Blesok no. 92, September-October, 2013

Takemitsu’s Music of Terror

Tijana Petkovska

Being a child of the nineties I was raised with an assortment of horror films, horror stories, horror pop culture in general, and I thought that I was accustomed to seeing and hearing terror. But I was wrong. Familiar with Japanese horror films, especially of the J-horror theatre variety, I have always heard the name Kobayashi, a man said to have inspired that whole direction in later Japanese horror cinema. Coming now in contact with one of his films, Kwaidan[1], has been an experience like no other, an experience that has taught me quite a few things, not only about showing fear with visual means, but trough the soundtrack closely intertwined with them.
It is not that many Western films haven’t struck a cord of fear that lingers in the auditory memory long after the viewing itself, but in Kwaidan I find one of the most perfect solutions for a horror movie soundtrack. From Psycho[2] to The Shining[3] malevolent sounds have made it’s way into occidental horror cinema, creating a pattern of over-dramatic music supposed to invite a feeling of dread into the very hearts of us. I believe though, that instead of merely inviting or hinting of horror these soundtracks become pushy and too direct, as if installing that emotion and all it’s variations on to us. Where in Kwaidan the musique concrete is so delicately frightening that one cannot but admire it’s composer. Beside its goose-bumps-inducing character, the specific aesthetic of the soundtrack marvelously correlates to the visual aspect of the film and the story. I believe that there are different types of horror films dealing with radically different aspects of fear and the reasons behind this kind of emotion. If humans are incomprehensively complex creatures, so are their emotions, cerebrations and the connection between the two. Kwaidan is a film that researches and explores such archetypical and primary fears, which no one can avoid having. Trough the correlation with myth and folklore, ascending onto the plain of fantasy, in Kwaidan, both Kobayashi, the director, and Takemitsu, the creator of the soundtrack, treat the kind of horror one experiences when dealing with the unknown. And what is most unknown to us, beside ourselves? Death, the great beyond, the soul as (or if) it traverses to another realm is a problem that mystifies all thinking creatures and it is weaved into human history, folklore, myth, philosophy, psychology and above all art. There have been many approaches in cinema particularly concerning this theme, but here I will only concentrate on a specific genre that weaves this motif in the stories as the inexplicable, albeit presentable horror of it. Furthermore, I will focus my looking (or rather hearing) glass on film sound as a medium that relays and help relay terror, with an even tighter focus on how it is done in the film Kwaidan.

As a specific music genre, musique concrete, doesn’t appeal to me in contrast to more classical and conservative music. That was until I fell in love with the film Kwaidan and its soundtrack. Toru Takemitsu, the man behind the magical soundtrack of Kwaidan, was able to create pieces of music synergic to the visual style of Masaki Kobayashi. Being a film split into four parts, Takemitsu follows each story with a musical language that appears to be birthed out of the core of the frightening experience of each different character we meet. Some may say that Takemitsu’s music creates a “sense of detachment”[4], but in the case of his work in Kwaidan I believe the effect is quite the contrary, or at least it was for me. While the concrete music of Pierre Schaeffer, who is known as the creator of this musical form and style, leaves a feeling of empty intellectualism, Takemitsu’s works seem to pierce right into bare emotions, yet still being able to give them an alphabet and a certain logic, beyond pure reason of course. For such a film as Kwaidan this is the perfect music to slightly illuminate the feelings of the protagonists and still achieve a sense of mystery when it comes to the fairy tale atmosphere. I realize now that I can’t seem to hide my admiration for this music. Maybe it is that I have finally discovered what appealed to me in Akira Kurosawa’s films, besides his fascinating direction, and that was Takemitsu’s work.
Takemitsu was a man that grew up with a steady diet of Western classical music, and in his twenties had discovered such names as Stravinsky, whose music and style influenced much of 20th century composers. It is later that he “discovers” and starts to work with the traditional music from his home country, Japan. That is specifically noticeable in the score for Kwaidan. The influences of traditional Japanese music heard in this film work again very well for it, as if giving it a type of sonar coloration of Japanese folk tales. Also, these influences are audible in his work for Kurosawa’s films (like in Dreams[5]). The audio-visual connection between Takemitsu and Kobayashi doesn’t stop to only one film, which tells of their artistic relationship being particularly strong and very successful.    

If music concrete is defined as a collection of “concrete” sounds, recorded and than modified electronically[6] to give them form, than this is also a powerful symbol in Kwaidan and an interesting choice. It is as if Kobayashi and Takemitsu were exploring a parallel way to express the essence of a ghost not only trough the cinematic image: ghosts as modified representations of their former selves. This is a particularly interesting issue of the soundtrack for Kwaidan. What is also noticeable is that, even though the audible and the visual work together, they present an interesting contrast to one another. While the visuals are very direct and imposing, the discreteness of the concrete music flows on top of them as if to only smooth them out and not taint them, which is something we very often find, as I previously stated, in occidental horror cinema. The unobtrusive nature of the soundtrack is also noticeable in the way the music and the sound effects are inseparable from each other and flow into each other to form a complete and united sense of time in each of the four narratives of Kwaidan. The particular dialectic of Takemitsu’s music and Kobayashi’s direction is what, for me, is in essence the true medium to convey such strong stories of the paranormal, the fantastic, the mystical, while still achieving to make it emotionally comprehensible. And if something is truly comprehensible is the terror.  


1. Kobayashi, Masaki.  Kwaidan.  Japan: 1965;
2. Hitchcock, Alfred.  Psycho.  USA: 1960;
3. Kubrick, Stanley.  The Shining.  USA: 1980.
4. Service, Tom.  A guide to Toru Takemitsu’s music (March 27th 2013).
5. Kurosawa, Akira.  Dreams.  Japan:1990;
6. Koizumi, Kyoko. Creative Soundtrack expression; Toru Takemitsu’s Score for Kwaidan.

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