SAMURAI – Ezequiel Menalled

Original Review by Alan RogersSamurai

Directed and co-writed by Gaspar Scheuer, Samurai (2013) is an Argentinian drama set in the final years of the nineteenth century. The samurai have been abolished in Japan and an exiled Japanese family has settled in a remote region of Argentina. Although his father expects him to work in the fields, his son’s head has been filled with stories of samurai warriors, told to him by his grandfather (who was himself a samurai). After his grandfather’s death, the son sets off in search for one of the last remaining warriors. During his journey he meets gaucho, Poncho Negro, a disabled veteran of the recent War of Paraguay. Poncho Negro accompanies the young man on his journey, guiding and helping him on his quest. A slow-paced, almost solemn film with dream-like qualities, what follows is a character-driven study of the tensions between traditional practices and progress and friendship and solidarity amid adversity.

Samurai is scored by Argentinian composer and musician Ezequiel Menalled who, in addition to composing for film, is keen on promoting as well as composing various types of “new music”. In this score, Menalled uses a relatively small ensemble of instruments to create a soundtrack that is both complimentary to the dream-like qualities of the film, but at the same time, highlights the Japanese origins of the exiled family and the pressures of their new home. Overall, the score feels quite sedate in tempo with each of the various themes, motifs and instrumentations appearing and disappearing at a leisurely pace in the music. There’s a serenity to the score that’s heard right from the off in the first few tracks, “Sombras” and “Cuencos”. Beautiful singing bowls resonate with one another, establishing a dream-like quality in the music. This is further enhanced with the inclusion of some ethereal vocals in “Sombras”. The use of these metallic bowls also adds a Far Eastern feel to the music and is heard at various points throughout the score, particularly in cues associated with what appears to be dream sequences: e.g., in “Sueño: Saigō”, “Sueño: Árbol” and “Sueño: Casa”, singing bowls mix with vocals and eerie tones created by techniques such as performing an electric guitar using an E-bow (an electric device that moves the strings of the guitar using an electromagnetic field rather than fingers), to play out a series of ambient cues. The subtle emphasis of the East can also be heard in tracks such as “Oriental” and “Oriental (Regreso)”. In these short tracks, a three-note motif – heard on woodwinds and electric guitar (again, at a restrained tempo) – has a hint of the Japan to it. Together, these various suggestions of the family’s origins – and the samurai storyline.

Menalled doesn’t shy away from making bolder statements of the Orient when required. “Heroico”, with its bold, solitary horn, is firmly rooted in the samurai honour of the nineteenth century and has a very Oriental tone to it. “Muerte del Capataz” has percussion and rhythm stylings reminiscent of the traditional Japanese music heard in Nō theatre performance (as well pitch-bending bass strings reminiscent to a similar device used in Jerry Goldsmith’s Tora! Tora! Tora!). As a contrast, guitarist Menalled also uses both acoustic and electric guitar extensively in the score, particularly to emphasise the South American location of the film – and perhaps the character of Poncho Negro. Solo acoustic guitar playing of both “Vaije” and “Fogón” is particularly strong in suggesting a Spanish feel to things. And out of these tracks we hear the development of a lovely melody that’s heard again in various forms later in the score (“Pulpería” and “Bajo La Lluvia”). As with the majority of the rest of the score, this melody is restrained in tone, perhaps also imbued with a touch of sadness. The inclusion of some outdoor ambient noise from the film in a couple of these solo guitar pieces suggest that they may pieces of diegetic music played at various points on the protagonists’ journey.

Samurai is an enjoyable album, where various musical ideas are laid out for the listener and recur at different points throughout the score. The use of singing bowls is a definite bonus and they sound great when listening to the album on headphones; each of the clean pitches coalesce to produce wonderful, enveloping aural soundscapes. These Oriental tones are nicely juxtaposed by the Latin-styled guitars (the acoustic guitar works better than the electric in my view) and there’s a nice variety of influences throughout: both Oriental and Latin styles are found separate but they also come together and mix to good effect (e.g., “Viaje (Rodante)”). A couple of criticisms I do have, however, is that, firstly, some tracks have a significant amount of hiss. One or two tracks do seem to be source pieces since they feature film-derived effects (campfire, animal/bird sounds) but others just seem to have an increased level of background hiss compared with other tracks. And secondly, a couple of tracks feature dialogue from the film (“Sueño: Saigō” and “Sueño: Casa”). I am assuming that these are pieces from some sort of dream sequences and the inclusion of the spoken word may somehow related to emphasising this dream state. But not having seen the film, I’ve no idea whether this is correct or not.

Menalled’s Samurai runs to about 35 minutes and is certainly short enough for the slow tempo of the score to not outstay its welcome. It’s an interesting score from a composer I haven’t come across before. Personally, I enjoy scores that are influenced by the Far East, so Samurai is particularly pleasing. The album is available to stream on Spotify and can be purchased from the usual online digital stores. Audio clips can be heard HERE.

Rating: ***

  1. Sombras (1:14)
  2. Heroico (1:17)
  3. Cuencos (1:41)
  4. Oriental (1:13)
  5. Muerte del Abuelo (3:07)
  6. Sueño: Saigō (1:19)
  7. Viaje (0:46)
  8. Oriental (Cabalgata) (0:59)
  9. Fogón (3:48)
  10. Muerte del Capataz (2:35)
  11. Katana (1:41)
  12. Mariné Al Convento (0:39)
  13. Sueño: Árbol (1:01)
  14. Oriental (Regreso) (1:04)
  15. Sueño: Casa (1:37)
  16. Pulpería (2:40)
  17. Bajo La Lluvia (2:11)
  18. Muerte de Poncho Negro (0:55)
  19. Sueño: Montaña (1:19)
  20. Viaje (Rodante) (2:47)
  21. Coral (Bonus Track) (0:54)

Running Time: 34:59

Ezequiel Menalled (2014)

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