Japanese film director Yoji Yamada is the cinema world’s last direct line to Japan’s Golden Age of the medium, and his film Nagasaki: Memories of My Son doesn’t sound like he’s about to rest on formula. Actress Sayuri Yoshinaga plays Nobuko, a woman who lost her son Koji in the 1945 nuclear blast over Nagasaki. Koji’s ghost visits his mother regularly, giving her a chance to cope with the devastating loss. This territory isn’t new to composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. He and Yoshinaga have collaborated before with Sakamoto providing piano accompaniment to Yoshinaga’s readings of poetry written by survivors of the atomic bombings. His work in film is extensive, and his contributions to The Revenant proved that he still could make an audience squirm in their seats, even after he was briefly sidelined from music for health-related concerns. So when Yamada and Yoshinaga approached Sakamoto to help score Nagasaki, it was a bit of a no-brainer.
Until late 2016, a recording of the score was not available outside of Japan. This is a pity because it’s arguably even more accomplished and gut-wrenching than the score to The Revenant. With 28 pieces packed into one hour, the music of Nagasaki never relies on one singular trick to keep the magic sustained. Just within the first six minutes of the CD, you are thrust into the stories from many musical angles. First up is the title track, a full-bodied swell of strings that descend from the sustained open note. After just two minutes of a languid theme, the 46-second “B29” jars your senses back to wartime concerns. Coupled with “August 9th 11:02 am”, these two tracks trade lovely music for harsh sound effects (though the latter’s outro certainly has a nice little motif buried amid the noise). By the fourth track, “At the Graveyard”, Sakamoto has made it to his piano bench for two sorrowful minutes. How else would one compose a piece titled “At the Graveyard”?
After the humming of the bomber and the ensuing explosion, the rest of the film’s score plays at a low boil. No matter how serene the sounds are, a thread of tension vibrates inside all of the lovely notes, reminding the viewer/listener that even the most defining moments of life can be bittersweet. “Ghost” is neither scary nor reassuring. “‘How Are You?’”, “Koji’s Room”, and its counterpart “Koji’s Aria” all toy with uneasy harmony. Even “Pastoral” has to resist the temptation to live up to its name by keeping our inner composer guessing as to what will come next. The mournful mood is punctured by a trip down memory lane with “Sweet Memories”, an homage to mid-century dance halls.
All in all, the score to Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is a hefty package. That’s hardly surprising since the music is meant to match a film that explores the aftermath of a city’s destruction. What is surprising is that Sakamoto is able to put forth this much mental energy into his music after undergoing cancer treatments. When my mother was recovering from her treatments, she only wanted “light” reading: fluff novels and dumb magazines. Sakamoto, on the other hand, pens a “Requiem” for strings and gives it to a character who never got the chance to say goodbye to her radioactively incinerated child that she has unfortunately outlived. After The Revenant and this, where will he go next?
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