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Best Scores of 2014 – Asia

December 18, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The first installment in my series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from Asia: specifically, the far eastern nations of China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Already in 2014 I have reviewed Christopher Young’s magnificent score for the Chinese epic fantasy adventure The Monkey King, and Jo-Yeong Wook’s score for the revisionist samurai action film Kundo: Age of the Rampant. In this article, I’m taking a deeper look at some other excellent works, ranging from anime movies and TV series from Japan, baseball dramas from Taiwan, and two of the highest-grossing films from Vietnam.

You can read my review of The Monkey King here, my review of Kundo: Age of the Rampant here.

 

GUNSHI KANBEE – Yugo Kanno

gunshikanbeeThe annual NHK Taiga drama is a year-long television series broadcast on Japan’s main television network, NHK, and has been a staple of Japanese television since the first one was broadcast in 1963. It is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious television events of the Japanese calendar, attracting the dream of Japan’s dramatic talent, actors, writers, directors and composers – recent previous Taiga dramas have included Clouds on the Slope scored by Joe Hisaishi, Yae No Sakura scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Ryōmaden scored by Naoki Sato. The 2014 NHK Taiga drama is Gunshi Kanbee, an epic story of a young man finding his way through the war-like and feudal Japanese society of the 16th century. Directed by Kenji Yanaka, it stars Junichi Okada in the title role, and has an original score by 37-year-old Japanese composer Yugo Kanno.

To say that the score for Gunshi Kanbee is excellent may be the greatest understatement of the year. It has everything film music aficionados look for in scores: a big orchestra (it was actually performed by three separate orchestras – the NHK Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Junichi Hirokami, the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michał Dworzyński, and the Tokyo Studio Orchestra conducted by Koji Haishima), gorgeous multi-faceted orchestrations, memorable themes with clear development and emotional range, intelligent dramatic application, and much more besides.

In an album full of highlights, a number of cues stand out. The “Gunshi Kanbee Main Theme” moves from longing romance to frantic action; “Kanbee the Prodigy” showcases a longing, heartfelt string theme emphasizing the scope and importance of the character’s journey; “Turbulent Country” has some gorgeous, lyrical flute writing; “Otatsu the First Love” is light and flighty, with more lovely woodwind writing, this time accompanied with light tapped percussion, chimes and harp glissandi to give it a ‘magical’ feeling redolent of young romance. “Kanbee Runs” has a powerful, dramatic, Poledouris-like horn line full of heroism and adventure, which feeds in to the subsequent and equally bold “Nobunaga the Revolutionary Leader”.

Later, “Buhee the Aide” is a lovely, classical waltz pastiche full of light and elegance; “Love for One’s Mother” has a piano and cello duet that is just heartbreakingly gorgeous, and feeds into the solo piano version in “Iwa’s Affection”. “Mankichi of Conviction” introduces a slightly disturbing vocal effect underneath the cue’s prominent string lament, adding a touch of uncertainty and grief to the piece. The two “Kanbee Travelogue” pieces showcase sublime solo violin performances of the main theme accompanied by a rhapsodic piano element; both “Kanbee the General” and “Tahee the Spearman” have militaristic, martial drumbeats beneath stirring brass action sequences, while the wonderful “Kanbee the Tactician” is one of the most rousing cues on the album, centered around a wonderful, heroic central theme.

I really can’t recommend the score for Gunshi Kanbee highly enough. At this time, when many film music aficionados are decrying the state of mainstream film music, I would suggest that they start looking to places like Japan to find the types scores they are missing in mainstream Hollywood projects. Had a score like Gunshi Kanbee been written for one of 2014’s box office blockbusters, we would all have been falling over ourselves to praise it; instead, because it’s written by a comparatively obscure Japanese composer for a comparatively obscure Japanese TV drama series, it’s on very few people’s radar. But, make no mistake, there is some truly wonderful music to be found here, and I recommend it unreservedly.

Track Listing: 1. Gunshi Kanbee Main Theme (2:50), 2. Kanbee the Prodigy (3:47), 3. Turbulent Country (1:56), 4. Hideyoshi the Ruler (2:39), 5. Kohee the Loyal (2:46), 6. Otatsu the First Love (2:26), 7. The Lord of Himeji Castle (2:21), 8. Kanbee Runs (2:41), 9. Nobunaga the Revolutionary Leader (1:31), 10. Zori Tokichiro (2:08), 11. Buhee the Aide (1:55), 12. Shigetaka the Eye Drop Seller (1:47), 13. Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child (2:36), 14. Love for One’s Mother (3:45), 15. Masahide of Tatsuno Castle (1:54), 16. Iwa’s Affection (3:40), 17. Mankichi of Conviction (2:04), 18. Sign of Genius (3:20), 19. Kanbee Travelogue I (3:08), 20. Kanbee the General (2:53), 21. The Beloved Wife Teru (4:55), 22. Tahee the Spearman (2:42), 23. Sakyounoshin the Brother-in-Law (1:40), 24. Power Relations in Harima (2:57), 25. Kanbee the Tactician (2:08), 26. Shojumaru the Heir (2:44), 27. Stirring Lords (2:56), 28. Tenka Fubu Seal (2:01), 29. Kanbee Travelogue II (1:31). Sony Music Japan SICL-30001, 75 minutes 42 seconds.

 

KANO – Naoki Sato

kanoKano is a Taiwanese sports drama movie, about the Kano baseball team from southern Taiwan, which comprised of Japanese, Taiwanese and aboriginal players, and overcame extreme odds to represent the island in the 1931 Japanese High School Baseball Championship, at a time when Taiwan was still under Japanese rule. It’s an important and famous story in Taiwanese sporting culture – a classic example of an overachieving underdog – with a similar sense of ‘triumph over adversity’ to American films like Rudy, The Natural or Miracle. The film is directed by Umin Boya, and has a score by the popular and acclaimed Japanese composer Naoki Sato.

Sato is a composer rooted very strongly in the rich, orchestral traditions of Western film scores, and Kano is as inspirational and stirring a score as one would imagine it would be, based on the film’s themes of sporting triumph and heroism. The brief overture, “Jokyoku”, presents the score’s main theme, which features strongly in the score thereafter – as lovely, intimate piano pieces in “Hizashi ni Tsutsumarete”; with an almost lullabyish tenderness in the bittersweet “Boku no Shippai”; with a sense of stately remembrance and nostalgia in the beautiful string-led “Taka ni Manabe”; and so on. While not as immediately memorable as the themes from, say, Priceless or Space Battleship Yamato, it’s still vintage Sato, full of heart and emotion, but on this occasion tinged with a definite sense of sentimentality.

Upbeat brass-led themes full of triumphant brass fanfares dominate cues such as “Moeru Toushi”, the optimistic “Kaimaku Chokuzen”, and the stirring “Iza Shutsujin” – perfect accompaniments for montages accompanying the players as they round the bases, knock the ball out of the park, and sprint for home, cheered all the way by their disbelieving fans. Other cues are more contemporary guitar-led light rock pieces, such as the fun and lively “Taiyo no Nukumori”, and the more sensitive “Furuki Yoki Jidai”, which combines both the guitars and the orchestra with a lovely wordless female vocal performance, making it one of the most effective cues on the album. The enormous, sweeping, James Horner-esque crescendos at the end of this track are simply superb – listen for the soaring brass countermelody straight out of The Pelican Brief.

The final three cues, from “Fukutsu no Seishin” through to “Gaisen”, are where Sato pulls out all the stops, allowing his main theme to be performed with the most amount of emotion and gusto. He intersperses the statements with just enough tension and anticipatory build-up – chugging strings and staccato brass pulses – to make the thematic parts worth waiting for, and when they come – despite some superficial similarities to Randy Edelman’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story – the effect is film music gold, and a fitting musical accompaniment to the legacy of this most unlikely baseball success story.

The score is bookended by two versions of the same J-pop song, “The Romance of a Hero”, performed in different languages by regional artists RAKE and Jason Chan. Both of them are nice enough, but can easily be programmed out for anyone who doesn’t care to listen to songs they don’t understand. With or without them, Kano is one of the best scores to emerge from the Far East in 2014, and further cements Naoki Sato’s reputation as one of the best composers working in Japan today.

Track Listing: 1. The Romance of a Hero (performed by RAKE featuring Suming, Youkui Wutao Van Fan and Kousuke Atari) (5:08), 2. Jokyoku (0:47), 3. Hatenaki Michi (0:35), 4. Taiyo no Nukumori (4:03), 5. Hizashi ni Tsutsumarete (1:13), 6. Moeru Toushi (2:26), 7. Boku no Shippai (4:07), 8. Kaimaku Chokuzen (5:44), 9. Taka ni Manabe (5:45), 10. Iza Shutsujin (5:48), 11. Furuki Yoki Jidai (3:55), 12. Maboroshi no Daichi (3:02), 13. Fukutsu no Seishin (4:12), 14. Kurotsuchi no Chikara (6:41), 15. Gaisen (5:57), 16. The Romance of a Hero (performed by Jason Chan and the VNP Chorus of Guangdong) (5:11). Sony Music Entertainment Taiwan 460872, 65 minutes 09 seconds.

 

RURÔNI KENSHIN: KYÔTO TAIKA-HEN – Naoki Sato

ruronikenshinkyototaikahenRurôni Kenshin: Kyôto Taika-Hen (Rurôni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno) is the second film in the ongoing Rurôni Kenshin series of period action movies telling the story of the “romantic swordsman” Himura Kenshin, directed by Keishi Ohtomo, and starring Takeru Sato and Emi Takei. Following the events of the first movie, Kenshin has settled into a new life with his wife Kaoru and his other friends, when he is approached with a request from the Meiji government. Makoto Shishio, who like Kenshin is a former assassin, has been betrayed, set on fire and left for dead. Despite suffering grievous injuries, Makoto survived, and is now in Kyoto, plotting with his gathered warriors to overthrow the new government. Against Kaoru’s wishes, Kenshin reluctantly agrees to go to Kyoto and help keep his country from falling back into civil war.

Naoki Sato has scored all three of the Rurôni Kenshin films, which began with Rurôni Kenshin – Meiji Kenkaku Roman Tan in 2012. The music is rooted in contemporary action stylings, despite the historical setting of the film, but Sato’s creativity is such that they never really feel anachronistic, instead giving energy and drive to Kenshin’s adventures. This score is a combination of orchestra, subtle electronics, traditional Japanese instrumentation, and voices, resulting in a powerful, enjoyable work which fans of modern action music should enjoy immensely. The opening cue, “Overcoming Fate”, builds from a moody, almost liturgical-sounding opening featuring a Miserere Latin chant, eventually emerging into a Christopher Young-style theme full of stately drama and portent. The tolling bells are a nice touch, especially when they combine with the soulful, searching string writing.

As the score develops it progresses through multiple different emotional styles. “New Style” is romantic, but just a little melancholy; “Destiny” revisits the ghostly vocal work and emotive string writing of the first track, offset by some dark, Vangelis-style synth chords; “Reverse Blade Snow Expert” has a warm, lyrical quality, again with strongly emotional string writing, and “Heavenly Light” is a haunting, abstract track for a massed section of what sound like hichiriki Japanese oboes, played with massive amounts of reverb to give them an enveloping, overwhelming sound.

The action music has a kinetic, percussive style, with cues like “Fanaticism” jangling the nerves with its frenetic rhythms, “Kyoyume” making excellent use of a koto Japanese dulcimer, and the superb “Kyoto” exploding into a flurry of slashing string rhythms accompanied by a colorful bed of regional Japanese instrumentation. “Those Who Defend” is a defiantly contemporary cue with more than a hint of Daft Punk about it, and “Disturbance” enters Hans Zimmer territory via the ‘horn of doom’, but the standout is the title track, “Kyoto Inferno”, which again begins with voices, before exploding into a macho, driving, almost dance-music style piece with a delicious rhythmic core and a hint of heavy metal. The finale, “Warutakumi’s Purgatory’, is one of those wonderfully vibrant fully-orchestral stingers – all brass fanfares and huge crescendos – that sets up the third film perfectly.

Track Listing: 1. Overcoming Fate (6:37), 2. New Style (2:26), 3. Fanaticism (2:40), 4. Kyoyume (3:13), 5. Destiny (4:07), 6. Kyoto (1:30), 7. Reverse Blade Sword/Memories (2:34), 8. Those Who Defend (3:57), 9. Scene of Carnage (2:50), 10. Reverse Blade Sword Expert (4:09), 11. Heavenly Light (3:52), 12. Kyoto Inferno (3:14), 13. Disturbance (1:33), 14. Darkness Flows (1:44), 15. Lightning (2:16), 16. Warutakumi’s Purgatory (0:56). Warner Music Japan WQCQ-596, 47 minutes 48 seconds.

 

SCANDAL: HÀO QUANG TRO LAI – Christopher Wong

scandalhaoquangtrolaiScandal: Hao Quang Tro Lai is a Vietnamese drama-thriller, directed by Victor Vu, a follow-up to his own film Scandal from 2012. The film stars Nhung Trang as Bella, a beautiful but aging actress who is passed over for Vietnam’s version of the Academy Awards in favor of a younger, but less talented rival. Convinced that her failure is a direct result of her fading looks, Bella secretly visits Dr. Quan (Bao Chi), a plastic surgeon, in a desperate attempt to make herself appear younger. Shockingly, Bella dies on the operating table, and in an attempt to save his own career Quan disposes of the body and covers up the death; for a while, everything seems fine, and Quan soon becomes a famous ‘celebrity surgeon’ – until a woman who bears an astonishing resemblance to Bella appears, threatening to unearth Quan’s scandalous secret.

The score for Scandal: Hao Quang Tro Lai is by composer Christopher Wong, who over the past few years (and mainly as a result of his numerous collaborations with director Vu) has become the de-facto #1 composer in the Vietnamese film music industry. It’s an interesting and slightly unlikely niche for him to have carved out for himself, but his music remains as good as it always has been, all the way back to when he first emerged onto the scene with Journey to the Fall in 2006.

Wong’s music is based around a beautiful, lyrical theme for Bella, first heard in the opening cue “Lanterns in the Wind”, where it emerges from a solo piano into a lush, string-based statement. The theme has a slightly forlorn feeling, a sense of faded romance, but is able to be presented in numerous different guises as the score develops. More contemporary electronic ideas, coupled with cellos ostinatos, accompany the theme in cues like “The Comeback”. The solo piano returns in the lovely pair “Father’s Grave” and “Being Replaced”. Later, in “Remembering Bella”, Wong skews the theme, giving it a sense of uncertainty and mystery, while in the conclusive pair “End of the Road” and “The Story Within” he introduces a haunting, Lisa Gerrard-like vocal styling which is very effective indeed, ushering the final performance of Bella’s theme.

Some creative and powerful dissonance can be heard in cues like “Flatline”, “What Went Wrong”, and especially the angrily aggressive “Strangling Ghosts”, which throbs to horror movie-style stingers, while “Unearthed”, “No Escape” and the breathless “On the Run” have a contemporary thriller vibe, with churning string rhythms full of movement, dramatic brass chords, and ticking metallic percussion to give the whole thing a sense of gripping energy.

The majority of the score is synthesized with samples – a necessity based on the lack of budgets in the Vietnamese film industry – but despite these sonic limitations, the quality of the writing and the intellectual application of the music shines through. Unfortunately, the score is only available as a promo the composer prepared for consideration by various awards bodies, but anyone who has the opportunity to hear it should do so, as it further illustrates what a great composer Wong is, and proves once more that great film music is being written in the most unlikely places.

Track Listing: 1. Lanterns in the Wind (2:29), 2. The Comeback (3:18), 3. Father’s Grave (1:12), 4. Being Replaced (1:41), 5. For Love or Fame (1:51), 6. Lantern Dream (1:21), 7. Flatline (2:33), 8. What Went Wrong (3:50), 9. Deception (0:49), 10. Strangling Ghosts (2:36), 11. Being Followed (1:33), 12. Remembering Bella (3:05), 13. Unearthed (2:21), 14. No Escape (4:47), 15. The Shrine (3:05), 16. On the Run (3:54), 17. End of the Road (3:19), 18. The Story Within (5:01). Composer Promo, 48 minutes 42 seconds.

 

SNOW ON THE BLADES (ZAKUROZAKA NO ADAUCHI) – Joe Hisaishi

zakurozakanoadauchiBased 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.

Track Listing: 1. Akumu (1:15), 2. Fūfu (1:51), 3. Keiai (1:23), 4. Yochō (1:33), 5. Shukumei (1:42), 6. Hisō (0:22), 7. Ketsui (1:20), 8. Honkai (6:28), 9. Kashaku (0:34), 10. Pon-Bun (2:20), 11. Ansoku (2:44), 12. Jidai (0:43), 13. Zen’ya (0:27), 14. Eien (2:49), 15. Kaikon (1:54), 16. Kantsubaki (2:27), 17. Kaigō (3:15), 18. Shunjun (2:45), 19. Kakugo (5:52), 20. Shuppatsu (5:40). Universal Music Japan UMCK-1493, 47 minutes 33 seconds.

 

VENGEFUL HEART (QUA TIM MÁU) – Christopher Wong and Garrett Crosby

vengefulheartVengeful Heart is a Vietnamese supernatural thriller directed by Victor Vu, starring Phuong Nha, Hoang Bach, and Thai Hoa, one of Vietnam’s most popular and successful comedians. It tells the story of Linh, a young woman who, after almost being killed in a car accident, survives after receiving a heart transplant. During her recovery Linh begins to have nightmares and hallucinations about a mysterious house in a forest. Tortured by her dreams, Linh eventually finds the house, which she finds inhabited by a very unusual Addams-esque family; worse still, it starts to become apparent that the recently deceased daughter of the family is Linh’s heart donor, and the family is becoming more and more attached to Linh. The film was massively successful in its home country, taking in more than 90 billion đồng, making it the all-time highest grossing domestic film in Vietnamese box office history.

The score for Vengeful Heart is by composer Christopher Wong and his assistant, up-and-coming California-born composer Garrett Crosby. As is the necessity, due to the lack of budgets in the Vietnamese film industry, the score is synthesized with samples, but despite these limitations the quality of the music shines through regardless. The score oscillates between pretty/creepy thriller music in the style of a Jerry Goldsmith or a Christopher Young, more urgent action material built around rhythmic cello ostinatos, and some slightly more lighthearted, but still creepy ideas for the peculiar family who live deep in the woods.

The opening “The Hills and the Forest” is outstanding, a driving piece augmented by a strong percussion element, an array of fluttering regional woodwinds, and a đàn tranh traditional Vietnmese zither that gives the score a distinct sound of its own. Some of these ideas carry over into tracks like the emotional “The Graveyard”, and form a large part of the score’s more action-oriented finale, which includes exciting pieces such as “Dark Forest”, the angry and energetic “A Tale of Two Women,” and “Full Circle”, with it’s dense percussion patterns and fluttering, eerie woodwind textures.

The Addams-like family is typified by a lighthearted, dusty-sounding, waltz-like tune for piano, strings and woodwinds, first heard in ”Odd Company”, and which wouldn’t be out of place at Disneyland in the Haunted Mansion, especially when the pizzicato and chime effects come to the fore. Other cues, like “Quiet Town”, have an idyllic, suburban feel with light woodwinds and more jaunty rhythms, while cues like “A Long Hidden Love”, “Mother” and the conclusive “Epilogue” showcase Wong’s romantic writing, with a tender piano melody offset by rich, gentle string chords, and occasional further recapitulations of the Family’s theme.

Crosby’s cues – “A Familiar Place”, “Realization”, “Delirium”, “Picture Falls”, “Heavy Heart” and “Severed Hearts” – conform well with Wong’s blueprint for the musical style of the film, but are also able to showcase his personal style and writing talent. “A Familiar Place” is especially noteworthy, containing a gorgeous central melody for solo cello; “Realization” has a sense of heavy tragedy, made all the more poignant by the inclusion of a subtle, ghostly female vocal effect; and “Severed Hearts” has a real sense of delicacy, with light harp glissandi, high piano chords, more glassy female voices, and string textures of great fragility.

It’s amazing to me just how much great music is being written in corners of the film music globe no-one thinks of investigating. That Christopher Wong – who lives and works in Los Angeles – is basically the most prominent composer in the Vietnamese film industry, and is writing music as good as Vengeful Heart despite having virtually no access to live musicians, is remarkable, and it’s a shame that so few people here in the West know about, or have access to, the superb work he is doing.

Track Listing: 1. The Hills and the Forest (1:50), 2. Quiet Town (1:13), 3. Sleepwalk (1:42), 4. The Graveyard (3:34), 5. A Familiar Place (2:42), 6. Realization (2:28), 7. Odd Company (2:26), 8. Delirium (1:36), 9. Garden Memories (2:36), 10. Picture Falls (1:18), 11. Heavy Heart (1:36), 12. A Long Hidden Love (2:47), 13. Into the Mirror (1:20), 14. Mother (1:34), 15. Dark Forest (3:40), 16. Severed Hearts (4:47), 17. A Tale of Two Women (5:14), 18. Full Circle (5:01), 19. Epilogue (3:00). Composer Promo, 50 minutes 29 seconds.

 

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (OMOIDE NO MARNIE) – Takatsugu Muramatsu

whenmarniewasthereWhen Marnie Was There (Omoide No Marnie) is a beautiful Japanese animated film, based on the popular children’s novel by Joan Robinson, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. It tells the story of a young girl named Anna, who is sent to live in the countryside for health reasons. There she meets an unlikely friend in the form of Marnie, a young girl with flowing blonde hair. As their friendship develops, a series of unusual development begin to suggest that Marnie has closer ties to the Anna than she originally expected.

The score is by Japanese composer Takatsugu Muramatsu, and is absolutely stunning. Fully orchestral, with richly flowing melodies, gorgeous passages for various solo instruments (piano, woodwinds, and guitar), multiple themes, it has a real sense of lyricism and beauty that captures the spirit of the friendship between the two central characters. The 2-CD soundtrack from Tokuma Japan Communications includes an “Image Album”, featuring a half dozen specially arranged artistic interpretations of the music, and a standard score album, showcasing almost 50 minutes as it appears in the film.

The pieces on the Image Album are simply sublime, earmarking Muramatsu as a composer with a beautifully delicate touch, a clear mastery of all parts of the orchestra, and a knack for lushly romantic themes. The dreamlike “The Oiwa Home”, with its lyrical and expressive guitar solo; the ravishing “High Tide, Low Tide” with its majestic string writing; the effortlessly stunning “Anna”; the child-like and playful “Marnie”, which combines the guitar writing with a series of lovely woodwind textures; the lively and effervescent “Sayaka’s Dream”, with its optimistic sense of life and freedom; and the beautifully intimate solo piano version of Anna’s theme – the entire album is an absolute joy from beginning to end. In normal circumstances, this music would be enough to garner an unreserved recommendation on its own – but we also have a second CD of score that builds upon, and offers a number of variations on the themes.

Muramatsu’s orchestrations are light and playful, but full of emotion, often showcasing piano, guitar and harp, backed by a warm orchestral accompaniment for strings and woodwinds. The overall feeling is one of peacefulness and calm, peppered with sentimentality and nostalgia, and filtered through a child’s world view, but it’s not schmaltzy – the score’s heart is all very much in the right place.

Both Anna’s theme and Marnie’s theme feature prominently in the score, albeit in less spectacular statements, instead forming part of the fabric of the work, developing as they progress. After a gentle opening through cues like in “An Ordinary Face” and “Anna’s Journey”, pieces like “Off to the Post Office” feature lovely performances of Anna’s theme, while “The Girl in the Blue Window” offers the first hint of Marnie’s theme in the score itself. Elsewhere, “Like Just What I Am” and the extended “It’s Not a Dream” are a little darker, introducing a subtle synth element to add a hint of uncertainty and a touch of fantasy to the orchestral passages, while “The Two on the Boat” is built around a gorgeous oboe variation of Anna’s theme.

A classical pastiche cue, “The Party”, gives the score a hint of Victorian elegance; both “Let’s Dance, You and I” and the conclusive “When Marnie Was There” interpolate a pretty wordless children’s vocal; “While Cutting Tomatoes” is a sublime solo piano rendition of Anna’s theme; “Anna Runs in the Storm” has a sense of tragedy and drama; both “A Final Wish” and the second part of “Hisako’s Story” provide lovely, heartfelt renditions of Marnie’s theme; and the album concludes with a pretty song in English, “Fine on the Outside”, performed Korean-American singer songwriter by Priscilla Ahn. I really can’t recommend When Marnie Was There highly enough – for me, it’s one of the best animation scores of 2014, and will appeal especially to anyone who enjoys Joe Hisaishi’s style of warm, appealing writing for children.

Track Listing – Image Album: 1. The Oiwa Home (3:35), 2. High Tide, Low Tide (3:42), 3. Anna (3:38), 4. Marnie (4:36), 5. Sayaka’s Dream (2:22), 6. Anna (Piano Version) (3:53). Studio Ghibli Records/Tokuma Japan Communications, 21 minutes 50 seconds.

Track Listing – Score Album: 1. An Ordinary Face (1:39), 2. Anna’s Journey (1:41), 3. Off to the Post Office (2:00), 4. The Marsh House (2:09), 5. The Light is On! (0:22), 6. The Girl in the Blue Window (0:57), 7. Sketching on the Boat (0:42), 8. The Girl Stood Up! (0:39), 9. Like Just What I Am (0:59), 10. When I Held a Doll (0:46), 11. It’s Not a Dream (3:25), 12. The Two on the Boat (1:46), 13. Three Questions Each (1:14), 14. The Party (1:44), 15. Kazuhiko and Marnie Dance (2:22), 16. Let’s Dance, You and I (1:57), 17. While Cutting Tomatoes (1:13), 18. Hisako’s Painting (0:36), 19. The Blue Diary (2:42), 20. The Mushroom Forest (1:20), 21. The Two Confess (3:38), 22. It’s Like We Traded Places (0:56), 23. Anna Runs in the Storm (0:45), 24. A Final Wish (2:52), 25. Hisako’s Story, Part 1 (3:13), 26. Hisako’s Story, Part 2 (1:25), 27. When Marnie Was There (1:57), 28. Fine On the Outside (written and performed by Priscilla Ahn) (4:14). Studio Ghibli Records/Tokuma Japan Communications, 49 minutes 29 seconds.

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  1. David Pfremmer
    December 18, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for the reviews of these film scores. I’ve found the Japanese film composers to be a “gold mine” of often very beautiful, emotional, and engaging music, especially Naoki Sato. Taro Iwashiro is another film score composer that is also one of my favorites, along with Muramatsu and Michiru Ohshima. Iwashiro is probably one of the greatest for his solo piano music gems which can often be found in his film scores, like the others.

  2. Chris Garner
    December 19, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I love that you do this, Jon. These scores sound so fantastic. Now I just have to find them!

  3. Richard Buxton
    December 20, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Great feature. Gunshi Kanbee is truly brilliant. I’d rank it alongside Taro Iwashiro’s Yoshitsune, Naoki Sato’s Ryomaden, and Toshiyuki Watanabe’s Toshiie to Matsu as my favourite Taiga Drama score.

    By the way, Nobuyuki Nakajima scored most of Yae no Sakura. Ryuichi Sakamoto just wrote the main theme as far as I am aware. I think it’s overall one of the weakest Taiga scores that I’ve heard.

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