If there was ever a perfect foil for Akira Kurosawa, it was Fumio Hayasaka.
In his brief life Japanese composer Hayasaka masterfully created the musical counterpart to the artful scenes developed by his close friend and colleague. Hayasaka composed music for nearly 70 films from 1939 until his death in 1955, but his best work came in the handful of films he worked on with Kurosawa. Alongside the preeminent director, he found a partner willing to push the art of the score. Hayasaka’s ability to provide a melodic companion allowed Kurosawa the room to say more with sound and cinematography, and less with dialogue.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) with its prolonged scenes featuring almost no dialog, where tension is carried by the bustling score and Kurosawa’s lush visuals. In 2012, film historian and critic Stephen Prince wrote for Criterion about the importance of Hayasaka’s compositions in the film.
“In Rashomon, Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and re-create the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking,” Prince writes. ”Thus, the cinematography … and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Fumio Hayasaka’s score carry the action.”
Hayasaka uses both western and traditional Japanese musical motifs in the score. Over four Rashomon movements, Hayasaka ranges from marching drums and piercing flutes to dissonant drones and jazz trumpet syncopations. According to another Criterion essay written in 1989 by Alexander Sesonske, there is a method to the score’s western and eastern harmonic progressions. No doubt one clearly envisioned between Kurosawa and Hayasaka.
“This obscurity of literal meaning has prompted symbolic interpretations.” Sesonske writes. “The most plausible of these sees Rashomon as an allegory of Japanese history, with its recurrence of Japanese culture being destroyed by barbarians, with hope for the future of Japan seen … at the end, an interpretation supported, perhaps, by the fact that the western music dominant through the film is replaced by traditional Japanese music at the close.”
Starting in 1948 with Drunken Angel, Hayasaka and Kurosawa would work on several films together, including Stray Dog, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot, and Ikiru. Their creative relationship culminated with the production of Seven Samurai, largely considered to be Hayasaka’s sonic masterpiece.
Its brilliance lies in its artful variety. The setting of tumultuous feudal Japan lays the groundwork for Hayasaka’s meandering compositions, from the uneasiness of Gregorian chants to full orchestral interludes of Japanese melodies using mostly western instrumentation. It is mostly a foreboding score, with whimsical elements set aside for characters like Toshiro Mifune’s constantly-staggered Kikuchiyo.
Hayasaka composed scores for other directors as well, notably Kenji Mizoguchi’s films Sansho The Bailiff, Ugetsu, and The Crucified Lovers. However, Haysaka’s work will always be irretrievably linked to the Kurosawa films, it is his most important contribution and the work that has influenced cinematic scores throughout history.
In Kurosawa’s 1983 autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography, he writes about the importance of Hayasaka in changing his perception of music in film.
“I changed my thinking about musical accompaniment from the time Hayasaka Fumio began working with me as composer of my film scores. Up until that time film music was nothing more than accompaniment—for a sad scene there was always sad music. This is the way most people use the music, and it is ineffective. But from Drunken Angel onward, I have used light music for some key sad scenes, and my way of using music has differed from the norm. I don’t put it in where most people do. Working with Hayasaka, I began to think in terms of the counterpoint of sound and image as opposed to the union of sound and image.”
Fumio Hayasaka was only 41 when he died from tuberculosis in October, 1955. He was still composing a score for Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear at the time of his death.
Written by E. Ryan Ellis.
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