, with cafes, merchandise, and tours centered around the movie popping up overnight (Michel). In particular, the film’s soundtrack by Japanese rock band Radwimps has reach #1 on the Oricon Weekly Album along with the lead single “Zenzenzense” (“Previous Previous Previous Life”) reaching #1 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100. In fact, the film has done so well domestically that English-subtitled and dubbed versions were released in the United State in April of 2017. The four vocal theme songs were re-recorded by Radwimps in English.

The transformation of Your Name from a Japanese anime to an English version is not unique, but the decision to keep the animations and instrumental songs the same and changing only the subtitling/dubbing for an English-speaking audience is rare. Lately, there has been a trend of creating live-action adaptations of popular Japanese anime, with beloved anime series and films like Dragonball Z, The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell, and Speed Racer receiving such treatment. However, these movies have typically done very poorly in the box office, and have been widely criticized for blatant whitewashing, where Japanese characters are replaced by non-Japanese, non-Asian, and largely Caucasian actors (Frank). While poor directing and production definitely contributed to the lackluster results, it is interesting to investigate if what made the original Japanese films endearing to audiences worldwide has been lost in the Hollywood reinterpretations. One aspect of particular concern is the importance that anime music holds for moviegoers.

In conclusion, Japanese film music has undergone a radical transformation in its relatively short lifespan. Starting from silent films with live film narrators who would create dialogue and sound effects, it transitioned to talkies where music was depicted as noisy interruptions, further progressed to become an integral part of the film experience, and finally achieved its status today – able to successfully stand as a separate entity apart from the film in which it originated. Japanese film music has come a long way and there are sure to be new pieces and songs that wow and astonish as the genre continues to develop and grow.


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