Film Scores and the Social Construction of Emotions (Kurosawa and Ozu) – Part 1.

As a race of individual people, trying to find out where our characteristics came from can be a difficult task.  More specifically, trying to deduce whether we gained emotional characteristics on our own or whether they were influenced by outside factors (also meaning that these outside factors have in fact been effected by our emotions and not the other way round) is an almost impossible task on the scale of what came first: The Chicken or The Egg?

The question of whether music has helped build these social emotions is an interesting one but also an extremely heavy one.  The initial quote of academics Sloboda and O’Neill of “music is a cultural resource in the social construction of emotions” raises a few issues on its own even without referring back to anything else in their original text.  It first off implies that it is just one of many things that go into this process.  Of course everybody will be different and music will have effected the construction of some people’s emotions more than others (the difference between musicians and non-musicians and regular film watchers and casual film watchers are good examples) but trying to gain some insight into how much of those people have been affected by music will be almost impossible as there will obviously be far too many factors to consider when talking about their emotions.  They also neglect to specify what type of music, how the music is experienced or any of the many, many factors that using music brings up.  Some of these are of course gone into in detail in the rest of the piece but trying to talk about something so big and widespread as music can only lead to inaccuracies and bias among the rest of the writing.  This is something I hope to work around by specifying the effect of specific types of music on social emotional construction rather than mass generalising and simply saying “music”.  Tying down the effect of a specific type of music and music that is experienced in a particular way is something that will hopefully be far more to the point and also not so generalised.

Another aspect not advocated here is one that music is the only resource in the construction of emotions.  Of course, neither do Sloboda and O’Neill but the key factor here is that arguments here will show that the recognition of the visual ideal mixed with the social experience of music, can generate emotions and therefore associations that we will end up taking into everyday life i.e. a socially constructed emotion through music in film (which is odd when they state that “music is ubiquitous in contemporary life” when Film scores are easily the best example of this).

– Bernard Herrmann.

I strongly believe that our emotions are not in fact simply “built” through exposure to various arts and events in life, but are in fact, simply a string of associations we have made throughout our lives that have come to represent us as emotional beings. Though I want to show this by giving a positive example, I feel the best way to go about showing this is by showing an example of something that works against these associations as well (and therefore proving it is there, similar to spilling paint all over a wall to find the invisible door).  Sloboda and O’Neill follow through with this idea nicely by stating “Despite growing recognition that our experience of emotion is inextricably linked to the social world and to the linguistic practices used to make sense of the world, we tend to think of our emotions as personal “private” experiences, especially if they do not involve public displays of emotion”.

The sadness in film scores; A Reflection of Reality or the Re-enforcing of Emotions?

If primitive man reacted to the phenomena that stimulated his reflection with the formation of conceptions of the soul, and then transferred these to objects of the outer world, his attitude will be judged to be quite natural and in no way mysterious.” – Freud, Totem and Taboo (1940)

When we watch a film, it is inevitable that at some point, no matter where the film is from, what genre it inhabits or what story it is telling, most of the time there will be a sad moment.  Sadly we can’t leave it simply standing like that so must first look into what we mean by a sad moment.  What we are not looking for is a moment that makes one particular viewer feel sad (though that will hopefully be the scenes goal) but in fact what we are dealing with is the scene in which the film-makers have gone out of their way to be perceived as sad by the audience.  Dealing with scenes that a general audience would find sad would be an endless task with various correlations between popular sad scenes and scenes that people find sad on a personal level (a memory of the persons past being awakened is a good example of this).  This also effects the overall legitimacy of my argument too as of course there will be bias in the film scores I choose as I will have to think they are sad and therefore the analysis will have my own personal bias in there.  I don’t however think this it too much of an issue and in the end, there is really no way around a personal bias when discussing art no matter how hard the writer tries.

The cinema is a collective experience and though we will always have own individual reactions to what we see and hear on screen, the way the film has been shot and scored will have been tailored to give similar emotional reactions from every audience member.  This is the key point to make before delving into detail about this aspect of the analysis.  It is the filmmaker’s perspective that is important here as it’s the one that will give the widest and most general emotional reaction of the audience i.e. the ones the filmmakers and scorers wants will be ones most likely achieved in the audience members.  This takes out the anomalous results of various members of the audience (mostly people who actively resist the cinematic experience) and leaves us with the group of people who fit into our model of emotional construction nicely.

It would be wrong to not come at this problem from both possible directions.  To outline the problem simply:  Do audience members feel sad at the scene due to the emotional association with the style and intricacies of the music that has built up over their lives (similar music has been used to score similar scenes of sadness among other things)?  Anahid Kassabian’s Hearing Film actually opens with a perfect example of this with “I was sitting in a classroom “watching” John Cassavete’s A Women Under the Influence.  My heart broke every time I heard Gena Rowlands sing “Dying Swan” and my eyes welled with tears at the image of a black labourer singing Celeste Aida” for a dozen co-workers at the breakfast table of this tortured, crazy Italian-American lady” (2001). And can this association of “sad” music with particular goings on film (the visuals and drama of a scene) mean that their reactions in reality will be similar (or would not be similar if uninfluenced by the cinematic experience) to familiar events?

Taking this to its extreme could verge on the offensive (e.g. reading into the score of Schindler’s List could produce a theory that people only become emotional over the holocaust in reality due to John Williams sad score.  This would be a big mistake to make) so precaution must be taken when looking into the scores and subjects of the films analysed.  The best options would be to look into films that contain various problems that are either bound up in everyday life (social realism, household drama, period drama etc) or events that create emotion applicable to every day life (Analysing why Luke Skywalker clutching his Father as he dies is sad would be an obviously more viable point of argument than analysing why Princess Leia’s reaction to the destruction of her planet at the hands of the Death Star is sad…).  For these reasons I have chose two films to represent this section.  The emotional construction of sadness in people through viewing these films will of course not be the only reason for their emotional reaction.  Even Sloboda and O’Neill never claim music to be the true builder of emotional identities in people.  I am however suggesting that films like this present us with the so-called normal reaction to events through both the use of character and through film score.  Not many people in the everyday world will have seen these films and what I am not saying is that the emotional identity of person A is built from seeing the reaction of the film-makers to a particular scenario.  What I am arguing for is that films like my examples contribute to this endless process that is our emotional identity and that it may even provide people with new readings of situations faced with in reality (an idea that I will expand on in a much darker way in the second case study group of films) in the same way Sloboda and O’Neill argue for music in general, my argument formed from around theirs is based solely on film-music.

My first example of the tragic score in film is Fumio Hayasaka’s score for Akira Kurosowa’s beautiful Ikiru (Japanese for living).  The mixture of story and score makes it a perfect example of the sort of experience and resource that could build emotions on the sad side of the spectrum.  We follow the deeply emotional story of Kenji Watanabe who is diagnosed with stomach cancer at the beginning of the film.  Showing us his emotional journey we watch him progress from a sad lonely man to a council worker who helps build a children’s play area before he dies admiring his hard work.  Again I simply must cover my argument before going further as the wrong reading of what I’m arguing could be offensive.  I am not saying our emotional response to cancer in real life is due to this film or the way it is scored (or any other film for that matter that is about cancer).  I am not saying that any situation portrayed in the film is only sad in real life because of what the film says about it and how Hayasaka scores it.  What I am arguing for is that films like this one help us build our emotional identity meaning we learn about new ideas but also reinforce emotional beliefs already in us.  Death is not sad because the films tell us it is sad.  Death is sad because of the loss.  The film can merely re-enforce that by showing us similar scenarios to reality and then giving it an extremely tragic score (basically exaggerating reality for effect).  That isn’t simply constructing the emotional identity (which would also be an extremely social experience if watched in the cinema) but more accurately, it is building onto our own that already exists and re-enforcing preconceived ideas given to us from our parents, our friends and our general environment as well as our psychology and biology.  In the original quote, it seems like music is considered to be one of the real building blocks of emotional construction but this for me is far too sweeping and simply not accurate enough to warrant serious analysis.  Simply breaking down music into genres brings us different ways of emotional construction and by narrowing it down to Film-Music we find, not the bare bricks of emotional construction and identity but really the cement that re-enforces the bricks together.

One of the most famous scenes from the film is near the end when Kenji, after fighting the bureaucracy of the council for months and months, has finally had his playground finished.  He sits on one of the swings at night as it starts to snow and sings a song by Shimpei Nakayama, as he dies that night.  Earlier in the film, Kenji had sung this song when he was depressed.  Depressed about his life, his lack of achievement and his foreboding cancer.  In this earlier rendition the songs lyrics had been sung with a “glass half empty” mentality meaning that the scene was sad because the character was singing a sad and mournful song to express how he was feeling.  Later on at the swing, he’s singing the song again but the context has changed.  Here is where my theory of emotional construction is most obvious due to the entire character change of Kenji and the complete change in Hayakak’s score.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens, Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips, Before the tides of passion cool within you, For those of you who know no tomorrow.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens, before his hands take up his boat, before the flush of his cheeks fades, for those of you who will never return here.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens, Before the boat drifts away on the waves, Before the hand resting on your shoulder becomes frail, For those who will never be seen here again.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens, before the raven tresses begin to fade, before the flame in your hearts flicker and die, for those to whom today will never return.


Here are the lyrics to the song.  Again an audience having watched this won’t find sitting on a swing emotionally sad in reality.  That is simply an obtuse reading of my argument.  Instead what we should gain as an audience is a further clarification and grounding of the emotional basis for the acceptance of death.  Sloboda and O’Neill quote DeNora on this subject and she expands on it.  “ According to DeNora (1999, p50), a sense of self is locatable in music, in that “musical materials provide terms and templates for elaborating self identity”.  For example, one of the respondents in her study described a preferred type of musical material (“Juicy Chords”) as like “me in life”, associating certain musical structures with her sense of self.”   The audience will of course not be thinking this at all (at least not thinking methodically about how it re-enforces their emotional beliefs on life) but instead should just unconsciously accept this as the norm (if they didn’t already) and I would argue that they would see similar events in reality with an extra emotional sub-text (whether they would hear the music from this scene if a friend of theirs developed and died of cancer would be very improbable and almost impossible to determine but the point is moot) whether aware of it or not.  Philip Kemp describes the scene in question thus.  “ The last sequence also includes one of the most poignant moments in cinema – proof of how skilfully Kurosowa, when he wants to, can switch moods at a moments notice.  Midway through this sardonic version of Japan’s tawdry nightlife, Watanabe asks a nightclub pianist for an old romantic song, “Life is brief”, and then starts singing it in a croaking, tuneless voice.  Kurosowa told Shimura to “sing the song as if you are a stranger in a world where nobody believes you exist”.  The effect is almost unbearably heart-rending.” (2003)

However not only is this all speculative, it’s also based on context, not just of how the film is viewed but what the background of the person viewing it is like.  It is this context that often brings about those anomalous viewers who don’t react to certain emotional guidance in the musical score.  This however should not be confused with a difference of opinion that can account for many of these reactions (or lack of) but is also something that shouldn’t be dwelled on too much when considering that it would take a life time to rigidly study the topic in hand.

The second film score I want to discuss is again from Japan.  It uses similar methods but the story transplants the similar emotionally guided score to a far more likely scenario of reality.  Again I believe films like this one have built up in us an emotional norm for the reactions to the situations though this way of thinking fits the arguments of DeNora more than Sloboda and O’Neill.  Tokyo Story is by Yasijiro Ozu and it has subtle but still emotionally heightened score by Kojun Saito.  We follow the parents of a grown up family who have come to visit their children and who all now live in Tokyo.  It is shown to us how much the children have grown up and on going back down south, the mother passes away leaving the grown up children to come back down south for the funeral.

The film covers a situation common in everyday life.  The growing up of ones children and the passing away of parents and it’s score tells us, as the viewer, nicely how sad the situations are with it’s quiet, melancholy strings.  It would be ridiculous for Saito to have scored this film with a happy sounding score so what exactly is the point I’m trying to make here? Well, I believe the film ties in well with our whole psychology of playing music at the funerals of loved ones.  Unlike the previous example (and films similar to it) I don’t believe here people will gain any new emotional take on life.  The situations are always going to be upsetting and a sad time for everyone involved whether they’ve seen many films covering the subject and sound tracked by a sad score or not.  However this example shows nicely how we soundtrack our own lives.  Mark Cousins describes Ozu’s trademark theme as “The relationship between parent and child” (2004) so of course the film (and many others by Ozu) are going to reflect the everyday as no other relationship is as vast and common in the human emotional world.  However the Japanese roots of the film can clearly effect some emotional reaction as Cousins states “Despite the fact that his characters often learn something about life by the end of his films, they do not undergo a driven “Journey”, in the sense used by American actors and directors of a psychological process of life changing discovery” (2004).

The funeral scene in the film is obviously very different to a typical western funeral but at both there is the presence of music.  The music in the film at this point is clearly diegetic and is not scored.  In western funerals it seems that the members of the family or even the person who has died has chosen their final soundtrack, in many ways scoring their own last scene in life.  Perhaps the song they chose meant something to them or that they felt it sums up the deceased person best but the emotional construction in the people at the funeral will be forever different and any further listening to that piece of music (whether intentional or ubiquitous) will always bring about a different emotional response to people who have no association with the song.

I did not, however, simply bring up this films score because the film is about a funeral.  It is a perfect example of the re-enforcing of emotional responses to particular situations in the same way Sloboda and O’Neill examine.  And when John Gillett can describe the film with “The relationship between the old and the young is not only explored with considerable psychological insight, but cuts deeply into the heart of the human experience” (1957) you know that more than mere piece of entertainment has been presented to the audience.  In Sloboda and O’Neill’s writing they did not even mention the cinematic experience of film music even though it is not only the most obvious way that music will be heard (along with Television) but it is also the least obvious to the listeners which will chime nicely with their warning given at the end about the dangers of the associations we make in constructing our own emotional identity by “forgetting”.  The truth is, with so many outside factors tying into it, our own identity is as much a product of other people as it is of ourselves.  Music and more specifically film music, plays on this psychology and not only adds to and builds on our own belief systems and emotional responses to every day situations but can manipulate them and twist them to its own (often dark ends) as we will see in the next section.

Adam Scovell

2 thoughts on “Film Scores and the Social Construction of Emotions (Kurosawa and Ozu) – Part 1.

  1. Hi Adam. I was trying to find your email address here but couldn’t locate it. I literally browsed everywhere. Can you please contact me at: alyson[at]
    It is regarding a writing opportunity!

    This is not a spam message by the way, although it might appear like it. Also if you could be kind, please remove this message once you have seen it so I don’t get emails by randomers.

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