November 21, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For all his success in the west with his scores for Hayao Miyazaki’s films – Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and the like – Joe Hisaishi’s scores for non-animated films remain strangely underappreciated by Western audiences. His latest undiscovered masterpiece is the curiously-named I Want to be a Shellfish – or ‘Watashi Wa Kai Ni Naritai’ to give it its proper Japanese title. Contrary to its absurd-sounding name, the film is a quite serious and profound drama set in post-WWII Japan, based on a famous novel by Tetsuharo Kato and directed Katsuo Fukuzawa. It tells the story of a man named Toyomatsu Shimizu (Masahiro Nakai), a quiet family man who works as a barber, who is unexpectedly arrested by the occupying American forces and tried for war crimes by a military tribunal.

Hisaishi’s music for the film is elegant and melodramatic, emphasizing the plight of the protagonist, his torment at being ripped from his family, and his confusion and despair at being accused of a murder he claims he did not commit. As is always the case with Hisaishi, it’s also very, very beautiful. The understated “Prologue” introduces a delicate piano theme supported by a dream-like string wash, before moving on to the main theme, “Toyomatsu’s Theme”, a bittersweet dance between gently swooning strings and tender oboes which play a slightly desolate melody that hints at the tragedy to come in his life. The piano theme from the prologue is then extrapolated in the wonderful “Deai Mai”, which plays in waltz time, and moves around all the different sections of the orchestra in turn, from strings to woodwinds to piano, showcasing their performances, and effortlessly highlighting the beauty of Hisaishi’s melodic construct. The elegance and easy splendor of these pieces – which at times remind me of Alexandre Desplat’s romantic music, or Dmitri Shostakovich’s jazz waltzes – further emphasize the reason why Hisaishi is held in such esteem in his homeland, and why his talent needs to be discovered by the wider world.

More urgent, martial music features in the rousing “Gunjinkunren” and “Renkô”, a pair of flashy, brassy pastiches on the bravado of American military pomp, albeit filtered through Japanese sensibilities, and with recurring thematic material that transfers seamlessly into an action-like setting. This action music becomes harsh and more dramatic during “Hanketsu”, with Hisaishi laying on slashing strings and insistent rhythms thickly, showing yet another side to his musical character.

At the other end of the scale, “B29” is an overwhelmingly solemn dirge, with weeping strings forming the core of the cue, eliciting emotions that clearly allude to Toyomatsu’s arrest and imprisonment, while the dark “13 Ookitayama Jiken” throbs to a more prominent percussion element, giving the otherwise sprightly piano element in the cue a sense of weight and drama. Later, “Seisho to Kutsuoto” introduces an almost Goldsmith-like solo trumpet element to superb effect, and which re-occurs later in the warm, defiant “Yûjô” cues, the second of which has an especially pleasing, expressive sweep.

The seven minute “Aishisa” revisits the waltz theme in an even more grandiose arrangement that is at times quite breathtaking, especially when a virtuoso solo violin takes center stage. The whole thing concludes with the eponymous final cue, “Watashi Wa Kai Ni Naritai”, which re-presents all the main themes in succession, bringing the album to a hugely satisfying, emotionally appropriate close.

Quite simply, this is all tremendous music. It’s emotionally effective, beautifully written and performed, intelligently structured with interesting orchestrations and a few surprising instrumental touches, all wrapped up in that lovely stylish package that all Hisaishi scores seem to contain. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that, in order to find the best in modern film music, one has to actively seek it out, to stray away from the Hollywood mainstream, and visit places like France and Spain and Italy and Japan, whose respective film music industries seem to be flourishing, positively awash with talented composers writing wonderful music for films that no-one sees. I Want to Be a Shellfish is a perfect example of this, and this is why, despite the relative obscurity of the film and the accompanying soundtrack CD, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Rating: ****½

Buy the I Want to be a Shellfish soundtrack from Yes Asia.

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (1:19)
  • Toyomatsu’s Theme (1:50)
  • Deai Mei (6:39)
  • Gunjinkunren (2:58)
  • B29 (1:35)
  • 13 Ookitayama Jiken (2:32)
  • Renkô (2:52)
  • Hanketsu (1:55)
  • Seisho to Kutsuoto (1:56)
  • Yûjô I (4:18)
  • Michiyuki (3:30)
  • Yûjô II (1:31)
  • Aishisa (7:05)
  • Chenji Block (3:15)
  • Koku (0:23)
  • 13 Budôshu (3:18)
  • Watashi Wa Kai Ni Naritai (3:26)

Running Time: 50 minutes 29 seconds

Universal Sigma UMCK-1273 (2008)

Music composed and conducted by Joe Hisaishi. Orchestrations by Joe Hisaishi. Recorded and mixed by Masayoshi Okawa, Makoto Moramuto and Suminobu Hamada. Album produced by Joe Hisaishi.

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