Soundtrack: Toru Takemitsu / Pale Flower

The game is hanafuda. In a claustrophobic gambling parlor, a dozen or so patrons sit in a rectangle and watch the game progress. Some are in suits, some in casual dress, others are bare-chested tattooed yakuza. One woman sits among them. A croupier calls the game in a steady monotone like an auctioneer skilled in the art of clinical hypnosis.

As the cards are turned over, first one patron then another throws down thick stacks of yen notes. The gamblers fixate more intently on the table as the bundles of money pile up. 

Suddenly there is an arrhythmic rapping in an echo chamber, like taiko drums being played in a large concrete culvert. First a solo drum, then others pile on. A high C# emerges sounding something like mic feedback or a wet finger traced around a glass bowl. A jazz ensemble appears with a dissonant chord, the guitarist finishing the blast with a steel slide downward. The cacophony of percussion continues, the combo attempts to keep up with an impressionistic free jazz approach, shades of Ornette Coleman. A short rest, and then the C# reappears. The brass hits a few more times before expiring on a cascade of downward sliding notes. The solo percussion begins to play a steady beat for a few bars, then abruptly stops when the scene changes before you can get into a groove with it. 

This is the music to the opening credit sequence created by Toru Takemitsu for the 1964 Masahiro Shinoda film Pale Flower. This film has as much invention in the art of writing for film as any I’ve ever encountered. Like most good soundtracks, the cues are fairly sparse. But when they accompany the action it’s for a good reason and they have an impact, and the effect is unique in that brass and string arrangements may be supplemented by percussion like bin-sasara or hyoshigi, as Takemitsu was a giant in Japanese film for being one of the first to score using native Japanese instruments. 

Takemitsu cited his exposure to the work and philosophy of John Cage as an important to his artistic development, but he seemed to be immune to the deleterious effects of such influence (I consider John Cage to have been a bullshit hippie shaman zen master con artist whose musical output is but an illusion, but who listens to me). 

As the movie progresses there are long stretches where there is no music. Intermingled with the silences are rhythmic elements of sound design like chiming of clocks and repetitive percussive elements in the back of the action that seem to be of environmental origin that the composer may have added in for effect. Then a different musical cue will come into the action, often prefaced by other percussive elements – like the clattering of gamblers’ tokens that precede a gambler’s play fading into a crescendo and blending into the polyrhythms of taiko drumming. 

The score to Pale Flower comes at a critical time in Takemitsu’s development where he was making a return to traditional Japanese music and was not abandoning his interest in the western avant-garde but combining the two. He cites encouragement from John Cage (There’s John Cage again, shit if I was ever in the mood for the kind of meditative dreck that guy created I’d sit around the house in a lotus position listening to Christopher Cross) for the inspiration to dig deeper into the history and mechanics of this traditional music that had been dying out for some time at least in part of the growing dominance of western popular music that had made inroads into Japanese culture following WWII. 

And there’s more groundbreaking music contributed by the director. In the film’s climactic scene, violence in a western-style church is scored with a long operatic passage – a technique first seen in Mankiewicz’ House of Strangers (1949) and some years later employed liberally in the Italian-American school with Scorcese and Coppola. To see it in a Japanese film of this vintage is arresting to say the least. 

Pale Flower is a fine movie amid a phenomenal run of outstanding films from a unique director like With Beauty and Sorrow, Assasination, Samurai Spy and Double Suicide. It’s no coincidence that these films that are classics of world cinema were also scored by Takemitsu, the most original of all film composers not just in Japan but the world.