Some three minutes of Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) have elapsed before the first entrance of Toru Takemitsu’s original score. The credits have rolled, the principal characters and the setting of the first act – Hiroshima, August 1945 – have been introduced. Within only 30 seconds of the creeping entrance of the violins, the blinding flash of white heat has burst upon the frame. So it is perhaps appropriate that one of the chief influences on Takemitsu’s music here is Olivier Messiaen, the composer of the Quartet for the End of Time.
Later, this music becomes the theme of the characters’ scarred memories of that day, as they alternately piece together and try to subdue their memories of the disaster. The strings drift in like a dark cloud. Languorous pedal notes provide a bed for waves of harsh Second Viennese School dissonances that crash intermittently upon shores of the tenderest harmony.
Takemitsu was a great lover of cinema who scored around a hundred films, including for such directors as Kurosawa (Dodes’ka-den, Ran), Ôshima (The Ceremony, Dear Summer Sister, Empire of Passion), and Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman of the Dunes, The Face of Another). Takemitsu was born in 1930 and conscripted at the age of 14, and his music was founded at a young age on a rejection of Japanese tradition. He developed instead an early interest in the possibility of electronically generated music (roughly contemporaneously with Pierre Schaeffer in France). It was only through an encounter with the music and ideas of John Cage in the 1950s that he came to look again at, and re-evaluate, the music of his own country.
His work first came to international attention after Igor Stravinsky chanced upon his Requiem for Strings in 1957 – at around the same time that he first started composing film scores. The Requiem had itself been written on the occasion of the death of film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had worked extensively with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. After Stravinsky’s enthusiastic championing, commissions soon followed from America. By the time of his involvement in the 1970 Osaka Expo, he was firmly established as one of the world’s leading avant-garde composers, but this seems to have scarcely slowed the pace of his cinematic work. In many respects, the funereal music of Black Rain signals a return to the rich swelling tones of the Requiem that first brought him to world attention.
Considering it is the work of a former associate of John Cage, it seems overly reductive to think of Black Rain‘s music as no more than what can be read from notes on a page. The Spartan use of Takemitsu’s score only serves to give it power. The silences that surround it bring us close to his notoriously difficult-to-define concept of ma, which, related to Cage’s interest in the impossibility of silence, would be something like a waiting for sound to become silence, the void of empty space between notes. Throughout the film there is a lively sonorous bed of chirruping crickets and birds, and the fall of rain.
For former soldier Yuichi (played by Keisuke Ishida), the sound of a passing car engine is the trigger for a recurrent attack of post-traumatic stress syndrome. For other characters, the sound of their trauma is more internal, and that is the role taken by Takemitsu’s string music. The connection between the two, between the (diegetic, non-musical) sound that triggers Yuichi’s attacks and the (non-diegetic, musical) sound triggered by the memories of the other characters vividly brings to attention the relationship between these two sonic registers. The gap between the two, between the non-silence of the post-apocalypse and the dream-music of the falling bomb, might serve as a provisional definition of ma.