As Max landed on the island of the Wild Things, he was thrust into a curious world of similarity masked as a frightening reflection of his own cultural phobias; When he became king, those similarities revealed a more global, more spiritual sense of unity that transcended species. It was a magical island of fantasy, where order was found amidst the darkened streams of chaos.
The music of the island country of Japan over the span of the last 70 odd years or has been largely in isolation from most western audiences, and, unfortunately, some of it’s most fantastical composers have had their work cataloged into a peculiar specimen of taxidermied, nearly forgotten, archives.
In the 1950’s Stravinsky was invited to Japan as an honored guest in an attempt to strengthen ties with the west and inform particular bonds of cultural assimilation. A handful of musical examples were prepared for Stravinsky, but he was interested in the most likely of candidates(the presentation of his music to Stravinsky was a mistake, of which Stravinsky insisted that the piece be allowed to continue to play until the end). With that event the music of Toru Takemitsu was thrust into international attention and thus represented Japanese music to the west; As the trend followed the lead of Takemitsu, who was celebrated for his careful attention to orchestral blending, the music of Japanese concert life continues to place a special emphasis on open vast soundscapes.
But in the 1950’s a young, prolific composer had just returned home to Japan from Paris, heavily under the influence of Boulez, Messiaen, and Varèse and was about to begin a career as one of the most developed, fascinating yet underrated, and unknown composers of the mid 20th century.
Toshiro Mayuzumi attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and graduated shortly after the Japanese surrender to the western allies in 1951. Ostensibly unphased by politics or patriotism, he migrated to Paris where he attended the conservatory. The influence is apparent in his work where, for instance, his use of pentatonic and ethno-synthetic melodies are often aureated in a harmonic dressage not unfamiliar to a culture that was still experimenting in a colorful new language that was
The early music is dazzlingly dark and violent; Peppered with bright and bubbling blurbs of woodwinds enveloped in chanting and rumbling brass. It feels every bit a Japanese Mussorgsky; His symphonic moods evokes a quasi shogunate promenade. His Nirvana Symphony is a textural masterpiece of neo-romantic introspection, utilizing buddhist chants and a large male choir drizzling on the pedals a slowly blossoming form.
These works are thankfully preserved on recording and easily available through iTunes. However, arguably his best-known work is suspiciously lacking a representation on any recording. It was a score in which he received a nomination for an academy award despite the work for which it was composed quickly falling into oblivion.
In 1966, “The Bible, In the Beginning” released to American audiences; The largest grossing film of the year ultimately left 20th century Fox 1.25 million in debt as a consequence of its enormous $18 million budget. The fact that it has no recording is not entirely a credit to the failure of the piece by any means, and furthermore as a result, it keeps its association closely connected to the overall production of the film, where the score is experienced as intended, with stunningly breathtaking visuals.
John Huston(Gandalf in the cartoon Hobbit of the 1970s) orates the beginning chapter of Genesis in a quasi colla voce leading across the expanse of Mayuzumi’s terrifying score. Each ‘day’ is presented as a short vignette of abstract shots of biological miracles, and appropriately expresses a deeper meaning by the supporting music of Mayuzumi; Indeed the music is more central to a surprisingly complex narrative than the scriptural text itself.
A young and perfectly sculpted Peter O’Toole plays the Imago Dei, in a truly breathtaking segment that interprets paradise and the serpent in a more psychologically rewarding context(rather than a literal translation that might take itself too seriously).
It might be considered the opposite of exhibiting a religious tone to the film, which may also partially explain its cultural fall into obscurity despite record sales. However, it is undeniably colorful, poetic, well-acted and beautifully executed on almost all levels. At the onset of the 1960s, one could expect such moderately anecdotal and licentious spirit(Think Strauss’ Salome) to challenge the more stoic interpretations of biblical cinema that the past decades seemed to generate by the dozens. In musical compliment, the primordial polyphony and polyrhythmic dances of Nimrod’s Babylonian courts immediately invoke a sense of an ancient, long-forgotten tradition; The fact that one can hear transpositions of Hirajoshi fragments makes it even more applicable to the associations of Babel(scattered cultures existing as one in ancient days). Of course, the film is treated to a mid intermission section which blends themes with foreshadowing of events, and for those enthusiasts of Cecil B. Demille, and Lawrence of Arabia, Mayazumi shows off in spectacular virtuosity.
Thankfully, iTunes does keep this cinematic masterpiece on its catalog, and at the time of this publication, it is selling for $4.99. It is one of those films, like Star Wars, where the score itself is a main attraction; a supporting character. It is of obvious recommendation to start with the Bible, simply on grounds of its price and the high production value, before exploring out into the inner landscapes that is Mayuzumi’s music.