By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Masaru Sato wrote more than two dozen further scores since this profile was published. His last score was the Japanese Academy Award winning AFTER THE RAIN, based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa – completing the circle of association that began in 1957. Sato died in 1999.
Among contemporary film music composers in Japan, Masaru Sato continues to hold a high place. First brought to international attention with his noteworthy scores for Akira Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD, YOJIMBO and SANJURO in the early 1960s, Sato has maintained a strong expertise in scoring a variety of film types with many styles, often displaying strong Western influences (especially jazz).
Born in Hokkaido, Sato was raised in Sapporo, where he was introduced to Fumio Hayasaka, Kurosawa’s regular composer. “I considered Fumio Hayasaka and Akira Ifukube gods,” Sato said in an interview for Toho Records. “I think it was RASHOMON that made my mind up to study under Hayasaka. I thought he was THE person.” Sato’s tutoring under Hayasaka eventually gave him the opportunity to work with the acclaimed composer on his film scores, and Sato assisted with the orchestration of such scores as SEVEN SAMURAI. When Hayasaka died in the midst of scoring Kurosawa’s RECORD OF A LIVING BEING in 1955, Sato completed the score and went on to score Kurosawa’s next eight films, through RED BEARD in 1965. The collaboration was a prodigious one, as in many ways Kurosawa emphasized the power of film music in Japanese cinema. “Mr. Kurosawa was the one who recognized the positiveness of music,” Sato said. “Music was too passive. If it is good, why should it not be amplified?”
Sato’s first complete work for Kurosawa was THRONE OF BLOOD, an ambitious and epic samurai retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (made in 1957, but not released in America until 1961). His music for this film demonstrated early on his penchant for merging Japanese music with that of the West. One of Sato’s themes is based on Verdi’s opera, Macbeth, while other motifs capture the abrupt three drums and flute sounds of traditional Japanese Noh theatre (the latter in keeping with Kurosawa’s notable Noh characterizations of the film’s characters). The haunting Noh sounds accompany many scenes, especially those involving the Lady Asaji, and embody the film in a stark, memorable sound track.
Sato gave THE HIDDEN FORTRESS a rich symphonic score, beginning with a grandiloquent main title march for full orchestra, heavy on brass and drums. A recurring and somewhat atonal motif for muted piano strokes and high piping woodwind is used as an incidental cue for the scenes with the two farmers; a jazzy and vaguely satirical saxophone is later added over the motif as the two farmers are unwittingly conscripted by General Makabe. The score’s main thematic structure, however, is built around the character of the Princess (whose safety against conquering invaders Makabe is determined to insure, with the help of the comical farmers). First heard from paired flutes over strummed koto; the koto representing her noble (and disguised) heritage while the flute melody reflects her youthful and adventurous spirit. The theme is heard, full-blown, during a short sequence in which the Princess finally sheds tears over the sacrifices made to save her.
Also associated with the Princess are stark flute and percussion motifs derived from Noh music. A piercing cry from the Noh flute is heard during the farmer’s first fleeting glimpse of her, and later when she is given a dagger with which to kill herself if captured, also when the rival general Fujita decides to join forces with the Makabe and join forces with the Princess’s band.
YOJIMBO, Kurosawa’s satirical ‘Samurai-With-No-Name’ story, received an energetic score with a fast, jaunty beat, a hybrid merging of Japanese sounds with a strong tinge of American big band music. It also received an Oscar nomination for music in 1962. Punctuated with strong percussion, the score gave an unusually contemporary sound which was curiously appropriate to Kurosawa’s handling of this 19th Century saga. Sato scored Kurosawa’s follow-up, SANJURO, with the identical music.
In addition to his work for Kurosawa, Masaru Sato established himself as a prolific composer for many other Japanese directors. Like his colleague, Akira Ifukube, also worked frequently for the horror and science fiction cinema. He scored GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER, the first sequel to GODZILLA, and put his penchant for Western jazz music to good use in the atmospheric thriller, THE H-MAN and in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER. The latter film contained a rhythmic theme for brass over electric guitar strums and percussion, backed with woodwind and strings – a far cry from the omnipresent bass rumblings of Ifukube’s Godzilla music!
Sato continued to utilize modern music and jazz in his other film scores, an influence he attributes to his tutelage with Fumio Hayasaka. “It was a time when music which sounded like a prelude to a popular song was popular,” Sato said when interviewed for Toho Records. “[Hayasaka] said this was the time to make modern music. He told me to make use of electronic media and orchestral music. Sometime later, when I became independent, I met Quincy Jones and he said the same thing.”
In addition to modern music, Sato is also aware of his use of dance-forms in his scores – not uncharacteristically, Western dance-forms like mambas and rumbas and tangos given a slightly Oriental quality through Sato’s unique handling. “There is something common to the Japanese dance,” said Sato. “Evenly divided rhythm seems to match film which moves 24 frames per second. It should not be faster or slower. Time flows in step with the music on film. There is something between them.”
Sato is also keenly interested in the tonal quality of his music, something he learned while orchestrating music for Hayasaka. “You do not understand a melody until you hear so much [of it], but a tonal quality becomes clear with one quarter note,” said Sato. “In order to make some unique tones, we use complicated procedures. Instead of using one single sound, many sounds are played in unison. In place of a flute, we use a snapping instrument, a brass followed by a string instrument. We were successful using straight melody. I felt confident after that.”
Masaru Sato “As you can see from my work list, I use different instruments for different films. This is the way I learn. My teacher told me about mixing a trumpet and a trombone… The sound from a trombone will sound higher; trumpet sounds lower. We think female voice is high and a low female voice is called husky. That’s how we feel. It is interesting to apply human psychology in the use of musical instruments. The traditional orchestra is based on various instruments from high to low pitch. This is logical. We must change it to create new sounds. Mr. Hayasaka taught that (not the present-day music schools!).”
Sato’s use of jazz has dominated most of his scores. SAPPORO OLYMPIC contains pop-styled scoring and a fair amount of musical satire as well, as in the quotation from Barry’s BORN FREE theme in the finale. THE ADVENTURES OF TARO KUROKI featured a straight Western jazz theme. THE SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (shown in the U.S. as TIDALWAVE), was given a rich and varied symphonic score, including a jazzy love theme for saxophone. The early underwater scenes, as the mini-sub discovered the fissures on the ocean floor than will ultimately cause the sinking of Japan, Sato accompanies with low, groaning sounds which provide awesome, titanic, shifting movements of sound ominously suggestive of gargantuan scraping land masses. A rousing, jazzy theme for trumpet and strings over an electric guitar and cymbal riff, accentuates the hopeful conclusion.
Elsewhere, Sato has been lighter and less pronounced in his jazz preferences. ENDURING THREAD was given a delicate, Oriental score for flute over koto (one of Sato’s prettiest themes). THE RAPTURED MAN contained a similarly melodic theme, something like a dance-hall tango. KOTO OF THE LAKE held a crystalline theme for harp and woodwind, THE HOME COUNTRY contained a gentle score highly suggestive of Western Americana with only a hint of the Orient in its rhythm structure. THE OJU REWARD utilized a tender theme for plucked guitar over accordion; WARE HITOTSUBU NO MUGI (I AM A GRAIN OF WHEAT) held a vocal theme from choir over strings and flourishing harps.
“As things are in Japan now,” Sato explained, “you cannot write music for film as a composer will; in other countries. It will take one telephone call if they want ‘nice music.’ We cannot touch the sets and locations. We start working after a film is finished, We want to do our best. You cannot work on a film just because you are a composer. It takes a lifetime to become a director or a composer…My talent is supplemented by my enthusiasm and love for work… That’s what I use to fill the gap between me and those who have talent. Directors and musicians cannot communicate on music. We just have to trust each other. You both have to know you each can do at least so much. A baseball player talks about 33% batting average. But I must have 90% average. Once I get a job, I have to do it no matter how much it costs.”
Masaru Sato continues to rank among the forefront of Japanese film composers, his music especially accessible to non-Oriental listener’s due to his frequent Western musical characteristics. His diversity of styles and film genres, despite his predilection for jazz, have assured Sato a lasting reputation among international film composers. “I always say that you should show the same rough-cut to two different composers,” Sato said. “You will end up with two different movies. I often tell the producers that music is the last or final right to produce. It’s wrong to say the editing is the last one. Sound will change everything. It can destroy the film or make it three-dimensional and give it something to say.”