There is a very short list of composers who manage to make each of their soundtracks masterpieces. John Williams is most definitely on that list. I decided to pick this movie up for a couple of reasons. The most prominent reason? I learned recently that this was one of the few movies that John Williams actually requested to score. I had to check it out not just for the music, but for the dramatic content. Of course, the movie excels at both.
I have rarely heard Williams use so many Japanese and Chinese instruments in a score. He usually sticks to the western orchestra, because he does that really well. But here, the western orchestra blends with a lot of ethnic sounds, and the result is superb. A perfect example of this is the rooftop scene, in which the main character Sayuri attempts to escape from the Hanamachi. The Sakuhachi provides the perfect solo instrument for building tension here.
So he certainly has ethnic atmosphere. But what of his typically thematic writing? Well, it’s in here, too. Sayuri’s Theme is the leitmotif, the core musical statement. My favorite iteration is when the motage begins when she is training to become a Geisha. Violas richly carry the melody while a Nagado Daiko provides a soft yet driving pulse that mirrors her resolve to master this craft.
The other significant theme here is the one for “the Chairman,” the main character’s love interest. It perfectly captures the almost fairy-tale like tone (in her mind) of their first meeting that sparks her whole character arc. As she said, it is rare to find even kindness in her world, and he showed not only kindness but a genuine interest in her well being.
One of my other favorite moments in the score was when Sayuri and her new friend are running to their first day of school, late for class. Williams manages such a youthful energy and innocence. I also love how it’s a duet at one point between the Cello and the Erhu, since we’re following two characters on the screen. Little touches like that really make me happy.
This certainly isn’t typical Williams fare, and that’s what I like about it. Many criticize him for being too derivative. I don’t, and in this case I applaud him for trying to stretch his wings. No artist, no matter how accomplished, is above that and will always benefit from the experience. True, some think this isn’t an authentic Japanese sound…and it’s not. It’s a blend of Japanese and Western influence. But who cares? The result is an excellent score to a great movie. And in fact, these kinds of blends are precisely what composition is all about. Sometimes the most interesting stuff emerges when genres are thrust together.