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The Takemitsu Treatment: "Youth of Japan"

Glenn Kenny
Masaki Kobayashi's Hymn To A Tired Man, also known as Youth of Japan, is a fairly difficult film to see, which is one reason its December 5 December 4 screening at N.Y.C.'s Film Forum is a noteworthy event. It's an unusual film; its latter-cited title and the fact that it was made in 1968 might suggest to some that it's a thematic cousin to the American The Graduate. In one sense, it is; among its several plot threads there's one involving a dissatisfied student involved in a romance that causes some embarrassing consternation to the two families involved. But mostly the film is what its former-cited title suggests; a tragi-comedy about a meek representative of what could be seen as Japan's "greatest generation:" a mild-mannered partially deaf businessman alienated from the fast pace of "modern life" and haunted by newly resurrected ghosts of the past.
The picture's Film Forum screening is part of a lengthy, but hardly exhaustive retrospective of the works of composer Takemitsu Toru. Aside from being a noteworthy picture in and of itself, it's an exemplary example of how the prolific and endlessly imaginative musician applied his empathy and innovative spirit to film music.
For one thing, it's not a "through" score such as it is, but rather a series of reiterated themes/motifs, which of course is very common in film music stretching from Steiner and Waxman to Morricone. The sense of a film having and internal/original jukebox of sorts has dissipated somewhat in the era of films that are either musically driven by pop songs or grand quasi-symphonies. (Say what you will about Inception, but the way Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer played with music relative to the film's theme/content was pretty clever, as droll a statement as the way David Cronenberg and Howard Shore used Ornette Coleman for Naked Lunch.) In any event, the themes show of Takemitsu's eclectic mastery from the start; he unveils a variety of modes in the first ten minutes. There's some avant-gardeish, electro-acoustic noise, a prepared piano, perhaps, followed by some feedbackish stuff, accompanying the tired man played by Makoto Fujita up a flight of stairs; very soon after that the film's main theme, a plaintive harmonica wail accompanied by acoustic guitar. The timing is such that it's quite likely that any resemblance between this and the instrumental theme by John Barry for Midnight Cowboy had to have been a coincidence, but the two have an eerie affinity not just in terms of instrumentation but the emotion they're going for. The film's next theme is more in the traditional mode of orchestral swells. (The music is used sparsely throughout the 130-minute film: Takemitsu was known as a cinephile and someone who got exceptionally involved in process, closely consulting the director, showing up at actual shoots, and so on. Not for him the method of writing and recording a bunch of cues and throwing them in the laps of the other filmmakers. Still, for all that, the actual amount of music in many of the films he composed for is relatively sparse. This was determined by aesthetics and philosophy and does not reflect on his phenomenal work ethic.) The final theme is introduced relatively late in the picture, and relates to the lead character's partial deafness, and how it happened. A high, eerie, horribly insistent string motif. That description can't help but evoke Herrmann's theme to Psycho, and it's to Tokemitsu's credit of course that this particular theme doesn't sound like Herrmann's in the least and creates a very different effect, despite the fact that it's subsequently used when invoking, of course, trauma.
It's in this sense that one can appreciate Takemitsu as an architect of sound and its attendant emotions. He constructs a group of elements and then erects a soundtrack structure with them. Nothing is wasted, and the parts themselves are sturdy and multivalent enough that they tend to gain rather than lose with repetition. It's true of his work in all 19 films in the Film Forum retrospective, which runs through December 16.


Masaki Kobayashi
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