How to Score Japan on Film: Kubo and the Two Strings vs. 47 Ronin

By Michael W. Harris

kuboBack in August I went and saw Kubo and the Two Strings for my birthday and was struck by how well the score, by Dario Marianelli, balanced traditional Hollywood scoring techniques with an aural evocation of Japan’s traditional music culture. This was certainly helped by the fact that the titular Kubo is a shamisen playing, orgami folding, magic wielding boy, but so many times Hollywood films have substituted “vaguely Asian, but not Indian” instrumental sounds for any film set in China, Japan, or Korea. And the truth is that there are some very distinctive differences between the musical cultures of these countries.

This can be clearly demonstrated by a simple comparison between Kubo and the 2013 big budget adaptation 47 Ronin that was simultaneously awful, offensive, and also strangely entertaining.

Kubo utilizes the typical Hollywood sound (lush strings, horns, etc.) while combining it with the breathy flute sounds (think shakuhachi or nohkan) heard in Japan along with the shamisen. It is clearly using distinctly Japan instruments to musically tell its story. This is well demonstrated in the album track “Story Time,” which plays while Kubo performs for village people, telling the story that (spoilers) later turns out to be that of his own father.

Now contrast that with a track from the 47 Ronin soundtrack by Ilan Eshkeri. Taken out of context, I rather like the score, but within a film (fictionally) retelling one of the great tales of Japanese history, it is problematic to say the least. Eshkeri does use a similar flute sound (I believe that it is actually a shakuhachi in this score), but the other dominate sound in his score is a bowed string (probably a cello) mimicking a Chinese instrument, the erhu. You can hear this in the film’s opening track.

What makes this so incredibly problematic is that among traditional Japanese instruments the bowed string sound is incredibly rare, almost all string instruments are plucked. From the biwa to the koto to the shamisen, the major Japanese strings instruments are all plucked. (Yes, there is a bowed Japanese instrument, the kokyū, but in all my studies and listenings of Japanese music, I have never actually encountered one.) The plucked string is the dominant form of Japanese string instruments, and the bowed sound evoked in 47 Ronin is clearly in line with evocations and uses of the erhu in other Hollywood films (see Michael Giacchino’s use of it in Star Trek (2009) where it is an aural surrogate for Spock and Vulcan culture). This is basically the musical equivalent of casting Chinese actors to play Japanese characters (see: Memoirs of a Geisha), which is ironic since 47 Ronin did an amazing job of casting Japanese actors in all the major and supporting roles.

This might seem a bit nitpicky to many, and I only noticed this since I studied Japanese music during my PhD studies, but if we are to truly reach a point where we appreciate other cultures and understand them, first we have to respect them enough to properly recreate them, and integrate them with other traditions, both on-screen and on-tape.

Another recent film that did a good job of striking a balance between Hollywood scoring and Japanese music is Mason Bates’ score for Sea of Trees. While the film itself a bit of a mess (though I feel like it is not nearly as bad as most critics think, but that is another post), the score does a great job of evoking the sounds of Japan within a Western idiom. This is achieved by prominent use of a similar flute sound to that of Kubo, supported, usually, by a traditional orchestral string sound.

You can listen to four tracks from the score here (the only pieces to have been released from the score, all via Bates’ website).

Yes, the typical orchestra string sound is bowed, but unlike 47 Ronin, Bates’ strings are not trying to imitate the erhu as it does Eshkeri’s score. This is the crux of the problem with Ronin. The cello (at least I think it is a cello) is being played in imitation of a Chinese instrument, while Bates, and also Marianelli, are using them as is typical for a symphony orchestra. This is something that has occurred often in Japan since the first half of twentieth century. Many Japanese composers, including Fumio Hayasaka (who I wrote my dissertation on), Toru Takemitsu, Joe Hisaishi, and many more have used this idea of integrating the two traditions together.

This is why Ilan Eshkeri’s score is all the more baffling to me. It was most likely ignorance, or maybe listening to one-to-many scores by Chinese composer Tan Dun, but like so many people, he conflated the sounds of Japan and China into a mismatched mess, especially within the context of a film (which was also a mismatched mess) that was based on Japan’s most well known tale.

In the end, though, while Eshkeri’s score is worth listening to, it fails in the context of it film. In contrast, Marianell’s scores soars both within and outside of its film.

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