CD: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

February 16, 2012 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Label: La-La Land Records / Released: November 29, 2011

Tracks & Album Length: 21 tracks / (55:58)


Special Notes: 16-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 2,000 copies..


Composer: Jerry Goldsmith




Tora! Tora! Tora! is part of Jerry Goldsmith’s war film canon, which includes dramas (A Gathering of Eagles), biographies (Patton, MacArthur), and shrill heroism (In Harm’s Way, Inchon) from the sixties through the eighties, but where the composer often excelled was scoring conflict that were implied or looming over the horizon.

There is no actual war in Seven Days in May, yet the sparse score evokes the scheming and vile maneuvering of traitors within the U.S. military. Morituri matched that film’s dour misery of characters trapped on a Nazi boat during WWII, and The Sand Pebbles dramatizes the observances of conflicts prior to war by outsiders trying to becoming enmeshed as they witness mounting horror at every docking.

Tora remains unique for a number of reasons: the filmmakers sought to dramatize both the American and Japanese points of view the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it was arguably one of the last great American WWII combat films that featured real pilots, vintage planes, and spectacular practical effects. There simply is no comparison between a contemporary CGI epic and Fox’s vintage production, and while it’s easy to cite Michael Bay’s bloated jingoistic bore-fest Pearl Harbor (2001) as the nadir of a drama about the event, TV’s Pearl (1978) similarly sought to enhance the drama of the surprise attack on the American Navy’s Hawaiian base by serializing soap opera storylines.

Tora went for the factual: character actors played historical figures confronting the moments of haste, error, ineptitude, and horror as a fleet of Japanese ships and fighter planes decimated the docked U.S. Navy, and as the film’s finale infers, awakened a giant.

Goldsmith’s score is very sparse, and it’s an appropriately strategic effort. After an opening theme statement, the bulk of the score consists of short cues covering establishing shots, scene transitions, and characters when they’re on the go – tracking down reports and trying to send word as a massive assault is about to hit the bay.

Part of the tactic was to give momentum to scenes to ensure the docu-drama tone and wry dialogue wasn’t alienating audiences who might be getting a little impatient before the action finale. Little of the battle is scored – there’s far too much sound effects on the go, and music was frankly unnecessary when the imagery was already horrific – but score was particularly vital in covering the diplomatic maneuvering between the U.S. and Japanese ambassadors. These scenes were vital for contrast, and the score – often rhythmic cues with rapping, resonating bass hits, and a ticking motif – gave extra urgency to characters that often spent time waiting, listening, discussing, and driving to and from locations. (One could also regard the rapping as characterizing the diplomats as marionettes, looking rather absurd and out of their league when something huge and horrific was looming.)

For the Japanese scenes (directed by Battle Royale’s Kinji Fukasaku), Goldsmith doesn’t characterize the Japanese strategists and pilots readying themselves for sacrifice as clear-cut villains, but rather small elements within a large force that’s representative of warfare’s innate horror. The early scenes are mournful, as conveyed through the harmonics of the film’s tragic title theme, and a meandering synth chord that infers there were men who felt unease (and perhaps moral revulsion) for the plotted attack.

For its brevity, Tora is a gem in Goldsmith’s canon because it shows off his gift for rhythms, experimental sounds, and a modern sound that completely steered clear of the straightforward scoring style of multiple themes, repeated statements, and stating the obvious instead of subtext. “Mt. Niitaka” has a bizarre, wooden groan, whereas the theme quoting in the exciting “Waiting Game” is more evocative of his Planet of the Apes [POTA], playing with echoplexed sounds, and layered percussion textures derived from hollow, organic sources. The cue’s tail end features a repeated wooden clacking, subtle strings, and uneasy tones on clarinet.

Like POTA, Goldsmith has his woodwind and low brass almost grunting their rhythmic patterns, and changes in tension within “Sunday Morning” is coloured with a shift from low to high pitched wooden strikes, and a sudden tonal surge that almost mimics an air raid siren, with each tone ratcheting higher, and setting the harmonic path for the film’s finale – largely tense, kinetic cues.

“The 14th Part” is a delight for the way a steady rhythm is traded between types of percussion, the almost warped harmonies on strings (a tactic often used by Alex North, quite extensively in Cleopatra), and the periodic interjection of the main theme on Japanese string instruments prior to a final tonal upsurge from lower brass.

The “Entr’Acte” somewhat interrupts the flow with its full main theme statement, but Goldsmith retains the same instruments used in prior cues to ensure the level of colour (and tension) maintain continuity, and audiences return to the theatre in exactly the same mindset (with perhaps more anticipation) as when they left.

The score’s last 3 cues are a great collection of Goldsmith’s sense of experimentalism, adopting all the warped sounds from prior cues, reverb, and constantly shifting between percussion textures that capture the converging storylines as the first Japanese Zero planes are sighted, the Americans become aware of what’s approaching, and there’s a scramble to mount a defense.

“On the Way” is the first overt replay of the main theme, but it’s ephemeral, since there’s a return to the percussion textures before a gradual, hasty fadeout. The last cue, “The Final Message,” underscores the decoding the last message which confirms the attack plan, and a return to the main theme – initially on low strings, and then performed with higher pitched strings and brass, closing the score with the same fast wrap-up as the “Ent’Acte.”

Like the prior FSM CD from 2000, La-La Land’s reissue includes the same program of 14 score cuts and 4 source pieces (2 marches, two Hawaiian light dances). “The Waiting Game” is reprised with the song overlay as heard in the film, and the suite of bonus cues finishes with a tragic solo piano version and a pop arrangement with sitar and bass guitar; most likely both were conjured for a single release, but happily buyers were spared the indignity of hearing the latter until, er, now.

Whereas FSM’s CD featured liner notes and compact cue discussions by Jeff Bond and Jonathan Z. Kaplan (expanded into an article in FSM Vol. 5, No. 4), Julie Kirgo’s new liner notes provide a broader balance of score, production, and composer quotes.

LLL’s CD does feature a new mastering of the score, bringing out more of the mid-range subtleties, whereas the FSM CD featured stronger bass. In both cases, the engineers had to deal with rather muted master tapes that weren’t heavily detailed in the high end, so buyers content with the FSM disc – now 11 years old – will have to decide if there’s a need to opt for LLL’s 2011 edition.



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


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