The life of a Japanese film composer in the 1960s and 70s was very different from their American counterparts. “For Hollywood movies, there is a three-month period to write the music after the film has been finished,” says legendary film and television composer Chumei Watanabe. When Watanabe first began working for Shintoho studios, “at first, they gave us five days. Of course, it would usually be shortened…. One time, there was a Toei movie being filmed in Kyoto. The next day was the recording day for the music…. I had less than 24 hours to write the music!”
Despite the immense pressures on composers for films and TV shows, even those primarily for children, “I kept in mind that I would not compose childish music,” says Watanabe, who worked well into his 90s composing for TV. “That’s why people in their 40s and 50s still listen to my songs and sing them at karaoke.” His music is as widely beloved as that of his prolific contemporary, Dragon Ball Z composer Shunsuke Kikuchi, who passed away this year at 89.
“Over the course of his career,” writes Okay Player, “Kikuchi wrote the music for a number of popular anime series and live-action television shows, including Abarenbo Shogun (800 episodes over 30 years,) Doraemon (26 years on the air,) and Kamen Rider, Key Hunter, and G-Men ’75.” So iconic was Kikuchi’s music that his “Urami Bushi” — the theme for 1972 Japanese exploitation film Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion — was given pride of place in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2.
If you aren’t familiar with the music of late-20th century Japanese genre film and television, you’ll be forgiven for thinking the mix at the top of the post comes from Tarantino’s films. Described by its YouTube poster Tripmastermonk as “45 minutes of various funky old japanese soundtrack, samples, breaks, and beats. (all killer, no filler),” it includes classic compositions from Watanabe, Kikuchi, and many other composers from the period who worked as hard on anime series as they did on so-called “pink films” like the “Female Prisoner” series, a vehicle for Japanese star Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood fame), who sang “Urami Bushi” and turned the song into a major hit.
Dig the funky music of Japanese action films from the 60s and 70s in the mix, full name: “Tripmastermonk — Knocksteady Zencast Vol. 2: Ninja Funk & Gangster Ballads: Ode to the Brotherland.” And find more of Tripmastermonk’s musical concoctions on Soundcloud.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
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