Film Score Friday #4: “Ran” (1985)

‘Why do I write film music? … I don’t like things that are too pure and refined. I’m more interested in what’s real. And films are so full of life’. This simple self-assessment by Toru Takemitsu, which opens Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary for Sony Classical’s Music at the Movies series on his considerable output for film, neatly encapsulates the aesthetic of a repertoire that does not so much contrast with as complement the varied, unique and endlessly fascinating oeuvre that firmly established him as Japan’s most celebrated classical composer. Working with film, Takemitsu continues, with its rather more ‘coarse’ elements of (among many others) eroticism and violence, afforded him a certain freedom from the comparative ‘purity’ not only of writing concert works, but also of the increasing demands for abstraction from emotional impulse in contemporary art music, both of which occasionally, for him, threatened to border on stultifying. Indeed, his film scores, of which he composed more than 100 over the course of his career, do not at all represent a compromise of his compositional voice, but rather showcase his insatiable curiosity and urge towards experimentation to a very different degree.

The latter placed him in good company with a number of prominent directors within the emerging Japanese New Wave movement with whom he quickly forged fruitful partnerships, such as Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Woman in the Dunes) and Nagisa Oshima (Empire of Passion). Yet his attentions were also sought by figures from the old guard – some might even say the “establishment” – among them the great Akira Kurosawa, who had built up a formidable reputation among domestic and international audiences alike chiefly for his string of successful historical period dramas or jidaigeki, including RashomonSeven SamuraiThrone of Blood and Yojimbo. Following a somewhat fallow period in terms of both output and acclaim, 1980 saw Kurosawa begin to revive his creative and critical fortunes with Kagemusha, a return to the costume epics of his heyday which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Buoyed by the film’s success, he was able to mount the confidence and, crucially, the financial backing for his next project, the even more monumental Ran, which, like its predecessor, would prove one of his undisputed masterpieces.

Akira Kurosawa on the set of “Ran”.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s King LearRan follows the fallout from the decision by the ageing warlord Hidetora Ichimonji to bequeath and divide up his territory among his three sons, believing that their combined strength and loyalty to each other will make them, and by extension the Ichimonji clan, more powerful. After his youngest son, Saburo, warns him against this course of action, and is banished for his troubles, the two older sons, driven by internal and external machinations of greed, power and revenge, duly turn first against Hidetora and then against each other, plunging the kingdom into anarchy and war, and indeed into the “chaos” of the film’s title. For the project, Kurosawa enlisted Takemitsu’s services on composition duties for a second time, having previously worked with him on the coolly received city slum drama Dodesu’kaden. In much the same way as the two efforts offer vivid contrasts in terms of dramatic and visual style, while the latter embraces more of a chamber aesthetic and radiates a sense of child-like naivety and optimism (as evidenced in the film’s main title), the music of Ran is dark, brooding and foreboding, its full orchestral score enveloping the soundtrack like the frequent shots of gathering storm clouds interspersed throughout the film.

Takemitsu’s unique and fiercely independent compositional voice is unmistakeable, and large portions of the score evince the influence of traditional Japanese music, particularly that accompanying noh theatre performances, that he increasingly embraced during the course of his career. As well as employing Japanese instruments such as the shinobue flute that provides many of the film’s musical cues, the idiomatic way in which Takemitsu writes for these instruments is also reflected in the “Western” orchestra, with many other themes and moments displaying the same angular, disjointed character. While many of his other collaborators knew better than to interfere with Takemitsu’s composition process, Kurosawa’s vice-tight grip on the production, a sign of the obsessive perfectionism that often made him difficult to work with as much as it also endeared him to his appreciators, is evident too. In Zwerin’s documentary, Takemitsu describes how, once filming for Ran eventually began, the director gradually moved away from the initial ideas that the two had conceived for the film’s music, which utilised synthesised human voices to mimic the cries of battle, and instead pressed him to model it around the music of Gustav Mahler, to the extent that Kurosawa became, in the composer’s words, ‘obsessed with that Mahler sound’.

While it is not immediately obvious from the context what Takemitsu means by this, there is a discernible heaviness in portions of his score that displays a certain affinity with the central preoccupation with death that underscores much of Mahler’s work, such as in his Second (“Resurrection”) and Sixth (“Tragic”) Symphonies. As well as being a source of fear and existential dread, however, Mahler’s treatment of death also offers the prospect of transcendence into another realm, and thus of reconciliation and acceptance. Leonard Bernstein, for example, argues that the last movement of his Ninth (and final completed) Symphony not only symbolises Mahler’s coming-to-terms with his own impending death, but that the act of its composition effectively performs this function as well, even going so far as to pinpoint the moment at which ‘the world…slip[s] out of his fingers’.

Toru Takemitsu in typically meditative mood.

In contrast, Takemitsu’s score frequently complements Stephen Prince’s view that Ran offers ‘Kurosawa’s view of the human character…at its bleakest and most unsparing, [where] history has given way to a perception of life as a wheel of endless suffering’ (The Warrior’s Camera, p. 287), eschewing all sense of pathos in favour of utter despair and desolation. This is most effectively and unmistakeably expressed during the celebrated sequence in which Hidetora’s castle is attacked by the combined forces of his two traitorous elder sons, the almost paralysing horror of which is enhanced substantially by the complete absence of diegetic sound, leaving the viewer only with the indelible images of Hidetora’s soldiers and and retinue being mercilessly slaughtered. The sole accompaniment comes instead from the ‘dirge-like’ tones (Prince, 287) of Takemitsu’s “Hell’s Picture Scroll”, an appropriate title almost certainly derived from Kurosawa’s screenplay:

‘A terrible scroll of Hell is shown depicting the fall of the castle. There are no real sounds as the scroll unfolds like a daytime nightmare… The music superimposed on these pictures is, like the Buddha’s heart, measured in beats of profound anguish, the chanting of a melody full of sorrow that begins like sobbing and rises gradually as it is repeated’ (quoted in Prince, 288 – also available from

A threnody that unfolds in real time with the apocalyptic tableau seen on screen, the piece not only fits this brief, but truly surpasses it, as various factors combine to give the composition as a whole a visceral power that is little short of terrifying. Far from the transcendence of Mahler, here we have the earth-bound anguish of Shostakovich, its sonic palette evoking some of the spikier melodies of his Fifth Symphony in its lugubrious, wailing main theme in the upper strings and woodwinds and the dark sonorities of his Thirteenth in its funereal orchestral textures (appropriately enough, Shostakovich did himself provide the score for a 1971 Russian film adaptation of King Lear). The predominance in Takemitsu’s harmony of minor major seventh chords, particularly underneath the first theme, has a persistent destablising effect, with the added sharpened seventh creating a double dissonance against both the root (namely a major seventh) and the third (augmented 5th) of the minor triad.

Furthermore, not only is this confined to the accompanying instruments, but it is also used to harmonise the melody itself, resulting in a dense, atonal cluster of notes that is prominently placed within the orchestral timbre and that moves in parallel, never allowing the dissonance to be fully resolved. If at this point the music merely unsettles the listener, its hellish power is fully unleashed through Takemitsu’s orchestration. Spread across the entire ensemble from top to bottom and punctuated with the ‘[heart]beats of profound anguish’ provided by the timpani, its titanic intensity evokes the sensation of the ground trembling beneath the viewer’s feet, a frighteningly effective analogue to the furious ‘storm of steel’ that has just broken.

Hidetora stumbles through the inferno as his castle burns.

In the accompanying in-universe introduction to his novel The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse (or at least, his narrator) writes of the importance of music to the ancient Chinese kings in reflecting and, indeed, safeguarding the health and prosperity of their lands:

‘It was held that if music throve, all was well with culture and morality and with the kingdom itself… If music decayed, that was taken as a sure sign of the downfall of the regime and the state. The poets told horrific fables about…the “music of decline”; no sooner were these wicked notes struck in the Royal Palace than the sky darkened, the walls trembled and collapsed, and kingdom and sovereign went to their doom.’

This portentous fable is just as applicable to the world depicted in Ran, as Takemitsu’s score often serves (in terms of both its sound and its placement) to reinforce the nature of violence within the film not only as an unavoidable evil, but one necessary to put in place the structures of power and control that, ironically, ensure some form of peace. After all, when Saburo speaks of himself and his brothers as having been ‘weaned on strife and chaos’, he refers to a capacity for ruthlessness that not only runs through the Ichimonji bloodline, but also provides the very foundation of the clan’s dominance and correspondingly underpins a worldview that is seemingly stronger among its wider members than among the family themselves. Jiro’s general Kurogane, for example, is even more committed than his already power-hungry lord to the merciless family creed of absolute rule, the path to which he implores Jiro to follow after the attack on the Third Castle rather than aiding his shell-shocked father, and to which Jiro is, by the film’s close, irredeemably converted.

This relationship is established at the film’s very beginning, as Takemitsu’s opening title combines icy string harmonics with bursts of shrill shinobue flute and atmospheric percussion, effectively mirroring the tense and foreboding scene of mounted soldiers seemingly keeping uneasy watch. This is subsequently revealed to be for a boar hunt which, although somewhat anti-climactic, presents a fitting analogy right off the bat for the campaign of conquest and domination through violence that Hidetora freely admits he has waged for decades, an analogy which from this point on is never far from the surface.

Indeed, the first subsequent reentry of the score, after a good twenty-five minutes, comes as Hidetora unwaveringly shoots down one of his son Taro’s guards for threatening his fool Kyoami (“The Brave General’s Bow”), the angular flute line a perfect counterpart to the formidable figure he cuts up in the ramparts. There are moments too, however, where the idea of music providing commentary on violence in the film is more conspicuous by its absence, as many scenes pivotal for the story’s human drama and intrigue, such as Lady Kaede’s attempted assassination and then successful seduction of her brother-in-law Jiro, are left unscored.

The blind Tsurumaru (Takeshi Nomura) plays on his flute.

Neither are the ‘wicked notes’ of Hesse’s parable limited in Takemitsu’s score to the physical enactment of violence, but also extend to its consequences. See, for example, the scene in which the sightless Tsurumaru, blinded as a child on Hidetora’s orders, plays the dishevelled lord a song on his flute (“Tsurumaru’s Flute”) into which, according to Kurosawa’s screenplay (p. 59), he pours his ‘deep sorrow and lament’. While this supposedly ‘moves Hidetora’, the reaction of actor Tatsuya Nakadai is seemingly (at least without the benefit of the screenplay) one more of horror than heartbreak, with the flute’s chilling tones appearing to signify the ghastliness not only of Hidetora’s past crimes, but also of the way in which they have shaped and impacted the world he now wanders, a world for whose gradual collapse a ‘music of decline’ seems all too appropriate. Indeed, the totality and finality of this collapse is reinforced by the re-entry of this melody (“Flute of Darkness”, 1’36” onwards) over the film’s closing shot, namely of Tsurumaru alone and stranded atop a high precipice, the echoes of his flute a reminder of the prophecy of death and ruin that has now been fulfilled.

In contrast, the score’s sole instance of genuinely tragic music helps to draw a clearer demarcation, if not between heroes and villains, then between the victims and agents of violence, and is first heard as Hidetora visits Tsurumaru’s sister Sué (“The Buddhist Praying Temple”), forced to marry Jiro after the slaughter of their family. While her brother’s hatred for Hidetora clearly lingers on, Sué retains a certain purity and virtue expressed primarily in her selfless devotion to the Buddha, but also in the forgiveness her faith allows her to show her murderous father-in-law. If Hidetora is indeed ‘moved’ by Tsurumaru’s song, the music that plays at this point complements his intense feelings not only of guilt towards Sué, amplified by her lack of defiance and furthermore by her willingness to absolve him of his wicked crimes, but also of pity for a person whose only capable response to the trauma she has suffered is to smile bleakly through her pain and to place her trust in a deity who, in his view, ‘is gone from this world’. This theme is then heard again amidst the roar of battle of the “Hell’s Picture Scroll” sequence as a pair of Hidetora’s concubines commit mutual suicide. Much as ‘the beautiful way in which they die’, as Kurosawa’s screenplay stipulates, ‘touches the heart’, the reentry of this theme provides brief respite from the ongoing musical nightmare, respite that is brought to a swift and brutal end as the main theme returns over the image of more concubines being mercilessly mown down by musket fire.

Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai, in white) has his portentous vision, tended by sons Taro (Akira Terao), Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu).

In contrast, Kaede completes a transition from one to the other, as her grief for her own loss at Hidetora’s hands manifests itself in a lust for revenge that causes her to exhibit the same callous and bloodthirsty tendencies as the warlord himself, and it is here too that the absence of music takes on connotative properties in itself. While the revelation of Sué’s death is greeted with the hair-raising sound of high-register tremolo strings over the macabre image of her and her chambermaid’s headless bodies prostrated in a horrifyingly picturesque blossoming field, Kaede’s, possibly the most violent death in the entire story, is completely silent. Similarly, for all the sympathy that Hidetora elicits through his ordeals in the film, or Saburo as its de facto “hero”, both characters remain irrevocably tainted by the Ichimonjis’ past deeds, and, robbed of the opportunity to make amends, both their deaths are essentially “unmourned” in Takemitsu’s score. Indeed, the music that is eventually heard after this point is a recapitulation of the main theme from “Hell’s Picture Scroll”, identifying less with the fallen protagonists than with the senseless violence that they (and mankind in general) have brought into the world.

This, ultimately, is the message with which the viewer is left at the film’s close. While the funeral procession for Hidetora and Saburo is accompanied by a suitably Mahlerian-sounding Trauermarsch (“Attendance at the Funeral”), with an insistently plodding pulse, open woodwind textures and a plaintive minor theme played on a solo bassoon, against the backdrop of a darkening sky and the ruined castle that previously belonged to Sué and Tsurumaru’s family, the impression is more that it is the ravaged world around them for which the real mourning is intended. In this sense, although Takemitsu was initially dissatisfied with the musical results (‘I guess it’s fine the way it is’, he later admits in Zwerin’s documentary), his masterful score is as much an authority as Kurosawa’s story in presenting (and aligning itself with) a cruel and obdurate universe in which violence is the norm and the pity reserved for the desperate victims caught at its centre is insufficient to relieve them of their suffering. The fool Kyoami, who contrary to his designated role frequently offers much in the way of insightful wisdom, bitterly remarks at one point that, ‘Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies’. As the “Hell’s Picture Scroll” theme is briefly heard once again over the “Ending Credits”, closing the cycle of death and violence revealed at the film’s opening, one cannot help but see some degree of truth in his sad words.

Kurosawa directs the attack on the Third Castle.


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