The Lotus and the Void: Toru Takemitsu’s Film Scores

Evan Nabavian dives deep into the sonic world of Toru Takemitsu and the film scores that defined an entire cinematic movement.
By    April 29, 2021

Photo courtesy of Toru Takemitsu/ Evan Nabavian.

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I.


The sky is an indolent blue gray and Hidetora Ichimonji awakens to learn his sons and their armies have arrived to depose him and soak the third castle with his retinue’s copious blood. Taro and Jiro pry open the gate and set their guns and arrows on their father’s unyielding warriors. One watchtower becomes a fireball against the desolate landscape and another fills with piles of shattered men with bolts protruding from their chests, limbs, and eye sockets. Hidetora rushes down the steps of his tower to find his concubines killing themselves. Those who don’t die on their knives throw themselves in front of enemy guns to shield their master. The elder Ichimonji is meant to kill himself but unbeknownst to his disinherited sons, he snapped his sword on a soldier’s armor. He’s trapped — denuded of family, protectors, even the reprieve of suicide; he watches blood pour from an overhead landing and he avoids the accusatory glares of corpses. Without warning, the sound of a distant gunshot breaks the nightmare and resumes the inexorable though no less terrible march of reality.

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran from 1985 is a retelling of King Lear set in feudal Japan. An aging warlord with a bloody past divides his kingdom and bequeaths it to his sons whose affection for their father is quickly overruled by their fear and avarice. Kurosawa spent ten years struggling to secure funding for his last epic. The lavish production included 12,000 medieval costumes and a replica castle which made Ran the most expensive movie in Japanese history at the time.

Unusual for a sweeping historical epic, the movie is extremely spare in its use of music. For its first hour, there is barely any music outside of the opening titles and some quick blasts from a nohkan bamboo flute. Instead, Ran draws its tension from pregnant silences and the ambience of the countryside. But when Taro and Jiro arrive at the third castle for the movie’s spectacular battle scene, all sound is muted except for the score. For several minutes, men die soundlessly, obliterated by an orchestral manifestation of doom. The music doesn’t dictate foreboding or grandeur to the audience; it is held in reserve to describe a hell unfamiliar to all but the most unfortunate souls. Christopher Lehrich writes that the music “draws the audience into the role of the weeping, impotent gods.” The music abruptly cuts at the sound of a gunshot; Jiro’s general “accidentally” shoots Taro in the back and the movie reverts to a chorus of screaming, gunfire, and crazed braying horses.

Kurosawa instructed Toru Takemtisu to compose the score in the style of Gustav Mahler. Takemitsu, who saw himself as a sound designer as much as a composer, was aghast at the idea of using a Western music cue in a Japanese period drama — their original plan, per a 1978 interview, was to use a form of chanting derived from medieval Japanese theater. But Kurosawa, the emperor, would not be denied. Remarking on this choice, Sidney Lumet invoked Emerson: “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Jan Swafford writes that Takemitsu’s score “is and isn’t Mahler. It has a big orchestral sound spread over wide spaces and a Mahleresque sense of doom, but the music is modern, keening with tragedy and horror, utterly unclichéd, as indelibly wedded to the images as the shower scene in Psycho.”

In his career as a composer, Takemitsu scored nearly a hundred movies, including period dramas, gangster flicks, and horror movies. His score for The Pitfall (1962) used improvised piano bursts and esoteric sound effects. His score for Pale Flower (1964) utilized tap dancers and a brass section. (All of this is apart from his distinguished career as a concert-hall composer.) Takemitsu might have balked at anachronism when making Ran, but the only consistency in his work was a febrile pace of invention and a unique relationship with the role of silence in music. His movie scores are a panoply of avant-garde genius turns that sound wholly foreign to even the most adventurous listener.


II.


Toru Takemitsu was born in Tokyo in 1930 in the pall of Japan’s military dictatorship. The ruling government prohibited Western cultural imports that didn’t come from Axis countries and forced patriotic Japanese music on its populace. In 1944, Takemitsu was stationed in the mountains west of Tokyo doing grunt work when one of the kinder officers decided to play some records for the young conscripts at the barracks. The officer fashioned a needle for the record player from a sharpened piece of bamboo and played a French chanson record, “Parlez-Moi d’Amour” by Lucienne Boyer. Takemitsu recalled the experience in a 1988 lecture: “[H]earing that music came as an enormous shock. I was stunned, and for the first time I suddenly realized the splendid quality of Western music.” The experience showed a fourteen-year-old Takemitsu that music had a life beyond the confines of his native Japan and the diktats of state propaganda.

After the war, he became bedridden with tuberculosis and spent his time absorbing more Western influences, namely Debussy and American jazz that he caught on U.S. Armed Forces radio. When he recovered, he raided the library of the United States’ Civil Information and Education Section for more American music. The Japanese music that ensconced him as a child in Tokyo didn’t appeal to him; in his early years, he tended to associate classical Japanese music with his harsh experiences in the war. He later said, “I hate nationalistic chauvinism in all of its forms, for it is such nationalism which leads countries to develop fascistic tendencies. Each country must take care to avoid concealing itself within its own shell.”

Soon, Takemitsu began composing his own pieces without any formal training — he said his teacher was Duke Ellington — but his earliest work did not find favor with Japanese critics. A breakthrough came when Stravinsky visited Japan in the 1950s and asked to hear contemporary Japanese compositions. Someone accidentally played Takemitsu’s work and started to turn it off, but Stravinksy interjected and praised the composition. Stravinsky gave a press conference where he only mentioned Takemitsu’s name. Later, Stravinsky took Takemitsu to lunch (Takemitsu on his first impression: “we shook hands … his hand … so big, and very soft, like marshmallow. For me, it was unforgettable.”) Takemitsu recalled that thereafter, Japanese critics gave his work much more attention.

Two factors eventually broke down Takemitsu’s reticence toward traditional Japanese music. One was a chance encounter with a Bunraku puppet show where he was struck by the tone quality and timbre absent from the Western music he devoured. He recalled, “I wondered, perhaps, if it wasn’t precisely the fact that I had studied Western music so deeply that enabled me later to be so moved by the Bunraku music that I heard. Had I never been under the sway of Western music I know my appreciation of Japanese music would have been very different.” The second factor was the music of John Cage whose zen influences circuitously made their way back to Takemitsu. Takemitsu said in his 1988 lecture, “I must express my deep and sincere gratitude to John Cage… [F]or a long period I struggled to avoid being ‘Japanese,’ to avoid ‘Japanese’ qualities. It was largely through my contact with John Cage that I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.” This was when Takemitsu started melding Japanese and Western musical traditions. It was also when his work scoring movies started to take off in earnest.


III.


In 1960, Tokyo was the biggest city in the world and independent directors had greater creative license than ever before in their country’s history. In Harakiri (1962), Masaki Kobayashi tore down the bushido and the fiction of a code of honor. Hiroshi Teshigahara made Woman in the Dunes (1964) about a village who lures a traveler into a sand pit as a slave to a morbid local economy. Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) featured a pop-art world of assassins whose hero whistles his own theme song. Double Suicide (1969) is Masahiro Shinoda’s tale of a paper merchant who leaves his family for a prostitute. The new class of directors were more liberal with sex, violence, and social critique, but they also sought new forms and radical stylistic diversions.

For Westerners, Takemtisu’s name is inextricably linked with the high-concept fare of the Japanese New Wave (an unwieldy grouping of the era’s bolder voices) and the art house bonafides of the Criterion Collection, but one story recalls that if you gave him a few beers after a concert, he would talk your ear off about science fiction schlock. (His friend Peter Grilli recalled that Takemtisu stood barely five feet tall and when Grilli’s wife first met Takemitsu, she said, “I think I’ve just met E.T.”) In a 1994 documentary made shortly before Takemitsu died, he lamented that he would have liked to have scored more comedies. Takemitsu watched nearly 300 movies a year. When he traveled abroad, he would head straight to a theater and watch local movies despite not understanding the language.

Takemitsu explained the appeal of writing movie scores: “It’s because movies have erotic elements as well as violence. I don’t like things that are too pure and refined. I’m more interested in what’s real. And films are so full of life.” He described writing music for movies as “a visa to freedom.” Teshigara said Takemitsu would always show up on location during filming. “His involvement parallels the director’s.” Teshigahara, unlike Kurosawa, said giving Takemitsu specific instructions was “simply out of the question.” Instead, Takemitsu would produce musical ideas in response to the movie.

For all his passion for movies, Takemitsu was extremely restrained. For Kobayashi’s four hour World War 2 documentary Tokyo Trial (1983), Takemitsu wrote nine minutes of music. A decade later, he said of his approach, “I only add music to give the audience a little help hearing the pure music that’s already there in the images — in other words, it is much more important to prune away the sound than to add more.”

The most striking characteristic of Takemitsu’s music is the use of silence. Takemitsu often spoke of the Japanese concept of ma. Descriptions of ma often lapse into prolix philosophical treatise, but it is meant as far more than just negative space. The sharp contrast of silence renders a sound as something resembling nature itself — impersonal and eternal. Takemitsu wrote in the liner notes of a 1969 record, “It is through being freed from fixity of expressive meaning … that sounds can be equal with nothingness, like the natural sounds which come from a grove of bamboo.” Alex Ross writes that “Most of [Takemitsu’s] mature works begin with a tone materializing from silence, and end with a dematerialization toward silence again.”

Shinoda spoke of how he admired a moment in Harakiri when a character sheathes a sword and at that same moment Takemitsu included the sound of a single stroke of a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute. “The idea of using music in such discrete fragments is rare — music as a kind of punctuation,” said Shinoda. Takemitsu’s soundtrack for Gonza The Spearman (1986) includes a section that includes maybe two instruments. A lone string instrument sounds against a smoldering, rumbling void and the tension builds to the point of inducing nausea.


IV.


Some years ago, I watched Pale Flower (1964), Shinoda’s noir about a minx-like ingenue who entrances a hard boiled gangster. I couldn’t get over the music that plays over the opening titles: an avalanche of percussion, a portentous pause, wind instruments wailing like ghostly ambulance sirens, brass shooting past you with the force of a bullet train. What was this? The castanets and the orphaned, wandering tones were anathema to the jazz music and the orchestral palaver that a movie would typically use for a scene in a gambler’s den.

Takemitsu said in the 1978 interview, “Everything depends on the film itself… I try to concentrate as much as possible on the subject, so that I can express what the director himself feels. I try to extend his feelings with my music.” Our compilation below divorces Takemitsu’s scores from their context and their intended function. Included are paroxysms of nature, dirges for cursed souls, and battle music for warriors who feign their temerity. True to form, our Takemitsu selections run for an economical 29 minutes.

Absent its accompanying images, this music becomes otherworldly and jarring. It’s too busy to be ambient and too sparse to follow any orderly patterns. The sounds come from rice fields, fortresses, and dens of perdition. The music rends the atmosphere and transports you to an environment you don’t recognize — the air is thick with looming catastrophe and the taste of warm steel coats your tongue. You experience Takemitsu’s movie scores in the dark parts of your mind and in the pit of your stomach. And the music never does what you expect — a woman’s feral bark, a medieval instrument distorted by 60s electronics, a cord plucked by a giant. Takemitsu’s film music has a voice that transcends its original function.

In an anthology published after Takemitsu’s death, he wrote, “I wish to free sounds from the trite rules of music, rules that are in turn stifled by formulas and calculations. I want to give sounds the freedom to breathe. In the world in which we live silence and unlimited sound equally exist. I wish to carve that sound with my own hands.”


The Lotus and the Void: Toru Takemitsu’s Film Scores


01. Pale Flower (1964): M1
02. Himiko (1974): Part 2
03. Himiko (1974): Part 3
04. Woman in the Dunes (1964): Part 4
05. Harakiri (1962): Part 1
06. Hymn to a Tired Man (1968): 12
07. Assassination (1964): 1
08. Pressure of Guilt (1963): M7
09. Samurai Spy (1965): Part 2
10. Assassination (1964): 14
11. Harakiri (1962): Part 13
12. Ran (1985): 18
13. Ran (1985): 20
14. Captive’s Island (1966): Part 1

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