Music from the long-running film series makes its North American debut in La-La Land’s latest mining of the Toho music archives. Whereas a lot of Toho soundtracks have appeared on CD over the years on LP and CD, many were pricey and limited collectibles, and the bulk tended to cover the monster films rather than action/historical works, of which the Zatoichi series were.
Beginning with The Tale of Zatoichi in 1962, the films about a blind swordsman with amazing accuracy and sharp fury spanned 26 installments, pausing in 1973 for a switch to TV, where the character flourished from 1974-1979, after which star Shintaro Katsu reprised the role one final time in the 1989 film Zatoichi, Darkness is His Ally.
This compilation includes suites of themes and cues from the seven features produced by Toho (as the rest came from Daiei). With the exception of James Bond, there may be no other western equivalent to Japan’s penchant for long-running franchises. One could site comic book characters or historical figures, but the methodology of American studios is to remake or prequelize things when ideas run dry, whereas the Japanese just keep things going.
That sense of scope, as well as following the life of a singular character for more than a decade, inevitably exposes Zatoichi to diverse musical styles from several composers. The continuity among the represented scores lies in allusions to and use of Japanese folk instruments, harmonies, vocals, and percussion, but each composer left his own stamp through his personal style and popular sounds.
None of the composers were tied to an official series theme, so the brassy swagger of Sei Ikeno’s title music for Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967) bears no resemblance to the more elegiac and trippy approach of Akira Ifukube for Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1970). Ikeno’s music immediately establishes a sense of desperation and struggle through brass and strained harmonics, and the shift to a swaggering motif with brass and cymbals symbolizes the tireless and marginalized lifestyle of a rebel, and a man whose moral code is more stringent than the average civilian.
Ifukube’s take is a fine balance of intimate personal struggles set against a classical, epic background. The steady rhythmic motif in the track’s second half infers Zatoichi’s tireless nature, whereas the rich string accompaniment seems to remind fans, if not recapitulate, Zatoichi’s prior adventures, so we’re at least emotionally aligned in the series (which is helpful for those partially or wholly unfamiliar with prior films).
For Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), Ifukube retains a similar rhythm and strings combination, but his new theme plays like a lament, retaining a focus on personal struggle, but this time weighed by a perceptible weariness. The use of woodwinds give the piece a soothing quality (thereby dampening any overt sadness), and the addition of trumpet and pulsing brass to build the short theme into a heroic march.
Isao Tomita’s music for Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970) is a two-part, super-brief piece with a brassy fanfare, and a main theme performed with acoustic strings, bells, and distant female voices that are soon boosted by strings. The title track is also perfunctory in terms of establishing the time period, because once the formalities are over, Tomita digs in with organ, rock drums, electric guitar, and jazzy rhythms in later cues.
For Zatoichi meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), period décor have been turfed in favor of a spaghetti western/prog-rock fusion. The notes of the brass fanfares are a blur of Asian/Mexican, while a fat electric bass gives the track a cool rock feel. More interesting is Tomita’s use of an Asian flute played in a breathy jazz style, which kind of evokes the sounds one would hear if an icon like David ‘Fathead’ Newman were dropped into Morricone spaghetti western score.
Kunihiko Murai’s title music from Zatoichi at Large (1972) starts with an opening reminiscent of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Love is Love (Sweet Love).” The intro melody is similar, but Murai’s theme is really just a compact use of dense, pensive chords with a short guitar riff, and a mood that’s a tad R&B without a heavy and fast-paced tempo.
With only the main title music on this CD, it’s hard to imagine the overall tone of Murai’s full score, but even the excerpt from his second score, Zatoichi in Desperation (1972) infers a similar penetration of American R&B influences; the final bars of the “Ending” is a riff on the 5-note staccato motif of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft (1971), with brass, bass, and strings; whereas the closing bars of “Main Theme” have a classic plaintive sax solo, followed by wordless female vocals paired with strings.
Ikeno’s approach for Zatoichi the Outlaw is orchestral jazz: the folk vocal “Faming Song excepted, “Asagorou” adopts the same Spanish-styled rhythm used by Miles Davis in his Sketches of Spain album, as well as Jerry Fielding’s showdown music in The Gauntlet). Even the use of brass and intersecting tones feel influenced by Gil Evans’ orchestrations for Davis.
Tomita, a composer best-known today for his electronic music, went for an orchestral-rock style in his Zatoichi scores. “Great Sword Battle on the Oil Ship” in Fire Festival is a funky blend of big band brass, rock and orchestra, and Tomita seems to mimic a bit of Neal Heftian gusto in the way the brass turns combat scenes into something cool, slick, and entertaining. A similar group of instruments was carried over in One-Armed Swordsman, plus organ, which gives that score a slight sci-fi quality. In place of straightforward dissonance for the action and suspense cues, Tomita emphasizes the harshness of specific instruments, such as processed electric guitar, or keyboard notes with a pliable metallic quality, perhaps alluding to Zatoichi’s fast-moving blade.
The CD’s closing with Ifukube’s Zatoichi’s Conspiracy brings the collection full circle to the character’s identity. As marvelous as the stylistic experimentations are in the aforementioned scores, Ifukube returns us back to Zatoichi’s life as a solo man on the margins of society. The strings in “Ichi and Omiyo – Encounter” are extremely tender, and there’s a strong mournful quality in many cues. Ifukube’s instrumentation is surprisingly lean, as though he felt the special acoustic and electronic effects in prior scores (including his own) were too divergent form the character’s original conception, if not historical setting. His emphasis on theme and a simple interplay between core instruments – trumpet, chamber strings, basic percussion – are quite touching.
If La-La Land’s CD (itlsef limited to 1500 copies) is a test for further and fuller Zatoichi film scores, it’s a no-brainer, because this is great music. Fans of spaghetti westerns will appreciate the scores for the similar shifts in musical styles, as well as shared ideas, since the Japanese and Italian genres deal with outlaws, injustice, common people wronged by scumbags, painful introspection, rebels, and brutalized relationships.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan