MUSIC FOR MOVIES: Toru Takemitsu, Vols. I & II (3-4 of the “Complete Takemitsu Edition”), edited by Tetsuo Ohara. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2003, 21 CDs, with program books, 24,000 yen each.

Some of the most interesting contemporary film music was written by Toru Takemitsu. In just under 40 years he composed the scores for over 100 films.

Although some of these were written to earn money (such as for, the composer has said, director Nakamura Noburo) and others as favors (he gave me jazz tapes that I used for “Atami Blues”), all were written because Takemitsu wanted to write them. This created music of exceptional quality and made Takemitsu something of an anomaly among modern film-score composers.

Shinoda Masahiro, a director who often worked with Takemitsu has said: “Takemitsu always read through the script before deciding whether or not to take on a job, even with me, after our having worked together many times.” Once decided, Takemitsu became a part of the creation of the film. Most composers content themselves with doing their work after the final cut is made. Takemitsu, however, was often on the set, “breathing the atmosphere,” as he said.

As the composer told film scholar and writer Max Tessier: “Everything depends on the film itself. I take time to get into it, and my feelings change according to the actual nature of the picture. 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.”

In this decoding of the image, Takemitsu is a masterly creator of atmosphere — that weaving of an aural fabric that encompasses character and intensifies the dominant emotional tone or mood. One example would be the battle music in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” (1985), which establishes an aural point of view that approximates the visuals of the director. By filming the carnage in slow motion, Kurosawa distances his audience. The separate horrors fuse into a larger horror that becomes (perhaps paradoxically) easier to emotionally understand. The director suggests a kind of pity for the ineffability of this waste. It is precisely this elegiac quality that Takemitsu’s music echoes so eloquently. He expresses the intentions of the sequence and also those of the director.

The score of “Ran” is among many others now available in the second volume of Takemitsu’s film music. It includes, among much else, the scores for a number of Nagisa Oshima films, for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “Rikyu” and for Toichiro Narushima’s forgotten “Seigenki” (Time Within Memory).

The magnificent music for Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s 1985 “Himatsuri” (Fire Festival) is a score that won the Japan Academy Prize that year and, if I had to choose, would seem to be Takemitsu’s finest. Laid in the mountains of Kumano, Wakayama Prefecture, where so many of Japan’s beliefs based on nature began, “Himatsuri” is about a modern descendent of these ancient believers who is not unaware of forces greater than himself, of the presence of some kind of “goddess.” As our own skepticism concerning such a personification of nature is soon swept away, we are shown very little while we hear much.

Takemitsu’s music appears just 13 times during the course of this two-hour film. Some of the episodes are very short. When the protagonist sees the boat carrying the woman he will treat as carelessly as he does the nature around him, there are just eight seconds of music: alto flute, muted horn, harp, a subdued sound like the wash of waves.

When he blasphemously swims naked in sacred waters, the harp and marimba provide a curtain of fluid figuration, but over this are the menacing lower tones of the flute and the rasp of the bassoon proclaiming the darker import of the scene that is, on its surface, all water and light and warm flesh.

The most sustained of the music is that under the credits of the film and that over the climactic scene. Takemitsu opens with glittering (harp, vibraphone, marimba) arabesques over a rootlike ground bass. The green and sour sounds of the winds — a piccolo, an alto flute forced high into something like a voice — weave their way, branchlike, through this web of sound, the soft echoes of percussion (gongs, bells, rattles) hinting at depths unseen.

And since the music is always confined to the goddess or those things pertaining to her, the opening prepares us for the revelations of the climax — the “appearance” of the goddess.

There is a sudden change of weather. The music notices it first with a few rainlike harp notes and high antiphonal flutes heralding the coming storm. Midway through, the presence of the goddess is visible in the sudden stillness amid shafts of sunlight. It is heard even more plainly in the music: high flute against repeated marimba notes — birdlike piccolo calls, strings playing high, sustained harmonics — soft, beautiful, sensuous, menacing music. Here Takemitsu expresses what the images intend. He makes aural what is invisible. Intentions of director and composer become one.

As in the first volume of this set, the 357-page book accompanying this second is a model of thoughtful organization. All necessary information is given in Japanese and English as well as some of the texts, including Peter Golub’s interesting essay and the continuation and conclusion of Peter Burt’s seminal paper on “Takemitsu through the Eyes of the World.” In addition there are photos, media cuttings and reproductions of pages of the scores themselves. In all, this is the finest documentation of film music today.

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