The Persistence of Modernity in Japanese Film Scores – Part 3 (J-Horror, Kwaidan and House)

Part 1

Part 2

J-Horror and the Balance of Traditional and Modern Asian Music (House and Kwadian)

The term J-Horror is often used within the critical evaluation of modern day Japanese film, usually to denote the success of two low budget horror films; namely Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2002).  It is somewhat of a misnomer that the genre and its musical practices can be defined by these two films but it is a mistake often made.  Instead, a better way to approach the J-Horror genre and its music is to look at its older films, not only because they provide far better examples of tradition/modernity clashes but also because they manage to surmise this clash explicitly through musical choices.

The two examples about to be discussed are polar opposites; while one appears to have connections to Ozu’s supposed classicist methods (at least musically), the latter ignores everything that has come before and instead adopts a more recognisably modern attitude to music through the use of J-Rock and J-Pop.  Only separated by just over a decade, the two films show that the genre embraces a truly Asian take on modernity.

Kwaidan – Masaki Kobayashi (Music by Tōru Takemitsu)

“Of the four outstanding directors emerging in the immediate post-war era, Masaki Kobayashi bears the deepest scars of the Pacific War” – (Bock, 1978, p.247).

Kwaidan is a three hour portmanteau horror from 1964.  All of its stories are period horrors and are unconnected by anything other than their shared era and original author[i].  This is interesting because a comparison to Ozu’s musical choices at first seems natural but ends up being almost impossible.  Takemitsu has created music in a way to avoid anachronisms; a natural desire for a period film from any country.  Yet this is used in a different way, highlighting the case that the new age of Japanese film sought to make tradition something to be afraid of, where dark things happened because of a lack of enlightenment; the polar opposite to Flinn’s argument of western musical use which states “music continues to play a key role in triggering this wide scale yearning for yesterday” (1992, p.152).

Unlike the scores for period films such as those by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or even other films by Kobayashi himself, Kwaidan contains music that is solely of Asian creation both in tonality and instrumentation.  It is a creative choice that puts traditional Japanese culture in a dark, almost unforgiving light, no doubt a reaction to the director’s experience of the war (“His opposition to the cruelty of the imperial Japanese army system could only be expressed by refusing to rise above the rank of private, which he remained for the duration of his military service” (Bock, 1978, p.248))

Though the non-diegetic music is often minimalist, sometimes avant-garde, the main interest musically lies in the third of the four stories.  Hoichi the Earless tells of a blind Biwa player whose music is so beautiful that the ghosts of an imperial court wish him to play them a famous death ballad of their final, epic battle.  However, the ghosts are draining away the musician’s life and the other monks in the monastery try to protect him by covering his whole body in scripture.  Unfortunately they forget to cover one part of his body; his ears, leading to a grotesque but poignant dénouement.

Bock sums up Kobayashi’s working relationship with Takemitsu highlighting some of the reasoning behind the music’s main points:

“As with Harakiri, the music was done first; and now, working with avant-garde composer Tōru Takemitsu, who had been discovered for the screen by New Wave director Shinoda, the tone was a new and eerie freshness to combine with the visuals of the four ghost stories.  Kobayashi speaks with great enthusiasm of Takemitsu’s ingenious use of the most Japanese of sounds made into concrete music electronically, a different effect for each story; wood being split, very hard stones found only on the island of Shikoku, being struck the small non-verbal vocal accompaniments to the music in the Noh drama, and a highly specialised shamisen style used only for the theatre” – (1978, p.254)

The music, both diegetic and non-diegetic is traditional in basis both for period accuracy and narrative focus.  Whether its Hoichi’s beautiful, stark playing or the score which mimics the sounds he creates, it a choice clearly born out of metaphor than simply for mere aesthetics.

House – Nobuhiko Ōbayashi (Music by Asei Kobayashi, Mickie Yoshino and Godiego)

“Somehow House had been able to reach that lost youth demographic” – (Roquet, 2009, p.15).

Unlike Kwaidan, House (1977) is the most modern film to look at when considering the implications of musical choices.  Its director came to cinema initially through advertising; its visuals are cut in such a way that it feels more like a music video than a film and its score is a mixture of satirically, ironic piano pieces and songs performed by J-Rock group Godiego.  House isn’t a normal horror film by any country’s standards.  It at first appears to occupy that area of teeny pop Manga that is more popular than ever today which is explained by Roquet who sees it as a reactionary film: “Japanese film at the time had entered into a moribund period” (2009, p.11).  It basks in the notions of kawaii and seems over the top and sickly to the point of satire[ii].

Yet House has a dark secret in that it is actually a brutal, morbid and darkly funny parable on taking images and visuals for granted.  This film defines modern Japanese film music at its most extreme end, influenced by the fast editing of advertising while foreshadowing the hyper-reality scores of Manga, Studio Ghibli and Asia Extreme; all of which use overtly popular music in their scores.  House is one of the first Japanese films to fully embrace the modern, youth aimed aesthetics both musically and visually.  “On the advice of film composer Asei Kobayashi, Ōbayashi brought in the rock band Godiego in order to make the film more appealing to a younger audience (the band members make a brief cameo in the film, flirting with the girls at Tokyo Station).” is Roquet’s reasoning for their inclusion though trying to research the film is difficult as it is ignored by many of the bigger academics (2009, p.14).  There isn’t a single trace of the traditions from either classical Japanese film or culture such as Kabuki theatre, showing the final evolution from gentle, western tinged modernity to the bright, vivid modernity present in everyday Japanese popular culture.

The fact that is squarely aimed at the uninterested teen market explains some its explicit modernity.  It was also the first Japanese film to market itself through music; “In a likely first for Japanese cinema, Toho released a record of Godiego’s music before the debut of the film itself.  The soundtrack became a hit in its own right, launching the band as rock stars and raising anticipation of the film’s release” (Roquet, 2009, p.15).   The songs featured by Godiego seem not too distant aesthetically from the J-Pop exports of today, at least at its more rock orientated end.  Ōbayashi was so adamant about this drastic change in musical aesthetics that, to drive his point home, the band even cameo in the film as they wave the girls off at the train station (ironically while one of their songs is playing).

Unlike Kobayashi, he is less scarred by the war in the Pacific.  A director like Kobayashi seemed forced to look back in order to address the issues caused by Japan’s embracement of imperialism; his films relied on tradition as a source of problems sometimes caused by the supernatural as in Kwaidan or addressing the many ignored issues of the glamorised samurai lifestyle in Harakiri (1962).  Ōbayashi is different in the sense that he is protected by an optimism for the untapped youth, ready to build new, forward thinking ways of creation.  His use of music is only one of the ways he addresses this and though he may be overshadowed by the pantheon of directors from the “golden era” of Japanese filmmaking, he is a bastion of populist embracement; never more obvious to the viewer than in his choice of film music.


Throughout this essay, it has been shown that the term classicism is somewhat misapplied to the older generation’s film music choices.  References to Asian culture of the past have been labelled as traditional, while references to western approaches have been labelled as modern.  This would be a huge mistake to make when talking about aesthetics outside the influence of technology and globalisation but directors like Kobayashi and Ōbayashi prove that modernity is possible without any particular reference to the west.

The context of what has been discussed is therefore vital in the positioning of the argument and that a reading of some sort of global hierarchy based around who did what first, isn’t applied.  Japan’s cultural output mirrored its dismay and trauma while also quietly fighting those at the top before embracing New Wave populism.  Richie claims that “The end effect of an Ozu film – and one of the reasons that he is thought of as a spokesman for the Japanese tradition- is a kind of resigned sadness, a calm and knowing serenity which persists despite the uncertainty of life and the things of this world.”  (1971, p.69) showing that in spite of the western sounds, Ozu’s films still highlight a very Asian cultural output.

Floating Weeds and its score was no doubt maverick like at the time, mixing all sorts of influences thanks to the increased interconnectivity of the 1950s.  Kwaidan and its score on the other hand looked back with disgust, finding much to be repelled by in tradition (“Well I don’t know if he is exactly a symbol of the post-war Japanese people, but he is one expression of a common man who shoulders history, a heavy, dark history, so he is representative” is Kobayashi describing a character from Harakiri.  He could equally be describing himself (Grilli, 1994, p.63)).  It seems fitting then to end on Ōbayashi’s House; a film that sits proudly on a springboard of optimism, disregarding the past for the brighter climbs of loud, populist modernity of a thoroughly Japanese nature.


Barret, G., 1989. Archetypes in Japanese Film. London: Associated University Press.

Bock, A., 1978. Japanese Film Directors. New York: Kodanasha International LTD.

Bohlman, P. 2002. World Music: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cousins, M., 2004. The Story of Film. London: Pavilion Books.

Ernst, E., 1956. The Kabuki Theatre. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited.

Flinn, C., 1992. Strains Of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Gorbman, C., 1987. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Indiana University Press, London: BFI Publishing.

Grilli, P., 1994. A Conversation with Kobayashi Masaki.  Boston: Duke University Press.

Nagib, L., 2012. Oshima, Corporeal Realism and the Eroticized Apparatus from Theorizing World Cinema. London: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd.

Rayns, T., 2011. Ozu’s Student Comedies (1929-1932). London: BFI Publishing.

Richie, D.,1971. Japanese Cinema. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited.

Richie, D., 2004. Stories of Floating Weeds. New York: Criterion Collection.

Roquet, P., 2009. Unhinged Desire (At Home With Obayashi). London: Eureka DVD (Masters of Cinema series).

Sato, T., 1982. Currents in Japanese Cinema. New York: Kodanasha International LTD.

Scott, A.C., 1955. The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. London: Simon Shand LTD.

Tuohy, S. 2003. The Choices and Challenges of Local Distinction: Regional Attachments and Dialect in Chinese Music from Global Pop, Local Language. Mississippi: University of Mississi

[i] Lafcadio Hearn.

[ii] Kawaii has become a byword for a particular type of Japanese culture that is extremely popular in the west.  It translates literally as “cute” and can cover anything from Pokémon and Studio Ghibli to make-up and fashion.

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