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Soundtrack review: Shogun (Maurice Jarre – 1980)

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Soundtrack review: Shogun (Maurice Jarre – 1980)

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“Shōgun” is an American television miniseries based on the 1975 novel of the same name by James Clavell, who also was the executive producer of the miniseries. It was first broadcast in the United States on NBC over five nights between September 15 and September 19, 1980. To date, it is the only American television production to be filmed on location entirely in Japan, with additional sound stage filming also taking place in Japan at the Toho studio. The miniseries is loosely based on the adventures of English navigator William Adams, who journeyed to Japan in 1600 and rose to high rank in the service of the shōgun. The miniseries follows fictional Englishman John Blackthorne’s transforming experiences and political intrigues in feudal Japan in the early 17th century. Maurice Jarre wrote the score.

“Shogun” has a special place inside me as it was one of the first TV shows I ever watched with my family and it absolutely fascinated me; the Japanese setting, so far away and unimaginable for a child like me, plus Richard Chamberlein’s magnetic performance and, yes, the music, were like a fairy tale to me. I must have watched the show quite a few times and I also read the book. I am very happy that Intrada decided to give this score such a proper treatment since Maurice Jarre to me is second only to John Barry in sweeping romantic music. Of course a show like this one relies on many more emotions and the Golden Age sounding “Main titles” and “Reef” are testament to that with their complex and stormy string and brass sections. It doesn’t take more than a few cues to get me back into the journey of this story as Maurice Jarre beckons the flute to welcome us to Japan, this fascinating land that also made Hans Zimmer write his most beautiful score ever.

In this day and age where everything is rushed and moves quite fast, it’s the same with listening to film score and reviewing them: I am impatient and maybe sometimes prefer shorter scores in order to get to listen to more, to discover more, to do more; but when I listen to a composition like “Shogun”, all bets are off as I am hypnotised by the music and immersed in it as if I was reading a great and long book. Maurice Jarre crafted a complex and meaningful tapestry and each cue is like a further turn of the page; the music feels organic and coherent and the way the orchestral music is written and plays it invites me to keep listening; the cues have opened endings and I want to hear more and experience more. The composer employs a full orchestra and I love how the blowing instruments, be they brass or woodwind, are used un this score; they give a sense of urgency and danger to the adventure and the Japanese percussion comes in, sombre and deafening, every now and then as if to place a thick point at the end of a sentence.

As the first part of the show deals more with the shipwreck and initial adjustment to the new environment so the music that accompanies it is more edgy, more menacing and less melodic. There are cues when I get flashbacks of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Cape fear”. The Japanese inserts are subtle and carefully placed, from strings to percussion as Maurice Jarre doesn’t overdo it. It’s fascinating to me how as I listen to this score I remember my initial impression of Japan and Japanese people as I got it from “Shogun”; I felt they were different and as sharp and pointy as their eyes. The music gives me the same sensation of distance, of something hard to connect with initially, of something abrasive yet fascinating and beautiful. The composer manages to combine the instruments in such a way that there is hardly any warmth in the music yet the music is beautiful and I want to keep listening to it.

I welcome the romantic and playful themes like “Blackthorne and Mariko” and “Kasiji Yabuka” as warm moments in an otherwise harsh and unfriendly environment. The music continues to be sharp, pointy and relentless, stripped to the orchestral bare without bells, whistles or broad, sweeping themes. Maurice Jarre grinds out moments of struggle and danger in contrast with sudden cues of fairy tale like beauty, like the tender flute theme “A honeyed tongue” or the romantic charm of “Mariko’s theme”. Listening to the “Shogun” scores makes me feel all the nuances of the world depicted in the story. It’s fascinating to me to hear how the composer constructs danger, tension, violence with the use of just a few well chosen orchestral instruments and with no sound design. The brass section of the orchestra does a great job in the more suspenseful moments as “Shogun” sounds the period when it was written; there’s no doubt for me that the music was written some 40 years ago as the sound is more related to the Golden Age of film music than the more modern one.

One of the sounds that stand out the most for me in this score is the sound of the blowing instruments, the brass, the flutes and woodwind instruments which are used to describe urgency and, once again, the strictness and hardness of the Japanese environment and ways, at least the way the main character experiences them. Take “Sepukku” for example which never gets loud or aggressive but chills me to the bones. I’ve always perceived the flute as an instrument for tenderness, for innocence but Maurice Jarre expands its range and writes either very dark motifs for it or the most hauntingly sweet Japanese influences moments.

Regardless of the tone of this very long album, which is mostly dark and either tense or harsh, I am immersed in the music and don’t want to miss a cue. It’s rare that a 3CD album keeps my attention and involvement at the same level for its entire duration but we are talking Maurice Jarre and one of his vastest and most impressive creations. I am very happy to be able to enjoy this complete release and I recommend it dearly.

Cue rating: 90 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 61 / 151

Album excellence: 41%

Highlights:
Main Title
Reef
Wakening in the Japans
In the Village
One of You Is to Die
I’m Not the One to Go
Boiling Torture
Men Make Mistakes
After the Rescue
Naga
Anjin-San
Blackthorne and Mariko
Alvito
Kasiji Yabuka
A Honeyed Tongue
To the Galley!
Only Japanese Ways
End Credits (alternate)
Mariko’s Theme
Seppuku
Tonight
Nocturne
Punishment
Elegy
Earthquake

Samurai

Unhappy Lovers
Learning Japanese

PART V: Blackthorne and Fujiko
Samurai’s Oath

Preparing for Mariko’s Suicide

Mariko’s Funeral
Christian Samurai

Finale
End Credits
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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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