7. THE BEGINNING OF A PARTNERSHIP WITH KUROKI KAZUO
KT: If you look at the credits in Kuroki’s The Seawall (“Kaiheki,” 1959) there are several names listed for the music.
MT: That was a job that Ikeno first took from Iwanami Film Productions. It was right after Ikeno finished writing music for a dance performance. He was totally exhausted, so he requested permission to ask for help and Iwanami said yes. We ended up doing it as a group of five with three other Ifukube student friends—Kosugi Taichiro, Miki Minoru and Harada Hajime. But at the time we wanted to keep it an absolute secret as to who wrote what part, and we didn’t tell Iwanami. Later we met in a dark part of Shibuya to split up the money. That was a lot of fun.
KT: The Seawall was made at a time when the position of PR and documentary films was much higher than it is today. Within that environment, Kuroki had ambitions to do something different from the kind of work he had made at Iwanami up to that point. What kinds of discussions did you have with Kuroki around that time?
MT: Kuroki and Takamura Takeji—who directed films like Sakuma Dam (1954)—were worried and came along while the five of us mumbled to each other about the project. Then someone would speak up for the group and make a suggestion. Kuroki wouldn’t openly talk about his image for the film. Instead, he pretended like he didn’t have any ideas at all. We didn’t really have any choice, so someone would have to suggest something. When it didn’t match with Kuroki’s ideas he’d say “NO!” in this very harsh way that would really hurt the other person’s feelings. It was extremely aggravating, but somehow everyone made stronger efforts as a result. He was pleased with the music for the opening titles of Preparations for the Festival (“Matsuri no junbi,” 1975). He put his hands together to give a big “OK” sign from the control booth. There were times like that.
KT: After that you started to get more work in documentary films. Kuroki made a sequel to The Seawall called Reportage: Fire (“Ruporutaju honoo,” 1960) and you alone were in charge of the music for that. As a film it was very bold, much of it quite different from so-called PR films like Sakuma Dam, which you just mentioned. For example, like in The Seawall, the narration isn’t a simple explanation, instead poet Iijima Koichi actually wrote a script. Within Kuroki’s attempts to create a new kind of documentary and PR film, a soundtrack with that kind of narration commands a lot of weight in the film. Do you think he was as ambitious in his use of music? Kuroki himself has written about this. In Reportage: Fire, the highlight is in the last few minutes with this jazz-like score. That’s where it feels more like you were trying to make the “loudest sound on the face of the earth” (laughs).
MT: That was one movement from my piece Cryptogamme. I used it as is and it fit perfectly. Kuroki was mad about it though. He said it seemed like the movie was made for the music (laughs).
8. DOCUMENTARY FILM MUSIC AND FEATURE FILM MUSIC
KT: If you had to describe the most interesting part about making documentary film music, what would you say? For example, how is it different from feature films?
MT: It all depends on the subject, like if you’re documenting a person or if you’re documenting construction work. For example a documentary about a thermal power station just needs some kind of music on the soundtrack, so the music doesn’t really have any direction. With a human subject, like in A Document of a Marathon Runner (“Aru marason ranna no kiroku,” 1964; music by Ikeno Sei), the music needs a more psychological element. Of course it always depends. In my case I worked on a lot of subjects like power plants, so for that I put a lot of energy into studying orchestra. I was able to devote myself to the work more than in feature films.
KT: Going back a little, certainly the music in Reportage: Fire burns into the eardrums. Kuroki was very moved by it, and that was the beginning of your partnership. There’s also a 1962 film called Hokkaido, My Love (“Waga ai Hokkaido,” dir. Kuroki Kazuo). Kuroki has explained himself that at the time he was greatly influenced by the films of Alain Resnais, and in a sense somewhat different from Fire, this was also made much differently from established PR films. The basic story is about a man who travels to Hokkaido and meets a woman there, so the mood is very close to a feature film. Since the film was set in Hokkaido, you used keys and scales from Hokkaido folk music.
MT: Yes, I did use scales like that—the kind that make you feel the rich and vast earth. We had meetings for a month before coming to a decision on that music. At Iwanami Film Productions right at that time they were debating what to do with the love scene at the home of a rich herring fisher. [A love scene with the two nude characters embracing was eventually cut from the film by the company.] We were able to buy some time between the completion of the film and the recording of the music, and we met who knows how many times. Kuroki wanted music like in feature films. The screenwriter Shimizu Kunio came to listen to the recordings and was very impressed.
KT: Kuroki’s next project was Silence Has No Wings (“Tobenai chinmoku,” 1966), and afterwards he moved onto A Cuban Lover (“Kyuba no koibito,” 1969). Silence Has No Wings was planned as Kuroki’s first feature film after he left Iwanami. Did you have any special discussions about that music?
MT: He told me he wanted me to write “the music of love.” That basically sums up everything he said. I thought up a melody so Kuroki and the sound recordist Kato Ichiro came to my house to listen to it. At first they were both very pleased. Suzuki Tatsuo’s camera work was wonderful and would have fit with any kind of music. I was told to write a love melody so I did, and it probably did match well enough, but I wanted to come up with another idea so in the spirit of starting from scratch and thinking of other possibilities I suggested, “maybe gagaku (Japanese court music) would work too?” Kato and Kuroki both got enraged and up and left. We really did fight a lot. I was totally serious when I said that but the response was, “you’ve got to be joking.” I must have pushed a button somewhere.
KT: Everyone was still so young and hasty then (laughs). From the point of view of us in the audience, Suzuki’s camera work does feel very free and interesting, but from the perspective of the music does it really seem like it would fit with anything?
MT: Generally, the better a picture is the more freedom the music has. If the picture is weak the music has to try to save it somehow.
KT: Next was A Cuban Lover. It’s a well-known story that you were supposed to go to Cuba but couldn’t (laughs). One thing I’m always impressed by when I watch this film is how Cuba the country overflows with music. For example when everyone’s cutting sugarcanes, or when the laborers drive around on the truck, they’re all singing. That musical factor becomes a very important part of the film. You started working on the music when Kato and Suzuki brought the recordings they took and film they shot back to Japan. What was that like? When both the theme of the film and the reality of Cuban life are so clearly overflowing with music, does that make it actually harder to write music? Or is it easier?
MT: There’s also the option of using Cuban music for the entire film. When I worked on Kumai’s Deep River (“Fukai kawa,” 1995) I had the same problem. There are two possibilities—do I use Indian music for the whole thing or something totally different? I couldn’t go to Cuba, so that’s why it went that way . . . that’s my first guess anyway. Why did it turn out that way? I’m not sure if that was for better or for worse. If someone else had done the music they may have used that intense Cuban music for the whole film and come up with something like Black Orpheus (“Orfeu Negro,” dir. Marcel Camus, 1959).
KT: Kuroki has said that the Cuban music and your music compliment each other nicely in the film . . .
MT: A balance?
KT: What did you think when you listened to Cuban music at that time?
MT: I thought it was very beautiful.
KT: So if you had gone to Cuba things may have developed differently.
MT: It’s Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s fault. He told me, “I have enough money set aside for you to go to Cuba,” but without even warning me he dropped out as producer (laughs). I’m still upset about that.
9. THE MOST MOVING DOCUMENTARY FILM
MT: Night and Morning Inside Myself (“Boku no naka no yoru to asa,” 1971, dir. Yanagisawa Hisao). That’s the most moving documentary I’ve seen to this day.
KT: I saw it a while ago but recently I watched it again on VHS, paying attention to the music. I thought the film contained a lot of interesting musical experiments.
MT: It’s a documentary about a hospital for children with muscular dystrophy. There are so many unforgettable scenes . . . it really leaves a strong impression. In the last scene, the children spit at the camera. You can’t take their place by filming them; you can’t change a thing. It makes you wonder, what’s the point of even filming them?
KT: The film begins with disabled children trying to walk with supports on their legs. As they try so painfully to walk, the music creeps in with a rhythm that matches the zigzagging of the children’s steps. The film’s music creates a lot of tension and is full of parts that really make you twinge, but there are also some very gentle passages. Especially that one boy’s song, for example.
MT: You mean “If I Became a Bird.” A boy with the same disease had written that poem. I put it to music and Minagawa Osamu performed the vocals. The scene in the film shows a small boy who comes to the hospital with his mother. For a while they pass time there together, but all of a sudden the mother is gone; they’re separated for life. The child is left by himself, and he runs out the entrance crying. It’s truly unforgettable.
KT: There’s also some very childlike music performed on a xylophone.
MT: I recently rearranged the song at the beginning for piano. I often use compositions I write for performance in films, but only rarely use motifs from films in my compositions. I wrote one called “Pilgrimage for Piano—III” using music from when the children are walking.
KT: You must have put a lot of thought into the music for that film. There’s a scene when the children are doing physical exercises. Their bodies are in a lot of pain so exercising is like torture to them, but if they don’t move their bodies will weaken, so they have no choice. In that scene, one boy momentarily seems to become free from his disabled body and he moves around as if dancing. The music there is wonderful. The whole film has this synergy between the images and the music. I can really understand why you like it so much.
MT: I’m not sure that “like” is the right word. It’s so heart wrenching I almost can’t stand to watch it.
10. COLLABORATION AND MUSICAL EXPERIMENTATION WITH DIRECTOR KUMAI KEI
KT: I’d like to back up the conversation a little and ask more about Kumai Kei. You met Kumai on the first film you did music work for, when he was the screenwriter. Later, the first time you were in charge of the music on a Kumai Kei film was in 1970 for Apart from Life (“Chi no mure,” dir. Kumai Kei), based on the original work by Inoue Mitsuharu. After that you worked with him for a long time. How did things proceed when you’re working with Kumai?
MT: Apart from Life stands out as one of the more memorable films in my career. The setting is Nagasaki and the story is about discrimination against atomic bomb victims in a community of untouchables (buraku). At any rate it’s very intense. I looped a high soprano sound to play continuously from the beginning. The credits end and the picture fades out, but the sound continues until the middle of the first scene. I was told that this hadn’t been done before, that it was impossible in terms of film grammar. But I was insistent that I thought we should do it that way. I used a very loud volume, and in the end it worked out all right. There’s a children’s song about the bombing that goes, “Nagasaki in April, city of flowers / Nagasaki in August, city of ashes.” It’s a beautiful scene with the boy protagonist and his mother. When everyone kills each other at the end, the boy joins in and throws a rock. I used that song one more time when he picks up the rock. I got into a fight with the sound recordist Ota Rokubin about that, since he thought it would be impossible to hear that song with such a pounding noise in the background. But I told him, “I’m using this song!” It went in without any problems, and that was that. That was one very memorable job for me. My wife saw the first preview screening at the Nikkatsu Studio and on the way home she stopped the car on the riverbank, sobbing. It had that much of an impact.
KT: When you had a dispute with the recording engineer at a time like that, did you have to settle it with the engineer yourself or would Kumai step in and say something?
MT: Of course I’d speak with the engineer about it, but in those cases Kumai usually didn’t say anything. I think he was looking forward to seeing the experiments I was talking about. He was such a humble person. He’d always listen to what I thought and what I was trying to say. Of course we disagreed at times, but he’d always listen first. He gave me his complete trust and tried very patiently to listen and understand what I was doing.
KT: Apart from Life was the first film Kumai did after leaving Nikkatsu Studio. Certainly part of the reason for that was Nikkatsu’s own collapse, but Kumai was also determined to do what he wanted without being bound by the company’s constraints, so he moved into independent production. Historically speaking, your career was taking off right when the film studio and company system, which had always raised directors to make films, was starting to fall apart. Ifukube came from a time when that system was a matter of course. Mayuzumi Toshiro also certainly made very unique music, but since that was when the film system was still active, the music may have created a slight alienation effect. On the other hand, when the film world was in upheaval in the late 1960s and 1970s, you did wonderful work. Did you never consciously think about that yourself?
MT: Not at all, never. But—that’s right—I did think that there was an unusually small amount of work from the five major studios. There seemed to be a lot from independent companies like ATG and companies with very low budgets (laughs). Thankfully there was a lot of challenging work though.
KT: Are there any other memorable films from you work with Kumai after that?
MT: Yes, there were many. Among them was The Death of the Tea Master (“Sen no Rikyu: Honkakubo ibun,” 1989). That’s a very high quality film. Two films about Rikyu came out around that time and more people probably saw the other one, but it really doesn’t compare to this one at all. I still have very strong feelings about this film. Something about the tea ceremony pulses through the four seasons. How should I put it, people who pursue the tea ceremony are physical, but are also abstract. There’s something only in the film, something different from what people generally think about the tea ceremony, different from the way of tea in day-to-day life. Metaphysical, I suppose. At the same time it has a very physical feeling, and it creates a kind of resonance deep inside. The ending is also very beautiful. I’m very attached to that film.
KT: Among Kuroki’s films, one that I really enjoy is The Assassination of Ryoma (“Ryoma ansatsu,” 1974). That soundtrack uses a lot of percussion and also creates a very physical feeling.
MT: Ah, that’s wonderful too. Yet another kind of physicality.
KT: In the film your music and the frenzied dance of the crowd as they yell, “Why not! Who cares!” (“eijanaika, eijanaika”) in the background also create a kind of synergy. In that sense, it feels like you were using a different approach from the one you used in A Cuban Lover, which overflowed with physical Cuban music. Even as a late Tokugawa era period film it’s very unlike an NHK-style historical drama—it’s a very energetic film. We could even say the physical itself was the theme of the film.
11. A FILM WITHOUT FILM MUSIC
KT: As we reach the end of our conversation, I’d like to ask a little more about Kuroki’s more recent work. You’ve been in charge of the music for Kuroki’s latest three films after his period of inactivity. I just saw The Face of Jizo (“Chichi to kuraseba,” 2004). The music in that film plays a very important role. The original play had it’s own music as well. Did you write this music separately?
MT: Yes, I did.
KT: The three films are Tomorrow (“Tomorrow / Ashita,” 1986), A Boy’s Summer in 1945 (“Utsukushii natsu Kirishima,” 2003) and the recent The Face of Jizo. You and Kuroki are from the same generation and one can imagine that you shared many of the same feelings about war when you were working. Tomorrow is about the day before the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In one memorable scene, a woman’s singing voice can be heard out of nowhere. A woman’s voice also appears in A Boy’s Summer in 1945.
MT: In Tomorrow a crazed older widow is singing a lullaby that’s heard from far away. I put that in because it was what Kuroki wanted. That was actually his decision. It also appears in the next film, A Boy’s Summer in 1945. It was the same in Tomorrow. He wanted to use the same thing again.
KT: You’ve worked together with Kuroki over many years and have talked to him over a long period of time. You must have reached a certain level of common understanding about things.
MT: At first he used to want to chat about things, but recently we don’t talk that much. After watching the rush it’s just, “well, goodbye.” I do think he’s a bit strange, but after he’s already said “goodbye” it’s difficult to say, “by the way . . .”
KT: In A Boy’s Summer in 1945 it feels like the music was used as efficiently as possible. That’s why that song resounds so clearly and leaves such an impression.
MT: The sound engineer Kubota Yukio is also an amazing person. He uses these great sounds where there’s nothing, where nobody would notice anything. He works very hard in order to capture that sound. When I was younger I used to put music in a lot of places as if I were making a grand announcement. “This music is by Matsumura Teizo, this music is by Matsumura Teizo!” But now, when the film is really good, I think it’s best to use music in a way that makes people wonder if there even was any music, or wonder what kind of music it was. Simply putting the music further in the background isn’t enough; of course you have to make it stand out when it’s necessary, and of course there are times when the addition of music adds a deeper, different dimension to the film . . . One film with almost no music that really impressed me is André Cayatte’s French court film, Justice is Done (“Justice est faite,” 1950). It ends without any music, with only the voice of boy yelling “guilty! guilty!” as he sells the evening paper. The only music in the film is when one of the jurors goes to a dance hall alone and music seeps out like passing gas as he’s dancing, that’s it. I told Yamada Yoji I wanted to do a job like that and he said, “I won’t let you off that easily.” But it really is wonderful. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) is also like that.
KT: Does this mean that somewhere deep inside, Matsumura Teizo the film music composer paradoxically longs for films with no music?
MT: If a film is really drama, why does music have to butt in and explain things? That’s what I’ve always thought. It really is awful for music to explain. I suppose you can express something by putting music in, but it’s really boring if music has to save a film because the picture itself isn’t good enough. Music is a temporal art with rhythm and momentum so there are any number of possibilities, but I always wonder, why does music have to be used? Wouldn’t it be better not to use music in some cases? I’ve always had a sense of fear about whether or not I dare to use music. It’s really horrible in documentary films when you’re told, “let’s insert music from here to there, and then let’s use ambient sound from there.” You could do the exact opposite as well. It’s divided that way because your sense of hearing would give out if it were all ambient sound or all music throughout the whole film. I suppose that’s one way of creating a feeling of movement or continuity, but there are really any number of different ways to use music in a film, and the meaning of inserting music is very difficult.
KT: For movies the problem isn’t just whether the music is good, it’s also a question of how to build the timing and rhythm of the film.
MT: That’s true. It’s undoubtedly an art of its own. At the end of the mixing process it becomes a difficult three-legged race with me and the audio recorder Kubota. There are some truly stifling moments.
12. THE THIN LINE SEPARATING FILM MUSIC AND FEAR
KT: You’ve spoken about film music from a number of different angles, but is film music a necessity for you as a musician?
MT: It’s been a very unique experience for me to be able to meet many directors, each carrying their own unique world, at the boundaries of expression. I’m truly glad that I’ve been able to work in film. I’m always flying high the day before recording, with my heart pounding, never knowing if we’ll make it on time. I watch the rushes over and over. Thankfully there’s now something called video, which doesn’t have any kind of time lag like film. I take it home and watch the rushes until I’m sick of them. Just as when Edison invented the light bulb—before he found tungsten he didn’t know a good material to use, so he burned the bamboo in his wife’s folding fan—I’ll experiment and try absolutely anything. In Mikuni Rentaro’s case though . . . nothing works with that man. Whatever I do, nothing matches. As much as I hated to do so, I finally took a look at someone else’s work to test out the feeling of the material; Saegusa Shigeaki’s sound in the film Oracion (“Yushun,” dir. Sugita Shigemichi, 1988). This was when I was working on My Sons (“Musuko,” dir. Yamada Yoji, 1991). What do you think I finally found? Piano. The high-pitched sound of a piano. Sometimes you can find things you don’t expect by experimenting with different sounds. It’s mysterious how that works.
KT: You mean there was no sound that matched Mikuni’s presence?
MT: Mikuni is really difficult; he has such a strong screen presence. If you write a weak sound for him it will rebound on you. At about the same time as My Sons I was also working with him on Kumai Kei’s Luminous Moss (“Hikarigoke,” 1992) and that was very exciting. Changing the subject, Ifukube once published a piece called “Chobansan” in the newspaper. “Chobansan,” in kanji meaning in “praise” of the “long” “face.” Basically, it’s easier to write music for actors who have a long face. For someone with a face like Tsukigata Ryunosuke, you go all out and the music falls in place. With a round face it doesn’t match. That’s what Ifukube was joking about.
KT: In general you can write any kind of music you want, and that’s what is interesting about being a composer . . .
MT: It’s extremely difficult to achieve that kind of freedom. There’s a thin line separating music from fear. You need a lot of nerve. The film’s creators spend a lot of money and put their lives on the line, and finally leave it all to the composer. They’re very serious about it too. The mood is like, “do a sloppy job and I’ll kill you!” The reason I don’t talk with Kuroki very much is because I think we both realize that if we get too familiar with each other that would be the end. If it got to be like “do this, do that,” “ah, you mean that” it would be all over. As the saying goes, “If you don’t meet a man for three days, wait with keen interest.”
KT: I think you’ve really pushed yourself physically in your film work, but we hope very much that you can take care of your health and continue to write excellent film music. Thank you for speaking with us so much today.
(August 2, 2004 at Matsumura Teizo’s residence)
—Translated by Michael Arnold
Film critic, university adjunct lecturer, and staff researcher at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, National Film Center. He is the co-author of The Politics of Film (“Eiga no seijigaku”), Amos Gitai: Israel/Images/Diaspora (“Amos Gitai: Isuraeru/Eizo/Diasupora”), and co-editor and author of The Struggles of Socialist Cinema (“‘Shakaiha shinema’ no tatakaikata”).