Music for the Movies: Takemitsu

The 1994 installment of “Music for the Movies” about Tôru Takemitsu’s film music was made by Charlotte Zwerin (who also made the excellent “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” and was a codirector of “Gimme Shelter”).


In addition to some insightful remarks by Donald Richie, directors Imamura Shohei, Kobayashi Masaki, Ôshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro, and Teshigahara Hiroshi each marvels at how Takemitsu’s sound enhanced their films. The film clips made the Japanese (or at least Japanese cinema) look far more morbid (in general and death-obsessed in particular) than Paul Shrader’s selections from Mishima’s life and fiction (scored by Phillip Glass).

Takemitsu (1930[-96]) said onscreen that he would have liked to score comedies, but was recurrently recruited to score movies about murder, suicide, and other dark subjects (Harakiri, Kwaidan, Woman in the Dunes, Empire of Passion, etc.) I learned that the one film in which Takemitsu did not get his own way is in Kurosawa’s last (and, I think, greatest) masterpiece, “Ran” (1986). Takemitsu speaks with some distaste of the “Mahlerian” (more specifically “Titan” symphony) soundscape Kurosawa demanded. In general, Taksmitsu maintained: “I write music by placing objects in my musical garden” and he considered his work on movies as being as much sound design as “composed” music. The documentary shows some of the exotic instruments of his sound engineering.

Takemitsu’s music often enhances errieness. He says it is “all top” (i.e., not built on a bass line, especially not employing timpani, which he despises). Olivier Messiaen has been a longtime influence and personal friend and Takemitsu famously despises music that is “stifled by formulas and calculations” and wants his music to be able to breathe rather than being strictly planned (John Cage was another influence). But for most of the hundred films he scored, he sought to “express what the director feels himself. I try to extend his feelings with my music.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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