Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he looks at the early works of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.
Earlier this year, New Yorker critic Alex Ross discussed the music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, focusing on his classical oeuvre and the “exotic tones that almost brush the skin, hazy melodies that move like figures in mist,” or else a “loveliness (that) vanishes into darkness before it can be fully apprehended.” Through the forty-plus years of his output, it is hard to apprehend Takemitsu’s breadth as both a 20th-century avant-garde composer and one of the most prolific and profound movie soundtrack composers, easily in the upper echelons with the likes of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann.
Good luck tracking down many of these crucial soundtracks, though. The most thorough look at his work, a six-CD compilation on the Japanese JVC imprint, went out of print in the early 21st century, and even that just barely skimmed the surface; the IMDB web entry for Takemitsu lists nearly 90 composer credits. If you’ve trolled through seminal Japanese cinema, you’ve no doubt heard Takemitsu’s music, as he provided the soundtrack for such staples as Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain. Yet with these two later-period titles, Takemitsu exhibited a classical, lyrical side that he often eschewed early on in his career.
Three of his most audacious and jaw-dropping soundtracks can be found on the Criterion Collection’s box set Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara. You wouldn’t know it by the cover, as the set instead emphasizes the collaboration between filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara and angsty post-war novelist Kôbô Abe, but Takemitsu completes the creative triumvirate behind the works, and of the three men, his contribution is the both the most technically assured and physically evocative throughout the three films.
The centerpiece of the boxset is 1964′s Woman of the Dunes, an epochal art house film and classic of world cinema with all the earmarks of that peculiar strain: existential premise, abstracted just enough so as to be open to endless discourse, an erotic charge. Pianist Glenn Gould purportedly watched it a hundred times. A story about a man from the city indulging his amateur entomology out in the rural countryside, he becomes the prisoner of a widow who lives in a sandpit, doomed to a “Sisyphus on the Beach” task of shoveling out the ever-encroaching stuff. Throughout the film, the sand transmogrifies within Teshigahara’s lens into the tiniest of crystals, looming mountains, walls, waterfalls, rivulets; it breaks like a ceramic plate, dribbles like milk, corrodes like acid, becomes a second skin, crumbles away like time itself. In the film’s commentary, James Quandt notes how such sand served as metaphor for the critics: representing Taosim, fate, society, time, the eternal, and–for Arthur Schlessinger Jr.–totalitarianism.
“But what does the sand mean?” isn’t really for me to answer, but that 1/8-millimeter grain influences Takemitsu’s intense soundtrack. While no doubt indebted to the works of Western composers like John Cage and Claude Debussy (Ross notes a circularity in that both of these men “had been heavily influenced by Japanese music and Japanese thought”), here Takemitsu renders his instruments’ timbre at their most visceral and elemental. The film opens with a sound collage of urban clamor–train, intercom, horns–then such density drops away altogether. The most spectral aspects of scraped strings, piercing flute tones, jags of harp and relentless Japanese drums comprise the movie’s entire sonic palette, matching up with the creaks of wood and gusts of sirocco winds in the sound design.
(This clip is borderline NSFW.) For the charged love scene between the man and the woman, Takemitsu takes something intimate and familiar–Teshigahara shows extreme close-ups of granules embedded in the couple’s skin–and renders it into something primal, grimy, and skin-prickling via a painfully slow rattle and astringent drones.
(Another nearly NSFW clip.) Animalistic and tactile as the previous scene is, it’s nothing compared to the movie’s climax, where the local villagers appear around the rim of the sandpit and bid the man and his woman put on a show for them. Grotesquely masked, pounding on giant Japanese drums, there’s no need for avant-garde strategies here, as the ritualistic rhythms are blood-boiling in their intensity, urging the man to rape the woman for the audience’s entertainment.
The woman vanishes into darkness before she can be apprehended, but the blatant horror of the act reveals an irreversible shift: rather than fight it, this civilized man has acquiesced to the demands of this rural society. Entrapped, he perversely feels free. The noise of the city has given way to the sound of these drums; is there really any difference? Melding East-West atonality or simply deploying a thunderous tribal beat, Takemitsu’s harsh, caustic soundtrack embodies throughout the film the effects of sunstroke, of disintegration, of animal violence, of sanity slipping through fingers like sand.