Music and the Kurosawa Film

(Note: This marks my 50th post on this blog…not all that amazing in the history of the blogosphere, but for me it is kind of impressive.  Consider the fact that my Livejournal has only 74 posts since I started it in 2004.)

Having now seen all but three films in official filmography of AkiraKurosawa, and having read some four books, and working on a fifth, this summer about the man, his life, films, and techniques, I’m starting to draw a few vague conclusions and ideas about his use of music.

First off is a tweaking of my thoughts on Rashomon.  While not backing off from the conclusions I drew in my paper (especially the idea of music and sound being another analytical tool for interpreting the film), but I’ve tweaked my thinking in light of hearing how Kurosawa uses sound in the films leading up to and following it.  Rashomon as a film is only 88 minutes in length with almost half of its running time having musical scoring.  While maybe it was not that unusual for Hollywood films of the era to have this percentage of score to film (I have no hard facts on this, but my general sense is that films of the 40s and early 50s had, in general, a large percentage of score to film), it does seem unusual for a Kurosawa film (I won’t say anything about Japanese film in general since I have seen very few non-Kurosawa films).

A good case in point is Kurosawa’s film Scandal, made just prior to Rashomon.  The film has very little underscoring.  I would venture to say, including end and closing titles, there is maybe 10-15 minutes total of score music, most of which is used during montage sequences.  (One caveat, though, the timing is an estimate based on only one viewing which was almost a monthago.  But what did stick with me is that there was very little non-diegetic music).

Kurosawa’s use, or lack thereof, of music reached it’s most minimal in 1955-57.  Of the three films made in that period, two have score music only during the opening and closing credits – those films being Record of a Living Being and The Lower Depths.  The exception being The Throne of Blood, which has some very interesting underscoring (or at least I remember it that way).  The lack of underscoring in the two films could be a factor of Fumio Hayasaka’s death, Kurosawa’s longtime composer-collaborator, during the filming of Record of a Living Being, but the fact that his replacement in the Kurosawa Team, Masaru Sato, seemed to have Kurosawa’s full confidence in Throne of Blood (the middle of the three films), makes that interpretation less likely.

So, if Rashomon represents a peak of percentage of scoring and Record and Lower Depths represent a peak of lack of scoring, and most films fall somewhere in between, what conclusions can we then draw about Kurosawa and music?  It is well stated that Kurosawa loved music, and would many time have classical pieces in mind when editing his films, and later on would temp in those pieces, much to the chagrin of Sato and, most famously, Toru Takemitsu (who walked out of the sound mixing sessions on Ran and told Kurosawa that he could do whatever he wanted to his music but take his name off the picture.  Peace, though, was achieved and Takemitsu returned).

The case of the amount of music in Rashomon versus the films before and after it, is an interesting one, and one that is answered in Kurosawa’s stated goal of trying to get back to a “silent film” aesthetic with the picture.  Not only was this evident in the stylized visual design and acting in the film (truly, one could watch it without subtitles and understand most of what’s going on), but also, as I said in the paper, the first woodcutter’s tale, which is almost without sound except for musical score, is very much in a silent film musical aesthetic – complete with “mickey mousing.”  What I didn’t really realize fully is that this silent film musical aesthetic carriers over into the other scored scenes.  Coming from our more modern perspective of films like Star Wars that have almost continuous scoring, it didn’t strike me as unusual.  Only in viewing it among Kurosawa’s other work did the comment of wanting to evoke a silent film aesthetic come into clear view: the scoring of the scenes in the forest is also an evocation of this aesthetic.

This again, though, brings us back to the question of why the forest scene scenes have music and those at the gate scenes do not (this was the main topic of my paper in which I answered the question in terms of an interpretationofthe film’s central mystery).  There are other issues surrounding the visual aesthetic, but those I will leave to others, my main topic is music.  The only time Kurosawa would approach this level of music scoring in his films again is with his two Sengoku-period epic from the 1980s – Kagemusha and Ran (again, I have no hard data to support this, but it was my sense when I viewed them).

But I can’t be 100% certain of this because I have only “watched” most of these films, not really studied them with a fine ear.  Should I continue this line of research to its logical end, I would next want to time the music cues in the films and compare percentage of music to film across Kurosawa’s career and see how his musical usage changed (not to mention how, in his later years, he seems to have given in and used the classical music he had temped in).

Kurosawa said time and again that music has a “multiplier effect” on the visual image and that one must be careful in its usage.  Kurosawa, many times, would use music very sparingly, especially towards the end of his career.  Though, interestingly, in his last two films (Rhapsody in August and Madadayo), there are many scenes of group singing.  These harken back to Kurosawa’s memories of childhood and the songs he would sing at school.  Also, as recalled in Teruyo Nagami’s Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, the director would always gather the cast and crew at the end of the days shoot for food and drinking, and many times Kurosawa would lead the assembled people in old school songs (very much echoing the party scenes in Madadayo).

The most important thing, I think, though is understanding the function of music in a Kurosawa film.  As I indicated in my Rashomon paper, the aesthetic question of is the music “good” or not doesn’t interest me nearly as much as that of function and structure.  I’ve never much liked aesthetic value judgement because they have always seemed subjective no matter the amount of philosophy you but behind them.  And it for the reason of function and structure that Kurosawa interests me, not only did I enjoy his films, but I also find how the man used music – and his construction of the films themselves – interesting.

3 thoughts on “Music and the Kurosawa Film

  1. Having never seen any of Kurosawa’s films, I can’t really speak to that. I do want to take a minute to talk about something else you mentioned.

    Your hunch is correct about Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s. They did use a lot of music. Movies of the 1940s particularly tended to have music poured on like ketchup. In a very general way spotting of films became somewhat more judicious. Pulling on a couple of well-known film examples, Ben-Hur had a running time of about four hours and Miklós Rózsa composed over two-and-one-half hours of score, nearly all of which was used in the finished film. On the other hand, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest runs approximately two hours and fifteen minutes, but Bernard Herrmann only wrote about fifty-five minutes of music, some of which was either truncated or unused in the finished film.

    Historically speaking, until the 1980s there was a certain amount of ebb-and-flow regarding the use of music in films (in Hollywood anyway). After movies gained their voice music all but disappeared from films except for onscreen performances. Then King Kong and Captain Blood happened and all of a sudden films had to have big Korngoldian or Steineresque orchestral scores. Then the 1950s came about and (some) filmmakers began to discover music’s psychological value and began using it more judiciously (though still a lot by later standards). Then in the 1960s and the early 1970s you had this massive scaling back on the usage of score in films. Several examples that come to mind are films that Jerry Goldsmith scored: Patton runs over three hours but has less than 30 minutes of music in the final version of the film; A Patch of Blue has just over 30 minutes of music despite its nearly 2-hour running time. (It’s a beautiful little movie, too.) Then Star Wars came along and revitalized the old-fashioned symphonic score (even though it hadn’t really gone anywhere). All of a sudden, everybody thought they needed a Star Wars score. (“What? It’s a charming little coming-of-age romantic comedy for teenagers? Let’s get John Williams and the London Symphony!) To a large degree, I don’t think the state of film music has really recovered in the sense of the amount of music used in films.

  2. That’s what I thought, but having not read an actual history (something I hope to rectify soon!), I could only guess from my own limited viewings, the few period scores I have heard, and my conversations with you and others.

    But this confirms what I thought after viewing so many other Kurosawa films. He seems to be operating from a different aesthetic than Hollywood when it comes to music…and nothing I have read mentions this! In so many ways Roshomon threw me off because it sounded like a more traditonal Hollywood film. Granted the use of music was very structered, as I wrote, but the fact that he used so much was a departure from his norm.

    I smell paper.

  3. Don’t forget the importance of economics. The increased used of music in non-American films is a relatively new development. Many filmmakers simply didn’t have the resources at hand to make their films and hire a composer to write a full-on orchestral score. This doesn’t in any way diminish how Kurosawa (et al) used music in their films; only what they used.

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