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Best Scores of 2016 – Asia, Part II

January 25, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

The seventh and final installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world returns to the Asian continent, and highlights a half dozen more outstanding scores from Japan and China. This set of reviews features everything from epic action fantasy films, sweet animated adventures, horror films, and historical dramas, and concentrates strongly on music by one particular composer who is writing some of the best film music anywhere in the world today, and who should be most more respected and acclaimed in the west: Naoki Sato.

GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT [SEIREI NO MAMORIBITO] – Naoki Sato

guardianofthespiritGuardian 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: 1. Seirei No Mamoribito Main Theme (2:03), 2. Ekusodasu (3:26), 3. Sin Yogo Koku (3:42), 4. Yukidoke (2:19), 5. Koto Chi He No To Ba Guchi (2:51), 6. Yuuwaku (3:11), 7. Kokoro (5:45), 8. Genya Wo Iku (4:03), 9. Gekitotsu (3:04), 10. Kage Ni Fusu Shinjitsu (4:53), 11. Innen Kotogotoku (5:37), 12. Kurayami To Touka (4:36), 13. Tanren No Hibi (5:09), 14. Komorebi (4:16), 15. Inbou (4:10), 16. Chi Nure Ta Nageki (3:41), 17. Sasurai No Tami (4:37), 18. Seirei No Tamago (2:51), 19. Tatakai No Shuuketsu (3:10), 20. Makugire (6:07). Nippon Columbia COCQ-85287, 79 minutes 33 seconds.

 

LEAGUE OF GODS [FANG SHEN BANG] – John Debney

leagueofgodsLeague of Gods is an epic Chinese action fantasy film, directed by Koan Hui, based on a novel by Xu Zhonglin. It tells the story of King Zhou (Tony Leung), the last ruler of the Shang dynasty, who as a young man was bewitched by his concubine Daji (Fan Bingbing), an evil ‘vixen spirit’ in disguise as a beautiful woman. Zhou oppresses his people and persecutes those who oppose him. Ji Fa (Andy On), a rival king, assisted by his strategist Jiang Ziya (Jet Li), rallies an army to overthrow the tyrant and restore peace and order. Throughout the story, battles are waged, with both sides calling upon various supernatural beings – deities, immortals, demons, spirits, and humans with magical abilities – to aid them in the war.

Surprisingly, the score for League of Gods is by American composer John Debney, following in the footsteps of his contemporary Christopher Young in composing the score for a large-scale big-budget Chinese fantasy action film. Debney, like Young, was inspired to write something significantly grand in scale, full of bombast and energy, combining a full orchestra and electronics with various choral and vocal elements, and traditional Chinese ethnic instruments. The score opens in grand fashion with the “Main Title,” a cue which makes use of all these elements while offering the score’s first performance of the rousing recurring main theme. Stylistically, it has hints of the video game score Lair, coupled with the portentous choral might of something like End of Days, and the electronic rhythmic undercurrent of Iron Man 2 or The Scorpion King. The Chinese elements are wholly new, at leas for Debney, but he handles them well, and there are several prominent solos afforded to an erhu.

Action music is the bedrock of League of Gods. Many of the score’s large-scale battle cues, especially the likes of “Ji Clan Warriors Encounter Zhou Warriors,” “Fight of Titans,” “Legend of Dragons/Flying Lessons,” “General Leopard Attacks,” “Sky Howler Rescues Jiang from Panther,” and “Archers Retaliate,” throb with huge, brass-led whole notes, underpinned by driving percussive rhythms – both live and electronic – and rapid, complicated string ostinatos. Some of the vocal writing in these cues is very clever too, as it appears that the choir is singing not the usual Latin, but individual Chinese syllables, chosen more for their sonic values than their actual literary application, and which make interesting tonal noises. Debney often allows the music to rise to loud, powerful crescendos, giving the score an epic scope that is easy to enjoy.

Thankfully, action is not all the score has to offer, and in several cues Debney offers a range of interesting alternative styles to keep the music fresh. In the first half of “I’m Jiang,” for example, Debney presents some interesting, edgy dissonance filled with metallic textures and whooshing, breathy woodwind textures. The second half of the same cue is dreamily soothing, with processed female vocals and warm string textures providing a more ambient, romantic feeling, and this style continues on into the effortlessly pretty “Lei and Blue Butterfly,” with its lovely writing for erhu, harp, and chimes. Meanwhile, “Dragon Prince Returned Fight to Sky City” features an unusual combination of lush vocals and searing strings that often play against uncompromising, 1980’s style electronic tones.

This trend of Hollywood composers tackling big-budget Chinese action fantasy films is a positive one for film music fans, as it appears to be giving those composers a great deal of creative freedom to be expressive and expansive, away from the shackles of more conservative American producers. Unfortunately the score for League of Gods is not available for purchase at this time – Debney produced this promo for awards consideration purposes only. However, it is my sincere hope that, somewhere down the line, the same thing happens here as happened with Christopher Young’s score for The Monkey King and it gets a proper, if a little belated, release from one of the North American boutique labels.

Track Listing: 1. Main Title (2:05), 2. Ji Clan Warriors Encounter Zhou Warriors (5:36), 3. Fight of Titans (2:50), 4. Legend of Dragons/Flying Lessons (4:03), 5. I’m Jiang (2:43), 6. Stealing the Porta Boat (2:05), 7. Lei and Blue Butterfly (3:38), 8. Dragon Prince Returned Fight to Sky City (3:35), 9. General Leopard Attacks (3:27), 10. Lei Gets His Wings (2:54), 11. General Leopard Attacks Qishan (1:41), 12. Sky Howler Rescues Jiang From Panther (2:17), 13. 5M3 (Untitled) (1:55), 14. 5M2 (Untitled) (3:41), 15. Archers Retaliate (2:19), 16. Restoring the Kingdom (2:03). Promo, 46 minutes 59 seconds.

 

THE NEVER-SETTING SUN [SHIZUMANU TAIYO] – Naoki Sato

neversettingsunThe Never-Setting Sun is a Japanese TV series, a remake of the 2009 film of the same name, both of which are based on a popular novel by Toyoko Yamasaki. The story follows Hajime Onchi, an employee of a large Japanese airline, through his work as the chairman of the employees union in the 1960s, his ascent through the company and his travels in Pakistan, Iran, and Kenya in the 1970s, and the aftermath of a 1985 plane crash in which 500 people were killed, which Onchi is charged with investigating. The 20-episode series aired on the Japanese channel WOWOW in May 2006, was directed by Toshiyuki Mizutani and Kosuke Suzuki, and has a score by the incredible Naoki Sato, chronologically the third of the nine scores he wrote in 2016.

Contrary to the expectations one may have about the score considering the rather bland-sounding plot of the series, Naoki Sato’s music is utterly gorgeous, captivating from the first bar to the last. There is a seriousness and a dramatic weight to the music throughout much of its running time, but Sato never strays far from the tonal, theme-based core, presenting cue after cue of profound, important-sounding music. In terms of instrumental color, Sato uses a fairly standard symphony orchestra, but makes liberal use of exotic woodwinds, tribal percussion, and Celine Dion-esque wordless vocals, to capture the sounds of the far-flung locations Onchi finds himself working; this is captured in the stunning opening “Main Title” cue, which uses all of these sounds to wonderful effect.

Subsequent cues like “Shinou,” “Honoo Takeshi,” and “Fushichou” are wonderfully optimistic and powerful, with strong and ambitious cascading string figures driven forward by an undercurrent of relentless movement and, occasionally, a muscular chanting choir. Sato frequently uses subtle electronics too, but they are used carefully and with precision, such as when they underpin the dramatic and dance-like faux-classical piece “Futou No Tori,” or the clattering, ostentatious “Gekishin,” or the heavy-sounding “Anun,” which overflows with regret.

Sato’s forays into regional ethnic music are, by and large, successful, from the infectious Bollywood rhythms and instrumental flavors of the Indian subcontinent heard in “Chi Tori No Tsume” and “Yokaku,” to the Middle Eastern inflections of “Kongun”, which blends a Toccata-and-Fugue-style pipe organ with Arabic woodwinds, strings, and baroque religioso voices. But there is darker music too, as offered by the thunderous timpani patterns and moody string chords in “Zankyou,” the more introspective, poignant cello lines of “Kaikon,” and the insect-like unnerving dissonance at the beginning of the turbulent “Dokuga”.

However, for me, the most effective parts of the score are the ones where Sato simply goes for broke and writes music that is passionate, deeply emotional, and overwhelmingly beautiful. Hajime Onchi was clearly forced to deal with numerous tragedies in his professional life, and Sato is not afraid to depict them boldly through his music; these parts of his story are captured most expressively in “Zan Namida,” “Shinen,” and the powerful “Yuubae,” a trio of soaring, but deeply moving string themes which almost seem to cry out in anguish. Best of all is the the finale, “Hiyoku,” which features a solo vocal performance by soprano Hiroko Kouda which is so clear, so clean, that it will surely melt the hardest hearts.

This is yet another outstanding score by Naoki Sato, whose wellspring of creative ideas for themes and orchestrations is clearly limitless. It’s scores like The Never Setting Sun which provide the ultimate rebuttal to those who claim that rich, thematic, dramatic orchestral film music is a thing of the past. It may not be de rigeur in Hollywood these days, but the flames of the genre are being fanned brightly elsewhere, and Japan is one of those markets fanning it most fervently. Do yourself a favor and seek out The Never-Setting Sun immediately; it is available as an import from all the usual Japanese retailers like Yesasia and Play Asia.

Track Listing: 1. Shizumanu Taiyo Main Title (5:22), 2. Futou No Tori (3:23), 3. Gekishin (3:26), 4. Shinou (3:58), 5. Enmu (3:23), 6. Zankyou (4:23), 7. Chi Tori No Tsume (2:56), 8. Kaikon (3:44), 9. Anun (3:35), 10. Yokaku (3:19), 11. Honoo Takeshi (2:33), 12. Dokuga (4:01), 13. Kongun (3:32), 14. Zan Namida (2:58), 15. Shinen (4:28), 16. Hakuchuumu (4:44), 17. Fushichou (3:00), 18. Kokou No Tsubasa (4:11), 19. Shinkirou (3:34), 20. Yuubae (3:09), 21. Hiyoku (4:47). Nippon Columbia COCQ-85305, 78 minutes 34 seconds.

 

PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE [MO GONG MEI YING] – Zhiyi Chen

phantomofthetheatrePhantom of the Theatre is a Chinese horror/thriller film directed by Raymond Yip, starring Ruby Lin, Tony Yang, Simon Yam, and Huang Lei. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, it tells the story of a group of theater actors who work to re-open a once grand and palatial playhouse which had been destroyed in a mysterious fire 13 years previously. The play’s director and young lead actress are in love, and have ambitions of stardom, but before long mysterious deaths begin occurring among the crew, leading some to believe that the vengeful spirits of the actors who died in the original fire are seeking revenge.

The score for Phantom of the Theatre is by the Chinese composer Zhiyi Chen (who also uses the alias Yu Peng), and is a sumptuous Gothic romantic orchestral delight. It splits its time, more or less evenly, between two styles of music: dark, creepy, but still theme based horror music, and moments of grand, sweeping melodrama and romance to capture the doomed love affair between the director and his ingénue. A recurring six note theme, which is introduced during “Destiny (Intro),” continues to assert itself throughout the score; its use as a brutal fanfare in the quite unsettling “A Curse By Death” is impressive, as is the accordion and guitar arrangement in “Miss”. There are also a couple of intentionally old-fashioned classical-sounding cues that capture the faded glory of the Shanghai theater, such as the waltz-like and grandiose “The Phantom Theatre,” the get-up-and-go energy of “Action!,” the sounds of traditional Chinese opera in “Coming to the Town” and “The Show,” and the soothing “Ligong Theatre”.

Unnerving ghostly vocals, undulating string sustains, eerie metallic synth textures, and scary stingers typify cues such as “The Thief,” “The Devil Inside,” “Anatomy,” “Nightmare,” “Peep,” “Distorted,” “Exploration,” “Kidnapping,” “Hostage,” and others. These ideas are effective at creating a creepy mood, but with the exception of a few of the more unusual vocal techniques, they are not especially interesting or innovative from a compositional point of view. Instead, where the score really shines is in its moments of broad romance. Cues such as “Meet Unexpectedly,” “Ambiguous,” and the lovely “Hazy Love” have a sweetness and innocence to them, with Chen’s piano writing having a touch of the French New Wave. Elsewhere, “Whispers of Love” weaves together the Love theme and the Destiny theme as a sublime violin solo, while in “Untouchable Love” the romantic writing reaches its passionate zenith, a celebration of rhapsodic piano writing, near-orgasmic vocals, and swooning strings.

Chen also provides the score with a couple of decent action and chase sequences, ranging from the unexpectedly vibrant and exciting “Sexual Assault” with its string runs and expressive woodwind flourishes, to the turbulent “Escape” which makes especially excellent use of the choir alongside all the throbbing strings, and the oppressively dramatic “One Movie, One Dream”. The score ends on a soft, almost regretful tone, with soothing voices leading performances of both the Love theme and the Destiny theme through “Shatter (Outro)” and “Farewell.” Unfortunately, the biggest drawback to the score is its choppiness; a large number of cues are 90 seconds or less in length, meaning that for the vast majority of the score Chen has very little time to make anything more than a very basic impression. It is only when he is afforded a real length of time that the music has any meat on its bones, and that happens with frustrating infrequency.

The score is bookended by two outstanding original songs, both sung in Chinese, and both based around the Destiny theme: “The Mist,” which is performed with breathy emotion by Taiwanese superstar A-Lin and is anchored by sumptuous cello and piano writing, and “Dense Fog,” which is performed with warmth and tenderness by Chinese-Canadian singer Eric Juu. Phantom of the Theatre has, quite rightly, been the recipient of quite a bit of critical praise in 2016, and despite its flaws I certainly recommend it for anyone wanting to dip their toes into Chinese film music. It is available as an import from all the usual Asian retailers like Yesasia and Play Asia, as well as via decent streaming and download services like iTunes.

Track Listing: 1. The Mist (performed by A-Lin) (5:35), 2. The Thief (1:13), 3. The Devil Inside (1:06), 4. Destiny (Intro) (1:13), 5. Anatomy (1:39), 6. At the Back (0:12), 7. Cankered (1:09), 8. Heartbeat (0:45), 9. Nightmare (0:50), 10. The Phantom Theatre (2:23), 11. The Character (0:30), 12. Action! (1:12), 13. Love Affair (1:27), 14. Peep (0:30), 15. Meet Unexpectedly (1:03), 16. A Curse by Death (2:35), 17. Ambiguous (1:17), 18. Sexual Assault (2:59), 19. Distorted (1:41), 20. Escape (1:49), 21. Destruction (0:41), 22. The Mirror (1:45), 23. Investigate (0:49), 24. Hazy Love (2:06), 25. Whispers of Love (1:26), 26. Mutation (0:20), 27. One Movie, One Dream (2:16), 28. The Face (0:46), 29. Miss (0:55), 30. Call From Death (1:14), 31. Untouchable Love (3:51), 32. Premeditate (0:26), 33. Deceive (2:15), 34. Crossed In Love (1:18), 35. Exploration (2:12), 36. Kidnapping (1:26), 37. Coming to the Town (1:08), 38. Ligong Theatre (1:48), 39. The Show (2:07), 40. The Disaster (2:10), 41. Drop Scene (1:11), 42. Expose (2:40), 43. Hostage (1:20), 44. Betrayal and Redemption (2:00), 45. Shatter (Outro) (2:18), 46. Farewell (1:01), 47. Dense Fog (performed by Eric Juu) (5:06). Click Music, 78 minutes 00 seconds.

 

RUDOLF THE BLACK CAT [RUDORUFU TO IPPAIATTENA] – Naoki Sato

rudolftheblackcatRudolf the Black Cat is a Japanese animated family adventure film directed by Kunihiko Yuyama and Motonori Sakakibara. It follows the adventures of a suburban ‘indoor kitten’ named Rudolf, who has always longed to roam the streets of his little neighborhood. However, when Rudolf gets his wish and is accidentally abandoned miles away from his home in an unfamiliar big city by his owner, he must team up with a street cat called Gottalot in order to find his way back home.

The score for Rudolf the Black Cat is yet another outstanding work by Naoki Sato, chronologically the fifth of the nine scores he wrote in 2016. Considering the child-like and sentimental nature of the film, Sato’s music is a pretty, thematic delight, which contains several distinct stylistic ideas, and which are all excellent. Many of the cues are very short – often between 30 seconds and a minute – which does tend to make the album feel a little disjointed, with very little chance for the music to develop over a significant period of time, but this is really the only drawback of the score. The music itself, taken on its own terms, is excellent.

There is tender piano writing in the opening “Boku No Rie Chan” and the penultimate “Hontouha – Boku No Rie Chan Nan Da,” prancing pizzicatos in “Kono Atari No Koto Nara Kuwashii Yo,” a sweeping orchestral theme in “Rudorufu To Ippaiattena Main Title,” sentimental string writing in “Rie Chan” and “Rie Chan No Nukumori,” a dramatic Jaws spoof in “Bucchi No Shinobiashi-Mouken Chuui,” a rambunctious action sequence with a heroic finale in “Boss Neko,” tension and apprehension and a touch of horror in “Jigoku No Banken,” and much more besides. The best of the upbeat adventurous music can be heard in “Bouken No Hajimari,” “Doubutsu Zukan No Naka No Sekai,” “Track Ni Nocchae Ba,” and “Ippaiattena Ga,” each of which revel in stirring brass, strident strings and lively woodwinds.

Unfortunately Sato doesn’t really have much opportunity to return to many of the themes with any great frequency, instead treating each of Rudolf’s adventures as a vignette with its own musical identity. In fact, what many people will take away from the score is the recurring dance-like brassy samba ‘cat’s life’ theme which first appears in “Neko No Seikatsu – Atarashii Sekai,” is heard later in “Neko No Seikatsu – Utsuri Yuku Hibi” and the conclusive “Boku Ra Ha Soredemo Mae Wo Muku,” but gets its main statement in “Neko No Seikatsu – Ji Wo Oshiete Yo,” the longest cue on the album. It’s a bit of an ear-worm, and great fun, but may irritate some listeners with its unremittingly peppy and perky tone.

Having said that, my favorite cue is actually “Minna Genki De Ne!,” a 3½-minute extrapolation of the wonderful adventure music from “Bouken No Hajimari,” which could have been the main theme from a Bruce Broughton western score; the graceful dancing string writing, the lively brass undercurrent, the lithe woodwinds, the rattling percussion, and the sparkling sense of wit and fun are all infectious. Despite the fact that this is a short score for a children’s animated film about cats, Sato delivers his usual brand of sincerity, orchestral technique, and thematic beauty, resulting in a score which is certain to appeal to his fans. The score is available as an import from all the usual Japanese retailers like Yesasia, Play Asia, and CD Japan.

Track Listing: 1. Boku No Rie Chan (1:04), 2. Kono Atari No Koto Nara Kuwashii Yo (0:25), 3. Ano Mon No Soto Ni Ha (0:19), 4. Rudorufu To Ippaiattena Main Title (0:34), 5. Bouken No Hajimari (0:46), 6. Rie Chan (1:21), 7. Neko No Seikatsu – Atarashii Sekai (1:10), 8. Bucchi No Shinobiashi-Mouken Chuui (0:59), 9. Boss Neko (0:47), 10. Ji Ga Yomerutte (1:24), 11. Doubutsu Zukan No Naka No Sekai (1:12), 12. Neko No Seikatsu – Ji Wo Oshiete Yo (3:29), 13. Koko Kara Gifu Madette (1:02), 14. Track Ni Nocchae Ba (1:30), 15. Rie Chan No Nukumori (1:22), 16. Kore De Kaereru! (0:34), 17. Ippaiattena Ga (0:38), 18. Doushitemo Shite Agetai Koto (1:33), 19. Yasashii Uso (1:35), 20. Jigoku No Banken (2:01), 21. Shouri No Kime Serif! (0:20), 22. Neko No Seikatsu – Utsuri Yuku Hibi (1:35), 23. Rudo No Kesshin (0:59), 24. Gifu He No Kaeri Kata (0:43), 25. Minna Genki De Ne! (3:35), 26. Zetsubou Ha Orokamono No (0:47), 27. Kaette Kitan Da! (0:56), 28. Hontouha – Boku No Rie Chan Nan Da! (2:48), 29. Boku Ra Ha Soredemo Mae Wo Muku (3:28). Virgin VPCG-83514, 39 minutes 13 seconds.

 

SANADA MARU – Takayuki Hattori

sanadamaruThe 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 2016 NHK Taiga drama is Sanada Maru, which tells the life story of Sanada Yukimura, one of the last great historical samurai warriors in the “Warring States” period, and who is famous for successfully withstanding a great military siege in Osaka in 1615. Directed by Takafumi Kumira, it stars Masato Sakai in the leading role, and has an original score by composer Takayuki Hattori, who despite being a prominent figure in Japanese film music for more than 20 years may still be best known in the West for his monster movie score Godzilla Millennium from 1999.

For Sanada Maru, Hattori made use of the NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tatsuya Shimono, with featured violin solos performed b iaki Miura and piano solos by Nobuyuki Tsujii, and wrote a score which is replete with classical panache and some truly excellent passages. Miura’s violin and Tsuji’s piano bookend the score and dominate the first and last cues: the flamboyant and oddly-metered “Main Theme,” with its flute interjections and slapping percussion, showcases Miura’s technique and flamboyance, while Tsuji’s conclusive solo piano statement of the main theme in “Sanada Maru Kikou” is pretty and poignant.

Much of the rest of the score is quite rhythmic and militaristic, as befits the nature of the story, with the percussion and flute interjections running prominently through subsequent cues such as “Sakusen Kekkou,” “Kougun,” “Hi Ha Mata Noburu,” and the action-packed “Gekisen,” but there is a lyrical core alongside the staccato rhythms too, with flashy trumpet heralds, nimble oboe melodies, string runs, and moments of stirring heroism occasionally featuring a choir. Hattori also finds time to illustrate the personal moments of Yukimura’s life through a series of more tender pieces, ranging from the lyrical and romantic “Kizuna,” to the lovely “Eikoseisui” which builds from an emotional piano solo into a gorgeous theme for the full orchestra, and the reprise of the main theme in “Roku Mon Sen”. Meanwhile, “Shimensoka” and “Rakujou” have a rich vein of tragic string-led melodrama that is very appealing, and “Shoukoku Ga Yue” becomes very intimate through its beautiful combination writing for guitar and strings.

In addition, Hattori often introduces traditional ethnic Japanese instrument to play alongside the orchestra, allowing cues such as the exciting “Shukkou! Sanada Maru,” the energetic “Nochini Nipponichi No Hey To Yoba Reru Otoko,” the more subdued variation on the main theme in “Kilo,” and the tension-filled “Muhon” to have a real sense of time and place. Perhaps the one drawback to the score is Hattori’s tendency to fall back on ‘underscore’ techniques – there are numerous extended passages that are more textural than melodic, something that rarely happens in Japanese scoring, resulting in several sequences of score that are less memorable than others – but the aforementioned highlights make up for these slight deficiencies.

As was the case with Yugo Kanno’s Gunshi Kanbei in 2014, and Kenji Kawai’s Hana Moyu last year, the contemporary NHK Taiga dramas continue to impress with their musical confidence, and continue to be essential annual acquisitions. Hattori’s score is available as an import from all the usual Japanese retailers like Yesasia, Play Asia, and CD Japan.

Track Listing: 1. Sanada Maru Main Theme (performed by Fumiaki Miura) (2:48), 2. Sakusen Kekkou (2:23), 3. Shukkou! Sanada Maru (4:02), 4. Nochini Nipponichi No Hey To Yoba Reru Otoko (1:46), 5. Shimensoka (2:04), 6. Shinobu (1:33), 7. Futari De Hitotsu (2:17), 8. Kougun (2:20), 9. Sakusen Seikou (1:14), 10. Rakujou (3:36), 11. Eikoseisui (3:27), 12. Hi Ha Mata Noboru (2:51), 13. Kilo (1:46), 14. Akogare (1:22), 15. Shoukoku Ga Yue (2:59), 16. Idai Na Senaka (1:45), 17. Kizuna (3:25), 18. Jidai Wo Tsukutta Otoko Tachi (1:29), 19. Inori (2:33), 20. Ieyasu Toiu Otoko (1:50), 21. Sengoku Kyousoukyoku (1:37), 22. Gekisen (2:37), 23. Shizugokoro Naku (2:14), 24. Gunryaku (1:30), 25. Douran (1:43), 26. Muhon (1:39), 27. Kubioke (1:58), 28. Roku Mon Sen (2:55), 29. Sanada No Gou (2:05), 30. Sanada Maru Kikou (performed by Nobuyuki Tsujii) (2:01). Avex Classics International AVCL-25888, 67 minutes 49 seconds.

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Categories: Reviews
  1. Christopher
    January 25, 2017 at 11:42 am

    Awesome. These Asian score round-ups are my favorite of all the ones you do. I’m often able to hear most of the European scores you highlight, but almost none of the Asian stuff gets on Spotify or itunes. This is really helpful for me. I’ll be ordering one of these right away.

  1. February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

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