Toru Takemistu

Golden Cinema Week

contribution to poll for film programme accompanying the exhibition Toru Takemitsu: Visions in Time, Tokyo Opera City Gallery, Tokyo, 2006
Kaidan (1963)


In KAIDAN, everything is ill-timed and no sound directly mimics onscreen action. In “The Black Hair”, the score’s raspy breathiness devolves into a landscape primarily comprised of, well, 'improvised wood creaks'. As the husband’s body dries up to a skeleton, so does the score texturally contract to a fractal network of wood splinters, bone fractures and gravel sprinklings. In a bizarrely concocted imagining of Japanese 16th Century futurism, the 'music' sounds like an instrument being destroyed before our very ears. The effect is haunting, memorable and exact. The shakuhachi that recurs throughout “Woman of the Snow” sonically falls between the cracks of sound, music and noise. At any one moment, the shakuhachi shifts wildly from a conservative lilt to an alien spasm; from an ancient wooden instrument to a post-industrial electronic weapon. In KAIDAN, this poetically synchs to a highly modernist film reworking traditional folk tales.

Onimaru (Arashi Ga Oka)

The settings for ONIMARU are polarised between the chiaroscuro interiors of the east/west mansions, and the unforgiving volcanic landscape of the Sacred Mountain. The figures of Onimaru, Kinu, et al are positioned within these settings as delicate gestural shapes, mostly layered in relief against massive and expansive backdrops of colour and texture. They are materialisations of the solo traditional instruments (biwa, shimasen, shakauhachi, koto, taiko, etc.) dancing atop the seething density of the orchestral murmuring which represents the haunting terrain of the Scared Mountain and the penumbral gloom of the east/west mansions. Predominantly, when we are outside on the dark ashen mountain, the orchestra sounds like howling wind; when we are inside the cavernous mansions’ rooms, we hear actual moaning wind. ONIMARU consistently places sound as the backdrop to the chamber dramas in the mansions, while music is employed to speak the voice of the landscape.


Taking his cues from a range of visual dynamics, Takemitsu conducts his symphonic machine like a lord directing battle. Volcanic expanses, mountainous mist, fluttering flags and flanks of soldiers are all musically symbolised. The score to RAN is in fact pastoral: it renders the terrain of war as a musical backdrop for the psychological deteriorization that befalls its war lords. The discernibly melodic elements are musical gestures that capture these mental schisms true to King Lear’s narrative. Through Takemitsu’s fusion of the psychological with the pastoral, the link between one madman and the chaos that results from his directives is expressed with grandeur and pathos.

Empire of Passion

Tactility becomes aural eroticism in Takemitsu’s score to EMPIRE OF PASSION. Controversial in its depiction of a consuming love affair that leads to a geisha castrating her lover as per his wishes, Takemitsu folds tonality into atonality similar to the way sadism and masochism attract and bond. This is no mere mood music for a passionate love affair: it is a score that reflects the ways that passions eat into each other, and the ways that lovers can consume each other. Only an ear for the expanded tonal possibilities that arise when one truly emancipates dissonance could score such a love story.

The Ceremony

The key instrument heard throughout THE CEREMONY is a solo violin. In Takemitsu’s atonal landscape, the solo violin symbolizes the floating human emptiness of he who considers ritual suicide: estranged by society through individual action, yet condemned to individually erase oneself for society. The violin works through a series of self-analytical contortions. Its melodic status is always in quandary, just as the plight of potential suicide can cause one’s mind to detach all thoughts into a swirl of frightening projections. True to the expanded philosophical schema which typifies much Japanese thought, Takemitsu’s violin and orchestration sift through all the variations, gestures and timbres possible.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.