In its early years, cinema was a multimedia event, a silent moving picture show accompanied by live music, with speech consigned to textual intertitles slotted between the actors’ muted dialogue. The musical experience of a film could vary significantly from venue to venue, in some cases relying on the ability of the performers to improvise an appropriate score to complement the mood of the film. In Japan, film viewers were guided by benshi, orators who provided interpretation of the dialogue and narrative, a freewheeling practice that offered a considerable amount of creative license; certain benshi were even known to subvert the content of a film for comic effect, turning melodrama into farce. Phonograph records with benshi interpretations of silent cinema became highly popular, and in some cases, these sound-recordings might have been the listener’s only experience of a film.
Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s film Kuro (2017) probes the liminal space between sound, voice and image and uses narration in a way that recalls the interpretive liberties of benshi. Romi, played by Noriko, lives in a small apartment in Paris, where she cares for her paraplegic lover Milou. Entirely devoid of onscreen dialogue, Romi’s voice-over sculpts footage of the couple’s daily routine into a darkly folkloric tale, describing years they spent together in Japan when Romi worked as a live-in carer for a man named Mr. Ono. As the narrative shifts towards the past, Mr. Ono remains elusive, visually portrayed by images of a Tokyo apartment in a state of decay, coated with a film of dust and mould. In the course of the narrative, Mr. Ono develops an unsettling habit, insistently binding his wart-covered limbs with black tape; in time, we are told that a sticky black substance begins to envelop his entire body.
In the course of this metamorphosis, Mr. Ono is given a new name – Kuro, short for Kuroko, a reference to the black-clad stagehands of bunraku puppet-theatre. Seated to the right of the silent onstage spectacle, bunraku performances feature both a musician and a chanter, an important predecessor for the benshi of silent cinema. In The Empire of Signs (1970), Roland Barthes memorably proposed that the role of music and voice in bunraku is to ‘express the text (as one might squeeze a fruit)’.Though Mr. Ono never appears onscreen, his volatile form seems to seep through the fabric of the film, taking shape in Romi’s incantatory reminiscences. Yet, it is the soundtrack that gives Kuro its evocative potency, yielding a musical lyricism to the crystalline stillness of the footage. Evanescent synth harmonies fade in and out of focus, weaving timorous melodies into the spoken narrative
Kuro is the product of a fluid process of interdisciplinary collaboration. Elements familiar from Tujiko’s electronic-infused pop can be found in the soundtrack, particularly songs like No Error in my Memory (2007), in which she voices individual characters in a narrative. Koyama, who has a background in animation and graphic art, has also directed music videos for the likes of Jlin, Four Tet and Mogwai. Looking back on the project, the pair commented that they found it difficult to recall exactly who did what in the making of Kuro, as they combined forces in the writing of the script and soundtrack. This protean approach is most apparent in the case of Tujiko, who is an equally prominent presence on and off-screen. I’m reminded of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013), which trails the musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe through a commune on an Estonian island to a sojourn in the Finnish wilderness, seeking to understand his relationship with people and the landscape. The film concludes at a black metal concert, featuring Lowe alongside Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Nicholas McMaster and Weasel Walter in a band specially formed for the film. This ecstatic climax, stunningly captured in a single take, is a testament to the synergetic power of music and cinema.
The Kuro soundtrack is the inaugural release for the record label PAN’s new offshoot ENTOPIA, which explores music written for art, film, theatre, dance and fashion. Though the soundtrack introduces the film to new audiences, it is likely that many listeners of the soundtrack may never see Kuro, disentangling the music from its visual context. Yet, unlike the benshi records that emerged during the years of silent cinema in Japan, the PAN release does not include Tujiko’s interpretive voice-over. Koyama and Tujiko describe the music as ‘a score to the space in-between’ voice and image, a marginal zone suffused with Mr. Ono’s absent presence.
Main image: Kuro, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Tujiko Noriko and Joji Koyama