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TOKYO GHOUL – Don Davis

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 2003, Don Davis had the film music world at his feet. Having spent much of the 1990s working a dual career, both as a successful TV composer and as a first-rate orchestrator for many of Hollywood’s leading talents, he burst into the spotlight off the back of his score for the smash hit 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix. He followed that up with a string of excellent scores for genre pictures, notably Jurassic Park III and House on Haunted Hill, and then finished the Matrix trilogy with his scores for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Following the completion of the Matrix series, Davis stepped away from film music for what was expected to be a brief sabbatical, so that he could complete his long-desired passion project, the opera Rio de Sangre, but this took longer than expected; excerpts from the opera were performed in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 2005, and more was performed at the New York City Opera in 2007, but it did not receive its full premiere until 2010. In the meantime, something utterly inexplicable happened: Davis stopped getting film work.

I don’t know the full details of exactly what was happening, but my understanding is that this was in no way Davis’s choice. He was actively looking for films to score throughout the latter half of the 2000s and into the 2010s but, for some reason, no-one hired him. Between November 2003, when The Matrix Revolutions opened, and now, Davis’s film music career has comprised just four films (only one of which, The Marine, actually played in theaters), one TV movie, and one documentary TV series for the BBC called Space Odyssey. And that’s it. For this to happen to a composer as brilliant and talented as Davis is, and as red hot as Davis was after The Matrix, is completely incomprehensible. We may never know the reason it’s taken almost 14 years for him to return to the podium but, whatever the case may be, we should be thankful to director Kentaro Hagiwara for hiring him to score Tokyo Ghoul – the score which, if the film music gods are just, will re-establish Davis back amongst the film music composing fraternity for the foreseeable future.

The film is a Japanese-language dark fantasy action horror based on the manga series of the same name by Sui Ishida. I don’t know much about the film, but online resources indicate that it is set in an alternate reality where ghouls – individuals who can only survive by eating human flesh – live among normal humans in secret, hiding their true nature to evade pursuit from the authorities. The protagonist of the film is a college student named Kaneki, who is transformed into a half-ghoul against his will after being attacked by one while out on a date. Now, Kaneki must also eat human flesh to survive, and soon becomes drawn into ‘ghoul society’ while simultaneously trying to keep his identity hidden from his human companions.

Davis’s score is a large, fully orchestral work, recorded in Nashville (of all places!), and is occasionally augmented by a small amount of electronics to give it a contemporary bang for its buck. There are several recurring themes – including one which gets an absolutely monumental statement, but I’ll get to that later – and varying emotional content that ranges from quiet and contemplative to rousing and epic. Obviously, having not seen the film, I can’t comment on how it works in context, or whether it hits the right emotional notes, but I will say this: from a purely musical perspective, it works like a charm.

The main theme is a six note piece for brass, and is first heard at 0:16 of the “Tokyo Ghoul Main Title,” a great opening cue which initially has a creepy-beautiful Christopher Young vibe with its use of light chimes and celesta tones, but which gradually becomes livelier through the addition of a strong percussion undercurrent. The main theme is used sparingly during the first half of the score, which is actually somewhat subdued. There’s a dark, ominous statement of the main theme at 3:08 of “Eating Human Flesh,” an aggressive, intentionally in-your-face piece during which Davis clearly revisits some of the challenging, creative brass writing that was used so wonderfully well in The Matrix, as well as some abstract electronic ideas, and urgent piano rhythms.

A secondary theme, apparently alluding to the difficult but still romantic relationship between the protagonist Kaneki and his ghoul girlfriend Hinami, first emerges during “Hinami Eating Flesh,” which features a beautiful rendition of their theme on solo piano accompanied by weeping strings. “Pre-Teen Lust” features another tender performance of the romantic theme, while in “Ryoko’s Head” Davis begins with more Matrix-style brass writing, aggressively pronounced with groaning industrial sound effects and synth design ideas, but it gradually becomes more orchestrally epic, concluding with a huge statement of the romance theme for massed strings and brass.

Other cues include soft, spooky, piano and strings and creepy choral ideas (“My Mother the Corpse”); elegant piano lines and slightly sinister, chillingly beautiful string writing (“Yoshimura’s Meat Dispensary”); driving action rhythms for punchy brass (“The Surprise of the Rabbit”); and a gorgeously rendered tragic theme for cello which first appears in “Kaneki’s Despair” and returns to excellent effect in the subsequent “Grieving Ghouls and Hominids Too”. James Horner fans will also find themselves breaking into a smile at “The Mask Shop Mambo,” which contains an array of demented carnival music for organ, calliope, and oompah rhythms which is similar to that which Davis (allegedly) ghost-wrote for Horner on We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story in 1993.

However, the score changes entirely in the wake of “The Kaneki Metamorphosis,” which is by far the score’s standout cue. In this superb track Davis presents repeated statements of the main theme for strings and brass, which gradually become bigger and more spectacular as the cue progresses. There’s some superb brass contrapuntal writing, where Davis passes the main melody between trumpets, horns, and trombones, and everything concludes on a heroic, rousing note.

Thereafter, the main theme is virtually omnipresent: it is heard on brass underneath the aggressive synth pulses and orchestral action of “SUV Upside Down,” continues into the high drama and pathos of “Hoist By His Own Quinke,” and forms the core of the intense “Anger Unlimited,” an enormous, portentous performance of the main theme for a massive battery of seething, dominant brass.

A few moments of calm allow the album to end on a less traumatic note. There are deeply emotional performances of Kaneki and Hinami’s romantic theme in “Sewer Side” and the lovely “The Yoshimura Yawn,” before a conclusive optimistic brass performance of the main theme in “To Infinity and Beyond” leads into “Hear You,” in which the main theme is re-mixed with aggressive, sometimes quite harsh electronic content and dubstep ideas.

As good as Tokyo Ghoul is, it still remains to be seen whether this score will usher in a renaissance in Don Davis’s film music career, and whether it will re-elevate him to the position I personally feel he should be in. It is, after all, a score for an obscure Japanese action-horror movie that may not even play in the United States, let alone attract any attention for its music. Furthermore, looking at it objectively, in the grand scheme of things Tokyo Ghoul doesn’t quite reach the heights of Davis’s best film work. It doesn’t quite have the creative and progressive orchestral design of The Matrix, it doesn’t quite have the all-out stomach-churning ferociousness of House on Haunted Hill, it doesn’t have the sense of gothic grandeur of something like House of Frankenstein, it doesn’t have the rousing heroic action of Warriors of Virtue, and it doesn’t quite have the effortless cool of something like Bound. But, having said all that, there are still a large number of great moments within the score, and at this point I’m just very happy to see Don Davis scoring anything. I just hope I don’t have to wait another decade before I can review something else.

Buy the Tokyo Ghoul soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Tokyo Ghoul Main Title (2:24)
  • My Mother the Corpse (0:57)
  • Mado and Amon (1:40)
  • Ghoul Discussion (1:09)
  • Eating Human Flesh (5:30)
  • Touka and the Trash (2:23)
  • Yoshimura’s Meat Dispensary (1:28)
  • Hunger for Hide (1:43)
  • Kaneki’s Despair (1:28)
  • Eeek (1:14)
  • Hinami Eating Flesh (2:04)
  • The Mask Shop Mambo (3:03)
  • Pre-Teen Lust (2:55)
  • Clouds of Destiny (1:18)
  • Ryoko’s Head (4:27)
  • Touka and Yomo’s Cognitive Dissonance (0:45)
  • The Surprise of the Rabbit (1:21)
  • Grieving Ghouls and Hominids Too (2:48)
  • The Kaneki Metamorphosis (3:37)
  • My Mother’s Arm (3:10)
  • SUV Upside Down (0:49)
  • Amon Amongst Friends (0:42)
  • Hoist By His Own Quinke (3:54)
  • Anger Unlimited (3:03)
  • Sewer Side (2:06)
  • The Yoshimura Yawn (1:04)
  • To Infinity and Beyond (0:46)
  • Hear You [Tokyo Ghoul Main Title Remix] (2:23)

Running Time: 60 minutes 27 seconds

Shochiku Records SOST-1024 (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Don Davis. Performed by The Nashville Scoring Orchestra. Orchestrations by Don Davis. Recorded and mixed by Nick Spezia. Album produced by Don Davis.

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