Without a Sound

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Looking at LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE and SAMURAI WOLF, and am blow away by the use of sound in these 60s and 70s Japanese samurai flicks. What’s impressive is not so much the steely clashes as the silence around them.

SWORD OF VENGEANCE director Kanji Misumi uses one particularly lucid technique to heighten his swordplay. Much of the film consists of flashbacks depicting how jowly protagonist Tomisaburo Wakayama became a masterless ronin. These flashbacks tend to feature water — rain, a rushing weir. But the water makes no sound. An eeriness is created, from which the shrill clang of blades emerges with alarming clarity. There’s basically no atmos whatsoever, so that the sound mixer’s golden rule — always be having something going on — is abandoned. The audience is always quieter when the film is quiet. We fear our movements will give us away, revealing our position to potential enemies elsewhere in the auditorium, or to the giant, godlike figures on the screen. Heaven help you if you attract their attention.

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Of course, Misumi’s choice also helps distinguish flashbacks from present tense.

Hideo Gosha’s slick SAMURAI WOLF uses silence as the sound of death. Normal sound is cut off with the swipe of a sword — we lose the whistling wind sound, the cries of the dying victim continue for a second, and then get flicked off as with the throw of a switch — this seems to follow the advent of slomo, as a kind of delayed after-effect. As with Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI) and Peckinpah after him (THE WILD BUNCH) slomo is the speed of the dying man, that adrenalin shot of death-trauma putting your last moments into a slurred timescape, a last chance to put your thoughts in order before oblivion reels you in. And with no sounds to distract you — how thoughtful of someone.

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The last great repository of silence may be the anime, where, since every sound is added afterwards anyway, Japanese filmmakers still occasionally withhold an effect. Miyazaki does neat things with the SIZE of sounds too — in TOTORRO, the titular nature spirit is big and noisy, but in an extreme long shot he can alight with a comical PLOP, like a fat raindrop. In Otomo’s AKIRA, Tokyo blows up in the opening shot, a black bubble of destruction which spreads and bursts without a single sound, the audio vacuum somehow suggesting a roar too great for any cinema’s speakers.

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8 Responses to “Without a Sound”

  1. Japan continued to make silent movies well into the 1930s, so they probably thought about sound differently – what kind of accompaniments did silent films have? Did they adapt stylised music and sound scores the way traditional theatre did?
    Other interesting works using sound are THRONE OF BLOOD – the scrape of her kimono as the Lady Macbeth figure as she moves round the room – and AN ACTOR’S REVENGE, where both sound and sword fights are distorted and stylised.
    The ultimate Western soundscape is the opening scene of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

  2. Japanese silents had music but also the benshi, who would stand by the screen and narrate the stories. Their popularity (they became stars in their own right) delayed the advent of sound.

    I saw one and a bit very early Japanese talkies in Bologna but I’m afraid I fell asleep in one (the only movie I’ve nodded off during — I was tired and it was warm) and was slightly dazed during the other. I think Japan’s experimental way with sound only got going in the sixties — Kurosawa can be heard doing some innovative stuff in Ikiru and others in the fifties, but it doesn’t get really crazy until the era of modernism.

  3. henryholland666 Says:

    I’ve spent the last three days exploring Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I’ve seen the “theatrical” cut (188 mins) three times, but I watched the “TV” cut (318 mins) for the first time.

    I love the shorter version, it’d easily make my Deserted Island Movies list, but I was blown away by the longer version. The little additions and especially the addition of whole scenes that were cut in the shorter version (Oscar’s chair story, Carl & Gustav Adolf’s confrontation with the wretched Bishop) are fantastic. Sure, Isak’s long monologue as he reads the story doesn’t work for me, but mostly the extra material enriches an already great movie.

    Time to get the Criterion Blu-Ray……..

  4. Agreed — though I came to the film the other way aroumd, TV version first. I definitely missed some of those scenes when I saw it at the cinema,

  5. We watched Fanny & Alexander over Christmas too – my third viewing (well, second time viewing the TV version, I’d seen the feature at the Dublin Film Festival back in ’89). It’s an astonishingly brilliant piece of work but my wife added an insight that I’d never had – that it’s the story of a matriarchy (the Ekdahls) versus a patriarchy (Bishop Vergerus and family).

  6. Doesn’t the bishop have a fat, bed-bound mother or something. She’s basically presented as a child would see her, as a monster, but I always felt a bit sorry for her fate.

    As for the bishop, Bergman said, “I decided to burn him, since he was undoubtedly going to Hell anyway.”

  7. henryholland666 Says:

    The bishop has a bed-bound aunt who causes his demise when she sets herself on fire. The bishop’s sister is a real piece of work too, I love the scene where Emilie, Fanny and Alexander first move in to the bishop’s place and the sister tries the “Well, that’s not how *we* do it here” thing and Emilie just shuts her down. The scene where the bishop whips Alexander is excruciating to watch, a great scene.

    Another favorite section is when F&A end up at Isak’s place and Alexander is frightened by Aron with the God puppet. The scene where he is taking to Ismael is stunning too. I’ve never bought for a second that Ismael was a man –sorry, just shaving off the eyebrows ala Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie isn’t enough– but the direction, acting and dialogue are all top drawer.

  8. I’m afraid to say I’d have been quite happy if Bergman had carried through his promise to retire after F&A, it seems such a summation of his life and concerns. Nothing I’ve seen from later carries half its power — or charm. He allowed himself to do light, fun stuff in this one too, which he hadn’t for a while.

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