Obituary: Toshiro Mayuzumi

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Like truly elegant fashions, the finest musical scores for films are those that do not draw attention to their brilliance, and let the pictures speak for themselves.

So it was that in the 1950s and 1960s in Japan I was listening to some of the most original and inventive music of our time as I watched masterpieces by the directors Akira Kurosawa, Shohei Imamura and Yasujiro Ozu - not to mention The Bible by John Huston, in which Japanese subtitles often obscured half the screen. The sounds I almost subliminally perceived in jam-packed cinemas were the exquisite experiments of a young avant-garde composer, Toshiro Mayuzumi.

Among those immortal movies scored by Mayuzumi were my first Imamura - his 1958 Nusumareta Yokujo ("Stolen Desire") - Kin Ichikawa's Enjo ("The Brazier") of the same year, Yasujiro Ozu's Ohayo! ("Good Morning!", 1959), Tadashi Imai's Bushido Zankoku Monogatari ("Cruel Tales of Bushido", 1963) and three of Imamura's finest works, Nippon Konchuki ("Insect Woman", 1963), Junruigaku Myumon ("The Pornographer", 1965, based on Akiyuki Nosaka's comic novel), and Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo ("Profound Desire of the Gods", 1968).

Mayuzumi worked on nearly all Imamura's films, until the outrage he felt at the themes of later ones, offensive to Mayuzumi's right-wing nationalist views, destroyed a perfect partnership.

However, he was not just a highly gifted composer of film scores for both Japanese and foreign companies - he was a great musical genius in all fields from symphonic poems to opera, a passionate, eloquent supporter of nationalism, and a man whose life was as interesting as his work.

He graduated from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music in 1951. He had already won, in 1950, the third Mainichi Concours Music Prize for the music he composed to accompany Hideo Oba's film of Jiro Osaragi's novel Kikyo ("Homecoming"), his first film score, already perfect in its conception.

He had been influenced by his teacher, Fumio Hayasaka, who in 1934 had founded the iconoclastic Shin Ongaku Remmei (New Music League) with the aim of creating a truly "Eastern Style" instead of aping Western musical traditions. He taught Mayuzumi ways in which to contribute to contemporary music developments by experimentation of various kinds, a path Mayuzumi was to follow all his life.

Hayasaka was also chief musical director at Toho Film Studios, and it was through him that Mayuzumi was engaged to write his first score for that company, Keisuke Kinoshita's 1951 Karumen Kokyo ni Kaaru ("Carmen's Return Home"), the first Japanese colour film, starring an ebullient young Hideko Takamine and underscored by witty tango tempos. Then came Shiosai ("The Sound of Waves"), 1954, a novel adaptation of the legend of Daphnis and Chloe by Yukio Mishima, who was to play an important part in the composer's life and political thought.

Before that, Mayuzumi had spent a couple of years (1951-52) being taught by Tony Aubin at the Paris Conservatoire. But, afraid that the study of classical music theory would destroy his awakening individual techniques of composition, he dropped out of the course - a decision he was later to regret. By early 1953, Mayuzumi was back in Tokyo, teaching at the Music School of the University of Fine Arts. He composed and performed his first musique concrete piece, XYZ, and, with his fellow-composers Ikuma Dan and Yasushi Akutagawa, combined to form a musical collaboration known as the Group of Three.

Mayuzumi had experimented with 12-tone composition in his Mikrokosmos (1952) and went on to follow the techniques of John Cage by using "prepared" instruments and introducing the first examples of electronic music in Japan, learnt from his Paris days with avant-garde researchers like Pierre Schaefer and his collaborator Pierre Henry, the Germans Herbert Eimer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the younger Frenchmen Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez. These were all technological wizards, artists of the vacuum tube, the electronic device generating and synthesising electron beams. Mayuzumi also experimented with random aleatoric improvisations.

But, having mastered and improved on avant-garde musical styles, Mayuzumi found himself increasingly drawn back to the traditional music of his own land, including ancient court music (gagaku) and Buddhist chants (shomyo). His 1958 Nehan ("Nirvana") was the first big step in this direction, using the traditional Japanese sounds of shomyo. It won the Odaka Prize.

The New York City Ballet commissioned him to write the music for their 1961 success Bugaku (an ancient court dance to gagaku themes). He wrote two operas on distinctly Japanese subjects: one of which, Kinkakuji (1976), based on Yukio Mishima's novel, was performed at the Berlin Japan Festival by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Akio Watanabe. Mayazumi composed two oratorios on Buddhist themes: Keka ("Repentance", 1963), and Nichiren Shonin ("Saint Nichiren").

He became known to a wider public by his weekly television music programmes, starting in April 1966, and running for 1,530 performances. These were delightful essays in musical enlightenment, in which he surprisingly defended the beauties of enka (popular sentimental song) with its kobushi or "voice twisting" technique, a natural form of the electronic medium.

Mayuzumi was well known for his passionate outspokenness and virtuoso eloquence in the defence of nationalism. He founded and was president of the right-wing People's Congress for the Protection of Japan, which objected energetically to the rewriting of Japanese history textbooks. His stance angered a lot of liberals. But the main thing was his wonderful music. He was awarded in 1961 the high honour of the Purple Award of Merit.

Toshiro Mayuzumi, composer: born Yokohama, Japan 1929; died Kawasaki 10 April 1997.