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Shogun

Film music isn’t a genre of music – it’s effectively all genres. For a while it was very largely dominated by romantic symphonic music, then jazz came into it, then other 20th century musical forms, and eventually we’ve ended up in a place where it can be anything. Likewise, there are so many ways of scoring a film – Composer A may score a film one way, Composer B may well have scored the same film a very different way, and they may both have been absolutely great film scores. There’s really no “right answer” here. Which brings me to the question – what is film music for?

This is something I’ve spent much of my time thinking about while watching Shogun on Disney+. It’s the second epic miniseries based on James Clavell’s novel about political scheming in 16th century Japan observed and influenced by an English sailor and has just about everything you might want from one of these things – complex characters and plot carefully woven over an extended runtime, great costumes and battles and landscapes and, well, OK obviously there’s something missing.

I reiterate that there is no right way of scoring a film (or in this case tv show). But having said that, if the showrunners of Shogun had called me up and asked me what I thought they should look for in the score to their show then I’d have said it seems pretty obvious to me what would work best – this is something that clearly offers the scope for a composer to really go big – there’s action, adventure, romance, east-meets-west clash of culture, drama, tragedy – we could have themes! We can have rousing action music! If you want to go the extra mile, we can have music that plants seeds early on that get developed later on.

I realise that it’s 2024 and my views of what film music can and should be are based in what is now the fairly distant past. So what is it for? Well it seems to me that it can help the filmmaker tell their story – it can emphasise things that are there, it can plug gaps that aren’t there, it can subliminally lead the audience to a certain place, it can heighten emotions, it can when necessary dull emotions – it can do anything, really, in the hands of the right person.

John Barry wrote a brilliant score for Out of Africa. It’s pretty much a perfect film score, in my mind. Sydney Pollack originally asked him to write African music for it – Barry had to persuade him that the film was set in Africa but it wasn’t about Africa. He wanted to score the emotions and that’s what he did, brilliantly. Let’s say in a parallel universe that Pollack’s usual composer Dave Grusin had scored the film and had followed Pollack’s instruction – he’d have probably written a great score himself, completely different from Barry’s, blending his usual style with African influences and arriving at a completely different destination but still doing something to elevate the film.

So I’m just repeating myself really – making my facile point over and over again that there are many different ways to skin a cat. But what on earth is the music of Shogun trying to do? Near the end of the first episode, the English character catches the eye of a beautiful Japanese woman when he is hauled before one of the local lords. There’s clearly a connection there – in my version of this film score, that’s the point when the composer drops just a couple of bars of what will later become his love theme. But in the version of the score we actually got, we hear keyboard droning, seemingly oblivious to anything happening on the screen.

In the fourth episode, said lord (Toranaga) returns to the village his people are from. It’s a triumphant return – he is given a hero’s welcome, thousands of troops lined up cheering him as they await his inspection – the locals straining to get a view of the main man, chanting in his honour. The music – surely here, we get a rousing rendition of the character’s theme, we share in the sense of having a momentary relief from the trials and tribulations he’s been through to get to this moment. No, actually – we hear keyboard droning, seemingly oblivious to anything happening on the screen.

I don’t understand what it’s trying to do. The composers – three are credited – are no doubt doing what they were asked to do. But why were they asked to do this? You don’t hear much of it in the show, but on the album you can hear a Japanese influence both from the inevitable percussion flavours and occasionally from vocals – and that’s fine. In fact, Maurice Jarre did that for the 1980 version too. (John Barry would not have approved.) But Jarre also created themes that bind everything together – he created layers of emotion, continually shifting – he created dramatic weight and impetus, giving momentum whenever needed. I realise that Jarre is a rather love him or hate him type of film composer but even the haters would acknowledge his attempt to craft music that reflected the scope of what he was scoring – it was huge to begin with and he managed to make it seem even bigger.

Everything about the music in Shogun seems determined to make it seem smaller – moments of joy are scored with dour, funereal keyboard chords – that flicker of romance I mentioned is scored as if someone’s just been killed – and perhaps I’m just too old, I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what anyone thinks this music is doing that is a positive for the show itself – why go to all that expense in every other aspect of the production to make it seem like a classic Hollywood epic and then have the music try to turn it into a gritty film noir? What do they think it’s doing? These are genuine questions by the way – I’d love to know what people think.

I think it takes an incredible talent from a composer to make a film better – there aren’t really very many of them who have managed it routinely. But it’s very, very rare that the music actively makes a film worse. With Shogun it’s especially painful because of the opportunity cost – and this is selfish of course, but every episode I sit there thinking about what Joe Hisaishi may have done with this, or Naoki Sato, or any of the other brilliant Japanese composers – I say it’s selfish because I’m effectively saying that I wish this had been scored the way I want and like rather than the almost countless other ways it could have been scored. I say almost countless, because we somehow arrived at an approach that just doesn’t seem to have any purpose. I don’t mind when composers take a big swing and (in my opinion) miss – that’s far preferable to just playing it safe all the time. But this just doesn’t seem to take any swing at all. I’d love to hear from the showrunners about what it was about this musical style that they thought was right, so I could understand it a bit better. Or maybe enough time has passed since the Barry/Jarre/(dare I say) Horner way of scoring these things – and I’m quite happy to admit that it really is an awfully long time now – that we now have people setting the musical direction on things like this who genuinely don’t understand what scope could be added to their projects if they make the right choices. (But nah, I’m probably just too old and am too far removed from what gets people’s blood flowing these days.)

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  1. Florent Bize (Reply) on Saturday 16 March, 2024 at 17:29

    I think that film “music”, as well as “sound effects”, voice dubbing, etc., are different ways of immersing the viewer (and listener, of course) in a situation that corresponds as closely as possible to the expectations of the directors (scriptwriters, etc.), so that the experience of the film is the most pleasant, or understandable, or whatever…

  2. Tom H (Reply) on Saturday 16 March, 2024 at 18:25

    I haven’t seen “Shogun,” but I agree that much of modern film music suffers from the same fate.

  3. Bernhard E. (Reply) on Saturday 16 March, 2024 at 20:27

    Thanks for pointing this out, James.
    It is truly depressing when you’re watching something that would actually truly benefit from “proper” musical underscoring, just to have the same wallpaper sounds etc. coming out of there.

    Directors and Producers have a weird “fear” that music could influence too much of the emotion in the viewer… talk about a paradox.
    Any kind of storytelling is already some kind of emotional “manipulation” on the viewer, so that argument is so pointless.

    Also, the choice to either have music or no music at all in a scene or even entire movie/episode is an important one, but too often it seems any kind of actual musical “value” is being surpressed by the ones in charge…

  4. Chris Caine (Reply) on Saturday 16 March, 2024 at 20:49

    Hi James,

    Good take.
    I love this show.
    I love the theme.
    Haven’t noticed the score.
    It’s not needed.
    It’s all story, all visual, all character.

    Perfection.

  5. Vincent Desjardins (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 00:11

    I think this is the first of your reviews I’ve read where you don’t even mention the names of the composers. You mention that there were three composers credited for this version of Shogun, but I could not find their names in your review. Did I miss them somehow, or did you purposely leave them out? After reading your reviews, I always like to look up the composers by name in your “reviews by composers” list so I can see what star rating you gave the score, but I can’t look the star rating up if I don’t know their names (though judging by your review I’d be surprised if you gave this anything higher than a 1/2 star).

  6. Jose (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 05:44

    To be honest, Naoki Sato might have went for a somewhat similar approach but not to that extend. His music for Ryomaden tends to fall under the non melodic modern Hollywood style at times too but it does have some nice standout moments:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=y5zIddMUr8w

    But it is true, any other japanese composer might have done something great. From Yoko Kanno:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=en8WI3qgUEM

    To Kosuke Yamashita:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hV1plGddMO4

    Most of the composers that worked on the Nobunaga’s Ambition videogames too:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk-NOsl2_3Q

  7. David Sopko (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 06:10

    Hey James,
    As far as I’m concerned, you hit the nail on the head. This is what I want and expect from every film score(sorry for the copy and paste):

    It can emphasize things that are there, it can plug gaps that aren’t there, it can subliminally lead the audience to a certain place, it can heighten emotions, it can, when necessary, dull emotions – it can do anything.

    If I don’t get any of that from a score, then as far as I’m concerned the composer(s) didn’t understand the film and failed at their chosen profession.

    • George Katsoulas (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 20:40

      I agree 100%… They destroyed the tv series

  8. Yves Van Hoof (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 09:02

    The show would have been a great job for Taro Iwashiro.

    To me it’s very odd he hasn’t broken through in the west.

  9. Jon Malone (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 10:59

    The genius of John Barry is that he knows when not to score a scene. Silence is part of the composer’s choice. Out of Africa is a perfect example. There is actually very little music in the film. The sparse use of music has considerable impact. The considerable stretches that play without music demonstrate Barry’s huge skill at recognising the value of using silence to serve the story. Many, many lesser composers make the mistake of scoring scenes that do not need music and in which music actually detracts from the film maker’s purpose.

  10. Stephen Ottley (Reply) on Sunday 17 March, 2024 at 22:03

    I watched Dune Part One last evening (latecomer I know) and had exactly the reverse issue with the music. Every scene was scored as if it was the most important and dramatic element of the movie. Loud, full orchestra, and strong themes throughout, even if it was just someone walking across a room. This meant the quiet, thoughtful scenes were battered into submission, and when something dramatic actually happened there was nowhere to go, it had all been done already. Like you, I miss the old days when A. composers knew what they were doing and B. had the courage to say what was really required

  11. Ben (Reply) on Tuesday 19 March, 2024 at 00:12

    To answer the prominent question in James’ review, I think that the main reasons we are seeing more scores that consist primarily of electronic music that is textural rather than melodic is twofold:
    – They are cheaper to make.
    – They take less time to produce.
    Of course, this is not what the studio publicity machine would say, but given how inflation and general economic turmoil in this post-pandemic age have meant films are getting more expensive to make, is it mere coincidence that so many producers are cutting corners when it comes to aspects of production that many casual viewers don’t think very deeply about?

    I’m sure that there are some composers and filmmakers who genuinely believe the standard PR line that a minimalist approach is an inherently more subtle way of accentuating the emotional content of a scene – and therefore inherently better than the classical leitmotif approach which more obviously foreshadows or announces emotional highlights…. but as with any technique, it can be taken too far or misapplied. Just as classically styled orchestral music can be bombastic or heavy-handed when done badly, so minimalism can go to the opposite extreme but be equally as irritating in a different way.

    I feel that I owe James an apology. I used to defend various composers who integrated electronic textures with world music influences, like Hans Zimmer, and I also used to say there was a place in film music for minimalist composers like Philip Glass… but this was before Zimmer adopted a textural approach to film scoring and was still very melodic despite his dabbling in the music of different cultures, and the likes of Glass tended to do more substantial research into the traditional music they were appropriating…. Zimmer’s score for “The Last Samurai” (an East-meets-West story with many philosophical themes in common with “Shogun”) has clearly discernible melodies that are woven through the broader sonic texture, and are developed over the course of multiple variations. You can also see this even earlier in his scores for more obscure clash-of-culture dramas set in different countries, such as “The Power Of One” and “Beyond Rangoon”. But this is an approach that Zimmer has mostly abandoned these days in favour of the stark textural approach heard in the “Dune” movies. These films with textural scores have proven very successful at the box office, more successful than the films I mentioned above by Zimmer that are more melodic. I suspect that a kind of “success by association” has encouraged Zimmer and others to go in this direction… as for Glass… in thinking of a Western composer working on a film with an Eastern setting and coming up with an effective minimalist score, I did think of Philip Glass’ score to Martin Scorsese’s obscure Dalai Lama biopic “Kundun”. I think it worked (at least in the context of the film) because Glass had more than just a tokenistic inclusion of instruments from the region and his compositions were tightly focused on the underlying emotions of each scene. Simplistic and repetitive though many of his melodies were, there was a sense of dramatic-build, the suspense leading to an ultimate payoff, with the full development of phrases heard fleetingly at an earlier point (see the track “Escape To India” to see what I mean)…. but again, this more nuanced form of minimalism has largely gone out of fashion too. Again, I suspect because it is more expensive and time consuming a process.

    I’m sorry James. When I earlier defended the use of electronics and minimalism, I hadn’t thought that it would be the beginning of a trend where more melodic forms of film music fall out of fashion, at least in mainstream American productions.

    Your choices for composers could’ve done some interesting work. Joe Hisaishi I feel is so often underrated as a composer amongst Western film-music commentators because of his association with Anime, and many Westerners view animation generally in a condescending way.

    Recently you have often praised soundtrack composers who’ve worked mostly on video games, such as Austin Wintory… in much of his work Wintory has combined Western classical techniques with Eastern instruments, and I’ve seen him conduct an orchestra live so I know he has some chops outside the studio. Much as I love the music he’s done for games and independent films, I’d love to see him assigned to a project on the scale of “Shogun” and bring the full force of his talent to the party.

  12. Shlomo (Reply) on Wednesday 20 March, 2024 at 20:11

    Yucky stuff indeed, most harmful and unmusical score I’ve experienced in a long while. Makes the whole damn effort seem childish and sub-Vikings level dramaturgy. What a show this could’ve seemed with a Djawadi score, much less a grander master’s.

  13. Michał Stanek (Reply) on Thursday 28 March, 2024 at 08:50

    I live in film music since 1990 and, for Thor’s sake, I’m almost sure that’s the worst soundtrack I’ve ever heard in my whole life. For a few days I’m looking in my memory another equally bad score, but I can’t find anything even nearby so bad. It’s even more painful because Jarre’s “Shogun” is one of my beloved scores and I had expected something like van Dyck’s “Shogun Total War 2”.

  14. Kalman (Reply) on Wednesday 10 April, 2024 at 11:47

    Another composer who could have written a masterful score for this series is Evan Call, an American composer living and working in Japan, whose scores for The 13 Lords of the Shogun movies are among the best scores coming out in recent years.