guardianofthespiritOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Guardian of the Spirit is a 4-episode live-action Japanese television miniseries which aired on the NHK network in March and April 2016. Directed by Keiji Kataoka, it is an adaptation of a popular series of historical action-fantasy novels by author Nahaoko Uehashi, and tells the story of a mysterious spear-wielding warrior named Balsa who, shortly after arriving in the New Yogo Kingdom, saves the life of Prince Chagum from a thinly veiled assassination attempt. When it is revealed that the attempt was ordered by Chagum’s own father, Emperor Mikado, Balsa is hired to protect him; as they travel together, Balsa’s complicated past begins to come to light, and they uncover Chagum’s mysterious connection to a legendary water spirit with the power to destroy the kingdom.

The score for Guardian of the Spirit is by the brilliant Naoki Sato and, chronologically, is the second of the nine scores he wrote in 2016. Of all his works this year, this score is the most traditionally ‘Japanese sounding,’ in that it makes use of more geographically-specific instruments, and more of the unique chord progressions that have so often defined Japanese film scores over the years. This sound is likely to be a vote-splitter: some will find some of its more unique sounding tones off-putting, while others will embrace it more for that same reason. Personally, I fall into the latter camp.

The score opens with a flashy, adventurous main theme for the full orchestra, replete with dancing flutes, bombastic horn phrases, cymbal clashes, and unusual, dream-like vocal effects. The theme is prevalent through much of the score, often occurring in lush, broad settings, such as the slow and passionate “Kokoro,” the stirring “Seirei No Tamago” which revels in choral majesty, and the magnificent “Tatakai No Shuuketsu,” which rises to numerous rousing crescendos. The traditional Japanese instrumentation is prominent through much of the score too, usually in a supporting role to provide color, but once in a while Sato makes them the centerpiece of a cue too. For example, “Yuuwaku” is a gorgeous piece for erhu and koto that is calming and mystical, while “Kage Ni Fusu Shinjitsu” uses the koto in combination with a shakuhachi as part of a cue which is more nimble and energetic, and has occasional echoes of James Horner’s Avatar.

A decent amount of Sato’s score is given over to highly rhythmic action music, with strong beds of percussion and string ostinatos overlaid with varied instrumental textures, driving the narrative forward. “Ekusodasu” has metallic textures and unusual, animal-call woodwind ideas, which eventually give way to a thrusting, brassy performance of the main theme. “Genya Wo Iku” explodes from a muted, sinister opening into music with a similar propulsive intonation, while the subsequent “Gekitotsu” plunges headlong from the opening bars, a cacophony of taiko drums and metallic clangs underpinned by dense, intricate percussive patterns.

The second half of “Inbou” feels like a bombastic call to arms, while elsewhere cues such as “Sin Yogo Koku” revel in dark pageantry, all brass crescendos and spiritual-sounding heavy male voices. Conversely, “Yukidoke” is vibrant and uplifting, and even includes a set of bagpipes and pennywhistles amongst the orchestra, giving it an unexpected Scottish feeling. “Innen Kotogotoku” is the most conventionally beautiful and romantic piece, a superb string-led melody of real tenderness. “Komorebi” is one of the few cues featuring a solo piano, and it has a sense of intimacy and wistfulness. “Chi Nure Ta Nageki” takes the string-led elegiac writing to new heights, especially when a tragedy-laden version of the main theme comes in during the cue’s second half.

At this point I’m basically running out of positive things to say about Naoki Sato’s music, especially where 2016 is concerned. His mastery of melody, his beautiful and interesting orchestrations, his dramatic sensibility, and his ability to craft exquisite music across multiple genres makes him, in my opinion, one of the most consistently excellent composers working in film music anywhere in the world today. Guardian of the Spirit is yet another superb example of his talents. It’s available as an import from all the usual Japanese retailers like Yesasia and CD Japan.

Track Listing:

  • Seirei No Mamoribito Main Theme (2:03)
  • Ekusodasu (3:26)
  • Sin Yogo Koku (3:42)
  • Yukidoke (2:19)
  • Koto Chi He No To Ba Guchi (2:51)
  • Yuuwaku (3:11)
  • Kokoro (5:45)
  • Genya Wo Iku (4:03)
  • Gekitotsu (3:04)
  • Kage Ni Fusu Shinjitsu (4:53)
  • Innen Kotogotoku (5:37)
  • Kurayami To Touka (4:36)
  • Tanren No Hibi (5:09)
  • Komorebi (4:16)
  • Inbou (4:10)
  • Chi Nure Ta Nageki (3:41)
  • Sasurai No Tami (4:37)
  • Seirei No Tamago (2:51)
  • Tatakai No Shuuketsu (3:10)
  • Makugire (6:07)

Nippon Columbia COCQ-85287, 79 minutes 33 seconds.

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