As a sishi odoshi plays its soft short bamboo chime in a crispy night, two onna bushi face each other as they prepare for a deadly duel, in a typical, snow-covered, Japanese garden. The last image of the duel is a sakura flower imprinted on a saya, which like the real one, silently and solemnly detaches itself from the branch to die shortly thereafter, in its full glory. To complete such an ending, the velvety notes of a shakuhachi introduce the light voice of Meiko Kaji on the sweet notes of Shura no hana, the flower of carnage.
I think it might be enough to listen to this song to recreate one of the most famous images, even to those who are not passionate about martial arts movies, to represent a particular Japan, characterized by opposites, made up of delicate details, references to the calm of Zen and fierce sword fights, all accompanied by soft music based on flutes and stringed instruments.
It is difficult to talk about music without being able to experience the emotions for which it was conceived. I would therefore like to enter this realm with the aid of some audio contributions that can complete a simple verbal exposition, with a kind invitation to savour at least some taste of this strange musical menu for a better sensory immersion, clicking the images below to be able to watch the related videos: if music is often associated with particular emotions, it is also interesting to learn how in Japanese the kanji that identify this artistic noun are in fact a combination of the ideograms for sound and pleasure.
Whether it is a classic film production, an animated movie or a theatrical piece, music is that particular component that adds a strong impact to the gracefulness of the making. I had the pleasure of being able to tell something about the life and works of Miyazaki Hayao and Mifune Toshiro, two pillars of Japanese movie industry who have risen to icons at planetary level, and certainly their works left a sign in the heart and in the memory of everybody thanks to the fundamental support of their soundtrack. In Miyazaki’s works, music has been defined as an essential element, with a founding narrative function based on instrumental pieces that have their roots in classical music, performed by a giant orchestra with obvious elements from Japanese culture.
The fame of these great classics cannot therefore be split with that, surely not a secondary one, of those who worked behind the scenes, but then not so much, like Joe Hisaishi, stage name of Fujisawa Mamoru, a composer known for having collaborated with the two most famous Japanese filmmakers of the late twentieth century, namely Miyazaki Hayao and Kitano Takeshi, for whom he wrote the soundtracks of almost any movie and whose compositions have received numerous awards, including six Japan Academy Awards for Best Music, making him win a leading position on the front of the Japanese music industry.
If you never had the opportunity to listen to an orchestra playing live the soundtracks of a movie while it mutedly runs on a cinema screen, it is definitely an experience that I personally recommend to search for, because it completely changes your emotional perspective to the movie itself: I will therefore partially leave this task to some videos trying to get you emotionally involved, as the concert for the Studio Ghibli 25th anniversary celebration event.
Of equal fame, Ifukube Akira composed over two hundred and fifty movie and television soundtracks, the most famous of which are probably Godzilla (1954) and The Triumph of King Kong (1962). And musical instruments have not only been used to play music, but also in a very creative way to complete a soundtrack: Ifukube is in fact the creator of the characteristic roar of our favorite kaiju (https://kiryoku.it/en/japanese-monsters-horror-and-fear-with-a-pinch-of-education/), obtained by rubbing a leather glove covered with resin along the strings of a double bass.
Japanese musical culture certainly recalls percussive sounds, warbling and particular instruments, the use of scales and progressions often not too familiar to the western musical ear, but not without charm and interesting ideas, and that surely deserve a thorough study. Traditional Japanese music (hogaku) groups different musical genres, which have had different origins and which have evolved over a period of time that in some cases exceeds the tenth of centuries.
Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some trends and characteristics common to all these genres, above all by highlighting basic differences with respect to western music that we more familiar with and that we call “classical”.
I would be embarrassed having to propose a single instance of characteristic Japanese music, given that at least three different macro “genres” come to my mind, all equally pleasant but which return completely different emotions:
– percussive music, represented by the more traditional group as Kodo or the more modern Tao, which bring us back to the classic cinematic scenes of medieval battles, but also greatly leveraged on community celebrations (matsuri).
– music with stringed instruments, with one of my favorite modern groups of this genre, the Yoshida Brothers, which combine Japanese tradition and western rock, but that in the traditional versions are those characteristic of many movies centered on martial arts.
– music with wind instruments, that can be represented by the great Miyata Kohachiro, typical of scenes of meditation, relaxation or melancholy situations.
Assembling them all together, they are certainly in the collective imagination of martial arts enthusiasts, present in every movie, with instruments that characterise particular scenes, the arrival of specific characters or composed to create the atmosphere of a fight like the great western composers like Ennio Morricone (The good, the bad and the ugly, but also a thousand other soundtracks) or John Williams (Star Wars).
Technically, one of the feature of this music is obviously the so-called Japanese scale, actually an eastern family of pentatonic scales harmonized similarly to the more well-known western ones called modals (from a Mayor scale one can originates Doric, Phrygian, Lydian, Misolydian, Aeolian or Minor, and Locryan scales): in the Japanese version we may deal with Yo and Hirajoshi scales, which in turn generate other scales following the example of the modal ones. For those who have the opportunity to get their hands on an instrument to practically understand this scale, the Hirajoshi scale is based on intervals that start from the tonic and follow with major 3rd, augmented 4th, natural 5th and major 7th: even just playing with these notes in this exact order one can recreate immediately the typical atmosphere of Japanese movies.
If I may allow myself to categorise Japanese music as if it is depending on a single family of instruments, then it is a sure duty to review the most typical ones, namely:
– Taiko: term that indicates the drums generally associated in the western world to large drums, but in reality they are characterised by several dimensions and different types such as the barrel or the cylindrical ones, double faced and played with drumsticks of different diameters.
– Biwa: short neck lutes with frets and a typical pear-shaped body, made from a single piece of wood and with silk strings, historically used by blind itinerant monks (biwa hoshi) around the eighth century to recite pieces of epic poems. This category of instruments is divided into five further subtypes: gaku biwa, moso biwa, heike biwa, satsuma biwa and chikuzen biwa.
– Shamisen: three-stringed instrument, belonging to the lute family, used for accompainment during the performances of the Kabuki and Bunraku theatre. It has Chinese origins, it can be played with fingers or with a large pick called bachi, it has a square case that is covered with snake skin (the original name jabisen means in fact a stringed instrument in snake skin). The evolution of this instrument led to the creation of the futozao (with a large neck), the chuzao (with a medium neck), the hosozao (with a thin neck) and furtherly to the subgroups of instruments related to the hosozao and chuzao.
– Shakuhachi: five-hole straight flute, again with Chinese origins, made in different sizes from forty to ninety centimeters. It is typical of the Edo period (1603-1867) as characteristic instrument of two main schools, the Kinko and the Tozan, each featuring a specific repertoire such as honkyoku, pieces developed as a form of meditation by Zen monks, and gaikyoku, pieces initially outside the repertoire for shakuhachi.
– Shinobue: or takebue, is the transverse flute, with an important role in the music that accompanies pieces written for Noh and Kabuki theatrical pieces.
– Koto: string instrument with Chinese origins, belonging to the family of lyres, equipped with a large sound box, about two meters long and twenty five centimeters wide, with thirteen strings of the same diameter and the same tension, each of which rests on a mobile bridge (ji). It is played with a pick in different shapes depending on the school, and strings are tuned by moving their bridges appropriately. There are several types of tunings depending on the musical genre, on the song to be performed or on the traditional school, such as Hirajoshi (one of the most common), Kokinjoshi, Gakujoshi and Honkumoijoshi.
Let’s then mix all these instruments together, let’s add a pinch of modernity with electronic instruments and western musical influences and here is the birth of a particular style, extremely pleasant, also in this case capable of bringing to the listener’s mind the typical sensations of a thousand movies: I’m then talking about Kitaro, a contemporary musician who has been able to wisely mix genres and characteristics, instruments and techniques, creating an electronic instrumental genre particularly appreciated by new-age music fan, but definitely not only. Let’s start dreaming of Japanese landscapes lulled by one of his relaxing composition.
Music as well, like various other Japanese arts, has its roots in Buddhist and Shinto religions, taking its cue from Chinese origins to be finally rendered as japanese as the time passed by: some typical instruments were in fact used by specific castes to add music to specific narratives, to religious or to popular themes, as well as performed by mendicant monks to ask for alms, to finally arrive at the more classic accompainment of the Noh, Bunraku (puppets) and then up to Kabuki opera compositions.
But traditional folk music has recently undergone influences from all over the world, and the spirit of copying, studing and therefore with own appropriation and personalization typical of Japanese history and culture, has allowed the growth of peculiar musical cultures and particular contaminations, perhaps even for purely commercial purposes: even Buddhist monks are not immune to this, such as priest Kossan, who emigrated to the United States to teach Zazen to the Americans, former player of sanshin, the instrument that subsequently evolved into the shamisen, and who was evidently literally dazzled by more modern music.
Japanese music began to modernize only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, becoming westernized, taking inspiration from multiple genres and taking the name of kayokyoku, the popular music. It is only after the ‘50s that music will remain known as Japanese pop, or j -pop, and to be transformed again into the most modern Japanese rock, j-rock, in the ‘60s an up to the ‘80s, and then again to be modified with the innovative visual kei, an unprecedented concentration of multiple musical genres, from the sweetest to the most ferocious indiscriminately, characterized from an extremely showy and sophisticated look in clothes, hairstyles, makeup and attitude. It is an extremely fruitful genre in Japanese subcultures. We should also not forget mentioning the specialisation in music specifically composed for video games, starting from the second half of the ‘90s, a serious reality given the now high quality of such compositions which are also sold separately from the game they are composed for. It is no coincidence that one of the idols of j-rock, Utada Hikaru, pianist, songwriter and producer (over fifty million records sold all over the world), is also a composer for songs featuring some videogames such as the Kingdom Hearts saga.
Rock began to have more and more hold on the new Japanese generations, and as society continued its frenetic transformation, Japanese culture is featured for example by the overbearing advent of the myth of a certain America, that one of the ‘50s, which became a new fashion, a new lifestyle, as it has already happened in other Western nations. Initially some Japanese pioneers of overseas music began interpreting famous rock and roll songs, once again giving a lot of space to the female musical universe, such as the model Hamamura Michiko, who took the opportunity to ride this wave with recordings as famous as the milestone song Jailhouse Rock.
This passion for rock and roll flowed a few years later into the Japanese rockabilly movement, becoming a real subculture, meeting with outstanding success also the passion for dancing: some groups finally made their own the styles of music and techniques typically from the western world, but without abandoning the traditions that remained a featuring element even if only as clothing or in lyrics, abundantly drawing from the classics of Japanese literature. The metal group Ningen Isu is a clear example, in which a typical Japanese imagery beautifully blends with the characteristic sounds of heavy metal.
But the history of Japanese music is not certainly over: like a good cyberpunk science fiction novel in which Japan and its society can be taken as a model, with the technological innovation typical of the Rising Sun and always with an particular eye to traditions, new technological instruments of classical inspiration are now developed, such as the Telesen, in which a small cathode ray tube television is reincarnated in something similar to the ancient sanshin. But while sanshin is a variant of sansen which literally means three strings, Telesen has more than three strings, strings which are metaphors of stripes on the screen. The sound is produced when the player captures the static electricity emitted by the CRT-TV screen from a conductive pick, the tone can be changed by varying the number of stripes on the screen and the wavelength is varied using a controller on the instrument neck. The result is a very particular electronic genre, which we could see perfectly placed in a Blade Runner setting.
We then go back to the origins passing from this technological future in a continuous cycle of artistic transformations that lead to rediscover traditions and objects from the past, renewed and adapted to face a new creativity.