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Best Scores of 2017 – Asia-Pacific, Part II

January 29, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The eighth and final installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world finds us on a triumphant return to Asia, with eight more reviews of the best film music the continent has to offer. And what a treasure trove it is, encompassing animated fantasies, TV series, war movies, epic dramas, and a guest appearance from the world’s most beloved 100-foot lizard. There are four scores from Japan, two from China, and one each from Turkey and Vietnam, rounding out what has been an eye-opening journey around the darkest reaches of the film music globe, searching for bright spots.

A LIFE: ITOSHIKI HITO – Naoki Sato

A Life: Itoshiki Hito is a Japanese TV mini-series broadcast on the TBS network. Directed by Yuichiro Hirakawa, starring Takuya Kimura, Yuko Takeuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama, it looks at the life of a young doctor named Kazuaki, whose world is turned upside down when a scandal forces him to resign from his hospital. After 10 years living and working in he USA Kazuaki returns to Japan as a skilled surgeon, and is immediately thrown into a number of difficult professional and personal circumstances, including having to save the life of his ex-girlfriend’s father, and coming to terms with the fact that an old friend – now the deputy director of the hospital – may have fabricated the story which forced him to leave all those years ago.

The score for A Life is by the wonderful Naoki Sato, whose wonderful work in 2017 already includes two film scores (Destiny: The Tale Of Kamakura and Honnouji Hotel) and a second season of the TV show Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit. If those scores showcase Sato as his most lush and thematic, then A Life showcases Sato at his most versatile; negating preconceptions of what the music will sound like based on the plot of the show, A Life is actually a wide-ranging and varied score which embraces both contemporary pop and rock, and determinedly modern classical music. The opening cue, “A Life,” is a perfect example of this: it begins as a bold and dramatic piano solo, but grows to include an equally fulsome string section, electric guitars, synth rhythms, and a rock drum kit, all playing a lush and memorable main theme which becomes large and rousing towards its conclusion. Later, “The Afterglow” offers a beautiful acoustic guitar version of this theme, which is just gorgeous.

Sato’s experiments with non-organic percussion ideas, rock and metal arrangements, and pulsating electronica continue in the bombastic and rousing “As I Thought,” the energetic and propulsive “The Infinity Effort,” the more rhythmic “Greed for Honors,” the funky “To Beat It,” where again they are used to bring a much more contemporary edge to the orchestra. Even here, though, Sato’s orchestral writing impresses: the strings swirl in detailed and complicated patterns, the piano adds depth and melodic resonance, and in one bold move he briefly stops his howling electric guitars a couple of times to play a dainty renaissance waltz on a harpsichord!

On the other hand, pieces like “Closely Bound Up,” he solemnly beautiful “An Earnest Prayer,” and the majestic, moving “This Is Not The End,” and the warmly nostalgic “The Last Aspiration” offer more traditional writing for banks of strings, moody piano chords, occasional wooden percussion, and occasional woodwinds, especially in the conclusive cue. “Closely Bound Up,” is notable for the way it begins, sounding somehow beautiful and unsettling at the same time, and how it grow to lushly melodramatic proportions by the end. There’s also the wonderful, mesmerizing “Block His Way,” which uses a sampled church organ and rumbling timpani patterns underneath the strings and electronics, creating a darkly menacing mood that becomes quite operatic during the finale.

People who come to A Life expecting to be overwhelmed with Naoki Sato’s usual brand of majestic orchestral beauty may find themselves caught off guard by this music; it’s certainly not the usual lush sound one expects from the composer. However, I personally found this score to be wonderfully fresh and invigorating; he uses the electronics and rock music arrangements in clever ways, he always has a melodic core to all his cues, and it’s much more listenable than some of the similar-sounding but drone-heavy scores coming out of Hollywood. A Life comes strongly recommended for anyone who wants to experience another – equally good – side of Naoki Sato. It’s available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. A Life (5:34), 2. As I Thought (2:53), 3. The Infinity Effort (2:49), 4. Closely Bound Up (8:11), 5. Greed for Honors (2:37), 6. Ruminate a Ploy (4:11), 7. An Earnest Prayer (4:37), 8. Block His Way (4:09), 9. To Beat It (4:10), 10. This Is Not The End (3:49), 11. The Afterglow (2:32), 12. Wavering (3:57), 13. Swirling Emotions (4:36), 14. The Last Aspiration (4:42). UZCL-2107, 58 minutes 44 seconds.

 

AYLA – Fahir Atakoğlu

Ayla is a Turkish drama film directed by Can Ulkay. The film stars Ismail Hacioglu as Süleyman, a sergeant in the Turkish Brigade fighting in the Korean War in the early 1950s, who finds and saves the life of a young Korean girl nearly frozen to death. Despite their language barrier, Süleyman and the girl – whom he names Ayla – form a strong friendship, but he is eventually forced to make a difficult decision when the war ends and he is supposed to return home to Turkey. The film is based on the true story of Kim Eun-Ja and Süleyman Dilbirliği, whose real-life reunion was broadcast on a popular Korean documentary shown in 2010; it was selected as the Turkish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.

The score for Ayla is by Fahir Atakoğlu, a well known Turkish composer of film scores, TV music, advertising jingles, and arrangements for popular music artists. Despite him having worked solidly since the early 2000s, Ayla is the first score by Atakoğlu to attain any sort of international prominence, but if this is an example of the type of music he commonly writes, he is clearly a man whose work is worth exploring.

Considering his background as a pianist, it stands to reason that quite a bit of Atakoğlu’s score would be piano based, and many of the main thematic ideas are indeed based around that instrument. The opening cue, “Ayla,” begins as a lovely piece for piano and strings, gentle and a little bittersweet, but then in the second half it emerges into a more militaristic march, with a flurry of snare drums and a more urgent aspect. The stylistics introduced in this cue are prominent throughout much of the rest of the score, with several other cues featuring prominent string and piano writing: they appear with dark apprehension in “Finding Ayla in the Forest,” with depth of feeling in “No Mother, No Siblings… Baba!,” with poignancy in “I Promise I Will Come Back,” with a touch of romance in “Suleyman & Nimet,” and many others.

Considering that much of the movie takes place during the Korean War, a large part of the score deals with conflict. There is action music in “Going to War,” the second half of “The Midnight Siege,” “Ambushed,” and “They Are Coming,” which are either marches, or dissonant cues with heavy percussion under the brooding orchestra. There are also solemn the reflections on the tragedy of it all in cues like “Arrival in Korea,” “Suleyman in Hospital,” the deeply tragic “Ceremony of Pride,” which weep under the weight of poignant strings and rolling, tempestuous pianos.

Other cues of note include the exotic, sunny Mediterranean flair and light jazz-rock of “The Beginning,” the earnest friendship theme for piano and strings in “Suleyman and Nuran,” the surprisingly playful and upbeat “A Day in the Life of Ayla,” the pretty waltz “Dance with My Father,” the mysterious ethnic woodwinds that punctuate the tragedy-laden “Death, Kite & Soldiers Farewell,” the unexpectedly bouncy and vivacious “Nimet’s Search.” Some of the scenes set in Korea also feature guest appearances from East Asian instruments to lend it a geographical flavor, notably in the stereotypical but enjoyable “A Fun Day in the City,” and the lovely first half of “Suleyman’s Village Adventure,” before it turns incredibly dark and menacing

Overall, this is a lovely score that’s worth exploring. The album may be a tiny bit too long, and may dwell in maudlin emotional histrionics a touch more than it needs to, but you can’t fault the earnestness of sincerity of the emotional drama, nor can you overlook Atakoğlu’s compositional talent, which is significant. Ayla comes recommended for those who like to wallow in emotional strings for hours; it is not available on CD, but can be downloaded from most of the usual online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Ayla (3:01), 2. The Beginning (4:04), 3. Suleyman & Nuran (1:48), 4. Arrival in Korea & Going to War (2:11), 5. The Midnight Siege (1:52), 6. Finding Ayla in the Forest (1:51), 7. Ambushed (2:27), 8. They Are Coming (1:10), 9. The Fight (1:06), 10. Read All About It, The War Starts Again…/Suleyman in Hospital (2:59), 11. Ceremony of Pride (1:01), 12. A Day in the Life of Ayla (4:47), 13. No Mother, No Siblings… Baba! (2:06), 14. A Fun Day in the City/Dance with My Father (3:05), 15. Suleyman’s Village Adventure (3:32), 16. Death, Kite & Soldiers’ Farewell (4:54), 17. Journey from the Swing to Kindergarten (1:14), 18. Anthem of Ankara (1:06), 19. In Front of the Kindergarten & Kidnapping (2:57), 20. I Promise I Will Come Back/Suleyman ‘s Farewell and Return (6:30), 21. Suleyman & Nimet (1:42), 22. Nimet’s Search (1:37), 23. The Eartquake and After (1:46), 24. She Too Is My Daughter (2:46), 25. Looking for Ayla; the Journey & the Investigations (3:44), 26. Visit to Ayla (3:22), 27. Waiting (0:43), 28. Ayla & Suleyman (2:16), 29. Outro (2:10). Far & Here LLC, 74 minutes 03 seconds.

 

GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS – Takayuki Hattori

Despite there having been more than 30 films in the official Godzilla franchise since the great beast emerged from beneath the waves for the first time in 1954, there has never been an animated one: until now. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is the first film in a planned trilogy, produced by Toho Animation, and directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita. The basic premise of the story posits that human race is forced to abandon abandons planet Earth after Godzilla wreaks havoc on the planet, eventually settling in a distant galaxy. Thousands of years later, humanity finally returns to the planet they left, intending to destroy the giant monster and reclaim their home.

The score for Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is by Japanese composer Takayuki Hattori, who is not new to this franchise, having scored Godzilla vs Spacegodzilla in 1994 and Godzilla 2000 in 1999, and whose other credits include the NHK Taiga dramas Shinsengumi in 2004 and Sanada Maru in 2016. He’s got a big, old fashioned sound which is grand, heavy and imposing enough to do the old monster justice, but also features enough contemporary electronic writing and synth percussion to address the intergalactic sci-fi aspect of the story.

Some of the more bombastic writing is quite outstanding. The huge choral finale of the first cue, “Kaijuu Wakusei,” introduces the great beast with appropriately commanding grandeur. A thrilling brass hero theme is introduced in “Akuukan Koukou,” stirring and bold, which builds on the music heard at the end of the first track, and is reprised later in “Enzetsu,” “Leland No Tokkou,” and in the conclusive “Godzilla” end credits suite. “Godzilla Senmetsu Sakusen” and “Sakusen Suikou” have a militaristic feel, with pulsating strings and rapped snares, while some of the later album cues – “Kyuushuu,” the noble “Shikikan,” “Thermobaric Bakudan,” the thunderous “Souryokusen” – build up real head of steam. There are a couple of hat-tips to the classic Akira Ifukube sound too, especially in the application of percussion and a sampled theremin, and even what sounds like a brief nod of the head to David Arnold’s Godzilla music through the use of twinkling chimes in “Chikyuu No Bunmei”.

These are tempered with more subtle, slightly sinister, apprehensive-sounding tones that often use woodwinds in especially interesting ways; cues like the uneasy opening “Kaijuu Wakusei,” “Kehai,” “Chuuou Iinkai No Ketsudan” and “2-Mannengo” are clearly intend for the listener to maintain a sense of dread at the threat posed by Godzilla and his fellow kaiju. Elsewhere, “Hajimari” blends the orchestra with laid back electronic grooves, and “Haruo No Kioku” introduces a lilting oboe-led love theme which continues into “Metphies” where it is joined by a harp and soft vocals. “Chikyuu,” “Totsunyuu,” and contain some pretty choral inflections, the latter two as parts of action cues, while “Yuko No Omoi” is a dreamy piece for solo piano and a synth wash.

I’m not a fan of some of the more abstract electronic writing – “Yureru Chuuou Iinkai,” “Kenkyuu Ronbun No File,” “Bunseki Kekka” – but these can be easily overlooked in favor of the most crowd-pleasing orchestral shenanigans. Overall, this is a clever, inventive, enjoyable score for one of the big screen’s classic monsters, proving that even franchises as old as Godzilla can inspire great music, and that Takayuki Hattori is a composer of skill and class. It’s available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Kaijuu Wakusei (2:21), 2. Hajimari (4:15), 3. Haruo No Kioku (2:18), 4. Metphies (1:52), 5. Yureru Chuuou Iinkai (1:53), 6. Kenkyuu Ronbun No File (2:47), 7. Bunseki Kekka (1:57), 8. Akuukan Koukou (2:31), 9. Chikyuu (0:58), 10. Kehai (1:27), 11. Chuuou Iinkai No Ketsudan (2:49), 12. Godzilla Senmetsu Sakusen (2:24), 13. Enzetsu (1:41), 14. Totsunyuu (2:14), 15. Sakusen Suikou (2:27), 16. 2-Mannengo (1:45), 17. Yuko No Omoi (1:57), 18. Chikyuu No Bunmei (1:31), 19. Kyuushuu (1:41), 20. Tettai Koudou (2:11), 21. Exif No Denshou (1:37), 22. Taihi (0:48), 23. Leland No Tokkou (3:58), 24. Shikikan (1:41), 25. Sakusen Shiji (1:28), 26. Yuudou (2:19), 27. Katsu Tame Ni (2:52), 28. Yourikutei Hasshin (1:22), 29. Thermobaric Bakudan (1:13), 30. Yuko No Tatakai (0:47), 31. Daikanmon Totsunyuu (1:11), 32. Souryokusen (2:54), 33. Andou (2:27), 34. Godzilla (7:45). Toho Music, 75 minutes 20 seconds.

 

THE JADE PENDANT – Anne Kathrin Dern

The Jade Pendant is a Chinese drama film which explores one of the most overlooked aspects of American history: the life and fate of Chinese laborers who emigrated to the west coast of the United States in the 1800s. These migrants were instrumental in creating and maintaining the infrastructure of California, especially railroads, and would go on to establish historic Chinatown districts in many cities, most famously San Francisco. This film in particular looks at the life of a young woman named Peony who flees from China to escape an arranged marriage, and ends up in Los Angeles in the 1860s; once there, she becomes embroiled in a passionate love triangle while witnessing the political and social upheaval of the era, culminating in the notorious racist lynching of 18 Chinese immigrants in 1871 in what became known as the Chinese Massacre. The film is directed by Po-Chih Leong, and stars Clara Lee in the lead role.

The score for The Jade Pendant is by a relative newcomer, 29-year-old German-born Los Angeles-based composer Anne Kathrin Dern. She’s a former assistant to composer Pinar Toprak, and has written music and done arrangements for various TV shows and short films, but this appears to be only the third film where she was lead composer. On the evidence of this, she’s got a huge future ahead of her; this is one of her two excellent scores in 2017 (the other being the German children’s film Hexe Lillis Eingesacktes Weihnachtsfest). Whereas that score is all about the magic of Christmas, The Jade Pendant is all about sweeping, passionate romance and epic drama, where east meets west via the unusual but brilliant combination of a large symphony orchestra, traditional Chinese instruments, and the cowboy stylings of Aaron Copland.

The score is built around a stunning – and I do mean stunning – main theme. Rich, classical, lush, emotional, written for the full orchestra, with the main melody carried by different instruments depending on the situation, it’s one of the best new main themes of the year. Think of all the great Chinese-style themes played by a western orchestra: John Williams’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Rachel Portman’s Joy Luck Club, Conrad Pope’s Pavilion of Women, Klaus Badelt’s The Promise, scores by Zhao Jiping and Naoki Sato and Tan Dun and Shigeru Umebayashi. This is up there with them. It’s first introduced in the “Opening,” where the melody is carried variously by a solo viola, the full string section, and an erhu, and is simply beautiful.

This theme is present in virtually every one of the subsequent 38 cues, re-arranged or re-orchestrated in dozens of different instrumental and stylistic variations. “You Remind Me of Your Mother” is a lilting piece for harp, flute, piano, solo violin, and a female wordless vocal, which carries on into the more grandiose “You’ll be Proud of Me”. Cues like “The Thief,” and “I Promise” re-imagine the theme as an action motif, reverberating to brass fanfares and choppy string ostinatos. Later, “At the Restaurant” is superb, placing the theme at the center of a cue which shifts from being a wild west fantasy to being traditional Chinese dance, complete with more wordless vocals; these ideas continue on through cues such as “I Don’t Know Her Name,” which cleverly blend the eastern and western styles. The version in “Are You Having Trouble With This” is light and intricate, with unusually metered percussion ideas and tinkling chimes offsetting the melody. The version in “You Have Me Everything” is enormously emotional, almost spiritual.

A few cues are different: the initially menacing “Where Do You Think You’re Going” and “I Will Love You Wholeheartedly“ introduce the hopeful sound of the American West through a solo fiddle that is imbued with hopes and dreams of a new life; the vocals in the latter cue have an air of James Horner’s Titanic. The emotional content of “Madame Pong” shows a delicate touch and a real mastery at creating subtle tonal shifts. The final couple of minutes of “I’m Not at Prostitute, Part 2” introduces a warm, summery family theme that continues into “I’m Proud to Call You My Son,” “Do You Have Any Regrets,” while the conclusive song ”The Sailor’s Lament” is beautiful, with Gaelic lilt that feels similar to Horner’s The Devil’s Own.

Most interestingly, cues like the “Where is My Gold,” “I’m Not at Prostitute, Part 1,” “Let Her Go,” the superb “Master Yu Has a Message For You,” “Take Back What is Ours,” and the outstanding finale comprising “Never Give Your Heart to a Woman,” “The Execution,” and “Who Should Die First,” are more dramatic, full of brass clusters, more urgent string writing, more prominent percussion, occasionally slightly dissonant orchestral textures, and occasional choir. As was with the case on Hexe Lili, some of these cues are very clearly inspired by the action and suspense writing of John Williams – some of the compositional textures, chord progressions, and instrumental combinations here recall his stylistics strongly, which is a good thing indeed.

The score’s only drawback is that it does become a little repetitive by the time you’ve heard the theme for the 25th time. I love a memorable main melody as much as the next man, and I lament the fact that so few films have them, but The Jade Pendant goes a tiny bit too far in the opposite direction. Despite this one nit-pick, The Jade Pendant is nevertheless a stunning achievement which, when combined with her work on the German children’s film, earmarks Anne Kathrin Dern as one of the breakthrough composers of the year. Unfortunately the music for The Jade Pendant is not available for commercial purchase – Dern put this promo album together for awards consideration purposes – but as KI said in my other review of her work this year, I implore any independent record label to invest in Dern’s work, because she’s really, really good.

Track Listing: 1. Opening (1:32), 2. You Remind Me of Your Mother (1:18), 3. You’ll be Proud of Me (1:12), 4. Where Do You Think You’re Going? (1:36), 5. Where is My Gold? (2:19), 6. Madam Pong (3:08), 7. The Thief (1:19), 8. At the Restaurant (3:52), 9. Master Yu (0:42), 10. Le Me Take a Look at Them (1:18), 11. We Should Never Have Come Here (1:04), 12. I Don’t Know Her Name (1:54), 13. I’m Not a Prostitute, Part 1 (1:03), 14. I’m Not a Prostitute, Part 2 (7:15), 15. He Will Take Everything You Cherish (0:57), 16. Peony’s Dance (0:43), 17. Are You Having Trouble With This? (2:29), 18. Your Father is Dying (1:34), 19. Let Her Go (3:38), 20. I Will Love You Wholeheartedly (5:06), 21. It is Almost Like Home (2:12), 22. The Love of My Life (1:16), 23. Master Yu Has a Message For You (1:41), 24. Help Lily (0:42), 25. The Pendant Will Bring You Luck (1:21), 26. You’re Pregnant (1:41), 27. Birth and Death (1:08), 28. I Promise (0:39), 29. Master Yu’s Plans (1:13), 30. I’m Proud to Call You My Son (2:06), 31. You Get the Gold, I Get the Girl (1:07), 32. I Am No-One’s Property (3:17), 33. Take Back What is Ours (2:44), 34. Never Give Your Heart to a Woman (2:55), 35. The Execution (2:16), 36. Who Should Die First? (2:43), 37. You Gave Me Everything (3:36), 38. Do You Have Any Regrets? (2:05), 39. The Sailor’s Lament (2:32). Promo, 81 minutes 19 seconds.

 

LÔI BÁO – Christopher Wong

It’s so interesting to me how composer Christopher Wong, from his studio in Los Angeles, has basically become the #1 composer in the Vietnamese film industry. He has a hugely successful collaboration with writer/director Victor Vu, and their films together include First Morning (2003), Sword of the Assassin (2012), Scandal – Hao Quang Tro Lai (2014), Vengeful Heart (2014), and Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass (2016) – the latter of which is one of the highest grossing domestic films of all time in that country. Their latest collaboration is Lôi Báo, which is Vietnam’s first super hero movie. It tells the story of a man dying of a terminal illness who receives an experimental medical treatment, and discovers he has superhuman powers as a result. But the origins of the treatment are intertwined with a dark history that comes back to haunt him and his family.

In the accompanying press material, Wong says that the film ” is an unconventional film in that it has elements of both a superhero movie and a suspense thriller,” and that the score contains “action cues and heroic anthems, but also a great deal of mystery and suspense, as well as some dramatic music suggesting dark secrets of a family. Lost memories are an important story theme, and so you hear music that hints at a mysterious love that can’t quite be remembered.”

The centerpiece of Lôi Báo is its recurring main theme, “One Against Many,” a stirring horn melody which finally – finally! – kicks in after almost three minutes of action music build up string ostinatos, blatting brass, fluttering electronic percussion, interesting rhythmic ideas, and an array of exotic metallic instruments from the region. Further performances of the theme appear at the most heroic moments, including “Power Inherited” and “Duel at the River,” as well as the conclusive “Theme from Lôi Báo – Reprise,” which is welcome, but it doesn’t quite go for the thematic jugular in way that is truly satisfying – I would have preferred to hear several more ballsy, brassy statements at key moments, but you can’t have everything.

As one would expect given the nature of the plot, action dominates the majority of the score. Cues such as “Street Fight,” “Power Inherited,” “Lifting the Car,” the heroic “Saving the Girl,” “Escaping the House,” “Motorcycle Chase,” “Infiltration,” “Underground Rescue,” and the thrilling “Duel at the River” explode with energy and determination, each of them a heady mix of pulsating string ostinatos, solid brass counter-punches, ticking percussion, subtle electronic sound design, occasional staccato piano chords, even an electric guitar.

You can hear a little bit of Jerry Goldsmith’s action music influence occasionally peeking through in some of the ways Wong uses his brass section in conjunction with his percussion in cue like the aforementioned “Duel at the River,” but not all of it by Wong – “Power Inherited”, the more low-key “Familiar Place,” “Saving the Girl,” the menacing “Empty House,” and the dramatic, classically rich “Close to Betrayal” are all credited to Wong’s regular additional music collaborator Garrett Crosby, while “Street Fight,” the emotional “Losing Mother,” and the hard rock-edged “A Sacrifice Revealed” are among the cues credited to his long-time orchestrator Ian Rees.

Interspersed between all this action is a love theme, which first appears in “Almost Nothing Left”, and thankfully allows the listener to catch their breath once in a while through subsequent statements in “After Surgery,” the darker “Interrogation,” and the cathartic “Going Home”. It is heard mainly as a piece for piano and acoustic guitars, but occasionally Wong dresses it up with solo cello, harp glissandi, and soft vocal accents performed by his wife, Holly Replogle-Wong. Also of note is Crosby’s “The Fable,” a dramatic piece which seems to have a historical scope and sense of grandeur that draws from traditional music but is dressed up like a rousing Hans Zimmer anthem.

This is an impressive score on all fronts, and considering the budgetary limitations that Wong always has to work with, the fact that the score sounds this good is amazing. Fans of modern action scores, especially ones which have more clear and prominent thematic ideas, will find Lôi Báo to be very much their bowl of phở; yet again, I am forced to voice my absolute incredulity that American producers and directors are not banging on Wong’s door wanting him to score their movies – his score for this Vietnamese film is leaps and bounds ahead of the music in many of Hollywood’s tent pole action thrillers. The score is available on CD and as a digital download from producer Mikael Carlsson’s boutique label Moviescore Media.

Track Listing: 1. Opening Titles (1:58), 2. One Against Many – Theme from Lôi Báo (3:39), 3. Almost Nothing Left (2:48), 4. The Fable (2:09), 5. After Surgery (1:52), 6. Drawing Frustration (2:43), 7. Street Fight (1:24), 8. Power Inherited (1:35), 9. Secret Compound (1:28), 10. Lifting The Car (1:36), 11. Familiar Place (2:32), 12. Saving the Girl (2:35), 13. Empty House (1:48), 14. Stranger Waiting (2:12), 15. Losing Time (2:26), 16. Close to Betrayal (4:48), 17. Escaping the House (3:34), 18. Interrogation (2:46), 19. Past Regrets (1:59), 20. Losing Mother (2:37), 21. Motorcycle Chase (4:02), 22. A Sacrifice Revealed (2:34), 23. Infiltration (2:06), 24. Underground Rescue (4:28), 25. Duel at the River (3:07), 26. Going Home (3:26), 27. Theme from Lôi Báo – Reprise (0:49). Moviescore Media, 70 minutes 23 seconds.

 

MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER – Takatsugu Muramatsu

Mary and the Witch’s Flower [Meari To Majo No Hana] is an animated Japanese film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on the 1971 English-language fantasy novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. It tells a story of a young girl named Mary who finds a mysterious flower that gives her the power to become a magical witch, but which only lasts for one night. It’s one of the rare anime films to be given a theatrical release in the United States, much to the delight of fans of the genre, who compared it positively with classics by Hayao Miyazaki such as Ponyo and Spirited Away.

The score for Mary and the Witch’s Flower is by composer Takatsugu Muramatsu, whose score for the 2014 animated film When Marnie Was There was one of my favorites of that year. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is not quite as outstanding as that earlier score, but there is still plenty to admire. It’s a predominantly orchestral work, mainly written for strings and piano, but there are moments where the rest of the ensemble takes it to glorious heights, and other moments where it uses more contemporary percussive ideas and soft, almost light-rock arrangements to give it a modern feel. The main theme, “Mary’s Theme,” is one of those: a playful and pleasant melody for strings that is enlivened by an array of fun, energetic orchestral arrangements, including some lovely brass counterpoint, which captures the inquisitiveness and mischievousness of the main character perfectly.

Mary’s Theme is present throughout much of the score. There is pretty version for piano and flute surrounded by light metallic textures in “Mary Helps Out,” a music box version at the beginning of the playful “The Forest Tempts,” and a magical and curious version, again with a music box feel, in “Mary Decides’,” which becomes quite determined and purposeful towards the end.

Other cues of note include the interesting “Fly-by-Night” theme which features a prominent hammered dulcimer as its central instrumental idea, and which Muramatsu surrounds with bold, energetic, orchestral lines of capture the exhilaration and freedom of flight; this idea, full of openness and joy, continues through “First Flight” and several others. The dulcimer (and other hammered instruments like xylophones, glockenspiels, and marimbas) continues to be a prominent sound in cues including “The Forest Tempo,” “The Witch’s Flower,” the chorally-enhanced “Endor College,” the waltz-time “Introducing the College,” giving them a magical but whimsical feeling.

However, some of the middle of the score does tend to get lost in too much dainty prancing and fanciful tinkling, to the extent that it loses some of its steam; only towards the end of the score does it regain its focus. Everything from “Master Spells” onwards is generally superb, beginning with the exotic-sounding statement of Mary’s Theme, which surrounded by brass fanfares, more dramatic percussion, and more dulcimer, and at times has a James Horner atmosphere. “The Fly by-Night 2” reprises that theme from earlier in the score with urgency and a touch of nervousness which continues into the pulsating “The Last Powers,” which uses some unusually phrased brass and woodwind textures in its second half. The final statement of Mary’s Theme in “Rainbow of Magic” is delightful, and this leads into the end credits song “Rain” by J-Pop group Sekai No Owari, which is again based on Muramatsu’s main theme and boasts an appealing lead vocal from singer Shinichi Nakajima.

This is a very pleasant, if perhaps a little restrained, score by Muramatsu for one of the most successful animated Japanese films of 2017. Fans of children’s anime will find its pretty melodies and magical tone appealing and although, as I mentioned. it does tend to become a little repetitive in the middle of album, its strong first third and final third more than make up for it. It’s available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Mary’s Theme (3:45), 2. The Fly-by-Night (2:51), 3. Mary Helps Out (3:46), 4. The Forest Tempts (1:12), 5. The Witch’s Flower (2:22), 6. Misty Forest (1:18), 7. The Broom Breathes (0:36), 8. First Flight (2:11), 9. Endor College (3:03), 10. Introducing the College (3:23), 11. Magic Science (2:34), 12. A Strange Flower (1:23), 13. The Stolen Flower (1:45), 14. Our Home (1:18), 15. The Imposter Witch (1:19), 16. Mary Decides (3:12), 17. Endor College at Night (1:50), 18. Master Spells (6:11), 19. The House Where Time Stopped (2:14), 20. The Fly-by-Night 2 (3:33), 21. The Last Powers (2:27), 22. Let’s Go Home, Together (2:32), 23. Rainbow of Magic (1:42), 24. Rain (performed by Sekai No Owari) (5:11), 25. The Fly-by-Night – Hammered Dulcimer Version (1:10), 26. Mary’s Theme – Piano Version (1:58). Toys Factory Music TFCC-86596, 64 minutes 59 seconds.

 

NAPPING PRINCESS – Yoko Shimomura

Napping Princess – Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi No Monogatari in its original Japanese, or Ancien and the Magic Tablet, to give it its other name – is a Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama. It tells the story of a young girl in contemporary Japan named Kokone, dealing with regular problems with family, career, and school. However at night Kokone dreams that she is a young princess named Ancien who lives in a mythical kingdom filled with technology and cars, and which is under attack from a molten metal monster. However, as time goes on, the events in Kokone’s real life start to overlap and combine with her ‘dream life’ as Ancien, until they begin to affect each other directly.

The score for Napping Princess is by Japanese composer Yoko Shimomura, who is best known for her work in the video game world, having contributed most notably to projects in the Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy franchises. Despite being ‘the most famous female video game music composer in the world,’ Shimomura’s work in cinema is surprisingly limited – with the exception of two TV series in the mid-2000s, this score is effectively her cinematic debut. However, as her game scores attest, she is a composer of considerable skill, capable of writing music of great beauty and intricacy.

The album begins in completely unexpected fashion with a Japanese-language orchestral cover of the classic Monkees song “Daydream Believer” sung by 24-year-old actress Mitsuki Takahata who voices the protagonist. Even more unexpectedly, the version is really, really lovely, and sets the mood for the score quite perfectly. Once that’s out of the way, it quickly becomes clear that Shimomura’s score is really quite delightful; it’s whimsical, playful, inquisitive, dramatic when it needs to be, romantic when it needs to be, and often uses pizzicato strings, sensitive woodwind lines, delicate pianos, light metallic percussion, and almost subliminal choral ideas to create an appropriately dream-like mood.

“Kokone’s Theme” is one of those luscious piano solos. “Momotaro’s Theme” is more funky, with prominent guitars and a pop percussion beat, and gets a couple of great reprise for a more varied instrumental palette in “Where’s Dad,” in a deconstructed version in “Mom’s Secret,” and with an action music aspect in “New Model Enginehead”. Elsewhere, “Tell Me, Mom” and “A Tender Moment” are emotionally direct, a beautiful combination of high pianos and weeping strings that goes for the heart, while “Dad’s Memories/To the Dream World” has a similar impact, but with more input from acoustic guitars.

The action cues are fun and lively, often comprising pretty woodwind motifs offset against more energetic string and percussion undercurrents. Cues like “The Legend of Heartland,” “On a Motorcycle,” “Joy Rescue,” the toe-tapping “Takiji and Ukki,” the wide-open and expansive “Ancien and the Magic Tablet,” “Go! Enginehead!,“ and the outstanding “Heartland King” are superb in this regard: buoyant and vigorous, but elegant and approachable, with lovely clean instrumental lines. Only occasionally does Shimomura go dark, but when she does the affect is startling; it’s best heard via the aggressive male voices and brooding string chords that open “Bewan and Watanabe” and “Bewan’s Theme”.

As much as Yoko Shimomura is a legend in the video game world, I hope that this side-step into films is not just a brief diversion. She clearly has a wonderful orchestral sense, a capacity to write memorable themes, and the emotional maturity to really get to the heart of the story she is scoring. It take a little time to get going, but Napping Princess is a quality piece of work, once again showcasing the Japanese film music industry as one of the world’s premier destinations for soundtrack fans. The score is available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online sources.

Track Listing: 1. Day Dream Believer (performed by Mitsuki Takahata) (4:04), 2. Princess Hirune (0:13), 3. Beginning of the Dream (6:46), 4. Kokone’s Theme (2:19), 5. Hmm? (0:28), 6. Momotaro’s Theme (1:46), 7. The Legend of Heartland (5:36), 8. You’re the Only One Who Knows (1:46), 9. Hmm!? (0:24), 10. Where’s Dad (1:11), 11. Tell Me, Mom (2:41), 12. Bewan and Watanabe (3:39), 13. On a Motorcycle (0:53), 14. Joy Rescue (1:39), 15. Interrogation Room (1:20), 16. Mystery Solved (1:31), 17. Takiji and Ukki (1:06), 18. Ancien and the Magic Tablet (3:20), 19. Perhaps… (0:46), 20. Mom’s Secret (1:53), 21. Morio’s Plan (1:08), 22. Is This Magic? (0:20), 23. Is This Still Magic? (0:29), 24. Dad’s Memories/To the Dream World (2:06), 25. Go! Enginehead! (3:20), 26. A Tender Moment (1:41), 27. Bewan’s Theme (0:51), 28. The Distance Between Us (2:39), 29. Heartland King (7:18), 30. New Model Enginehead (3:05), 31. Save Heartland! (1:37), 32. Kokone and Hearts (1:58), 33. Sending Love to Everyone (2:21), 34. Kokone’s Theme (Reprise) (0:58), 35. Kokone’s Summer Vacation (3:05). Warner Music Japan, 76 minutes 17 seconds.

 

WOLF WARRIOR 2 – Joseph Trapanese

Wolf Warrior 2 [Zhan Lang 2] is a Chinese action movie directed by Wu Jing, and is a sequel to the original 2015 Wolf Warrior movie which introduced audiences to Leng Feng (played by director Wu), an expert marksman recruited into a Chinese Special Forces Unit. This time around Leng Feng is recalled from his self-imposed exile and sent to Africa, where he is tasked with protecting medical aid workers from local rebels and vicious arms dealers. The film co-stars Celina Jade and American actor Frank Grillo, and was a massive success at the Chinese box office, grossing more than $850 million during its initial theatrical run.

The score for Wolf Warrior 2 is by American composer Joseph Trapanese, who took over scoring duties from the original film’s composer Kian How Yoa. Unlike many of his North American contemporaries Trapanese has a history of scoring films made in Asia, most notably the Indonesian films The Raid and The Raid 2. What’s interesting to me is how much better these scores are than his Hollywood fare – whereas scores like Insurgent, Allegiant, Detergent, and Only the Brave were filled with the tired old action movie clichés, drones and pulses, his scores for the Asian market often feel fresher, more experimental, and have a more prominent thematic and melodic core. So it is with Wolf Warrior 2, which I would be inclined to call Trapanese’s best score to date.

The overwhelming majority of the score is action-based. Right from the opening cue, “Wolf Warrior 2 Theme,” Trapanese pulls out the stops with an enormous, rousing anthem for brass, pulsating strings, huge drums, and clashing cymbals. It’s just glorious – like Hans Zimmer at his most stirring late-1980s best. The theme appears frequently thereafter – as a solo heroic trumpet refrain later accompanied by tribal percussion an exotic vocals in “Wolf Warrior 2 Opening Credits,” with a touch of brassy militaristic reflection in “Dishonored,” with more tribal percussion and vocals and a dance-like rhythm in “Arriving in Africa,” and as part of huge action cues in “Call the Armada,” “Hospital Rescue,” “Building Weapons,” “Return to the Factory,” “Wolfpack and Rampage,” among others, where they are often underpinned by wordless vocals.

The all-out no-nonsense action tracks reverberate to enormous percussion hits, tumultuous string ostinatos, blasting brass, and usually an electronic synth pulse or a roaring electric guitar, but what’s best about them is the creativity; Trapanese seems to have let go of all pretences of subtlety, and is simply having fun. Brass lines become deep and complicated for no reason other than it sounds cool, string ostinatos jump around from instrument to instrument, and percussion patterns featuring a huge array of drums and other items rampage around the orchestra, making the energy levels peak. Cues like “Beach Raid and Market Fight,” “Big Daddy,” and the two halves of “Tank Ballet” really give the score a massive adrenaline boost, and are mightily impressive.

On the few occasions that Trapanese dials it back and presents something a little calmer, the result is no less impressive. He uses lilting guitars towards the end of the aforementioned “Arriving in Africa,” and gentle pianos and strings in “Rachel”. There’s also an original Chinese language song, “Feng Qu Yun Bu Hui” performed by the film’s director-star Wu Jing, a soft guitar ballad which feels like it performs the same function as “It’s a Long Road” from First Blood.

Ever since Tron Legacy I’ve been hearing how Trapanese is going to be the ‘next big thing’ in film music, but Wolf Warrior 2 is the first score of his I’ve heard where I’ve felt that this could be actually true. It’s a clear that Hollywood’s melody-shy environment is stripping him of a great deal of personality, but in China – where melody and emotion is still king, apparently – the talent shines through clearly for all to hear. The score is available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online sources.

Track Listing: 1. Feng Qu Yun Bu Hui (performed by Wu Jing) (5:04), 2. Wolf Warrior 2 Theme (1:10), 3. Wolf Warrior 2 Opening Credits (2:59), 4. Dishonored (3:18), 5. Arriving in Africa (3:44), 6. Beach Raid and Market Fight (2:32), 7. Escape to the Embassy (5:00), 8. Call the Armada (1:36), 9. Big Daddy (7:26), 10. Hospital Rescue (5:20), 11. Grasslands (1:39), 12. Africans and Chinese (3:05), 13. Factory Siege (9:46), 14. Rachel (1:54), 15. Building Weapons (1:00), 16. Return to the Factory (1:19), 17. Wolfpack and Rampage (2:21), 18. Helicopter Rescue (2:49), 19. Tank Ballet, Part 1 (2:19), 20. Tank Ballet, Part 2 (2:45), 21. Massacre and Launch (4:34), 22. Cease Fire (5:39), 23. Wolf Warrior 2 Main Theme Reprise (1:20). 78 minutes 38 seconds.

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  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am

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