Film Music of Akira Kurosawa: The Complete Edition

Toho Studios

In the opening moments of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, a mangy dog scurries across an empty road with a severed human hand in its teeth while a tattered ronin, a wandering warrior played by Toshiro Mifune, looks on in horror. Although the image is grisly, composer Masaru Satoh’s score hints at the broad action comedy to come. Satoh sets a baritone rumble of strings against the forbidding beat of the No drum that doubles Mifune’s deliberate stride. But at the dog’s approach, a horn attack combines with the bright plucking of a zither. This interplay between image and sound illustrates why Satoh would later remark of Kurosawa, “He had an ear that can make entirely meaningful the considerations of melody, rhythm, and harmony on one hand, and the physical, the psychological, the seen on the other.”

A Kurosawa retrospective at the Music Box, continuing through November 14, covers the director’s richest period, from 1948 to 1965. The sound tracks of eight of the eleven films being shown are included in the first two installments of the ambitious multibox release Film Music of Akira Kurosawa: The Complete Edition. The two boxes, consisting of six discs each, showcase the work of Kurosawa’s most accomplished composers: Satoh and his mentor, Fumio Hayasaka, who died of tuberculosis in 1955. Together, the festival and the compilations provide an ideal opportunity for studying the director’s distinctive notion that the key to film music is “hidden in the difficulty of appropriately distancing” music from performance.

Kurosawa and Hayasaka’s first collaboration, Drunken Angel (1948), was a revelation for the director. In his production notes to that film, Kurosawa writes, “I couldn’t feel that I had been anything but easy on film music up until now. This time I want to try to use music with a definite intention.” For Hayasaka, and later for Satoh, this meant combining Western instruments with Japanese idioms, and scoring this cultural dissonance to register not only on the sound track but as part of the story.

Japanese film is generally divided into two categories: period films, or jidai-geki, and contemporary films, or gendai-moni. For his 1950 period piece, Rashomon, Kurosawa asked Hayasaka to write a “bolero kind of music.” Censors had frowned on the use of Western music in Japanese films during the war years, especially in jidai-geki, so while American critics found the music derivative, Japanese audiences could still be startled by it. Hayasaka also smudges the distinctions between East and West by replacing the bolero’s castanets with the terse clacking of Japanese prayer drums.

Similarly, in Stray Dog, a gendai-moni, Hayasaka integrates the biwa (a four-stringed lute) into a Westernized score that plays out the turbulent changes in postwar Japanese culture. A rookie cop, played by Mifune, hunts for his stolen pistol among Tokyo jazz clubs, where he watches American servicemen dance frenetically with the pliant Japanese hostesses. In 1949, the year of the film’s release, this scene would have been both familiar and humiliating to Japanese moviegoers, and Hayasaka’s music captures that conflict with a menacing, jazzy grind.

Hayasaka died during the filming of I Live in Fear (1955). Though credited to him out of respect, the score was written by his 24-year-old student, Masaru Satoh. There is little music in this gendai-moni, the story of a gruff patriarch so terrified of Pacific H-bomb tests that he plans to move his family to Brazil–the film’s entire score is less than 20 minutes long. Those 20 minutes, however, signal an important shift in the sound of Kurosawa’s films. Satoh incorporates a broader range of international influences: the main theme of I Live in Fear, for instance, is a cha-cha, complete with muted trumpet and timpani. Satoh slows down the arrangement of this tune later in the film, then introduces an eerie soprano vocal line that combines Eastern and Western elements–it sounds like both a shakuhachi (or end-blown flute) and a theremin.

Satoh was less interested than his mentor in Japanese instrumentation, and more aware of Western film composers such as Henry Mancini and Alfred Newman. His ecumenical approach ought to have made him an ideal collaborator for Kurosawa. But the director preferred the work of Hayasaka and his relationship with the younger composer was often stormy. Though privately Hayasaka complained about Kurosawa’s “difficult and strict” orders, Satoh’s rebellion was more open; he was vexed at having to rewrite the score to Yojimbo so it would be in time with Mifune’s gait. “Kurosawa gave me a lot of advice about the scores I wrote for his films. We sometimes would watch the same scene over and over again, and he would ask me to change the orchestration or the placement of the music in the scene,” Satoh once remarked. “None of the other directors with whom I worked did this.” Satoh and Kurosawa had a falling-out in 1965 over the score to Red Beard and never worked together again.

But though Kurosawa had a better working relationship with Hayasaka, his collaborations with Satoh were more successful. Satoh composed his jazziest score for High and Low (1963), an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel. It opens with a trumpet motif that could have sprung from Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, then features surf guitar, barrelhouse piano, a warbled English-language torch song, and an instrumental version of “This Magic Moment.” The score is heavily influenced by Henry Mancini’s music for Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. As detectives track a fleeing kidnapper, the jaunty horns and aggressive drum attack of a 12-bar blues drive them on. It’s as if the music becomes a character in the story.

Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s dark 1957 retelling of Macbeth, is Satoh’s finest moment, combining the influences of Stravinsky and Copland with traditional Japanese music while preserving a nearly uniform mood. In one scene, a No flute emits a hollow chortle as Lady Asaji waits for her husband, Washizu, offscreen, to kill their overlord. In unison Asaji and the music urge him onward. When he returns with a bloody spear, the music stops, making the moment all the more terrifying. Though Satoh’s composition stands on its own, Kurosawa’s use of silence is often more striking than his use of music. The film opens with just the sound of wind and hooves. There is a getaway scene without getaway music. And when Washizu falls in battle, there are no words and no music–only the relentless whooshing of arrows.

In his autobiography Kurosawa claims that his most vivid early memories are auditory. “The sounds I used to listen to as a boy are completely different from those of today,” he writes. “First of all, there was no such thing as electric sound in those days. Even phonographs were not electric phonographs. Everything was natural sounds.” He goes on to list some of his favorites: “the fire-alarm bell…the tofu seller’s bugle…the monkey trainer’s drum…the bells of itinerant monks…the freshwater clam vendor…the humming of kite strings.”

You’ll hear many of these sounds in Kurosawa’s films, providing characterization and accent as surely as any visual detail. Regardless of the composer, it is always Kurosawa’s rhythms we hear when we watch his films, a fact that his collaborators readily admitted. “For one image there is only one matching music,” said Hayasaka. “Kurosawa has the intuition to discover this internal unity. Therefore, in the films I’ve done with him, he is the musical director, and I am the composer, and nothing more.”