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Lost Sounds and Soundtracks. Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" by Toru Takemitsu

Takemitsu's dread score distorts the director's abundant visual imagination into something more like superstition.
Ben Simington

Composer Toru Takemitsu on the "Black Hair" sequence in Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1965):

"I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror. But if the music is constantly saying, "Watch out! Be scared!" then all the tension is lost. It's like sneaking up behind someone to scare them. First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music.  Here, I wanted all sounds to have the quality of wood. We used real wood for effects. I'd ask for a "cra-a-a-ck" sound, and they'd split a plank of wood, or rip it apart, or rend it with a knife. Using all these wood sounds, I assembled the track."  —from the documentary Music for Movies: Toru Takemitsu (1994)

What you are listening to:

Toru Takemitsu's score for Kwaidan:

(1) Opening titles


(2) The Black Hair


(3) The Woman of the Snow


(4) Hoichi the Earless - Tale of the Heike


(5) Hoichi the Earless - Preparations and the Ghost's Attack


(6) In A Cup of Tea


—From "Film Music by Toru Takemitsu, Volume 1" (JVC, 1990)

"First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music."...fitting words to describe this incredible score's ability to echo the uncompromisingly streamlined visual stylization of Kobayashi's film: both mise-en-scène and aural palette seem to be additively built up from a perfectly clean slate, with only fleeting acknowledgment of any aesthetic's existence outside the sound stage.

But within such a stringent framework, the music is anything but predictable.  Cracking wood in the film's opening segment becomes transformed from a sound recognizably organic into something menacingly alien.  Spectral atmospherics increasingly infect the strict idiom of classical Japanese biwa playing as the introduction of "Hoichi the Earless" approaches its tragic conclusion and the sung tale transitions from historical account towards the ghost realm Hoichi will soon encounter first-hand.  The swarm of jarring notes in which poor Hoichi's attack culminates provide a violent syncopated counterpoint to the visual rhythms onscreen, while what sound like instrumental jump-cuts during "In a Cup of Tea" mimic the ghosts' onscreen disappearing/reappearing act.

Without Takemitsu, Kobayashi's Kwaidan is simply too beautiful to be feared, but the dread score distorts the director's abundant visual imagination into something more like superstition. It is a focusing lense of the uncanny that disconcertingly hints at the stuff of creeping nightmares.

Kwaidan plays at New York's Film Forum Friday, December 10 as part of their Takemitsu retrospective going through December 16th.


Music can be one of cinema's great pleasures. When used with inspiration—not dictating our viewing experience with a death grip or slathered like bad wallpaper over the rest of a sound mix—it can transform either solitary shots or spliced sequences of moving images into entirely new expressions, galvanizing details within the raw cinematographic material or contrapuntally complicating the initial impressions of the image.

Given our love for movie music in all its forms, whether a soundtrack features original orchestral compositions, near-abstract soundscapes, or acts as a curatorial force for collecting, exposing and (re-) contextualizing existent music, Lost Sounds and Soundtracks will serve to highlight some of our favorites, obscure and not so obscure, commercially available and ripped directly from audio-tracks where necessary. Unless analyzed within their original context, all will be divorced from their image-tracks in hopes that we might briefly give them their singular due.


ColumnsLost Sounds and SoundtracksMasaki Kobayashi
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