Best Scores of 2015 – Asia
The sixth and final 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, although all of main ones this year are from the far eastern nation of Japan, with a couple of interlopers from Iran and the Lebanon. In this article, I’m taking a deeper look at several truly excellent works, which range in scope from anime movies and prestigious TV series to fantasy adventures, small-scale dramas, and religious epics.
GAMBA – Benjamin Wallfisch
A Japanese animated film for children, Gamba is a playful story about a mouse with a brave, adventurous spirit who decides to go on an adventure to discover the ocean. On his way, he meets a troubled child mouse named Chuta, who says that his family and several other mice have been killed by a clan of weasels living on a nearby island. Seeing his desperation, Gamba agrees to help Chuta save the island, his family and the other mice – even if it means locking horns with the terrifying weasel-leader Noroi. The film is based on the popular series of comics authored by Atsuo Saito, is directed by Tomohiro Kawamura and Yoshihiro Komori and – somewhat surprisingly – has a score by British composer Benjamin Wallfisch.
Over the last few years Wallfisch has successfully emerged from Dario Marianelli’s backroom staff – he orchestrated and conducted some of the Italian’s most popular scores, including the Oscar-winning Atonement – and grown to become one of the brightest young orchestral composers working today; scores like Conquest 1453, Summer in February, and Desert Dancer affirm his talent. Gamba shows yet another impressive side to his musical personality; it’s a score full of child-like charm, whimsy, and playfulness, although even in a score like this Wallfisch still gets plenty of opportunity to showcase his impressive action scoring chops.
In explaining his rationale for the score, Wallfisch explains that “Though Gamba is well-known in Japan, the story is hardly known in the West. The director and producers were keen the movie has a universal appeal. This helped me make the decision not to use any Japanese instruments in the score, except for one ritualistic scene with onscreen music. The score focuses on the universal messages of the film, through the medium of a large orchestra.”
Once you get past the annoying coincidence that Wallfisch’s main theme is a dead ringer for Lee Holdridge’s theme for the 1982 fantasy film The Beastmaster, Gamba is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of light and lively orchestrations, triumphant fanfares, and no small amount of heart. The theme runs through the entire score, both indirectly and overtly, with especially stirring performances in the opening “Gamba’s World,” in “Stronger Together,” “Hope”, “The Water Changes,” and especially in the conclusive “Victory,” where the theme really shines through the accompaniment a rhapsodic piano line; elsewhere, there are more subtle allusions in cues like “The Clan of Noroi,” “Exploring the Island,” and the lovely “Shioji”.
Thankfully, Wallfisch is not afraid to show plenty of emotional content; cues like “Sunrise”, “The Plan,” and “Goodbye” reach great sentimental highs, while on the other hand “The Map” and “You Can’t Defeat Noroi” invest in some sinister mood-setting, and several moments that are actually unexpectedly dark. Building on this, the action music is dense and lively, changing tempo and direction rapidly, and often featuring a swashbuckling secondary theme, but never descending into a chaos or pure mickey-mousing, instead presenting itself in a similar vein to what John Williams has been doing recently on scores like The Adventures of Tintin, even down to the prominent use of xylophones in the percussion mix. Wallfisch’s orchestrations are tight and cleverly constructed, and his rhythmic ideas in cues like “Boss Fight,” “First Fight,” “Island Battle,” and rambunctious “Gamba Fights Noroi,” and the near-apocalyptic “Noroi Returns” are very impressive indeed.
This is by far one of my favorite animated scores of 2015, and yet again showcases what a huge talent Benjamin Wallfisch is. He is capable of writing exceptional music across a number of disparate genres, and it surely can’t be long before he starts working solo on the sort of high-profile high-prestige projects he and Marianelli worked on together a decade ago.
Track Listing: 1. Gamba’s World (3:33), 2. Party Mice (1:48), 3. Boss Fight (2:01), 4. The Clan of Noroi (2:24), 5. Stronger Together (3:50), 6. The Map (1:34), 7. Sunrise (1:47), 8. Exploring the Island (1:17), 9. You Can’t Defeat Noroi (1:32), 10. Shioji (2:17), 11. First Fight (1:22), 12. The Plan (3:46), 13. The Weasels Have Come (1:53), 14. Goodbye (1:15), 15. Island Battle (4:14), 16. Hope (2:35), 17. That’s It (2:05), 18. The Water Changes (3:02), 19. Death of Bobo (2:18), 20. Gamba Fights Noroi (6:30), 21. Noroi Returns (6:48), 22. Victory (4:25). Varèse Sarabande, 62 minutes 28 seconds.
HANA MOYU – Kenji Kawai
The 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 cream of Japan’s dramatic talent, actors, writers, directors and composers. The 2015 NHK Taiga drama is Hana Moyu , which looks at the life of Shoin Yoshida, an influential political intellectual, philosopher and writer in Japan in the 1840s and 1850s, as seen through the eyes of his younger sister, Sugi. Directed by Yoshio Watanabe and Hajime Suenaga, it stars Yusuke Iseya and Mao Inoue in the leading roles, and has an original score by composer Kenji Kawai.
Kawai is one of Japan’s most well-known and respected film composers, whose popularity comes mainly from his strong theme writing, and his creative blending together of classical orchestral music, contemporary electronics, vocals, and elements from traditional Japanese folk music. Hana Moyu is perhaps a perfect example of these things, as it runs the gamut across a wide variety of styles and influences, and generally excels at all of them, providing you can get into the right head space to appreciate its often jarring shifts in tone.
The “Hana Monu Main Theme” is a rousing, unexpectedly modern-sounding vocal piece, combining the ethereal tones of vocalist Akiko Shikata against a large orchestral backing and a synth rhythm section. The theme is a knockout, with those stereotypically familiar but indescribable (to a layman like me) chord progressions that typify so much Japanese music, but which remain appealing to western audiences. Shikata’s work is a recurring element of the score, her voice returning to perform the main theme with great beauty in cues like the pretty “Tairin No Go Toku-Bun No Theme A,” “Bun No Fushigi Na Inryoku,” and “Unmei No Kidou”.
Considering the film’s subject matter and historical setting, a great deal of the rest of Kawai’s underscore is surprisingly contemporary, almost to the point that it may be seen as an anachronism. I haven’t seen the show, obviously, but purely from listening to this music, I never would have guessed it was written for what is essentially a political biopic set in the 1850s. Cues like “Soudou A,” “Show Tamura Inosuke No Theme,” “Hinomoto No Daiki-Matsukage No Theme A,” “Shinme No Kokorozashi,” “Kusaka Gen Mizu No Theme,” the action-packed “Itsu Yaru? Ima Desho,” and “Soudou B,” are energetic and rhythmic, with woodwinds, brasses, strings, and even voices playing off each other above a range of brisk percussive pulses, sometimes live, sometimes electronic, and occasionally with the merest hint of dance music or disco. “Hinomoto No Daiki-Matsukage No Theme A” is an especially enjoyable piece, as it reminds me of Kawai’s knockout main theme from the little-known 2010 animated film Gekijouban Fate-Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works. I’m also fond of the hard-rock inflected “Takasugi Shinsaku No Theme,” which adopts elements of 1980s heavy metal, and has a flourish in the refrain that reminds me of the old ABC synthpop song “The Look of Love”.
For those who need it, much more traditional orchestral writing can be found throughout the album, and in those cues Kawai often chooses to showcase a particular instrument or set of instrumental combos against the rest of the orchestra. The playful “Sugi Ka No Kurashi” features harp and flutes, “Ani He No Doukei” highlights piano and glockenspiel, and “Gekkou No Madoi” has almost John Barry-esque sense of pathos to its string and piano moods, while “Hana Kemuri” and “Mie Naku Mo Katai Ito“ are the score’s centerpiece romantic cues, a pair of lush and longing pieces for sighing strings, piano, soothing harp glissandi, and a soft choral wash.
Disregarding Kawai’s slightly-too-liberal use of disco beats, the score’s only other drawback comes via some of the less dramatic cues, which come across as being lighthearted almost to the point of childishness. This is most notable in tracks like “Onna No Shiawase-Hana Uranai,” “Chabudai Soudou,” and “Onna Ni Umare Ta Kara Koso,” where the arrangements make the cues sound more like themes from a pre-school cartoon show than something from a project like this. These will be the cues which seem most out-of-place for western audiences, and they took me out of the score the first time I heard them.
Hana Moyu will likely be a divisive score for many, especially those unused to the occasionally schizophrenic nature of Japanese scores, and Kenji Kawai’s particular penchant for combining traditional orchestral sounds with rhythmic ideas from the pop world. Some judicious pruning of the more anachronistic cues may be required to manipulate it into a more meaningful listening experience, but for anyone who knows what they are letting themselves in for, Hana Moyu will provide an hour’s worth of pleasure.
Note: This review is of the score for Volume 1 of the Hana Moyu soundtracks; there are two other volumes of additional music, also composed by Kawai, also available for purchase.
Track Listing: 1. Hana Moyu Main Theme (performed by Akiko Shikata) (2:35), 2. Tairin No Go Toku-Bun No Theme A (3:51), 3. Sugi Ka No Kurashi (2:01), 4. Ato Ni Saku Mono (2:32), 5. Soudou A (2:11), 6. Onna No Shiawase-Hana Uranai (2:31), 7. Show Tamura Inosuke No Theme (2:44), 8. Ani He No Doukei (2:24), 9. Hinomoto No Daiki-Matsukage No Theme A (3:17), 10. Shinme No Kokorozashi! (2:49), 11. Meiyuu Tomoni Ari! (2:47), 12. Chabudai Soudou! (1:56), 13. Kusaka Gen Mizu No Theme (2:16), 14. Itsu Yaru? Ima Desho! (2:53), 15. Hana Kemuri (3:32), 16. Takasugi Shinsaku No Theme (2:22), 17. Kakusei (2:10), 18. Michi No Tankyuu (2:40), 19. Onna Ni Umare Ta Kara Koso (2:14), 20. Akumu No Torauma (2:00), 21. Soudou B (2:24), 22. Bun No Fushigi Na Inryoku (2:27), 23. Ikoku Shuurai (3:56), 24. Gokuchuu Kara No Umeki-Onigami No Men (2:09), 25. Gekkou No Madoi (2:05), 26. Mie Naku Mo Katai Ito (2:50), 27. Koku No Utsuroi (4:37), 28. Unmei No Kidou (2:21), 29. Hana Moyu Kikou 1 (1:33). VAP Records, 76 minutes 23 seconds.
THE HEROIC LEGEND OF ARSLAN (ARUSURĀN SENKI) – Taro Iwashiro
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is an animated Japanese TV series based on a series of popular fantasy novels written by Yoshiki Tanaka. It tells the story of a prince in the Middle Ages, heir to the throne of the fictitious kingdom of Pars, whose birthright is usurped by warriors from the neighboring nation of Lusitania after his father, the king, is assassinated. Barely escaping from the palace, Arslan joins forces with a philosopher, a magical priestess, a travelling musician and con-man, and several knights and retainers from his homeland, and resolves to assemble an army strong enough to liberate his nation from the Lusitanians and their fearsome leader, Silvermask. The show premiered on the Japanese JNN network in April 2015 to general acclaim, with special praise being given to the score by composer Taro Iwashiro.
With the power of the Tokyo Philharmonic under his baton, Iwashiro’s score simply soars. It begins with a stirring, but unexpectedly light and elegant main theme in “The Boy and the King,” which speaks to Arslan’s youth and inexperience, but also his strength and determination in wanting to rid his home of its oppressors. It reoccurs in subsequent cues such as the moving “Symbol of Heroic Legend”, “Junro Hires Li,” the glorious “Heaven and Earth Hymn,” and the conclusive suite “Arslan,” but is perhaps most notable in “Mono’s Tribute” and “Shira Re Zaru Hibi No Kanata Yori,” where on both occasions it is performed with great tenderness and intimacy as an unadorned piano solo. However, arguably the score’s emotional high point is the searing “Zan Ki’s Instructions,” a beautiful but overwhelmingly sad string lament that really tugs as the heart strings.
A lot of the rest of the score is taken up by Iwashiro’s action music, which is generally impressive, and has that high-fantasy sound that devotees of the genre will find greatly appealing – an enticing blend of surging strings, brass fanfares, and some surprisingly contemporary percussion patterns. The buoyant and optimistic nature of cues such as “Frontier Gate” and “Freedom Beat” is counterbalanced by the more determined-sounding “Horror Gale,” the anticipatory “Kōin’s Hidden Road,” and the dramatic and oppressive “The Bloody Throne of Shi”. Later, towards the end of the score, cues like “Fighting Fiercely Against Danger” illustrate the intensity of the final conflict between Arslan and Silvermask with sturm-und-drang orchestrations including a portentous pipe organ
Cues like “Eastern Lightning Storm,” “Eastern Flow,” and “Eastern Scroll” have more than a hint of the Turkish bazaar about them, with what sounds like a sampled oud or zither combining with the orchestra to exotic effect, while other such as “Melancholy Colors on the Horizon” incorporate guitar textures and earthy rattling percussion ideas, again giving the score a distinct geographic link to the Middle East. Interestingly “Song of the Forgotten Shi People” comes across as a little Celtic, especially with the lovely use of pennywhistles to accompany the vocal line, while “The People’s Prayer of Mourning” sounds for all the world like an Islamic call to prayer, with a wailing muezzin leading the masses in grief.
Anyone who has enjoyed Taro Iwashiro’s more well-known previous works – many of you will know Red Cliff, for example – will enjoy The Heroic Legend of Arslan immensely. It’s combination of rousing action, heroic themes, and Arabic inflections is greatly appealing, and yet again proves that some of the best ‘traditional’ contemporary orchestral film music is out there, if only people would expand their horizons beyond Hollywood and look to the East.
Track Listing: 1. The Boy and the King (2:40), 2. Frontier Gate (2:03), 3. Eastern Lightning Storm (2:37), 4. Inishie Yori Yoseru Nami (performed by Akiko Morishita) (2:57), 5. Horror Gale (2:25), 6. Freedom Beat (2:46), 7. Melancholy Colors on the Horizon (2:57), 8. Song of the Forgotten Shi People (2:02), 9. Road to the Old Holy Land (2:40), 10. Symbol of Heroic Legend (2:34), 11. Kōin’s Hidden Road (2:27), 12. Eastern Flow (2:15), 13. The Bloody Throne of Shi (2:25), 14. The People’s Prayer of Mourning (1:37), 15. Sinful Shores of Tears (2:13), 16. Mono’s Tribute (2:48), 17. Junro Hires Li (2:30), 18. Fighting Fiercely Against Danger (2:54), 19. Heaven and Earth Hymn (2:50), 20. Ties Forever Named (2:27), 21. Eastern Scroll (2:27), 22. Zan Ki’s Instructions (2:58), 23. Shira Re Zaru Hibi No Kanata Yori (2:48), 24. Tenkuu Ni Mau Tori Yo (performed by Yanaginagi) (5:06), 25. Arslan (4:14). GNCA Music, 67 minutes 37 seconds.
KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET – Gabriel Yared
A truly international film co-produced in France, Lebanon, Qatar, and the United States by Salma Hayek’s company Ventanarosa, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a thoughtful and philosophical animated film directed by Roger Allers, based on the series of poems by the eponymous writer Gibran, which were first published in 1923. The film centers on the teachings of Al-Mustafa, the prophet of the title, who imparts various nuggets of wisdom and advice to the people he encounters on a variety of important subjects, ranging from love, marriage and children, to crime and punishment, laws, freedom, the nature of good and evil, prayer, religion, and death. The film is presented as a series of vignettes, with numerous different animation styles, and with voices provided by a bevy of international stars including Liam Neeson, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, and producer Salma Hayek. The film has an overarching score by French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared, whose task was to tie the project together under a singular emotional umbrella.
As one might expect, Yared’s score overflows with emotional sincerity and beauty, but also embraces something of a world-music vibe with a battery of exotic percussion items, as befits the geographical setting of the film. This collision of Europe and the Middle East, of France and Lebanon, is of course perfectly suited to Yared’s own history and personality, and the authenticity of the music is clearly apparent.
The opening cue, “The Prophet,” is a stunner, a lofty Morricone-esque solo violin melody of great clarity and warmth, accompanied by an enveloping string wash, woodwind accents, and a softly intoning choir. In terms of pure depth of feeling, the Prophet theme rivals Yared’s career best, and for me is up there with things like The English Patient for pure, unadulterated beauty. The Prophet theme returns later in the more inviting “On Work,” where it picks up a pretty piano part and a jaunty string ostinato undercurrent, in the playful “Mischief in the Market,” and with a slight sense of pathos and regret in “You Are My Messenger,” before receiving a rapturous performance in the conclusive “Farewell,” a truly stunning rendition.
But this sort of religioso reverence is not all the score has to offer. Elsewhere, “On Eating & Drinking” is much more lively and upbeat, anchored by a soprano saxophone, while “On Marriage” has the traditional sound of a regional dance, conjuring up images of men and women strutting Zorba-style to tinkling bouzouki guitars and castanets. More regional authenticity can be found in the lively “Strike Up the Band,” the actually rather comedic and almost Elfmanesque “Marching Into Town,” the stereotypically French sounding “Halim,” and “On Death,” the latter of which has an elegant, refined touch of Ravel about it.
The album, on Warner Brothers Records, also features several songs, including efforts by Irish singer-songwriters Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard, and bluegrass music Goat Rodeo supergroup involving cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Chris Thile, and bass player Edgar Meyer, who have been jamming together since 2011. However, it is Gabriel Yared’s music which remains the centerpiece of the project. For a film so concerned with philosophy and poetry and morality, it would have been very easy for Yared to simply follow the lead and compose an important, overbearing work that left no room for contrast. However, the fact that Yared balances out the genuine emotional content with lighter, more good-humored ethnic material, allows the score to breathe, making the highs seem higher and the dances more wild and ebullient.
Track Listing: 1. The Prophet (3:16), 2. Hypnosis (performed by Damien Rice) (5:16), 3. On Eating & Drinking (2:47), 4. On Marriage (4:00), 5. On Work (4:14), 6. Strike Up the Band (1:53), 7. Mischief in the Market (2:19), 8. Marching Into Town (2:27), 9. Halim (1:42), 10. On Love (performed by Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard) (4:06), 11. On Good & Evil (3:47), 12. You Are My Messenger (2:10), 13. Fly Away (1:10), 14. Uprising in Orphalese (2:10), 15. On Death (3:26), 16. Almitra’s Voice (1:23), 17. Farewell (4:35), 18. On Children (performed by Damien Rice) (4:15), 19. On Freedom [Attaboy] (performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile, and Edgar Meyer) (5:41). Warner Brothers, 59 minutes 48 seconds.
MUHAMMAD: THE MESSENGER OF GOD – A.R. Rahman
Films which show Islam in a positive light tend to be rare in these troubled times, but one of those contemporary films examining the religion from a more noble and spiritual viewpoint is the Iranian film Muhammad: The Messenger of God. Directed by Majid Majidi, and starring Mahdi Pakdel, Alireza Shoja Nouri, and Mohsen Tanabandeh, it essentially tells the story of the early life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, from his birth in the year 570 in what is now Saudi Arabia, through to his teenage years, during which he witnessed numerous wars and conflicts, which helped shape him into the religious leader he eventually became. The film is, by far, the biggest-budget production in the history of Iranian cinema, but it also one of the most controversial, especially amongst some extremist communities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, from where a religious fatwa was issued against director Majidi and the film’s composer, A. R. Rahman.
Whatever pressures Rahman was under during the writing and recording process, they certainly don’t show in the finished score. In many ways, Muhammad: The Messenger of God is comparable to something like John Debney’s Passion of the Christ or Mychael Danna’s The Nativity Story, in the way it combines moving, emotional music performed by a standard symphony orchestra, but is blended with a multitude of instrumental and vocal soloists who bring a touch of geographic and historical specificity to the project. Many of the cues feature Le Trio Joubran, three oud-playing brothers from Palestine, while others feature enticing vocal performances by Indian playback singer Nikhita Gandhi.
Several cues are especially poignant and moving. The opening “Prologue – The Infinite Light” is a haunting, soothing piece for an array of vocal ideas that sing, whisper, and chant, and which gradually emerges into a beautiful brass-led crescendo. The soothing, ethereal voices continue though several other cues, including “Signs of the Last Prophet,” “The Birth,” “Through the Sands,” and especially the dignified and reverential “And He Was Named Muhammad,” which attains some glorious heights of choral majesty. Other cues, such as the expansive “Halima’s Healing,” “A Mother’s Advice to Her Son,” “The Last Hajj of Abdul Mutallib,” and the conclusive “The Sermon,” use the voices in a much more extrovert, celebratory way, raising to the heavens to praise and glorify their religious feelings. Many of these cues also have extended passages of traditional orchestral beauty, especially from strings and woodwinds, with the heartrending “Protecting the Innocent” and the highly spiritual “The Sea Miracle” being standouts.
There are also several moments of genuine orchestral power – “Ababeel,” for example, is a dramatic and rousing action sequence centered around brass clusters, imposing drumbeats, and deep choral accents that will please Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore fans immensely, while subsequent cues like “Signs of the Last Prophet” and the thunderous “Abraha,” and “The Search,” build on the ideas to excellent effect. Others, like “The Camel’s Divine Intervention,” are upbeat, intricate pieces which layer orchestral lines on top of and within flashy, nimble-fingered oud solos, and are very impressive indeed.
I have casually observed that a lot of film music fans still consider Rahman to be a one trick pony who lucked his way into an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, and who use the ‘Bollywood composer’ label as a negative epithet. However, even when you consider only his ‘Western’ output, scores like Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Couples Retreat, and The Hundred Foot Journey should dispel that incorrect stereotype immediately, and with the addition of Muhammad: Messenger of God to his canon, his reputation as one of the world’s most unique and interesting film composers is confirmed.
Track Listing: 1. Prologue – The Infinite Light (featuring Nikhita Gandhi and Faarooqi Parissa) (2:36), 2. Makkah 740 AD (2:07), 3. Ababeel (featuring Dilshad Shabbir Sheikh) (5:51), 4. Signs of the Last Prophet (featuring Nikhita Gandhi) (3:59), 5. The Birth (featuring Arpita Gandhi) (3:01), 6. And He Was Named Muhammad (featuring Nikita Gandhi) (4:26), 7. Le Trio Joubran’s Roubama (2:53), 8. The Camel’s Divine Intervention (featuring Le Trio Joubran) (2:39), 9. Through the Sands (featuring Le Trio Joubran) (4:02), 10. Abraha (4:34), 11. Halima’s Healing (featuring Sana Moussa) (2:36), 12. The Land of Friendship (2:36), 13. Le Trio Joubran’s Shajaan (1:06), 14. Mother’s Advice To Her Son (featuring Arpita Gandhi) (3:51), 15. The Search (2:06), 16. Protecting the Innocent (3:54), 17. The Last Hajj of Abdul Mutallib (featuring Le Trio Joubran and Dilshad Shabbir Sheikh) (3:08), 18. The Sea Miracle (featuring Natalie Di Luccio) (5:35), 19. The Sermon (3:02), 20. Ya Muhammad (featuring Sana Moussa, Dilshad Shabbir Sheikh, and Osama El-Khouly) (5:24). Sony Classical, 69 minutes 33 seconds.
SUGIHARA CHIUNE: PERSONA NON GRATA – Naoki Sato
Sugihara Chiune: Persona Non Grata is a Japanese historical drama written by Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo, and directed by Cellin Gluck, which tells the life story of the eponymous Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat working in Lithuania during World War II who saved the lives of as many as 6,000 Jews from Nazi Germany by issuing them with transit visas to the Japanese Empire, and who was subsequently dubbed the ‘Japanese Oskar Schindler’. Despite its importance and credentials the film, which stars Toshiaki Karasawa as Sugihara, was only a modest success when it opened in Japan in December 2015, and is likely to be much more remembered for its lush and emotional score by composer Naoki Sato.
The first word that springs to mind when listening to the score for Sugihara Chiune is ‘dignified’. Sato treats the subject of the film with a great amount of respect and reverence, honoring a man who risked so much to help so many at a time when such a thing was clearly a dangerous task. Right from the outset of the “Main Title,” Sato’s stately string writing and warm, noble horns are prominent; this is the sort of music you can imagine an American composer writing for a film about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, if that gives you some basis for comparison. This tone of dramatic, weighty importance continues through cues such as “Train,” the gorgeous “Hope,” the poignant “Refugee,” the stirring and uplifting “Preparedness”.
However, slow and respectful orchestral writing is not the only thing the score has to offer. Menacing bass tones, militaristic percussion licks, and dark, thrusting rhythmic ideas typify cues like “City of Harbin,” an oppressive and ominous track which illustrates feelings of dread. Elsewhere, solemn religious choral work gives “Synagogues” some appropriate gravitas, although the lack of any traditionally Jewish material in these moments is a touch disappointing. These are counterbalanced by tracks like the sunny and effervescent “Encounter,” a sprightly diversion for playful woodwinds and swooping string runs, and the busy and industrious-sounding “Intelligence Officer,” with its staccato string flourishes and clattering percussion. “Berlin Japanese Embassy” revisits the ideas from that cue with even more vigor, while the subsequent “Invasion” is the score’s closest thing to an action cue, and is full of aggressive drum patterns and explosive orchestral crescendos.
The glorious “Visa,” half way through the album, is the score’s emotional high point, replete as it is with heavy vibrato, tolling bells, and the most soaring performance of the main theme in the entire score. The 9-minute “Letter” is the longest cue on the score, and provides a good summary of all the main musical touchstones the score has to offer, before segueing into the lovely, lengthy, “End Titles” suite.
Anyone who enjoys Naoki Sato’s strong orchestral work, especially on recent scores like Priceless, Tsunagu, Unmei No Hito, or Kano, will find Sugihara Chiune: Persona Non Grata to be very much to their liking. It may not have the enormous emotional highs or powerful action as some of his most popular works, but this is a different type of film, and the way the music pays homage to the legacy of an important figure in Japanese history is worth acknowledging and appreciating.
Track Listing: 1. Main Title (2:36), 2. Train (0:52), 3. City of Harbin (7:09), 4. Hope (1:43), 5. Encounter (1:39), 6. Persona Non Grata (1:36), 7. Intelligence Officer (3:19), 8. Synagogues (4:05), 9. Refugee (3:19), 10. Preparedness (4:09), 11. Visa (3:42), 12. Farewell (2:08), 13. Platform (2:00), 14. Berlin Japanese Embassy (4:01), 15. Invasion (3:19), 16. Slaughter (1:18), 17. Letter (9:04), 18. End Title (5:11). Pony Canyon, 61 minutes 16 seconds.
UMIMACHI DIARY [OUR LITTLE SISTER] – Yôko Kanno
Umimachi Diary, also known as Our Little Sister in English, is a Japanese romantic drama directed by the great Hirokazu Koreeda, based on a book by Akimi Yoshida. Set in contemporary times in a small coastal town in southern Japan, it tells the story of three sisters in their 20s, who live together in their former grandmother’s home, and they way in which their personal and romantic lives are altered after their father dies, and they become the new guardians of their 14-year-old half sister. The film, which stars Haruka Ayase and Masami Nagasawa, was an enormous critical success in its native country, receiving an unprecedented 12 nominations at the 2015 Japanese Academy Awards, including one for composer Yôko Kanno.
Kanno is, by far, Japan’s premier female film composer, with dozens of massively popular scores in her native land. In the west she is probably best known for her astonishing fusion jazz piece, “Tank,” the main theme of the animated TV show Cowboy Bebop, but if that’s the only sort of music you know of hers, be prepared for a surprise. Umimachi Diary is a very different score; resolutely classical in nature, it is a gentle score for a small ensemble, prominently featuring strings and piano.
After a brief interlude for solo harp in “Natsu No Hyoushi”, the lush and elegant main theme is presented for the first time in “Umimachi Diary,” which centered around a wash of strings and a rolling, rhapsodic piano, which has a hint of John Barry in the chord progressions. The theme is clearly intended to be the bond which ties the four sisters together, a love between family members through desperate times, and it speaks strongly of those ties with beauty and tenderness. Restatements in cues like “Suzuno Theme-Umi He,” the solo piano rendition in “Watashi No Heya,” “Suzuno Theme- Sakamichi,” the beautiful “Namiuchigiwa Nite,” and the poignant “Kokoni Ite Iindayo” allow the score to develop a strong thematic personality that is very appealing. There’s even a brief vocal version, called “Illumina,” performed with ethereal delicacy by singer Julia Shortreed.
Other cues are slightly more unusual. “Kajikasawa Iki” is almost Rachel Portman-esque in the way it pairs off different parts of the woodwind section, playing abstract little textures in staccato measures. “Fushigina Junintachi” is a pretty little dance for cellos and metallic percussion. “Ryouashi Zukai,” “Sakura Tunnel,” and “Jareru” are more energetic and sprightly, with piano, woodwinds and violins cavorting around each other in a nimble, playful fashion. These occasional diversions aside, however, the bulk of the score is centered around the lovely main theme, and by the time the score gets around to the stunning extended “End Credits” it has well and truly cast its warm and sentimental spell.
Although I admit I’m not as familiar with her recent work as I would like to be, for me, Umimachi Diary is one of the loveliest scores I have heard from Yôko Kanno, certainly since I first discovered her talent for soaring melodies in Escaflowne back in the 1990s. It’s a small-scale, intimate piece not given to overbearing extroversion, but which casts a soothing and appealing spell over the course of its brisk 30 minute run time, and comes with a recommendation from me for anyone who enjoys this sort of pleasant writing for family dramas.
Track Listing: 1. Natsu No Hyoushi (1:30), 2. Umimachi Diary (2:04), 3. Kajikasawa Iki (1:08), 4. Imouto (0:22), 5. Suzuno Theme-Umi He (1:39), 6. Fushigina Junintachi (1:40), 7. Watashi No Heya (1:03), 8. Ryouashi Zukai (1:15), 9. Momijigayatsu (0:56), 10. Suzuno Theme- Sakamichi (1:06), 11. Illumina (performed by Julia Shortreed) (1:43), 12. Tsubomi (0:32), 13. Sakura Tunnel (1:41), 14. Sazanami Tsushin (0:26), 15. Engawa (0:45), 16. Namiuchigiwa Nite (1:20), 17. Kouare (0:42), 18. Hanabi (1:14), 19. Hashira No Kizu (0:33), 20. Jareru (1:11), 21. Kokoni Ite Iindayo (0:44), 22. End Credits (5:16). RCA Victor, 28 minutes 58 seconds.