September 19, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

zakurozakanoadauchiOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Based on a classic short story in the collection Goroji Dono Oshimatsu by Jiro Asada, Snow on the Blades (Zakurozaka No Adauchi) is a Japanese samurai revenge action-drama directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu. The film stars Kiichi Nakai as Kingo Shimura, a fierce and noble samurai in the service of Lord Naosuke (Kichiemon Nakamura). After Naosuke is killed by a gang of mercenary ronins – samurai without a master to serve – Shimura is forbidden from committing ritual seppuku, and is instead sent on a secret mission to exact revenge. Over the curse of the next 13 years Shimura travels the length and breadth of Japan, searching for those who murdered his master, until only one remains: an equally fearsome samurai named Jyubei Sahashi (Hiroshi Abe).

If you have ever loved a Joe Hisaishi score, you will know what Snow on the Blades sounds like; beautiful, fully orchestral themes, rich and elegant orchestrations, and a serious dramatic arc that frames the score with an appropriate sense of development. However, as Snow on the Blades is a live action film, it lacks the sense of whimsy and playfulness one associates with his work for Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli: instead, the score remains a generally serious tone throughout, as one would expect for a film all about revenge and honor. His non-animated scores don’t usually get as much attention as his more famous works in that medium, but scores like The Story of the Great King and the Four Gods (2007), I Want To Be a Shellfish (2008) and last year’s Miracle Apples prove that he has a more dramatic, more adult side that is just as worth exploring.

The opening part of the score is soft, gentle, almost idyllic – “Fūfu” has a lovely, lullabyish quality, while the intimate “Keiai” has some gorgeous interplay between piano and woodwinds – but things change in the aftermath of “Yochō”, which introduces a militaristic percussion element and heralds a momentous change in Kingo Shimura’s life. The score really takes off in the dramatic “Shukumei”, which introduces the score’s first significant statement of the bold and determined main theme, and which is recapitulated later in cues such as “Hisō”, and the lyrical and epic “Honkai”.

The lovely “Eien” and subsequent cues such as “Kaikon”, “Kantsubaki”, “Kaigō” and the exquisite “Kakugo” return to the deeply personal sentimentality of the score’s opening cues, again featuring some superb piano, and flute string textures. “Kantsubaki” is especially notable for its tender, reflective, melodic ideas, while “Kaigō” introduces a feather-like harp element to interweave with the piano and give the score a magical, wintry feel. The main theme returns in earnest in the score’s finale, receiving a particularly strident performance in “Shunjun”, and a more sweeping and emotional statement in the conclusive “Shuppatsu”, which combines the main thematic line with the orchestrations from the quieter cues, building to a superb climax full of flourishes, adornments and clever contrapuntal writing for piano.

Joe Hisaishi has such a beautiful way of writing instrumental harmonies; his string phrasing is unmistakably distinctive, and the subtlest hints of Japanese folk music that come through in his chord progressions allow his music to be at once universal but deeply rooted in its culture. Snow on the Blades has all these things in abundance. Although it’s not as flashy or overtly emotional as some of his more famous works, it still has a lot of excellent music to offer, especially to those who enjoy the restrained, dramatic part of Hisaishi’s musical persona.

Buy the Snow on the Blades soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Akumu (1:15)
  • Fūfu (1:51)
  • Keiai (1:23)
  • Yochō (1:33)
  • Shukumei (1:42)
  • Hisō (0:22)
  • Ketsui (1:20)
  • Honkai (6:28)
  • Kashaku (0:34)
  • Pon-Bun (2:20)
  • Ansoku (2:44)
  • Jidai (0:43)
  • Zen’ya (0:27)
  • Eien (2:49)
  • Kaikon (1:54)
  • Kantsubaki (2:27)
  • Kaigō (3:15)
  • Shunjun (2:45)
  • Kakugo (5:52)
  • Shuppatsu (5:40)

Universal Music Japan UMCK-1493 (2014)

Running Time: 47 minutes 33 seconds

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