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Year: 1993
Director: Sawai Shinichirō (澤井信一郎)
Screenplay: Ito Ryoji, Miyazaki Akira, Sawai Shinichirō
Cinematography: Kimura Daisaku
Cast: Kazama Tōru, Washio Isako, Dan Fumi
Runtime: 125 min
Trailer: Not available

Seen at a screening as part of the Films at the Embassy of Japan programme (see also widget on Otherwhere’s left sidebar).

Every month the Japanese Embassy in London screens a film at its (aptly titled) “Films at the Japanese Embassy” event. I have only attended two screenings thus far – this particular one plus the one for 風の又三郎 ガラスのマソト (Kaze no Matasaburō: Garasu no masoto/The Glass Cape) – but my impression is that films are selected with much care and often include gems that are otherwise rather hard to come by. While Kaze no Matasaburō introduced a children’s tale that is much beloved in Japan but virtually unknown anywhere else, Waga ai no fu Taki Rentarō monogatari ventures into the country’s history of classical music.

That the Japanese have a special affinity for classical music I knew: hordes of tourists from the land of the rising sun descend on Mozart’s birth house or attend the Vienna Philharmonic’s Neujahrskonzert (New Year’s Concert) in Austria every year. Japanese friends have also told me how のだめカンタービレ (Nodame Kantābire/Nodame Cantabile) stirred their interests in the classical West, but what I never realised was that there is more to all of this – that Japan has its own composers of classical music. Waga ai no fu Taki Rentarō monogatari tells the story of one of them: the great Taki Rentarō (滝 廉太郎).

VHS cover (front and back) of Waga ai no fu Taki Rentarō monogatari 

Born in Tokyo in 1879, Taki moved around Japan during his childhood years due to his father’s job. The film, set in the Meiji era (明治時代), covers the time period from which Taki (played by Kazama Tōru) enters Tokyo Music School until his unfortunate death at the young age of 23 in 1903. He is initially portrayed as rather green behind the ears, unschooled in the conduct appropriate for a big-city music academy, asking questions while a star pupil is playing the piano in front of the entire class rather than listening in reverent silence. Although Taki does not know the rigorous protocol of his surroundings, he quickly outshines all other students in his determination and ambition – and talent. He is, it turns out, one of the most, if not the most skilled pianists at the school. Only Nakano Yuki (Washio Isako), the star pupil, is at his level, but even she is so intimidated by his talent that she is needs to be forced to perform after Taki plays a piano piece during her own farewell concert.

Both Taki and Nakano are sent to Germany on governmental scholarships to further their musical studies, with Nakano leaving first and Taki following a year later. Based in different cities (Nakano is in Berlin, Taki at the Leipzig Conservatory), the two Japanese musicians struggle in solitude, suffering from what we would nowadays call culture shock and feeling inferior to the people of their host country. Indeed, one of the most striking as well as curious utterances made in the film is when Taki exclaims that Japanese culture can never reach the heights of the much more “advanced” and “superior” German one, making one wonder if there is some sort of historical context that would allow one to understand the remark better. But this is a film about music, not historical-political or social issues, presenting a largely idealised view of the Japanese elite and only hints about how the rest of society (e.g. the impoverished working class) is faring.

A Statue of Taki Rentarō in Japan (image from ja.wikipedia.org).

Taki and Nakano do finally get a chance to meet up and open their hearts to each other about the difficulties they have been facing abroad as well as admitting their feeling for one another. They spent a day together as Taki helps Nakano overcome her fear to perform by tackling the piano piece she is due to play in a major competition. What he does not reveal however is that he is gravely ill – he has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. The illness eventually forces him to return to Japan, where he dies soon after, leaving behind a half-finished piece, 「瀧廉太郎」(Urami”/”Regret”), composed for Nakano.

While Taki Rentarō may be unknown in the West and Waga ai no fu Taki Rentarō monogatari largely unseen outside of Japan, the film is big-budget production, with some scenes shot in Germany and actors that deliver impressive performances – not just in terms of acting. It is for once a music film where the camera does not cut away from the actors’ faces once the music begins – Kazama Tōru and Washio Isako play the piano themselves, and my, how they play! For scenes set in Germany we also hear them speak German at a much better level than the atrocious Engrish in many Asian films and dramas.

The lyrics of  Taki’s「花」 (“Hana”/”Flower”) are inscribed on this monument in Sumida Park, Tokyo. (Image © muza-chan.net)

Overall Verdict: Waga ai no fu Taki Rentarō monogatari gives a glimpse into a part of Japan that many people may not be aware of, telling the moving real-life story of its classical composer Taki Rentarō with impressive performances and an absolutely beautiful soundscore largely consisting of Taki’s own pieces.

Rating: 8.5/10

Bonus Links:

  • The film DVD is available on cdjapan.com. Not cheap though.
  • If anyone has a clue if an Original Soundtrack is available for this film – I would love to know!

A selection of recordings of Taki’s compositions (you can find more on YouTube):

  • 「花」 (“Hana”/”Flower”) – instrumental and vocal version. Absolutely beautiful – one of Taki’s most popular compositions and perfect for the cherry blossom season. You can listen to all pieces of Taki’s Four Seasons suite here (ignore the messed-up fonts – the mp3 files work).
  • 「荒城の月」 (“Kojo no Tsuki”/”Moon over the Ruined Castle”) – instrumental and vocal version. The German band Scorpions (them of “Winds of Change” – that song still gives me goosebumps) did a cover of “Kojo no Tsuki” for their 1978 live album Tokyo Tapes. The Scorpions were always cool, but now they are even cooler if you ask me. (You will find other interpretations also: such as this and this.)
  • 瀧廉太郎」 (Urami”/”Regret”) – Tako’s final composition.
  • There is no album of Taki’s compositions on iTunes, but you can get individuals songs (usually from collections entitled “Zen Classics” or “Japanese Popular Songs”).
  • Rentaro’s very short wikipedia page links to some sheet music (available for free).
  • Generally, there is little information on Taki in English, but I imagine that plenty more is available in Japanese.

Only screenshot I was able to find – note that the film is in colour.