Category Archives: Toru Takemitsu

A Howl, A Cyclone, A Sandstorm

Featuring : Toru Takemitsu

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The Woman In The Dunes is a vague, deliberate, complicated, simple film. It’s a cinematic parable, though its interpretation can be bent to represent everything or nothing. A salaryman, holidaying by the sea to collect insects native to the local sand dunes, is lured to the house of a woman when he misses the last bus by local villagers offering him a place to stay. The house is in a pit, surrounded on all sides by steep, ever-collapsing dunes. When he wakes the next morning, the sole rope ladder connecting the inhabitants of the house to the outside world is gone. The man and the woman are prisoners, tasked with perpetually shovelling the sand to keep the dunes from collapsing on a neighbouring house, and which is illegally sold by the villagers to city builders for making buildings that will later crumble themselves, victim to the sand’s salt content.

The film’s plot doesn’t venture much further than that brief synopsis, encased by the conciseness of its perfect concept much as the woman’s house is encircled by the dunes. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara has said that the film has three characters: the man, the woman, and the sand.

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In the film, the man is played by Eiji Okada, the woman is played by Kyoko Kishida, and the sand is played by Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu is one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century. As we wrote in our blog on Kwaidan, he was an early innovator in musique concrete, and championed as an author of symphonies by Stravinsky, but much like his European contemporary Ennio Morricone, Takemitsu’s greatest music was in his soundtrack work. He crafted scores for over 100 films, working with the greats of Japanese cinema – including Akira Kurosawa – but his most symbiotic relationship was with Teshigahara, and the most acclaimed of their collaborations was The Woman In The Dunes.

Toru Takemitsu – Hell’s Picture Scroll (from Kurosawa’s Ran)

Takemitsu was in truth much more than a film composer – he collaborated at every level of production, including casting and script. His scores were meticulous and constructed through a painstaking process of cataloguing each piece of diegetic sound recorded in a given scene, and then writing the score aroundthe diegetic sound, as if it were an instrument in itself – a bassline or melody. He would provide Teshigahara with precise notes on which of these sounds should be kept and which should be removed to allow for an extra, necessary note of music. Although the few of Takemitsu’s film scores that are commercially available – including The Woman In The Dunes – are gripping, brilliant listening, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that they are fundamentally incomplete, as they mostly excise the original found music of sighs, whispers, rattles, gasps of wind and words captured by the film’s sound recordists that comprise at least half of the compositions, in the same way that lyric and melody each provide a necessary 50% of a pop song.

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Toru was also a writer and musical theorist. He wrote in his A Personal Recollection: “One day in 1948 while riding a crowded subway I came up with the idea of mixing random noise with composed music. More precisely, it was then that I became aware that composing is giving meaning to the stream of sounds that penetrates the world we live in. It came to me as a revelation. Bring noise into the world of organised music.”

Toru Takemitsu – Waltz (from The Face of Another)

Perhaps Takemitsu saw his scores as literal duets with the worlds inside the films he worked on. Although he composed quickly and intuitively, it could take months for him to decide on a voice appropriate for a cue. A glass armonica for The Face of Another, a mood-splintering biwa for Kwaidan, prepared pianos and harpsichords for The Pitfall. In The Woman In The Dunes, the voice of the sand is strings.

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They’re not melancholy strings, and this is not a melancholy film. They’re a howl, a cyclone, a sandstorm. The strings are a vicious threnody laced through the skin of Teshigahara’s film like surgical stitching. Although the soundtrack CD for The Woman In The Dunes actually runs a gamut of modes, from baroque to chanson, cut-up pop bricolage and solemn neo-gagaku, it is this nerve-shredding scream of strings that actually stains the viewer’s memory as anything resembling a musical theme.

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Abstract, not-human, alive. The strings are the psychopathy of the capricious, lethal sand imprisoning the woman, and which took away the lives of her husband and daughter, the bones still buried somewhere in the dunes – another shackle holding her there. The sand has no morality and no agenda, and the strings play this eternal part with aplomb.

The Woman In The Dunes is a cinema of surfaces – the cinematography is fetishistic about the patterns and movements of the sand, and the ripples and leather of the actors’ skin. Takemitsu’s music is a surface too, one tilting at impossible angles. In the excellent Haunted Weather, David Toop writes that surfaces here are “eroticised: rationalism and the bureaucratic order of modern life are pitted against animism and the inexorable rhythms of nature, these transformations and oppositions echoed by Takemitsu’s granular, eerie musical score of sudden distorted shocks and attenuated, fibrous tones.”

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Takemitsu once claimed that he was attracted to the eroticism and violence of cinema – qualities that were beyond his comprehension as an artist, but which he felt his work craved, to prevent his music from becoming too beautiful. The violence of The Woman In The Dunes is largely psychological, allegorical. But in Teshigahara and Takemitsu’s strange duet of image and sound, the parable takes on a convincingly tactile quality, which prevents the story from ever becoming too dreamlike. As a parable it is not surreal – the story may be open to interpretation but its execution is communicative and biting.

Toru Takemitsu – track 8 (from The Woman in the Dunes)

Kwaidan

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Kwaidan (or ‘kaidan’) is an old-fashioned term for a Japanese horror or ghost story. It’s also the name of a magical 1964 cinematic anthology of supernatural Japanese myths and legends, directed in 1964 by Masaki Kobayashi. Although you wouldn’t think it to look at it – with its simple, but elegant and highly-stylised painted backdrops, Kwaidan was one of the biggest budget and most elaborate Japanese film productions of that time.

As such, it’s a beautiful anomaly. It resembles theatre, really, more than any film that springs to mind. It was advertised as “a protest to modern society”. The producers seemed to think of legends as nurturing “the essence of the Japanese”, which was essential for their survival as a people. As we mentioned in our recent piece on AKIRA, the Japanese revival of traditional Imperial music forms such as gagaku in the 1960s seemed to have complicated resonances within the context of post-war Japanese culture.

Kwaidan is equally complex in this respect, and the film’s composer – Toru Takemitsu – was one of the musicians to whom the resurgence in gagaku was attributed. Takemitsu was initially a longstanding enemy of Japanese musical tradition. He was known for destroying his works in panic if he found he had accidentally strayed into a traditional Japanese scale. He shunned traditional Japanese instruments, because for Takemitsu, the very sound they made was too deeply entwined with his memories of the war, and with nationalism and militarism. Originally a contemporary of Iannis Xenakis and John Cage, Takemitsu san developed an early musique concrete in synchronicity with Pierre Schaeffer’s experiments in 1948, although the two were in ignorance of each other. Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen were fans.

Nevertheless, despite his early advances in musical science, throughout the 1960s Takemitsu would become more and more fascinated with traditional Japanese instruments and until, by Garden Rain, in 1974 he had assimilated the tones and modes of hogaku and gagaku perfectly into his own self-taught style, creating a new musical language out of something ancient.

20JFG – Takemitsu Context

We made a mix of music from other parts of the world in 1974 – listen how other musical artists were psychedelicising, parodying, or subverting ideas about their national identity and history in sound. On this score, Toru arguably had as much in common with Kraftwerk or Brian Eno as the long-dead wraiths of gagaku who he drew breath from in Garden Rain.

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Anyway, wraiths!! That brings us nicely back to Kwaidan. I hope this pondering on identity and expressions of it in music hasn’t put you off investigating this piece of work, because, really – first and foremost – Kwaidan is just an absolutely cracking ghost story. Well, four ghost stories. All beautifully choreographed.

Our favourite is the third story, Hoichi the Earless. In this one, Toru Takemitsu practically becomes a character in the story himself, as the biwa which he hacks much of the Kwaidan score out on becomes a major narrative point. Hoichi is a blind monk whose biwa skills are unparalleled. His talent goes largely unrecognised as his only audience is the dusk, to whom he nightly recites a suite of over 100 sequential arcane hymns. A mysterious samurai is drawn by Hoichi’s playing, and invites him to audiences with his master – an unnamed nobleman.

Every night Hoichi is led away to play and sing for the nobleman’s court, who request one lament in particular. The Tale of The Heiki is a moving piece of war poetry, depicting in literal terms a mighty battle which led to the fall of the child Emperor Antoku. In the film’s greatest scene, Hoichi kneels with eyes closed and face contorted by the tones pouring out of his mouth as he performs the 11-minute ballad.

Toru Takemitsu – The Tale of The Heiki

Around Hoichi, scenes of fire and naval battle swirl on the floor and walls, as it is revealed that the noble court is none other than the spirits of the deceased Emperor and his warriors, and the venue is the cemetary that holds them. The acting and singing are engrossing, but Takemitsu’s own biwa playing is genuinely stunning.

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The biwa isn’t an obviously pretty sound, like similarly-aged and designed instruments such as the Chinese pipa – the delicate, tumbling arpeggios of which require virtuoso levels of fingerpicking skill. The biwa is a lute played harshly and intuitively by a huge sharpened plectrum, about the size and shape of an afro comb. Takemitsu fills the piece with equal parts void and noise. The biwa sounds like jagged thoughts.

Bill Orcutt – The Visible Bosom

Mesmerised by the scene, one comparison which drew to mind was the way former Harry Pussy Bill Orcutt now tears unfathomable, visceral sound out of his acoustic guitar. But where Orcutt’s playing and Tourette-like vocal tics almost seem to act as a barrier, turning away everyone but the most forgiving and intense of listeners, Takemitsu’s playing works superbly as an elegy. It’s hard to define why, but it sounds genuinely communicative in its sparseness – each slash of the biwa sounding like it’s a splintered piece of some poor devil’s soul. Each tone sounds like a thought that has just occurred in the mind of the player, but weighted with impossible meaning and the gravity of history. In this sense the playing is truly meditative.

It’s almost ironically soulful for a composer who once claimed: “There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a ‘contemporary style’ is nothing but a deception.)”

Anyway, that’s our favourite scene from Kwaidan. You should watch it and find your own favourite scene – there’s more than enough to love. And check out Takemitsu’s other works, which vary so much from year to year and symphony to symphony.

Toru Takemitsu – A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1963)

Toru Takemitsu – Vocalism A-1 (1956)

Buy The Film Music of Toru Takemitsu from Nonesuch