Sunday, March 16, 2008

Takemitsu — film composer


Netflix has the DVD of Charlotte Zwerin's 1994 documentary about Toru Takemitsu's Music for the Movies. Interleaving interviews with excerpts from the movies, it shows Takemitsu as much more than a composer, often taking the role of sound designer for the entire movie. He had a much more collaborative role than most film composers, often spending time on the set when the movies were being filmed instead of the more typical behavior of not seeing any of the movie until it is nearly complete. Interview subjects included Takemitsu and several directors, including Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima, and Hiroshi Teshigahara. All of the directors commented on Takemitsu's collaborative role for a larger scope of their films.

The documentary brought to light a couple of interesting trivia. Takemitsu always wanted to write music for comedies and lighter movies, but never got the opportunity. But there is a brief excerpt of an light-hearted animated film, Love, which uses the electronic music Ai. I was familiar with this piece from an old LP of Takemitsu's electronic music, and seeing the clip with the soundtrack was decidedly odd. There are also some details on the sound design for Kobayashi's ghost story film Kwaidan, where for various scenes Takemitsu used the sound of wood being split and otherwise destroyed. He always took great care to place the sounds in unexpected locations. Kwaidan was also the first instance of using Japanese instruments in soundtracks, even for Japanese movies. It also highlighted Takemitsu's use of studio manipulation of the sounds, even when the original was based on musical instruments, in order to heighten a particular scene in a film.

The documentary concludes with a beautiful segment on Japanese gardens, which Takemitsu loved and used as a model for several of his concert works. The Smithsonian Institution produced an Emmy-award winning documentary on Japanese gardens, entitled Dream Window, which unfortunately does not appear to be available on DVD. Zwerin also used a clip of a blizzard of flowers from Shinoda's film Under the Cherry Blossoms. Takemitsu discusses how he placed sounds in the same way as features are placed in the gardens, using the single distinctive sound to demarcate the surrounding silence.

Zwerin has done a number of other music documentaries, including the famous documentary about the Rolling Stones at Altamount, Gimme Shelter (with the Maysles brothers), and Clint Eastwood's documentary about Thelonius Monk, Straight, No Chaser. The DVD includes no extras, not even previews for other films in the series (which include Bernard Herrmann and Georges Delerue). But the documentary is successful in creating an interest in seeing the original films, many of which are available on DVD, as well as enhancing the experience of the music.

1 comment:

Rob Wallace said...

I finished a :53 piece inspired by a documentary I saw about Takemitsu. It will be on my site within 2 weeks.

The documentary I saw showed how he pushed to move away from the "Hollywood" sound and the instrumentation and moving toward composing for the instruments of his culture and of his own style of composing.